EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. – The Giants emerging from the first round of the 2022 NFL Draft with a pass rusher and a tackle should shock no one with an interest in both the team and the player selection process. But the order in which they acquired those players might be a bit of a surprise to more than a few of those attentive observers.
With the fifth overall selection, the Giants secured Kayvon Thibodeaux, a 6-5, 258-pound edge rusher from the University of Oregon. The Giants hope he will team up with Azeez Ojulari, who led the team with 8.0 sacks as a rookie in 2021, to give them bookend pass rushers.
Two choices later - with the pick they obtained in a trade with the Chicago Bears in the 2021 draft - the Giants took Evan Neal, a 6-7, 350-pound tackle who instantly becomes the favorite to be the starting right tackle. This is the third consecutive year the Giants have selected a player from the Southeastern Conference in the first round of the draft and the second time they chose a tackle. Two years ago, they took Georgia's Andrew Thomas, who has been their starting left tackle since his arrival. A year ago, they chose Florida wide receiver Kadarius Toney.
"We're ecstatic with the two players we got," general manager Joe Schoen said.
"They both have good size, good length," coach Brian Daboll said. "Kayvon is quick off the ball. I think he has a wide variety of pass rush moves, but he can also set an edge for us on our defense, and it's no secret we play multiple schemes with Wink (Martindale) as our defensive coordinator, and we envision Kayvon being able to do a lot of different things for us. He's going to have to come in here and earn it, but a productive player the time he's been at Oregon.
"Evan has played multiple positions. He's long -- it takes a guy the long route to go to the quarterback. He's got long arms. He's a big, massive man, played multiple positions, had a lot of people down at Alabama that I trust and had a lot confidence in him and had a lot of good things to say about him and along with (offensive line coach) Bobby Johnson and (assistant line coach) Tony Sparano, the guys that have looked at him, we thought very highly of him."
View photos of the Giants' draft picks as they tour their new home.
Because the offensive line has been a greater area of need for far longer, it seemed the Giants would first target that position group. But Schoen, running his first draft as the team's general manager, didn't hesitate to initially upgrade the defense. Schoen did that knowing he could still get a tackle at No. 7. But he wasn't certain Thibodeaux would be available if they chose a tackle at five.
The Giants had spent weeks studying all potential scenarios. The four teams selecting before them each took a defensive player, including outside linebackers Travon Walker (Jacksonville) and Aidan Hutchinson (Detroit) and cornerbacks Derek Stingley (Houston) and Ahmad Gardner (the Jets). That left the Giants with their choice of any offensive player and Thibodeaux, the lone elite pass rusher remaining on the board.
"We have been through these scenarios a million times," Schoen said. "We had seven or eight cards, and we just kept switching them back and forth based on different scenarios, and this is a scenario we went over. And if there were tackles on the board and the pass rusher, we were going pass rusher knowing we could get a tackle at seven. We were ecstatic when that scenario came up."
"I can't tell you how many different scenarios we went through the past week," Daboll said, "so we felt however it was going to unfold, we would be ready for whatever decisions we had to make."
Schoen said the Giants had tackles Ikem Ekwonu of North Carolina State and Neal rated "very close." Ekwonu was chosen with the sixth pick by the Carolina Panthers. Asked why Neal was the choice at seven, Schoen said, "Because Ickey was gone at six."
But had they taken a tackle at five, they might not have gotten the much-needed pass rusher a few minutes later.
"We thought there was a drop off in pass rushers," Schoen said. "And those two (tackles) were still there, so it played itself out."
Thibodeaux played in 32 games with 21 starts in three seasons at Oregon. He collected 123 tackles (82 solo), 35.5 tackles for loss, 19.0 sacks and three forced fumbles. Thibodeaux was a unanimous All-America in 2021 when he recorded a career-high 50 tackles, including 12 stops for loss and 7.0 sacks. He was a two-time, first-team All-Pac-12 selection.
"Getting Kayvon Thibodeaux, a really good pass rusher at five, we are excited about that," Schoen said. "Thought of getting him there with Azeez on the other side and the pass rush is important to us, so two young pass rushers on the team now that we are definitely excited about."
Thibodeaux vows to be a complete player for the Giants.
"They are getting a leader, they are getting a competitor and they are getting a guy who wants to win at any means," he said.
Thibodeaux has a big personality that makes him well-suited for the New York/New Jersey metropolitan area.
"Because I'm hungry," he said. "I'm really competitive and hungry and I feel like New York is the pinnacle of a dog-eat-dog world."
Neal started all 40 games in which he played at Alabama and missed only one game in three seasons – due to a positive COVID-19 test in 2020. He demonstrated his adaptability by starting 13 games at left guard in 2019, 12 at right tackle in 2020 and 15 at left tackle in 2021, when he was a consensus first-team All-America and first-team All-SEC.
"It helps when you're going to draft a player at number seven and you get to see him do what you're going to ask him to do," Schoen said of Neal's season at right tackle. "That makes you feel good. We definitely went back, we studied his tape from when he was at right tackle and even watched some of the stuff at guard. His versatility is important. One guy goes down in a game, it helps the eight guys you take on game day. If a guy can move around like that and help you out, that's an added plus, too.
"Starting off, we'll be putting him at right tackle. Obviously, we really like his versatility, 40 career starts in three different spots in the SEC, only missed one game in his career with COVID. So, both 21 years old, young players, both still have upside to develop."
Neal is a native of Okeechobee, Fla. who is happy to be moving to the big city.
"(The Giants) had the fifth and the seventh pick(s) and so I knew there was a possibility I could end up at the Giants for sure," he said. "I'm just thankful they gave me an opportunity and I'm going to make the most of it."
*Schoen confirmed the Giants picked up the fifth-year option on defensive tackle Dexter Lawrence, guaranteeing his salary for the 2023 season. They did not do so with quarterback Daniel Jones.
"We met on it today, and it really doesn't affect what we think about Daniel," Schoen said. "We really like Daniel and the work he's been putting in. And we are excited where he is, and we are excited to work with him. It was a decision we thought was best for the New York Giants at this time."
*The Giants enter Friday's second day of the draft with three selections, including the fourth in the second round (no. 32 overall) and the third and 17th choices in the third round (Nos. 67 and 81, the latter obtained last year in a trade with the Miami Dolphins).
See which draft prospects remain on NFL Media analyst Daniel Jeremiah's top 150 list.