EAST RUTHEFORD, N.J. – The circumstances of their arrival ensure that Kayvon Thibodeaux and Evan Neal will be linked long after they depart from the Giants.
Thibodeaux, a pass-rushing outside linebacker, was the fifth overall selection of the 2022 NFL Draft. A few minutes after securing his talents, the Giants added Neal, a standout tackle, at No. 7. Both are lining up with the starters in practice, Thibodeaux on the edge and Neal at right tackle. They are arguably the two most significant building blocks added in the new Joe Schoen/Brian Daboll regime. They will forever be connected, to the point that discussing one will be difficult without mentioning the other.
Thibodeaux said "definitely" when he was asked today if they will always be linked.
"Football is a game of trenches," he said. "And starting with the trenches is a great start from the man upstairs, and they did it and I feel like as we continue to get older and mature, we're going to continue to grow and gel together, and keep bringing both sides to the forefront."
The two rookies have gone head-to-head in some practice drills. It is not their first time competing against each other on a football field. Because they were among the very best prospects in their class, they attended the same football camps as far back as high school.
"It's crazy that through high school, and through recruitment, and every major camp, that was the matchup that everybody wanted to see – me versus Kayvon," Neal said. "It's just so ironic that we ended up on the same NFL team. I'm just excited to go against him every day, get each other better. I believe that iron sharpens iron."
How have the practice matchups been thus far?
"We are getting each other better," Neal said. "He beats me some reps, I get him some reps. That's what it's all about, that's the name of the game – getting better, getting each other better, and iron sharpening iron."
"It's been great," Thibodeaux said. "Not just him, but (third-year left tackle) Andrew Thomas. Them as a unit. Me being able to go back and forth. There are no plays off. Everyone asks me, 'What is the difference between college and the NFL?' It's like, you have to be 100 percent and have a move every play, there is no getting by. Just going against both of them, and Evan especially, is good to continue to grow and share info now and again.
Is there a particular move he's working on to free himself from Thomas and Neal?
"Just getting them off me," Thibodeaux said. "Andrew and Evan, they got big hands, and they're heavy up top. So, I'm making sure I'm using my second move and I'm really working hard. And when they get me on that first move, I got another one to counter."
Daboll said he "absolutely" views Thibodeaux and Neal as foundational pieces in his program.
"It's hard coming in as a rookie, regardless of what round you're taken," Daboll said. "But they've been excellent in meetings. They've done what they're supposed to do. They've worked extremely hard in practice. There's good competitiveness in practice. But you take two guys that early in the first round, and you want to make sure you hit on them and not just as players, which is important, but as people and the right people for the organization. So yeah, counting on those guys."
They arrived with impressive credentials, but both players are convinced they have much improvement to make.
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.
"Good isn't enough," Thibodeaux said. "You always want to continue to get better, and no matter how hard you are working, you still haven't reached your peak. So, for me to keep sharpening my tools.
"Now, it's about bringing everything together. When you're at home training, hitting bags, doing drills, it's one thing. And once you really start to get in that game mode, you got to start putting it together with the play calling with the situations and what you need to get done."
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.
"I like to say I'm never going to be a finished product," Neal said. "I just want to make sure I'm better than yesterday. At Alabama, coach (Nick) Saban liked to say, 'Outwork yesterday.' That's where I'm at, really."
They won't publicly predict what they'll accomplish as rookies and beyond, but Thibodeau and Neal are very aware how important they are in the Giants' grand scheme.
"The team expects me to go out there and do my job and I expect myself to do my best every day," Neal said. "In preparation, in the film room, and out there on the practice field. I expect a lot out of myself, more than anybody else would expect out of me, that's for sure. There is a reason why they drafted us, so we are just going to take it day-by-day. At the end of the day, we are still young, we're rookies, we are still getting the hang of this process. I feel like so far, we've been doing a pretty good job."
"One thing about me is that I've always been hard on myself, and I've been a stickler," Thibodeaux said. "They have articulated that they're counting on us. But I'm counting on myself to make the plays and live up to the goals I have for myself. It's been a great journey so far, and I know that they believe in us. And they've given us all the tools to continue to elevate. So, now it's just up to us to make it happen."
View top photos as the Giants took the field on Back Together Saturday at the Quest Diagnostics Training Center.
Giants Fan Fest returns to Metlife Stadium
Free and open to the public, the Giants Fan Fest will feature a Blue & White intrasquad scrimmage, autographs by Giants Legends, and a fireworks show.