EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. – They grew up on opposite sides of the country and play on opposite sides of the ball, but Kayvon Thibodeaux and Evan Neal will have their progress monitored jointly like a pair of twin brothers.
The Giants selected both second-year pros within three picks in the first round of the 2022 NFL Draft, edge rusher Thibodeaux at No. 5 and right tackle Neal at No. 7. That proximity invites natural comparisons regarding playtime, impact, and awards.
As rookies last season, Thibodeaux started all 14 regular-season games in which he played, plus the Giants' two playoff games. Neal started 13 regular-season contests and both postseason games. Thibodeaux played 740 snaps on defense, while Neal logged 737 on offense.
Thibodeaux finished with 49 tackles (33 solo) and 4.0 sacks and received the NFC Defensive Player of the Week award for his contributions in a victory in Washington on Dec. 18.
"I watched most of (his season)," Thibodeaux said. "I didn't watch the good plays; the good plays are kind of dead and gone now. I was trying to find out how I can eliminate as many bad plays as possible. I don't think there were that many bad plays, but even the rushes that I didn't finish, just trying to figure out what I can do to finish."
Neal had some rookie struggles at times early and missed four games with a knee injury but improved throughout the season and is a likely long-term starter on the right side of the line.
"Adversity is a part of everything," Neal said. "Just battled with some things, whether it be injuries, having to miss time, stuff like that. Playing through bad games and things like that. I just like the way that I was able to be resilient through it all, finish the year strong, didn't complain or anything. Went out there every Sunday and gave it everything that I had. I was really proud of that."
The Giants – and the two players – expect them to take giant steps forward in year two.
"They've had a year under their belt," coach Brian Daboll said before Wednesday's organized team activity. "So, still got a lot to learn. Still young players. But again, they can draw from some of the experiences that they've had the previous year. Even just, not in terms of playing right now because we're out here in shorts and T-shirts, but grasping the material, different questions they ask. They've been through some of the stuff, so when they're watching cutups of things that we did the previous year, they know it. As a rookie, you have no idea what's going on right now. So, I'd say most players from year one to year two, there's a little bit more comfort level."
See all the action from OTA No. 5 at the Quest Diagnostics Training Center.
Like all teams, the Giants won't put on pads until training camp, but Thibodeaux is already working on specific aspects of his game.
"Getting sacks, finishing," he said. "There were a lot of times when I had a good pass rush that I didn't finish. You realize the guy on the other side of the line is paid a lot of money. They're not going to let (the quarterback) get touched. Continuing to sharpen the end of my rush, that third phase and make sure I start to finish.
"When you haven't played against NFL-caliber guys, you don't really know how big, how strong you need to be, how fast you need to be. Once you kind of get that down and you start to really learn the ins and outs of the games, which is what I started to do at the end of the season last year, going into this year, it becomes a lot easier. Now I can focus on the offense and not so much focus on myself but figure out the different tips and tricks going into training camp."
Thibodeaux, a California native, had 19.0 sacks in three seasons as the University of Oregon, including 9.0 in 2019. He declined to reveal a numerical goal for the coming season.
"Because I had a number on it last year, and I figured out that the season is so long that you have to do it by game," he said. "If I can make impactful plays like I was able to do and continue to win, I mean, no one will ever remember me. As long as we win, as long as I continue to play well, play for my teammates I think, I'll be good."
Neal also believes his experience will help him improve this season.
"Nothing is a surprise now," he said. "I know what to expect. I know what an NFL-level game is. Just doing what I can to go out there and perform and play well. So, it's definitely good that I got the experience that I did last year, carrying it over into this season."
Neal was raised in Florida and played at the University of Alabama. Despite their geographic differences, Thibodeaux and Neal have long been linked. 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 last year. "It's just so ironic that we ended up on the same NFL team."
It's still a duel that attracts much attention, even when the players aren't wearing pads or helmets.
"It's always fun when you go up against another body," Neal said. "It's easy for me to go out and take pass sets against air, but even those walk-through speeds, you get to go through the feel of how you are feeling, just my balance, my base, my hands and my feet, how everything is matching stuff like that. So, it was cool. Even though it's a walkthrough pace at this point, it's still good to go through the motion. Get the muscle memory and the reps."
Because he's known Neal for years, Thibodeaux was asked for an updated scouting report on his teammate.
"I think he's been able to process it more mentally," Thibodeaux said. "I feel like coming into it he starts to get an understanding. And me too, just figuring out you have to play to your strengths. A lot of guys come to the NFL, they want to be like somebody else or want to take every tool that you can get. But at the end of the day, you are who you are. Once you start to understand what type of player you are and how you can grow with the assets you already have, you become a great player.
"I think he's done a great job, one, blocking out the noise and continuing to stay on his grind, and continuing to ask those questions, be hungry, be curious."
For both players, it will be exciting to see how that translate into their performances on game day.