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As an NFL fan, you might not be ready to shift into draft mode.
But we like the idea of introducing some of the bigger-name prospects for the 2022 NFL draft now, at least giving readers a big-picture familiarity of how things stand now.
Had we written this one a year ago, Trevor Lawrence, Justin Fields and Trey Lance almost certainly would have made our top 10. All three went in the top 11 picks this spring.
A lot can change for even highly touted prospects over the course of a single season.
The 10 players we’re profiling here — five quarterbacks and five non-QBs — aren’t guaranteed to be first-rounders in 2022. But they’re prospects who enter the season with the opportunity to lock up that caliber of draft status — and perhaps also have the potential to tumble.
Let's dive into a freakishly large and talented blocker who could be the first offensive lineman off the board in the 2022 NFL draft.
Alabama OT Evan Neal
6-foot-7, 350 pounds
2020 stats: Started 13 games at right tackle
Alabama has been an offensive line factory for the NFL since Nick Saban arrived in 2007, producing 19 draft picks up front in that span — with 11 landing in Rounds 1 and 2. Of those 19 picks, six have come in the past three drafts.
A former top-10 Rivals high-school recruit, Neal is almost certain to add to that group eventually, and it would not be stunning to see it happen after the conclusion of this season. After starting 13 games at left guard as a freshman, Neal moved to right tackle last season and started 13 more. He also has played snaps at right guard and left tackle.
This season Neal is likely to play left tackle for the Crimson Tide. He’s being groomed by former NFL head coaches Doug Marrone (Bama’s OL coach) and Bill O’Brien (offensive coordinator), not to mention Saban, of course.
Neal also reportedly has dropped weight entering this season. He played last season in the 360-pound range but has dropped below the 350-pound mark, which has scouts excited. Saban has pointed to the fact that Neal’s combination of size and athletic traits are about as rare as it gets.
“When you coach in the NFL you see guys like that on occasion, and we’ve had a few through the years,” Saban said recently. “But Evan is very unique in terms of he has great size [and] he’s got great athleticism.”
Although Neal was not named first- or second-team all-SEC last season, he could be the next Bama left tackle to land in the top 20 picks. The streak is currently at three years, following Jonah Williams (11th overall pick in 2019), Jedrick Wills (10th in 2020) and Alex Leatherwood (17th in 2021).
Evan Neal's strengths
From a sheer size standpoint, Neal is in elite category as an NFL prospect. There simply are not that many human beings who possess his mass, length and strength. Since the 2011 NFL scouting combine, there have been only five offensive linemen to weigh in more than 350 pounds and measure taller than 6-foot-6.
Louisville’s Mekhi Becton, who was the 11th overall pick in 2020, is the biggest of the bunch at 6-7 and 364 pounds. Neal certainly is cut from the same mold and might even be a more freaky athlete than Becton was in college.
Could Becton do this?
We've joked that it's difficult to watch other Bama prospects because Neal is often doing something to pull our eyes away from them. That's how big and freaky he truly is.
Neal moves better than many 325-pounders. He’s extremely well-conditioned and coordinated and gets to his spots with efficiency and ease. He has been asked to lead the way in the run game with his power and also has been left on several islands as a pass protector.
The results to date have been good to very good — perhaps not yet consistently great. But it would be a fallacy to suggest Neal is anything other than an exceptional prospect with elite potential. In fact, his raw power and freaky athletic traits almost guarantee he’ll wind up as Bama’s next top-20 pick, barring injury or some unexpected development.
Evan Neal's weaknesses
Having switched positions twice now, Neal has displayed terrific versatility. Starting as a freshman at the program with perhaps the most talent in the country up and down the roster also shows just how rare he is.
But Neal is more physical marvel right now than he is a polished, finished and well-seasoned product. Not being allowed to settle at one OL spot might make him more appealing to NFL people, but it also has perhaps hurt his development just a tad.
Some teams could view Neal as an NFL guard, for instance, if he can’t improve his reaction time and recovery speed. There were times last season where Neal allowed defenders to gain a step on him on the edge — see the Georgia and Florida games for evidence of that. His punch timing and hand work could use some sharpening and developing, too.
It’s nothing that can’t be corrected. But Neal’s technique, footwork and feel outside will be something scouts want to take a deeper dive on this season. Can he show growth in this area? Practicing daily against Will Anderson Jr. and LaBryan Ray, plus facing a gauntlet of an SEC schedule, should provide Neal ample tests between now and draft season.
All signs point to Neal going high next spring should he declare. Around this time of year prior to Becton’s final college season, there were plenty of questions about whether he’d fulfill his lofty expectations, too.
Becton still went 11th, with a strong outing against Clemson and some absurd workouts assuring his lofty landing spot in what was a deep OT class. We expect Neal’s tantalizing upside to win out in the end, just as it did for Becton, even if Neal has some shaky reps along the way as the new backside protector.
If Leatherwood can crack the top 20 picks, there’s truly no good reason to think Neal can’t do the same. He appears to be a much higher-ceiling prospect on the whole and could be the first offensive lineman selected in the 2022 NFL draft assuming he keeps along the same track he’s been on the past two seasons.
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