JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – By now, just about everybody with an opinion has given theirs on the question: Who should the Jaguars draft with the first pick on April 28? I’m making it official — I would take Alabama offensive tackle Evan Neal.
First, offensive tackle is a premium position. The most important positions to have solidified in the modern NFL are quarterback, offensive tackle and pass rusher. After that, cornerback and receiver should be addressed.
Second, the Jaguars’ future at left tackle is uncertain and their present at left guard is as well. Neal gives them the opportunity to address both with one pick.
Neal has size (6′7″, 337 pounds) and unusually good feet for a man of his size. He is also remarkably fit for someone who weighed around 350 pounds in his college playing days.
Check out this video posted to Neal’s Twitter:
As a freshman at Alabama, Neal played left guard, earning freshman All-American honors. As a sophomore, he played right tackle and as a junior, he was a team captain and consensus first-team All-American at left tackle for the Crimson Tide.
If the Jaguars don’t get a long-term deal done with Cam Robinson, and Robinson plays just one more season at left tackle for the Jaguars, Neal could play at left guard for a year while learning the NFL game, then move to left or right tackle next year with Walker Little serving as the other young bookend.
Third, there are questions with all of the top picks, but Neal’s questions are more about technique than about ability or his potential. He has a high floor and a high ceiling. Finding a comparable player to compare a prospect to is a tricky proposition, but some have compared Neal to Tyron Smith, a two-time All-Pro and eight-time Pro Bowl pick with the Cowboys. He was the ninth pick of the 2011 draft and has certainly lived up to the expectations heaped on a top-10 pick. If Neal has a similar career, the Jaguars would be ecstatic.
So that’s why I would select Evan Neal, but what about the other three names most commonly linked to the Jaguars? I don’t hate the idea of drafting any one of these players at the top of this draft, but none are perfect prospects. Here are the pros and cons for North Carolina Stat tackle Ikem Ekwonu, Michigan defensive end Aidan Hutchinson and Georgia defensive end Travon Walker.
Pro: Some NFL draft analysts rate Ekwonu higher than Neal (although most have both in the top 5 of their big boards). Like Neal, Ekwonu has very good feet and is a more physical blocker than Neal. He was a three-year starter at NC State and developed as a terrific run blocker while improving his pass blocking over the course of his college career. Like Neal, he played both tackle and guard in college.
Cons: Not as technically sound as Neal. He plays with a lot of emotion, which can be a positive, but he was flagged for being physical after the whistle on a number of occasions. We’re splitting hairs here, but that’s something to keep an eye on. Not as tall as most tackles, at 6′4″, but has a longer wingspan than Neal.
Pros: Ultra productive in his last season at Michigan, totaling 14 sacks and 16.5 tackles for loss while being named the Big Ten defensive player of the year and finishing as the runner-up for the Heisman Trophy. Also, put up good numbers as a sophomore with 10 tackles for loss (although only 4.5 sacks). He led the Michigan defensive line in tackles as a sophomore when he played more inside than he did as a senior.
Cons: May not fit in Mike Caldwell’s defensive scheme as Walker. Likely best suited as a 4-3 defensive end and the Jaguars appear to be sticking with the multiple look 3-4 base that they used last season. He’s not a sudden pass rusher like a Von Miller, Myles Garrett or Joey and Nick Bosa. Do his limitations keep him from being the top pick? In most years, yes. But not this year.
Pros: Top athlete. Looks the part and he put up tremendous numbers at the combine, running 4.51 in the 40. His 10-yard sprint time of 1.54 seconds is outstanding for a player of his size, 6′5″ 272 pounds at the combine. He also turned in an impressive 10′ 3″ broad jump at the combine. He’s strong against the run and versatile in where a team can use him.
Cons: His pass rush moves are not as refined as Hutchinson’s and he didn’t put up great numbers in college. Part of that came from how he was used and the players around him. He finished his three-year career with 9.5 sacks, six of them in 2021, the only year he was a starter for the Bulldogs. Picking him is more of a projection of the future than it is with the other three prospects, but that’s the kind of player Trent Baalke has often selected in the first round in his past drafts with the San Francisco 49ers.
Ultimately, the decision on who to pick is likely to come down to two things: the immediate fit of the player into the Jaguars’ new scheme on his side of the ball, and how the Jaguars see the player’s potential in the coming four or five years. There is a lot of subjectivity in the last part of the equation.
There is one more factor to consider, the progress being made on a long-term deal with Robinson. Inside the Jaguars building, they will know if they are close to getting a deal done with Robinson. If they think it’s pending, that could sway them from tackle to defensive end. If not, the tackles have to stay as part of the thought process.