Evan Neal is a prime 2022 draft target for New York Jets
Heading into Week 11, the New York Jets are set to own the third and seventh overall picks in the 2022 NFL draft.
While the draft order is certain to change before the season ends, it’s never too early to look ahead at potential first-round targets. The order may turn out different, but the prospects set to be chosen in the first round should stay mostly the same.
Jets fans, ever optimists, have already zeroed in on a few possible players they would like to see in green and white next year. Oregon edge rusher Kayvon Thibodeaux, Michigan edge rusher Aidan Hutchinson, and Iowa center Tyler Linderbaum have all been frequent appearances on early mock drafts.
Any of the three would be excellent additions for New York, but a rarely mentioned option might be the best of all: Alabama offensive tackle Evan Neal.
Measuring in at an imposing 6-foot-7 and 350 pounds, Neal is currently in the midst of his third consecutive season as a starter for the Crimson Tide. He has only given up three sacks over 1,237 career pass-blocking snaps and has yet to allow one over 391 pass-blocking snaps in 2021.
Neal also led the way in the running game for former Tide runner Najee Harris from 2019-20, helping Harris become Alabama’s all-time leading rusher. He is currently one of the six finalists for the Outland Trophy, the equivalent of the Heisman for college offensive lineman.
Impressively, Neal has played a different position in each of his three seasons as a starter. The five-star recruit from Okeechobee, Fla. started at left guard as a true freshman in 2019. He switched to right tackle in 2020 and moved once more to left tackle in 2021.
In the case of both switches, Neal changed positions to replace a teammate who was chosen in the first round of the NFL draft; Jedrick Wills in 2020 and Alex Leatherwood in 2021.
Neal’s size, length, brute strength, and technique make him a plug-and-play tackle prospect. His proven versatility at multiple positions adds to his value even more.
Offensive tackle may not appear to be one of the Jets’ top needs, but as the 2021 season has shown, tackle depth is always useful.
New York is still missing starting left tackle Mekhi Becton, who is recovering from a knee injury suffered in Week 1. George Fant has taken over the left tackle spot in Becton’s absence, leaving the right tackle job to free-agent addition Morgan Moses. If the Jets didn’t sign Moses to build depth, they would’ve been left with backup quality players to protect rookie quarterback Zach Wilson.
Moses, however, is on a one-year deal and is unlikely to be resigned. Fant’s future with the team is far from secure as well. He is due $10.7 million for the 2022 season but has a dead-money hit of only $1 million, making his release a possibility.
Whether Moses, Fant, or both are no longer on the team after this year, it is clear that the Jets will need a new right tackle sooner rather than later.
Drafting Neal would give the Jets flexibility. Neal could spend his rookie season at guard or as Fant’s backup while he plays out the last year of his contract. Even better, he could replace Fant outright, saving the Jets plenty of cap space.
The Jets have their left tackle of the future in Becton. Adding Neal would secure both tackle spots for years to come.
Evan Neal is hardly mentioned in the current Jets’ zeitgeist, but based on general manager Joe Douglas‘s tendencies, he might be the most likely selection.
Douglas, a former offensive lineman himself, has drafted an offensive lineman in the first round two years in a row. His first-ever pick as head of the Jets’ brain-trust was Becton, and he followed it up with Alijah Vera-Tucker in 2021.
Simply put, offensive line play is in his DNA. Neal would fit right into Douglas’s plans to load up in the trenches and fits his prototype as a massive and nasty butt-kicker.
Outside factors also make positions other than tackle unlikely; mainly, money already spent.
The Jets are all but certain to finish with a top-10 draft pick, narrowing their options to the premium players of the class. Outside of Neal and Linderbaum, most players at the top of the draft are either quarterbacks or defensive ends. The Jets definitely won’t be in the quarterback market and probably won’t be in the edge rusher market either.
New York is set to pay nearly $30 million to two edge rushers in 2022, Carl Lawson and John Franklin-Myers. Second-year player Bryce Huff was also coming along strong before suffering a back injury and landing on injured reserve. Huff is expected back before the end of the year, and there is no sign that he will not be on the roster in 2022.
Many fans expect the Jets to take a defensive end highly due to head coach Robert Saleh‘s love of pass rushers, and the quality edges at the top of the class. However, considering how much money they have already spent on the position, it’s unlikely the Jets will use another premium asset on a defensive end.
Lawson and Franklin-Myers’s contracts have them penciled in as Gang Green’s starting edge duo for at least the next two years, with Huff subbing in as a pass-rushing specialist. While adding a top-tier defensive end makes sense in theory, the reality is the Jets just don’t have the room.
The 2022 draft is still months away, but Jets fans should get familiar with Evan Neal sooner rather than later. As it currently stands, Neal is the most likely prospect to make New York his next home come April. His talent is abundant, his pedigree is proven, and his mentality is exactly what Joe Douglas looks for in his lineman.
The need for a right tackle could be a quiet killer for the Jets in the future. Neal would give them new life.