MIKE JONES

In less glamorous NFL draft class, offensive linemen Evan Neal, Ikem Ekwonu build case for No. 1 pick

Mike Jones
USA TODAY
  • Evan Neal's physique and experience at Alabama have some teams believing he is one of the most NFL ready linemen in the draft.
  • Neal's confidence is unwavering: "I started 39 games at Alabama. I'm durable. I'm tough."
  • Ikem Ekwonu views himself as a work in progress but says with more refining, he can be a "great" left tackle.

INDIANAPOLIS – This year’s NFL draft class may not boast an obvious generational talent at quarterback. But given the importance of protecting passers in a league in which several edge-rushers pose the threat of single-handedly wrecking an offense, the top pick this year figures to come from a slightly less sexy but equally important position: left tackle.

As the top offensive line prospects went through interviews and measurements on Thursday and prepared to perform the on-field portions of the NFL scouting combine, much of the buzz centered on two figures: Alabama’s Evan Neal and North Carolina State counterpart Ikem Ekwonu, both of whom are believed to have a chance to go first overall in next month’s draft.

For the second straight year, the Jacksonville Jaguars own the first overall pick after taking quarterback Trevor Lawrence last season. If they hold onto the pick, the Jaguars have a chance to land a talented and versatile prospect, and perhaps one who could become a fixture on their offensive line for years to come.

Over the coming days and weeks, the team will try to solve the question of whether it’s Neal – a 6-foot-7, 337-pound, powerful specimen – or Ekwonu – a 6-4, 320-pound, freakishly athletic prospect with great versatility – who deserves the honor of going first overall.

Both are highly regarded  but face similar questions as they enter the league. 

There’s no denying that Neal’s football pedigree and physical traits make him desirable.

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Alabama Crimson Tide offensive lineman Evan Neal (73) celebrates the win over the Cincinnati Bearcats after the 2021 Cotton Bowl college football CFP national semifinal game at AT&T Stadium.

Blessed with an impressive physique, he looks more like a pass-rushing prospect than he does an offensive lineman. He has opted to save the on-field workout and testing for his pro day later this month. But his game film compiled over the last three seasons showcase impressive strength, versatility and durability that some NFL talent evaluators believe make him a premier talent. The competition he faced in the SEC and at practice every day at Alabama also have some teams believing he is one of the most NFL ready linemen in the draft.

Neal carries himself with humility but does have the confidence to declare himself the best lineman in the draft. Asked why, he replied without hesitation, “My versatility, man. You can plug me in anywhere but center and I’ll be able to come in and contribute. I started 39 games at Alabama. I never missed a game. I’m durable. I’m tough.”

Neal has found himself on the path to the NFL ever since the age of 15, when he and his family decided he should transfer to IMG Academy to improve his development and boost his prospects of landing a college scholarship. From there, he and his father settled on Alabama because they believed that college program would best develop him into an NFL prospect.

It appears that their calculations were correct.

A starter as a true freshman, Neal has played everywhere from left guard to right tackle and then left tackle, where he settled in as a junior. 

He views himself as a left tackle, but some NFL talent evaluators believe he could use additional seasoning and refining of his footwork before he’s ready to fend off the elite edge rushers he would face while protecting a quarterback’s blind side. But that probably will not preclude him from starting as a rookie. 

Ekwonu also has experience at guard and tackle from his time in college. Although he does not boast the same off-the-charts size as Neal, he is believed to have better athleticism and quickness, which could suit him better on the edge. He’s also believed to be the better run-blocker of the two. However, his pass-protection skills remain raw, several NFL scouts believe, and Ekwonu agrees with them. But he classifies himself as a work in progress fully capable of climbing the ranks at left tackle. 

“I’ve always been a team player,” Ekwonu said. “I’ve never been shy to bump inside or do the best thing for the team. But personally, I see myself as a left tackle and feel like I’m not even scratching the surface on my potential as a left tackle. With a little more development, and a little more refining, I could definitely be great at left tackle.”

There’s no disagreement among NFL talent evaluators that Neal and Ekwonu rank among the most talented prospects at their positions and in the entire draft.

However, the question of whether either boasts the potential to become an elite talent at left tackle remains unresolved.

Not since 2013, when the Kansas City Chiefs selected Eric Fisher first overall, has a left tackle been taken with the No. 1 pick. And in the history of the draft, only five offensive linemen have owned such a distinction.

Now, Ekwonu and Neal are working to convince NFL teams that they are worthy of top billing. Many NFL minds agree that either could step in as a Day 1 starter. Either would help bolster a Jacksonville line sorely lacking in talent, or help any team that drafted them.

But Neal and Ekwonu have aspirations of greatness at the line’s premier spot. 

Follow USA TODAY Sports' Mike Jones on Twitter @ByMikeJones.