New summer series for Steelers Depot highlighting a handful of 2022 NFL Draft hopefuls and options for the Pittsburgh Steelers we could be talked a lot more about nine months from now.
Evan Neal / OL / Alabama – 6’7, 360lb
-Possesses elite size and length on a massive frame
-Better mover in space than expected for the weight that he carries
-Has the quickness off of the snap and the athleticism to be an effective puller out in space on a full pull or on a square pull close to the LOS
-Pure size and length make him difficult to get around in pass protection
-Is quick out of his stance in pass protection, having a clean vertical pass set where he gains ground quickly to set the arc of the pocket
-Engulfs defenders as a run blocker when he gets on top of them with his large frame
-Does a good job outstretching his arms when looking for work as a pass protector to the side, taking up lanes for defenders
-Almost impossible to get through when on a combo block with the guard in run fits/pass protection
-Effective down blocker and on kick out blocks, burying defenders down the line or driving them away from the play with sheer strength and size
-Overall mass and power make him an asset to run behind in short yardage/goal line situations
-Anchors well in pass protection, not ceding much ground against defenders coming off the edge
-Possesses position versatility, having played at guard as a freshman, RT as a sophomore, and moving to LT as a junior
-Change of direction and deceleration ability is subpar given the amount of mass and vertical frame he has when compared to his forward motion
-Can stay engaged longer on his blocks as he tends to fall off quickly
-Will allow pass rushers the counter inside by oversetting on his vertical pass set
-Will overextend on blocks in the run game and occasionally in pass protection, leading him to fall off of blocks and balance issues staying upright
-Hand placement can be improved as he will try to put a shoulder into a defender on his run fits and occasionally whiff on his punch in his pass sets
-Telegraphs his punch to the opposition pretty clearly, taking his time to actually contact a defender
-Accuracy and strength of his punch at the point of attack underwhelms for the measurables he has
-Misreads his assignment too often as he will attempt to double team a man already covered up while leaving a defender across from him free to run to the football
-Seems to be slow at processing what is happening in front of him at times
-Junior prospect from Okeechobee, FL
-Attended powerhouse IMG Academy as a prep athlete
-Named a consensus five-star prospect and a top-three OT recruit in the nation in the 2019 class
-Selected to play in the Under Armor All-America Game
-Started all 13 games of his true freshman season at left guard for the Crimson Tide
-Started 13 games at RT as a sophomore in 2020
Going into the 2021 season, Evan Neal appears to be the next in-line of Crimson Tide blockers to be making the transition from college to the pros. Neal has garnered headlines since his time in high school, being recognized as one of the best recruits overall in the nation and favored by many recruiting agencies to be the #1 overall OT prospect. He elected to take his talents to Tuscaloosa to develop under Nick Saban’s watchful eye and compete at the chance for titles, of which he won during the 2020 campaign.
When watching the tape on Neal, one thing immediately sticks out: his size. Neal is a giant of a human being playing on the OL, having the height, size, and length to dwarf other men who are considered large themselves. This mass helps him generate a push upfront on the LOS as we see on this down block against Kentucky, washing the defender down the line and clearing a running lane to the outside for #22 Najee Harris.
Neal is a strong, explosive athlete for his size, having the center of mass to displace defenders off their spot once he gets his feet moving here against LSU this past season, where he picks up the DE trying to crash inside and runs him clear out of the play, having good hand placement inside the defender’s chest and strong leg drive as he puts the DE on his back.
While being an enormous human being, Neal is surprisingly nimble on his feet for being listed in the 360lb range. He is quick out of his stance both in pass protection and in the run game, having the footwork to be a good puller to the outside as a bully leading up he lane for whoever is running behind him. Here in the same game, we see Neal pull from the RT spot to the left, coming off the edge and sealing off the backer following to the ball to allow Harris a one-on-one opportunity against the safety in the open field who he makes miss as he picks up extra yardage.
Neal has a lot of experience as a puller from the guard spot too, having started every game there for Alabama as a true freshman. Here against Tennessee, we see Neal pull from the LG spot to pick up the linebacker coming downhill against the run, making contact at the LOS and picking up the block to spring Harris to the second level. You do see Neal’s feet stop here on contact though, creating a stalemate rather than finishing the block with the size and power he possesses.
When he has his opponent squared up and is in good position, the rep is likely over. Here we see Neal pick up the linebacker at the second level of the defense, engulfing him with size and blows him off the spot, kicking him out of the play with good fit in terms of hand placement and leg drive, using the 120lb+ advantage on the defender to overwhelm him at the point of attack.
His size and length also aid in pass protection, using his long arms to take up space in the gaps and cover a lot of ground with his pass sets. Here we see Neal get out of his pass set looking for work, locating a defender to his left and completely unloads on him, shooting his hips through and levels him to the ground on the highlight block.
As mentioned earlier, Neal has good athleticism for his size and if pretty quick out of his stance in pass protection. He covers ground quickly as a pass blocker, having an active vertical set to set the depth of the pocket. This rep against Notre Dame shows Neal’s active feet from the snap, runner the edge rusher around the arc and out of the play.
When pass rushers try to rush him straight-on it usually doesn’t work out in their favor like we see on this play against the Bulldogs where Neal has a strong base that gives little ground to the defender coming straight at him, using his long arms and size to put the defender into the ground as he traps his hand down on the failed pass rush attempt.
While Neal has plenty of highlights in his tape, he also has a lot of inconsistencies that raise cause for concern. Despite having quick feet in his pass set, often gives the defender too much space to counter back inside due to oversetting and worrying about keeping the edge contained. This allows the defender to cross his face like we see against the Fighting Irish on this play. The defender has the inside track to the ball, but doesn’t disengage fast enough, allowing Neal to stay on his block.
Neal also often has the problem of failing to locate his assignment in the run game, allowing defenders to run past him like on this play where he comes off the ball tentatively, picking up no one on the twist done by the Mississippi State defensive line, watching Harris get stuffed in the backfield for the loss on the play. At the minimum, Neal could have at least tried to down block the DT into the DE to give Harris something to work with, but instead gets caught standing up at the end of the play watching what is happening in the backfield behind him.
Along with missing assignments, Neal has a bad problem of not sustaining his blocks in both his run fits and in pass protection. He often tries to lead with the shoulder rather than accurately land his punch inside the defender’s chest, leading to whiffs. He also likes to lunge forward and wind up his punch, easily telegraphing his move to the opponent and giving him time to sidestep Neal or work off the block as Neal falls forward due to lack of balance. His lateral movement skills aren’t the best when it comes to mirroring in pass protection and he can have trouble changing direction when trying to pick up defenders at the second level due to his sheer size and difficulty to stop his momentum.
The same problems Neal had at tackle in 2020 were also there at guard in 2019. Here in the matchup against LSU, we see Neal pull from his guard spot up the left sideline on the stretch run play, and while he does help his TE on the double team block #6 Jacob Phillips, he fails to recognize #8 Patrick Queen coming free to the ball. While I like that Neal tried to put a body on a defender, his awareness could be better in terms of locating an unblocked defender to spring the runner for more yardage. The play ends up being successful, but this is an example of several instances on tape where Neal favors the double team rather than picking up an unblocked man within range of him.
Again, we see the same thing here in pass protection with Neal operating at the LG spot, opting to try and aid #70 Alex Leatherwood with the defender on the edge rather than picking up the man right in front of him, allowing him to run unimpeded to the QB who has to throw the ball away. Now Neal may have thought that #69 Landon Dickerson was going to pick him up, but Dickerson picked up the other linebacker standing up across from him in the middle, suggesting that Neal just missed his assignment altogether on this play.
Overall, the measurables, experience playing multiple spots on the offensive line, and the physical tools are enticing for any scout watching Neal to recognize what he is currently capable of doing and how he can possibly improve going forward. There is no denying he has the power, size, and movement skills required to be a starting-caliber tackle or guard at the next level. Still, there are to many mental inconsistencies littered throughout his tape to suggest he is ready to be a high-caliber starter from Day One.
He needs to clean up the missed blocks and blown assignments we see too often throughout his game tape and needs to be more consistent with his punch to sustain his blocks, playing with a better overall motor to really make his presence felt in the run game as it should for a player with his size and power.
His sheer mass, play style, and possible fit in the league reminds me of fellow former Crimson Tide OT D.J. Fluker, currently of the Miami Dolphins who too has played both at guard and tackle during his time in the NFL. While Fluker was taken 11 overall by the Chargers back in 2013, he has been a solid, yet unspectacular tackle who suffers the same problems in his play as Neal does, having been transitioned to guard by the Chargers, Seahawks, and Ravens at times during his tenure in the league to better fit his traits.
That being said, Neal is best suited for a man/gap/power scheme where he can lean his body on others and strictly attack downhill rather than having to adjust to moving defenders around him and rely more on accuracy and timing of his blocks. His best spot would be either at RT or kicking back inside to guard where he can be utilized as a puller and play more in a phone booth and prevent defenders from countering back inside across his face.
He definitely could be on the Steelers’ radar come draft season next year with improved play in 2021, but should the team look to transition more to a zone-based system under OC Matt Canada, Neal may be better suited for a team like Baltimore or Tennessee where he can come around slowly in his transition rather than being thrown to the fire right away.
Projection: Early-to-Mid Day Two
Games Watched: vs LSU (2019), vs Notre Dame (2020), vs Mississippi State (2020), LSU (2020)