Friday, January 28, 2022

2022 NFL Draft: Alabama’s Evan Neal declares, projected No. 1 pick anchored Crimson Tide’s offensive line

In a move that has long been expected, Alabama left tackle Evan Neal announced that he will enter the 2022 NFL Draft. Neal, a junior, started every game at left tackle for the Crimson Tide in 2021, protecting the blind side of Heisman winner Bryce Young.

“I thank my family, my mom and dad, and every single coach and fan who has supported me throughout my collegiate career,” said Neal in his announcement. “Though this season didn’t end with the outcome my brothers and I were hoping for, this year was incredible, and I will forever remember all that it took to get us there. Playing football at the highest level was always my goal, and to be able to do that at The University of Alabama has been a dream come true. I’m deeply grateful to all the fans that showed up every Saturday to cheer us on, to my conches who encouraged me daily to push myself, and to my loved ones who have had my back through every high and low — you all have helped me become a better player and a better person.”

Neal, a consensus First-Team All-America selection this season, is the highest-rated offensive tackle in the CBSSports’ 2022 NFL Draft prospect rankings and the No. 6 player overall. CBS Sports NFL Draft experts Chris Trapasso and Josh Edwards have Neal going No. 1 overall to the Jacksonville Jaguars in their latest mock drafts, while Ryan Wilson has Neal going to the New York Jets with the fourth pick.

Here’s what Neal’s announcement means for his draft status as well as Alabama’s future in the trenches. 

Where Neal projects in the NFL

As mentioned above, two of CBS Sports’ NFL Draft experts have Neal going No. 1 overall in their latest mocks, while another has Neal going fourth — behind another tackle in NC State’s Ikem Ekwonu. Odds are those kinds of disagreements will continue because there’s some uncertainty about whether Neal profiles better as a left tackle or a right tackle. Neal was a dominant right tackle for Alabama during the 2020 season and moved to the left side for 2021. He succeeded at both spots, but some scouts believe he performed better at right tackle even though he has everything you want in a left tackle.

And for as great a prospect as Neal is, he did struggle at times this season — as did the Alabama offensive line as a whole. Still, he had excellent performances in the SEC Championship against Georgia and Cincinnati in the Cotton Bowl semifinal. So where he ends up going in the draft will depend a lot on how teams view him and their needs. Still, there aren’t many reasons to believe Neal won’t be a successful NFL player, whether on the right or left side of the line. 

Our Chris Trapasso doesn’t have many questions about Neal, writing that he’s “the best offensive tackle with the highest upside in this class given his size and athleticism,” which is why he has him projected No. 1 overall to Jacksonville.

Alabama replaces a lot up front

The Crimson Tide will begin the 2022 season as preseason favorites to win the national title for obvious reasons. Young, the Heisman Trophy winner at quarterback, returns along with Will Anderson on the defensive side of the ball. While there’s some uncertainty surrounding receiver Jameson Williams following his ACL injury in the College Football Playoff National Championship, Jahmyr Gibbs is a former five-star running back transferring in from Georgia Tech, and the Tide will have plenty of skill position stars on offense.

But Neal is not the only offensive lineman on the way out. Right tackle Chris Owens and hybrid offensive lineman/tight end Kendall Randolph are both gone, and it’s possible Emil Ekiyor could make the leap to the NFL as well. Javion Cohen and Seth McLaughlin will return, bringing some stability to the line’s interior, but Alabama will need two new tackles next season.

It will be one of the most prominent position battles to watch during the spring and summer, but there are plenty of options. The top two players in Alabama’s 2021 recruiting class were five-star tackles J.C. Latham and Tommy Brockermeyer, and both will be better equipped to compete for a starting job after spending a season in the program. Also, keep an eye on players like Damieon George, Amari Kight and even incoming freshman Tyler Booker. Coach Nick Saban could also choose to hit the transfer portal for options. 

Long story short, Alabama has recruited well enough that it should be able to overcome losses like this. After all, it has plenty of experience doing so.

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