Giants second-year right tackle Evan Neal, the No. 7 overall pick of the 2022 NFL Draft, purposefully spent time this offseason making changes to his foundation: his stance.
“With anything,” Neal said after practice last week, “you want to refine it to the point where you get better results out of it.”
Second-year edge rusher Kayvon Thibodeaux, the No. 5 overall pick two spots ahead of Neal, is facing his most critical area of improvement head-on this spring, too.
“Getting sacks,” Thibodeaux said of his focus. “Finishing.”
This is an impressive level of self-awareness from two players with their pedigree. It shouldn’t be taken for granted.
A lot of young athletes don’t know how to handle life when they get to the pros. Then if they struggle early, sometimes they never correctly diagnose their shortcomings or weaknesses.
Some refuse to acknowledge them. Some see the problems but can’t fix them.
Thibodeaux and Neal are big names, top 10 draft picks, Joe Schoen’s first two picks ever as Giants GM, a high-profile duo that will play a big role in defining — and hopefully leading — this Giants program.
Hearing them both proud but humble about their up-and-down first NFL seasons is encouraging. It sets a great tone for the incoming draft class and, more directly, has a chance to yield results for them this fall.
“There were a lot of times when I had a good pass rush that I didn’t finish,” Thibodeaux, who had just four sacks as a rookie, said of his own game. “You realize the guy on the other side of the line is paid a lot of money. They’re not going to let him get touched. [I am] continuing to sharpen the end of my rush, that third phase, [to] make sure I start to finish.”
Neal’s ability to improve, of course, will have a lot to do with whether Brian Daboll can open up Daniel Jones’ offense more in year two of this system.
It’s no secret that Neal struggled last season, although he played well in the Giants’ Wild Card win in Minnesota. So it was encouraging to hear that Neal got together with three-time All-Pro tackle Willie Anderson earlier this offseason to hone his craft.
“Working with Willie was cool,” Neal said. “Just gaining a lot of his knowledge, him being a Pro Bowl player, we were playing around with my stance, seeing what’s comfortable, seeing what’s not comfortable. The stance that I can be functional out of and explode out of and stuff like that.”
It’s concerning Neal would’ve been allowed to play his first NFL season in a stance that wasn’t optimal. But it seems Anderson and the versatile former Alabama standout noticed something about Neal’s hips going from the left side late in college to the right in the NFL.
“Going from a left-handed stance to a right-handed stance, thankfully I’d done it before,” Neal said. “I played three different positions at Alabama. It wasn’t that big of a deal. The main thing is I feel like it’s your hip alignments, stuff like that, just making sure that my hips get back adjusted to the right side. That’s the biggest thing.”
This is primarily about the 6-7, 350-pound Neal, a punishing run blocker, improving his pass blocking as a bookend to left tackle Andrew Thomas.
“I was analyzing my game and [determined] if I tweak this part of my stance, maybe I’ll be able to get to my pass set quicker or maybe I’ll be more balanced whenever I take my pass sets,” Neal said. “That’s what we were trying to find: a place that I’m quick out of, that’s comfortable for me, a stance that I can get in and repeat rep after rep after rep.”
While Neal’s efforts seem concentrated on a physical adjustment, meanwhile, Thibodeaux’s appear grounded in his mental evolution as an aspiring game-changer.
Thibodeaux, for example, stuck Post-It notes with his rookie goals on one inside wall of his locker last fall, including a lofty number of sacks that he failed to attain.
And he learned that it’s not about the yearly stat; it’s about making a difference every week.
“I had a number on it last year, and I figured out that the season is so long that you have to do it by game,” he said.
It flipped for Thibodeaux when he missed the first two games with a knee injury, then went his first three NFL games without a sack.
“When you go four sacks, four or five games with no sacks, you start to realize like wow, f— that number. Forget that number. What can I do to just make a play?” Thibodeaux said with a smirk. “Come the Baltimore game it was like OK, I’ve got to make a play. I don’t really have time to think about the goals I had. I’ve got to go for something now.”
By the end of the season, Thibodeaux had made several big plays in wins over the Ravens, Green Bay Packers and Washington Commanders. But he managed just one QB hit and no sacks in the Giants’ two playoff games, which left him wanting more.
Impressively, Thibodeaux was able to rattle off several examples last week from his film study of plays that left him wanting more.
“The first [time] we played Washington, it was a second-guess kind of a step that threw me off even though I was unblocked,” he said. “There were a couple of snaps in the Eagles game, the first game we played, where I could have had an impact if I finished the top of my rush. I know there was one against the Texans, when I was going against Laremy Tunsil. At the end of my rush, I let him get his hands on me where I should have been able to get around him.”
So it is that Thibodeaux is now attacking his technique and approach to try and correct those missteps in year two. He knows it’s important to finish with way more than four sacks, and he knows their context is just as important, too.
Thibodeaux admitted he receives a lot more leeway than his draft-mate Neal if either of them has a rough game.
“The thing about playing defense and offense is that if we lose, they’re not just going to point at me,” Thibodeaux said. “But if we lose, they’re going to point at the O-line. For [Neal], I think he’s been able to process it more mentally … Once you start to understand what type of player you are and how you can grow with the assets you already have, you become a great player. I think he’s done a great job, one, blocking out the noise and continuing to stay on his grind, and continuing to ask those questions, be hungry, be curious.”
Neal said he is “proud” of his rookie year, despite the harsh learning curve.
“Adversity is a part of everything,” he said. “I just battled with some things, whether it be injuries, having to miss time, stuff like that, playing through bad games. I just like the way that I was able to be resilient through it all, finish the year strong, didn’t complain or anything. Went out there every Sunday and gave it everything that I had. I was really proud of that.”
Obviously, talking about making changes is one thing for both Neal and Thibodeaux. They’re going to have to bring these intentions to the field and produce when the games matter in the fall.
Considering the spotlight and pressure they’re under, though, it’s a great sign that two of the Giants’ most important young players are so willingly admitting and addressing what might have held them back at times in 2022.
This is how teams take steps forward: when every player resolves to do it himself first.