This is the fifth part of our 11-part positional breakdown of the April 28-30 NFL draft. Today: the offensive tackles.
Ben Fennell is an Emmy award-winning producer, editor and analyst across several sports and media platforms. He has been involved in the production of the last eight drafts for NFL Network and also is a producer for the NFL on CBS. You can follow Ben on Twitter at @BenFennell_nfl.
While the deep edge-rushing class has dominated the headlines leading up to this month’s draft, the offensive tackle group doesn’t have to take a back seat to any position.
At least five tackles are expected to go in the first round, including two – Alabama’s Evan Neal and North Carolina State’s Ikem Ekwonu – in the top 10.
The other potential first-round tackles include Charles Cross of Mississippi State, Trevor Penning of Northern Iowa, Tyler Smith of Tulsa and Bernhard Raimann of Central Michigan.
“It’s a really good class,” NFL Network draft analyst Ben Fennell said. “Deep at the top. But there’s also a lot of potential plug-and-play starters in the middle rounds and some really interesting depth on Day 3.’’
Many college players took advantage of the NCAA’s offer of an extra year of eligibility last year because of the COVID pandemic. It resulted in a shallow draft last year, but a ton of experienced available players on Day 3 this year, particularly offensive linemen.
“Many of the Day 3 guys have played a lot of football for their college teams,” Fennell said. “They’re not only experienced but versatile, having played multiple positions.
“They’re going to be great fits to fill out offensive line rooms. Anyone who was paying attention to what offensive line rooms looked like around the league last year knows a lot of teams are desperate for depth. Desperate for guys that are competent and can play multiple positions and are ready.
“The offensive line is a learn-on-the-job position in the NFL. So they want experience. And there are tons of guys in this draft that were 3-4-year starters in college, had that extra year with COVID, are 23-24 years old and are ready to play.
“Do they have the sexy traits to be first- or second-rounders? Maybe not. But they’re capable ho-hum types that are going to help a team and give it much-needed depth.”
Fennell’s top 5
1—Evan Neal, Alabama, 6-7, 337, Rd. 1
2—Ickey Ekwonu, North Carolina St., 6-4, 310, Rd. 1
3—Charles Cross, Mississippi St., 6-5, 307, Rd. 1
4—Trevor Penning, N. Iowa, 6-7, 325, Rd. 1-2
5—Bernhard Raimann, Ctl. Michigan, 6-6, 303. Rd. 1-2
Arms: 34 inches
40 time: N/A
225 bench: N/A
Ben’s take: “Neal has played three different positions in three years – right tackle, left tackle and right guard. He’s an absolute behemoth of an offensive lineman. Massive height and weight. He was down under 340 at the combine but was up to 360-365 at one point.
“He’s very, very balanced and explosive. An easy-moving tackle at the huge size. He’s a straight people-mover in the run game and is really tough to get around in pass-protection. He reminds me a lot of the old Cardinal and Cowboy offensive lineman Leonard Davis. Massive frame, and length with excellent balance and body control.
“The balance and body control are really important for an offensive lineman. All of these guys are big. But if you don’t have control of the way your body moves at 340-350 pounds, it’s literally taking two steps left and taking two steps right. It’s not easy for these guys, especially when you’re exploding and trying to do things quick. It takes balance. It takes bend and flexibility. Being big isn’t enough. Everybody’s seen the crazy video of this guy over the last year doing the box jump into a split. He’s just a freak show.
“But he does have some technique issues. He’s a little too much windup on punches. He gives up his chest. Plays with his shoulders out over his toes too much and tries to go reach and get guys. When you reach, you get yourself off balance. Especially at that weight you become very sloppy.
“But when he doesn’t reach and he gets you you’re going in the other direction. He needs to clean some stuff up, but he has a lot of things you can’t teach. I fully expect him to be a top 5 pick. It’s just a matter of where he lands.
“He can play left tackle at the next level. But he’s got positional versatility. I’m not opposed to moving him inside to guard if you needed to. And I’m not saying that as a bad thing. I value him as much inside as I do outside. Last I heard, you still need two guards to play this game.’’
Round projection: 1
North Carolina St.
Arms: 34 inches
40 time: 4.93 seconds
225 bench: 26 reps
Ben’s take: “This guy has grown to folklore status in the last year. A lot of people didn’t know about him in 2020. But he absolutely dominated for NC State at left tackle in 2021. He was an unsung gem that nobody knew about. Then people started watching his tape and he was just destroying people.
“He’s as heavy-handed on contact as anybody I’ve ever seen. He just paws linebackers to the ground. Jolts and uproots defensive ends. Very physical. Moves people out of the way. But he’s also very quick-footed and very, very savvy as far as technique and things. Particularly with respect to zone-blocking, different techniques and ways to block the back side of plays.
“He is advanced far beyond his years. He’s one of the more advanced run-blockers I’ve ever seen coming out of college. Very nasty. Wants to maul you and break your will every chance he gets. You want to call him dirty? Go for it. But he wants to finish you and break you. His issues are in pass-protection. He oversteps at times. Again, shoulders out over toes too often. But this guy is a run-blocking savant.
“When I was doing a report on him, I had no problem writing down Hall of Famers Will Shields and Willie Roaf as run-blocking comps. He tested really well. He’s a really good kid. He played nearly 300 snaps at left guard in 2020 and played really well. As with Neal, I wouldn’t be opposed to sliding him inside either. But I suspect he’ll be a left tackle.
“You get him in space and he just destroys people. He’s the most entertaining highlight-film guy in this entire class. He may go ahead of Neal. He could be the No. 1 pick. But he really represents the riser category because of his journey over the last year.’’
Round projection: 1
Arms: 34 inches
40 time: 5.02 seconds
225 bench: 25 reps
Ben’s take: “It was tough to pick a sleeper. There usually are some small-school guys that you can consider sleepers, but they’re not sleepers at this point in the process. Guys like Northern Iowa’s Trevor Penning, Central Michigan’s Bernhard Raymond. They were sleepers coming out of the season but had great Senior Bowl weeks, great combines. They’re going to be top 40 selections now.
“Smith is a sleeper. He’s only a redshirt sophomore. He’s another guy that plays extremely nasty, extremely physical. He’s a converted defensive lineman. Like Ekwonu, he wants to break the will of guys. A very easy mover. Stays latched to blocks extremely well. Can mirror edge rushers.
“The issue with him is he’s too nasty. Picks up tons of penalties. Has wide hands. A lot of holding penalties. He had 16 holding penalties last season. He wants to dump everybody. When you have wide hands and you want to dump people, you’re going to get a lot of holding calls.
“But he’s 6-6 and 330 with really long arms and easy feet. He has things you can’t teach. Can you clean up the technique, the hands and things like that? Absolutely. Some people have him going in the first round. But I think that’s way too high. I think he’s more of a Day 2 developmental guy.’’