Friday, March 31 2023

By Ralph Vacchiano
FOX Sports NFC East Writer

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — Evan Neal looked lost against the Dallas Cowboys. The Giants right tackle couldn’t handle DeMarcus Lawrence or Micah Parsons or any of the defenders who came at him. Neal gave up three sacks and at least some pressure on about 12% of his snaps.

Only three weeks into his NFL career, Neal looked like the latest in the Giants’ long line of failed experiments at tackle.

Then a funny thing happened with the 22-year-old rookie: He bounced back.

“Like everyone here thought, he turned it around,” said veteran center Jon Feliciano. “It just proves what everyone already knew about him.”

Neal’s improved play over the past few weeks has done more than that for the Giants. It’s helped give them hope in a place where they haven’t had much of that in a very long time.

It is no secret that offensive line has been a black hole for the Giants for most of the past decade, with their blocking bouncing between being barely adequate and unacceptably awful. That was obvious to Joe Schoen when he was hired as the new general manager in January and immediately named fixing the line as his No. 1 task.

And while he has clearly got a long way, and a lot of money, to go, it’s starting to look like he has the two most important building blocks in place. Neal, the seventh overall pick in the 2022 draft, has shown signs of why some regarded him as the best tackle in this year’s crop. And Andrew Thomas, the fifth overall pick in 2020, might just be the best left tackle in the league.

That, at least, is how Pro Football Focus grades him out. And while offensive linemen generally don’t put much stock in outside grades — the graders don’t know the blocking schemes, the playcalls or many other variables that go into each play — the grade for Thomas is one the Giants absolutely believe.

“One hundred percent,” said Feliciano. “I keep messing with him saying, ‘You’re going to be making a lot more money here soon.'”

The 23-year-old Thomas sure does look like he’s headed in the direction of a big contract. That’s a problem the Giants will gladly deal with in the future, considering it wasn’t at all clear the 6-foot-5, 315-pounder was headed in that direction. He had an extremely rocky rookie season, when PFF credited him with allowing 10 sacks, eight quarterback hits and an astounding 39 pressures. Those numbers improved last year, but most of the season he battled a left ankle injury that eventually required surgery.

This season he’s been hampered at times by the same ankle and, most recently, an elbow injury. But it hasn’t affected his play at all. He has yet to give up a sack, he has been called for only one penalty, and the guy he’s blocking has hit quarterback Daniel Jones only once.

“Andrew’s a dog, man,” Neal said. “That’s what I see. Andrew’s a dog. He attacks the process hard every day. He’s a great leader. He’s doing everything right, doing everything he’s supposed to do.”

Together, Thomas and Neal, are giving the Giants hope that they may finally be on the verge of breaking their long-running offensive line curse. They might even soon end up with the best young tackle tandem in the league.

Of course, the tackles are only part of the equation. The Giants are likely going to need to rebuild the interior of the line, too. Schoen tried to improve the group by signing stop-gap veterans like Feliciano and Mark Glowinski, who are both 30 years old. And while the line as a whole is more talented than it was last season, the results have been decidedly mixed.

The good has been in their run blocking. Saquon Barkley ranks second in the league with 616 rushing yards, and the Giants have the fourth-best rushing offense in the league. Barkley gets credit for a lot of that, and so does Jones, who has picked up at least some of his 236 yards while running for his life. But the line’s contribution to that can’t be dismissed.

The flip side is the pass blocking, which has been generally poor and extremely inconsistent. Jones, despite all his running, has already been sacked 19 times this season, putting him on pace to be sacked a career-worst 54 times. He’s already halfway toward the 38 sacks the Giants gave up last season, when the offensive line play was mostly atrocious for most of the year.

It’s no wonder, then, that PFF ranks the Giants as the 26th-best offensive line in the NFL, and that other than Thomas, none of their other linemen rank in PFF’s Top 100.

Not that the Giants are worried about that, and for a couple of very good reasons. One is that they’re off to their best start in 13 years.

“We’re 5-1,” Feliciano said. “Regardless of how good or bad we are, we’re doing enough to be 5-1.”

But the other reason might be even more important: They are starting to show signs that their line will be better in the future, particularly on the edges. The Giants haven’t had a pair of tackles they could really rely on since David Diehl and Kareem McKenzie were powering them to two Super Bowls. And no one needs to remind the Giants that was a long, long time ago.

Now, as Thomas and Neal get set to face a pair of top-tier pass rushers on Sunday — the Jacksonville duo of Josh Allen and Travon Walker — the future seems bright. Or at least it’s encouraging. If nothing else, the arrow is pointing up for an offensive line that’s not a total disaster anymore.

“I think our guys are playing great up front,” said QB Jones. “We’ve played a lot of really good players, a lot of good edge rushers, and done well. We’ve got a lot of confidence in our guys to be able to handle them.”

The confidence is growing, especially in the Giants’ young tackles. And for the first time in a long time, there’s a belief in the organization that the line will only get better from here.

Ralph Vacchiano is the NFC East reporter for FOX Sports, covering the Washington Commanders, Philadelphia Eagles and New York Giants. He spent the previous six years covering the Giants and Jets for SNY TV in New York, and before that, 16 years covering the Giants and the NFL for the New York Daily News. Follow him Twitter at @RalphVacchiano.

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