The NFL Draft is right around the corner and The Shadow League is ranking the five most impactful players and the landing spots that will best allow their talents to shine immediately.
Evan Neal – Alabama Crimson Tide (Offensive Tackle)
Neal, the mammoth left tackle who anchored the Crimson Tide’s offensive line the past three seasons, started 40 games in his Alabama career. His move to left tackle in 2021 was seamless as it’s his natural position, and it earned him consensus All-America honors as Alabama won the SEC Championship and reached the CFP title game. He surrendered just two sacks and 10 pressures all season.
The former IMG Academy product is needed in Jacksonville as it tries to move past the Urban Meyer debacle. The Jags need to protect their franchise quarterback Trevor Lawrence, the 2021 No. 1 overall pick.
What better way to do that than drafting Neal, who goes 6 feet 7 and 336 pounds with nimble feet and great hands? The team recently used the franchise tag on last season’s starting left tackle, Cam Robinson, another former Alabama stud lineman. He and Neal could form a dynamic bookend tackle duo, giving Lawrence some much needed protection and ability to step up in the pocket.
— Evan Neal (@ENeal73) January 13, 2022
At last week’s NFL Combine, Neal had this to say in an interview.
“I feel like I’ll be able to come in and make an impact immediately like I did at Alabama. Everything is gonna be present their challenges, I’m gonna have my growing pains, but as I get acclimated to the speed of the game, I feel like I’ll be able to make a good adjustment.
“I’ll play wherever I’m asked. I see myself as a tackle, for sure, at the NFL level, but like I said, I’ll do whatever my team needs me to do.”
Aidan Hutchinson – Michigan Wolverines (Edge)
Hutchinson, is a freakish edge rusher who’s also sound against the run. He finished second in the Heisman voting. Last season he tallied 62 total tackles and 14 sacks, wreaking havoc.
His multiple-sack performance in the Wolverines’ win over the archrival Ohio State Buckeyes was his Heisman moment.
He joined Desmond Howard, Charles Woodson, Steve Hutchinson, Braylon Edwards, LaMarr Woodley and Jake Long as Michigan unanimous All-Americans. Blessed with great strength and power, Hutchinson dominates offensive lineman with a variety of pass rush moves. What he possesses the Lions sorely lacked this past season.
While they played hard, they just didn’t have the personnel needed to make clutch plays. Hutch is that edge rusher they need, and he’s a Michigan native and lifelong Lions fan. It’s only right.
GO BLUE FOREVER〽️ pic.twitter.com/CuqtpYp537
— Aidan Hutchinson (@aidanhutch97) January 5, 2022
“I think it’d be great,” said Hutchinson in an interview on the “Adam Schefter Podcast.” “I’d be the hometown hero times two. Never leaving Michigan, really. Dan Campbell seems like a really good guy. You can’t judge a coach about what he does in the media, but seeing how he treats his players … they have a lot of heart on that team. Add a couple more pieces to the puzzle, and that’s a really good team.”
Kayvon Thibodeaux – Oregon Ducks (Edge)
Thibodeaux was the No. 1 ranked recruit in high school when he arrived at Oregon. Although he didn’t always dominate, his abilities jump off the screen. A tremendous athlete with a very high football IQ, the edge rusher is blessed with elite speed and power, but it’s his instincts and understanding of what the offense is trying to do that sets him apart. Thibodeaux was highly effective in Eugene despite injuries, and his skill set translates seamlessly to the NFL. He’s exactly what the rebuilding Texans need after losing elite pas rushers Jadeveon Clowney, JJ Watt and Whitney Mercilus over the last three seasons. KT finished his college career with just 19 sacks, but 93 QB pressures.
holy crap what a play from Garbers pic.twitter.com/dMR13PshSp
— CJ Fogler AKA Perc70 #BlackLivesMatter (@cjzero) October 16, 2021
Kyle Hamilton – Notre Dame Fighting Irish (Safety)
New York Jets
Kyle Hamilton’s speed or athleticism doesn’t wow you. But his range and hitting ability rank off the charts. The Jets showed some promise late in the season under head coach Robert Saleh. Led by defensive lineman Quinnen Williams and safety Marcus Maye, Hamilton would solidify the Jets defense down the middle. His abilities will allow Maye to play around the line of scrimmage, which is his strength.
Hamilton is probably the most NFL-ready prospect in the draft. With a unique ability to play sideline to sideline and perform in space, no way the Jets can pass him up. A Day One starter without question, Hamilton balled out in his Irish career tallying, 138 tackles, and eight interceptions. His 17.5 tackles for loss are just a glimpse of the versatility he brings at free safety.
Thank you Notre Dame 💚 pic.twitter.com/IGvH9GzLbO
— Kyle Hamilton (@kyledhamilton_) December 10, 2021
Ahmad “Sauce” Gardner – Cincinnati Bearcats (Cornerback)
New York Giants
While many believe Derek Stingley Jr. is the best corner in the draft, Sauce Gardner actually gets top billing. The rangy cover corner never allowed a touchdown throughout his entire collegiate career. Oozing with a confidence that matches his ability, Gardner is definitely what the Giants need in their porous secondary.
Sauce Gardner is the definition of lockdown🔒 pic.twitter.com/FGdvHtxcjp
— PFF Draft (@PFF_College) November 23, 2021
James Bradberry and Adoree Jackson did not get it done last season. Both were beaten consistently and looked lost in coverage too frequently. Drafting Gardner and putting him in the secondary with Xavier McKinney is a nice corner/ safety duo. Plus Gardner has shown he can fly, as evidenced by his sub 4.4 time at last week’s Combine. He gives us Richard Sherman vibes.