For years, as two of the most highly regarded athletes in their high school class, the rumblings were there. We’ve got to see these two go against each other. Would Kayvon Thibodeaux’s cat-first step get the better of the massive Evan Neal? Or, would Neal’s wingspan and power stop the smaller Thibodeaux in his tracks?
The two — Neal from Florida, Thibodeaux from South Los Angeles — appeared together at recruiting camps, but never faced each other in an actual game. Perhaps they never will. Perhaps they will spend their entire NFL careers where they are starting, with the Giants. If so, the cloak of losing that has enveloped the Giants for so long will have been removed and shredded.
“It’s just ironic we ended up on the same NFL team,’’ Neal said Saturday. “Just excited to go against him every day and make each other better. I believe iron sharpens iron.’’
If what is transpiring on the practice field this summer is an appetizer to the main course, the Giants might look back on the 2022 draft — specifically what they reeled in during the first round — as the nourishment that fortified their franchise. Four days into training camp, the sight of Thibodeaux lining up at outside linebacker and blasting his way toward Neal, the right tackle, conjures up vibes of being in the studio when two young, gifted songwriters craft their nascent tunes.
These two 21-year-olds have yet to play in an NFL game. Heck, they have yet to strap on the shoulder pads and engage in a genuine NFL practice. That will happen Monday, when Neal and Thibodeaux, the foundation pieces for a Giants revitalization, take turns showing what all the fuss is about.
Thibodeaux was taken with the No. 5-overall pick. Neal was chosen at No. 7. They are linked in that they are the first picks of new general manager Joe Schoen, and they are both high-profile, coveted prospects at premium positions.
“Definitely,” Thibodeaux said. “Football is a game of trenches. Starting with the trenches was a great choice by the man upstairs. I feel like as we continue to get older and we mature we’re gonna continue to grow and jell together and keep bringing both sides to the forefront.’’
For now, they battle. Thibodeaux moves from side to side and has gone against left tackle Andrew Thomas. More often, he is stationed on the left side of the defense, lining up wide, with Neal and his 6-foot-7 frame poised to stop the assault.
Without any pads, Thibodeaux has often looked like a cheetah chasing its prey, getting off the line of scrimmage with a darting burst. He has had a few reps against Thomas in which it seemed as if the rookie got the better of the third-year left tackle, who is coming off offseason ankle surgery. On the other side, Thibodeaux’s snaps against Neal have not been as effective. The better tests will come when the hitting starts this week.
“We’re waiting to put the pads on to see where everybody’s at going full speed and full physicalness,’’ defensive lineman Leonard Williams said. “So far [Thibodeaux] — we’re all, not just him — trying to learn the playbook and the speed of the game right now.’’
Williams is entering his eighth NFL season and has knocked heads with newbie offensive linemen for years. He knows the drill. The more hyped they are, the more he is asked if they are any good.
“Evan Neal, he is going to be a great player — it’s fun going against him,’’ Williams said. “He’s big, he’s strong and he’s catching up on the game pretty quickly.’’
Neal and Thibodeaux, if they live up to the massive expectations heaped on them, could vault to the top of best-ever Giants draft hauls. In the Super Bowl era, Carl Banks and William Roberts were the team’s top two picks in 1984. Ike Hilliard and Tiki Barber were the top two in 1997. Perhaps Thomas and Xavier McKinney, from 2020, will join the conversation.
Thibodeaux said he and Neal “share info every now and again,’’ but mostly they face one another in practice in relative silence — an interesting turn of events considering how loquacious Thibodeaux can be.
“Quite honestly, he hasn’t been chirping like that,’’ Neal said. “We’ve just been putting our heads down and we’ve been working. He beats me some reps, I get him some reps.
“He doesn’t want to give me any of his secrets. I’m not gonna give him any of mine, either. I’m sure he’s watching me just like I watch him.’’
We are all watching.
“There’s a reason why they drafted us,’’ Neal said. “We’re still young, we’re still rookies, we’re still getting the hang of this process.’’
If they get the hang of it, the Giants will be on their way.