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Talking tackles: The Big 3. Which one should Denver pursue?

It’s no secret the Denver Broncos need a right tackle. Between Evan Neal, Ikem Ekwonu, and Charles Cross, who makes the most sense?

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: JAN 10 CFP National Championship Photo by Zach Bolinger/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

If you’ve been following my work along since I joined Mile High Report, you know that I’ve been calling for Denver to fix their right tackle spot. The band-aid method hasn’t been working for them for the last several years, and moving forward, it’s a position where they need a long-term answer at.

Fortunately for them, this 2022 NFL Draft has plenty of options for them to choose from. With a top-10 pick, they’re likely in range for at least one of the big three tackles in this class. Those “big three”, of course, being Alabama’s Evan Neal; NC State’s Ikem (pronounced ee-Kem) Ekwonu; and Mississippi State’s Charles Cross. All three of these players earned 1A grades (top-10) from me off of their film and played against excellent competition throughout college.

Which leads me to where I’m at now: If I’m Denver, sign me up for any one of them.

That’s not exactly the most technical answer I can give of course, and I’ll be breaking down each a little more further below, but all three are at such a high level that Denver can’t really go wrong with picking one. Each one has their own pros and cons that I’ll get into, but I didn’t come away from any of them thinking they would bust (barring injury) or didn’t match what Denver wanted to do on offense.

Scheme Fit

Judging by all reports (I’m writing this before the hires are official), the Broncos’ offense next year is likely shifting to focus more on outside/wide zone runs and building play-action off of those runs. Think of the Shanahan/McVay offenses of the last few years and that’s likely where we are headed.

This would be quite the philosophy change for the Denver Broncos. This is what the Broncos’ run game looked like underneath Pat Shurmur in 2020 and 2021:

And this is what Kyle Shanahan’s have looked like in that same time period:

There’s also a bit of a personnel shift from what Shurmur ran vs Shanahan in the run game, but I can save that for a different article. Mainly what I wanted to highlight was the difference between run concepts. Shanahan favored more outside/wide zone runs with some gap runs splashed in as a tendency-breaker. Shurmur tended to with more inside zone runs and mixed in plenty of gap runs, but ran more outside zone this year.

While I will again save that for a different article, for the purpose of this article, I’ll keep it in layman’s terms. Inside zone is focused on creating vertically, while outside zone is focused on stretching laterally.

What that means for the offensive line is that an outside zone team is going to look for faster and “lighter” offensive linemen to get out in front and pin defenders out of the run. Endurance is key for this style of offense, so having heavier players repeatedly run it can be difficult as the game wears on.

Looking at Evan Neal who weighs a reported 350 pounds, one might not think he’s an ideal fit for an outside zone attack. There aren’t many OTs heavier than 320 in the NFL that exist in an outside zone-heavy offense. Mekhi Becton in New York with the Jets and Trent Brown when he played for a year under Shanahan in San Fran are the only two recent examples I can think of. As such, it’s hard to see Neal fitting in if this is what the offense is going to look like, despite how much of a freak athlete he is.

What makes this difficult is Neal is the only one of these players who has experience playing at right tackle. Thus, it’s easiest to project him over there.

Now, Cross and Ekwonu are both under or around the 320 mark. Both of them are familiar with an outside-zone rushing attack, and are excellent athletes in their own right.

In terms of a loose overview of scheme fit based on precedence, I have to give the edge to Cross and Enwonu.

Run Blocking

I touched on a fair amount of this above, but I’m going to be evaluating this purely off of ability on film.

In terms of run blocking, Ekwonu has the clear edge over Neal and Cross. I’m not particularly sure it’s a fair fight. He’s one of the best run blocking tackles I’ve ever evaluated. Whether he’s working in space or crashing on down blocks, Ekwonu has a special blend of aggressiveness and power to flat-out dominate defenders. Have you ever seen that video of the little kid running over his sibling with a toy truck? Yeah, that’s what most of Ekwonu’s tape looks like. He tracks well in space and has the athletic ability to climb upfield in a hurry, and it surprised a fair amount of defenders trying to make a play on the ball. This is also a big reason why I’m particularly fond of him in Denver, as he’d fit right in to that style of offense.

Evan Neal would be my runner-up here. Despite his size, he’s such a freak mover that he can handle virtually any sort of run game. Leaning on his athleticism and strength, Neal works well in space and can wash defenders out of the play. His explosiveness out of his stance helps him cut off and seal defenders in the run game. Where I fell off with Neal some was more of the technical skills. His hands could get wide in placement and led to him not properly establishing leverage quick enough to avoid getting shed or fall off blocks. It’s stuff he can clean up moving forward, so I’m not totally worried about it, but it’s noticeable on tape as an issue.

For Cross, it’s not that he is a poor run blocker. In fact, the reps he’s shown have plenty of desireable traits. He’s just going to have to make an adjustment into a more diverse run scheme, away from the wide splits of Mike Leach’s offense. I know everyone gets frightened off of this because of how Andre Dillard fared, but Cross can actually drive and win in the run game. As he continues to grow and gain more experience in the run game, some of his concerns will disappear.

Pass Blocking

There’s better traits with Evan Neal and Ikem Ekwonu might be the better pound-for-pound athlete, but to me, Charles Cross has the best tape in pass protection.

Everything about Cross’s film screams “natural” to me in pass protection. He just checks off so many boxes. His hand placement is chef's kiss, the balance is stellar, and Cross has some of the smoothest pass sets I’ve seen. Not only that, but Cross is a pretty high IQ player in pass protection, demonstrating excellent awareness and diagnostic ability against blitzes and stunts.

Both Neal and Ekwonu are close in their grades here for me. Both possess some rare traits and win pretty regularly in pass protection. However, I had to give the edge to Neal here. The more that I watched of each, the more I believed Neal was the more polished of the two in pass protection. The jolt in his hands, well-timed and accurate strikes, and some pretty sweet footwork make me think he can win regularly on an island in pass protection at the next level. What’s so impressive to me is that Neal has jumped around positions at Alabama and has still shown a high proficiency technically at left tackle. Some guys who stick at left tackle for years don’t quite look like Neal. There are some technical concerns I have about him getting caught against inside rushers but I don’t think that will be a drastic issue moving forward as he gets acclimated to whatever position he sticks at in the NFL.

Ekwonu was pretty close to these three in pass protection. However, he’s got quite a few issues he needs to clean up moving forward. Ekwonu is powerful and just stymies rushers with ease. The movement skills are there and he can keep up with speed rushers around the arc. Where I knocked him on my scale is I noticed he would frequently overset, leaving him vulnerable to inside rushes and counters. I also thought his hands, while violent, weren’t as controlled and accurate as Cross and Neal. That can be exploited by NFL rushers if he doesn’t fine-tune it moving forward.

Conclusion

So...after all that, who should the Broncos pick? The answer is: yes. For full disclosure, off of film, I had Neal as OT1, Cross at 2, and Ekwonu at 3. There’s been plenty of buzz about Ekwonu higher than that, and I certainly see the appeal. As I said earlier in this article, all 3 earned 1A grades from me and will all be excellent pros. I just have tuned my scale more towards the technical side and to value pass protection just that much more. It’s a bias I openly acknowledge and admit to having, but I think it’s served me pretty well.

In the case of Denver, Neal feels like a guarantee to be off the board by their pick. I’d be pretty surprised if he fell out of the top-3, knowing what we know as of this point. This leads us to Ekwonu or Charles Cross. There’s a pretty big chance both of them are also gone, at which point, this article is moot. With Carolina and the Giants ahead of them, one (or both) of them feels pretty likely to take a tackle.

For me, I would personally feel the most comfortable with taking Charles Cross if he was there. He has the technical competency and familiarity with the scheme to start right away at right tackle. I would rather refine a player who has the skills and proficiency Cross has to move from left to right tackle than a player who still struggled with some of the technical aspects like Ekwonu.