Faced with two identical grades, the Giants got extra credit for doing their homework.
After no offensive tackles were selected in the first four picks of the 2022 NFL Draft, Giants general manager Joe Schoen recognized he could deftly manipulate the board by drafting pass rusher Kayvon Thibodeaux at No. 5 and waiting for an offensive tackle at No. 7. The luxury of having Ikem Ekwonu and Evan Neal graded “side-by-side” was the comfort that the Giants could allow the tackle-needy Panthers to choose between the two at No. 6 (they selected Ekwonu) and scooping up the other, which they did when they chose Neal.
The Giants even turned down an opportunity to trade up to No. 6, make back-to-back picks and secure the offensive tackle of their liking when the Panthers tried to entice a deal during the first round of the draft, multiple sources said. That phone call suggests that, like the Giants, the Panthers saw no separation between two offensive tackles — whether Ekwonu and Neal or Ekwonu and Charles Cross, who went to the Seahawks at No. 9.
The paths of Neal and Ewkonu will converge Sunday when Ekwonu will be at left tackle for the Panthers as they visit the Giants, who will have Neal at right tackle.
“I don’t measure myself up to anybody. I don’t like to compare myself to anybody but me,” Neal told The Post. “But I will obviously keep up with those guys and track their success. We’re all in the same field.”
Neal’s NFL debut (two quarterback pressures allowed) went more smoothly than Ekwonu’s (four pressures, including two sacks) but only Ekwonu was thrown into the fire against two-time All-Pro Myles Garrett.
“He improved as the game went on,” Panthers offensive coordinator Ben McAdoo said. “He went through a rough spot there in the middle but he kept fighting.”
Neal’s assignment will get more difficult Sunday against Carolina’s Brian Burns, who is coming off back-to-back nine-sack seasons.
“Going up against first-teamers, I could tell guys had a little more experience playing ball,” Neal said. “It was probably half-a-step quicker [than the preseason], but I was ready to do the best I could to help my team win. Carolina has a fast group who can get up field on you. Brian Burns is a real-talented guy — long guy, shifty, elusive, so I’m excited to go to war against him.”
Both Neal and Ekwonu were mentioned as potential No. 1 overall picks, but the Jaguars opted instead for defensive lineman Travon Walker.
With the Panthers on the clock, Neal readied for the possibility of hearing his name. He instead was forced to wait another 10 minutes. The financial difference in picks No. 6 and No. 7 is about $3 million over the life of a four-year contract.
“I was prepared for anything,” Neal said. “I just came in with the mindset that whatever hand I was dealt, I was going to be happy. I’m excited to be here. New York is so different than what I’m used to from a small country town [in Florida]. It was a good change to come here.”
The consensus among NFL scouts was Ekwonu is the better run-blocker, better finisher and a potential All-Pro guard if ever moved. Neal was thought to be the better pass-blocker, capable of playing tackle on either side of the line and more pro-ready.
Neal checked head coach Brian Daboll’s three key boxes before the draft: Smart. Tough. Dependable. How did he fare in Week 1?
“He communicated well with his teammates up front,” Daboll said. “I thought it was a good start. Certainly, things to build off of. He’s out there out there usually blocking a premier edge rusher, so there’s a speed element to it that he’s got to get adjusted to, just like all the rookies. But I thought he did a good job.”
Added offensive line coach Bobby Johnson, “I was really impressed with how he kept his composure.”
Had the Panthers preferred Neal, well, the Giants saw plenty of upside in Ekwonu.
“I had a really good experience with him in the draft process, both as a person and a player,” Daboll said. “I think he’s going to be a good player for a long time.”
Added Johnson, “He’s about the right things, which is why he was on our board at the level he was at.”
Two paths will diverge again after the game. Neal’s only concern is an upward trajectory.
“I feel like we have the chance to be a really good line,” he said. “We showed that in spurts, but we have to build on it.”