The "Triple Take" kicks off with a breakdown of the offensive tackles. In the first installment of this draft prospect preview by position, the Steelers Radio Network trio of Matt Williamson, Dale Lolley and Mike Prisuta give their takes on the top prospects at the offensive tackle position. If you want to hear the audio version of "The Triple Take" click here.
The opinions of these Steelers Radio Network personalities do not reflect the views of the Steelers organization.
Matt's Take ...
As usual, offensive tackles will go off the board quickly in this upcoming draft. But that is especially true because this draft class as a whole is not particularly top heavy. So, teams might push up tackles, a position that is scarcer than others. While there isn't one offensive tackle that stands heads and shoulders above the others this year, there is a lot of first and second day talent at this position and overall, it looks like the tackle depth is pretty solid as well.
#5 - Bernhard Raimann, Central Michigan (6-1 1/8, 304 lbs.) - Raimann has a very interesting back story as someone that fell in love with the game of football while growing up in Austria. He has a background in wrestling and track and field, two sports that really translate well to offensive line play. Raimann made the transition from tight end to offensive tackle, and you can quickly see his excellent movement skills, light feet and athletic ability compared to most offensive linemen. He has great balance and body control. Raimann can really run and quickly gets downfield to block on the second and third level of the defense. His 40 time at the Combine might shock people. Raimann has a tall frame that could probably handle more good weight. But he doesn't lack for power or explosion in his upper body and with his punch. His effort and nastiness in the run game stands out as well. Raimann's level of competition is a concern, but he excelled at the Senior Bowl. Overall, he needs more experience and technique work, but Raimann's best football should be ahead of him and he could start immediately in the league and is really more advanced that you might expect for someone with such limited playing time.
#4 - Trevor Penning, Northern Iowa (6-6 ¾, 330 lbs.) - This dude is just nasty. Maybe too nasty. Penning plays the game like your least favorite heal in the WWE. Coaches and fans love such attitude and it rubs off on his teammates. At the Senior Bowl against great competition, Penning showed more good than bad, but did lose his leverage at times and lost some one-on-one reps. But he also got better as the week went along. At Northern Iowa, Penning was rarely serious challenged. His size stands out. Not only is Penning tall and thickly built, but he is very wide as well. He has great upper and lower body strength. But this guy isn't a stiff at all. He plays with a wide base and shows good flexibility and recovery traits. Penning is a tone setter that you would much rather play with than against.
#3 - Charles Cross, Mississippi State (6-5, 305 lbs.) - Cross might have been created in a lab to play left tackle. He is well built with long arms. Cross moves extremely well. He is light on his feet as well as being very fluid. Cross is a natural knee bender and rarely plays out of balance. Few offensive tackles at any level of football mirror as well as Cross. Cross operates out of an unusual stance with his feet close together. That will need to be further evaluated. Cross is an effective run blocker, but not a killer in this phase and could stand to add more lower body bulk and power. Still, Cross is a player that just keeps getting better. He's very gifted.
#2 - Ikem Ekwonu, North Carolina State (6-4, 320 lbs.) - Aggressive and powerful are the words that spring to mind when describing Ekwonu. A former wrestler with very long arms, Ekwonu just beats up on his opponent. When he gets ahold of his prey, it is over. Ekwonu has a huge lower body with exceptional power in his bottom half and great snap in his hips on contact. Ekwonu is best in tight quarters and loses very few hand-to-hand battles. If he struggles at tackle and his pass sets do need work, Ekwonu might be an elite guard and could even begin his career on the inside depending on where he lands. Moving people in the run game is Ekwonu's specialty.
#1 - Evan Neal, Alabama (6-6 5/8, 360 lbs.) - Neal started at guard for the Crimson Tide as a freshman, then went to right tackle before closing out his great college career at left tackle. Obviously, this is a massive human being and at times, he can get over his skis a little too much and end up on the ground. Getting around his huge frame is a chore for pass rushers and he can just engulf defenders in the run game. A great athlete, Neal slides laterally really well and shows very impressive agility overall. He comes out of his stance low with quickness and explosive power. Although Neal is only 21 years old, he has played a lot of football at the college level and has a strong understanding of the position. Few players in recent memory can compare to Neal's combination of size, power, and athletic ability.
Dale's Take …
There's a shortage of big uglies in the league. That's definitely the case at offensive tackle, where the planet theory comes into play. There are only so many people walking the planet who are 6-foot-4 or taller who also weigh 300-plus pounds and have the athleticism to wrestle with often smaller, quicker defenders. That said, this is a good year to potentially be in the market for an offensive tackle. It would be surprising to see all five players mentioned below go in the first round. In fact, it's almost guaranteed.
#5 - Bernhard Raimann, Central Michigan (6-1 1/8, 304 lbs.) - Raimann is a native of Austria who started playing football for a club team in Vienna. He came to the U.S. as a wide receiver and went to Central Michigan as a tight end. That shows up in his light feet and easy movement that showed up at the Senior Bowl practices. He has a lot of raw ability.
#4 - Trevor Penning, Northern Iowa (6-6 ¾, 330 lbs.) - Perhaps my favorite player to watch at the Senior Bowl, Penning is just nasty and always finishes his blocks. He was good enough at Northern Iowa to keep 2020 third-round draft pick Spencer Brown on the right side of the line while Penning played the left side. All Brown did was start 10 games for the Bills last season as a rookie. Penning is better.
#3 - Charles Cross, Mississippi State (6-5, 305 lbs.) - Cross just turned 21 in November, so there's a lot of upside here for a player who is entering the draft as a redshirt sophomore. But he was a two-year starter at left tackle after redshirting his true freshman season. Has good feet and balance and will continue to grow into his body.
#2 - Ikem Ekwonu, North Carolina State (6-4, 320 lbs.) - Ekwonu started at both guard and left tackle as a true freshman in 2019, then did the same in 2020 before playing the entire 2021 season at left tackle. Is outstanding as a run blocker but also has great footwork in the passing game. Some have him as the top offensive tackle in the draft despite his lack of ideal height. His father was a basketball player in Nigeria before coming to the United States.
#1 - Evan Neal, Alabama (6-6 5/8, 360 lbs.) - Just a massive human being with the ability to stone defenders in their tracks. Started at right tackle in 2019 and 2020 before moving to left tackle in 2021. Neal is probably better suited to play the right side in the NFL, but can handle left tackle. Defenders need to call a ride share to get around him and he's just a beast in the running game.
Mike's Take ..._ It's a good year to need an offensive tackle._
"It's a trenches draft," NFL Network analyst Daniel Jeremiah observed during coverage of Senior Bowl week. "We're gonna see a bunch of offensive tackles, we're gonna see a bunch of edge rushers in Round One."
It stands to reason.
Everyone, it seems, wants either a quarterback, someone to protect the quarterback or someone to wreck the other team's QB.
Or, all of the above in some cases.
In terms of protection, come and get 'em.
#5 - Charles Cross, Mississippi State (6-5, 305 lbs.) - Cross is assignment-sound and aggressive, as he established while handling a variety of rushers in a variety of circumstances against Alabama. And he's capable of knockdowns in space or in close quarters (the Georgia tape shows a short-yardage run behind Cross reaching the end zone and Cross pushing his opponent into the end zone and flattening him). Having played for Mike Leach he ought to know how to pass block by now.
#4 - Trevor Penning, Northern Iowa (6-6 ¾, 330 lbs.) - Penning was the only offensive lineman named a finalist for Walter Payton Award (Offensive Player of the Year in FCS), and during Senior Bowl week he held up "quite well," according to NFL Network analyst Charles Davis, as small-school prospects must when they step up in class of competition. Jeremiah called him "Mr. Nasty," and maintained Penning was "on the cusp of getting in a fight every day (at Senior Bowl)." This is one Clear Lake, Iowa native it's easy to Rave On about.
#3 - Daniel Faalele, Minnesota (6-81/8, 387 lbs.) - Jeremiah put it best: "We use the phrase 'a giant of a human being,' and maybe that's hyperbole; not in this case." Faalele's eye-catching physical attributes include, in Jeremiah's estimation, "35-and-change arms, which is ridiculously long." His coaches liked him so much at Minnesota they lined him up at fullback and gave him the ball from the 2-yard line in the Guaranteed Rate Bowl against West Virginia. Faalele scored, and his teammates loved it. You don't walk with Faalele, you walk among him.
#2 - Ikem Ekwonu, North Carolina State (6-4, 320 lbs.) - A left tackle that's capable of getting out into space on screens. He's also athletic enough to pull and deliver devastating kick-out blocks. Ekwonu delivered such a block against North Carolina and knocked his opponent to the ground in the process, then landed on him with as much force as possible for emphasis. When you're blocked by Ekwonu, you stay blocked. In a year that lacks a perceived can't-miss franchise quarterback Ekwonu might be first-overall worthy.
#1 - Evan Neal, Alabama (6-6 5/8, 360 lbs.) - If you've seen Alabama play, and if you're this deep into the draft this early in the process you probably have, you likely noticed No. 73 dominating. Neal plays with physicality and passion. You can get around him, but you have to take a cab. The "Planet" theory applies: There aren't many guys this big and this athletic walking the planet. Neal will also likely generate first-overall consideration.