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NFL Draft Notebook | From Ikem Ekwonu's Pancakes to a 'Saucy' CB Group

Dane Brugler of The Athletic Zeroes In on OL and CB Including Several Potential Top 10 Selections 


April's avalanche of mock drafts will all melt into the Nevada desert when NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell calls the 2022 Draft to order at exactly 5 p.m. local time in Las Vegas in two weeks.

For the Jets, the draft holds the potential to be part of the team's transformation under general manager Joe Douglas and second-year head coach Robert Saleh. The Green & White, at present, hold nine total picks, with a tantalizing four among the top 38 selections -- No. 4 and No. 10 in the first round, and No. 35 and No. 38 in the second round.

In one of a series of NFL Draft Previews with Eric Allen of, Dane Brugler of The Athletic put his focus on the most appealing offensive linemen and cornerbacks who might be of interest to the Jets as the draft inches closer. Brugler has obsessively analyzed the draft since he was a freshman at Mount Union College, pursuing his overzealous hobby out of his dorm room. Now, more than 10 years later he turned his passion to a place among a growing group of perceptive draft analysts.

Offensive Linemen
Even as the Jets solidified and augmented the OL with the signing in free agency of Laken Tomlinson, and the re-signing of Dan Feeney and Conor McDermott, the truism that you never have enough "big uglies" up front continues to resonate for Douglas, a former offensive lineman himself. There are several appealing options throughout the draft and it will be interesting to see if Douglas will again use a top pick on the OL after taking Mekhi Becton and Alijah Vera-Tucker in the first round the past two drafts.

Evan Neal (6-7, 350), Alabama-- Neal has been rated the top offensive lineman in this draft by many pundits. He has played at left guard, right tackle and left tackle for the Crimson Tide. In the 2021 season, he took 1,073 snaps in 16 starts, allowed only 2 sacks and was flagged for a single holding penalty.

Brugler said: "He's got a little bit of everything. If you look at Evan Neal, you wonder where are all those pounds because he fills his frame out so well, he's a big-boned guy, a long player. He will fall off blocks from time to time in the run game, but a guy like that, he's so effective with that blend of size, athleticism, flexibility ... it's just really, really unique for a guy that size."

Ikem Ekwonu (6-4, 320), North Carolina State-- Ekwonu has been called "the most feared lineman in the ACC" and was one of, if not the best run blocker in college football last season. He has improved steadily in pass protection during his college career, opting for the Draft after his junior season when he played 819 snaps, allowed 3 sacks and 10 hurries while committing 4 penalties.

Brugler said: "When you watch him, he gets you excited. That tells you how good he can be and how good he is. And that's what you see. As a run blocker, he has a chance to be elite. He has explosiveness both in his movement and then in his contact. He loves to bury anyone that's in his path. More pancakes than IHOP on his tape. But it's his pass protection that's the big worry. The steps he made this year in pass protection were really, really impressive."

Charles Cross (6-5, 310), Mississippi State -- He started all 10 games in the 2021 season, taking 919 snaps and allowing only 2 sacks, 14 QB hurries. Cross was named the winner of the 2021 Kent Hull Trophy awarded to the best offensive lineman in the state of Mississippi.

Brugler said: "I think it depends, stylewise, what you're looking for on the OL. In terms of Charles Cross, he's not a style guy, that's not what he brings to the field. But in terms of pass protection, his hand exchange and his movement patterns are both above average. He's a red-shirt sophomore, another really young [21] player. If you can sacrifice power for a guy that's an above average pass blocker, then you're really going to like Charles Cross."

See Daniel Jeremiah's top rated players in the 2022 NFL Draft, which takes place from April 28-30 in Las Vegas.

This is a young and promising position group already for the Jets, which includes Bryce Hall, Michael Carter II, Brandin Echols and the recently signed "young veteran" D.J. Reed. But again, depth is paramount, as is landing a ball-hawking CB who could turn a game on its head by creating a turnover.

Ahmad "Sauce" Gardner (6-3, 200), Cincinnati -- Gardner completed his career this past season at Cincinnati as a three-year starter, logging 35 tackles with 3 interceptions, 3 sacks, and 4 breakups and once again led the FBS with an amazing 26.1 QB rating when targeted. He is considered by many to be a lockdown corner in the mold of Darrelle Revis and others. Gardner has the size and the speed (4.41 in the 40 at the NFL Combine) to emerge as a fixture and No. 1 CB in any defense.

Brugler said: "The confidence level he plays with is tremendous. There's a lot to like about what he just put on film and the fact that teams just didn't go after him and that made it kind of difficult at first when you're evaluating him because you didn't see a lot of those one-on-one matchups. By the time you go through all the tape, it's what's not to like about this guy? Ahmad Gardner ... one of the better players in this draft. I would not be surprised if he ends up being a top five pick in this draft."

Derek Stingley Jr. (6-1, 195), Louisiana State-- Stingley had an immediate impact as a freshman, totaling 38 tackles, 21 pass defenses, and 6 INTs, while earning All-SEC and All-American nominations. In the shortened 2020 Covid season, he had 27 tackles, a forced fumble and 5 pass defenses. His junior season, 2021, yielded questions after he played in three games because of a foot injury. His size and speed are not to be underestimated and the team willing to take a chance could eventually be handsomely rewarded.

Brugler said: "Can go back to that freshman season when he was lights out. He had over 20 passes defended that year, 6 interceptions. I don't think we have any questions about Derek Stingley and what he did in 2019, the questions are the past two years. OK, did he regress as a player, the durability is something teams are going to factor in, and not just the durability, but is this a guy who's going to be willing to play through the injuries? Does he have the toughness to play NFL football? He did have foot surgery this year, but it's the first surgery he said he's ever had. I was glad he was able to get back on the field for his pro day just to show that he's moving around OK. When you focus on the talent, that's what gets you excited. Good chance he goes Top 10."

Trent McDuffie (5-11, 195), Washington -- As a junior in 2021, McDuffie played 702 total snaps while only giving up a QB rating of 52 in 36 targets. He garnered first-team, all-conference honors from Pac-12 coaches, Pro Football Focus, West Coast CFB, and The Associated Press. The AP also named him to the third team of its All-America team. He was an athlete in high school, running 4.47 in the 40-yard dash and turning in a 41.5-inch vertical at Washington's combine last June, which was the best on the team that day. Aggressive, speedy with the potential to be a lockdown corner.

Brugler said: "He's one of my favorite players in this draft, he's actually my No. 2 corner after Sauce. It stems from how bright he is as a coverage player. Talking to Trent, and hearing him breakdown every responsibility of every single player on the defense, how he communicates ... Trent's intelligence I think is something that really sets him apart."

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