Giants hope Kayvon Thibodeaux-Evan Neal fights are the start of something special

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For years, as two of the most highly regarded athletes in their high school class, the rumble was there. We need to watch these two compete against each other. Would Kayvon Thibodeaux’s cat-first move beat the huge Evan Neal? Or would Neal’s wingspan and strength stop the smaller Thibodeaux in his tracks?

The two—Neal from Florida, Thibodeaux from South Los Angeles—appeared in recruiting camps together, but never faced each other in an actual match. Maybe they never will. Maybe they’ll spend their entire NFL career where they start, with the Giants. If so, the cloak of loss that has enveloped the Giants for so long will have been removed and shredded.

“It’s just ironic that we ended up on the same NFL team,” Neal said on Saturday. “I’m just excited to go up against him every day and make each other better. I believe iron sharpens iron.”

If what’s happening on the practice field this summer is a starter before the main course, the Giants may look back on the 2022 draft — specifically what they landed on the first round — as the nourishment that cemented their franchise. Four days in training camp, the sight of Thibodeaux queuing with the outside linebacker and making his way to Neal, the right tackle, evokes the atmosphere of being in the studio when two young gifted songwriters perform their make budding tunes.

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Giants linebacker Kayvon Thibodeaux (5) and offensive lineman Evan Neal (70) perform a play during training camp.
TBEN

These two 21-year-olds have yet to play in an NFL game. They have yet to strap on the shoulder pads and do some real NFL drill. That will happen on Monday, when Neal and Thibodeaux, the foundations for a Giants revitalization, take turns showing what it’s all about.

Thibodeaux was taken with the No. 5 overall pick. Neal was chosen at No. 7. They are linked by being the first choice of new CEO Joe Schoen, and they are both high-profile, coveted prospects in top positions.

“Absolutely,” said Thibodeaux. “Football is a trench game. Starting with the trenches was a good choice from the man above. I have a feeling that as we get older and we mature, we will continue to grow and grow together and continue to bring both sides to the fore.”

For now they are fighting. 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 defence, set wide, with Neal and his six-foot frame ready to stop the attack.

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Without any pads, Thibodeaux often looked like a cheetah chasing its prey and coming out of scrimmage with a flashing burst. He’s had a few reps against Thomas in which it looked like the rookie got the upper hand from the third-year left tackle, who will have to undergo ankle surgery during the off-season. On the other hand, Thibodeaux’s snaps against Neal were not that effective. Better tests will come when the batting starts this week.

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Evan Neal
Corey Sipkin

“We’re waiting to put the pads on to see where everyone goes at full speed and full physical,” said defensive lineman Leonard Williams. [Thibodeaux] – we are all, not just him – trying to learn the script and the speed of the game now.’

Entering his eighth NFL season, Williams has spent years banging heads with novice offensive linemen. He knows the exercise. The more hyped they are, the more he is asked if they are good.

“Evan Neal, he’s going to be a great player – it’s fun to play against him,” Williams said. “He’s big, he’s strong and he’s catching up pretty quickly.”

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Kayvon Thibodeaux
Noah K. Murray

Neal and Thibodeaux, if they live up to the huge expectations placed on them, could soar to the top of the Giants’ greatest treks ever. 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, starting in 2020, Thomas and Xavier McKinney will join the conversation.

Thibodeaux said he and Neal “share information from time to time,” but most of the time in practice they face each other in relative silence — an interesting twist when you consider how chatty Thibodeaux can be.

“Honestly, he didn’t chirp like that,” Neal said. “We just put our heads down and we’ve worked. He beats me some reps, I give him some reps.

“He won’t give me any of his secrets. I’m not going to give him anything from me either. I’m sure he looks at me the way I look at him.”

We’re all watching.

“There’s a reason they hired us,” Neal said. “We’re still young, we’re still rookies, we still have to master this process.”

If they get the hang of it, the Giants are coming.