Max Starks believes the Giants got the No. 1 player in the 2022 NFL Draft with the No. 7 pick.

“Evan Neal was my No. 1 prospect in the draft, and I was surprised Jacksonville didn’t take him,” Starks, 40, a two-time Super Bowl winning Pittsburgh Steelers tackle, told the Daily News. “Every team is built from the outside now in the NFL — from wide receivers to offensive tackles to quarterbacks — and you build in.

“So I was surprised Jacksonville didn’t take him,” added Starks, an NFL analyst for the Steelers, ESPN and Sirius XM who called the draft. “Obviously Ickey Ekwonu went [to Carolina] the pick before. But for the Giants, I think they got the best one.”

NFL analyst Brian Baldinger said Neal’s 6-7, 351-pound size alone was a rare trait, even when he first showed up as a freshman at Alabama.

“I was talking to Patrick Surtain about him and asked what do you remember about Evan Neal coming to Tuscaloosa? He said, ‘Baldy, man, that’s the biggest elephant I’ve ever seen,’” said Baldinger, who played 11 seasons on the O-line for the Cowboys, Colts and Eagles.

“He just came in big, with a big pro body at age 18, then played left guard, right tackle and left tackle,” Baldinger, 62, added. “I respect that.”

Willie Colon, a former Super Bowl champ with the Steelers, played both guard and tackle during his career. And he said Neal’s flipping from right to left tackle so naturally at his size was impressive.

“It’s more his talent plus his coaching, the fact that at his size, they can make him comfortable to play guard or kick out to left tackle,” Colon said at his charity golf outing in Summit, N.J. “Because I think it’s way harder to go from right tackle to left tackle. Inside you can be protected from the center or whatever. But to go to right tackle, left tackle, it just shows Goddamn, the kid’s got a lot of talent.”

Let’s face it: the Giants’ offensive line has been an annual problem for too long. A player this imposing is long overdue.

“The Giants have been plagued with bad O-line play for a while,” Colon said. “You’ve gotta start getting some guys who can ball, who you feel like can be a part of your organization for the next 5, 6 years. And the fact is he’s 6-7, 350. His athleticism’s through the roof. And he’s played at an elite level for a long time against some big time competitors in college.”

Neal, 21, played 13 games at left guard for the Crimson Tide in 2019, 12 games at right tackle in 2020 and 15 at left tackle in his final year with Nick Saban last fall.

The Giants have started him at right tackle, with 2020 No. 4 overall pick Andrew Thomas on the left side.

The first-team O-line at Thursday’s OTA practice saw free agent signing Mark Glowinski at right guard, free agent signing Jon Feliciano at center, incumbent Shane Lemieux at left guard and Korey Cunningham at left tackle (with Thomas recovering from left ankle surgery).

Neal said it was good to get back on the field at practice in his stance on the right side, since it has been more than a year since he’s played there.

“Brought back some pretty good nostalgia,” he said with a smile.

Expectations will be high for Neal right out of the gate. Giants offensive line coach Bobby Johnson said one of Neal’s defining qualities is that “he wants to be really good. And the more you talk to him, you find out it’s not lip service. It’s real.”

“Evan puts a lot of pressure on himself,” Johnson said. “He was drafted in the top 10 and he came to New York City. That alone is enough pressure to crush a player… One of my keys with him right now is, ‘Hey, my job is to coach you. If you need any pressure applied, let me do it.’”

Quarterback Daniel Jones naturally was “excited” to see the Giants draft a bookend tackle and also commented on Neal’s drive to improve.

“Evan has looked great so far, and you can tell he really wants to learn it. He wants to pick it up,” Jones said. “It’s important to him. He’s working hard.”

While Neal is quiet and understated, he also has a nasty side that he lets out on the field. That’s why, although he digs into his early offseason learning, he’d rather practice in pads.

“We hit a whole lot at Alabama, so I guess Coach Saban made me that way,” he said with a laugh. “There’s a time and place for everything, but right now just trying to get the fundamentals down and get better.”

Baldinger said Neal coming out of Saban’s gauntlet so durable is no small thing.

“I respect that for a guy that lined up and played 41 straight games in that conference,” Baldinger said. “First of all you’re getting beat up every day in practice by Nick. Then you’re going out against the nation’s best every Saturday and you’re holding up. And you’ve done it for three years in a row. I think that’s the ultimate warrior test.”

Technically, Baldinger said Neal “doesn’t look like he has some of the issues Andrew [Thomas] had coming out of Georgia.”

“They bragged about [Thomas’] athletic ability,” Baldinger said. “That’s only because his feet were never in the ground. Once he got his feet in the ground he became a better player. Evan Neal’s feet look like they’re in the ground to me.”

Despite his mammoth size, Baldinger said he believes Neal is more than capable than moving his feet to get outside on stretch runs in Brian Daboll’s offense.

“Dion Dawkins did that at Buffalo,” Baldinger said. “Nobody thought he could play tackle in the NFL, now he’s started [five] straight years for Buffalo. I think [Neal] can do all that stuff well enough. You’re not going to Alabama and not being able to run.”

Although the Giants’ plan is to play Thomas on the left side and Neal on the right, Starks said Neal’s versatility at tackle also makes him a better fit for the Giants than Ekwonu would have been out of N.C. State — in case Thomas gets hurt or one day isn’t with the team.

“I felt he was the most versatile, whereas Ickey is more of a true right tackle, probably could play some guard for you,” Starks said. ”He doesn’t have the ability yet, I don’t think, to play left tackle — whereas Evan Neal is a plug and play starter at whatever position you want to put him in.”

Baldinger said the film shows that Neal is “a waist bender, not a knee bender,” as evidenced by his ability to play guard. “So he’s not gonna get overextended the way Andrew Thomas did a lot his rookie year.”

He said first and foremost, Neal is “massive, just massive.” He’s got a wide body,” he said. “It’s hard to go around him. It’s hard to go through him. I can find plays where he’s off balance, the guy kinda rocks him a little bit, they’re a little slower to recover. But those guys have a way of turning everything into a wrestling match when that happens. And that’s what you have to do.”

Baldinger also said playing alongside Glowinski will be key. He compared Eagles right tackle Lane Johnson’s first-team All-Pro 2017 season with Brandon Brooks next to him to Johnson’s other years when Brooks was hurt or unavailable.

“You’re only gonna be as strong as the guard next to you,” Baldinger said.

Giants GM Joe Schoen acknowledged that 8% of the NFL had medical issues with Neal. reported it related to Neal’s knee and hip. But the Giants’ doctors were “fine with everything,” and Neal’s durability in the SEC reinforced their conclusions.

So they drafted him, and in Neal’s words, “my dreams came true.”

Now he’s out to validate their confidence in him.


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