Alabama’s Evan Neal is projected to be the first offensive tackle taken in the 2022 NFL Draft. He rings in at No. 5 on the PFF Big Board, making him the top-rated tackle in the class. PFF’s Mike Renner and Austin Gayle both have Neal as the first tackle taken in their most recent mock drafts. It adds up — Neal is a certified freak, landing on Bruce Feldman’s “Freak List” going into the 2021 college football season. It’s almost been an assured take he will be the first tackle off the board in April.
But not so fast, my friends. Like a comet, Mississippi State offensive tackle Charles Cross is flying up draft boards. The former five-star prospect was the 60th-ranked player on PFF’s preseason draft board and now sits just behind Neal at No. 6.
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Cross was the sixth-ranked offensive tackle in his 2019 class, behind the top-ranked Neal. From Mississippi, he signed with Mississippi State under then-head coach Joe Moorhead to play in his triple-option-style offense. After Cross came off the bench and played just 22 snaps in his freshman year, Moorhead was fired and replaced with Mike Leach and his Air Raid offense.
In Moorhead’s two years in charge of the Bulldogs, the offense passed 47% of the time. In the most recent two campaigns under Mike Leach, they’re at 79%. These are two coaches with a completely different ethos about how to move the football, and Cross was caught in between them. The transition from run-blocking mauler to smooth pass-protector was rough at first — and not just for Cross, but the entire offensive line.
Cross finished 2020 with a 64.4 PFF grade, split between a 60.7 pass-blocking grade and a 72.0 run-blocking grade. And only three FBS offensive linemen finished with a worse pressure rate allowed than Cross' 7.7% figure.
He stunk. The offensive line stunk. The team stunk.
Fast forward a year, and everything has changed.