It’s an easy storyline that the Eagles have to focus on stopping wide receiver Justin Jefferson, who has more receiving yards than anyone in NFL history through his first two seasons.
Then Jefferson had 184 more yards receiving in the Minnesota Vikings’ season opener against the Green Bay Packers, the most by any wide receiver in Week 1.
So now it’s up to the Eagles to find a way to stop Jefferson when the two teams meet Monday night at Lincoln Financial Field.
But to stop Jefferson, the Eagles might first have to find a way to stop Delaware native Brian O’Neill, the Salesianum School star who has turned himself into one of the best right tackles in the NFL.
That’s because much of Jefferson’s success depends on how much time Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins has to throw the ball. Cousins is not mobile like Eagles quarterback Jalen Hurts, who can take off and run if the pocket collapses.
And yet, Cousins was only sacked 30 times last season, the fifth fewest in the NFL. O’Neill, meanwhile, is in his fifth season and he has only allowed six sacks total, according to Pro Football Focus.
“He’s a smart player, a Pro Bowl-type player,” said Eagles defensive end Brandon Graham, who will go against O’Neill on Monday night. “You gotta make sure your technique is on point because he’s really good. He’s athletic, so he doesn’t use his hands as much. He can absorb the bull (rush). I just think that he does a really good job just having a good balance.”
It’s why the Vikings made O’Neill the second highest-paid right tackle in the NFL last season when they signed him to a five-year contract worth as much as $92.5 million, with $49 million guaranteed.
It’s also why the Vikings named him one of their team captains for this season.
O’Neill, who turned down an interview request, recently told reporters who cover the Vikings that he sees the offensive line as “a violent group,” adding: “You’re going to see a better offensive line from us than you have in the past couple years.”
The next Lane Johnson?
If you’re looking for a prototype, look no further than Eagles’ right tackle Lane Johnson.
O’Neill was a tight end at Salesianum and he was also named Delaware’s basketball player of the year as a senior. This was on a team with current NBA player Donte DiVincenzo, who’s with the Golden State Warriors after beginning his career with the Milwaukee Bucks.
O’Neill was still a tight end his freshman season at the University of Pittsburgh. After that season, the coaches asked O’Neill to bulk up and move to left tackle. O’Neill put on 30 pounds that summer alone.
Eagles cornerback Avonte Maddox was O’Neill’s teammate at Pitt back then. The two quickly became best friends, and Maddox noticed the difference right away.
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“He was skinny when he got there,” Maddox said with a laugh. “Then they told him, ‘We want you to go to tackle.’ That summer, he came back and he’s big as heck. I said, ‘What were you doing? He said, ‘I was waking up at 3 in the morning eating peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.'”
O’Neill is listed at 6-foot-7, 310 pounds.
It was the same way with Johnson. He was a quarterback at Kilgore Junior College in Texas before moving to tight end, defensive end, then the offensive line by the time he got to Oklahoma.
“We’re pretty similar,” Johnson said. “I think I have a little more length than him. But definitely similarities as far as speed. He’s super-athletic.”
Eagles tight end Dallas Goedert saw this, first-hand, too.
Goedert met O’Neill in the months leading up to the 2018 draft. They’re represented by the same agency, so they were working out together for weeks at a time at a training facility getting ready for the NFL Combine.
They quickly became friends. Goedert was drafted in the second round by the Eagles with the No. 49 overall pick. O’Neill went 13 picks later to the Vikings.
They each congratulated each other after they were drafted. Then the next day, the Eagles drafted Maddox in the fourth round. O’Neill then told Goedert to introduce himself to Maddox.
Goedert and Maddox also became best friends, living together in a house in South Jersey up until this summer. But during the offseason, the three would rent a house in Newport Beach, California and train together from February until mid-April before reporting to their respective teams for offseason workouts.
“There have been times where I’ve been to his parents’ house,” Goedert said. “We’ll go down the shore, to Dewey Beach or something and hang out there a little bit.
“It’s always cool to talk to him, to pick his brain about different people (in the NFL). To see the success he’s had in the league is pretty awesome. He’s one of the better right tackles in the game … He works really hard and deserves everything he’s gotten.”
O’Neill’s success wasn’t a surprise to Maddox, either. The two were captains together at Pitt.
“He always worked hard,” Maddox said. “He was always a selfless guy, just showing the determination to add the weight that he did to move to tackle. He always put the team first. So whatever you could do to help out on and off the field, he did it.”
BFFs on the Eagles
O’Neill was in Wilmington for a few weeks last summer, conducting a free clinic for youths in Wilmington with fellow Delawareans in the NFL in Chargers linebacker Troy Reeder and Packers safety Darnell Savage.
He called Goedert and Maddox “two of my closest friends,” adding: “So whenever I’m home, I get to see the both of them, which is really cool.”
That extends to the field. If O’Neill sees Maddox on defense from the Vikings huddle, he might nod at him. But really, it’s all business.
“We say a little trash, but for the most part, just saying have a good game, play your best game,” Maddox said. “We always want him to do well. You never want to wish a downfall on a good friend. But if I see him a lot out on the field, I’ll tell him, ‘Don’t try to block me when I come off the edge and put me on my butt!
“Everybody else, he’s got a pass, but not me!”
O’Neill was also quick to point out that the Vikings are 2-0 against the Eagles since he, Goedert and Maddox have been in the NFL. But they haven’t played against each other since 2019.
Goedert is aware of this, too, and he’s looking forward to changing that. He’s also looking forward to seeing his friend, as is Maddox.
“We haven’t talked too much yet (this week),” Goedert said. “But I’m sure we’ll talk and catch up. Maybe when he gets here, if they’re not too busy, I might drive into the city, see him, get something to eat with him.
“It’ll be fun.”
But once the game starts, if O’Neill ends up having fun, it’s because he helped pave the way for Jefferson to have a big game.
Contact Martin Frank at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow on Twitter @Mfranknfl.