Here is a detailed breakdown of the Florida safety Keanu Neal, the Atlanta Falcons’ 2016 first-round pick.
BIO & VITALS
Arm Length: 32 ¾”
Hand Size: 10 ⅝”
40 Time: 4.62
Three Cone: 7.09
Bench Press: 17 reps
Vertical Jump: 38″
Broad Jump: 132″
The inspiration for his first name is of course American actor Keanu Reeves. Neal is the younger brother of former NFL safety Clinton Hart, who played primarily with the Philadelphia Eagles and San Diego Chargers from 2003 to 2009.
Attended South Sumter High School in Bushnell, Florida, where he was recruited to Florida as a four-star prospect. During Neal’s recruiting process, current Falcons head coach Dan Quinn served as Florida’s defensive coordinator, although left the school before Neal enrolled to become the defensive coordinator of the Seattle Seahawks in 2013. Neal never played for Quinn at Florida, but did mention that his presence in Gainesville was a factor in why he ultimately chose to play for the school.
As a true freshman at Florida, Neal played mostly on special teams. He tied for the team lead with five stops in that arena while appearing in 12 games. He earned the starting safety spot as a sophomore, more akin to strong safety although Florida’s safeties are mostly interchangeable. He started the first seven games of the year at that spot before a high-ankle sprain suffered against Georgia knocked him out for two weeks. He lost starts to Marcus Maye following his time off, but did manage to regain his starting position by the bowl game against East Carolina. He finished his sophomore year with 45 tackles, one tackle for loss, three interceptions, four pass breakups, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery.
As a junior, he was moved to free safety across from Maye. He missed the first two games of the season with a hamstring injury, but managed to start 11 of the 12 remaining games on the schedule. He finished the year with 96 tackles, 3.5 for loss, two sacks, one interception, one pass breakup and one forced fumble. He declared early for the NFL draft following the 2015 season.
I’ve only heard rave reviews about his off-field and on-field demeanors. Everything suggests he puts in the effort in the film room and on the practice field and also plays with high energy. Always the first to congratulate teammates on positive plays. Bottom line, if he washes out of the NFL, it won’t be because of character or off-field issues.
2015 GAMES WATCHED
Note: scroll right to see more stats.
Key: MT – Missed Tackles; YAC – Yards After Catch; UC – Uncatchable Pass
|Sep 19||at Kentucky||2.0||0.5||1||0||1||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||N/A|
|Oct 10||at Missouri||2.0||0.0||1||0||0||0||1||0||0||4||2||28||7||0||2||0||N/A|
|Oct 17||at LSU||1.0||1.0||2||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||N/A|
|Oct 31||vs. Georgia||0.0||0.0||1||0||0||1||1||1||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||N/A|
|Nov 21||Florida Atlantic||2.0||0.0||1||0||0||0||0||0||0||1||1||7||1||0||0||1||roughing QB|
|Nov 28||Florida State||2.5||0.0||3||2||0||1||0||0||0||3||2||10||10||0||0||0||N/A|
|Dec 05||vs. Alabama||3.5||0.0||1||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||N/A|
|Jan 01||vs. Michigan||0.5||0.0||1||1||0||0||0||0||0||3||2||31||10||0||1||0||N/A|
SKILLS: How Good Is He?
Skills are graded on a 10-point scale: 1-pathetic, 2-poor, 3-weak, 4-below average, 5-average, 6-above average, 7-good, 8-very good, 9-excellent, 10-elite
Speed (7.5): He plays faster than he times, especially when he is able to come downhill. For a safety, his 40 speed is ordinary and that can show at times when he’s working in centerfield in coverage, bringing about questions of his range. But generally doesn’t look like he’s out of his league when facing fast, vertical receivers over the top. He can run with most tight ends and has no problem getting from Point A to Point B quickly.
Range (7.0): His ability to come downhill with authority is what is most impressive and thus he appears rangy when judging his abilities in run support. However his range in coverage isn’t ideal. There will be plays where he does show capable range to play the deep ball in the air, but there are others where he looks slow to react to the ball in the air and get on the hoof to try and be in position to make a play. Thus his ability to defend the deep ball isn’t great, however he should be at least competent when asked to rotate back and play the deep half at the NFL level. Here is an example of a play where I saw Neal show his best range in deep coverage:
Tackling (7.0): He’s a big-time hitter that does a good job wrapping up and driving through a ballcarrier when he feels inclined. There’s nothing wrong with his tackling ability, but it’s just a matter of whether Neal makes the decision to make a form tackle. When he does, he usually makes the stop and brings down the receiver/ballcarrier. Here is an excellent example of Neal’s tackling ability:
The problem is that there are many instances where Neal lowers the shoulder and looks for the highlight-reel hit, which has a tendency to get him into trouble. He’ll misses stops, but it isn’t because he’s a poor tackler but rather because he often lacks discipline as a tackler. He too often prefers to set a tone and deliver a punishing blow to an opponent rather than actually make the smart play. His other issue with missing stops is that the truly dynamic ballcarriers that are quick-cutters rather than bulldozers give him more trouble. He’ll take a bad angle and get juked in the open field a bit too often, not respected the lateral agility of some of the country’s top backs last year (like Dalvin Cook and Leonard Fournette). Even players like Derrick Henry, who is not known for his great lateral agility, was able to side-step him at times and catch Neal out of position.
Here is one example of Neal’s lack of discipline and capacity to make mistakes in run support:
Man Coverage (4.5): He has the physical and athletic tools to improve here, but at this point he’s not particularly effective in man coverage. Has a tendency to struggle against in-breaking routes such as crosses, slants and posts. Has decent hip flip for a safety but can struggle to turn in his transitions. Wasn’t asked to do a ton of this at Florida, which means that he’s not particularly polished or well-versed to expect him to make a smooth transition to the NFL. He’ll struggle covering quality NFL receivers and tight ends early on. This is an area of his game that could grow, but he’s not there yet.
Here is an example of the good and bad with Neal in coverage. First the good:
Now the bad:
Zone Coverage (6.0): Due to his ability to close quickly on the ball and underneath throws, he’s effective in zone coverage. Occasionally will show the ability to read the quarterback’s eyes and jump a throwing lane, but rarely gets those opportunities given how many times he was asked to play as a single-high safety and guard against the deep ball. Effective at keeping receiver in front of him on underneath routes and will usually make the stop afterwards to minimize yards after the catch. Often asked to play centerfield, but he’s not going to be a super-rangy playmaker in that arena at the next level.
Ball Skills (4.5): Doesn’t always do a good job turning and locating the ball when working in man coverage. Doesn’t really show the awareness or anticipation to really break on throws when he’s in position. When playing centerfield, doesn’t always do a good job tracking the ball in the air. Instead will track the receiver and deliver the blow, which limits his opportunities to break up passes. Most of his positive plays in coverage come off tipped balls and deflections, where he capitalizes on being at the right place at the right time. Is unlikely to be highly productive at the NFL level in terms of generating interceptions and pass breakups beyond those same types of plays.
Click here for more information about my grading system.
Potential Impact Prospect (6.4) – A player with upside to be an occasional playmaker as a starter at the next level. Typically a player that may need a year or two before he reaches his potential. Often will be high ceiling, low floor players that may lack the consistency to really reach that ceiling. He’ll make “flash” or “splash” plays from time to time, but may also make as many mental errors or get beat just as frequently. Ultimately a good second-round target, although would be considered a reach in the first.
NFL FORECAST: How Do His Skills Project to the NFL?
Neal fits the mold of an enforcer for any NFL defense, with his ability to come downhill and make an impact in run support. He fits the traditional definition of what people look for in a run-thumping strong safety. He’ll lay out opposing receivers over the middle and make his presence known to ballcarriers in the box.
His coverage ability will be limited although he’s not solely a one-dimensional run-defender that will be considered a liability in coverage. But he won’t earn his paycheck due to his ability in coverage and a team that asks him to play a significant role in that arena is not going to love the results.
While Florida’s safeties were mostly interchangeable, Neal won’t be ideal for such a role at the NFL level. Instead, he’ll be best used as a safety that spends the majority of his time playing near the line of scrimmage against the run. While he is experienced playing as a single-high safety due to a lot of Cover-1 assignments in college, that is not going to be his strength at the next level. He’s competent enough to be functional rotating back as a single-high safety if need be, but he won’t make many plays in that capacity. Asking him to do that as much as he did at Florida is definitely a misuse of his talent.
It might be fair to suggest that some that might have a lower opinion of Neal is partially because he was slightly misused at Florida due to their defensive scheme. While there were many instances last season where he was asked to play in the box as an extra run-defender, that was not his calling card within the Gators defense. There’s a good possibility that playing in that role at the next level will merit significantly better results.
However if Neal is going to play primarily in the box, he’ll have to bulk up. His 211-pound frame is probably not going to be as sufficient holding up to the punishment that his body will inevitably take at the NFL level. He’ll probably have to play closer to 220 or 225 pounds if he wants to hold up long-term.
He dealt with injuries at Florida in both years as a starter, missing a combined four games over a two-year span. His hard-nosed playing style is going to make durability a concern moving forward and adding an extra 10 to 15 pounds of muscle to his frame could help him in that regard.
Many smaller safeties that have played with a similar reckless abandon have had a tendency to break down faster at the NFL level. Former Pittsburgh Steeleer Troy Polamalu (207 pounds) is a good example of this type.
Polamalu had little issues with injuries during his first three years in the NFL, but beginning in his fourth season (2006), he continually had issues staying healthy for a full 16-game slate. Typically most of his injuries occurred in the second halves of seasons as his body tended to wear down in subsequent seasons.
While there have been smaller, hard-hitting safeties such as Lawyer Milloy (210 pounds) and Donte Whitner (208) that have had relatively limited absences due to injuries over the course of their careers, it’s difficult to predict that Neal will be one of the lucky ones to avoid them.
Since he already has dealt with injuries in college and was platooned at times with other safeties at Florida this past year, it all raises concerns over whether Neal is a player that is built to play his brand of football for every down of every game over the next several years in the NFL.
If five years from now we look back and declare Neal to be a disappointment (or dare I say “bust”?) in the NFL, it’ll likely be due to his inability to stay healthy rather than his inability to be an effective player when he’s on the field.
While limited in coverage, he’s not bad by any means in that area. It’s just that his skills there as is, don’t project to him being a high-level defender in coverage at the next level. He certainly has room to grow there if he puts in the work to improve there, but nobody should have expectations that it’s likely he’ll ever be considered good in coverage. Competent, capable, decent and solid are more likely to be adjectives used to describe his coverage ability when all is said and done.
FALCONS FORECAST: How Does He Project in Atlanta?
Neal should have no issue coming to Atlanta and starting immediately at strong safety, where he’ll be used as that “box” strong safety. He’ll take his cues from Kam Chancellor, who played the same role under Quinn in Seattle’s defense.
However, one probably should not put the expectations on Neal that he’ll be as good as Chancellor. While there’s the possibility that Neal could eventually get there with more development, Chancellor is one of the best safeties in the league and represents Neal’s ceiling as an NFL prospect.
At that level, Neal will be a dominant and impactful enforcer against the run that sets the tone for the entire Falcons defense. Neal will also have to improve his ability in man coverage. While Chancellor is not known for his prowess in coverage, he is more effective there than he’s often credited.
Fortunately, the strong safety in Quinn’s scheme doesn’t draw a ton of man-coverage assignments, so even if Neal doesn’t improve there, it shouldn’t be a huge detriment to his development. But having a safety that can be trusted in one-on-one situations against quality tight ends has been an area of weakness for the Falcons for many years and there is hope that Neal can be at least a slight upgrade there.
Former Falcons strong safety William Moore is a better comparison for the type of player that Neal will likely become in the NFL. Moore was weak in man coverage and often had to be hid in that capacity when asked to take on quality receivers and tight ends over the years. Moore made up for this often with his prowess against the run and his ability to make plays in zone coverage.
Neal will have to do the same if his man-coverage skills never develop fully. However he’s not quite at the same level as Moore is/was as a ball-hawk in zone coverage. People often forget that Moore led the nation with eight interceptions as a junior at Missouri before stepping onto a professional field.
Neal has a similar opportunistic streak with all four of his collegiate interceptions coming off tipped passes or overthrows, but it’s probably not a good bet to see Neal ever have more than a couple of picks in any given season of his pro career. Chancellor had just four combined picks in two seasons playing for Quinn. Unlike how the Falcons used Moore in past years, the strong safety in Quinn’s defensive scheme probably won’t have as many opportunities to break up or pick off passes.
At a minimum, Neal should be at least as effective a starter in the NFL as Jonathan Cyprien is for the Jacksonville Jaguars, who plays in the same “box” strong safety role in Gus Bradley’s defense. That should be Neal’s starting point and with little to no development and improvement from here on, he should be an equally effective NFL starter.
Cyprien would be described as a competent defender that can be a component of a good defense, but perhaps is not a true difference-maker himself.
It’ll be interesting to see if Cyprien shows growth this season as a starter now that he should see improved play from the free safety position in Jacksonville due to the free-agent addition of Tashaun Gipson. That could potentially free Cyprien up to shine more because he’ll be able to trust that his teammates won’t blow their assignments. So it will be interesting to monitor how Neal transitions to the NFL this season and see if there are any comparisons to Cyprien in that capacity.
As is, Neal is going to be a guy that will deliver bone-jarring hits which will lead to forced fumbles and other turnovers, but to maximize the impact of that skill set, he might need the other players around him to do their jobs effectively, particularly when it comes to coverage.
That’s why it may wind up that Neal’s ultimate success or failure in Atlanta might have little to do with him and more to do with whomever lines up at free safety.
There’s no doubt that a big part of Chancellor’s success in Seattle has to do with the presence of Earl Thomas at free safety, freeing up the former to play his brand of football as freely as possible. Thomas is good at all the coverage things that Chancellor is not, so the latter plays to his strengths and very few of his weaknesses, maximizing his impact. One wonders if Ricardo Allen is capable of being that same type of player across from Neal.
If Gipson becomes a similar catalyst to allow Cyprien’s play to improve this year, it may become apparent that Neal won’t become the best version of himself until he has a better free safety lined up beside him.
And that’s one of the reasons why I ultimately graded Neal as a second-round talent because he ultimately may just be a great complementary player as opposed to a guy that you can build around and make other players more effective.
Neal is going to bite on plays, miss tackles and get caught out of position from time to time due to his aggressive style of play. Here’s an example of him biting on a flea-flicker when playing single high safety last season:
It’s going to be important that the free safety is capable of not only handling his own assignments, but occasionally covering for Neal’s lack of discipline. Whether Allen is that type of player remains to be seen but this season will be his best opportunity to showcase whether he is.
The positive for Neal is that relative to other players of his ilk (i.e. hard-hitting enforcers), he’s relatively more disciplined than guys like Whitner or Bernard Pollard. While missed tackles were a regular occurrence with Neal, his lack of discipline particularly in coverage was never so egregious that it overshadowed the other stronger aspects of his game. He’s not the type of safety that is going to break your defense as he’ll stay at home and play his assignments for the most part.
That was the same situation for Moore during his time in Atlanta, where overall he did his job, but there were always a few instances every now and then where his over-aggression got him and the Falcons defense into trouble.
It’s a good bet that Neal can ultimately be as effective a starter in Atlanta as Moore was from 2010 to 2013 during the latter’s prime. The big difference between him and Moore could potentially be durability.
Over the course of seven seasons in Atlanta, Moore missed about 35 games due to injury and parts of several others. He only managed to have two healthy years in which he played in all 16 games in that span.
I doubt that Neal will be able to completely avoid the injury bug due to his hard-hitting playing style. But if Neal winds up only missing a game or two per season rather than a month or two that seemed to often be the case with Moore, that would be a marked improvement.
Injuries are impossible to predict, but it’s a pretty safe bet that given how Neal is more than willing to throw his weight around, he’s going to spend some time on the trainer’s table over the course of his initial contract in Atlanta. It’s just only a question of whether that amount of time is closer to five or 50 games. That’s impossible to know, but I’m at least optimistic that it might be closer to the former if he manages to put on the necessary muscle to better handle the punishment his body is inevitably going to take.
Ultimately, Neal should be able to give the Falcons defense what they got from Moore in his prime, albeit probably with a few less impactful plays in coverage. Whether he grows into something more than that probably will depend more on whether the Falcons can surround him additional talent.
Neal’s added presence on its own isn’t likely to help the Falcons defense ascend to new heights. But his presence in conjunction with upgrades the Falcons could make at other positions such as free safety and linebacker in the coming years could be a significant component to the defensive rebuild that Quinn is trying to undertake.
Early on in his career, I don’t suspect Neal’s positive impact to be dramatic. But it could potentially pay huge dividends several years down the road should the Falcons add the necessary supporting cast to make a player with Neal’s skill set truly impactful.