Earlier this week veteran Atlanta Falcons safety Keanu Neal hit the free agent market after the team decided not to franchise tag him. According to Josina Anderson, host of ‘Undefined with Josina Anderson,’ he initially attracted interest from six NFL teams.
— IG: JosinaAnderson (@JosinaAnderson) March 16, 2021
But per Anderson, Neal is now “deciding between” the New York Jets and Dallas Cowboys, and wherever he signs he’ll be switching positions—to weakside linebacker.
— IG: JosinaAnderson (@JosinaAnderson) March 19, 2021
It makes sense that both the Jets and Cowboys are suitors, as their defensive play-callers both came from Atlanta. Former Falcons head coach Dan Quinn now serves as defensive coordinator for the Dallas Cowboys, and Jeff Ulbrich, Atlanta’s former linebackers/assistant head coach, is the defensive coordinator in New York under new Jets head coach Robert Saleh. Also, Cowboys secondary coach/defensive pass game coordinator Joe Whitt Jr. coached Neal in Atlanta.
Keanu Neal’s Five-Year Falcons Career
Neal was drafted by the Falcons in the first round of the 2016 NFL Draft (No. 17 overall) out of the University of Florida. In his first 30 NFL starts (2016-17) he recorded 222 total tackles (155 solo), while also forcing eight fumbles and contributing 14 passes defensed.
But injuries derailed his 2018 and 2019 seasons, as he suffered a torn ACL in the former and an Achilles tear in the latter, so he played in a total of just four games during that time period. The 25-year-old rebounded in 2020, playing in 15 games (14 starts) and he again reached the 100 tackle marker, adding an interception, a sack, two passes defensed and a fumble recovery.
Still just 25 years old, Neal—6-foot-1 and 216 pounds—seems destined to be part of a trend of safeties converting to linebacker (Marcus Allen in Pittsburgh, for example), an effort to keep up with how offenses are emphasizing the passing game.
Atlanta Begins Re-Populating Its Safety Room
Of course, Neal isn’t the only safety that the Falcons will have to replace. Atlanta will also need a substitute for veteran safety Ricardo Allen (who was released in February) as well as safety Damontae Kazee, who will reportedly not be re-signed. (Like Neal, Kazee is also reportedly being courted by the Cowboys).
The team started the process of finding replacements earlier this week by inking former Las Vegas Raiders safety Erik Harris, who previously played for the New Orleans Saints and the Hamilton Tiger-Cats of the CFL.
As for the prospect of the Falcons playing against Neal this year, it’s worth noting that both the Jets (home) and the Cowboys (away) are on Atlanta’s schedule for the 2021 season, a schedule that will include 17 regular season games for the first time. Atlanta’s 17th game is expected to on the road against Jacksonville, the fourth-place team in the AFC South.
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