Cowboys Sign Former Pro Bowl Starter to Play New Position: Report

Keanu Neal

Getty Keanu Neal runs on the field before a Falcons game.

Dan Quinn got his man.

The new Dallas defensive coordinator successfully recruited an old Atlanta Falcons pupil, as the Cowboys on Saturday signed ex-Pro Bowl safety Keanu Neal to a one-year contract worth up to $5 million, per an ESPN report.

Additional terms of the deal are not yet available.

NFL insider Josina Anderson reported Friday that Neal was “currently deciding between playing [weakside linebacker]” for the Cowboys or the New York Jets. The presence of Quinn likely crystallized his decision.

Neal becomes the sixth outside player — and fourth defender — that Dallas has added since free agency opened Monday. The club also signed outside linebacker Tarell Basham, defensive linemen Brent Urban and Carlos Watkins, offensive tackle Ty Nsekhe, and long snapper Jake McQuaide.

Prioritizing in-house matters first, the club previously tendered DL Antwaun Woods and fellow exclusive-rights free agent wide receiver Cedrick Wilson and released veteran punter Chris Jones. The club also retained three of its own: CB Jourdan Lewis, who landed a three-year, $16.5 million pact; CB C.J. Goodwin, who received a two-year, $3.5 million deal; and WR Noah Brown, who signed a one-year agreement.

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Background on Neal

A 2016 first-round draft pick, Neal (6-0, 211) had been ascending toward the top of his class in the pros. The much-hyped Florida product — a hard-hitting dervish capable of manning safety or linebacker — was voted to the PFWA All-Rookie team after tallying 106 tackles (72 solo), eight pass breakups and five forced fumbles in his inaugural campaign, ending with a gut-wrenching loss to New England in Super Bowl LI.

“I would probably say right now — we play him a lot down in the box — but I’d say Keanu Neal is very active in the tackles,” Quinn said in December 2016, according to ESPN. “We put him down in that spot where he’s down close to the line of scrimmage intentionally, where we can try to put him toward where some of the action is. So it’s not a surprise that that position’s getting a lot of tackles.”

Neal took another step forward in 2017, voted to the Pro Bowl following a 116-tackle (83 solo), six-PBU, one-interception sophomore season in which Atlanta qualified for a Wild Card playoff spot.

Then the injury bug bit the 25-year-old. Hard. Neal suffered a torn ACL in the 2018 season-opener and a torn Achilles in Week 3 of 2019. Both maladies required extensive surgeries and a prolonged recovery period.

Neal returned healthy in 2020 and reverted back to his productive ways, posting 100 tackles (76 solo, nine for loss), two PBUs, one INT and one sack across 14 starts. He graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 25th-ranked coverage safety, having surrendered 45 receptions on 58 targets to opposing pass-catchers.

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Role in Dallas

It remains to be seen how Quinn schemes Neal with the Cowboys. Common sense suggests he’ll deploy at safety, opposite Donovan Wilson, as incumbent veteran Xavier Woods is an unrestricted free agent and unlikely to re-sign. But there’s a better-than-good chance he sticks at WLB, rotating with perennially injured stud Leighton Vander Esch.

“As for Keanu Neal’s position, it is considered fluid at moment. Multiple spots [have] been discussed for Cowboys,” Dallas Morning News reporter Michael Gehlken said on Twitter. “Wherever he plays, Neal a physical presence who understands and can help lead Dan Quinn’s defense.”

Anyone who watched last season knows the Cowboys require more help in run support than against the pass; the secondary ranked 11th, the rush defense 31st. The team allowed a franchise-record 473 points primarily due to the latter’s incompetence, and Neal should help stop the bleeding.

“It would not surprise me if DAL played Keanu Neal at SS in base defense then in nickel, move Wilson to SS and Neal to one of the nickel LB spots, which – because nickel defense is used more than base in today’s NFL – means Neal could spend most his snaps at ‘LB,'” Dallas Morning News reporter John Owning tweeted.

Clarence Hill Jr., with the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, alleges Dallas is not done adding to its safety stockpile, however. The team reportedly will host ex-Falcon Damontae Kazee and former Colt Malik Hooker on free-agent visits next week.

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Follow Zack Kelberman on Twitter: @KelbermanNFL