A long-maddening odyssey likely reaches its apex in the weeks ahead when the Dallas Cowboys finally — finally — address their bare-bones safety spots.
With Xavier Woods slated to become a free agent and only Donovan Wilson and Darian Thompson comprising the current depth chart, the Cowboys should be players in a market that, officially opening March 17, is expected to feature Justin Simmons, Anthony Harris, and Malik Hooker, amongst other names.
But, as Dallas Morning News beat reporter Michael Gehlken smartly deduced, their target could be located a tier lower. The hiring of former Falcons head coach Dan Quinn as defensive coordinator essentially creates a pipeline from Atlanta to Dallas for a trio of perhaps more realistic (read: cheaper) targets to traverse.
“Any available defensive back (such as Keanu Neal, Blidi Wreh-Wilson and Damontae Kazee) who recently played for the Atlanta Falcons bears monitoring, given defensive coordinator Dan Quinn and secondary coach/defensive pass game coordinator Joe Whitt Jr. coached there in 2020. It wouldn’t shock me if Quinn and Whitt vouched for one of those names,” Gehlken wrote in a recent mailbag.
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Background on Neal
It obviously would be nice for the Cowboys to splurge on a Simmons — that is, an elite safety talent — instead of treating the position with duct tape and gum and simply getting by. But Neal wouldn’t necessarily represent a horrible fallback option for a talent-collecting franchise with just $13.905 million in salary cap room as of this writing.
A 2016 first-round pick of the Falcons, he’s tallied 243 solo tackles, 16 pass breakups, eight forced fumbles, four fumble recoveries, and two interceptions across 49 career games (48 starts). Neal was voted to the 2016 PFWA All-Rookie Team. His best season came in 2017 when he made 116 tackles (83 solo), six PBUs, three FFs, and one interception, earning Pro Bowl honors.
Neal started 14 games in 2020, recording 100 combined stops (nine tackles for loss), three quarterback hits, and one INT. He logged six solo tackles in Atlanta’s wild Week 2 loss to Dallas.
There are a few red flags on Neal, particularly his injury history. The 25-year-old tore his ACL in 2018 and his Achilles’ in 2019, devastating maladies that have sapped some prior all-star form. However, if Quinn and Whitt, two of his former teachers, pound the table with enough force, as Gehlken alluded, it may prompt general manager Jerry Jones to pull the trigger — and quickly.
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Tartt Predicted to Land in Dallas
Another aforementioned safety option is Tartt, whom Bleacher Report classified as a “bargain-bin” free agent and predicted will sign a two-year, $7 million deal with the Cowboys.
Utilizing the draft to bring in young talents would be good. But there’s going to need to be some veteran leadership in the room as well.
Tartt has been involved in everything from a 2-14 season and a 13-3 season with an NFC championship in his time with the Niners. His experience and veteran presence would be good to add to a unit that will likely feature more young players and Trevon Diggs in his second season.
With plenty of top safety talent in this free-agent class and his injury history, Tartt is a high-ceiling signing that could come cheaper than expected.
Follow Zack Kelberman on Twitter: @KelbermanNFL