Cowboys Unveil Master ‘Plan’ for New Defensive Starter: Report

Falcons safety Keanu Neal

Getty Safety Keanu Neal #22 of the Atlanta Falcons.

Now that Dan Quinn has reunited with Keanu Neal, the new Dallas Cowboys‘ defensive coordinator isn’t pigeon-holing the new Cowboys’ hybrid defender.

Per ESPN’s Todd Archer, the plan “right now” is to play Neal, the ex-Atlanta Falcons safety, in the secondary and at weakside linebacker “depending on certain packages” that Quinn, the former Falcons head coach, devises.

“But he is not locked into one spot specifically,” Archer added. “Having that flexibility is a bonus as to why they added him.”

The duality of Neal’s projected role has been echoed by others around the Cowboys’ orbit. Though, NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport indicated Monday the 2016 first-round draft pick could see permanent time at WLB, spelling — or outright replacing — $63.75 million starter Jaylon Smith.

“Interested teams in [free agency] believed this was his future,” Rapoport said.

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Desperately-Needed Reinforcement(s)

Neal, known for his aggressive prowess near the line of scrimmage, was voted to the Pro Football Writers of America All-Rookie Team in 2016 and the Pro Bowl in 2017, when he tallied 116 tackles (83 solo), six pass deflections, and one interception. He suffered a torn ACL in 2018 and a torn Achilles’ tendon in 2019 before returning healthy in 2020 — and reverted back to his productive ways, compiling 100 tackles (76 solo, nine for loss), two PDs, and one INT across 14 starts.

He graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 25th-ranked coverage safety, ceding 45 receptions on 58 targets to opposing pass-catchers.

Dallas finished 11th in pass defense but next-to-last (31st) against the run, which contributed to a franchise-record 473 points allowed, as well as the firing of previous DC Mike Nolan.

Neal’s addition is the first of a potential double-dip at the position. The Cowboys are set to host safeties Damontae Kazee and Malik Hooker on free-agent visits this week, and the expectation is another will be brought aboard to rotate with impressive 2020 incumbent Donovan Wilson.

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Contract Breakdown

To say the Cowboys nabbed Neal on a bargain-basement deal would be an understatement. This was among the better transactions in recent memory for owner/general manager Jerry Jones and vice president Stephen Jones.

According to Archer, Neal’s reported one-year, $5 million pact includes a $3 million signing bonus, $1 million base salary for 2021, and an additional $1 million in unlockable play-time incentives. Here’s the interesting part: Built into the contract are two voidable years, allowing the club to spread his signing bonus over its duration. As such, he will count just $2 million against the salary cap next season.

Neal is the sixth outside player (and fourth defender) that Dallas has landed since free agency opened last week. The team also inked outside linebacker Tarell Basham, defensive linemen Brent Urban and Carlos Watkins, offensive tackle Ty Nsekhe, and long snapper Jake McQuaide.

The Cowboys had $10.114 million in available cap space as of Monday afternoon.

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Follow Zack Kelberman on Twitter: @KelbermanNFL