People around the NFL were surprised when the Falcons opted to take safety Keanu Neal with their first round pick in 2015. Most expected the Falcons to take a pass rusher or a linebacker in the first round, but Dan Quinn had a different idea in mind for his defense. Atlanta looked at linebacker in the second round like most people expected, although they may not have picked the one many were expecting. The Falcons selected Deion Jones with 52nd overall pick. The speedy linebacker only started one season at LSU before heading to the draft, but Quinn and the Falcons saw enough from Jones to warrant the pick. Both of these guys have earned their way into the starting lineup from the beginning of the season and have not looked back.
Before going any further, take a look at the size and speed of both of these players. Neal stands at 6 feet and an inch tall weighing about 215 pounds. He ran a sub 4.6 40-yard dash at his pro-day, proving he has the speed and strength to be a punisher at the back of Dan Quinn’s defense. Meanwhile, Jones stands at 6 feet and an inch tall as well, weighing about 225 pounds. Jones actually ran a much faster 40-yard dash at 4.38, but essentially Dan Quinn drafted two players of the same mold in the first two round of the draft. Quinn preached before becoming the head coach about bringing speed and physicality to the Falcons defense. The picks might have surprised some when they were called, but this is exactly what Dan Quinn promised he would do and it has panned out so far.
Neal appeared for the first time in week 3 against the Saints, and it did not take long for Dan Quinn to put Neal to the test. In the Falcons week 4 matchup against the Saints, Quinn left Neal on a island with one of the league’s best tight ends, Greg Olsen, for the majority of the game. Neal did not dominate Olsen, but he battled him all game with his speed and physicality. Neal followed it up with perhaps his most dominating game of the season the next week in Seattle, where he met off with one of his training partners and fellow superstar safety Kam Chancellor. Chancellor and Neal worked out together in the offseason and Neal was compared to Chancellor during the draft process. Neal left Seattle with 11 tackles including a forced fumble. It started to become easy to see why the Falcons were so high on the Florida product coming into the draft.
From that point on, Neal has only gotten better. He has recorded 101 total tackles in just 13 games, which really is just a staggering number for a rookie. He also has 4 forced fumbles, just one shy of the rookie record. Dan Quinn was looking for an enforcer on defense, and Neal has proven to be just that. Neal’s love for contact makes him already one of the best run-stoppers in the league from the safety position and his cover skills have already proven to be better than expected. With Desmond Trufant now out for the season, Keanu Neal has to step in as the leader of the secondary. It is a large task to as for rookie, but something tells me this guy is a special player. He has been the best rookie safety in football this season.
It was obvious Neal was going to have to play big minutes coming into season due to the Falcons lack of depth at safety, but Deion Jones was a little different. Jones only started one season LSU, but that was mostly due to Kwon Alexander starting in front of him. That being said, it was hard to imagine on draft day that Jones would be a starting linebacker for Atlanta early in the season, but by week 3, Jones was the full-time starting inside linebacker, and like Neal, he has yet to look back.
Jones, like most rookies, has gone through a significant learning curve since the start of the season. He has had his fair share of highs and lows as the starter, but has recently become much more consistent. In fact, he can be seen several times recently at the top of the weekly performers list for linebackers on Pro Football Focus. The way Jones has picked up his role in this defense has been spectacular, and there is reason to be excited for his future. Jones’s sideline to sideline speed is unique for any linebacker in this league. He ran a sub 4.40 40-yard dash, faster than most secondary players, and he uses that speed to deliver huge blows to opponents. Jones is currently leading the Falcons in tackles (102) and interceptions (3). He also has two touchdowns on the season, leading all Falcons defenders.
Atlanta has very rarely done well in the draft, especially in the Dimitrioff era. However, the Falcons did say Dan Quinn would have a strong hand in the draft process, and his print is all over these two Falcons rookies. Neal and Jones have grown every week together and are becoming more consistent each week. They are both in the running for Defensive Rookie of the Year honors. Fifteen games into the season, these guys are no longer rookies. They are two of the leaders on Atlanta’s defense, and if the Falcons want any chance of returning to their first Super Bowl since 1998, they are going to need these guys to play like veterans.