With the season approaching, I’ll be starting a new series on Falcons’ extension candidates. Over the last few years, Thomas Dimitroff has agreed to lucrative contracts with the likes of Matt Ryan, Jake Matthews, Devonta Freeman, Grady Jarrett, Julio Jones, Deion Jones, and more. He’s also had to part ways with other fantastic players — most recently, Austin Hooper, who signed with the Cleveland Browns this offseason. With the Falcons expected to be tight against the cap in the coming years, more difficult decisions lie ahead. Many of these players are in the last year of their respective deals, playing for a new contract, but others could be in line for an extension before their contract ends.
We begin with a player who would already have a contract extension from the Falcons if not for two horrific season-ending injuries. Keanu Neal was a part of that legendary draft class that helped the Falcons go from an 8-8 team to the Super Bowl. He’s a bruiser in the box that recorded over 100 tackles in each of his first two seasons and forced a total of eight fumbles. His presence, along with the additions of Deion Jones and Grady Jarrett, is why the Falcons went from one of the worst defenses to a top-ten unit in two years. Unfortunately, that progress halted when Neal went down with an injury in Week 1 of 2018.
While it initially didn’t look too serious, he was diagnosed with a torn ACL, forcing him to miss the rest of the season. He came back fired up and ready for Week 1 of 2019, but in just the third game of the year, he tore his Achilles. This time, it was easy to tell immediately how severe the injury was, as he tossed his helmet across the field, screaming in agonizing pain. It’s a moment he may look back on with pride if he can bounce back and have a memorable 2020.
Neal is now entering the fifth and final year of his contract, as the Falcons picked up his fifth-year option, and it became guaranteed once he tore his Achilles. There is little doubt in my mind that this regime would like to hand him a multi-year deal at season’s end, but that’s impossible to do given his injury history. In his first two seasons, he fit Dan Quinn’s mantra of fast and physical to perfection, but after two lengthy injuries, who knows what type of player he will be in 2020. I have a feeling; given his work ethic, he’ll prove his doubters wrong. However, the Falcons do have plenty of safeties on their roster that could take his place.
Ricardo Allen is currently Neal’s partner at the back end of the defense. The 28-year-old veteran enters the final year of his deal next year. While Neal’s been injured, Damontae Kazee has filled in admirably, even leading the league in interceptions in 2018. Like Neal, he will also be an unrestricted free agent next offseason. The Falcons also spent a fourth-round pick in this year’s draft on Jaylinn Hawkins out of California. It’s impossible to know how he will translate to the NFL, but 2020 will be a critical year in determining the future of the safety position in Atlanta.