Because of porous managerial decisions, the Falcons are cash strapped and will be forced to make some critical judgments regarding some of their most talented players. We’ve already beaten the Austin Hooper situation like a dead horse. Right now, contract talks between the two-time Pro-Bowl tight end and the Falcons have been in limbo, and Atlanta may have to move on as Hoop looks to reset the market at the position. Dimitroff and Company are also mulling over the possibility of cutting Devonta Freeman, even if it only saves the team $3 million. That’s how dire Atlanta’s cap situation is at the moment, given all the needs they must address to return to the playoffs, which leads to our next potential cap casualty — Pro-Bowl safety Keanu Neal.
Neal was the surprise pick in the first round of the 2016 draft. The Falcons selected him 17th overall and were mocked for it by the majority of media outlets, but the narrative quickly changed after his rookie season. The hard-hitting safety was the enforcer at the back-end of the Falcons defense, becoming known for forcing fumbles and decapitating heads. Nobody wanted to come across the middle of the field against Atlanta with Neal out there, and his impact on the overall defense was overwhelmingly evident, as the Falcons went on to make the Super Bowl in his first year.
The former Florida Gator followed it up with the best season of his career — thus far — in 2017. He was named to the Pro-Bowl along with fellow 2016 draftee, Deion Jones, and the two looked destined to be an elite duo in Atlanta for years to come. Then, the injuries happened. After totaling 222 tackles, 16 passes defended, and 8 forced fumbles in his first two seasons over 30 games, Neal has only played in four games since and has just 16 tackles.
In Week 1 of the 2018 season, Neal tore his ACL against the Philadelphia Eagles and missed the remainder of the season. However, even a devastating ACL injury did not stop the Falcons from picking up his fifth-year option, which will guarantee him about $6.5 million in 2020. But now, the team might be second-guessing that decision.
After a long road to recovery, that even included Neal missing some pre-season action, he was back for the start of the 2019 campaign. But in just the fourth week of the season, he went down in agonizing pain, tossing his helmet across the field in a mix of disgust and frustration. You could immediately tell the injury was severe, and it was later revealed that Neal tore his Achilles, which can take up to 12 months to recover from.
This has many wondering whether or not the Falcons should rescind their fifth-year offer to Neal, which becomes official at the start of the new year, on March 18th. That makes a lot of sense, because not only is Atlanta cash strapped and in need of the $6.5 million in savings they would receive by cutting him, but they also have two reliable candidates at safety.
Ricardo Allen is under contract for two more years, and Damontae Kazee proved again last season that he is a much better fit at safety than he is at corner. The two could easily take over the reins, and the Falcons would be just fine at the position. So in an ideal world, Atlanta can cut Neal, who is coming off back-to-back season-ending injuries and save the $6.5 million, giving them some much-needed extra cushion to work with this offseason. Too bad that’s not something they can do.
A player’s fifth-year option is not fully guaranteed when picked up by the team… UNLESS he gets injured. The Falcons picked up Neal’s fifth-year well before Neal tore his Achillies so that $6.5 million is guaranteed unless he proves to be fully healthy by the start of the new league year (March 18th), which would be a medical miracle. Neal will be in the middle of his rehab a month from now and won’t be anywhere near a clean bill of health. So the Falcons can move on, but they are going to owe him that money no matter what.
This is somewhat of a bummer. Organizations never want to be in a position where their hands are tied, but when healthy, Neal is worth every penny of that contract. And I’m still not sure the Falcons would have decided to move on even if they could without paying him. Hopefully, he will be able to fully recover and return before the start of next season. Atlanta may consider using him in a different role, but regardless, expect him to be on the roster for at least one more year.