After back-to-back season-ending injuries, Keanu Neal is putting the league back on notice this season, showing exactly why the Falcons were so high on the Florida product following his first two years in the league. Neal did not make our SportsTalkATL list of Falcons deserving of a contract extension, but he is making a convincing case for the next regime to bring him back.
Neal has only played 478 snaps — 80% of the total defensive snaps this season — but still ranks second on the team in total and solo tackles and is third in tackles for loss. Neal’s best games came against the Bears, Lions, and Panthers. He collected eight tackles, including 1.5 tackles for loss, during the 30-26 loss to the Bears; he tallied 11 tackles, including two tackles for loss and one sack during the 23-22 loss to the Lions, and he registered seven total tackles and a pass deflection during the Thursday night 25-17 win against the Panthers.
Neal is playing some of the best football of his career, as he has recorded a Pro Football Focus grade of 75 or better in back-to-back games for the first time since he joined the NFL in 2016. He is tied for the fifth-most tackles among all qualifying safeties. According to PFF, his run defense and pass-rushing ability continue to grade out positively, and he is improving in coverage.
But Neal plays strong safety and is most productive at or near the line of scrimmage. So to compare his coverage abilities to players like Budda Baker of the Cardinals or Jessie Bates III of the Bengals — two of the best cover safeties in the NFL — is not a fair assessment of his play. Instead, comparing his coverage grade to those safeties who play a similar style of football — in the box close to or at the line of scrimmage — will provide better insight into how well Neal is actually playing. Among the 16 best safeties against the run, only six of those have a better grade in coverage than Neal.
So yes, Neal has still struggled in pass coverage. But when comparing those safeties who provide more support in the run than the pass, he is one of the best cover safeties. His pass-rush grade is the best of his career and shows how versatile Neal can be when given the opportunity, which is important considering a new defensive system is certainly on the way in 2021.
Whether Keanu Neal fits the eventual defensive coordinator’s scheme or not, he is surely making a case to be at least considered. The best coaches adjust their scheme to their players, not the other way around. It would behoove the new regime to bring Neal back regardless of the defensive system.
Neal would thrive in a hybrid linebacker, also known as the ‘moneybacker, role that allows him to play at or near the line of scrimmage. Versatile offenses have recently caused defenses problems with their differing personnel sets. Offenses — at least the smarter ones in the league — have embraced the mismatch of running from light personnel and passing from heavy sets. Having a player like Keanu Neal, Jamal Adams, Tyrann Mathieu, or Derwin James allows defensive coordinators to better combat these personnel mismatches.
“Having defenders who can stay on the field in those situations and play against all possibilities is now more important than ever. Offenses have become more versatile out of varying personnel deployments and the next era of defense must include defenders who can do the same on the other side of the ball. Playing them in nickel can keep run responsibilities that would be found in base and dime can act like nickel, all while giving defenses more assets against the opposing passing game.”
Keanu Neal is and has been an important piece of Atlanta’s defense. His hard-hitting style of play sets the tone for the entire team. Imagine a defense with Deion Jones, Foyesade Oluokun, Mykal Walker, and Keanu Neal, all playing on the field at the same time. If the defensive line was bolstered this offseason to keep the backers free, those four flying sideline-to-sideline would be scary for opposing offenses.