Who wasn’t a little surprised to here Keanu Neal’s name called when the Falcons selected with the 17th overall pick? The Falcons have consistently struggled to get to the quarterback over the last three seasons. Dan Quinn was supposed to be able to fix that problem, but Atlanta actually had 3 less sacks last year than they did in 2014. Vic Beasley is expected to be much more healthy to start next season and began to show signs of improvement at the end of last season. However, its never easy to progress when all the focus is on you as the only viable pass rusher on the defense. Atlanta could have definitely used another pass rusher, but the lack of great pass rushing options in this year’s draft forced them to look elsewhere.
When Atlanta released veteran safety William Moore, it was clear the Falcons were going to have to address the safety position in either the draft or free agency. By most experts, Karl Joseph was the best safety option in the draft, but with the Raiders taking him at 14, Quinn turned to a guy who he took part in recruiting when he coached for Florida. Neal spent three years at Florida and began really making an impact his sophomore season in which he started 8 games and had 3 interceptions and a forced fumble. Neal missed the first two games of his junior season but started the rest and became a physical force for the Florida defense. He finished his junior season with 96.5 tackles.
The pick, by many considered a reach, really makes a lot of sense and has Dan Quinn’s mark all over it. Quinn considers the safety position one of if not the most important positions on the defensive side of the ball. At Florida he recruited Neal, a rangy-physical athlete that can be a true enforcer in the secondary. At Seattle, Quinn had Kam Chancellor who has turned into one of the best safeties in the league and the leader of the Legion of Boom. Chancellor is known for his bone-crushing hits and Quinn has seen first hand what kind of effect a physical presence like Chancellor can have on an opposing offense. Daniel Jeremiah of NFL.com touches on that as well when he says in his draft analysis of Neal, “We talk about the Seattle influence there in Atlanta. They know that nothing can change the game like a big hit, and Neal is one of the most physical safeties in this draft. He can run and cover.”
Neal will have to come in ready to start for Atlanta and he should be up to the challenge. He has terrific range from sideline to sideline and is aggressive in stopping the run. His coverage skills were not his strong point at Florida, but he was competent and is a spectacular athlete. In his first year, look for Neal to be a force against the run and receivers coming over the middle. It may take a while for his coverage skills to catch up, but his athleticism should allow him to become a solid cover safety as well. Quinn is confident he got the right guy to come in and fill one of the most important positions on the field, and as fan base who has been looking for Quinn to take control of the drafting process, it is hard not to like the fact that he certainly went after the guy he wanted.