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Free Agency Tracker | 2021

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Keanu Neal Expected To "Start Off" At LB


FRISCO, Texas – It's all well and good that Keanu Neal has signed on with the Cowboys, but where exactly is he going to play?

That's a bit of an odd question to ask of a free agent. Typically, if a five-year NFL veteran has made the Pro Bowl as a safety, the logical guess is that he'll play safety with his new team.

From the time word surfaced about their interest in Neal, though, there has been speculation about a new role. Several reports last week indicated that the former first-round draft pick could play weak side linebacker in the Cowboys' new scheme.

It's an idea Cowboys coach Mike McCarthy seemed to confirm on Thursday when he met with reporters for the first time this offseason.

"He'll start off with the linebackers," McCarthy said. "Obviously he has the ability to go back and play the safeties. Keanu is an impact player. I think that's an excellent signing for us."

The idea isn't a wild as it might sound. Neal played five years with the Falcons as a safety, but much of that was spent close to the line of scrimmage – which is how he's managed to make at least 100 tackles in each of the three seasons that he's been fully healthy.

He also spent his entire Falcons career with current Cowboys defensive coordinator Dan Quinn, as well as secondary coach Joe Whitt Jr., who had the same job in Atlanta last season.

"I know Dan and Joe and all the guys that worked with him in Atlanta were excited, too," McCarthy said.

There are bound to be questions about the rest of the personnel, however. The Cowboys already employ a pair of highly-paid linebackers in Leighton Vander Esch and Jaylon Smith. Vander Esch was sidelined by various injury issues last season, but Smith in particular played 98% of the Cowboys defensive snaps. Naturally, it does prompt discussion about how everything fits.

McCarthy didn't touch on that specifically in regard to Neal, but he didn't seem overly interested in plainly labelling the way the Cowboys will use their linebackers.

"It's the question everybody keeps wanting to ask, 'is he the Mike or is he the Will,'" McCarthy said about Smith. "When I look at Leighton and Jaylon, I look at linebackers that have the ability and experience to be interchangeable."

Without trying to assume too much, it's a good bet the Cowboys have a similarly versatile view of Keanu Neal – and that starts with him playing some linebacker in 2021.

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