Football analyst Bucky Brooks, a former NFL player and scout, will break down all of the Cowboys' free-agent veteran signings of the offseason. Today, he'll start with the assessment of safety Keanu Neal.
- Name: Keanu Neal
- Position: SS/LB
- College: Florida
- Height: 6-1
- Weight: 216
- Season: 6th
- Games Studied: Minnesota, Las Vegas, Carolina and Kansas City
Overview: The hard-hitting former safety is an instinctive defender with the size and explosiveness to be a problem near the line of scrimmage as a hybrid playmaker. Neal enters his sixth season with 338 total stops, 15 tackles for loss, 16 passes defensed, two interceptions, and eight forced fumbles in 49 career games (48 starts). Despite suffering back-to-back season-ending injuries in 2018 (torn ACL)and 2019 (torn Achilles) that robbed the veteran of some of his speed and quickness, the 6-foot-1, 216-pounder remains a force as a box area defender.
Against the run, Neal's superb instincts, awareness, and IQ enable him to quickly diagnose and fill gaps. He aggressively shoots through creases to nail runners in the hole with violent collisions. Neal's thump ability stands out on tape and is arguably his biggest strength as a player. It is hard to find defenders willing to hit runners face-to-face without flinching but the veteran is not one to back down in the hole. He displays the same energy and ferocity tracking down runners as a sideline-to-sideline chaser. Although he isn't an A-level athlete at this stage of his career, Neal's desire, passion, and energy enable him to play a step faster than others on the field.
In pass coverage, Neal is at his best playing as a spot dropper in a zone scheme. He plays with great vision while displaying good instincts, awareness, and route recognition skills breaking on balls thrown in front of him. Neal's aggressive pursuit and solid tackling skills result in limited YAC on throws completed near his area. As a deep middle defender, the veteran lacks the range to eliminate the deep ball thrown outside of the numbers. Neal is a liability when utilized as the centerfielder and defensive coordinators would be wise to limit his snaps as a centerfielder.
In man coverage, Neal's athletic limitations show up when he is assigned to cover tight ends down the seam. He simply lacks the agility and burst to run with the elites at the position. Neal is better suited to handle running backs out of the backfield. He understands how to take proper angles to limit their space or pin them along the sidelines. Although coaches want to limit Neal's exposure in man coverage, he has the capacity to snuff out average to above-average running backs in the passing game.
Overall, Neal is a solid starter with intriguing skills as a box area defender. He is a thumper with reliable tackling skills and underutilized pass rush skills on blitzes. Despite his limitedness in coverage, Neal's presence near the line of scrimmage could be a game-changer in the right scheme.
- Instincts, awareness, and football IQ
- Tackling ability (thumper)
- High-motor player
- Cover Skills
- Injury history
- Inexperience at linebacker
How does he fit in with the Cowboys?
Neal gives the Cowboys a versatile second-level defender to utilize as a weak-side linebacker in Base or as "Big Nickel" or "Dime" linebacker in sub-packages. The former Pro Bowler will add some athleticism to the linebacker corps and give defensive coordinator Dan Quinn a Swiss Army knife to utilize against 11 personnel to neutralize the run and control the underneath portion of the middle of the field. With Neal also displaying blitz capacities, the Cowboys could add him to the pass rush to create more chaos and disruption at the point of attack. As the league trends towards position-less football with hybrids all over the field, Neal could become a key piece to the Cowboys' defensive puzzle in 2021 as a safety-linebacker occupying multiple roles.