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Breaking down Keanu Neal’s projected impact on the Cowboys defense

Neal has made hearty meals of opposing offenses when he’s been on the field.

Chicago Bears v Atlanta Falcons Photo by Todd Kirkland/Getty Images

The once-fruitful marriage between two former Atlanta Falcons, Dan Quinn and Keanu Neal, is alive once again with a fanciful new location for vow renewal in one of the NFL’s most decorous locations. The two enjoyed a prosperous union during Neal’s five-year tenure in Atlanta from 2016-20, where Quinn served as the Falcons head coach. That is, of course, when he was able to stay healthy.

Neal suffered premature season-ending injuries in two of his first five seasons manning the backlines for the dirty birds, feeling the magnified sting of a torn ACL in 2018 double down with a devastating ruptured Achilles tendon just three weeks into 2019.

Still, when he played, his impact was unquestionable.

Neal passed the 100-tackle mark in his rookie season, reaching 106 in 2016 before a splendid 116 total number (with four for a loss and three forced fumbles) netted him a coveted Pro Bowl appearance in ‘17.

2020’s showcase was wholly comparable to his superlative performance three years earlier, as he registered 100 total tackles (nine behind the line of scrimmage) to complement a solo interception.

Injuries have undoubtedly been a prominent sore mantra in Neal’s would-be spotless timeline, but still, his overall résumé was enough to warrant tremendous attention from suitors league-wide as he began his free agency journey.

His culminating destination: the Star. Neal provided an immediate boost to the Cowboys’ secondary/linebacker corps upon inking a one-year, $5 million deal with the Jones family’s beloved team. What Neal brings to the table for the franchise, should he live up to his expected calling card, more than suffices for the price tag.

At just 25, he still possesses a potential that can skyrocket with ascending momentum should he stay healthy. He’s a workhorse, and if his rugged bodily disposition doesn't evidently present that, his impressive film tape will gladly represent his laudable ethic.

And despite being 25, his experience outdoes all of the safeties Dallas employed on its roster last year. Factor in the fact that he was granted immediate starting duties upon his landing in the ATL, and you get a few extra upticks to a maturity level that was already through the roof. Let’s throw in some extra brownie points for the aforementioned relationship he shares with the Cowboys’ new D-coordinator as well.

But this is just the surface of what he can do for the folks down in D-town.

The word “versatile” in terms of NFL defending has a picture of Neal plastered next to it in the league’s dictionary. In fact, not only has he carved out a respectable niche for himself as a top-tier safety, he’s shown a rare knack for handling the linebacker’s position as well.

That is a welcome gift for Dallas, who struggled mightily in its run containment efforts during the 2020 season. Neal formerly held down the strong safety’s spot, which he may get some looks at in Quinn’s base 4-3.

But when the team switches to nickel and dime sub-packages, Neal is easily deployable as a WILL (weak side) linebacker threat, and can fill in some much needed holes on the outside in terms of edge patrol, and blocking evasion.

Neal played in the box for 484 snaps in 2020, earning a 67.9 grade PFF grade as a run defender, and, perhaps surprisingly, a 74.3 grade as a pass-rusher.

Sliding down to linebacker will allow him to share space with Donovan Wilson and some of his other newly recruited secondary patrollers, and provides Dallas with an extra cover fortifier in one-on-one matchups with tight ends.

Speed, agility, plus instincts all serve him quite well, and will unveil themselves with full force once he steps foot on the gridiron. But you can’t put a monetary value on system knowledge and adaptability, and Neal has been the consistent epitome of both.