One of the less talked about players during this preseason has been 26-year-old Keanu Neal. The former first-round pick came over to Dallas on a one-year deal this offseason and was reunited with his former head coach, Dan Quinn.
After being a strong safety during his five-year tenure in Atlanta, Neal will make the transition to playing linebacker in Dallas. Despite being a part of one of the most talented position groups on the team, some believe Neal could be a true difference-maker on the Cowboys’ defense.
On Tuesday, Bleacher Report backed up this belief. Neal was labeled as the Cowboys biggest “X-Factor” heading into the 2021 regular season. Here’s what they had to say about the safety-turned-linebacker.
The Dallas Cowboys are going through an interesting transition at linebacker. Both Jaylon Smith and Leighton Vander Esch should experience drastically different roles and decreased usage this fall. They’ll do so to make way for this year’s 12th overall draft pick, Micah Parsons, and safety-convert Keanu Neal.
“I don’t categorize myself. I feel I can play safety, linebacker,” Neal told reporters in June. “... Growing up I played linebacker in middle school and high school, then we changed the defense and I switched to safety, so I went to college as a safety. But in my heart, I have been a linebacker for a while.”
Neal is a tackling machine when healthy. He’s made 100 or more tackles in his three full seasons. His comfort level working in space and understanding of Dan Quinn’s system only helps his and the defense’s cause.
We’ve already seen Neal make an impact at his new position in live-action. Just last week, Neal intercepted Garrett Gilbert in a mock two-minute drill to seal a “win” for the defense.
Neal continued to show his playmaking ability in preseason game action on Friday night, forcing and recovering a fumble against Arizona.
It’s no surprise that Neal, whose physical style is his best trait, has started to show out in real game action. In an article last week, Nick Eatman of Dallascowboys.com stated that he believes one reason for the lack of hype surrounding the linebacker has been the Cowboys attempting to hide what his true role will be.
Nick:He hasn’t really stood out much, but I think there are reasons for that. For one, he’s a physical player. He’s had 100+ tackles three times in his career. And right now, the Cowboys aren’t really tackling. He’ll play down by the line of scrimmage and when it’s time to mix it up, I bet he shows up. Secondly, he’ll have somewhat of a hybrid role that I bet Dan Quinn isn’t ready to reveal just yet. I would imagine Tom Brady might be the first one to really find out how and where Neal is going to play.
He may be part of a crowded position group, but it sure sounds like somehow, someway, Keanu Neal is going to be an impact player on the defensive side of the ball this season.