The Falcons safety talent is looking mighty thin. Atlanta has yet to replace the hole filled by longtime safety William Moore after cutting him early in the offseason, and a ttrue strong safety is desperately needed on the roster with Ricardo Allen penciled in at free safety.
If you were to draw up the prototypical strong safety for Dan Quinn's scheme, Florida's Keanu Neal would be your finished product. Physical, smart, and instinctive, Keanu Neal would be a plug and play safety from day one.
Let's take a look at his athletic profile, courtesy of Mockdraftable.com.
As the graph shows, Neal is an explosive, but he's linear to a degree. As the strong safety in a scheme that primarily shows Cover 3, Neal will be able to patrol the middle of the field and sideline without being strained too often with deep responsibilities on the backend.
Neal is a headhunter. He's constantly looking wallop anybody with (sometimes without) the football within striking distance. His physicality and explosion at the point of attack is a joy to watch.
Part of what makes Keanu Neal such a fun evaluation is that he's not a particularly tough evaluation. It's easy to discern where he's going to make a strong impact at the next level and where he's going to struggle.
Versus the run, Neal is a heat-seeking missile. It's beautiful to watch the outside corner hold the edge, the inside backer play his force responsibilities, and Neal fill the hole between the two, ultimately annihilating the ball carrier.
The level of violence and general disregard for any opponent is sorely needed on the Falcons defense. Atlanta needs a tone-setter, and Neal is arguably the best player in that role in the entire draft. Watch Neal throttle into Derrick Henry from the Gators' 2014 game against Alabama. Keep in mind the size difference between Henry (6'3", 247) and Neal (6'0", 211).
Bonus points for the strut after he clobbers Henry.
At times Neal's aggressive nature can get the best of him. He'll fly into to contact looking for the knockout blow, forgetting some of the basic fundamentals of the game. This won't fly in the NFL, and unfortunately plays like these have plagued the Falcons in recent years.
A prime example of this was Neal's tackle attempt on Derrick Henry in the 2015 SEC Championship game. Henry is sprung free to the second level and Neal throws his forearms at Henry instead breaking down, wrapping up, and securing the tackle.
Neal's linear athletic profile can get him in trouble, but some of his best plays come when he's naturally aligned along the boundary. When he's able to fly towards ballcarriers without having to worry about large spaces of open field, his explosion is consistently on display. Kenyan Drake is pinned against the sideline here and Neal cleans up nicely, bringing him down before the first down marker.
Keanu Neal isn't the most fluid player in the coverage. He reads route combinations well and anticipates where and receivers are going to make their breaks, but he has trouble flipping his hips and staying in front of quicker receivers. This is a bit troublesome coming into the NFL. However, placing him in a scheme that primarily runs Cover 3 can mitigate the risk by asking him to play curl zones and hook zones.
As stated before, Neal isn't a particularly hard evaluation. What you see is what you get. The tricky part with Neal is valuing what he brings to the table and placing him in this draft class. Ideally, a player of Neal's skill set is an early second round player. However, this class is a bit weaker than previous years.
There are few marquee players in this draft class. If Shaq Lawson is off the board by the time the Falcons' first round pick is up and they believe they need to come out of this draft class with an impact safety (and I agree strongly), Keanu Neal could easily be the pick at 17.
Kemal Ishmael and Robenson Therezie are nice role players, but they shouldn't stop the team from looking for a serious upgrade in the offseason. Neal is the physical, vicious tone-setter this defense has lacked for awhile and he seems like the perfect prospect to take the throne from William Moore.