So we took Keanu Neal, which was a little surprising given who all else was on board. The response, however, was a little more fiery than I would've liked, so I'm here to give you all some simple logic to why this pick was just fine.
1) NFL Draft "Experts" assume two things: You can trade down at will, and secondary (that is to say, not the first) positions of need don't matter in round 1.
The Falcons pick twice in the first 50 picks, so here's my thing: Keanu Neal may have been the 30th best overall prospect left on the board, but I think we can all agree that he was the best remaining safety. You're holding pick 17, so what do you do? 17 is somewhat of a hellhole because its value is too high for someone to trade back into the first (more on that in a moment) but the player you'd get isn't valuable enough to warrant an emergency trade up.
If you have a player 30th overall on your board, and you don't like the remaining players, guess what? You suck it up and you pick him. Case closed. That's the thing with these experts, they make all 31 picks. They don't make one pick. It's easy for them to arrange the chess pieces however they see fit, but they're not the ones with their jobs at stake if they fail.
2) He was invited to the draft, which means SOMEONE thought was most likely going in the 1st round somewhere anyway.
We pick once in the first round. Remember when Miami drafted Ju'wuan James last year and people were all "WTF WERE THEY THINKING"?!, well, James had a pretty good PFF score for the majority of the year as a rookie (I think he ended up around 0, but we don't have PFF anymore :( ) Joke's on us, right?
You know what sites like nfl.com like to do? RE-DRAFTS. Gee, I wonder why. Imagine if he becomes a good NFL safety. They'll do a redraft and he'll go in the top 15, probably. What a joke! Nobody probably wanted him until we picked, though it's safe to say that other teams were considering taking Neal if we didn't.
3) He fits what Quinn wants more than Darron Lee.
Darron Lee was a popular choice. The ol' Google machine says Darron Lee was once 219 pounds at LB (combine was 232). Neal's combine weight was 211. That's pretty solid for a safety, but not so solid for a LB.
But don't take my word for it, read this:
Play strength doesn't come close to matching puffed up listed weight.
Has the body type of a big safety.
Tape shows few authoritative tackles. Involved in too many arm and shoestring tackles
Charged with 21 missed and five broken tackles over the last two seasons
Let's be real here, that doesn't sound too good. So, on the flip side, wouldn't you rather have this?
Neal prefers to make sure those with the ball have nightmares about "42" coming their way.
Explodes downhill in run support with blood in his eyes.
Vicious hitter looking to bruise bones and set tones.
Drives all the way through his contact with aggressive finishes.
Which of those two sounds physical to you? Neal's not outrageously fast, but he's fast enough for a SS. Fast and physical? Why yes, I think Neal is.
Ray Lewis said it himself before last year's Monday Night Football game; the Falcons need someone that is pissed off to play the game. That's not to say Darron Lee can't be that way, but Keanu Neal plays that way. You can bring an attitude to a defense and play safety, just look at Troy Polamalu, among many other successful safeties in the league.
4) Shaq Lawson
Now I was in the Shaq Lawson wagon for a while, and would've been happy with that pick, but we have somewhat of a logjam at the DE position. We just paid Derrick Shelby a good chunk of change, and Adrian Clayborn is a veteran presence. Brooks Reed can play some end, and Beasley of course is the premier pass rusher. That doesn't even include Courtney Upshaw, who could be playing a Brooks Reed type role of being a linebacker and an end. Lawson wouldn't get a whole lot of playing time with us.
Lawson also has to have surgery that could sideline him for several months. Supposedly, he can wait until next offseason, but that means he'll have no NFL offseason until he's headed into his 3rd year in the league. That's not good.
5) Good linebackers can be had later.
Kendricks, Perryman, McKinney. All three of those guys were drafted in the second round last year, and at least the first two started for their respective teams. That's not to say the Falcons will go that way this evening, but that is to say that there are linebackers that can be had later than the first round that can still contribute.
Neal could also step up and be a pseudo linebacker in the vein of Deone Bucannon for the Cardinals. We play a lot of cover 3, so the other safety will routinely come down into the box and be a pseudo-linebacker anyway.
6) Safety was absolutely a position of need.
This might be the most important point. We let William Moore go and our safety situation was pretty dire. Kemal Ishmael was a pretty good fill-in for WAR, but I don't think he was athletic enough to fill the role Neal fills. That leaves us with Allen and Therezie, both free safeties, and Charles Godfrey, who's a stopgap at the end of his career.
Everyone talks about the pass rush being so important, but also remember that our pass rush had so many instances where just another split second or two would've resulted in a sack, and drafting for secondary can create that extra moment of hesitation. Dump offs over the middle slayed us all year long, and now we have a safety that not only can help cover that but also deliver extreme punishment to the poor sap that has to catch them.
I wanted Miles Killebrew because he willingly squared up anyone, but admittedly I didn't know Keanu Neal was the bigger, faster, and stronger version of him. Seems like a pretty sweet deal.
So, Falcons fans that are salty, cool your jets. Screw the "grades", forget the experts. I think you'll find that this pick had a lot of thought put into it by Quinn, TD, and everyone involved. Neal is fast and physical and had plus character. Darron Lee's physicality was legitimately questionable, and Shaq Lawson had a late-breaking shoulder issue that will sideline him for an entire offseason.
All these things considered, I think this pick was just fine.