The Atlanta Falcons took a left turn on draft night, passing over popular selections like Myles Jack, Shaq Lawson, and Darren Lee. Who is Keanu Neal, and how does he fit with the team?
Luckily, SB Nation's Florida Gators site Alligator Army looked at Neal just a few days ago. Check out the full article, but we are covering some of the highlights.
In an interview with Tampa Bay Times reporter Matt Baker, Neal revealed how he learned the dos and don'ts of football from watching the path of his older brother. Neal's work ethic and drive proved to be ahead of his time. As a freshman, he was training and studying the game like a senior. His old coach said Neal had his brother's NFL body as just an 11th grader.
It is tough to be drafted in the first round without a good understanding of the game, but it sounds like Neal knows the value of studying the playbook.
The player we call KeKe's strongest selling point is his physicality, a product of his body type and his athleticism. All of that hard work in high school paid off early for Neal, as he saw action in all 12 games as a true freshman, and totaled 34 games over his collegiate career. Most 18-year olds coming into FBS programs need a redshirt year of weight training to get their body physically ready.
While there Falcons were believed to be considering the transitioned Darren Lee or the raw Kevin Dodd, Neal came into Florida and started early on an SEC defense. And the clips in this article are amazing.
That was Alabama running back Derrick Henry, who I estimate at 6-foot-9, 340-pounds.
It's that combination of having both football instincts and the athleticism to get to the spot he needs to be in that constitute where Neal wins as a player.
Sikkema agrees that Neal has the athleticism to play free safety, but thinks Neal is at his best when he can play in the box and deliver big hits.
Neal is a confident player when he puts the helmet on, and confidence is a huge component of being a defensive back. In close areas, he's a nightmare for players about to receive the ball. But those highlight-reel hits don't happen (or multiply) by chance. Neal does a good job of putting himself in position to make such hits in hopes of knocking the ball out before it can even be controlled.
This article was pre-draft, but they suggested that the Raiders, Falcons, and Steelers are potential destinations for Neal. While they believed 17 would be "slightly too high" for Neal, it sounded as if Neal would not make it past Pittsburgh at 25.
Neal is an exciting pick that fits Quinn's fast and physical requirement, and should be the team's starting safety immediately.