Deion Jones was named a Rookie of the Year finalist, and I’d be the last person in the world to argue against him for the honor. He’s been a productive tackler, the author of several big plays, and he’s added speed and physicality to a Falcons team that needed both very badly. I couldn’t be higher on his future, and if he wins Defensive Rookie of the Year, I’ll be thrilled.
For all that, I’m not sure he’s more deserving for this honor than Keanu Neal. It occurs to me just now that I have not spent nearly enough time celebrating Neal’s play this year, and it’s not too late to rectify that.
Here are some basic facts: Keanu Neal is just 21 years old. He was a first round pick, handpicked by Dan Quinn to be his enforcer in the secondary, and a lot of people decried the pick as too early and potentially set up to be a bust. Neal has played in 14 games, put up 106 tackles, nine pass deflections, and five forced fumbles over that span. He also has become a legitimately feared defender, and Saints receiver Willie Snead is still picking pieces of his soul out of the turf after one particularly huge hit.
Ricardo Allen gave us a great quote on his relationship with Keanu Neal: pic.twitter.com/46DOX8rElu— Andrew Hirsh (@andrewhirsh) August 2, 2016
KEANU NEAL DESTROYED WILLIE SNEAD #NOvsATL pic.twitter.com/ze7gOnGrzl— Rise Up Reader (@RiseUpReader) January 2, 2017
Neal has only played one fewer game than Jones, and while he doesn’t have the same number of highlight-reel plays as Debo, I think it’s fair to argue that Neal has had an impact that is equal or greater. He’s the most physical player in the secondary and one of the most physical players on this entire defense, and while he’s been quality in coverage, he’s been a force of nature in run support. His style of play leaves him open to injury, sure, but I have little doubt that Neal is going to a fixture on this defense for years to come.
Quinn’s desire for a tone-setter in the secondary always made sense, but seeing Neal in this defense, it seems like like a sensible pick and more like a perfect one. The Falcons have assembled a formidable set of cornerbacks and may very well end up keeping Ricardo Allen around, but Neal is by far the biggest hitter and arguably the most talented player in that group, and the man who will legitimately make players near him cringe. He’s a game-changer by his presence alone, and there’s much more to him than just his presence. I don’t think it’s an overstatement to say that he’s transforming the way this defense operates.
So while he’s not getting the nod as a finalist for Defensive Rookie of the Year, Neal deserves one. In the future, he may not be so easily snubbed.