Falcons strong safety Keanu Neal played 1,043 defensive snaps in 2017. That year, his sophomore campaign, was his best as a professional. He played like a man possessed, improving dramatically in coverage while playing elite run defense. Neal had 34 defensive stops that year. (That’s a lot. In fact, it was fourth highest stop total among safeties in 2017.) But ... then 2018 happened.
When the 2018 season kicked off, we all expected Neal to pick up where he left off in 2017. But by mid-September, he was on injured reserve with a torn ACL. 12 months later, after countless hours of rehab, sweat, and tears, Neal was back on the field. All was right in the world, until it wasn’t. By the end of September, Neal found himself back on injured reserve after suffering a season-ending achilles tear.
To say that Neal’s past 14 months have been difficult would be a dramatic understatement. It begs several questions. But the question Thomas Dimitroff (or his successor) must answer is a simple one: what is Neal’s current value?
The Falcons exercised Neal’s fifth year option back in April, so he’s under contract through the end of next season. He is due a substantial raise this offseason. (His $1.9 million base salary in 2019 will jump to $6.5 million in 2020.) Neal’s contract is guaranteed for injury only at this point. It becomes fully guaranteed at the outset of the next league year. So theoretically the Falcons could cut him before the next league year begins, if they choose. This would net them $6.5 million in cap space with no dead money. To be clear, teams almost never cut players after exercising their fifth year options, and given Neal’s potential, it’s not likely to happen in his case either.
Neal’s recent history, however tragic, isn’t unique. Players get hurt; and injuries have derailed countless NFL careers. But watching Neal go down with season-ending injuries in 2018 and again in 2019 was nearly unbearable. Because we know what Neal can do when he’s healthy, or rather, what he could do when he was healthy before back to back season-ending injuries, he’s entitled to the benefit of the doubt.
Neal’s 2017 was fun to watch. That said, it’s fair to wonder whether he can replicate that production in 2020 or ever again. The fact is that many players never play again after tearing their achilles. And what’s more, looking at the players that do come back, many can’t play at the same level. Put simply, it’s hard to know what Neal’s NFL future will look like.
I have no doubt Neal will do everything he needs to in order to tee up a bounce back season in 2020. That said, it’s still fair to ask this question: can Neal get back to where he was in 2017? I can’t answer that question, but it’s probably unwise to bet against him. He’s still only 24 years old and we know he’s resilient. So for now, it’s a wait and see scenario. I’d like to see him bounce back in 2020, but it’s by no means a guarantee.
Your thoughts, Falcoholics?