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Career Window: Keanu Neal is still one the league’s best young defenders

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Fact: Keanu Neal hasn’t eaten a carb since 2004

Atlanta Falcons v Philadelphia Eagles Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images

Falcons strong safety Keanu Neal is an outstanding football player and a fan favorite. Many fans foolishly freaked out when the Falcons took him 17th overall in the 2016 NFL Draft. But Neal was head coach Dan Quinn’s guy, and he quickly silenced any naysayers.

Neal only played 37 snaps in 2018, tearing his ACL during the third quarter of the season opener against the Eagles. Neal starting running again last month, and by all accounts, he’s on track in his recovery.

Impact

Neal is an above average strong safety, particularly when he’s playing to his strengths in the box. In 2017, Neal was Pro Football Focus’ 17th ranked safety, racking up 34 defensive stops and earning a solid overall grade (78.1). He was the 7th best safety in run defense that season, grading out way above average (84.9). Neal had a similarly successful rookie campaign, earning an overall PFF grade of 73.1 in 2016.

If you need a visual to illustrate Neal’s impact, look no further than the Falcons’ heavy reliance on Jordan Richards during the first half of last season. Richards was frequently a train wreck in coverage and only passable against the run.

Career Window

Neal has played 2,347 snaps as a professional, which is arguably a lot of tread on his tires given that he’s only played in 31 NFL games. That said, Neal will enter the 2019 season as a 24 year old, and assuming his recovery stays on track, he’s still one of the league’s best young defenders. I don’t expect the Falcons to part ways with him any time soon. My best guess is that he can continue to play at a high level for the next 4-5 years at a minimum.

Contract Situation

Neal has three accrued seasons under his belt, notwithstanding the fact that he missed most of last season. Because he’s a former first round pick, the Falcons can exercise a fifth year option at a cost of $10.7 million. I expect them to do just that at some point before training camp begins.

Looking Ahead

Neal’s injury was the first domino to fall in 2018, and it set off a forgettable chain reaction. Neal is an incredibly hard worker, so even if he misses OTAs and the first part of training camp, I’ll be shocked if he isn’t ready to go by week one. Nobody can predict the future, but I have a feeling Neal will quickly put last season in his rear view mirror.

Your thoughts, Falcoholics?