With the Super Bowl behind us, the NFL’s 2020 free agency period is fast approaching. As you might have heard, the Falcons are in a bit of a difficult spot in free agency, which officially begins on March 13. The team has only $5.3M in cap space, which does not include their draft class. Atlanta’s 7 picks—which include 4 in the top-100—will cost an estimated $7.8M by themselves.
That means that, if the Falcons were to make all those picks, they’d technically be negative in cap space after the draft. In order to fix that issue, and create some space to pursue a player or two in free agency, Atlanta may have to make some difficult cuts this offseason. I’d expect the first of those cuts to be coming soon, but it’s unclear which players are likely to get the axe.
Pro Football Focus has taken a crack at predicting some potential cuts for the Falcons and the other 31 teams in their 2020 Free Agency Preview. Among their potential cuts for Atlanta are the usual suspects: DL Allen Bailey (who saves $4.5M), OT Ty Sambrailo ($3.75M), TE Luke Stocker ($2.6M) and QB Matt Schaub ($2M). But they’ve also thrown one other particularly intriguing—and polarizing—name into the mix: S Keanu Neal.
Neal will be playing the 2020 season on his fifth-year option, which is worth approximately $6.46M. It’s the exact same situation as Vic Beasley last year: after the first day of the league year—March 13—the fifth-year option becomes fully guaranteed. If you elect to cut the player before that date, however, you save the entire amount against the cap.
Unlike Beasley, the decision to cut Neal should be a lot harder for the team and fans. When healthy, Neal has been a total gamechanger at strong safety. He was known for his physical, hard-hitting style in college, but his coverage—particularly against TEs—has improved measurably since coming into the NFL. He’s been a valuable matchup piece and a tone-setter for a Falcons defense that has been largely toothless in his absence.
However, Neal hasn’t managed to stay healthy since 2017. He lost nearly the entire 2018 season to an ACL injury, but battled back and entered camp in 2019 healthy. While Neal was a little slow to start his 2019 season, he was playing well before suffering another season-ending injury in Week 3. This time it was an Achilles injury, which can be difficult to recover from.
Neal presents a difficult situation for the Falcons from a financial and team-building standpoint. Financially, while $6.46M is nothing to balk at, it’s nowhere near as significant a savings as Beasley’s $12.8M in 2019. Atlanta can save enough to sign their draft class and bring back a high-priority free agent like TE Austin Hooper just by cutting the players mentioned above, which would free up $12.85M. So cutting Neal isn’t a necessity in 2020.
From a team-building perspective, the decision on Neal also provides some challenges. It’s common knowledge that Achilles injuries are difficult to recover from—although Neal will have an advantage there due to the early-season timing of the injury. Based on what we know about Dan Quinn and Thomas Dimitroff, however, I find it unlikely that they’d consider jettisoning such a key member of the Brotherhood and a high draft pick unless they believed the injury would significantly impact his play in 2020. These are the same guys that kept Vic Beasley around for nearly twice as much last season, after all.
At the end of the day, Neal’s fifth-year option is a high-risk, high-reward proposition for the Falcons. If the team plans to be aggressive in free agency and desperately needs the cash, we could see him cut. But I think it’s more likely that the team elects to pursue a draft-centric approach in 2020 with the hope of gaining some decent compensatory picks in 2021.
What are your thoughts on the potential cut of Keanu Neal in 2020? Do you think the Falcons should keep him around, or take the cap savings and move on?