We’re in the depths of the offseason here at The Falcoholic, and there has been little to nothing in the way of interesting news in ages. So, we’ll have to make some content of our own in the meantime. Over the next few weeks, I’ll be bringing you a new Player Profile series where we’ll take a look at each of the players on Atlanta’s roster. I’ll break down their measurables, past production, and try to project their 2020 season with the Falcons.
We’ll get things started with the projected starters. The fifth group—and final one on defense—will be safety. The Falcons kept things largely the same here heading into 2020, with the lone addition being fourth-round selection Jaylinn Hawkins as a developmental backup for Keanu Neal at strong safety.
Today, we take a closer look at strong safety starter Keanu Neal, who enters a pivotal season in 2020 on his fifth-year option.
S Keanu Neal
Age: 24 (25 during 2020 season)
Contract: $6.46M cap hit in 2020, free agent in 2021
Career Production: 34 games played, 34 games started | 238 total tackles, 6 TFL, 8 FF, 14 PD, 1 INT
2019 Production: 3 games played, 3 games started | 14 total tackles, 12.5% missed tackle rate | 70% completion percentage allowed, 85.4 passer rating allowed
Previous Teams: Drafted 1st round (#17 overall) by the Atlanta Falcons (2016-present)
Once the face of the Falcons secondary due to his hard-hitting style of play and aggressive on-field demeanor, Keanu Neal has unfortunately suffered back-to-back season-ending injuries in 2018 and 2019. This has, obviously, severely limited his play time over the past two seasons, and leaves the Falcons in a difficult situation with the 2017 Pro Bowler. On the one hand, Neal has been excellent when healthy and on the field. On the other, he hasn’t been healthy since 2017—and is now coming off both an ACL tear and an Achilles injury.
With Neal injured, Atlanta had no choice but to maintain the fifth-year option placed on him. In truth, I doubt they would have moved on even if they had the choice. For what it’s worth, Neal appeared to rehab extremely well from the ACL tear and was back in time to start the 2019 season. An Achilles injury is more serious, and has more potential to affect his future in the league, but Neal is still just 24 years old. There’s a solid chance he can put these two freak injuries behind him and have a very good, and relatively healthy, NFL career.
Keanu Neal was the top choice in that legendary 2016 draft class, which helped lift the Falcons to a Super Bowl berth. Neal hit the ground running in training camp and never looked back, showing off his signature brand of physicality in the secondary and performing better in coverage—particularly against TEs—than anyone expected. Neal’s off-field persona and ability as a leader also showed up almost immediately, and he became indispensable to the secondary.
Neal followed up his strong rookie season with an even better 2017, where he was named to his first Pro Bowl. Expectations were similarly high for him heading into 2018, but Neal suffered his season-ending ACL tear in Week 1 against the Eagles—heralding what would be a miserable, injury-plagued season for Atlanta. In 2019, Neal returned and managed 3 games before suffering a similar fate, this time an Achilles injury. For whatever reason—his skillset, his leadership, or his mere presence—the Falcons defense just falls off a cliff when Neal isn’t on the field. Hopefully he can return healthy for the 2020 season.
Projection: Neal, if healthy, should return to a high-level of play in 2020. It may not be 2017 Pro Bowl-level, but it will be above-average at worst for a strong safety—which is miles ahead of what the Falcons have had at the position in his absence. Just don’t be surprised if Neal has a slow start to the season as he continues to rehab his Achilles injury.