Dallas Cowboys Draft: How Keanu Neal may indicate interest in JOK

(Photo by Quinn Harris/Getty Images)
(Photo by Quinn Harris/Getty Images) /

After nibbling on the bait for a few days, the Dallas Cowboys finally got former first round pick, Keanu Neal, to sign on for 2021. The move is the first “big fish” the Cowboys have snagged this free agent cycle and brings with it a trickledown down effect on the entire defense.

Neal, a safety by trade, is apparently coming to Dallas to play a little weakside linebacker (WILL), according to two sources. The DMN news also reports a third party “resisted that verbiage” and chose not to label his position with Dallas this season.

Whatever his position is called doesn’t matter. It’s clear there’s going to be some fluidity between the WILL and box safety in 2021. There’s natural overlap between the two spots and it’s expected by people like John Owning, Neal will play traditional SS on many base packages and then play WILL when in nickel defense.

The willingness to play Keanu Neal at LB may indicate the Dallas Cowboys openness for an undersized LB in the Draft

What does any of this have to with Notre Dame’s star linebacker Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah (aka JOK)? JOK stands just 6-foot-1, 215 lbs. Undersized by linebacker standards. His diminutive size has caused some teams to pause in their assessments of him as prospect. The dreaded “tweener” label has been used more than once and it’s clear he’s not a fit for everyone.

The Dallas Cowboys, lovers of all things size, are one of those teams who we thought may be dropping him, despite his top-notch film. Leighton Vander Esch (6-foot-4, 256lbs.) and Jaylon Smith (6-foot-2 245 lbs.) are giants, comparatively. That’s the type of linebacker Dallas is known for drafting.

But the willingness to play Neal, 6-foot-1 216 lbs., at WILL, may ultimately indicate a willingness to draft a star linebacker who’s undersized. Someone like JOK.

JOK, who many consider to be a SAF/LB hybrid, has experience playing roles all across the defense. He can cover like a safety and even nickel back. He can blitz like an EDGE. And he can run and chase like a linebacker. He can do it all and that’s where his value is found.

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JOK loses value if a team drafts him and casts him in a singular role (regardless where it’s at). It’s going to take a forward-thinking franchise to maximize JOK’s skills because they have to be willing to adjust their defense and gray the lines between positions. Not all NFL teams want to do that.

Up until now, I didn’t think the Dallas Cowboys were a team willing to do that. But if reports are to be trusted and Keanu Neal is going to play a WILL/SS hybrid role, then perhaps we read the Cowboys all wrong.

Keanu Neal signed a one-year deal with the Cowboys. His addition does not block the Cowboys from drafting someone like JOK at all. But his addition shows us the Cowboys are willing to play a player like him and that means JOK is on back on the table in the 2021 NFL Draft.

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We don’t know how high the Dallas Cowboys have JOK on their draft board but they just showed us they value someone with his “tweener” skill set and are open to carving out a position on their defense, so that certainly tells us something.

  • Published on 03/22/2021 at 11:01 AM
  • Last updated at 03/23/2021 at 07:26 AM