When the Dallas Cowboys signed Keanu Neal in March of this year, it was met with wild indifference from fans. Neal, a former first round pick and pedigreed player, came with extensive injury history (ACL, MCL, Acillies) which clouded his value. Those injuries and some coverage deficiencies when playing deep made him a square peg in a round hole during much of his time in Atlanta.
Pro Football Focus only graded Neal as the 33rd rated safety last year (the highest rating he had since his rookie season) yet the newly hired defensive coordinator Dan Quinn vouched for him, making him the highest paid outside free agent signing of the Cowboys. He did so with a plan in place: Keanu Neal would play WILL linebacker and not strong safety.
In other words, Keanu Neal would finally get to be the square peg for a square hole.
In Atlanta, Keanu Neal was a hitter to be feared. Similar to Dallas’ own, Roy Williams, Neal had an innate ability to blow people up. But for as good as he was laying the wood, he was a liability in many of his coverage assignments as a safety.
He wasn’t terrible, mind you (he still graded better in coverage than everyone in Dallas not named Donovan Wilson), but his coverage score was his lowest graded trait and the film seems to back that up. Opponents worked to isolate him and take him out of plays as a hitter while exposing him in coverage. Overall, his effectiveness suffered unless he could play in the box.
Injuries made things even worse. Atlanta let him leave because they weren’t sure exactly where he fit, how much he could be relied on, and what his value is.
Dan Quinn had a plan…
Keanu Neal looks like the Dallas Cowboys best signing of the offseason
From the jump, Dan Quinn pitched Neal as a solution at WILL. His elite hitting ability clearly translate. His athleticism is well suited for the position. His body type (Dan gravitates towards smaller WILL LBs) was perfect. And the demands in coverage were different as well.
Neal clearly bought into the position shift (people forget he played some linebacker snaps in Atlanta too) and gained weight and prepared accordingly.
With Micah Parsons, Leighton Vander Esch, Jaylon Smith, and Jabril Cox all on the 2021 roster, Keanu Neal may seem more like a luxury than “steal of the offseason”. But Neal has played so well, he’s expected to lead that ultra-deep unit in nickel formations and hopefully lead the charge the new-look Dallas Cowboys defense.
Aside from getting torched early in camp a couple times by Dalton Schultz, Keanu Neal has settled into his new role. The projected starter alongside Parsons is expected to tally significant snaps in multiple defensive packages this year and has already pushed LVE and Smith (last years’ starters) down the depth chart.
In preseason action, Neal has been nearly flawless in his play. He has a keen understanding of Quinn’s defense and has been executing assignments with purpose and without hesitation.
Linebackers are inevitably at the mercy of the DL play in front of them. That’s why the injury suffered to expected starter Neville Gallimore stings so badly. But if Osa Odighizuwa can hold down the fort like we expect him to, Neal should be able to keep up his level of play.
The linebacker rotation is going to be an ever-changing experiment this season. The Dallas Cowboys are focused on moving Parsons around to exploit match-ups and they have the linebackers around him to facilitate such movement.
It’s clear right now though, Micah Parsons and Keanu Neal are LB1 and LB2 on this team and everyone else is just filling in the gaps in and around them.
The Dallas Cowboys didn’t make a lot of headlines in March for their free agent signings but if Keanu Neal keeps playing like he is, the praise will come…