With the 17th overall pick, the Atlanta Falcons selected Keanu Neal, safety from the University of Florida, in the 2016 NFL Draft. Fans were very skeptical of this pick initially, but Neal drew comparisons to the hard-hitting Kam Chancellor in the dominant Seattle Seahawks defense and fans soon came around to the idea of a force like that in the defensive backfield.
Unfortunately, a knee injury in a preseason game sidelined Neal for the first two weeks of the NFL season. But in Week 3, Neal made his professional debut against the New Orleans Saints. His hit on Travaris Cadet showed the watching league that he was a force to be reckoned with and capable of putting out the lights of opposing offensive players. With his season full of hard hits in mind, let’s take a look at Neal’s stats and impact throughout the 2016 season for the Atlanta Falcons.
Neal’s tackle numbers are absolutely insane. His 106 tackles were second among all rookies (Falcons’ own Deion Jones was first), and tied for 26th among the entire NFL. If he played the whole season, perhaps he could’ve lead all rookies in tackles and maybe even cracked the top 20 in the NFL. But regardless of where he stands on the tackle leaderboards, Neal showed his toughness and willingness to make tough plays in the secondary and the line of scrimmage alike.
His pass defenses don’t seem like much to write home about with only 8, but remember that Neal is a more than just a safety, he’s an enforcer. More often he will give his man one hell of a lick rather than swat the pass away.
Forced fumbles are often a product of big hits, and we all know Neal can hit. His 5 forced fumbles were most among NFL rookies and tied for third in the NFL. So not only does Neal play with toughness and grit, but he creates turnovers to give the Falcons’ high powered offense a chance to get back on the field.
However, Neal is not an unstoppable superman that knocks every ball carrier off their feet on the field at all times. His biggest weakness is coverage, specifically the coverage of large and physical receivers or tight ends. In the Falcons first meeting with the Panthers in Week 4, Neal struggled with the matchup of tight end Greg Olsen. Since Neal stands at 6’0 and Olsen stands at 6’5, there is an obvious height advantage that Carolina was wise to exploit. Jordy Nelson, the star wide receiver on the Packers, also gave Neal trouble in their meetings this season. Now, most defenders have trouble with stars like Olsen and Nelson, so it should be no surprise that Neal initially struggled. However, time will tell if Neal develops to compensate for his size disadvantage and become an elite defender.
Overall, Neal is an x-factor. He is a player that opposing offenses must game plan and adjust for, or else they will pay for it. He can stuff the running back at the line of scrimmage and he can make the closing hit on a receiver. His versatile abilities and toughness make him a nightmare on the field that makes receivers think twice before crossing the middle of the field and makes running backs reconsider fighting for extra yards in the secondary. He is not a perfect safety by any means yet, as he still has his weaknesses, but with his work ethic and the defensive prowess of Dan Quinn, he definitely has the potential to continue to grow as his career moves forward.
Neal was named to the Pro Football Writers of America All-Rookie team for his stellar play in his first season. Hopefully, Neal will continue to develop and deem himself worthy of other accolades and become the star he is capable of being.