Falcons bolster secondary with Keanu Neal

The Atlanta Falcons selected Florida safety Keanu Neal with the 17th overall pick of the NFL draft on Thursday and added physicality and versatility to their energetic and talented secondary. With a vision to bring in a hard-hitting safety that can disrupt plays, cover sideline to sideline and get downfield in a hurry, the franchise successfully brought in the 6-foot-2, 211-pound Neal and solidified his immortal status as a first round pick.

“We had a game plan coming into this draft like we always do,” explained Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff. “It was very well though out. We had targeted our first round pick Keanu Neal from the beginning. He was guy that we really believe was the top safety for our system.”

Neal’s fit into the Falcons system and his projected success at the professional level made him one of the hottest commodities available on draft day. Taking into account that Neal is joining a Falcons defense that will give him an opportunity to become the starter right away, it is a mutually beneficial relationship that the young star is eager to begin.

“I think I fit perfectly,” Neal said moments after the Falcons called his name. “They want guys who are interchangeable. Who can do more than just one thing and I fit that.


The ability to be interchangeable is a key ingredient to Quinn’s defensive philosophy and the safeties that star in his exciting and fast-paced style. Neal has the ability to cover tight ends with his physicality and contribute in the run-game with his explosive tackling. Neal’s power and explosiveness as a tackler went viral in 2014 when he stonewalled Heisman Trophy Winner and 240-pound running back Derrick Henry with a crushing hit.

The immediate impact that Neal will have on the roster, however, is perhaps the most exciting aspect that the organization and fans can look forward to. The Falcons are in need of a strong safety after releasing William Moore and having big shoes to fill grants Neal the opportunity to shine and develop his way into a young leader on a future-minded pack of emerging defensive stars.

Even with his reputation as being an enforcer and not backing down from contact, there are gifted and proven coverage skills already in his repertoire. He played both safety positions at Florida and is more than capable of dropping into coverage and fulfilling the challenging role of strong safety.

“The strong safety position is a critical one for us and one that’s really valuable,” Falcons coach Dan Quinn said on Neal’s versatility. “You have to have the run-and-hit factor of playing a linebacker because we play our safeties so close to the line of scrimmage. He’s either in the box or close to the line. He also has to have the coverage skills to play safety, play on the tight ends and be a real factor on third downs.”

There is already a familiar bond that Quinn and Neal share as both hail from the Swamp in Gainesville, Florida. Quinn led the Gators defense from 2011-2012 as defensive coordinator before making the move back to the NFL as a first-time coordinator with the Seattle Seahawks, where he reached back-to-back Super Bowls. As a coordinator with Florida, his defense was top-10 in the country both seasons. During the 2011 season, the Gators would rank eighth nationally in total defense (299.5), seventh in passing defense (166.8) and second in third-down defense (27.12 percent). Neal was partially recruited by Quinn before he left Florida to return to the NFL.

Neal is coming off a productive junior season and skipping his senior year was a lucrative decision for the highly demanded defender. Neal was the Gators’ third-leading tackler last year with 96 tackles and added one interception. The leading factor to his first-round draft status, was the course that last season took. After beginning the year with an injured hamstring that sidelined him for the first two games, Neal rapidly improved as the season went on and his health returned. His emergence as a leader and his impact on the field continued to blossom each week and his potential for more growth at the next level became visible.

His ability to fight through an injury and lead through example fits the toughness that Quinn is looking to bring to the defense. The 8.5 tackles per start he tallied along the way, is evident of his ability to push through setbacks and play through pain.

“He is a guy that embodies what we were looking for as far as his passion and his toughness on and off the field,” Dimitroff said. “It’s something that’s very important for this organization to have someone who has a presence on the field and makes a big impact defensively both in the run and the pass game.”

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