Keanu Neal

Minor NFL Transactions: 9/22/21

We’ll keep track of today’s minor moves here:

Dallas Cowboys

  • Placed on reserve/COVID-19 list: LB Keanu Neal; as a high-risk close contact, per The Athletic’s Jon Machota (on Twitter), Neal can return after a five-day isolation period

Denver Broncos

Detroit Lions

Houston Texans

Las Vegas Raiders

Minnesota Vikings

Tennessee Titans

Cowboys To Move Keanu Neal To LB

The Cowboys will play Keanu Neal at linebacker (via Jon Machota of TheAthletic.com). Neal spent his first five seasons at safety for the Falcons, but he says he’s ready to make the adjustment.

I feel I can play safety, linebacker,” Neal said. “Wherever they put me, I’m going to go out there and play at my best. Growing up, I played linebacker in middle school and high school. Then, we changed the defense, and I switched to safety. So I went to college as a safety, but in my heart, I have been a linebacker for a while. I still have an understanding of what everything entails with playing linebacker.”

The former first-round pick is listed at 6’1″ and 216 pounds. This year, he plans on bulking up a bit and playing around 222 lbs in the fall. It’ll be an adjustment, but old pal Dan Quinn is confident that he can make it work.

When Neal signed in March, most assumed that the Cowboys would keep him in the secondary, since they already had two three-down ‘backers and a need at safety. They’ve even bolstered the LB group since then by drafting Micah Parsons with the No. 12 overall pick, followed by LSU’s Jabril Cox in the fourth round.

Still, Sean Lee is out of the picture and the Cowboys may see Neal as a potential 2022 replacement for Leighton Vander Esch, who had his fifth-year option declined. For now, Neal’s only signed for 2021 on a one-year, $5MM deal.

Neal, 26 in July, recorded at least 100 tackles in each of his three healthy seasons. He posted 106 stops last year — including a career-high nine tackles for loss — and ranked as Pro Football Focus’ No. 33 overall safety.

Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.

Cowboys To Host Malik Hooker, Damontae Kazee

3:23pm: Even after the Cowboys agreed to terms with Neal, they still intend to visit with Hooker and Kazee, Todd Archer of ESPN.com notes (on Twitter).

1:25pm: Although their Keanu Neal interest may not be for a role as a full-time safety, the Cowboys appear interested in bolstering this position soon. They are set to meet with Malik Hooker and Damontae Kazee, Calvin Watkins of the Dallas Morning News tweets.

Despite the latter two defenders being on Dallas’ docket, the team remains in the mix for Neal, Watkins adds. Neal, however, appears to be on the cusp of a position change. Hooker and Kazee would then profile as potential Cowboys replacements for Xavier Woods, though the recent Cowboys starter remains unsigned. And both the safeties set to visit Dallas are coming off severe injuries. Each tore an Achilles’ tendon early last season.

While Hooker played out his rookie contract with the Colts, the Cowboys’ interest in Neal and Kazee certainly makes sense. The Falcons drafted Neal in the 2016 first round and added Kazee in the 2017 fifth round. New Cowboys DC Dan Quinn was the Falcons’ HC for most of the free agent safeties’ respective Atlanta tenures.

Hooker entered the NFL with injury trouble and has not been able to shake those concerns over the course of his career. While the former Colts first-round pick did bounce back from a seven-game rookie season to suit up for 27 regular-season contests from 2018-19, he is coming off a two-game 2020 slate. Hooker suffered his Achilles injury last September.

Neal’s Falcons teammate for four seasons, Kazee delivered a breakthrough season replacing an injured Neal in 2018. Kazee intercepted an NFL-most seven passes and posted 10 passes defensed, and he started 29 games for the Falcons — all in place of Neal, who suffered major injuries in back-to-back seasons — from 2018-19. Kazee’s four-start 2020 screeched to a halt after his October Achilles tear.

The Cowboys have featured a need at safety for years; Woods’ UFA status has now magnified the void at this position. They signed Ha Ha Clinton-Dix last year but cut him ahead of Week 1. The Cowboys proceeded to allow the most points in franchise history.

Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.

Cowboys, Keanu Neal Agree To Deal

Keanu Neal made his decision Saturday. He will stick with Dan Quinn, opting to sign with the Cowboys. Dallas agreed to terms with the ex-Atlanta safety on a one-year deal worth $5MM, Tom Pelissero of NFL.com tweets.

The former first-round pick played five seasons with the Falcons, working in Quinn’s defense for most of that run. While injuries hijacked two seasons from the ex-Florida Gator, Neal returned last season and re-established his value to some degree.

Neal will receive a $3MM signing bonus, veteran NFL reporter Josina Anderson tweets, with ESPN.com’s Todd Archer noting the deal maxes out at $5MM. It appears the Cowboys secured the ex-Falcon defender at a slightly lower rate. The Jets were the other team mentioned as a Neal finalist, and several other teams inquired about the veteran.

Friday night, Anderson noted Neal was a candidate to work as an outside linebacker on his new team. But with the Cowboys having two three-down ‘backers and a clear need at safety, Neal may make more sense to stay at the position he played in five years under Quinn. It turns out the Cowboys have a layered plan for Neal, with Clarence Hill of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram noting (via Twitter) he will be used at both safety and linebacker.

Still just 25, Neal worked as a Falcons starter immediately after joining the team. And in his three non-injury-marred seasons, Neal recorded at least 100 tackles. He posted 106 last season, with a career-high nine tackles for loss. Pro Football Focus graded him as its No. 33 overall safety. He will have a good chance of carrying those talents over to Dallas, considering the scheme familiarity he has with the team’s new defensive coordinator.

Multiyear Cowboys starter Xavier Woods remains a free agent, and the team plans to visit with Malik Hooker and former Neal teammate Damontae Kazee soon.

Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.

Keanu Neal Down To Cowboys, Jets; Planning Move To LB?

A host of teams showed interest in former Falcons first-round pick Keanu Neal, but the veteran safety appears to be down to two finalists. Neal is deciding between the Cowboys and Jets, veteran NFL reporter Josina Anderson tweets.

Initially, the Panthers, Lions, Colts and Vikings inquired about Neal. While Neal would seem redundant on a Jets team that has Marcus Maye, Ashtyn Davis and the recently added Lamarcus Joyner, Anderson adds that the veteran safety plans on moving to outside linebacker.

Neal likely will not be a costly addition, but the multiple-suitor aspect is interesting for his value. After missing 28 games between the 2018-19 seasons, Neal returned to play in 14 for the Falcons last season. While he is still just 25, the ex-Florida Gator will bring extensive injury baggage to his next team. Neal suffered a torn ACL in 2018 and an Achilles tear in ’19.

In Neal’s three non-injury-wrecked seasons, he totaled at least 100 tackles. Pro Football Focus graded him as a slightly above-average safety in each of those slates, so a linebacker move would be interesting as Neal heads into his second act as a pro.

The Jets are shifting to a 4-3 defense; the Cowboys have used that scheme for a while. The Cowboys, in an ideal world, have two three-down linebackers in Leighton Vander Esch and Jaylon Smith. But injuries have intervened there, creating a need for depth. C.J. Mosley would man the middle for the Jets, after missing most of the past two seasons. The team may still be looking for help at outside ‘backer, and Neal played five seasons under Dan Quinn. Robert Saleh plans to run a similar defense in his first Jets season.

Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.

Keanu Neal Drawing Significant Interest

Free agent safety Keanu Neal is attracting significant attention on the open market. Per veteran NFL reporter Josina Anderson, the Cowboys, Jets, Lions, Vikings, Colts, and Panthers have all expressed interest in the Falcons’ defender (Twitter link).

After seeing his 2018-19 campaigns almost completely wiped out by injury, Neal managed to suit up for 15 games (14 starts) in 2020. He wasn’t brilliant, but he did pick up 100 tackles while grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 33rd-best safety out of 94 qualifiers. The fact that he was able to stay healthy and will only be 26 when the regular season starts is certainly driving the interest in his services.

After all, prior to suffering a torn ACL in the 2018 opener — he also sustained a torn Achilles during the third game of the 2019 season — Neal was establishing himself as one of the better young safeties in the game. He was selected by Atlanta with the No. 17 overall pick in the 2016 draft, and he racked up 106 tackles in 14 starts in his rookie campaign.

He built on that performance in 2017, starting all 16 games and piling up 116 tackles en route to a Pro Bowl nod. He moved with fluidity and demonstrated a nose for the football, as evidenced by his high tackle totals and the eight fumbles that he forced over his first two seasons in the league. Though he did not force any fumbles in 2020, nor was he as strong in coverage as he was before the injury trouble, there is reason to believe that he can return to his previous levels of performance.

Dallas, of course, has long been looking for a long-term solution at safety, while the other clubs Anderson mentions also have clear openings on the back end of their secondaries. The Jets, who recently hit Marcus Maye with the franchise tag, are an interesting fit, as GM Joe Douglas has been said to be opposed to paying big money to safeties. A Maye-Neal tandem would be a talented but expensive pairing, though trading Maye would certainly be a possibility.

One way or another, it does not sound like Neal will be returning to the Falcons, who are also preparing to bid adieu to safety Damontae Kazee and who have already parted ways with DB Ricardo Allen.

Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.

Extension Candidate: Keanu Neal

Falcons safety Keanu Neal has had a horrible run of injury luck. In 2018, he suffered a torn ACL in the regular season opener, and in 2019, he sustained a torn Achilles during the third game of the season. Both of those injuries were season-enders, so he has played just four games over the past two seasons.

Prior to that, however, he was establishing himself as one of the better young safeties in the game. He was selected by Atlanta with the No. 17 overall pick in the 2016 draft, and he racked up 106 tackles in 14 starts in his rookie campaign, which culminated in a heartbreaking Super Bowl loss to New England.

He built on that performance in 2017, starting all 16 games and piling up 116 tackles en route to a Pro Bowl nod. He moves with fluidity and has a nose for the football, as evidenced by his high tackle totals and the eight fumbles that he forced over his first two seasons in the league. That ability also helps him in coverage on the back end, though he has just one career interception to date.

The Falcons exercised the fifth-year option of his rookie contract last April, which suggested that they weren’t too concerned about the 2018 ACL tear. Of course, they didn’t bank on the 2019 Achilles tear, and Neal is presently slated to count for about $6.5MM against the 2020 cap thanks to the fifth-year option (the option was guaranteed for injury only at the time it was exercised but became fully-guaranteed when the 2020 league year opened earlier this month).

Though $6.5MM would ordinarily look like a relative bargain for someone with Neal’s abilities, the fact that he has been unable to stay on the field complicates matters a bit. That is especially true since the Falcons have limited salary cap space at the moment.

So on the one hand, it would make sense for Atlanta to let Neal simply play out his contract and revisit the situation prior to the opening of free agency next offseason (after all, although the team’s pass defense was one of the worst in the league from 2018-19, per DVOA, that unit didn’t grade out much higher even when Neal was in the lineup in 2016-17). But the top of the safety market now includes contracts with average annual values of over $14MM, and if Neal has a healthy, bounceback campaign, other clubs may pony up that type of cash to steal him away from the Falcons.

As such, the Falcons could explore an extension with Neal. Such a move would be risky given the health concerns — Neal also dealt with a knee injury not long before his rookie season — but it also has a couple of obvious benefits. One, it would help the Falcons’ immediate cap situation, and two, it could keep a talented young player under contract for several more seasons at a potentially discount rate.

From Neal’s perspective, an extension may represent an undersell if he does play up to his 2017 levels in 2020, but it would also provide him extra security in the event that he cannot recapture his prior form. As of yet, there have been no reports of negotiations between the two sides, but it would not be a surprise to hear of exploratory talks in the coming months.

Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.

Keanu Neal Tears Achilles

For the second straight season, Falcons safety Keanu Neal‘s season has ended with a devastating injury. Neal is believed to have torn his Achilles during the team’s loss to the Colts earlier today, a source told Ian Rapoport of NFL Network (Twitter link).

The Falcons placed Neal on IR and promoted safety Jamal Carter from their practice squad, per Howard Balzer of BalzerFootball.com (on Twitter).

Obviously, his year is over. Rapoport writes that Neal will have surgery this week, and “should be good to go well before the 2020 season.” In Week 1 of last year Neal tore his ACL, and this latest injury was to the same leg. Atlanta picked up his fifth-year option earlier this offseason, keeping him under team control through 2020. The good news for him is that option year was fully guaranteed for injury at around $6.7MM and assuming he can’t pass a physical on the first day of the new league year, he’ll get that cash no matter what.

Neal has been a good player when healthy, but he’ll now have missed 28 games over the past two seasons. It’s a tough blow for a Falcons defense that already hasn’t looked great this year and was one of the most injured units in the league last year. Atlanta drafted the Florida product in the first-round back in 2016.

He started all 16 games in 2017, racking up 113 tackles, six passes defended, and an interception. The Falcons’ secondary got diced up by Jacoby Brissett on Sunday, and now they’ll be without one of its key cogs moving forward. They currently sit at 1-2 and will host the Titans in Week 4.

A UDFA out of Miami, Carter spent two years with the Broncos. He missed all of the 2018 season and was moved to linebacker in training camp. The Broncos waived him prior to the regular season’s outset, however, leading him to the Falcons’ taxi squad. Carter is back at safety and will likely fill in as a backup for the Falcons, who also lost J.J. Wilcox to a season-ending injury earlier this year.

Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.

Falcons Notes: Julio, Neal, Allen, Smith

We learned earlier today that the Falcons may already have a new deal in place for star receiver Julio Jones, but GM Thomas Dimitroff declined to put a timetable on the negotiations. As Vaughn McClure of ESPN.com writes, Dimitroff did express optimism that the two sides would reach an accord.

Dimitroff said, “[w]e have the utmost faith that Julio is coming here and he’s taking care of his business while he’s here, and we’ll keep plugging away with [Jones’ agent] Jimmy [Sexton]. We have a very good working relationship and respect for Jimmy Sexton and CAA, and I’m confident [the deal] will get done.”

Sexton could not be reached for comment, but after getting long-term deals for Grady Jarrett and Deion Jones done this month, it looks like the Falcons will give Julio Jones his new contract in short order.

Now for more from Atlanta:

  • We heard back in May that the Falcons’ starting safety tandem of Keanu Neal and Ricardo Allen, who suffered major injuries that ended their 2018 seasons prematurely, were expected to be ready for training camp, and that turned out to be true. As Ledbetter writes, Allen returned to the practice field Monday and went through most of the team drills, and Emmanuel Morgan of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution says that Neal has participated in drills and has taken reps with the first-team defense. Unfortunately, the club lost backup safety J.J. Wilcox for the season after he tore his ACL on Monday.
  • The Falcons plan to expand RB Ito Smith‘s role this season, as Morgan writes in a separate piece. Smith will serve as the club’s No. 2 back behind Devonta Freeman, and he will look to improve his pass protection and his ability to hit holes at full speed while continuing to refine his abilities as a pass catcher. Running backs coach Matt Brock hinted that the club may only carry three RBs, so the battle for the No. 3 spot behind Freeman and Smith is one that he expects to be highly competitive.
  • Defensive lineman Michael Bennett suffered a broken ankle on Monday, but he could return this season, as D. Orlando Ledbetter of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution tweets.
  • The Falcons signed veteran DL Allen Bailey yesterday.

NFC South Notes: Little, Falcons, Grayson

The Panthers traded up in the second round of the 2019 draft to land Ole Miss offensive tackle Greg Little, and as Josh Alper of Pro Football Talk writes, Carolina’s left tackle job is seemingly Little’s to lose. The Panthers deployed Taylor Moton on the blindside last season, but GM Marty Hurney‘s preference is to have Moton play right tackle. Daryl Williams is still in the mix for a spot on the right side of the line, but the club appears prepared to pencil in Little as its starting LT, which would make the rookie a key figure in the Panthers’ 2019 fortunes.

Now for more from the NFC South:

  • The Falcons have until July 15 to work out a long-term extension with franchise-tagged defensive tackle Grady Jarrett, but GM Thomas Dimitroff recently conceded that Jarrett may play out the 2019 campaign under the tag, which suggests that the two sides still aren’t particularly close on a new contract. Dimitroff said (via D. Orlando Ledbetter of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution), “I’m confident that something will get done one way or the other. If it doesn’t, we have a year to continue to talk about it.”
  • The Falcons‘ starting safety tandem of Keanu Neal and Ricardo Allen, who are recovering from major injuries that ended their 2018 seasons prematurely, are both expected to be at full strength by the time training camp begins in July, as Ledbetter notes in a separate piece.
  • The Saints tried out former LSU track star Cyril Grayson yesterday, as Josh Katzenstein of the Times-Picayune tweets. Grayson has spent time with the Seahawks, Colts, and Bears, but he has yet to see regular season action.