The logic and science behind Cowboys’ Keanu Neal’s conversion to linebacker

Neal

Atlanta Falcons strong safety Keanu Neal (22) runs against the Denver Broncos during the second half of an NFL football game, Sunday, Nov. 8, 2020, in Atlanta. (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson)

By Russel Jakubowski

In an odd move, Pro Bowl safety Keanu Neal converted to linebacker and joined a crowded room after signing with the Dallas Cowboys in April. Neal thrived at safety during the early years with the Atlanta Falcons. However, as time has ticked by, Neal has begun to fade away from his Pro-Bowl form. Now, Neal is looking for a rebirth in the NFL at a new position, linebacker.

Playing ability:

Keanu Neal was one of the most versatile safeties when he came out of Florida in 2016. Neal was a hard-hitting enforcer who was a great cover-man on the back-end. However, after years of wear and tear, he has been reduced to a box safety that only strives underneath zone coverage sets. While his coverage ability isn’t what it once was. Neal is still a better athlete than the average prototypical WILL linebacker. Neal is a solid tackler, and he was one of the best pass-rushing safeties over the last five years. The former Florida Gator is one of the hardest-hitting players in the entire league. He will have a leg-up on all the linebackers as he has five years of knowledge regarding Quinn’s schemes and playbook. Linebacker is as demanding when it comes to range and top-end speed as playing safety is. Neal plays like a linebacker in today’s NFL.

Team need:

The Dallas Cowboys linebacking core severely underperformed last season. Leighton Vander Esch’s consistent injuries caused the team to move Jaylon Smith to MIKE linebacker, creating a void at WILL linebacker. Keanu Neal is now a safety-net WILL linebacker. In the likely event that Vander Esch misses time, the team can move Smith to MIKE and Neal to WILL and not miss a beat. Keanu Neal can operate as a jack-of-all-trades in Dan Quinn’s defense. Neal can perform as the team’s emergency strong-safety if Donovan Wilson and company don’t pan out or are injured. Keanu Neal is a multi-faceted depth piece that Dan Quinn can use situationally.

Physical ailments:

Coming out of college, Keanu Neal had below-average speed for a starting safety. It was confirmed after he ran a 4.62 40-yard dash time. The average starting strong safety has a 4.55 40-yard dash time. His speed would only begin to dissipate as his pro-career carried on. In the 2018 season opener against the reigning Super Bowl Champion Philadelphia Eagles, Keanu Neal tore his ACL, and his season ended. In week three of the 2019 season, Neal tore his Achilles, and again, his season was over. These physical determinants have shredded Neal’s ability to remain sharp when it comes to coverage on the back-end of the defense. His range in pass coverage was hindered due to challenging injuries. Neal should no longer efficiently work sideline-to-sideline as a coverage specialist. He will be tasked with zone-drops and covering running backs and tight ends to enable his skill-set better.

Summary:

A combination of physical talent, team need, and physical ailments have forced Keanu Neal to convert to linebacker. Immediate expectations are that Neal will work behind Jaylon Smith on the depth chart. Neal can start at WILL linebacker if he is immediately pressed to do so. One prediction I have for Keanu Neal is that he leads all Cowboys linebackers in tackles-for-loss this season. Keanu Neal’s nine last season would have led the 2020 Cowboys linebacking core. Sub-package and special team duties. are very much on the table for one of Dan Quinn’s best defenders.