Where Will Neal Land?
By: Gladys Louise Tyler
To say that Keanu Neal’s NFL career has been a roller coaster of productivity is an understatement. His 2016-2017 seasons he accumulated 222 total tackles, six tackles for loss, eight forced fumbles and one interception. He was selected to the Pro Bowl in the 2017 season.
Both his 2018 and 2019 seasons were cut short due to injuries, a torn ACL, and a ruptured Achilles. He finished those two seasons with a combined 16 total tackles and one quarterback hits. He played in a total of four games for the two seasons.
Last season during a global pandemic he had a bounce-back year. Playing in 15 games he collected 100 total tackles, nine tackles for loss, three quarterback hits, and one interception.
Two things are clear about Neal. He is more of a glorified linebacker than a deep free safety. He likes to tackle. Pro Football Reference had him down for a 9.9% missed tackle percentage. In 2020, he was in on 27 of the Atlanta Falcons blitzes and he collected six pressures. According to 247Sports, he excels as a box safety but shows weakness in coverage. To sum that up, last season opposing quarterbacks had a 98.3 passer rating when targeting him (66 attempts). He gave up 74.2% of those targets for 564 yards and a touchdown. But he is a tackling machine who when allowed to play near the line or in the box excels.
The second is because of his durability issues, Neal will most likely be signed on a one-year prove it contract. That shouldn’t be a problem as there are plenty of teams whose defense can use a run stopping safety.
Last season the Vikings were 23rd in yards per carry allowed (4.6) and allowed an average of 393.3 yards per game which was 27th in the league. Although the Vikings’ defense weak link is in coverage, and there is a chance they lose Anthony Harris to free agency, the Vikings defense gives up too many big plays, allowing scores on too many drives, and just isn’t as dominant in any phase of their defense. The physical nature of Mike Zimmer’s defenses has been missing. That is where Neal excels. In addition, according to Pro Football Focus, the Vikings have missed 135 tackles in the 2020 season, 30 more than last season. Another area where Neal excels.
The major obstacle is that the Vikings are predicted to be $9,449,781 over the salary cap. There is no money to bring in a free agent of Neal’s caliber unless they do some drastic slashing.
New York Jets
The good news in New York is that the Jets are predicted to have $68,725,814 to spend in free agency, according to Overthecap.com. They also have 10 picks in the 2021 NFL Draft.
New head coach Robert Saleh has spent all of his 15 years in the NFL on the defensive side of the ball. His defensive coordinator, Jeff Ulbrich, was most recently the linebackers and interim defensive coordinator for the Atlanta Falcons.
Last season the Jets’ defense was 27th in yards allowed and 31st against the pass. They were somewhat competent in stopping the run, ranking 12th in that category. They were however, second in that category in 2019.
With Saleh it is expected that the Jets’ defense will concentrate on bringing pressure from the defensive line. (Saleh has stated that he will not be calling plays, leaving that to his defensive coordinator). And rumors out of New York include talk that the Jets will concentrate more on defense this year than on offense. That is where Neal enters into the conversation. According to ESPN’s Rich Cimini, “be surprised if the Jets don’t show interest in the Falcons’ safety,” given his experience with Ulbrich.
Neal would fit into what Saleh likes on his defense, speed and tackling. And there is a defensive coordinator who knows his skill set.
The Jaguars need help on both sides of the ball and are in a position to get it. Not only do they have the number one pick in the NFL 2021 Draft, but are predicted to lead the NFL in available cap space with $77,514,963.
The Jaguars’ defense finished 30th in opponents rushing yards per game allowed (153.2) and 31st in opponents points per game allowed (30.8) per NFL teamrankings.com. After giving up most of their defensive playmakers in that last couple of seasons, they need to start acquiring playmakers.
If it weren’t for his two injury plagued seasons, Neal would be commanding more attention in free agency. As it is, last season he showed a glimpse of his capabilities. Although the Jaguars will have Jarrod Wilson starting at one safety position, it is a completely different skill set.
Neal’s ideal working space is near the line of scrimmage and in the middle of the field. With a completely revamped coaching regime, most taken from the collegiate ranks, it is unclear what exactly the Jaguars will look like on either side of the ball. But taking a one year shot at Neal who could return to his Pro Bowl form (or be hampered with injuries) seems like a safe bet on a team that was once known for its quality defense.
Pro Football Focus has Neal ranked as one of the top 100 free agents available. Given the talents that are obviously there a team getting Neal on what will most likely be a one-year prove it contract is a bargain.