Free company has slowed down, however the Bucs have continued to work the fringes for good expertise on low-cost contracts. The most recent instance is security Keanu Neal, who will compete to exchange Jordan Whitehead in Tampa Bay.
Neal’s profession has been a little bit of a curler coaster, however by means of no fault of his personal. A sequence of unlucky occasions have taken the security off of the All-Professional observe he was on early in his profession. However not to date off observe that Neal can’t discover his approach once more.
A primary-round decide in 2016, Neal erupted onto the scene with a wonderful rookie marketing campaign in Atlanta. In 2017, Neal earned Professional Bowl recognition, at occasions getting in comparison with gamers like Kam Chancellor and different greats. However then, catastrophe struck. Neal tore his ACL within the season opener in 2018, then ruptured his Achilles in Week 3 of the 2019 season. Similar to that, a rising star missed mainly all of his age 23 and 24 seasons as a consequence of harm.
However Neal returned in 2020, at that time almost a forgotten man. Quietly, the previous Florida star performed effectively for the Falcons, getting higher because the season went on. In Weeks 15 and 17, Neal was one of many few vivid spots on a Falcons protection that was shredded by the Bucs’ offense. Regardless of a dreadful state of affairs round him, Neal’s inventory was on a slight rise getting into 2021 free company.
So when his former head coach Dan Quinn nabbed him to return play in Dallas, it appeared Neal had an actual shot again to stardom. As a substitute, the Cowboys requested him to maneuver to linebacker on his one-year, $5 million contract. That experiment was a whole catastrophe, with Neal struggling mightily at his new place.
Now, Neal is able to flip over a brand new leaf. Getting into free company, he made it clear that he was switching again to security. You already know, the place he truly performs – and isn’t grossly undersized or inexperienced at. Right here’s the outlook for Neal shifting ahead.
The Issues With Neal
Regardless of being simply 26 years outdated, Neal’s physique has been by means of quite a bit. It’s doable that his decline will come faster as a consequence of struggling two important accidents early in his profession. On high of lacking two seasons in a row, Neal was pressured to spend final season out of place. So he actually hasn’t performed a lot security since 2017, apart from the 2020 season in Atlanta. His athleticism is a significant query mark shifting ahead.
Even on the peak of his powers, Neal was by no means an elite athlete. Sure, his quick space explosiveness has all the time been noteworthy. However he isn’t like Derwin James and some different huge safeties in his man protection matchup capability. Can Neal nonetheless no less than be a good finish eraser? Will he be an possibility within the slot, even towards particular matchups? I’ve my doubts there. Coaching camp shall be telling to see how Neal handles one-on-one assignments.
Whereas Neal’s addition might be useful, it’s uncertain he’ll be a full-time starter for the Bucs this season. Neal will doubtless break up time with Mike Edwards, who’s a greater deep security. And whereas Neal is a playmaker in different methods, his ball expertise have by no means stood out. He has simply two profession interceptions and 16 go breakups. Since 2017, the numbers are one interception and two go deflections. An enormous purpose for Neal’s lack of a market in free company is his lack of splash performs in protection.
One in every of Neal’s huge strengths in his profession has been tackling. Final 12 months he fell off dramatically in that space, lacking almost 17 % of his tackles, per PFF. That was a career-worst mark. How a lot of that was associated to attempting to make stops whereas working by means of blockers as a linebacker? So much, for my part. Nevertheless it’s price noting given the instability of Neal’s profession to date.
Neal has all the time been identified for a couple of issues in his profession, together with toughness, management and physicality. Few gamers hit as arduous as Neal in his prime, and he was getting again to that in 2020. In reality, over the second half of the season, Neal was enjoying quick and processing like early in his profession once more. He’s extremely quick to key and react on ideas in entrance of him, particularly towards the run.
Keanu Neal becoming up on Leonard Fournette and stonewalling him for only a 1 yard acquire. Watch him deliver his hips by means of on contact. pic.twitter.com/pBeDCpXeni
— Nate Tice (@Nate_Tice) June 8, 2021
Over his profession, Neal has been a wonderful security when working top-down on the ball. He’s saved his missed deal with depend low, made loads of huge hits and brought sturdy, assignment-sound angles to the ball. There isn’t any query he’s a greater participant shifting ahead than he’s backward. That makes Tampa Bay’s sturdy security place a great spot for him. Head coach Todd Bowles’ protection runs single-high protection shells at a gradual clip. Neal will get to play a wholesome proportion of reps doing what he does finest in beneath zones and within the field.
Keanu Neal made a heck of a play on this display to Fournette that ended a really promising first Bucs drive, however gotta love Brady placing his physique on the road at 43 years outdated for the squad haha pic.twitter.com/LvOth8mKA8
— Jon Ledyard (@LedyardNFLDraft) December 21, 2020
Just a few different encouraging issues about Neal. In all his tape at security, we’ve by no means actually seen him play poorly for an prolonged time period. His low factors at security have been fairly remoted to particular reps. The ground has been fairly excessive for Neal, who has good instinctive really feel for the sport. His vocal management and expertise in a wide range of roles needs to be a welcome addition to the Bucs secondary. And he’s been an skilled, strong particular teamer in his profession too.
In a pinch, Neal might in all probability play a dime ‘backer function too. The Bucs hardly ever take Lavonte David or Devin White off the sector, so this function might not matter a lot. However in two-minute conditions or whereas defending a giant lead towards sure personnel groupings, Neal might come in useful. And he’s been very out there over the previous two seasons, with no severe accidents to talk of.
He additionally excelled as a blitzer in Atlanta through the 2020 season, go dashing 33 occasions with 9 pressures and a sack, per PFF. The 26-year outdated additionally targets the soccer, with eight pressured fumbles in his profession, all in his first two seasons. You may guess Bowles will discover a option to deploy these traits in his protection this season.
For the value of a veteran wage profit contract (simply over $1 million), this can be a no-brainer transfer for the Bucs. At worst, Neal is an effective No. 4 security, locker room chief and particular groups standout. At finest, Neal is ready to shoulder a much bigger load because the workforce’s sturdy security in 2022, filling a giant chunk of Whitehead’s function.