FRISCO, Texas – New Cowboys defensive coordinator Dan Quinn has wanted to coach Keanu Neal for a long time, long before the Atlanta Falcons selected Neal as the 17th overall pick in 2016, when Quinn was their head coach.
“He drafted me when I got out of high school right before he entered the league,” Neal said. “I was with Florida (as defensive coordinator) and then he drafted me. Once I got to Florida, he ended up going to the NFL, but I’ve basically known him since 2012.”
Neal became a Pro Bowl safety under Quinn’s system with the Falcons. The Cowboys signed Quinn in January, and then signed Neal for a year and $ 5 million in March.
That’s not a coincidence.
Quinn believes Neal will bring “speed and physical strength” to a Cowboys defense looking to improve after a season in which they allowed the most points and the second-most rushing yards in franchise history. The club also hired another former Falcons player, safety Damontae Kazee, to help transition to Quinn’s scheme.
“They can help in communication to make sure, ‘Hey, this is what Q is saying here,'” Quinn said. “So having that ability to get the message across the line is a big part. But the reason they are here is their footballing ability, adding to our team and what they can bring. Both guys have had a real experience as players going for the ball. “
There’s no question Neal has a comfort level playing for Quinn, but he’s also learning new things this offseason.
Neal was a strong safety for five seasons at Atlanta, but now he’s starting out as a linebacker, where he says he’s focusing on the positions of WILL (the weak side) and “Tell me.”
Neal said he’s played linebacker “ways” in the past as a box safety. As a linebacker, he will play closer to the line of scrimmage more often. And he plans to play about five pounds more than his weight last year (217 pounds).
“Honestly, I’m learning like the other guys,” he said. “It’s a new position for me. So, just like the other guys, they are learning and I am also with them.”
Obviously, Neal has the versatility to play safety if necessary. In his second year in the league, he reached the Pro Bowl with 112 tackles and five forced fumbles. An anterior cruciate ligament tear in 2018 and an Achilles tendon tear in 2019 limited him to just four games in those two seasons.
He came back healthy last year and played in 15 games for the Falcons, recording 97 tackles, two busts, one sack and one interception.
In Dallas, he will be ready to play in any position.
“I don’t categorize myself,” he said. “I feel like I can play deep, linebacker; wherever they put me, I’ll go out there and play my best.
“In my youth, I played linebacker in school, then we switched defense and moved to safety. So I went to college as safety. But in my heart, I’ve been a linebacker for a while. Time, I switched to safety. I still understand what it takes to play linebacker. “