Veteran Safety Keanu Neal has just signed a one-year, $5 million deal to join the Dallas Cowboys. But while he's spent his entire five-year career in the secondary, recent reports have Neal transitioning to linebacker with the Cowboys. What does this mean for Jaylon Smith, Leighton Vander Esch, and the LB position as a whole?
Neal, who's played for Dan Quinn with the Atlanta Falcons since being a 1st-round pick in 2016, has now followed his former coach to Dallas. Quinn became the Cowboys' new defensive coordinator earlier this offseason and was likely instrumental in the former Pro Bowler choosing the Cowboys.
Over the last several years we've seen traditional strong safeties like Marc Barron, Daryl Washington, and Su'a Cravens get looks or even make full switches to linebacker. With tight ends getting more athletic and the passing game ever expanding in the NFL, the need for speed at linebacker has never been higher.
Apparently, this kind of move may be in the works with Neal's arrival in Dallas.
There is a conflicting report that says Neal would still be a safety with the Cowboys. But for now, let's play with this notion of adding Keanu as a linebacker and discuss the potential fallout for his new teammates.
The LB position has been under fire since the sharp declines of Smith and Vander Esch in 2020. While the hope is that the primary problem went out the door when Dallas fired failed Defensive Coordinator Mike Nolan, we did see the beginning of the regression in 2019 when they were still playing under Rod Marinelli.
The hope for these defenders and many others in 2021 is that new DC Dan Quinn will be the rising tide that lifts everyone. At the very least, hopefully Quinn can get the defense solvent enough that it isn't liability as the Cowboys seek a return to the playoffs.
That said, the fact that this Neal-to-LB story is even out there suggests there's still some concern over Jaylon and Leighton's futures. It wouldn't even be a thought if the duo, once seen as the second coming of Brian Urlacher and Lance Briggs, still had the team's full support.
Even if he only plays LB in the nickel, Neal's arrival there would mean a significant role reduction for at least one of our current top two. The nickel defense is now the primary scheme in the modern NFL, used on more downs than any other but the vast majority of teams.
Could it even mean that one of Jaylon Smith or Leighton Vander Esch doesn't stay on the Cowboys' roster in 2021?
The Cowboys gain roughly $2.1 million by releasing Vander Esch. While you could sign a journeyman LB to replace him for that money, you lose the upside and potential of a guy who just a few years ago made the Pro Bowl as a rookie. If there's any hope in getting the old Vander Esch back, it's not really worth the cap savings to let him walk.
Jaylon Smith is in a tougher spot with far heavier financial stakes in keeping or releasing him. Though he and Leighton are both just 25 years old, Smith entered the league two years earlier and is already playing on a second and far more lucrative contract.
Dallas wouldn't get any real cap relief by releasing Jaylon outright. But if he's designated as a June-1st cut then the Cowboys get $7.2 million in additional cap space.
While they can't use that money until June, Dallas could put it toward paying their next rookie class or any other late-offseason moves.
Personally, I doubt Neal's signing means anything to Jaylon or Leighton's job security. It could be a sign that one of them, and probably Jaylon, will be getting less use on passing downs. But I doubt it goes beyond that.
The Cowboys aren't in a position to shed talent every time they add someone. Frustrating as the backslides of Smith and Vander Esch have been, they are still younger players who may benefit from now playing under Dan Quinn.
It's certainly helped Keanu Neal to become a household name at safety. Now a member of the Dallas Cowboys at whatever position he plays, hopefully he can get to a second Pro Bowl while helping improve this defense.