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    BREAKING: Cowboys Sign S Keanu Neal, but Will he Play LB in Dallas?

    Veteran Keanu Neal has just signed a one-year, $5 million deal to join the . But while he's spent his entire five-year career in the , recent reports have Neal transitioning to linebacker with the Cowboys. What does this mean for , , and the LB position as a whole?

    Neal, who's played for with the since being a 1st-round pick in 2016, has now followed his former coach to Dallas. Quinn became the Cowboys' new earlier this 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, , and Su'a Cravens get looks or even make full switches to linebacker. With tight ends getting more athletic and the ever expanding in the NFL, the need for speed at linebacker has never been higher.

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    Apparently, this kind of move may be in the works with Neal's arrival in Dallas.

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    There is a conflicting 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 , we did see the beginning of the regression in 2019 when they were still playing under .

    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 solvent enough that it isn't liability as the Cowboys seek a return to the .

    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.

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    Could it even mean that one of Jaylon Smith or Leighton Vander Esch doesn't stay on the Cowboys' roster in 2021?

    Dallas Cowboys 2020 Offseason Preview: Linebacker
    Cowboys linebackers Leighton Vander Esch & Jaylon Smith (AP Photo/Ron Jenkins)

    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 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 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.

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    Jess Haynie
    Jess Haynie
    Cowboys fan since 1992, blogger since 2011. Bringing you the objectivity of an outside perspective with the passion of a die-hard fan. I love to talk to my readers, so please comment on any article and I'll be sure to respond!

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    8 COMMENTS

    8 Comments
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    VAM

    Jess, aren’t too many 6’1″, 216 lb linebackers that play in NFL. Good signing in any case. More flex at draft time.

    VeeDub32

    Deion Jones is 6’1” 220ish lbs and has been the starting linebacker for Quinn’s defense since he was drafted so I could see it happening and Jaylon being more used in the Sam position or as a pass rusher.

    Sam

    Hopefully he can knife thru a hole, something not imaginable for Smith to do. He really should consider a career in the rodeo.

    This signing almost guarantees Xavier is done. I would try and re sign Xavier on the cheapest of cheapest deals (with incentives) and see if the clock can be turned back 2 years with competent coaching.

    lonewolfz28

    I think they probably use him mostly as a “heavy nickel”. Gives them some extra beef over a CB in case it’s a run yet still athletic enough to cover RB’s out of the backfield, receiving TE’s and bigger slot receivers. They might even let him blitz occasionally depending on the look the offense gives them.

    Look at it this way, who would you rather have out there alongside Jaylon and LVE when it’s not an obvious passing or rushing down and distance, an aging Sean Lee (if he’s healthy and doesn’t retire), Luke Gifford (if he’s actually healthy for once), Francis Bernard (who couldn’t buy snaps on D under Nolan) or Justin March (ST’s and not much else if he even comes back)? I’ll take Keanu Neal over any of them with only Bernard as the only other one I might consider at this point and that’s more because he’s a relative unknown. The rest have shown they are either has beens, never were’s or never will be’s.

    Lee was just bad when he was on the field last season.
    Gifford looked barely serviceable in very limited backup duty until he got broken again.
    Bernard flashed and then disappeared in just a handful of snaps.
    JML has been horrible every time he has been forced to play D. Hopefully, they finally let him walk in FA.

    Azur Kamara is the only other LB listed and he’s more of an edge rusher and is raw as steak tartar even at that.

    Gary b

    Similar to all of their FA additions thus far. Another rotational/situational type player, who could be a fringe starter. Could have some value in that regard but nothing to get excited about. I guess Quinn who is likely signing off on these additions has a plan for these guys and how they might help the team.

    Justin

    Only way this I deterement for Dallas is if he takes away from Donovan Wilsons development. Wilson more than deserves the starting SS role as he was one of a few bright spots on our otherwise sorry D last year

    Lawrence Baker

    Getting rid of Xavier Woods and Jaylon Smith is good football sense. As far as replacing Jaylon Smith, I think they can try to get Francis Bernard ready to play. Also there’s more instinctive and more athletic linebackers in this upcoming draft than the idiotic Smith!!!

    Ken

    General beef about Dallas sports writers – they usually don’t give weight and height, much less speed times. American football is played by big and fast players.

    Neal is moving from safety to linebacker, the story goes, but is he heavy enough? If he is to cover tight ends, is he tall enough?

    I always want to know that info, I believe most readers want that info — especially for a player that is new to the fans — but it’s usually missing. Why? It seems lazy to me. Is there a better reason?

    While we’re at it, why didn’t the Falcons re-sign him now that he’s in his prime?