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How Will the Dallas Cowboys Deploy Keanu Neal in Dan Quinn’s Defense?

The Dallas Cowboys finally went out and signed a safety with some skins on the wall as they agreed to a one-year $5 million contract with former Atlanta Falcons Safety Keanu Neal.

It will be interesting to see how the Dallas Cowboys deploy the Dan Quinn draft pick. According to Josina Anderson, there were conversations about Neal potentially playing weakside linebacker for the Dallas Cowboys. Michel Gehlken of the Dallas Morning News reported that Neal’s position is fluid at the moment.

Keanu Neal is a versatile box safety that can line up at the linebacker position for the Dallas Cowboys.

During the 2020 season, Keanu Neal lined up in the box on 50% of his snaps per Pro Football Focus. Break that down by position and PFF charted 78% of Neal’s snaps in the box at the linebacker position. Though he played just three games in 2019, PFF credited Neal with 94% of his snaps in the box at linebacker. In 2018, he was limited to just one game because of injury but played 85% of his snaps in the box at linebacker per Pro Football Focus. During the 2017 season when the Falcons went to the divisional round of the NFC Playoffs, Neal played 84% of his box snaps at linebacker. In his rookie season in 2016, Neal played 75% of his snaps in the box as a linebacker.

Now a caveat, without knowing the call, there can be some subjectivity as to what constitutes being a linebacker and what constitutes a safety in a given defensive formation. However you slice it, Neal is a box player. In his career, he’s played 44% of his snaps in the box.

Whether you call him a safety or a linebacker, what we do know is that he is a box player that can help the Dallas Cowboys play the run. On 294 run snaps, Neal recorded a stop 10 times. Compare that to Xavier Woods who recorded just 12 run stops on 434 run-downs or Donovan Wilson who had eight run stops on 300 snaps against the run. Neal’s 3.4% run stop percentage would have led the Dallas Cowboys’ safeties.

Neal is a physical player that will help the Cowboys in the middle of their defense. And as John Owning of the Dallas Morning News notes, the Cowboys could plan to use Neal as a nickel linebacker, bringing Wilson in to play strong safety. As teams play a vast majority of their offensive snaps from 11 personnel in the modern NFL, Neal would then be coming here to play linebacker. Also, be sure to check out John Owning’s film breakdown over at the Dallas Morning News.

Bringing in Neal, Defensive Coordinator Dan Quinn and the Cowboys will have a plan for how to use him in their defense. And regardless of how they deploy him, Keanu Neal will provide a positive impact on the Cowboys defense.

What do you think?

John Williams

Written by John Williams

Dallas Cowboys optimist bringing factual, reasonable takes to Cowboys Nation and the NFL Community. I wasn't always a Cowboys fan, but I got here as quick as I could.

Make sure you check out the Inside The Cowboys Podcast featuring John Williams and other analysts following America's Team.

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  1. Well finally it looks like the coaches are getting to bring in the players that they feel will fit their schemes and give this team a chance to win with! Now if Jerry will give them more freedom only time will tell!

  2. How they deploy him will most likely have a direct impact on the decision making at draft time. If they play him at LB, then they may not feel the need to pick a LB early. In any event, the flexibility is definitely a positive for the team. Hoping his injuries haven’t taken a detectable bite out of his past performance level, which was very good.

    • Yeah, how he rebounds from the injuries will be huge to what he can bring this year. I think he’ll primarily be in that SS role and play some nickel linebacker in obvious passing situations.

  3. There is a precedent for moving a 1st round S to LB. The Rams traded for Mark Barron from TB in 2014 and he had three 100 tackle seasons in a row and never less than 80 in a 16 game season plus 9 ints. Pretty successful move. Let’s hope Neelecan provide that type of production.

  4. Yeah John which is why I don’t like the addition of Neal on our D , the guy was healthy all of last year , and yet the Falcons were the WORST pass defense in the league last year , he’s a in the box , blitzing safety , problem is he can’t stay healthy when he does so ,

    in a way , he’s like Cam Newton , Cam when healthy can play , but he has to run for his play to be effective , which puts him at a higher risk of getting injured , and you see what happens , same can be said for Neal , when the best part of your game puts you at more risk of getting injured and you’ve gotten injured in the past , you can’t help the team if you are injured all the time

    so yeah , I think this signing was a mistake on the Boys and Jerry’s part

  5. D Wilson is our SS. Makes no sense for Neal to be paid 5 million to play a position that isn’t a need. We need a pure FS not a back up SS. I suppose Quinn has his plans for him. We do need depth at LB so maybe he plays some there, especially on obvious passing downs.

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