Over the last decade, one of the buzzwords out of The Star in Frisco has been about position flexibility and versatility. It’s been a core value for player evaluations for a long time but has also become a bit of a dirty word as well.
When we think of players with position versatility, players like Byron Jones and Tyrone Crawford come to mind. Jones was put at safety in year two, but it wasn’t until year four of his tenure with the Cowboys that he found his true home at cornerback.
Crawford never really had a home, bouncing back and forth between the interior defensive line and defensive end, depending on the team’s needs. It’s helpful to have players with versatility because it helps your 53-man and game-day rosters. However, more important than that is what these versatile players allow you to do with the scheme.
A player like Tyrone Crawford allowed you to stay heavy on the defensive line when teams would come out in 11-personnel on early downs, keeping the Cowboys solid against the run.
In free agency in 2021, the Dallas Cowboys brought in another player with some versatility that allows Dan Quinn to stay in base even against 11-personnel formations; Keanu Neal.
Neal, a former strong safety under Quinn in Atlanta, is making the transition to weakside linebacker. But as John Owning described in this piece for the Dallas Morning News, positions aren’t as important in the defense as responsibilities and roles.
Though Neal is viewed as a linebacker in Dallas, the roles and responsibilities don’t change a lot. Though in a traditional base 4-3 or 3-4, he might line up as an inside linebacker behind a defensive tackle. You could also see him as an overhang linebacker on the weak side, depending on how Quinn delineates the roles. Regardless of his position, Neal will be asked to handle both the flat/curl and hook roles in the cover-3 defense. This is how you provide variables to keep defenses off balance. They may know who the MIKE is or what the corners and safeties are doing, but they won’t always know what the linebackers and strong safety are up to.
What Neal’s ability as a safety allows is the Cowboys to stay in base on early downs when teams want to be in 11-personnel, which the league is in more than 60% of the time. Because cover-3 requires the personnel to fulfill the same functions given the responsibilities, it doesn’t matter if you’re in nickel with five defensive backs or in base with just four defensive backs. But Neal, as a safety making the move to linebacker, gives you five defensive backs on the field. He’s just a big safety.
Along with Donovan Wilson and Damontae Kazee, Neal gives the Cowboys some flexibility on how much they have to be in nickel defense, especially on early downs. In base, with these three players on the field at the same time, the Cowboys can stay true to the run while also not giving anything up against the pass. Keanu Neal is only on a one-year deal for the Cowboys. Still, because of his versatility and ability to play WILL linebacker and safety, he has an opportunity to be a huge piece for Dan Quinn’s defense.