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The Transition From Safety to Linebacker is Going Smooth for Keanu Neal

The needed to upgrade the position during the and they were aggressive in their approach. Back in March, the Cowboys signed veteran to a one-year deal before eventually bringing in his former teammate , , and . Initially, the move was seen as competition for at the spot but Neal's role with Dallas will be a little different.

Neal has made the transition to . When the came out in 11 personnel (one , one , three ) to began last week's game, Neal and rookie were the starting linebackers.

mentioned that will be the norm in 2021.

“Yeah, I mean that's the nickel group,'' McCarthy said. “They started because of more who was on the field for Arizona.

“We have a base group and some combination base subgroups. We'll continue to do that.''

Neal had over 100 tackles in each of the three full seasons he played in with the Falcons. The responsibilities he has in Dallas are similar to what he had in Atlanta which is making the switch go smoothly and is allowing Neal to take advantage of his coverage skills and knack for making big hits.

The six-year veteran ended the Cowboy's last practice in , California last Wednesday with an interception. He continued that momentum with a forced fumble and fumble recovery on the Cowboy's first defensive possession against the Cardinals last Friday.

McCarthy has been impressed with what he's seen from one of his biggest offseason additions.

“He looks natural in there,'' McCarthy said of the Neal. “I think that move's gone very smooth. He's all about the football.

“Man, I love the way he plays. He's on the ball on time. You see it in practice. He's a dynamite player, aggressive to the football.”

Another person who has recognized how dynamic Neal is as a player is someone he was brought in to push for snaps, . The former first-round pick is facing the most important season of his career after his fifth-year option wasn't picked up due to back-to-back -plagued seasons. Nonetheless, the “Wolf Hunter” sees Neal making an impact on the Cowboy's in 2021.

“The kid's crazy athletic,'' Vander Esch said. “He obviously has that skill set, and he's built like a freaking linebacker. You can see his arms and see the way he's built that he's made up that he can be a linebacker.

“The things he's shown on the field, he can definitely do it.''

Vander Esch's admiration for Neal goes even beyond the playing field though.

“Great dude. I love Keanu,” Vander Esch said. “Great football player and even better person.''

Neal's love for playing linebacker goes back to his days at South Sumter High School in Bushnell, Florida. He excelled at the position before switching to safety and earning a spot at the University of Florida. No matter where he's played, Neal has felt that linebacker has been his home for quite some time.

“I don't categorize myself. I feel I can play safety, linebacker,” Neal said in June, via ESPN. “Wherever they put me, I'm going to prepare to go out there and play at my best. Growing up I played linebacker in middle school and high school, then we changed the defense and I switched to safety, so I went to college as a safety. But in my heart, I have been a linebacker for a while. As time went on, I moved to safety. I still have an understanding of what everything entails with playing linebacker.”

After ACL and Achilles only allowed him to suit up for four games combined in 2018 and 2019, Neal returned to playing at a high-level last season. He registered career highs in tackles for loss (9) and hits (3). Also, he recorded the first sack of his career and snagged his first interception since his campaign in 2017.

It appears that Neal and Parsons will be the primary linebackers, at least for now, in the Cowboys nickel packages. However, the team still has , Vander Esch, and rookie at their disposal which gives them incredible depth on the second level.

“Shoot, we can all play,'' Neal said. “That's the reality of it. We're all talented.''

It's a crowded room at linebacker in Dallas and the competition for playing it's at an all-time high, which is a great problem to have.


Matthew Lenix
Matthew Lenix
I write dope stuff about the Dallas Cowboys and what not.

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