The Dallas Cowboys needed to upgrade the safety position during the offseason and they were aggressive in their approach. Back in March, the Cowboys signed veteran Keanu Neal to a one-year deal before eventually bringing in his former Atlanta Falcons teammate Damontae Kazee, Malik Hooker, and Jayron Kearse. Initially, the move was seen as competition for Donovan Wilson at the strong safety spot but Neal's role with Dallas will be a little different.
Neal has made the transition to linebacker. When the Arizona Cardinals came out in 11 personnel (one running back, one tight end, three wide receivers) to began last week's preseason game, Neal and rookie Micah Parsons were the starting linebackers.
Head Coach Mike McCarthy 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 Oxnard, 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.
Strip ball. Recover ball.@Keanu_Neal is an instant impact for the @dallascowboys.
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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, Leighton Vander Esch. 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 injury-plagued seasons. Nonetheless, the “Wolf Hunter” sees Neal making an impact on the Cowboy's defense in 2021.
“The kid's crazy athletic,'' Vander Esch said. “He obviously has that defensive back 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 injuries 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 quarterback hits (3). Also, he recorded the first sack of his career and snagged his first interception since his Pro Bowl 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 Jaylon Smith, Vander Esch, and rookie Jabril Cox 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.