Atlanta Falcons Blog

Atlanta Falcons blog by D. Orlando Ledbetter, the pro football and Atlanta Falcons reporter for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Countdown to Camp: Day 5 – Neal looking to make big leap

Each day leading up to the start of training camp, we’ll look at a major issue that faces the Falcons and head coach Dan Quinn as he’s set to enter his third season with the team.

FLOWERY BRANCH -- The Falcons, who are set to report for training camp on Wednesday, are counting on the “Beasley-Jarrett Factor” to help improve their defense at key positions.

They are hoping that three rookie starters -- strong safety Keanu Neal, middle linebacker Deion Jones and strongside linebacker De’Vondre Campbell -- can make big leaps in their second seasons like Vic Beasley and Grady Jarrett did in 2017.

Beasley went from four sacks as a rookie to leading the league with 15.5 sacks last season. Jarrett went from reserve to playing the most snaps (630) along the defensive line.

“We hope that those guys, those rookies, those young guys, were playing as well as anybody in the NFL at the end of the year,” defensive passing-game coordinator Jerome Henderson said. “You hope they come back and come back at that level. That’s the expectation. I think their coaches, coach (Doug Mallory) and coach (Jeff Ulbrich) did a phenomenal job with those two you players (Keanu Neal and Deion Jones), getting them ready to play and having them be productive. Again, we just hope that we start at the level that we ended the season at and we go up from there.

“I think those guys made the jump from the beginning of the season to the middle of the season to the end of the season. They played a lot of football, more than most rookies. They were playing the whole way and then going into the playoffs and playing those games against really good competition. You hope that they make another jump this year.”

Today, we’ll look at Neal and what the hard-hitting safety must do to make a Beasley-Jarrett like leap in his second season.

After being selected in the first round of the 2016 draft with the 17th overall pick, Neal led the team with five forced fumbles, made 105 tackles and was named to the Pro Football Writers of America’s all-rookie first-team.

He’ll have more responsibilities in 2017.

“In our system, particularly on the back end, whether if it’s a linebacker or safety, they have to be able to play man coverage,”  Mallory said. “Again, when we built the team and as you drafted for it or picked up guys in free agency, that’s one of factors and skill sets that you’re looking for, guys that do have the ability to play man coverage.

“When you look at a guy like Keanu and the position that he plays, which is probably one of the more difficult positions to play in our system, because he’s a hybrid between a free safety and a linebacker. There are times when he’s down in the box like a linebacker would, but he’s got to be athletic enough to match up and cover a tight end.”

Mallory said there will be times when Neal must matchup on wide receivers and times when he’s back playing in the middle of the field.

“It is a unique position,” Mallory said.

After suffering a knee injury, Neal missed the first two games of the regular season before starting the final 14 and the three playoff games.

“Keanu, in year one, you saw steady progress throughout the season,” Mallory said. “But again, there are a lot of things that he’s got to work out just as everyone else back there. But the things we’ve focused on in the offseason are his areas of improvement. He’s been working hard to clean up some of those.”

Neal said he’s looking forward to playing the middle of the field better and getting better with his bone-rattling tackles.

“Leverage tackling is another thing I’m focusing on,” Neal said. “Just step-kicking and man-to-man. I try not to do too many things at once. I try to focus on a few things and just really go from there.”

Neal is aware that the rise of Beasley and Jarrett started with their offseason work in 2016.

“The second year compared to the first is always a big difference,” Neal said. “You have a better understanding of the defense. You can play faster and with more confidence.”

Want to attend Falcons training camp? Here's what you should know


Countdown to Camp: Day 10 – The psychological hurdle

Countdown to Camp: Day 9 -- The battle at right guard

Countdown to Camp: Day 8 -- Freeman's contract situation

Countdown to Camp: Day 7 -- Jake Matthews' improvement plan

Countdown to Camp: Day 6 -- Schraeder's a mainstay at right tackle

Countdown to Camp: Day 5  -- Neal looking to make big leap

Countdown to Camp: Day 4 -- Deion Jones to follow up All-Rookie season

Countdown to Camp: Day 3 -- What will MVP Matt Ryan do for an encore?

Countdown to Camp: Day 2 -- What makes Julio Jones so great?

Countdown to Camp: Day 1 -- Did the Falcons protect the Brotherhood?

Here’s the training camp schedule:

Wednesday, July 26th — Team Reports for Camp

Thursday, July 27th — Practice: 9:30 a.m. – Gates open to public at 8:30 a.m.

Friday, July 28th — Practice 9:30 a.m. – Gates open to public at 8:30 a.m.

Saturday, July 29th — Practice 9:30 a.m. - Gates open to public at 8:30 a.m.

Sunday, July 30th — Practice 9:30 a.m. - Gates open to public at 8:30 a.m.

Monday, July 31st — Players Off

Tuesday, August 1st — Practice 9:30 a.m. - Gates open to public at 8:30 a.m.

Wednesday, August 2nd — Practice 9:30 a.m. - Gates open to public at 8:30 a.m.

Thursday, August 3rd —Practice 9:30 a.m. - Gates open to public at 8:30 a.m.

Friday, August 4th — Practice 5:05 p.m. – Gates open to the public at 4:05 p.m.

Saturday, August 5th —Players Off

Sunday, August 6th — Practice 9:45 a.m. – Gates open to the public at 8:15 a.m.

Monday, August 7th — Practice 9:30 a.m.

Tuesday, August 8th — Practice 9:30 a.m.

Wednesday, August 9th — Walkthrough

Thursday, August 10th — at Miami Dolphins – 7:00 p.m.

Friday, August 11th — Walkthrough

Saturday, August 12th — Players Off

Sunday, August 13th — Practice 9:30 a.m.

Monday, August 14th —Practice 9:30 a.m.


Part 1: Quarterbacks

Part2: Running backs

Part 3: Wide receivers

Part 4: Tight ends

Part 5: Offensive line

Part 6: Defensive line

Part: 7: Linebackers

Part 8: Cornerbacks

Part 9: Safeties

Part 10: Specialists


MUST READ PROFILE: Falcons top pick McKinley makes name for himself

2017 Falcons report card: Falcons earn a B-plus

NFC Champs add a pass rusher, quality depth 

1st rounder: Meet defensive end Takkarist McKinley

3rd rounder: Meet linebacker Duke Riley

4th rounder: Meet offensive guard Sean Harlow

5th rounder: Meet defensive back Damontae Kazee

5th rounder: Meet running back Brian Hill

5th rounder: Meet tight end Eric Saubert



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About the Author

D. Orlando Ledbetter is the Atlanta Falcons beat writer for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.