Keanu Neal is faster.
That’s a scary thought.
Coming off one of the better rookie seasons in Falcons’ history, Neal ascended the ranks to becoming an elite NFL safety. Now the challenge is consistency, which starts with polishing his own admitted flaws.
Among them, man coverage. The Falcons’ defense requires frequent man coverage on its back end, according to defensive backs coach Doug Mallory. To maximize his potential, Neal has committed the offseason to expanding an already advanced repertoire.
“When you look at a guy like Keanu, and the position that he plays is probably one of the more difficult positions to play in our system is the strong safety because he’s a hybrid between a free safety and a linebacker,” Mallory said. “There are times when he’s down in the box like a linebacker would be, but he’s got to be athletic enough to match up and cover a tight end.
“There are times where he has to be able to match up on wide receivers and there are times where, again, he’s going to be back playing in the middle of the field. So, it is a unique position.”
Neal logged roughly 83 percent of the team’s snaps, third-most on the defense. He flashed versatility surpassing what he showed at the University of Florida, lining up at linebacker, nickel, corner and both safety spots. While listed as a safety, Neal played his highest snap percentage (40) at linebacker, according to Pro Football Focus.
Schematically, Neal said to expect the same, with additional middle-of-the-field duties. He’s focused the offseason on improving his work in man coverage — an especially necessary trait given the state of the explosive offense-laden NFC South.
“I’ve honestly been emphasizing my press coverage,” he said. “My step kick, things like that. Getting with (Mallory), my teammates, working together. When I get the opportunity on the field, I just lock it in and pay attention to the details.
“I just want to get better as a player and person, to continue to grow in every aspect of my life. On the field, just work on middle-of-the-field stuff, my man coverage. I want to be a more complete player. I want to focus on my weaknesses and turn them into strengths.”
One of Neal’s primary influences is his older brother, Clint Hart. Hart had an 11-year career across the NFL and the Arena Football League. He broke into the NFL with the Philadelphia Eagles in 2002.
“He’s helped me out so much, man,” Neal said. “Not even just here, but growing up and everything. He’s kept me out of trouble, all that. He’s been an amazing big bro. First year, obviously he experienced it and helped me a lot with staying humble, grounded, keeping my feet in the dirt and just continuing to drive. Learning from my mistakes, trusting the process and knowing you grow from your mistakes.”
Neal, just 21, was tabbed a top five safety by several pundits after his inaugural season. Once considered a “reach” as a No. 17 draft pick, he quickly blossomed into one of the most valuable tokens on Dan Quinn’s defense.
Quinn referred to Neal as one of the “dogs” on the team. Quinn individually analyzes players’ weaknesses daily, asking them to be deliberate on their focal points. He’s seen development in Neal, most notably in his speed.
“Playing middle-of-the-field coverage is having range, having real vision on the quarterback,” Quinn said. “He plays so much down by the line of scrimmage that the 20 percent at that time that he’s back, he wanted to have that part of his range in order.
“What I saw from him this spring, it was increased speed. I know that part of his strength he’s worked on this offseason. He looks faster than he has been and that’s usually where it shows up in the middle of the field because you have such a long way to go.”
Cornerback Brian Poole played with Neal his entire Gators career. He’s seen change in the man he considers a “family member.”
“He’s more of a leader,” Poole said. “I mean, he’s more vocal. In the past he was a lot to himself, but now I feel like he’s a leader. That’s his role on the team and he really embraces it.”
For the second consecutive offseason, Neal will work out with Kam Chancellor in Virginia. The two don’t have an exact date yet with Chancellor’s wedding approaching, but Neal is looking forward to it.
“He’s like a mentor to me,” he said. “He’s an awesome, awesome dude, awesome person. He really likes helping out. Took me under his wing and he’s honestly such a great dude.”
Count Quinn among those supporting the Neal-Chancellor relationship. Quinn said he “learned a lot from” coaching Chancellor in Seattle and he sees a particular trait for Neal to copy.
“Mindset,” Quinn said. “Really an attitude of what it takes to be a pro at the highest level over a consistent amount of time. I’ve always had really high respect for Kam, for what he stood for as a ballplayer, for what he stood for as a teammate, for what he stood for as a man. What I told Kam, in five years, Keanu will now pay that forward. … I have a lot of gratitude when I see guys like that working together.”
Neal values last season’s Super Bowl run despite the result. The team has seen what it takes to get there, he said, and now just needs to complete the next step.
For a young defense growing together, that experience is invaluable. Quinn often speaks of building a unique organizational culture. His defensive vision has become clearer three drafts in.
The Falcons have built a young and athletic defense. Neal said he endorses the team’s approach.
“It’s cool,” he said. “Young, fast, physical; that’s the motto. I love growing with these guys. We’re building relationships and chemistry that can’t be broken. It’s great to have that. Like in middle school, you play with the guys then go to high school and you’re still playing with them. You build those relationships. It’s kind of like that here. Guys I came in with and now we’re growing together, so it’s awesome.”