Keanu Neal’s new home suits him well, at linebacker and with the Cowboys

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The Dallas Cowboys were in a weird spot when it came to the linebacker position during 2021 free agency. Leighton Vander Esch had just concluded another injury-laden season. Jaylon Smith was being defiant to calls for improvement in his play by telling fans and media to watch his tape; as if people were just making up things to complain about. Sean Lee was clearly on the verge of retiring even if he didn’t admit it to himself yet. The club had several free agents down roster who weren’t much consideration to be primary parts of a rotation. The group had generally looked lost after a season under Mike Nolan as defensive coordinator and Scott McCurley.

In came Dan Quinn, who assigned assistant head coach George Edwards to the linebacker group. As the free agency bonanza began, the Cowboys reached out to a former Quinn draft pick at the safety position; but to play linebacker. Keanu Neal, come on down.

The player profile countdown continues with No. 42.

Background Details

Jersey No.: 42 Position: Linebacker Age: 26 Height: 6-foot-1 Weight: 216 pounds Hometown: Bushnell, FL High School: South Sumter College: Florida Draft: 2016 Round 1, No. 17 Acquired: 2021free agency

(AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

Atlanta Falcons

Year

Games

Starts

Pass Deflections

Interceptions

Forced Fumbles

Fumble Recoveries

Sacks

TFLs

Tackles

2020

15

14

2

1

0

1

1.0

9

100

2019

3

3

0

0

0

0

0

0

14

2018

1

1

0

0

0

0

0

0

2

2017

16

16

6

1

3

2

0

4

116

2016

14

14

8

0

5

1

0

2

106

Salary Details

From OverTheCap

Year

Base Salary

Prorated SB

G'teed

Cap Number

Age

2021

$1,000,000

$1,000,000

$0

$2,000,000

26

2022

VOID

$1,000,000

$0

$2,000,000

27

2023

VOID

$1,000,000

$0

$0

28

TOTAL

$1,000,000

$3,000,000

$0

$4,000,000

--

Awards Won

Pro Bowls: 2017 PFWA All-Rookie Team: 2016

Player Profile

Neal tore his ACL in 2018 in the opening week of the season. He returned in 2019 but in the third week tore his achilles. He did return to play in 2020 and appeared in 15 games, 14 of them starts, but he did not have the production he had during his early career. Between 2016 and 2017, Neal was a heat-seeking missile and became known as one of, if not the hardest-hitting safety in the league. Very explosive, he forced eight fumbles over those first two years, making the all-star game in his second season. He also managed 14 pass breakups, three forced fumbles and an interception. After virtually missing two entire seasons, those stats did not return in 2020. He had just two pass deflections and no forced fumbles. He did get an interception, but that was on a trick play where he ended up covering Patrick Mahomes on a route. After seeing him close up and personal following injury, Quinn decided that bringing him closer to the line of scrimmage makes the most sense for the future of his career. Then Dallas' fortunes at the position continued to change. The CBs the Cowboys targeted with the No. 10 overall pick were plucked ahead of them, leading to a trade back and selecting Penn State star Micah Parsons at No. 12. He and Neal have been the most exciting linebackers in the room through the preseason, along with fourth-round steal Jabril Cox. Along with Vander Esch's return to quality play as a healthy member, the team looks to be in a solid place at a position that was a sore spot just a season ago. Neal's familiarity with Quinn's ways helps his fellow group members and he's been excelling now that his biggest weakness, coverage moving back, isn't a huge part of his requirements as it was at safety.

This profile is part of our countdown series to the regular season. For the full 90-man roster, go here. For our 53-man roster prediction, go here.

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