Cowboys agree to sign Keanu Neal; Moving to linebacker?

Keanu Neal, Atlanta Falcons (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
Keanu Neal, Atlanta Falcons (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images) /

The Dallas Cowboys wanted to upgrade their defense this offseason. That coming off one of the worst performances in franchise history in 2020.

The changes started at the top with the firing of defensive coordinator Mike Nolan after a single season in Dallas. In his place, the Cowboys hired former Atlanta Falcons head coach, Dan Quinn, who first earned his bones as the Seattle Seahawks defensive coordinator who was behind the legendary Legion of Boom.

With Quinn in charge, the hope is the defense returns to its previous form under a more familiar scheme. And to help facilitate that change, the former Falcons’ head coach has brought in some help from his former stomping grounds.

On Saturday, Tom Pelissero of the NFL Network reported that safety Keanu Neal has agreed to a one-year deal in Dallas worth $5 million. What makes Neal’s addition even more intriguing was the earlier report that he was considering a shift to weakside linebacker with the Cowboys. That according to Josina Anderson.

If the Cowboys do intend on making Neal the team’s new starting outside linebacker, then that puts the futures of Leighton Vander Esch and Jaylon Smith as starters in serious jeopardy. A possible solution would be to place Vander Esch at middle linebacker and make Smith a primary pass rusher in Quinn’s touted-tweener LEO role.

Smith has shown a knack for rushing the passer, racking up a career-high 4.0 sack in 2018. That would also shift his responsibilities away from many of the problems that have plagued the young linebacker in recent years like being late on plays, stopping the run, misreading offenses, and in coverage.

As for Neal, the 6-foot-1, 216-pound safety was a first-round selection by the Falcons during the now famous 2016 NFL Draft. That’s also the same draft where the Cowboys landed Jaylon Smith, running back Ezekiel Elliott, and quarterback Dak Prescott.

Neal earned a Pro Bowl nod in 2017 after posting 116 tackles, four tackles for loss, six pass deflections, three forced fumbles, and an interception in only his second NFL season. Unfortunately, the 25-year old suffered season-ending injuries in both 2018 (ACL) and 2019 (Achilles). He played a total of just four games over those two seasons.

But last year Neal bounced back to play 15 games for Quinn and the Falcons. He recorded 100 total tackles, nine tackles for loss, one pick, and posted his first NFL sack.

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While the Dallas Cowboys could certainly use Keanu Neal at safety, the team has reportedly set up meetings with free-agent safeties Damontae Kazee and Malik Hooker next week. If the Cowboys end up signing one of them, Neal making the move to linebacker certainly makes more sense.