Dallas Cowboys: One linebacker you should keep an eye on

Keanu Neal, Atlanta Falcons (Photo by Scott Cunningham/Getty Images)
Keanu Neal, Atlanta Falcons (Photo by Scott Cunningham/Getty Images) /

This Dallas Cowboys Swiss Army knife is someone to watch heading into the 2021 NFL season

Speculations and predictions thrive during the offseason. We try to give ourselves reasons to be excited about the upcoming season. This time around, the Dallas Cowboys own an intriguing group of linebackers.

After a very disappointing 2020 season, owner Jerry Jones desperately needed to upgrade the defense. More specifically, he needed to add players to defend the run. He did that by signing a hybrid linebacker in Keanu Neal to a one-year contract.

At 25-years old, he has already seen a lot of praise and criticism. That’s because he is an impact player on the field that has not been able to stay on the field.

The Atlanta Falcons under head coach Dan Quinn, who is now the defensive coordinator for the Dallas Cowboys, drafted him with the 17th overall pick of the 2016 NFL Draft. In five seasons with the team, he made the Pro Bowl once.

While he only played in 49 of 80 possible regular-season games, 28 of his missed games were from 2018 and 2019. The other three seasons saw the safety rack up 100+ tackles. That sounds similar to longtime Cowboys linebacker Sean Lee.

Under Pressure

Making plays was a common occurrence for the former Florida Gator. While he is used to closing the gap on running plays, Keanu will have to fight off offensive linemen more frequently now.

It will be a tough adjustment, but it is not impossible. Neal’s nine tackles for a loss of yards last season prove he can find his way into the backfield to make plays.

I’m sure Neal did not plan on joining a group as deep as the Cowboys’ linebackers. When he first signed, Jaylon Smith and Leighton Vander Esch were the only threats to his snap count. Now, he has to fight off 12th overall pick Micah Parsons and fourth-rounder Jabrill Cox.

Any slip in performance will garner more opportunities for the rookies. It is a high-pressure situation for the former Falcon.

Keanu Neal’s skills should not be questioned

I don’t doubt Keanu Neal’s skills as a football player. Instead, I question his health, considering he only played one complete season in his five-year career.

He is a stable defender that plays the tackle rather than taking chances on the ball. That’s not to say he won’t make a reach once in a while. That’s perfectly fine because the Dallas Cowboys need stability in their linebacking corps, not someone to take chances.

He only has two interceptions to his name, which may concern some. I’m not worried because he makes up for that by forcing fumbles. He didn’t have any over his last 19 games but had eight in his first 30 games in the NFL.

When healthy, expect to see number 22 flying all over the field. I doubt Keanu Neal will eclipse 100 tackles with the Dallas Cowboys, but he will be an impact player.

Maybe he can be used similarly to how Sean Lee was back in 2019. A rotating piece rather than a starter to maximize his play on the field and keep him healthy. Both had injury issues in their career but a force to be reckoned with their helmet on.

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Jerry Jones needed to make a splash in free agency, and he did so without paying top dollar. Keanu Neal was not only the team’s best free-agent acquisition this offseason but also a player for everyone to keep an eye on.