The trend of safety-linebacker hybrids isn’t going away, and maybe the best of these in the upcoming NFL draft is Keanu Neal coming of Florida, getting the Pittsburgh Steelers, New York Giants, Atlanta Falcons and Tennessee Titans to show plenty of interest.
Right now Neal isn’t projected to be a very high pick, but he seems to be moving up the draft boards of a lot of teams. He’s probably the hardest hitter in the draft coming at the strong safety position, plus his size and athleticism are impossible to ignore. He’s also not the kind of player who is limited to just one role. He isn’t just a great run stopper and vicious tackler when playing close to the box. He is good in coverage and even if he does allow the pass, is often right on top of the receiver the moment a catch is made.
So what’s not great about Neal? His exciting style of play makes for missed tackles. He needs to improve his decision making and ability to read what’s coming, but it’s hard to find a rookie who doesn’t need at least some adjustments to make in terms of decision making and reading the field. Neal isn’t good enough to have teams trade up the draft for him, but he’s not that far off teammate Vernon Hargreaves III, another secondary player who is a lock for a first round pick.
Neal played three seasons for the Gators before deciding to move on, finishing with four interceptions in his last two seasons. He was fabulous in 2015 with 2 sacks, 3.5 tackles for a loss and 84 tackles overall. He missed a couple of games in 2015 to start the season, but was a menace coming out of the secondary the rest of the year, which was something of a bounce back season for Florida thanks to its defense. The offense? That needs a lot more help before it’s good enough to produce an SEC champion again.