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story.lead_photo.caption Atlanta Falcons safety Keanu Neal (22) and teammates tackle Carolina Panthers running back Mike Davis (28) in the first quarter on Sunday, Oct. 11, 2020 at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta, Georgia. (Jason Getz/Atlanta Journal-Constitution/TNS)

Most of the talk concerning the Dallas Cowboys linebackers has surrounded the selection of Micah Parsons with the 12th pick in the 2021 NFL Draft and what it meant for the futures of veterans Leighton Vander Esch and Jaylon Smith.

Initially overlooked in the conversation was a move that the Cowboys made in free agency, the signing of former Atlanta Falcons safety Keanu Neal with the hopes of moving him to linebacker.

Any idea that those plans were squashed, especially with the drafting of former LSU star Jabril Cox in the fifth round, were quickly refuted by the Cowboys in word and deed.

New defense coordinator Dan Quinn, who joined the Cowboys after six years as the head coach of the Falcons, made it clear right after the draft that Neal was a full-time linebacker.

And the Cowboys have shown in OTA practices that they plan to have a prominent role for him, along with Parsons, Smith and Vander Esch.

Consider coach Mike McCarthy already impressed.

"He's a stud. He's a stud of a player," McCarthy said. "Just his approach. I think football comes extremely naturally to him. I think he's making the full-time conversion into the linebacker room. He looks very comfortable. He's an excellent addition to our football team."

Neal, who played at 217 pounds last season, will bulk up to 222 pounds for the change to linebacker. But he says he is a football player, first and foremost.

"I don't categorize myself. I feel I can play safety, linebacker," Neal said. "Growing up I played linebacker in middle school and high school, then we changed the defense and I switched to safety, so I went to college as a safety. But in my heart, I have been a linebacker for a while. As time went on, I moved to safety.

"I still have an understanding of what everything entails with playing linebacker."

A former 2016 first-round pick of the Falcons, Neal is known as a hard-hitter and sure tackler.

He has 338 career tackles and three seasons with 100-plus stops.

The main question with Neal will be durability. He missed almost two full seasons in 2018 and 2019 with a torn ACL and a torn Achilles.

He rebounded in 2020 to play 15 games, recording 100 tackles and nine for a loss.

But the injuries have likely slowed him down, precipitating the move to linebacker and in the box where he can wreak the most havoc.

Neal said the transition includes playing slightly closer to the line of scrimmage than he played in Atlanta.

"The first few years and throughout my career, I've played in the box," Neal said. "I've played down at times, so I kind of have an understanding of the fits and all that stuff. But yeah, I typically play around like 6 yards or so. Coach is trying to get me to bump down to like 5 or 4 1/2. So that adjustment, I'm kind of getting used to that. But it's definitely a transition."

Again, it's nothing unfamiliar because Neal knows the defense from his days with Quinn in Atlanta and he was asked to do similar things at times there.

Neal will play weak side linebacker in the base defense and play dime linebacker in the nickel defense

Neal said the Cowboys will him drop into coverage to play the hook and curl routes as well as "lining over the tight end, playing man on the tight end and the backs."

"I think it's a great opportunity," Neal said. "I am excited to be a sponge and learn."

 

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