Keanu Neal, SS
School: Florida | Conference: SEC
College Experience: Junior | Age: 21
Height / Weight: 6-0 / 211 lbs
Projected Draft Status: First or Second Round
NFL Comparison: Kam Chancellor
I know the Kam Chancellor comparison is easy and generic, but it's just so fitting. He does everything on a football field, and he does it all well, but he does nothing as well as he lays vicious, crunching, highlight-reel hits. Yes, there is more to him than that ability, but that ability is unquestionably his biggest strength, and that's not necessarily a bad thing. Sure, you want him to wrap guys up, and he does that at times. You want him to make the right play in coverage when he has to, and there's evidence that he does that more often than not.
But you also want your strong safety to make receivers think twice about strolling through the middle of the field, you want opposing running backs to be tempted to avoid certain areas of the field in fear of getting stopped suddenly in their tracks and you want quarterbacks to always have the fear of a crushing blindside hit residing in the back of their minds. It's a substantial part of why Sean Taylor created so much havoc on the field, though, of course, there was much more to his game than just his hitting ability.
These two plays do a great job of summarizing what Neal brings to a defense. First, Neal comes out of nowhere to shock the running back in the backfield, and even though the ball-carrier manages to elude him somewhat, the power of the hit and Neal's subsequent grip on his legs stagger him enough that he barely ekes out just two yards.
Then, the Michigan pass is nearly intercepted, but instead the receiver is forced to hang in the air to salvage a catch. He gets the yards he needed, but he is definitely thinking about that hit for the rest of the game; imagine if Neal, in burgundy and gold, were to lay that hit on Odell Beckham Jr. or Dez Bryant — they'd be thinking about that hit not only for the remainder of the game, but as long as he and Neal occupy the same division. On top of all that, look how amped up the Florida sideline gets after the play. That kind of big play serves a multitude of purposes, even though it ultimately goes down as a nice gain for the offense.
Oh, and those plays came one right after the other. It's not as though I'm delicately sifting through his film to find highlights.
- I mean, my god, the dude can hit. It's more than a minute into this highlight reel before you see the first highlight that isn't just a devastating blow to an offensive player, and that highlight is actually Neal forcing a fumble on a strip tackle.
- Speaking of strip tackles, he has a knack for getting the ball away from the offense. He was officially credited with just four interceptions and two forced fumbles in his collegiate career, but he forces incompletions with his hits, and other passes get dropped in anticipation of a coming hit.
- He has very good patience, which is uncommon for a player who loves to lay a big hit, and he pairs that with a cool head. Take the following play, for instance, when he could have easily tried to light up the passer but instead took away the only available dump-off option, which led to a positive play for his defense.
- Also unlike some heavy-hitting safeties, he doesn't shy away from flinging himself at bigger players. Just a few minutes into the 2015 game against Alabama, Derrick Henry is dragging a pair of Florida defenders an extra few yards, and Neal comes flying in to bring him quickly to the ground.
- Neal has massive hands. At just 6-foot-nothing, his hands are roughly the size of Karl-Anthony Towns', who clocks in at just over 6-foot-10 without shoes. That will make a minor difference in his ability to cling to players who might otherwise get past him, but it'll mostly help him with pass deflections/interceptions.
- Really, he's an athletic freak in just about every way. He was among the Combine's best safeties in both the Broad and Vertical Jump, and his 17 reps on the bench press weren't too shabby either.
- With almost every player I've profiled so far, I've had to include something about needing to bulk up or slim down, with far more needing the former than the latter. That's not the case with Neal, who brings an NFL-ready body in every possible way.
- Two things scare me to death about Neal. The first is whether or not his hits will be legal in the NFL. On tape, most of his college hits are perfectly acceptable by the current NFL rules. However, those rules constantly get stricter, and players are faster and more agile in the NFL — they can adjust more quickly than the average college player, and half of Neal's hits would be illegal if the receiver were to lower his head a split-second faster.
- Second, and this is a fear I have with all safeties coming to the pro level, how good will he be in a passing league? In the aforementioned game against Alabama, for example, Jake Coker attempted 26 passes for 204 yards; Henry carried the ball 44 times for 189 yards. According to Pro-Football-Reference, an NFL player has racked up at least 44 carries precisely once, when Jamie Morris did it in 1988, and it's been a decade since a player had at least 40 carries in a game. The point is: How will Neal fare when a team is more likely to pass than it is to run?
- He's also had some injury concerns, having missed four games over the past two seasons with hamstring injuries.
- As a player who thrives on making the big hit, he does sometimes whiff and give up the big play. It's to be expected, and it's part of the risk you assume when you take a chance on a player with that kind of game-changing power in his hits. He's not egregiously bad in this department — think LaRon Landry — but there will be times when he goes for the bone-crunching hit and misses, leading to a big play.
How He Would Fit on the Redskins
I'm not going into this much further. He's got the potential to be the best at his position in this draft, he fills a need, he'll remind people in Washington of a certain beloved hard-hitting safety and he's exciting as hell. Oh yeah, and the guy I compared him to, Kam Chancellor, is apparently on the Redskins' wish list. So Neal checks every box imaginable. And they might even be able to trade back from No. 21 to the end of the first or beginning of the second round and still snag him.