Based on popular demand, this week’s Featured Falcon Friday is the enforcer of the Atlanta Falcons defense, strong safety Keanu Neal.
In a lot of ways, last Sunday’s contest against the Seahawks was a matchup of big brother versus little brother. Dan Quinn faced off against his former boss Pete Carroll for the first time as head coach of the Falcons. While Atlanta left with the loss, thanks in part to awful officiating, they proved they’re not far off from big brother.
The clash of the two head coaches was not the only instance of teacher versus pupil in the game. Falcons’ strong safety Keanu Neal had the opportunity to show his stuff to the player that took him under his wing this offseason. That player is Seahawks strong safety Kam Chancellor.
After Keanu was selected 17th overall in this past April’s NFL draft, Kam sent him a surprising message on Twitter. Chancellor invited the rookie to work out with him and Arizona Cardinals safety/linebacker Deone Bucannon in Virginia.
Part of the reason Chancellor reached out to Keanu, known to some as “Kiki,” was because of the comparisons scouts had made between the two. Kam Chancellor has earned the reputation around the league for being the enforcer of the Seattle secondary. Put differently, Kam brings the boom to the Legion of Boom, made up of himself, Richard Sherman and Earl Thomas.
Since day one, Dan Quinn has desired to bring that same kind of physicality to his new football team in Atlanta. The incumbent safety at the time, William Moore, proved he could no longer be relied upon in the Falcons’ lineup due to injuries.
The strong safety position plays a pivotal role in Dan Quinn’s defense. The scheme requires a player swift enough to cover opposing tight ends, yet strong enough to “lay the wood” in run support.
That led the Falcons to select Keanu Neal with the 17th overall pick in the 2016 draft. While the pick satisfied a position of need, some critics considered it to be a reach at the time.
But what the pundits did not take into consideration was Dan Quinn’s previous history with Keanu Neal. As the defensive coordinator of the Florida Gators from 2011-2012, Quinn played an instrumental role in recruiting Keanu to Gainesville. So if anyone knows whether Neal is the right player to cast in the Kam Chancellor role, it’s Dan Quinn.
And so far, Keanu Neal has proven his head coach to be 100 percent right.
The physicality from Neal has been on display since training camp. No play exemplifies this better than his hit on 6-foot-8 tight end Levine Toilolo during a July practice.
Keanu also hasn’t disappointed in areas that were perceived as weaknesses of his. According to Pro Football Focus (PFF), he has yet to miss a tackle and his coverage skills have been above average.
In fact, the Falcons assigned Neal to shadow Panthers tight end Greg Olsen in week 3 and the rookie did not surrender a catch to the Pro Bowler until the fourth quarter. Performances such as this have earned Keanu a top ten safety ranking by PFF through the first six weeks.
Keanu brought his best this past Sunday with his “big brother” Seahawk watching from the sideline. Kiki led the Falcons with 10 tackles and delivered plenty of bone crushing blows to Seattle ballcarriers such as the one below.
But Seahawks safety Kam Chancellor isn’t the only big brother Keanu looks up to. Keanu also has an older blood brother, and a former NFL player to boot, that he has learned quite a bit from.
Former San Diego Charger safety Clinton Hart shares a lot of things with Keanu Neal. They both share a mother, a career in professional football, and the same position. But what Clint made sure he didn’t share with his baby brother was the path Keanu took to the NFL.
Clint Hart took the long route to NFL stardom. Poor grades prevented Hart from attending a traditional college to play football. After attending Central Florida Community College, Clint had to navigate through two years of arena football and a brief stint in NFL Europe before even sniffing an NFL practice squad. He eventually caught on with the San Diego Chargers for six seasons, where he was the starting strong safety on the 2007 AFC finalist squad.
Keanu witnessed the struggle his brother endured and vowed to choose a more direct track. He made sure his grades were never an issue for college recruiters by earning a 3.5 GPA in high school. It also helped that Kiki had Clint’s NFL frame — 6-foot-1 205 pounds — as an 11th grader.
Thanks to his two accomplished mentors, Keanu Neal carries himself like a veteran at just 21 years of age. Hart and Chancellor’s tutelage already have enabled Keanu to seamlessly overcome a preseason injury that kept him out of the season’s first two games.
Clint Hart has admitted that his little brother has surpassed him on a football scale. While the competitive Kam Chancellor may never do the same, the analytics suggest that Neal is right on his other brother’s heels.
The sky’s the limit for Keanu Neal.