The Buffalo Bills’ defense has been inconsistent throughout the 2015 season as they’ve transitioned to Rex Ryan’s hybrid 3-4 defensive scheme. Some players throughout the front seven that were productive in Mike Pettine and Jim Schwartz’ defensive schemes that were based on 4-3 concepts haven’t been able to replicate that success in their new roles. So, going into the offseason and most notably the 2016 NFL Draft, it’s likely that the team will look to acquire defenders that fit the archetypes for the positions needed for Ryan’s system to thrive. Today, we’ll take a look at Florida safety Keanu Neal.
Keanu Neal is an intriguing safety prospect that’s seen his draft stock generate some steam since the 2016 NFL Scouting Combine. A two-year starter at the University of Florida, Keanu Neal recorded 141 tackles, 4.5 tackles for loss, four interceptions, five pass breakups, two sacks and forced two fumbles. In 2014 as a sophomore he earned a starting role at the free safety position, where he saw significant action playing the deep middle as a centerfielder, before moving to a traditional strong safety role in 2015. Neal is a physical enforcer that sets the tone for a defense. He’s a big hitter and a force against the run that can play in the box and shows adequate range to play in man and zone schemes.
Keanu Neal Size/ Physical Attributes
Keanu Neal measured in at 6’1” and 211 pounds at the NFL Combine with 32 ¼” arms. He’s got prototypical size and bulk for the strong safety position and with teams using more and more big safeties as linebackers or an extra box defender, Keanu Neal will certainly be an attractive option. He doesn’t have the elite speed you look for in a deep free safety, as he ran an official 4.62-second 40-yard dash at the combine, before running a 4.53 and a 4.6 at his Pro Day. However, he’s explosive and has good short-area quickness which make him an ideal fit as a box player. His 38” vertical leap and 11’ broad jump ranked second and first among safeties at the combine and he ran a 4.21 short shuttle and a 6.69 three-cone at his Pro Day.
Keanu Neal Run Support
Keanu Neal makes his biggest impact against the run, where he shows great downhill closing speed and a physical mentality to take on blockers and get in on the action at the line of scrimmage. He does a good job reading the run and exploding to the ball. Keanu Neal is a vicious hitter, packing knockout power.
Here against Alabama, Keanu Neal creeps down into the box before the snap. It’s a run designed to go to the right, away from Neal, but he maintains gap integrity and waits for the cutback before making the tackle at the line of scrimmage in a short yardage situation.
Against Michigan, Neal shows off his downhill closing speed and his ability to locate the ball-carrier in traffic. Lined up in a two-deep shell, Keanu Neal reads the run immediately, getting downhill, finding the open gap and filling it to make an assisted tackle at the line of scrimmage.
Keanu Neal explosive downhill with the speed to get to the sideline and make a stop.
Keanu Neal shows off his explosive hitting ability again against Alabama, coming downhill and lowering his shoulder, delivering a shot that sends the 6’3” 247-pound Derrick Henry backwards and to the ground.
Neal has good functional strength when taking on blocks, as you can see in the following play against Ole Miss. The Rebels’ are running a jet sweep and the running back looks to seal out Keanu Neal on the edge. Neal is patient and doesn’t look to avoid the block, instead taking it on without surrendering any ground, forcing the receiver to bounce it to the sideline. Neal is strong enough to work towards the sideline and force the ball-carrier out of bounds.
Keanu Neal Pass Coverage
Keanu Neal is still a work in progress in terms of deep coverage, as he can be a step slow when processing downfield routes. He’s a playmaker that will blow up plays in front of him, but he can get over-aggressive at times, biting on play fakes and getting flat-footed, allowing receivers to get on top of him.
Neal always looks to make the big play, and does so against Alabama on a quick out route to Amari Cooper. Keanu Neal breaks to the sideline and punches out the ball, scoops it up and takes it 55-yards back for a touchdown.
However, when playing deep as the last line of defense, Keanu Neal is explosive to break on routes and deliver huge hits that strike fear in opposing wideouts when going over the middle.
Against Ole Miss, he reads the slant route and jumps it, delivering a huge hit on the receiver to dislodge the ball.
He does this again against Georgia.
Against Louisiana State, Neal is the strong safety in a two-deep shell. He doesn’t bite on the play-fake and stays in position, until he sees the tight end release into the flat for a swing pass. Neal reacts quickly, exploding downhill and making a tackle for loss as soon as the tight end makes the catch.
Michigan used Keanu Neal’s aggressiveness against him with play action. Lined up in the slot over the tight end, Neal gets flat footed and leans forward as the quarterback fakes the handoff. The tight end runs a quick slant that beats him across the face and picks up about 15 yards.
Neal does show the fluidity and change of direction ability to play man coverage against tight ends, as he does in the same game in a red zone situation.
Potential Fit with Buffalo Bills
Keanu Neal fits the prototype of the big, physical safety that Rex Ryan loves on his defense. A physical tone-setter that can serve as an eighth man in the box, with the range to cover, Neal would be a nice addition to the Bills’ defense. He’s a bit raw and will need some coaching as he adjusts to the speed of the game and reacting to various route combinations, but Neal has a high ceiling and offers enough as a run defender to make an impact early on in his career.
Player Comparison: William Moore/ Jonathan Cyprien
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