Recent Dallas Cowboys acquisition Keanu Neal could be a part of the next generation of versatile linebackers. Weighing in at 216lbs, Neal will play as a coverage linebacker for the Dallas Cowboys. Historically a player at Neal’s size is a prototypical “in the box” safety, which is what he has played his entire career, but Dan Quinn has other ideas.
Taking a look around the league, there are a number of undersized linebackers making their mark in the NFL. Darius Leonard, all-pro linebacker for the Indianapolis Colts, came into the NFL weighing in at 220lbs. Nicknamed “the maniac,” Leonard took the league by storm by taking home defensive rookie of the year honors. Leonard can defend slot receivers and tight ends, while still making plays in the backfield. The Colts star linebacker is not the only example of elite small outside linebackers. Dion Jones of the Atlanta Falcons and Cory Littleton of the Las Vegas Raiders are two more examples of undersized linebackers making names for themselves in the NFL.
Professional football has evolved into a pass heavy league, and Keanu Neal could be the answer to an offensive minded league. Last season there were only three teams that ran the ball at a higher rate than through the air. Teams are running air raid systems, and Neal will undoubtably slow down teams passing attacks. With that in mind, teams will look to run at the former safety, but Neal is no stranger to the trenches. This video shows how effective Neal can be in the running game.
The Dallas Cowboys were incredibly bad against the run last year giving up 2,541 total yards (158.8 yds per game). Having a 216lb linebacker converted from safety could make matters worse. Expect to see some growing pains from Neal early on. His inexperience at linebacker will show on running plays when Neal has to fill in the right gaps. It could take a few games for the 2017 pro bowler to get comfortable on the front seven. Luckily for Neal, Dan Quinn’s system is nothing foreign. Quinn has coached Neal since he entered the league in 2016. While the 25-year-old is undersized, he has proven to be formidable against the run even from the secondary.
From the safety position the former Atlanta Falcon racked up nine tackles for loss in 2020. That mark ranked second among safeties around the NFL, just behind Seahawks safety Jamal Adams (11). It might be a little awkward for Neal in the first few weeks, but he is a capable defender in the ground game. It won’t be easy for Neal to make the switch, but if Dallas proves to emerge as a quality defensive team, Neal will be a pioneer as one of the first undersized coverage linebackers in the NFL for years to come.
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