With the 2016 NFL Draft less than two weeks away, the NFL has released the names of 25 young players who have been invited to attend the draft in New York. At least one of those prospects has bristled at the notion that he’ll be the Green Room’s Mr. Irrelevant at month’s end — the last invitee to hear his name called.
When SB Nation’s Dan Kadar theorized that fate would befall Florida safety Keanu Neal, Neal fired back on Twitter. “Haha some of these people,” Neal tweeted, “Half never played a down of football in their lives.. It’s funny..Negativity is fuel for me.. Be blessed.”
Neal may not think it’s all that funny in New York, because it’s a real possibility Kadar will be right. Dane Brugler of CBS Sports, for example, slots Neal has a second-round pick, citing deficiencies in technique that leave Neal out of position on occasion. “While he showed improvements in the deep half of the field in coverage,” Brugler said, “he is best known as an eraser downhill, playing with violent intentions and looking to lay the wood. Neal enjoys contact and is a physical striker, but needs mechanical work as too many of his tackle attempts are off balance due to streaky angles.”
“He might be able to start down the road in the NFL,” Brugler continues, “but requires time to improve his discipline as he doesn’t have the athleticism to make up for wasted steps. Neal will be a special teams demon due to his relentless nature while competing for snaps on defense.”
Lance Zierlein of NFL.com, on the other hand, thinks Neal’s moment in the spotlight and bro hug with Roger Goodell may come earlier than some expect, comparing the 6’0″, 211-pounder to Kenny Vaccaro of the New Orleans Saints. “Neal started the year off with a hamstring issue that slowed him down and caused some uneven tape at times,” Zierlein said, “but his size, athleticism and hitting are the best in this draft. Neal isn’t limited to simple box tasks even though he thrives there. He has all the makings of an early starter and may hear his name called earlier than some might project.”
Trevor Sikkema of SEC Country agrees. “After Florida State’s Jalen Ramsey,” Sikkema said, “this safety class has been a toss up. Now, it appears that the second-best safety among the group could be Florida’s Keanu Neal. After a great showing at the NFL Combine, where he posted a 38-inch vertical jump and a 11-foot broad jump, people began to watch his tape and realized that his athleticism and explosiveness does show — and shows often. That’s something you can’t teach, and teams know it. The Falcons at No. 17 and even the Raiders at No. 14 could have their eyes on him in the first round.”
It isn’t just some members of the draftnik community who on board the Neal bandwagon. At least one NFC defensive backs coach told Zierlein he’s very much interested in making Neal a part of his secondary. “He looks like an NFL safety,” the coach said. “Looks like he can run on tape and is exactly what you look for in run support. He’s an athlete so I don’t worry about his cover skills as long as his instincts are okay.”
It’s these comments from that secondary coach that should most pique the interest of IDP owners. There’s little doubt that Ramsey will be the first safety drafted on April 28. But there’s more than a little doubt as to whether he should be the first rookie defensive back taken in fantasy drafts this summer. He plays a role that’s often big-play dependent for fantasy production. And at FSU at least, Ramsey didn’t make many big plays.
Neal, however, added a pair of sacks, an interception and a forced fumble to his nearly 100 stops a year ago for the Gators. On paper at least, he has the skill-set fantasy owners want in a defensive back — namely the ability to both defend the run well and fare decently enough in coverage to stay on the field in subpackages.
He isn’t a sure thing (there aren’t any IDP-wise among defensive backs in 2016), and it would take a highly favorable landing spot for Neal to merit any real draft-day consideration in redraft IDP formats. But it wouldn’t be a huge surprise if a year or two from now it’s Neal who emerges as the most fantasy-relevant DB of the Class of 2016.