Keanu Neal was the recent selection for the Pittsburgh Steelers in a NFL.com mock draft by Lance Zierlein. Prior to the combine, he was projected to be a late round pick by CBS Sports. His combine performance gave him the best broad jump and second best vertical jump of all safeties at the combine. Though his 40-yard dash time was only a 4.62, these numbers were enough to impress scouts with his explosiveness.
Neal stands at 6' 0" and 211 lbs. with a reputation for being strong in run support and a big hitter. He forced two fumbles and recorded four interceptions in his NCAA career with the Florida Gators and chose to forgo his senior year in order to enter the NFL draft. We take a look at some of the film on Neal and compare it with the notes available on his statistics.
Neal shows the ability to explode through a runner and deliver punishing hits all over the field. In the film I have reviewed, Neal shows consistency in that he is able to lower his shoulders to a level that would avoid a helmet-to-helmet penalty. Here he identifies his target and lands a big hit while wrapping up the receivers. Now let's take a look at how he may hit against some running backs;
This is a big hit back in Neal's freshman year against Eddie Lacy. He is able to build up the momentum to stop big backs on occasion and deliver huge hits on players of different sizes. Being able to deliver big hits has been a desired trait for Steelers safeties over the years. Players like Troy Polamalu, Ryan Clark, Chris Hope and now even Mike Mitchell have made a living in the Steelers' secondary with the ability to hit hard as part of their arsenal.
Needs to work on form
As you can see with the hit on Lacy above, though Neal was able to get him down, he did not show solid fundamentals in trying to make the tackle. This does seem to be a problem in Neal's game as he often goes for the boom hits while forgetting to wrap the ball carrier. The film here shows him going up against Derrick Henry in the SEC Championship and shows what happens when a runner does not go down after first impact. There are times when Neal does wrap up an opponent, but it's not always a consistent practice of his and will need to be something he works on in the NFL.
Neal shows solid football awareness in his tape and can put himself in the right position for his defense's scheme. Here you can see him string out with a scrambling quarterback and switch to covering a delayed route from the backfield, and make a tip drill interception to kill a red zone drive. Almost all of Neal's interceptions in the NCAA came from tipped passes off of defenders or even offensive players. We are fortunate enough to have some film on his only interception when it was not a tipped pass.
Here we can see Neal with the ability to locate a ball downfield and make a play on the pass while bracketing a receiver with a cornerback. He shows he can make plays on the ball occasionally, but he is not the rangy playmaker against the passing game that the Steelers may be looking for to bolster their defensive unit.
We return to the SEC championship to show a red zone play in which he was not able to make a solid play on the ball. Watch as Alabama's quarterback, Jake Coker, stares down his target in the end zone and Neal is unable to even get a hand on the ball. While Coker does fire a laser, this was a play that you would hope a larger safety playing a deep zone coverage around the goal line would be able to make. While Neal can be in position in a coverage scheme, he does seem to be somewhat average in his ability to make a play on the ball while it is in the air.
Draft Stock for Pittsburgh
Neal is at a position where the Steelers need help for 2016 and beyond. With the ever aging Will Allen, the lack of development of Shamarko Thomas and the fact that Pittsburgh has not drafted a safety in the first round since it selected Troy Polamalu in 2003, it may be time to invest high at safety. In fact, the Steelers' only other safety which they drafted higher than the fourth round in that time span was Anthony Smith in the third round of the 2006 NFL Draft.
While the Steelers have been a team that looks for lineman and linebackers primarily on defense, this may be the year which that mold is broken. The emergence of Stephon Tuitt and Ryan Shazier as rising stars bolsters the help of team leaders, Cameron Heyward and Lawrence Timmons, as well as other young players who show positive signs in their play such as Bud Dupree. This may mean that Pittsburgh could feel comfortable with going for a player in the secondary in the earlier rounds.
Whether or not that player would be Keanu Neal, I am not certain. While his big hits are something that may excite fans, his rather average cover skills are not something that makes me anxious for Pittsburgh to spend an early pick on him when there could be other talents to snag. Neal would be a solid option if he were still floating around the third round or so and the Steelers had yet to select a safety, but at this point the team might be better off investing into safeties that specialize in coverage like that of Ohio State's Vonn Bell. You can look at our review of his tape from last month here, as we highlighted his cover skills and rangy ability to cover the field.
Bell will not be much of a noise maker for now because he did not fully participate in the NFL Combine this year, as he only took part in the bench press test and refrained from all other drills. Should he put on strong numbers at a pro day, he will be back in the fold of being a top round pick by mainstream media analysts. Until then, players such as Neal will stand out to scouts and analysts doing breakdowns.
Neal shows some potential to be a solid safety in the NFL, but does not appear to be a strong candidate to be of the league's elite in the future. Time will tell, but I think it is unlikely he would be the Steelers' first round selection this year as NFL.com's Zierlein suggests.