Falcons lose Pro Bowl safety Keanu Neal to a season-ending knee injury in opener
Neal, one of the Falcons' best young defensive players, is already out for the year
On Friday, the Falcons announced that Pro Bowl safety Keanu Neal will miss the rest of the year after suffering a season-ending knee injury on Thursday night. According to ESPN's Adam Schefter, the injury is a torn ACL.
Neal went down twice during the game. After the first instance, he was able to return. But he went down again and remained on the sideline for the remainder of the game. The severity of the injury might come as a surprise given the comments Dan Quinn made after the game, when he said that "it doesn't sound or appear to be something serious."
It ended up being serious. And the ramifications for the Falcons are equally serious.
In Neal, the Falcons are losing a Pro Bowl strong safety who played in 30 games during the first two years of his career, racking up an interception, 15 passes defended, eight forced fumbles, and 153 solo tackles. Pro Football Focus graded him as the fourth-best Falcons player last season, behind only Julio Jones, Matt Ryan, and Deion Jones. Since 2016, no safety has forced more fumbles than Neal.
In that sense, Neal is more of a Kam Chancellor type of safety than an Earl Thomas, which means the Falcons probably won't suddenly offer the Seahawks a first-round pick for Thomas. If the Falcons do decide to look for Neal's replacement outside of Atlanta, their best option is Eric Reid. Before the 2017 season, Reid transitioned from free safety to strong safety with the 49ers, and immediately embraced his new role. In 13 games last season, he registered 52 solo tackles and a career-high 26 stops, per PFF. The Falcons should absolutely take advantage of the fact that there's a starting-caliber safety available on the open market in early September.
Other outside options include two-time Pro Bowler T.J. Ward, who recently had drug charges against him dropped, Quintin Demps, who played in three games with the Bears last season, and Tyvon Branch, who started nine games for the Cardinals a year ago. None of those players are exactly good options, but that's mainly -- with the rare exception of Reid -- what exists in free agency at this point in the calendar.
If the Falcons don't want to bring in someone from the outside, they'll likely be rolling with Damontae Kazee, who made a huge play during Thursday night's game when he dislodged a pass and created an interception. Kazee, a fifth-round pick a year ago, appeared in all 16 games with one start during his rookie season, finishing with 10 solo tackles and two forced fumbles.
The Falcons entered the season with legitimate Super Bowl aspirations. But a dreadful night in the red zone and a devastating injury has already dampened those hopes. It's early, but how they respond to both issues might just end up defining their season.
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