There's been a ton of change for Keanu Neal in 2021, but it's mixed with just the right amount of familiarity. In January, CBS Sports reported a high likelihood the veteran defensive back would make his way to the Dallas Cowboys, after parting ways with the Atlanta Falcons in free agency. He had his choice of several suitors, but narrowed it down to the only two -- the Dallas Cowboys and the New York Jets. He'd ultimately choose to sign a one-year deal with the former, reuniting his former head coach in Atlanta, Dan Quinn, in the process.
In doing so, he's agreed to become a flex player mostly tasked with taking on the duties of a linebacker in an experiment the Cowboys feel will pay off well for both sides. Neal sounds ready to take on the challenge, to say the least.
"[I'll be doing] typical linebacker stuff: playing the hook, playing curl, dropping in our coverages, lining over the tight end, playing man on the tight end and the backs," he said from Day 2 of OTAs. "Things of that nature."
The 25-year-old also admits he never viewed himself as a one position player, anyway. He'll simply channel his past from the days of when he played linebacker prior to joining the Florida Gators.
"I don't categorize myself," Neal said. "I feel I can play safety, linebacker, wherever they put me I gonna prepare to go out there and play at my best. Growing up I played linebacker in middle school and high school. Then we changed the defense and I switched to safety.
"So I went to college as a safety but, in my heart, I have been a linebacker for a while. As time went on I moved to safety. I still have an understanding of what everything entails with playing linebacker."
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His time with the Gators saw him learn under then head coach Will Muschamp, whose defensive coordinator was Quinn, and although Quinn left for the NFL ranks to join the Seattle Seahawks as the eventual leader of the famed "Legion of Boom" defense, he was key in helping to woo Neal to the swamp.
"I've known Q for a long time," said Neal. "He recruited me out of high school right before he went to the league. He was with Florida, and then he recruited me. Once I got to Florida, he ended up going to the NFL, but I've known him since 2012 basically. ...Yeah, my connection with Q was one of the main components of me being here.
"But obviously, this is a great organization. Jerry does a really good job of leading the guys. It's a great opportunity for us to win. For us to do something special.
"It was a good amount of components that led to this. As far as playing linebacker, I feel like i have played forms of it throughout my career, whether it me being lined up on the box, playing the hook, things of that nature. It's awesome.
"I think it's a great opportunity. I'm excited to be a sponge, learn. Learn from the guys around me and continue to grow. I am really excited to be here."
Neal is looking to add a bit of mass to make himself more effective in his new role, having gone from his 2020 playing weight of 217 pounds to just over 222 heading into OTAs, with his final goal landing back at the 222-pound mark. That will certainly aid him in what the Cowboys are going to ask him to do -- namely to aid quite a bit in run support.
"Like I said before, the first few years and throughout my career I've played in the box," he said. "I've played down at times. So I kind of have an understanding of the fits and all that stuff. But yeah, I typically play around like 6 yards or so and [Quinn] is trying to get me to bump down to like 5, 4-and-a-half.
"So that adjustment, I'm kind of getting used to that. But it's definitely a transition."
Quinn isn't the only person Neal is reuniting with in Dallas. Also coming over in free agency after parting ways with the Falcons is safety Damontae Kazee, who beat out Malik Hooker to get the nod as the complement to Donovan Wilson in 2021. Kazee will compete directly with rookie sixth-round pick Israel Mukuamu for snaps (Neal himself having to do so against Leighton Vander Esch, Jaylon Smith and rookies Micah Parsons and Jabril Cox), and is working to bounce back from a torn Achilles in the process. But if you're thinking Neal recruited Kazee to Dallas, well, that'd be a logical thought -- yet it's not what happened.
He allowed Kazee to decide for himself.
"I reached out to him a little bit, but I didn't talk to him too much," said Neal. "He's a grown man with grown-man decisions, and I let him make his decision on his own. But yeah, a great relationship. Definitely excited for him to be here.
"He's an awesome player. A ballhawk. You guys are going to be really excited to see him play."
Kazee received a detailed look by the team's medical staff before getting the nod on a one-year deal of his own, and is now participating in OTAs and expected to have no limitations by the time training camp rolls around.
"He's moving around really well in the space," Neal said of Kazee on Tuesday. "Seeing him go down was tough. It really sucked because I went through it. The safety that we were with as well, Ricardo Allen, he went through it.
"So seeing the next safety go through the same thing, it was really tough. But you know, he's resilient, he pushed through it and he's moving around like nothing happened. I'm really excited that he is back to where he is at."
That's good news for a Cowboys defense that, under Quinn, appears to have placed at least some value in the safety position but that also understands there's a lot to iron out before the season gets underway in September. From bringing Neal up to speed on his newfound flex role to making sure Kazee remains on track to lots and lots in-between, the reinstatement of a mostly traditional offseason slate of programs gives Quinn and the defense a leg up over what the team was up against a year ago -- due to the COVID-19 pandemic and failed attempt by then-incoming-but-now-fired Quinn to force The Nile River through a drinking straw.
Instead, it's a more measured approach at installation aided by excellent attendance ahead of mandatory minicamp.
"The energy is there," Neal noted. "You can tell the guys want to get better and get after it. I can feel that for sure. It's just putting everything together, getting the playbook down and attacking it.
"And that's what we're doing."