The Falcons defense could get a boost from the return of rookie strong safety Keanu Neal, the team’s first-round draft pick.
He had his first day at practice on Thursday in a limited role after suffering a right knee injury in the third exhibition game against Miami on Aug. 25.
“He did a good job in the walk-through,” Falcons coach Dan Quinn said on Thursday. “He’s been that way in terms of his calls an assignments. We’re proud of the way that he aggressively attacked his rehab after the injury.”
Linebacker De’Vondre Campbell (ankle), defensive tackle Ra’Shede Hageman (illness), wide receiver Julio Jones (calf), wide receiver Mohamed Sanu (ankle), defensive end Dwight Freeney (non-injury related) and linebacker Paul Worrilow (groin) did not participate in practice.
Wide receiver Justin Hardy (shoulder), safety Kemal Ishmael (shoulder), defensive tackle Grady Jarrett (elbow) and defensive end Brooks Reed (shoulder) were limited.
If Neal doesn’t suffer a set back, he’ll be available to play against the New Orleans Saints on Monday night.
“He’s definitely chomping at the bit,” Quinn said. “We are going to take it through the next three days and see how he’s progresses, see how he performs, where his conditioning is and then we’ll make the determination at the end of the week.”
Neal was taken with the 17th overall pick in the draft and worked with the first-team defense over the offseason. He was having a strong game against Miami when he suffered the injury.
“I was just really upset,” Neal said. “I felt like I let my team down. I wanted to be a part of the first game. But it wasn’t as simple as that.”
Neal said his rehab from the arthroscopic surgery was arduous.
“Getting back as soon as I could,” Neal said. “That was my mentality. I was taking it day by day. I embraced the process. I was going for it.”
Kemal Ishmael has played well with Neal out. He had 15 tackles against Oakland.
Neal is not sure if he’ll be ready for the Saints’ game.
“We are just going to slowly get into it,” Neal said. “They are not going to throw me into the fire. We are going to have a few plays here and there. I’m just slowly getting back into the process.”
Neal was elated to be back on the field.
“It was really tough,” Neal said. “Any player, who’s a team player, would want to be a part of the team winning or losing. I taught me a lot of lessons.”
Quinn was optimistic about Neal’s return.
“All signs are pointing for good things for him heading into today,” Quinn said.