Keanu Neal of the Falcons enters final three games of rookie deal

Credit: D. Orlando Ledbetter

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Falcons safety Keanu Neal discusses the season and his future with the team.

Credit: D. Orlando Ledbetter

Keanu Neal isn’t ready to look ahead just yet.

The Falcons still have games left after they were eliminated from postseason contention. Still, Neal, who has appeared in 12 of 13 games this season, wants to finish on a high note, especially since his past two years ended because of season-ending injuries in the first month.

When the Falcons finish their 2020 season, Neal’s time with the franchise could wrap up as well. The soon-to-be free agent reflected on his time with the Falcons on Friday, noting he’s had many good memories since he became the franchise’s first-round selection in the 2016 NFL draft.

“Time has definitely flown by, for sure. It’s Year 5, and it seems like Year 2,” Neal said. “Honestly, it goes by pretty quick. It’s awesome here, I definitely enjoy it.”

Neal cited his favorite memory being the Super Bowl run the Falcons went on during his rookie season. Neal, however, is cognizant of his future, even if he’s not ready to think about it.

“I definitely love Atlanta. That’s not something I’m really thinking about now in this space,” Neal said. “We’ve got three games left. That’s what I’m focused on, finishing the season off right and getting some wins for the team.”

Neal has played this season under the fifth-year option, valued at $6.5 million. It remains to be seen how much money he will command once he hits the free-agent market. With ACL and Achilles injuries in his past, it’s possible a team may want to take only a one-year flier on Neal.

But with the film he’s put together this year, perhaps he’s played his way into a multi-year contract. Entering Sunday’s game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Pro Football Focus has Neal as its 20th-best safety, out of 63 eligible, with a 69.4 grade.

This season, Neal ranks third on the Falcons with 80 tackles, having returned to the enforcer role he perfected during the 2016 and 2017 seasons. Neal also has been asked to blitz the quarterback more often than previously.

Defensive coordinator Jeff Ulbrich likened Neal’s role with the Falcons to how the Seahawks use safety Jamal Adams. Ulbrich is hopeful Neal’s style will earn him a sizable contract this offseason.

“I hope others see what we see and appreciate what he’s done,” Ulbrich said. “I can’t think that they wouldn’t. To see a guy like Jamal Adams have as much success and warrant as much money and attention as he has -- not to say that they’re the same player or to say one is better than the other, but they are similar players and have a similar style. I think we unlocked Keanu’s blitzing ability kind of in a similar way to how they feature Jamal in Seattle. Hopefully, as much love and attention that’s garnered by Jamal, (Neal) will get the same.”

Credit: Atlanta Falcons

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Falcons interim coach Raheem Morris comments on the development of safety Keanu Neal, who is in the final year of his rookie deal with Atlanta.

Credit: Atlanta Falcons

It took some time for Neal to get adjusted to being back on the field after missing so much time over the past two seasons -- he was injured in the first game of 2018 and the third game of 2019. As the 2020 season progressed, Neal started to return to form, previously stating he started to feel like himself in Week 7 against the Detroit Lions.

“You watched him get better and develop as he’s gone, so we’re really fired up where (Neal) has gone and what he’s become throughout the homestretch of the season,” Falcons interim coach Raheem Morris said.

“He’s really become the enforcer. He’s really been a run-and-hit guy for us. He’s done some things in the pressure game for us. He’s really gotten better throughout the stretch and kind of getting back to his old self. So I’m just fired up to see him out there on the field and being healthy.”

Said linebacker Deion Jones: “Just seeing him back playing, being on his feet and flying around, that’s the best part. That’s my bro. We came in together, and it’s good to have him back by my side.”

Neal knows his next contract will be something to pay attention to this offseason. For now, he’s going to relish the time he has left with this year’s Falcons squad.

“I see it, but it’s not something I focus on and worry about at this time,” Neal said. “We’ve got a few games left, and that’s out of my control. You can’t get stuck in that mindset. That’s what you can’t do, especially in a season. My goal is to finish the season out right and let the chips fall where they may. That’s really where I’m at with this.”