FLOWERY BRANCH – The Falcons, with an eye toward adding an enforcer to their defense, selected Florida safety Kenau Neal with the 17th pick in the NFL draft Thursday.
Neal was one of the fast climbers during the pre-draft process. The buzz around Neal and the Falcons grew loudest in the final days preceding the draft.
“We had a game plan coming into this draft like we always do,” Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff said. “It was very well though out. We had targeted our first-round pick Keanu Neal from the beginning. He was guy that we really believe was the top safety for our system.”
The Falcons picked Neal over Clemson defensive end Shaq Lawson, Alabama linebacker Reggie Ragland, Ohio State linebacker Darron Lee and UCLA linebacker Myles Jack. The Falcons stayed true to their “needs-based” and “system-specific” drafting system.
“The strong safety position is a critical one for us and one that’s really valuable,” Falcons coach Dan Quinn said. “You have to have the run-and-hit factor of playing a linebacker because we play our safeties so close to the line of scrimmage. He’s either in the box or close to the line. He also has to have the coverage skills to play safety, play on the tight ends and be a real factor on third downs.”
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Neal beleives he can fit into the Falcons’ defense quickly.
“I think I fit perfectly,” Neal said. “They want guys who are interchangeable, who can do more than just one thing, and I fit that.”
Neal was partially recruited by Quinn before he left Florida to return to Seattle. Neal played special teams for the Gators as a freshmen in 2013.
Neal said that teams had told him he was a late first-round or a second-round pick. The Falcons are in need of a strong safety after releasing William Moore.
“He is a guy that embodies what we were looking for as far as his passion and his toughness on and off the field,” Dimitroff said. “It’s something that’s very important for this organization to have someone who has a presence on the field and makes a big impact defensively both in the run and the pass game.”
Quinn was pleased with the pick.
“For our team we added a terrific competitor and a great hitter,” Quinn said.
With the selection of Neal, the Falcons likely will pick a linebacker in the second round Saturday.
The draft world had Neal, a 6-foot, 211-pound strong safety, who was the Gators’ third-leading tackler with 96 tackles and he had an interception, rated differently.
Neal’s decision to pass on his senior season and enter the draft paid off.
NFL Network analyst Mike Mayock rated Neal as the third best safety in the draft behind Ohio State’s Vonn Bell and West Virginia’s Karl Joseph.
Nolan Nawrocki, a former scout, had Neal with a “second-to-third round” grade. “His cover skills are average,” Nawrocki wrote in the highly respected NFL Draft 2016 preview. “He is a big hitter, and that is what’s going to excite (scouts), but I don’t think he is a great tackler. He has size, but I don’t see him matching athletic ability. I’m not sure he can run.”
The Falcons had a campus visit and a private workout with Neal, who tested well in the scouting combine.
Neal sat out the first two games of the 2015 season with a hamstring injury.
Joseph was the first safety taken when the Oakland Raiders selected him with the 14th pick.
The Falcons also heavily scouted Georgia outside linebacker Leonard Floyd, who went to the Chicago Bears with the ninth pick. Floyd, who worked out for the Falcons on Saturday in Athens, was the first player taken from the SEC.
Ragland was flagged by some teams because of a medical issue, according to NFL Media. He reportedly has an enlarged aorta.
The condition requires monitoring and could lead to aneurysms. Surgery could be required.
Falcons linebackers coach Jeff Ulbrich and area scout Anthony Robinson scouted Ragland at Alabama’s Pro Day in March.
Lawson, a former Clemson standout, had been in regular contact with Falcons defensive line coach Bryan Cox.
But some thought Lawson was “just a guy.” In NFL scouting terms, being called “just a guy” is a derogatory term.
Former Falcons defensive back Louis Riddick, who works for ESPN, was concerned that Lawson is a major slacker. Riddick played six seasons in the NFL, including 1992 with the Falcons.
He went on to become a scout for Washington and was their director of personnel (2005-07). He’s also worked in Philadelphia’s front office.
“As many good splash plays as he has had, he has had too many, for me, plays where Shaq looks slow, sluggish and not very competitive,” Riddick said. “Quite honestly, in scouting terms, he looks like just a guy. That concerns me.”
The Falcons have the 50th pick in the second round, the 81st pick in the third, the 115th pick in the fourth and the 238th pick in the seventh.