(Editor’s Note: In anticipation of the 2018 season, Bryan Broaddus has once again taken a break from scouting the Cowboys in order to scout the opposition. Over the next several weeks, he will take a position-by-position look through the 2018 schedule, analyzing the top five players at each spot for a better understanding of what the Cowboys are up against. The series continues this week breaking down the safeties.)
FRISCO, Texas – You always hope for the best from your first-round draft picks, but even then they can find ways to surprise you.
It was regarded as a reach by many when the Atlanta Falcons selected Keanu Neal 17th overall in the 2016 NFL Draft. The prevailing wisdom was that he was probably a first-round talent – but maybe someone who could be found at the back end of the first round or the end of the second round.
The Falcons clearly didn’t think so, and they’ll be having the last laugh for a while to come. In the time since he was selected, Neal has established himself as one of the most physical safeties in the NFL and has already earned his way into the Pro Bowl.
The Cowboys got a taste of Neal’s game in 2017, and they’ll see him once again this coming season. Read
Name: Keanu Neal
Team: Atlanta Falcons
Experience: 3rd season
NFL Draft: Selected in the first round, 17th overall, by Atlanta in 2016
Neal reacts so well to the ball. Flows easily. Read
- Physical finisher. When he’s coming downhill, he can take his man out. Ball carrier stops in his tracks.
- Wrap-up tackler. Outstanding technique.
- Not afraid to jump routes. When he sees an opportunity to make a play, he will do it. I would not call him a gambler because he understands what he is doing.
- Plays with balance when taking on blockers. Will extend his hands to control, then work to the ball.
- Has the size to hang in there when he has to cover tight ends down the field. Jason Witten tried to push on him and he didn’t give much ground.
- Did a really nice job carrying Witten in the red zone. Witten had a hard time getting space.
- Has a feel for how to position himself in order to make plays. Instinctive player.
- Doesn’t have the foot quickness of other safeties like Kevin Byard or Malik Hooker. Does take him a little time to get going to cover some ground.
- Poised in the way he goes about his job. Consistent player down after down. Doesn’t make mistakes that costs his squad big plays.
- Has the physical traits when he plays in the box to affect the running game. Plays as if he’s an extra linebacker.
2018 Outlook: Neal has helped solidify the Falcons’ defense from the minute he was drafting, starting 30 regular season games and five playoff games during his two seasons in the league. He might not have the ballhawk track record of other top safeties, but he has racked up moere than 200 tackles in just two seasons. Atlanta is known for its offense, but the addition of Neal alongside Deion Jones, Desmond Trufant and Vic Beasley will make the Falcons’ defense a tough task when the Cowboys travel to Mercedes-Benz Stadium in November.
Name: Malik Hooker
Team: Indianapolis Colts
College: Ohio State
Experience: 2nd season
NFL Draft: Selected in the first round, 15th overall, by Indianapolis in 2017 Read
- Physically, he is a great looking player. Has ideal size and movement skills for a safety.
- Smooth back pedal and transition when asked to play in coverage.
- He is a balanced player. Don’t see him struggling to react or redirect.
- For a young player he is quick to diagnose and react to the play. Doesn’t take false steps.
- Can close some ground when he has to cover for his teammates. Speed is outstanding.
- Knows how to play the ball down the field. Receivers have a hard time running past him.
- Understands how to locate the ball. Gets his eyes around quickly. His length helps him knock the ball away when in his area.
- Quick reactions, especially as a red zone defender. When the play breaks down he has the lateral agility to recover. Plays with awareness.
- Has to be careful when tackling. His aggressiveness will get him in trouble and will over run the play.
- Was a block down tackler at Ohio State and that has carried over to the pros. Tends to throw his body at the ball carrier. Like to see him wrap up better to bring his man down.
- Nice ball skills. Puts himself in positions to make plays. Good reactions to tipped balls. Had three interceptions and four pass backups in seven games. Can finish in this area.
- Is coming off a torn ACL that he suffered last October. There were questions why he dropped during the draft and many believed it was due to his injury history. Should be fully recovered for the start of the 2018 season.
Name: Landon Collins
Team: New York Giants
Experience: 4th season
NFL Draft: Selected in the second round, 33rd overall, by New York in 2015 Read
- The first thing you notice about Collins is his physicality. He is a wrap-up tackler. Attacks the line of scrimmage. Punishing. Plays like an extra linebacker when down in the box. Can fill and finish.
- Will generally carry the tight end in coverage.
- He can bring pressure when he comes on the blitz. Will overpower blockers to get to the quarterback.
- Plays with range. Can cover some ground when on the move. He is able to plant and drive when he sees the play.
- He is not a stiff moving player. He has body control and balance in the way that he moves. Has the hips and change of direction in order to stay with his man. Hard guy to shake in route.
- Outstanding support player. There is consistency in the way he goes about his job. Not going to make mistakes with bad angles or poor tackling.
- Durable and tough. Smart player. Not a liability to his teammates.
- Poised play maker. Can create turnovers with tackles and positioning on routes.
- Shows ball skills not only to catch but knock the ball away.
- Have to be aware of him as a blitzer. Can defeat blockers on the move. Is the type of player that can disguise his blitz and then at the last minute cause damage in the pocket.
- Best defensive weapon the Giants have.
2018 Outlook: During a Giants season that ran completely off the rails, Collins was one of the only constants in 2017. He played in 15 games, finishing with 99 tackles, two interceptions and six pass breakups. He didn’t earn Pro Bowl status, but he was one of just a few bright spots on an abysmal team. The Giants spent big-time draft capital to improve their offense this year, selecting Saquon Barkley and Will Hernandez to help make Eli Manning’s life easier. If the offense can find some semblance of balance, the defense should be just fine. Olivier Vernon and Damon Harrison will be back on the defensive line, and Collins will once again be paired with the likes of Janoris Jenkins to make life difficult on the Cowboys’ passing attack.
Name: Kevin Byard
Team: Tennessee Titans
College: Middle Tennessee State
Experience: 3rd season
NFL Draft: Selected in the third round, 64th overall, by Tennessee in 2016 Read
- This is a highly competitive player. Plays with tremendous physical and mental toughness. Football intelligence is off the charts.
- Has a feel for how to play around the line of scrimmage. He is able to avoid blocks and get in on plays. Arrives at the ball. Physical tackler.
- Plays with his eyes. Correct angles to the ball. Is able to wrap up the ball carrier in space.
- Fluid moving player. Doesn’t take much for him to react. Can cover quite a bit of ground. Doesn’t labor running to the ball. Smooth, relaxed pedal.
- Will walk down in the slot for coverage. Closes quickly in off coverage. Plays well in transition.
- Plays with ball skills. When the ball gets in his hands, he can finish the play. Creates turnovers.
- Reactionary player. Not often fooled or out of position.
- Shows body control and balance. Lower body flexibility. No stiffness to his game.
- Explosive player. His ability to strike is outstanding. Can bring his man down on the spot.
- Just as good of a player in zone as he is in man. Eyes and reactions help him here.
- Instinctive player. Plays with poise. Doesn’t get rattled. Is a playmaker in every sense of the word.
2018 Outlook: We’ve written a lot about underrated players in this series, but Byard might fit that billing more than anyone else. The Philadelphia native was named a first-team All-Pro and a Pro Bowler in 2017, but he’s far from a household name to this point in his career. He’s going to have a chance to change that. The Titans made the playoffs last year, and nothing raises a team from obscurity to notoriety like winning games – just ask the Seattle Seahawks. Byard’s eight interceptions led the NFL last season. If he can even come close to managing that again, he’ll have all the recognition he wants.
More Reports: Read
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