The 2016 NFL Draft is less than a month away. Are the Buccaneers sniffing out the safeties in the draft?
Jason Licht may have hinted recently that the Buccaneers would be looking into the safeties in this year’s upcoming draft. Recently in an interview with NBC sports, Licht talked about some “bridge” players that the Bucs had on their roster. One of those names happened to be Chris Conte, the re-signed safety who had a great year for the Bucs. Many fans are very rough on Conte thinking most of the faults in our secondary revolve around him. When in reality, most of the 2015 issues were scheme related. Conte is expected to come in and retain his starting spot, as is Bradley McDougald.
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Both starting safeties from the previous year and their backups, Keith Tandy and Major Wright, will come into camp with new defensive coaches. This leaves competition once again up for grabs. Mike Smith, and his defensive staff, bring a new identity and satisfying upgrade to the defense and its schemes. Although, one thing seems to be missing in the back-end; a “punisher”.
Keanu Neal, a homegrown talent out of Bushnell, Florida, grew up a little over an hour from Tampa. The standout high school prospect committed to Florida over various southern colleges. Neal went into camp in the same class as the projected top 10 selection Vernon Hargreaves III, where the duo went on to be one of the most elite secondaries in college football. Neal is a truly gifted safety who is able to both be a run stopper, and single high coverage safety. The highly regarded, hard-hitting player that he is sends a true sense fear into the hearts of receivers that have to cross his path.
Neal came into the combine at 6’0″ 211 pounds. His arm length measured in at 32 3/4 inches and his hands 10 5/8 inches, which are all good measureables. Neal’s combine went very well, winning top performer in both the vertical and broad jump. His numbers in these events show that he has good explosion, which go along great with the 4.62 second 40, which he was able to bring down to a 4.59 in his recent pro day. Here is Lance Zierlein’s expert opinion on the young safety.
"StrengthsAthletic frame with NFL size. Quick-twitch player cranks it up to top speed in a hurry. Explodes downhill in run support with blood in his eyes. Vicious hitter looking to bruise bones and set tones. Rangy run stopper. Drives all the way through his contact with aggressive finishes. Scouts impressed by his personal character. Good click and close skill in coverage. Is on top of receiver immediately after the catch. Worked from the box and as single high safety at Florida. Impact tackler around the line of scrimmage. Plays with a sense of desperation and rarely fatigues.WeaknessesWill have to make business decisions regarding when to bang and when to simply tackle in order to save his body. “Hulk smash” playing style led to 15 missed or broken tackles in 2015. Can be wild in space skating past his target. Field awareness can be hit or miss in coverage. Will lose track of deep ball responsibility from time to time. Won’t always turn and run early enough."
Now lets look at some tape!
Typically I would not include a highlight tape, but one game film just doesn’t give this stud justice. “He’s the nicest guy in the world off the field but when he gets on the field, he turns on a different switch. He becomes a mean football player,” the announcer said in the Ole Miss game.
Coaches have been preaching that statement to their players for generations, and Keanu Neal is the epitome of the saying. His instincts and pursuits to the ball are phenomenal. This player just does not quit and he gives it his all every single down. The only real weaknesses that jump out are his long ball coverage ability and his bone-crushing hit mentality. Neal’s body could breakdown over time from these brutal hits and that may scare some teams.
Overall, the consensus among scouts is that Neal is an NFL caliber starting safety. Neal’s run support and instincts set him apart from this year’s group of young safeties, so why not use a second-round selection on him if he slides to the 39th pick? You could make the same case that if Hargreaves III is selected with the 9th overall, the two’s familiarity with each other could help solidify the secondary.
Also, if the Bucs do decide to draft an edge-rusher in the first-round, the secondary would be the obvious choice to point to next. The Bucs and their fans are itching for an edge rusher, but if right guy is not there, reaching for a prospect is wrong. It has been long time since the Bucs had a safety who could both punish the runner and cover the pass, Keanu Neal could help with that.