Between the draft and free agency, the Falcons added plenty of newcomers in 2016 who will be closely monitored when XFINITY® Training Camp begins July 28. None of these players will be under the microscope quite like Keanu Neal.
Neal, drafted No. 17 overall, joins Atlanta with sky-high expectations. In the long-term, head coach Dan Quinn is counting on him developing into one of the league's most dynamic and hardest-hitting safeties. In 2016, the hope is that Neal can earn a starting job. Whether or not he accomplishes that could have a significant impact on the Falcons' defense.
Camp will give coaches a better idea where Neal's at, but so far, the University of Florida product looks like someone who will be ready to jump right into the action.
"I'll tell you what, I've been very impressed with (Neal)," defensive coordinator Richard Smith said. "He's extremely focused, he's very mature, he's very, very talented. I love his demeanor and his work ethic. He's the first one in the building trying to get more coaching; he wants to be coached so much. I think he's going to be pretty special.
"We can bring him on pressures, we can drop him into coverage, he can man up — so it's a really good addition. More importantly, I love his maturity and how important it is to him as a young guy."
Also vying for time at strong safety are Kemal Ishmael and Charles Godfrey, each of whom made a hugely important play last season.
In Jacksonville, Ishmael intercepted Blake Bortles at Atlanta's goal line, preventing the Jaguars from scoring at the end of the first half. That proved to be a crucial moment en route to a six-point win. And with a chance to knock off the undefeated Panthers, Ishmael forced a turnover on downs late in the fourth quarter on a 4th-and-5.
Both of these veterans are capable of playing strong safety. If the rookie grasps Atlanta's scheme and proves he can handle NFL competition, however, he has a chance to be the starter come Week 1.
And right now, that appears to be a good bet.
"We track all of the plays that he was targeted on whether it was zone or man and throws to his side. He's really been on point," Quinn said of Neal at minicamp. "We knew the learning part was going to be important one over that short window that we get with the rooks. He's worked extremely hard getting ready and now over the next four and five weeks how fast can he get those smallest of details down so when we hit the field at the start of the preseason we're counting on him to have a huge role for us."