More so than most years, NFL rookies have been dominating headlines. On offense, Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott led the Cowboys to the top seed in the NFC; Chicago’s Jordan Howard has been arguably as good as Elliott; and Tyreek Hill’s knack for creating explosive helped the Chiefs win the AFC West.
There’s no shortage of first-year talent on the other side of the ball, either. Joey Bosa has quickly become one of football’s best pass rushers. Jalen Ramsey brought high-end skill to Jacksonville’s secondary. Chris Joes fared well, too, as did DeForest Buckner, Eli Apple and Leonard Floyd, among others.
And, of course, there’s Keanu Neal and Deion Jones – both of whom are candidates for Defensive Rookie of the Year. While Bosa and Ramsey are the favorites for that award in many eyes, Atlanta’s top two draft picks are rightfully in the conversation, as well.
“It’s cool to see both in there. It means our defense is coming along,” free safety Ricardo Allen said. “It means that they’re catching on to what we’ve got going on here. Our defense is starting to come alive. We’ve got some talent now, and it’s good to see the young players get the big accolades.”
Neal, Atlanta’s first-round choice last spring, has earned a reputation as a physical safety, one who can effectively defend in the box and create turnovers with bone-crushing hits. His five forced fumbles ranked second in the NFL – Vic Beasley Jr., along with Bruce Irvin, led the pack with six – and he is one of nine starting safeties to miss two or fewer tackles against the run, according to Pro Football Focus.
Neal has also helped set the tone for a unit that’s embraced Quinn’s “fast and physical” mantra. Receivers are now aware Atlanta’s strong safety can make them pay every time they enter his territory. And it’s changed the way teams approach the Falcons defense.
“When people go over the middle of the field, and they know 22 is on the field, they start to look for him, and look for him early,” Allen said. “They have a lot of dropped passes. When people come across the middle, they turn up early, they’re looking for him, they’re not reaching that extra arm out, they’re not taking that extra step, because they know 22 is coming. And he’ll put your lights out.”
Although Neal gave up some big plays during the early portion of the year, his coverage skills have steadily improved – especially in the last month. During the final quarter of the regular season, opponents completed just 14 of 25 passes for 142 yards and zero touchdowns when targeting the University of Florida product. Combined, those quarterbacks gained a 72.42 passer rating.
“One of the things that I really admire about his game is that he doesn’t try to just hit the man, he tries to hit through the guy not just where the target’s right at it, but he tries to hit through the target and that’s a little different than just a normal tackle,” head coach Dan Quinn said about Neal. “He has a real understanding where the strike zone is. When he can line that thing up in the strike zone, he likes to throw a fast ball. We’re pumped about how he’s playing.”
That technique and mindset helped Neal make 72 solo tackles – the second-most among rookies. The only one ahead of him on that list, it turns out, is Jones.
A second-round selection out of LSU, the inside linebacker has made a name for himself as a well-rounded, lightning-fast defender capable of making big plays. His three interceptions were tied for the most among rookies; his two defensive touchdowns were most in that group, and his 11 pass breakups were third.
Jones may be on the small side for his position, but he makes up for that perceived deficiency with rare athleticism. Before the draft, then-LSU head coach Les Miles said the 6-foot-1, 222-pounder “may be the fastest linebacker that I personally have been around that had any size to him at all.” After Atlanta’s victory in Carolina, Dwight Freeney told AtlantaFalcons.com he’s never seen a linebacker with Jones’ closing speed.
Like Neal, Jones’ value extends beyond the numbers and film. As the Falcons’ MLB, he’s responsible for being a vocal leader, making pre-snap adjustments and having a comprehensive grasp of Quinn’s scheme.
Jones has done all this at a high level – something few 22-year-olds could accomplish.
“He’s come a long way to actually be a leader on defense and knowing the inside and out, knowing what everybody does on defense – that takes a long time,” Allen said. “But to have the communicator down there who is as fast as him and as good as him, it’s amazing.”
Regardless of who ultimately wins DROY, the Falcons are pleased to have two candidates, along with fellow rookies De’Vondre Campbell and Brian Poole, helping their defense. Those four have quickly become a part of Quinn’s foundation, which, in addition to helping the team make a postseason run, looks capable of bringing long-term success to Atlanta.
“I think (the award consideration) is great, but more important is the team recognition. They would probably tell you the same thing,” defensive coordinator Richard Smith said. “I’m proud of all those guys. We played extremely well.
“I think we’ll only get better with these games, these playoff games that we can get involved with. The recognition will come out because you’re on primetime. So, like I’ve said, they’ve had a great year – all of them have. And the future is going to be real bright for us.”