Back in 2012, when Dan Quinn was University of Florida's defensive coordinator, he and some of his fellow coaches gathered one day to watch Keanu Neal's high school film.
Neal's positive traits jumped out right away: the physicality, the intelligence, the coverage ability. Quinn, often enamored with players who "hit with bad intentions," said, "We have to get this guy."
And they did. Although Quinn departed for a new job in 2013, he formed a meaningful relationship with Neal during the recruiting process, and their bond helped convince the elite recruit to sign with Florida.
Four years later, Quinn flipped on Neal's latest tape. All those characteristics he loved were still palpable. So Atlanta's head coach once again turned to his colleagues and told them he wanted his team to acquire this bruising safety.
And it did.
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The Falcons drafted Neal on Thursday with its 2016 first round pick, No. 17 overall. Many were surprised by the decision—of the 110 predictions throughout our mock monitor, none were correct—but that's of no concern to Quinn and general manager Thomas Dimitroff, who always had a first-round grade on the newest Falcon.
"Really it was the tape, that physical style that he played with," Quinn said about why Atlanta tabbed Neal. "All of these guys, we reach and dig into their background and find out so much about them. Everywhere we looked, it just showed up in terms of the character and what he stands for both as a man and as a player. It certainly helped that we knew him so well, and I couldn't be pumped up to have him here."
As Quinn explained, not every team places the same importance on safety, but for the Falcons, who play a lot of three-deep zone, it's crucial to have a DB who can stop the run, hit with purpose and cover. Atlanta believes Neal will flourish in that role.
"The strong safety position is a critical one for us and one that's really valuable," 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."
"On the field, (Neal) is an aggressive player. I love that style, and I know that's what makes our zone defense come to life."
The Falcons acknowledged last week that they were open to trading the 17th choice, but after weighing their options, they decided it was best to scoop Neal up while they could. According to general manager Thomas Dimitroff, the order in which players were being drafted ahead of Atlanta convinced him to pull the trigger rather than roll the dice.
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"We had a game plan coming into this draft like we always do," Dimitroff said. "It was very well thought 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."
As for Neal himself, he admitted late Thursday night that he wanted to end up with the Falcons—in large part because of Quinn and his brand of football.
"Just the coaching staff and the chemistry that we have, it's a blessing to be a part of it. … I think I fit perfectly," Neal said. "They want a guy who's interchangeable, a guy who can do more than just one thing and I fit that.
"I play the game the way it should be played. The way it was played in the old school with guys like Ronnie Lott and things like that. They just love to hit, love to play the game, and just be physical. That's the type of player I am."