Atlanta Falcons would be ideal for Florida safety Keanu Neal

For former Florida safety Keanu Neal, the draft process is like being recruited out of high school all over again.

"Except we don't get to choose where we go," Neal said with a laugh. "They choose where we go."

If Neal had his choice, one NFL team in particular would make the most sense. It's the team where he'd feel most comfortable in the defense; the team that has a familiar face dating back to his high school days.

Would the Atlanta Falcons be ideal?

"For me, schematically, yes," Neal said. "I feel like that's a great fit for me and my style of play. The coaching staff is authentic. I can tell they really care about each other and the program. I feel like [secondary coach] Marquand Manuel can really help me out as a person and a player. And Coach [Dan] Quinn, he's a tremendous head coach. Getting under him, getting under his wing and learning will skyrocket my career."

Neal has history with Quinn. When Neal was a high school star in Florida, Quinn was the Florida Gators' defensive coordinator. Although the bulk of Neal's recruitment was done by Will Muschamp and Travaris Robinson, Quinn's persuasive words helped secure Neal's commitment.

"When I did talk to Quinn, he let me know he was interested," Neal recalled. "He wanted me to be a part of Gator Nation and a part of what he was building."

But Quinn ended up leaving Florida to take the defensive coordinator job for the Seattle Seahawks before Neal arrived. Neal obviously was disappointed, but far from angry.

"He's an amazing coach," Neal said of Quinn. "He has a lot of credentials; a lot of credibility behind his name and behind what he does. Just having the opportunity to play for him would have been an amazing opportunity and an opportunity to learn and grow."

That opportunity might resurface next week during the draft.

The Falcons have a pressing need at strong safety but have only five draft picks right now. The general belief is they'll target a linebacker or pass-rusher with the 17th overall selection. If Neal is available in the second round, the Falcons probably would pounce on him. "I have a second-round grade on [Neal]," ESPN draft analyst Todd McShay said. "I love his toughness, instincts and aggressiveness."

But Neal is attracting first-round interest from a handful of teams. His only visits were to Tennessee and Pittsburgh.

It's no secret the Falcons are interested. Quinn & Co. went to Florida to conduct a 45-minute private workout with Neal.

"The first thing Coach Quinn told me was how proud he was of me," Neal said. "He said he was proud of how I handled things the right way, being a role model and a leader on and off the field. Meeting with him before the actual workout, we just talked about everything. He let me know they were very interested.

"Obviously, they need a safety. They got rid of Willy Mo [William Moore], and they need someone to fill his void. And I fit that mold perfectly, in my opinion. My work ethic, I'm nonstop. I take it seriously. I'm really dedicated. I care about what I put on film. I care about what people see [from] me. I want to be looked at as a guy kids can look up to."

On the field, the 6-foot-1-inch, 211-pound Neal doesn't like the label hybrid linebacker/safety.

"I'm a safety who can hit like a linebacker," Neal said. "I have the makeup of a safety, but people see my hitting and people want to label me that hybrid type. I'm a safety. I can make plays downhill. I have range. I can move around. I'm an explosive, versatile player.''

Neal is training in Florida at XPE Sports under acclaimed owner Tony Villani. Neal credits Villani for giving him the chance to train alongside current NFL players such as Shane Ray, Travis Benjamin, and Mark Ingram. And Neal works on his footwork with former longtime NFL defensive back Jeremy Lincoln, the defensive backs skills trainer at XPE.

"First of all, he is such a humble kid, respectful; listen to every word that comes out of your mouth and takes it and digests it," Lincoln said. "He wants to be the best player on the field and he knows defenses inside and out.

"He's going to shock a lot of people at the next level with his skill set. And he will hit you. He could be the next Troy Polamalu."

That would fit the Falcons just fine.