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Falcons knew Keanu Neal could hit, but his coverage skills sold them

The Atlanta Falcons knew he could hit. That was evident from the film Keanu Neal put out during his time at the University of Florida.

But what about in coverage? How would he fare?

A private workout during the pre-draft process answered any concerns the Falcons had before they made Neal the NFL draft's 17th overall selection.

As part of a 45-minute session alongside Falcons coach Dan Quinn and secondary coach Marquand Manuel, Neal went through a series of drills that focused on his coverage ability in the Cover 3 scheme.

"They tested my backing and breaking from cone to cone,'' Neal said. "Once I finished that, I did some stuff specific to their defense and what they do with the strong safety. One of the drills was like busting to the flat and being able to get there by knowing the specifics of the defense and reacting to the quarterback -- if he's looking toward me I've got to go a certain place, and if he's looking away I've got to go a certain place. Also, if he's breaking me deep, I've got to turn my hips and open up.

"While they did some stuff in the flat, they also did some stuff with me playing in the hook [zone], playing the strong hook and breaking on the quarterback, just to see how fast I react and how fast I can cover ground.''

Neal obviously impressed, which is why the Falcons felt comfortable selecting him in the first round despite him having a second-round grade, according to ESPN draft analyst Todd McShay. Quinn expects Neal to be an immediate impact starter.

A large part of Quinn's confidence in Neal has to do with the coverage skills Neal displayed during that private workout.

"You love to see the guy play in the zone defense, and he played in the middle of the field a lot at Florida, so it's not the same scheme that we employ here,'' Quinn noted. "So we wanted to make sure the ball skills, the movement stuff -- at the workout, you can ask him to have the exact movements he's going to have.''

Quinn firmly believes Neal should help improve the Falcons' ability to cover tight ends. Remember, former Saints tight end Benjamin Watson, at age 34, had a 10-catch, 127-yard, one-touchdown performance against the Falcons in Week 6 last season. And seven different tight ends -- Larry Donnell (Giants), C.J. Fiedorowicz (Texans), Derek Carrier (Redskins), Cameron Brate (Buccaneers), Garrett Celek (49ers), Ed Dickson (Panthers)and Watson had touchdown receptions against the Falcons a year ago, including two apiece by Celek and Watson.

Moving forward, the Falcons have to contend with one of the league's best tight ends twice a year in Carolina's Greg Olsen along with New Orleans newcomer Coby Fleener and Tampa Bay's Austin Seferian-Jenkins.

"Tight ends and [running] backs, that strong safety, that's primarily where we feature him,'' Quinn said. "And when we play those kinds of downs, we have to play really tight, aggressive coverage. You've got to know the matchups that you have at tight end. So, you've got to have a guy who has some length -- whether it's arm length or jumping ability -- that length to be able to defend when guys are running option routes. And he has the ability to do that.''

The 6-foot-1-inch, 211-pound Neal has a 38-inch vertical and 32 3/4-inch arm length.

"I'm a bigger safety,'' Neal said. "But I'm as fast as the smaller guys. I'm as quick as the smaller guys. So, just being a bigger body, being able to handle those guys and not be bullied by big guys in the league, that helps me out a lot.''

In terms of defending the run and playing fast and physical, Quinn had no doubts at all about Neal.

"I knew the hitter was there,'' Quinn said. "And you can see that on the tape. You just pop the tape on and it comes alive.''

Quinn was asked how Neal compares to Seahawks strong safety Kam Chancellor, who thrived playing Quinn's defensive scheme in Seattle.

"I won't say ... that's a hard guy to compare to, to live up to that standard,'' Quinn said. "But what I can tell you is that on the field, this is an aggressive player. And I love that style. And I know that's what makes zone defense come to life; where guys who are going to catch the ball down in a zone, they better get hit and [the defender] comes there with some bad intentions. On tape, he brings that.''

Neal, who mentioned guys such as the late Sean Taylor, Earl Thomas, Ronnie Lott and Chancellor as hard-hitting safeties he always liked, doesn't want to pattern his game after anyone specifically.

"As far as modeling my game after, I don't model my game after anyone,'' Neal said. "I'm my own player. I want to be the best `me' I can be.''