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Falcons' first-rounder Keanu Neal gets up to speed rather quickly

FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- Atlanta Falcons coach Dan Quinn gave his rookie draft picks plenty of opportunities during minicamp, and first-rounder Keanu Neal definitely took advantage while roaming the secondary.

Neal, slated to be the team's starting strong safety, exceeded Quinn's expectations throughout the offseason program, which concluded Thursday.

"I think it's been an overall, not just the three days [of minicamp], that jump out to me," Quinn said. "I think the first few days, like you would expect, the learning, maybe a hesitation, and then now the elimination of the doubt of the assignment and how quickly he can close. It's the speed and burst that he plays with was probably a little stronger than I had thought. So you can tell he put the work in, to say he had the traits that we were looking for. And now that he has the quickness to play zone defense, we've seen him matched up on man to man against the tight ends and the backs, and we've got some hard matches to go against.

"That part of practice where we get to go against one another, you can see how difficult it is to match up on [Devonta] Freeman and Jacob Tamme. For him getting to go against them, and [rookie linebacker De'Vondre] Campbell as well, I thought has been a real plus for just trying to find out as much as we can about them. And those two, in the coverage aspect, are answering the bell."

Neal's official 40-yard dash time at the NFL combine was 4.62 seconds, which might have thrown some folks off who thought he should have run faster. But he came back with a 4.59 at Florida's pro day and had heard he was timed at 4.48 at one juncture.

Former NFL defensive back Jeremy Lincoln, who will continue to train Neal at Tony Villani's XPE Sports Academy in South Florida leading into the training camp, knew from Day 1 that Neal could run.

"I believe people doubted him purely on how he was used at Florida," Lincoln said. "Box safeties get a bad rap that they can't play in space. My first day with him, I knew he was more than that label some had given him. He's a faster Kam Chancellor-type player, which will be scary."

Falcons secondary coach Marquand Manuel has been impressed with Neal's entire makeup.

"His character is awesome, which is the other part that makes him a man amongst boys," Manuel said. "His man coverage abilities have been on another level. People criticized that, but they really didn't watch the tape. ... When you're watching him play what we call our off-technique and he's covering wide receivers, if he can cover wide receiver, I'm not worried about him being able to cover a tight end.

"His ability is out of control; his change of direction. His length -- he's bigger than what you think he is. He's 6-1 and he's just 210, 211, but he's got 32½-inch arms. That, in itself, negates a lot of things. When you stand there and watch his stature, he's bigger than what he appears. And he can cover any tight end. He can run."