Saints: 3 free agent targets to replace Malcolm Jenkins who aren’t Tyrann Mathieu
By Kristen Wong
3. Keanu Neal
Neal made the transition from safety to linebacker in his past season with the Dallas Cowboys, but it seems like he’s going back to his natural position in 2022.
When healthy, Neal arguably ranks as one of the league’s top-10 strong safeties and serves as a very competent replacement for Jenkins in the Saints’ backfield.
Neal’s experiment at linebacker didn’t completely blow up in his face, but given his smaller size he didn’t find much success at the position, either. Prior to 2021, he enjoyed five productive years in Atlanta where he first developed into a safety/linebacker hybrid, and his main strengths lie in his run-stopping ability along the line of scrimmage.
Neal compiled 100 or more tackles in three of five seasons in Atlanta, and in truth his current tackling skills could use some fine-tuning. He also suffered injuries early in his career that saw him miss the majority of 2018 and 2019, and he hasn’t played a full season since his 2017 Pro Bowl year.
In the right defensive scheme, though, Neal could return to elite form, and we can imagine a flourishing safety tandem between him and Marcus Maye once Maye makes a full recovery. Maye’s versatility across the defense would allow Neal to develop into one of the best box safeties in the league, and he could naturally thrive in his most comfortable position.
The Saints shouldn’t expect too many interceptions from him, but they can expect a powerful playmaker with the size and speed to force fumbles and elevate the team’s run defense.