Dallas Cowboys' Keanu Neal hopes to be big 'hit' in move to linebacker

Keanu Neal, 25, has spent all five of his seasons with the Atlanta Falcons, where he played for new Cowboys defensive coordinator Dan Quinn after being selected 17th overall in the 2016 draft. James D. Smith/Dallas Cowboys

FRISCO, Texas -- The question brings a smile to Keanu Neal's face. What's the best hit of his pro career?

"There's a few," said Neal, a Dallas Cowboys free-agent pickup this offseason.

The exact memories are fuzzy because there are so many, but he goes back to 2016, his rookie season with the Atlanta Falcons, in a game against the New Orleans Saints.

"A receiver caught the ball across the middle, and he was running down the sideline, and I just lined him up and just laid him out," Neal said, as the smile turned into a laugh. "I might have knocked myself out a little bit, but it was awesome. That hit was definitely, definitely one of the ones."

The question was asked because of what a former teammate, Jack Crawford, said about Neal.

"He's probably the hardest hitter I've seen," said Crawford, who was Neal's teammate for three seasons after his own three-year run with the Cowboys (2014-16). "Just YouTube him and hardest hits, and I'm sure it will be a whole highlight reel. He hits like nobody else."

Those hits mostly came from the safety spot. Neal started 48 of his 49 games in Atlanta as a safety, missing most of two seasons (2018 and 2019) because of knee and Achilles injuries. In 2017, he was named to the Pro Bowl.

But with the Cowboys, Neal is moving to weakside linebacker.

"I don't categorize myself. I feel I can play safety, linebacker," Neal said. "Wherever they put me, I'm going to prepare to go out there and play at my best. Growing up I played linebacker in middle school and high school, then we changed the defense and I switched to safety, so I went to college as a safety. But in my heart, I have been a linebacker for a while. As time went on, I moved to safety. I still have an understanding of what everything entails with playing linebacker."

The position move in Dallas isn't a result of a lost step for a safety, but more about what coordinator Dan Quinn knows he is getting in Neal. Quinn was his coach with the Falcons, and he recruited Neal at the University of Florida before the coach departed for the NFL.

"Adding somebody with his speed and his physicality onto our defense, we just thought that's something that we need," Quinn said of Neal. "Same thing with Micah [Parsons]. ... I'm really looking forward to having the different packages and how we'll feature the guys, and it will take us a while to figure it out."

Neal sees two consolations in the position switch: maybe 6 feet and 5 pounds.

"The first few years and throughout my career I've played in the box," Neal said. "I've played down at times, so I kind of have an understanding of the fits and all that stuff. But yeah, I typically play around like 6 yards or so, and Coach is trying to get me to bump down to like 5 or 4½. So that adjustment, I'm kind of getting used to that. But it's definitely a transition."

He said he will end up playing at 222 pounds after weighing 217 last season.

"Really, it's just my training and my diet, honestly. That's what it boils down to," Neal said. "So far, I feel like I'm moving around well. I'm over 222 right now. Going down is going to be even better, a little bit lighter weight. It's kind of like putting a weighted vest on and then taking it off after you train. You just feel lighter. You feel more fluid and everything."

While Neal knows Quinn, there are differences he has to learn in the new position and changes in the type of defense Quinn runs. He can tell his new Cowboys teammates what Quinn is like as a coach -- "Q is one of the main components of me being here" -- but he is learning along with them.

"I'm just a sponge, taking in what the guys give me," Neal said.

While Pro Football Hall of Famer Charles Woodson's move from cornerback to safety and Julius Peppers' move from defensive end to standup outside linebacker were more subtle in Green Bay than what Neal is going through, coach Mike McCarthy is not worried about Neal's move to linebacker.

"He's a stud of a player," McCarthy said. "Just his approach. I think football comes extremely natural to him. … He looks very comfortable. He's an excellent addition to our football team."