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2016 NFL Draft profile: Can Florida enforcer Keanu Neal be a free safety?

With KeKe in the backfield, the pain train came often. But does he have the chops to turn and run, and make himself a more valuable and versatile free safety?

Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Ah, yes, draft week. The week where all the mock drafts, the rumors, the opinion pieces, the rankings and the speculation come together in beautiful chaos to form the three-day event that is the NFL Draft.

For draft nerds like me, the progress of a player from true freshman to NFL rookie is a fun one to follow. There are little annoyances along the way, sure, but a the end of the collegiate journey it is something that should be celebrated. For a handful of Florida players, this weekend will be the culmination of their hard work, determination, and athletic ability: It will be the moment they make their dream a reality.

This week, we're publishing Florida fan-centric, in-depth scouting report of Gators that could have their names called at any point on draft weekend. We'll examine a little background of where they come from, link that into what they do well on the field and what role that translates to at the next level, and give an outlook of their draft stock and potential landing spots this weekend.

We start our series off with one of the most feared safeties in the SEC, Keanu Neal.


Kenau Neal's journey from Bushnell South Sumter High School to Florida Field — and, soon the NFL Draft stage in the Windy City — has been a fast one. It seems like his three years in Florida's football program flew by. A reason for that may not be just because he was talented enough to leave early, but also due to the fully-focused path he was put on at a young age, thanks to his older brother Clint Hart.

Hart played seven years in the NFL, but his journey getting there wasn't as smooth as Neal's has been. Hart spent a year with the Tallahassee Thunder, a minor league AF2 team. He was then signed to play for the Tampa Bay Storm. After those two years of arena ball, Hart got a spot in NFL Europe, then finally was given an opportunity on the Eagles practice squad. He went on to play defensive back for the Chargers, and was a starter in the 2007 AFC Championship game.

In an interview with Tampa Bay Times reporter Matt Baker, Neal revealed how he learned the dos and don'ts of football from watching the path of his older brother. Neal's work ethic and drive proved to be ahead of his time. As a freshman, he was training and studying the game like a senior. His old coach said Neal had his brother's NFL body as just an 11th grader.

It's that kind of background that made Neal into the player we watched at Florida, and a player that has a good chance to hear his name called on the first night of the NFL Draft.

So just what type of player is that? Let's take a look.

Where He Wins

The phrase "where he wins" was coined by NFL draft writer Josh Norris. Norris covers the draft for Rotoworld, and over the years, has used this phrase as a better way of articulating where a player is at his best which goes beyond just listing "strengths".

The player we call KeKe's strongest selling point is his physicality, a product of his body type and his athleticism. All of that hard work in high school paid off early for Neal, as he saw action in all 12 games as a true freshman, and totaled 34 games over his collegiate career. Most 18-year olds coming into FBS programs need a redshirt year of weight training to get their body physically ready.

Neal didn't.

At 6'0" and 215 pounds, his build makes it so he is rarely hurt or limited by injury, even as a guy who is constantly pounding his body with big hits. An old phrase suggest the best ability is sometimes availability, and NFL teams emphasize a player being injury-free. Neal checks that box, despite nicks that limited him early in 2016.

From a skills standpoint, where Neal wins is in his explosiveness and his ability to be a one-man play-stopper.

That's future Heisman winner Derrick Henry getting put on the ground there.

Neal is a confident player when he puts the helmet on, and confidence is a huge component of being a defensive back. In close areas, he's a nightmare for players about to receive the ball. But those highlight-reel hits don't happen (or multiply) by chance. Neal does a good job of putting himself in position to make such hits in hopes of knocking the ball out before it can even be controlled.

Anticipation and recognition are important for any secondary player, but especially a safety. It's the safeties' job to see things before they happen and to position themselves to make plays. As a tackler, Neal does that very well. It's that combination of having both football instincts and the athleticism to get to the spot he needs to be in that constitute where Neal wins as a player.

Tale of Two Safeties

After recognizing what Neal does best, we now have to tackle his most important question: What kind of safety should he be at the next level, a free safety or a strong safety?

A strong safety's main role is usually to assist in run support or cover an additional receiver in the slot or a running back coming out of the backfield. As a run supporter in that role, Neal's skills shine.

Strong safeties have the added benefit of keeping their assignments in front of them. Unless a team is running four or five receivers, strong safeties aren't asked to flip their hips and track a ball or receiver down the field too often. Neal was used more as a strong safety at Florida, but free safeties are often the ones that make the bigger bucks and are typically seen as more of a key player than a strong safeties.

Does Neal have what it takes to play free safety?

Free safeties are typically the ones asked to cover a ton of ground as deep coverage guys, using the quarterback's eyes as the point of emphasis. These are the players like Earl Thomas, Ha Ha Clinton-Dix and Eric Berry. What makes the free safety position more difficult and valuable than the strong safety position is that they're often being asked to flip their hips, track a ball in the air and be physical with a receiver, all at the same time.

The above Vine is a play you'd see from a free safety more than a strong safety. What's important to note here is that once Neal saw the receiver commit to the route going down the field, he had the athleticism to stay with him and make the play.

However, there are many times when free safeties have to know where a receiver is going before he makes his break. Here's an example of Neal missing on that:

When you play free safety in the NFL, you can't be guessing on plays like this. Neal has to know that he had help on the outside route, and that helping to the sideline should have been low on his priority list. To play free safety, you have to own the middle of the field against the pass. You have to be up for covering some of the fastest receivers in the game, and you have to be one step ahead of them, too.

I've read a number of reports that suggest teams believe Neal has the athleticism to learn to play free safety, knowing that an instinctual, hard-hitting, athletic strong safety is a more than appealing backup plan if a switch to free safety doesn't work out. I'm not so keen on Neal being asked to play free safety in the NFL. He's much better when he keeps things in front of him.

Draft Night Prediction

Most Florida fans knew Neal was a gem of a player, but I don't think many expected him to declare for the draft after his junior season, since there was barely even a whisper of him as an NFL prospect during the season. However, after receiving a top-60 grade from the NFL Draft Advisory Board, it appears he wasn't just Gators fans' hidden gem; the NFL was noticing his work, too.

Neal has been invited to attend the draft meaning they believe he has a good chance of being picked on the first night. Neal has had private workouts with both the Atlanta Falcons and the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Atlanta has needs in both the secondary and the run-stopping linebacker role, and Dan Quinn was part of the Florida staff that recruited Neal in 2012. Drafting Neal could provide the Falcons with a player who can fill both of those roles. They currently sit at at No. 17, though, and that's probably slightly too high for Neal.

The Steelers haven't selected a defensive back in the first round since 2003, when they selected Troy Polamalu. They currently only have one strong safety on the roster, 25-year-old Shamarko Thomas, who was a fourth-round pick three years ago. As of right now, they pick at spot No. 25.

"The Steelers have strong interest in Florida safety Keanu Neal. He is said to be what Mike Tomlin loves in a safety. Neal won't make it to Pittsburgh's second-round pick, so if they want Neal, they'll have to take him in the first round."

- Charlie Campbell

I like the idea of Neal as a mid-to-late first-round safety, but only as a strong safety. If he can be paired with an already established free safety, I think we could see good production from him early on. Atlanta and Pittsburgh are intriguing landing spots, but I'm sure they (and most teams) would prefer spending such a high pick on a free safety. I'll also throw in Oakland at No. 14 as a possible destination with Reggie Nelson now in silver and black to play free safety, but that's probably a possibility too good to be true for both us and Neal.

It's been fun watching KeKe wreak havoc on opposing SEC teams for the last three years. Wherever he goes, I hope he continues to be his big-smiling self.