Keanu Neal has had difficulty staying healthy. Over the past two seasons, he's played in just four games. Thomas J. Russo-USA TODAY Sports

Falcons safety Keanu Neal has had a horrible run of injury luck. In 2018, he suffered a torn ACL in the regular-season opener. In 2019, he suffered a torn Achilles during the third game of the season. Both of those injuries were season-enders, so he has played just four games over the past two seasons.

Prior to that, however, he was establishing himself as one of the better young safeties in the game. He was selected by Atlanta with the No. 17 overall pick in the 2016 draft, and he racked up 106 tackles in 14 starts in his rookie campaign, which culminated in a heartbreaking Super Bowl loss to New England.

He built on that performance in 2017, starting all 16 games and piling up 116 tackles en route to a Pro Bowl nod. He moves with fluidity and has a nose for the football, as evidenced by his high tackle totals and the eight fumbles that he forced over his first two seasons in the league. That ability also helps him in coverage on the back end, though he has just one career interception to date.

The Falcons exercised the fifth-year option of his rookie contract last April, which suggested that they weren’t too concerned about the 2018 ACL tear. Of course, they didn’t bank on the 2019 Achilles tear, and Neal is presently slated to count for about $6.5M against the 2020 cap thanks to the fifth-year option. (The option was guaranteed for injury only at the time it was exercised but became fully guaranteed when the 2020 league year opened earlier this month.)

Though $6.5M would ordinarily look like a relative bargain for someone with Neal’s abilities, the fact that he has been unable to stay on the field over the past two seasons complicates matters a bit. That is especially true since the Falcons have limited salary-cap space at the moment.

So on the one hand, it would make sense for Atlanta to let Neal simply play out his contract and revisit the situation prior to the opening of free agency next offseason. (After all, although the team’s pass defense was one of the worst in the league over the past two seasons per DVOA, that unit didn’t grade out much higher even when Neal was in the lineup.) But the top of the safety market now includes contracts with average annual values of over $14M, and if Neal has a healthy, bounce-back campaign, other clubs may pony up that type of cash to steal him away from the Falcons.

As such, the Falcons could explore an extension with Neal. Such a move would be risky given the health concerns — Neal also dealt with a knee injury not long before his rookie season — but it also has a couple of obvious benefits. One, it would help the Falcons’ immediate cap situation, and two, it could keep a talented young player under contract for several more seasons at a potentially discount rate.

From Neal’s perspective, an extension may represent an undersell if he does play up to his 2017 levels in 2020, but it would also provide him extra security in the event that he cannot recapture his prior form. As of yet, there have been no reports of negotiations between the two sides, but it would not a surprise to hear of exploratory talks in the coming months.

This article first appeared on Pro Football Rumors and was syndicated with permission.



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Can you name every head coach in the history of the Atlanta Falcons?
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TIME:
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1966–1968
Norb Hecker
1968–1974
Norm Van Brocklin
1974–1976
Marion Campbell
1976
Pat Peppler
1977–1982
Leeman Bennett
1983–1986
Dan Henning
1987–1989
Marion Campbell
1989
Jim Hanifan
1990–1993
Jerry Glanville
1994–1996
June Jones
1997–2003
Dan Reeves
2003
Wade Phillips
2004–2006
Jim L. Mora
2007
Bobby Petrino
2007
Emmitt Thomas
2008–2014
Mike Smith
2015–
Dan Quinn

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