GAINESVILLE, Fla. — When Florida safety Keanu Neal first declared for the NFL draft, analysts projected him as a third- or fourth-round pick.
Talk about improving your draft stock.
After days of first-round speculation this week, Neal was selected by the Atlanta Falcons with the No. 17 overall pick in the 2016 NFL draft.
Despite the draft grade he received, Neal had his sights set on going higher and made it happen with strong showings at the NFL combine and Florida’s pro day.
“You’re always going to say you want to a first round draft pick,” Neal said at his pro day. “That’s a blessing in its own. But it’s a starting point. That’s how I look at it. Whether you go first, second, third, undrafted. It’s a starting point.”
Neal shot up draft boards over the past month, with some even pegging him as the No. 1 safety in this year’s class. He began creating a buzz once analysts and scouts started evaluating his film.
“He’ll hit you, as guys watched and were able to see,” UF coach Jim McElwain said of Neal. “He’s a guy that’s obviously going to be able to not only cover, but also come down and play in the box when he’s needed to. He put that on film. Obviously his workouts have been really good as well.
“He has size, speed, everything that there is. Just his explosive nature and the way he plays the game. We always talk to our guys about being proud what you put on film. Keanu is obviously one who should be proud of what he puts on film.”
Neal finished third on the team in tackles (96) last season despite missing two games due to injury. He finished his Florida career with 146 tackles, four interceptions and two forced fumbles.
Neal will be remembered by Gators fans for his jarring hits, but he feels his game has many more strengths.
“I bring versatility,” Neal said. “Everyone sees me being a hitter, being the guy that knocks people out, but I can also cover. I can stay on the line, open my hips up and catch the ball.”