When Todd Bowles pitched Keanu Neal on the idea of playing for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, he didn't try to tell the free agent safety what he thought he wanted to hear. He simply laid out exactly what the plan would be for Neal if he decided to come to Tampa.
"He was just honest," said Neal. "He's an honest guy, he's straightforward, he's to the point and he was just honest with me. He just told me straight-up what he wants, what he likes, and we kind of went from there."
Bowles, who was promoted to the Buccaneers' head coaching position a little less than two weeks ago, had spent the previous three seasons crafting one of the NFL's best defenses from his coordinator spot. As a defensive architect he has a well-deserved reputation as a coach who identifies what his players do best and plays to their strengths.
"Talking with Coach Bowles, I mean, he's a mastermind, he's really good at what he does," said Neal, who appreciates in particular how creative Bowles gets with his safeties. "I love it. That was one of the reasons why I decided to come here. Like I said, he's a mastermind with what he does and I'm excited to see what he can cook up, for sure."
One example of Bowles developing a player through his strengths is Jordan Whitehead, a hard-hitting safety who has been so effective when playing in the box in recent seasons that he recently landed a lucrative deal with the New York Jets in free agency. Of course, that well-deserved outcome for Whitehead created a bit of a hole in the Bucs' secondary but the team has subsequently signed both Neal and Logan Ryan. Ryan's biggest strength may be in his versatility, as he has seen a lot of action as both a safety and a slot corner. Meanwhile Neal has the same sort of hard-hitting reputation as Whitehead, one the Buccaneers can confirm from playing against the former Atlanta Falcon for five seasons.
Neal may not know yet exactly what Bowles will do with him in the defense, but it's a good bet he'll find a way to make the safety's presence known around the line of scrimmage from time to time.
"I'll do whatever they ask me to do," said Neal. "I obviously thrive down there. I enjoy playing in the box and playing aggressive, making my presence felt, but whatever they ask me to do I'm going to put my best foot forward and do it. That's definitely what I bring to the table. A physical presence is definitely huge for me."
The Buccaneers started their voluntary offseason program on Monday and though the first phase of the program doesn't include any team practices or coaches working with players on the field, it's still the beginning of a transition for Neal. Fortunately, it should be an easy one for him to make because he's going back to playing safety after a one-year experiment as a linebacker in Dallas. Neal is going to drop five or six pounds to get down to about 216 but the demands of the position should come naturally to him.
"Yeah, I'm definitely excited to be back to where it all started," he said. "This is my natural position, this is where I thrive. Linebacker…it was different, but going back to safety is definitely, definitely what I'm excited about."
Neal made the Pro Bowl as a safety in 2017 and experienced a pair of playoff seasons at the beginning of his career in Atlanta, even playing in the Super Bowl as a rookie. He then lost most of his next two seasons to a pair of leg injuries. Neal made a strong rebound with Atlanta in 2020 but by that point the balance of power had shifted in the NFC South. The Buccaneers, with Tom Brady now at the helm, won Super Bowl LV at the end of that season than captured the division title with a 13-4 record in 2021. Neal was drawn to the opportunity to join what he believes is a well-established culture of winning at Bucs headquarters.
"It's a very disciplined group," said Neal of the Bucs' defense. "They love to have fun. They enjoy the game, enjoy being around each other. Just the environment, just being here, I can tell they really love coming to work and love being around each other, and that's so important. That's vital to winning. The culture that was built here so far over the past couple years has been awesome and I'm glad to be a part of it."
Neal spoke with the local press for the first time on Tuesday and it was that culture to which he was referring when he started his first answer with the words, "It feels like home." He very well could have been speaking more literally, however. Neal grew up in nearby Sumter County and played his prep ball at South Sumter High in Bushnell. It's a quick drive up I-75 to get from Tampa to his hometown roots. That, too, helped sway his decision in free agency.
"After weighing out the options, it was a huge factor," said Neal. "I was born and raised about 45 minutes north of here in Webster, Florida. I mean, it's home for me. Everybody from my hometown was super-excited. It's really cool to be so close to where I grew up."