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Ryan Neal "Couldn't Pass" on Opportunity to Play in Tampa

New Bucs safety Ryan Neal has shed the underdog mentality that helped him ascend from his humble NFL roots, and now he's ready to move forward with a "sweet opportunity" in a familiar location


Safety Ryan Neal appeared set to spend a fifth year in Seattle after a breakout 2022 season for the Seahawks. The former undrafted free agent out of Southern Illinois had continued with his steady career ascent by locking up a starting spot on defense and playing well enough to earn a smattering of All-Pro votes. Because he finished 2022 with just three years of accrued free agency credit – his first two seasons, with Atlanta and Seattle, were spent primarily on practice squads – he was in line to become a restricted free agent as long as the Seahawks extended a qualifying offer. They did, on March 14.

As a restricted free agent, Neal could negotiate a deal with another team but the Seahawks would have had a right to match that offer and retain his services. In effect, the qualifying offer made it almost certain that Neal would stay in Seattle; restricted free agents rarely switch teams, and Neal could have turned that offer into a contract for 2023 at any time by signing it.

However, the situation changed dramatically for Neal on March 31, when the Seahawks rescinded their qualifying offer to him. It was apparently a cap-related move after Seattle signed former Giants safety Julian Love and brought team legend Bobby Wagner back for another go-around. Seattle General Manager John Schneider said the team was "pretty tapped out" after their offseason additions, and the Seahawks also had to create some room to sign their upcoming draft picks.

Suddenly, Neal was essentially an unrestricted free agent, free to sign with any team. It didn't take him long to find a new home, and it just happened to be one with which he was already familiar. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers made their signing of Neal official on Thursday, after which he was introduced at a morning press conference. He said it was not a welcoming ceremony because he wasn't exactly new in town.

"I've been telling people, I've been down here for the past four to five years – I train down here," said Neal, who has worked out at several different Bay area locations since before the 2018 NFL Draft. "It's like home, part two, to me. This is a sweet opportunity, for real. I couldn't pass it up – I could not pass it up. Like I said, what better place to be than Tampa? I love it down here, love the energy and the familiarity. I'm glad to be here."

Neal expressed no ill feelings about the nature of his departure from Seattle but is definitely ready to move forward with his new team. In fact, he wants to get that process started immediately because, he said, he dislikes being "the new kid on the block."

"I've got nothing but love for [the Seahawks] over there," he said. "Sometimes you just may not be part of the future plans and that's just the way the business goes. Like I said, I'm glad to be here – the opportunity to come here, you couldn't say no to it. It's a blessing to be here and all I plan on doing is bringing my piece to the table and trying to find a way to enhance this team, this defense – whatever I'm asked to do, just find a way to make it better. I'm excited to be here and glad to do that."

Neal is actually returning to the division in which his NFL career began, as he was signed by the Atlanta Falcons after the 2018 draft. He got into just one game with the Falcons before jetting across the country to Seattle, where he spent most of 2019 on the practice squad. From there he developed into a core special-teamer, then a spot-starter on defense and finally a bright spot as a regular on a 2022 Seattle defense that struggled overall. Given that the Bucs have just two other safeties on the roster at the moment and will need to replace the nearly 2,000 defensive snaps soaked up last season by Mike Edwards, Keanu Neal and Logan Ryan, there is an obvious opportunity for Neal to play, and play a lot. Interestingly, despite the long path he has traveled to get to a place of more prominence in his career, he no longer identifies as an underdog. He knows he deserves this excellent new opportunity in Tampa.

"It's a new chapter now," he said. "I actually had a conversation with one of my closest friends the other day and I was just talking to him about the scars that I've been through and everything. He was like, 'Well you do understand one day you're not that guy anymore.' You've got to move on because if you stay back there you can't grow. You have to understand, yeah, that was you but now it's a different time. Being here just starts a new chapter for me. So, the underdog mentality is cool but now it's not that anymore. It's time to step into what you need to step into and go ahead. So, new page, new day."

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