The Atlanta Falcons lost their season opener against the Philadelphia Eagles Thursday night, and the losing continued into Friday. Medical tests revealed safety Keanu Neal tore his ACL during the third quarter of last night’s game, ending his season, according to ESPN’s Adam Schefter.
Neal’s 2018 is over after just 37 snaps and one tackle. He was targeted twice in the game, allowing one catch for seven yards.
His absence will be difficult for the Falcons to fill. Last season, he was the 17th-highest graded safety in the NFL with a 78.1 overall grade, and his 84.9 run-defense grade ranked seventh.
In head coach Dan Quinn’s defense, Neal typically lines up in the box or in the slot, which helped put him in position to make 34 defensive stops in 2017, the fourth most among safeties.
Atlanta made a move last week for insurance in case of this type of situation, trading a conditional seventh-round pick to the New England Patriots for safety Jordan Richards, a former second-round pick out of Stanford back in 2015.
He was inactive for the Falcons on Thursday, but he started five games last year for the Patriots as a rotational safety, with mixed results. He finished the regular season with a 62.4 overall grade, which ranked 68th out of 91 safeties. Richards gave up a few big plays in the Super Bowl, but before the big game, he had only allowed one catch of more than 20 yards on 21 total targets in coverage.
He also had issues wrapping up, with six missed tackles on 274 total snaps, but Neal struggled similarly with the sixth-most missed tackles (14) of any safety last season.
Richards performed better in his rookie season of 2015 with a 76.8 overall grade on 238 snaps. He allowed only 7.1 yards per reception, the third-lowest rate among safeties with at least 10 catches allowed.
The Falcons do have undrafted rookie free agent safety Ryan Neal on their practice squad too, and he could be a candidate to join the active roster following the veteran Neal’s injury.
The Southern Illinois product has the requisite size at 6-foot-3, 200 pounds, and he flashed during the preseason. His five total stops were tied for the sixth-most among safeties, despite only playing in a little over two preseason games.
For now, though, it’s up to Damontae Kazee to step into Keanu Neal’s shoes while Richards and Neal could serve as potential backups and depth at the position for Atlanta.