Steelers roster: Predicting the role of Keanu Neal in 2023
By Tommy Jaggi
When Terrell Edmunds announced that he would not be returning to the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2023, many fans were quick to hit the panic button. Though the former first-round safety has his shortcomings, you could always count on him to be healthy and a solid contributor in their secondary. Pittsburgh reportedly offered Edmunds a contract, but he elected a fresh start with the Philadelphia Eagles.
After some time to mull it over, the Steelers found a replacement in Keanu Neal. Like Edmunds, Neal is also a former first-round pick. At his peak, Neal was considered a very good safety -- earning Pro Bowl honors in his second NFL season back in 2017 for a performance that included 116 tackles, 4 tackles for a loss, 2 forced fumbles, and an interception.
Since that time, Neal hasn't quite been the same player. The injury bug struck hard in 2018, and he would go on to play just 4 games over the next two seasons. After the 2019 season, Neal hopped from Atlanta to Dallas where he played linebacker for the Cowboys. He was most recently a member of the Buccaneers where he moved back to safety but logged a notable 233 snaps in the box.
Now that the Steelers have inked Neal to a two-year, $4.25 million deal, what role can we expect from the former first-rounder in 2023?
Neal will be a part-time player for the Steelers
Neal's average annual earnings tops what Edmunds made on a one-year deal with the Eagles this offseason, but don't assume that he's going to have the same exact role. Money speaks in the NFL, and it tells you a lot of what you need to know.
At $2.6 million per year, Neal's contract still comes in cheaper than the money Pittsburgh gave to safety Damontae Kazee this offseason (two years, $6 million). The problem with both of these safeties, however, is that they have extensive injury histories.
Assuming for a moment that both are able to stay healthy for a 17-game season, I would have to assume that Kazee will see more action. He is clearly better in coverage of the two and his excellent ball skills will have Teryl Austin deploying him often.
The good news is that Neal's skill set complements Kazee's very well. What Kazee lacks in size and ability to play in the box, Neal makes up for with outstanding play strength and physicality (his past experience at linebacker helps). Neal can be a punisher coming downhill, and while he's not the fastest safety, he could essentially play a hybrid role for Pittsburgh where he could double as a nickel linebacker and dimebacker.
Of course, there will be plenty of times when both Kazee and Neal are on the field together with Minkah Fitzpatrick, but a healthy rotation of the latter two will help keep them fresh and healthy.
Terrell Edmunds logged 4,897 snaps in five seasons with the Steelers -- pushing 1,000 snaps per year. I don't see Neal getting anywhere near that usage. Last year for the Buccaneers, Neal recorded 581 defensive snaps (which equated to 52 percent of snaps).
Based on the rotation the Steelers are projected to deploy and what we have seen from Neal in the past, I think 600-650 defensive snaps is a very reasonable number if he can stay healthy throughout the season. Of course, this barring Pittsburgh drafting a safety early who could potentially cut into some of his playing time.