Despite being selected in the fifth round of the 2018 NFL Draft, Buffalo Bills rookie Siran Neal has the tools and versatility to become a unique player within an evolving and improving defense.
Last season, the strength of the Buffalo Bills was their defense. This season, there is no reason to believe that the same won’t be true.
Not only did the team retain most of their key players, but new additions such as first-round pick Tremaine Edmunds and free agents Trent Murphy and Vontae Davis have been added to make the defense more formidable. Third-round pick Harrison Phillips and second-year player Matt Milano will also play big roles this season.
Despite players like Edmunds, Phillips and fourth-round pick Taron Johnson being taken ahead of him, Siran Neal may have the most unique role on the defense this season – adding something the team doesn’t yet have.
At Jacksonville State, Neal played all over the defense. In 2016, Neal played linebacker with 80 tackles, 11.5 of which were for loss. Then for his senior season, Siran shifted to cornerback where he was able to earn his second consecutive First-Team All-Ohio Valley Conference selection.
His stats included 39 tackles, one interception and 11 pass breakups – seven more than the previous season. Now with the Bills, Neal is listed as a safety.
While seeing a player continuously change positions may be a red flag to some, it is something that stands out for the Bills front office and coaching staff. Versatility is something the organization now covets in their young players, and Neal is no different. His ability to play three different positions, and excelling at all of them, makes him a unique player within the defense.
Neal is listed at 6-foot-0 and 206 pounds. Here is how he stacks up against players on the roster that play the same three positions as him:
Micah Hyde (safety) – 6-foot-0, 197 pounds
Matt Milano (linebacker) – 6-foot-0, 223 pounds
Levi Wallace (cornerback) – 6-foot-0, 179 pounds
You can see why Neal is listed as a safety, as he is closest in size to Hyde. However, he has the coverage experience to play corner and tackling experience at linebacker. Hyde is the closest comparison to Neal currently on the roster because Hyde is one half of one of the best safety tandems in the league with Jordan Poyer, but he also can play slot corner.
Additionally, Hyde also comes down into the box and helps in run support. I can see McDermott and defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier doing the same with Neal.
His size allows him to play in the box and help out in run support, but his production at corner means he can stick with slower receivers and tight ends. He can also stick with running backs out of the backfield.
The league overall is shifting to a smaller, more athletic linebacker position. Milano is a former safety at Boston College but moved to linebacker later in his collegiate career and is now a starter in the NFL.
Former Alabama first-round pick and safety Mark Barron has also moved to linebacker and former Oklahoma safety Tony Jefferson has seen time at linebacker with both the Arizona Cardinals and the Baltimore Ravens.
Overall, the lines are becoming blurred between linebacker and safety because the league is evolving on offense. Tight ends are becoming better receivers and running backs are becoming more involved in the passing game.
The days of giant, hulking linebackers is a thing of the past. More speed is needed to defend changing offenses, and with a 6-foot-0 frame of 206 pounds and 4.56 40-yard dash speed, Neal could be part of a growing Bills defense.
It is easy to envision McDermott carving out a role for Neal that is bigger than we expect. While there is an obvious adjustment period, McDermott has a knack for developing safeties, linebackers and corners. Such is evident by the growth of Poyer, Hyde and Tre’Davious White last season. Neal has the size and skills to be a unique addition to those three.
It may not be until later this season or even 2019 where Neal becomes a key piece of this defense. Milano was last year’s fifth-round pick for the Bills and by season’s end he was the full-time starter and is locked in starting next to Edmunds this season.
With Lorenzo Alexander getting older and nickel packages become more of a base defense, Neal has a great opportunity to be the Bills’ Swiss Army knife.