David Johnson. Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie. Cooper Kupp. Every year, there seems to be skill position players from the Football Championship Subdivision (FCS) that come out of seemingly nowhere and prove that they belong in the NFL. This year, cornerback Siran Neal of Jacksonville State is trying to prove that he is the next name that will be added to the list. Measuring in at 6’0” and 206 pounds, Neal gets off the bus looking like a professional corner. After his showing during Senior Bowl practices, Neal seems to have the technique to go with that size.
In many ways, scouting cornerbacks is like scouting wide receivers. The first thing you look for is the physical talent, including size, speed, and strength. Neal’s checklist gets a positive mark under each of these areas. Neal’s tape consistently shows how he can keep up with most receivers that he would be tasked to cover, while also having the strength and physicality to push receivers off of their route early and to make big hits in run support. This combination allowed Neal to play very aggressively throughout his career at Jacksonville State. Unfortunately, this also led to Neal not showing up on very many highlight reels. Because Jacksonville State is an FCS school, it can be difficult to find regular season tape on Neal, and most highlight reels don’t show Neal because he is rarely targeted and doesn’t give up the big play, which are net positives for Jacksonville State. Luckily, Neal earned an invite to the Senior Bowl, where he was able to show off his talents.
One-on-one drills in practices tend to favor the receiver. The receiver has the entire field to work with, it is man coverage, and the receiver has no help anywhere on the field. These drills can show you if a receiver truly doesn’t have the skills for the next level, but they can also show you if a cornerback truly does have the skills. Neal proved himself to be more than just a physical defender, displaying textbook technique to accompany his talent.
This example below shows that, with consistency, Neal can be an elite cover corner. Covering wide receiver Byron Pringle out of Kansas State, Neal gets his hands on Pringle immediately out of the route, slowing him down a little off the line. Neal then runs stride-for-stride with Pringle until Pringle stutter-steps, faking a short-breaking route. Neal isn’t fooled, and remains at Pringle’s level through the top of the route. Pringle then cuts back towards the line of scrimmage and the sideline, and Neal turns right with him.
Look at Neal’s hips. When Neal is running downfield with Pringle, his hips stay low and mirror Pringle’s every step of the way. Every stutter, every turn, every cut. Neal’s hips are in perfect sync with Pringle’s. It is cornerback perfection. This is exactly the technique you need to be an elite corner in the NFL. A receiver’s hips will sell his intended direction every step of the way. By mirroring his hips with the receiver’s, Neal is always in the best position to run in the same direction as the receiver. Combined with Neal’s physical talent, this will lead to Neal jumping up draft boards quickly.
Neal also shows great technique playing man coverage off the ball. Here, Neal gives University of Central Florida receiver Tre’Quan Smith plenty of cushion, and backpedals with enough control to let the entirety of this deep in-route develop in front of him. Neal stays low in his stance and his hips in his backpedal, enabling him to play the route aggressively when Smith commits to his route. While Smith is turning his hips and cutting inside, Neal is already breaking on the route. Neal’s physical game then takes over, closing on Smith quickly and making a play on the ball to generate an incompletion.
Neal also competed against top-level receivers at the Senior Bowl, an opportunity not afforded to him in the regular season. This is Neal going up against Oklahoma State receiver James Washington, who some scouts say played his way into the first round with his showing at the Senior Bowl. Neal simply dominates him, pressing him throughout his route and ending with a pass breakup. Neal uses his hands very effectively every step of the way, never giving Washington a chance.
Another thing that scouts will love about Neal is his ability in run support. Jacksonville State’s game against Louisiana State University exemplified Neal’s ability to be a willing and able participant in run defense. On this play, Derrius Guice, a future first round pick with great speed and power, gets the ball. Neal fulfills his assignment, sealing the outside in case Guice runs it in his direction. Guice, however, hits a huge hole in the middle of the line and is off to the races. Neal recognizes this once Guice is already downfield, but is able to catch up with him on an angle and finish the tackle.
Neal wasn’t done. In the same game, Darrell Williams, a 6’1” 233 pound running back got the carry. Neal, a cornerback, filled the hole and completely smothered the run for no gain. While Neal’s bigger hits will make the highlight reels, this textbook tackling against a powerful runner in Williams is the type of tackle I want my defensive back to be capable of executing.
There are flaws in Neal’s game, though. Fortunately for him, they don’t seem to be anything that can’t be corrected with the coaching he will receive at the next level. Neal’s main issue is that his aggressiveness could get him in trouble against stronger competition. On this play in the Senior Bowl, Neal is tasked with covering Penn’s Justin Watson. Neal lines up on top of Watson, ready to engage with a press. Watson instead runs an outside route that ends up looking like a wheel route down the sideline. Watson’s initial outside move immediately breaks the press, leaving Neal out of position. Neal’s size and speed, as well as a slightly underthrown pass by Wyoming’s Josh Allen, means that Neal is able to catch up and limit the yards after catch. This may end differently if it is Tom Brady throwing to Brandin Cooks.
Neal’s aggressiveness could also lead to penalties. Take, for instance, this route run by Oklahoma State’s Marcell Ateman. Neal is physical, but maintains contact well past the five-yard mark. In practice, this is an incompletion. In a game, this is, at best, illegal contact, and at worst, pass interference.
However, this can be tamed at the next level. This name will cause nightmares for 49er fans, but Rashard Robinson drew flags because he wasn’t skilled enough to cover the receivers, and his options were either to let the receiver run open or to hold the guy. While Neal may draw penalties early in his career, it won’t be because of a lack of ability or the need to cheat in order to maintain coverage. A good coach will teach him how to harness his aggressiveness, and it could pay huge dividends down the line.
It also must be acknowledged that while Neal had a good week in the Senior Bowl and displayed strong all-around skills in his few games against top college competition, a large majority of his games were played against FCS-level teams. The jump to the NFL will be huge, and it may take some adjustments. Neal is also a 23-year old prospect, and will turn 24 prior to his first regular season game as a pro. This is much older than most prospects, who seem to turn pro before or shortly after they turn 21. This will limit the long-term benefits a team may see, as Neal is closer to that dreaded age of 30 than most prospects.
Overall, Neal is a top-notch prospect in my book. His negatives are serious enough to devalue his draft stock, but I still think that he will be gone before the end of Day Two of the NFL Draft. Neal shows up well on what little tape of him that is available, and is enough of a physical force that he will excel in the workouts. Neal’s stock will only continue to rise, and he may make a surprise appearance in the Second Round.