TAMPA ― It’s a name game that could get confusing. The Bucs haven’t re-signed free-agent safety Logan Ryan. They lost safety Keanu Neal to the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Now, here comes Ryan Neal, an undrafted safety from Southern Illinois. Unexpectedly cut adrift as a restricted free agent after four seasons with the Seahawks, Neal on Thursday signed a one-year deal with the Bucs.
At 6-feet-3, 200 pounds, Neal is coming off his best season as a pro, recording a career-high 66 tackles, an interception, a sack and forced fumble in 10 starts with Seattle.
Having struggled simply to make a roster in previous seasons, the 27-year-old is determined to be remembered as a starter on the Bucs’ defense.
“It’s everything I’ve been working for, you know what I mean?” Neal said during his introductory news conference Thursday at AdventHealth Training Center. “For these past four or five years, it’s just been, ‘Okay, can I scratch a roster?’ ... You finally make a team and you get your role on special teams, and it was like, ‘All right, let me just do my role here, ball out here, make noise, affect the game.’ Soon, you start getting a little opportunity.
“So, it’s great man, to finally get a chance to try to put it all together. All the things that I’ve learned and the things that I’ve been through, you know, grinding it out, undrafted, all of that. I’ve been through kind of the roughest way to get here to this point, and it makes you grateful. But it also sets you apart. ... So, I definitely wear that with a badge of pride.”
The Bucs are Neal’s fourth team. He spent time on practice squads in Philadelphia and Atlanta in 2018, playing in only one game with the Falcons.
But Neal is no stranger to the Tampa Bay area, having trained here the past four offseasons. He’s worked with former Bucs receiver Yo Murphy, as well as at the Applied Science & Performance Institute, and trained from Saddlebrook to Sarasota.
“It’s like home Part 2 to me, man,” Neal said. “This is a sweet opportunity, for real. I mean, I couldn’t pass it up. ... What better place to be than Tampa? I love it down here, I love the energy.”
Neal is only the third safety on the Bucs’ current roster, joining Antoine Winfield Jr. and Dee Delaney, who also plays cornerback.
The opportunity to compete and win a starting job is what attracted Neal to the Bucs. Seattle unexpectedly withdrew a $2.627 million tender to him as a restricted free agent shortly after it signed free-agent safety Julian Love, formerly with the Giants.
“My goal was to show the league I’m a legitimate starter,” Neal said. “I’ve been in Seattle the past couple years and had my chances to flash and show. Last year was really big, and this year I want to make that set in stone, send a statement I’m a starting safety.”
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The son of a firefighter, Neal was raised in northwest Indiana, attending Merrillville High School. His older brother, Mike, played for Purdue and six seasons with the Green Bay Packers, where he won a Super Bowl.
“I call him my mentor for a reason,” Neal said. “He’s still my hero, all the way through high school to college to now. ... My brother was everything to me. He was a superhero to me. First generation to be in the NFL in my family, first Super Bowl champion in my family. Seeing all of that, you really soak it up. It’s just like, ‘Oh, God, I’ve got to do this now. I have to do it.’ He definitely inspired me.”
Neal’s signing likely won’t preclude the Bucs from drafting a safety, perhaps as early as the first round. But at least they won’t be hostage to the position and have to reach for a player just to fill an obvious need.
Head coach Todd Bowles has said Winfield will move back to free safety, where he can make more plays on the ball and create more turnovers. Neal would play strong safety and possibly in the slot. He says he looks forward to the creativity of Bowles’ defense, where he can be utilized in coverage, stopping the run and rushing the quarterback.
“He’s got game,” Neal said of Winfield. “I love his game. I mean, in the post, he’s a dawg. Anywhere you put him, he’s a dawg. I just love the way he hits. He’s physical, he goes after the ball. He can do everything you ask him to do. I’m excited to pair with him. I can’t wait to reach out to him and say, ‘What’s up?’ and build this chemistry with him.”
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