T.J. Neal is one of the most underrated linebacker prospects in college football. At Illinois, Neal was one of the key players in the Fighting Illini defense; He generated 244 total tackles over three seasons (90 solo, 154 assists), 22.5 tackles for loss, 2 sacks, 5 passes defended, 1 forced fumble and an interception. In the process, Neal prove himself as a strong tackler who pursues the ball hard on every snap. Following Neal's outstanding 2015 season (a season in which he put up 109 total tackles, 15 tackles for loss, 2 sacks, and a pass defended), Neal left Illinois for Auburn as a graduate transfer.
This decision was likely made tougher for him with the signing of head coach Lovie Smith and linebackers coach Hardy Nickerson by Illinois. Neal announced his plans to transfer to Auburn in February, and Lovie Smith was hired by Illinois the following month. Still, T.J. Neal stuck by his commitment to transfer to Auburn, a move that highlights the type of individual that Neal is. While T.J. Neal is an explosive, instinctive player on the field, he is also a good character player off of it, a man who sticks to his word once he makes a decision. T.J. Neal has been attacked for a series of tweets following a loss against Clemson, but those tweets are entirely taken out of context. When taken in context, it is obvious that Neal is a team-first player who is dedicated to his team and who stands by his teammates. Neal never criticized his coaches, and deleted the tweets almost immediately and apologized to his coaches even though it is a far stretch to read them as a criticism of his program. Just take a look at his first press conference with Auburn.
When I watch his press conference from August 2016, I see an extremely positive team player who is excited to have moved to Auburn and is happy to be a part of the team. Neal is not a "me-first" player; he is a player committed to his team both on the field and in the film room. Here's a link to the press conference. It is foolish to allow a single minor incident to adversely affect the draft stock of a promising young player such as T.J. Neal. From a media standpoint, it is unfair to attack him for the incident, especially when the sum of his career has shown a player who is consistently supportive of his teammates and his programs. As an outside observer, the entire situation seems to have been taken out of context (here's the original article covering Neal's twitter posts) and should not be seen as a knock on T.J. Neal's character.
Speaking of character, T.J. Neal was a three time Big 10 Academic All-American. These awards show that he has excelled both as a student and as an athlete. Neal has shown that he can prosper under a heavy workload, and shine both on and off the field. He has completed a bachelor's degree in sport management from Illinois already, and is currently working towards a master's degree in education. This shows him to be a hard-working, driven young man who will do what it takes to succeed. That drive for success is further evidenced by his work in the film room and on the practice field.
What can T.J. Neal bring to an NFL team? He's an outstanding tackler who was especially productive in his final season with Illinois in 2015. He is a player that understands the linebacker position as a role akin to being the "quarterback" of the defense. Neal is a player that not only understands his role in a defense, but also the roles of the players around him. He has a strong motor, and also works hard in the film room. After playing for two major college programs, T.J. Neal has the experience of learning multiple defensive systems at the college level. At the next level, Neal could stand out either as a pure linebacker or as a linebacker-safety hybrid. T.J. Neal has the football I.Q., the athleticism, and the explosiveness to perform in either role. Given his speed and explosiveness off of the ball, he can also make an impact on special teams immediately in an NFL setting.
Where should he be drafted? NFLdraftscout.com has him rated as the 32nd inside linebacker prospect in his draft class. That is a ranking that I am uncomfortable with; Neal is far better as a player in my opinion. However, pre-draft rankings do not mean everything; remember that the same site had Vontaze Burfict ranked behind Keenan Robinson, James-Michael Johnson, Tank Carder, Audie Cole, Caleb McSurdy, and Najee Goode in 2012 (proof here). While a tough season so far at Auburn and the character questions some teams might raise following his twitter incident may drop Neal into the later rounds of the NFL draft or into undrafted territory, he showed enough in 2015 with Illinois to warrant a spot on an NFL roster. At least to this writer, Neal's so-called character concerns are a non-concern when one views the bigger picture; they are taken out of context. As far as a down year at Auburn, his 2015 season showcases a player who should be on the radar of NFL teams. If anything, he should be viewed in the same light as Illinois linebacker Hardy Nickerson, another solid player (who is ranked as NFL draft scout's #5 ILB). Neal is actually a better pure tackler than Nickerson, and that trait will help him succeed in the NFL. As a guy who might come in as a 7th round pick or UDFA, his upside is outstanding, and if he lands in the right system, he could make some serious noise in the NFL. NFL scouts, do yourselves a favor. Take a long hard look at T.J. Neal. You won't regret it. He could be an absolute steal in 2016. Neal is an extremely talented, hard working player, and I challenge you to watch the tape when analyzing him as a player. He has phenomenal upside, and has dealt with adversity and succeeded early in his football career. He has both the talent and the passion to thrive in the NFL.
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