RENTON — Growing up in Merrillville, Indiana, about 50 miles from Chicago, Ryan Neal got used to hearing about daring exploits of fires being extinguished.
Neal’s father, Mike, was a fireman in nearby Gary, Indiana, and as Ryan Neal once told the Southern Illinois University athletic website, one of the best in the business.
“He’s a legendary fireman,” Ryan Neal said in 2016. “Every fire station I go to, there’s always a story about Big Mike. From pulling off doors of cars, to busting down windows and doors in houses to rescue people. I have so much respect for his courage and bravery.”
Now in his own chosen profession, NFL football player, Ryan Neal is being called on this week to put out something of a fire of his own, replacing strong safety Jamal Adams in the Seahawks’ starting lineup.
Adams is the highest-paid safety in NFL history after getting a four-year $70 million extension in April.
Neal, meanwhile, is making the minimum for a player in his third NFL season, $920,000, on a one-year contract.
Not that this is new territory — Neal also stepped in for Adams a year ago when Adams missed four games early in the season with a groin injury, memorably picking off a pass in the final seconds to secure a win over Dallas.
But then, there was the knowledge that Adams would be back any week. Now, Neal and the Seahawks know Adams is done for the year, giving Neal five games to not only help keep Seattle’s flickering playoff hopes alive — or at least, put a happier ending to a disappointing season — but also get something of a further audition for his NFL career.
With free safety Quandre Diggs set to be a free agent at the end of the season, the Seahawks will have a significant decision to make about how to structure the back of their secondary. Due mostly to Adams’ contract, Seattle already has more than $11 million in cap space devoted to its safety position in 2022, according to OvertheCap.com, 11th most in the NFL.
Adams’ huge deal is one reason the Seahawks took a wait-and-see attitude on Diggs, whose contract they redid slightly before the season to add a void year for 2022 solely to give him some insurance in case he suffered a career-ending injury.
And it means Seattle could be looking for less-expensive options to fill out the back end in case Diggs hits it big on the open market. At this point, having turned in another season that could end up in a Pro Bowl invite, Diggs would have every motivation to test his worth.
Not that Neal would be an exact replacement for Diggs, who plays free safety. Seattle, in fact, had planned for that to be Marquise Blair, drafted 47th overall in 2019. But Blair suffered a second-straight season-ending knee injury this year and while he’s expected to make a full recovery, his injury makes it that much harder for Seattle to assess exactly what it has in Blair. Ugo Amadi, the team’s starting nickel, could also be viewed as a potential free safety candidate long-term.
The broader point is Neal now has five games to show the team exactly what it has in him when it begins the process of assembling the 2022 squad.
Neal’s performance last year helped the team craft a role for him this season as a sixth defensive back in the team’s dime defense, something it regularly used in third-and-long situations — Neal had played at least 11 snaps in the six games before Sunday, when he played 33 after stepping in for Adams for good late in the second quarter.
But now, he’s going to play every down from start to finish.
“The difference this time around is I had the experience, I have the experience,” Neal said. “I’ve been playing this year a little bit in dime packages and stuff like that, so for me, it’s just nothing but another play I get to play. Way more confident this time around stepping into it. It’s not a shock to me. It may be a shock to everybody else, but it’s not a shock to me. I’m just here to come in and do my job. That’s what last year gave me.”
What the past two years also gave him is a sense of belonging in the NFL. Neal entered the league as an undrafted free agent in 2018, signed initially by the Eagles. Cut by the Eagles, he signed with Atlanta and played one game for the Falcons, having been switched to cornerback, a position he had also played in college.
Cut by Atlanta before the 2019 season, he spent that year mostly on Seattle’s practice squad, with the Seahawks then telling him following that season they wanted to bring him back and try him again at safety.
Neal admits he was devastated to be cut by the Seahawks before the 2020 season. For a day or so, he began to think maybe the NFL wasn’t going to work out, telling as much to his older brother, Mike, who played for the Packers from 2010-15, winning a Super Bowl ring as a rookie.
“I’m like, ‘All right, cool.’ I had a really good camp and didn’t make it again,'” Neal said this week. “It was just like, ‘Is it time to grow up, or is it just time to face the facts? This might be as far as I go.’ You contemplate stuff like that. Good thing I’ve got a great support system around me, people who believe in me and talk some sense into me. What else would you rather be doing? I’m just like, ‘Let’s go back and do it again.'”
Re-signed to Seattle’s practice squad, he got promoted to the 53 following the injury to Adams last September and has been there since.
And now, at age 25, he gets another chance to show the Seahawks just how far he’s come.
“Of course, it’s an opportunity for me,” Neal said. “But it isn’t about me. It’s about everybody else and how can we keep things rolling in the direction we’ve got it. My whole mindset is step in, do my job, do it to the best of my ability to help us win games. That’s just how I’m looking at it.”
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