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Cowboys coaches are gushing over this LB pair. It’s not Leighton Vander Esch and Jaylon Smith.

FRISCO — Only one concern dampened the initial buzz of Keanu Neal’s signing with the Cowboys.

Donovan Wilson’s development at safety was a rare positive to emerge from an otherwise dismal defensive season. The addition of Neal had the potential to slow that progress.

It turns out Wilson has nothing to worry about.

Leighton Vander Esch and Jaylon Smith do.

Shortly after he signed five months ago, the Dallas coaching staff declared that Neal would move from strong safety to linebacker. Although Neal has been a quality player in the league when healthy, there’s always a question of how quickly a player will adapt to a new position.

The transition has been seamless.

Vander Esch, Smith and rookie Micah Parsons will line up at linebacker in the team’s 4-3 base package. But when coordinator Dan Quinn turns to the nickel, the defense most prevalent in today’s NFL, it appears Parsons and Neal will be the linebackers in the majority of those packages.

Those two started in the second preseason game against Arizona because the Cardinals began the game in 11 personnel with one running back, one tight end and three wide receivers.

“Yeah, I mean that’s the nickel group,’’ head coach Mike McCarthy said of Parsons and Neal at linebacker. “They started because of more who was on the field for Arizona.

“We have a base group and some combination base subgroups. We’ll continue to do that.’’

Will Parsons and Neal be in every nickel package or subgroup? No. Quinn likes to mix things up. There will still be opportunities for Vander Esch and, to a lesser extent, Smith in these groupings. Rookie Jabril Cox will also have a role.

But Parsons and Neal have proved to be a dynamic pairing. The team’s first-round pick recovered a fumble in his first preseason game against Pittsburgh. Neal came back last week and forced and recovered a fumble against Arizona.

“He looks natural in there,’’ McCarthy said of the veteran. “I think that move’s gone very smooth. He’s all about the football.

“Man, I love the way he plays. He’s on the ball on time. You see it in practice. He’s a dynamite player, aggressive to the football.

“I love his play style.’’

Neal was selected by Atlanta with the 17th overall pick in the 2016 draft. That’s the same year Smith came into the league in the second round. Neal went two picks higher than Vander Esch did when he was taken two years later.

Neal was a Pro Bowl safety before a torn ACL and Achilles limited him to a total of four games over two seasons. He came back and played 15 games last season.

Quinn coached Neal with the Falcons and talks about how intentional the player is with his technique and improvement. He jokes that they tricked Neal in Atlanta. He was labeled a safety, but was down in the box so often he was essentially a linebacker.

What Neal is being asked to do now is similar to what he did in Atlanta. Comparable responsibilities, different name.

“The kid’s crazy athletic,’’ Vander Esch said. “He obviously has that defensive back skill set, and he’s built like a freaking linebacker. You can see his arms and see the way he’s built that he’s made up that he can be a linebacker.

“The things he’s shown on the field, he can definitely do it.’’

He’s shown his new teammates something off the field as well.

“Great dude,’’ Vander Esch said. “I love Keanu. Great football player and even better person.’’

Neal will tell you he has a great relationship with everyone in the linebackers room. All of them are now getting a feel for how they play and can play off each other when on the field together.

“Shoot, we can all play,’’ Neal said. “That’s the reality of it. We’re all talented.’’

They are. But for now, it looks like Parsons and Neal will be getting the lion’s share of snaps in the nickel.

“I’m excited for where I’m going,’’ Neal said.

Where he’s going at the moment has implications for how much Vander Esch and Smith will play.

Catch David Moore on The Ticket (KTCK-AM 1310 and 96.7 FM) with the Musers at 9:35 every morning and the Hardline several times a week at 4:30 p.m. during Cowboys training camp.

Find more Cowboys coverage from The Dallas Morning News here.


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