Control what you can control. It’s a mantra that Siran Neal has lived by for years – going from an all-state wide receiver at Eufala High School in Alabama to a standout defender at Jacksonville State, where he started at safety, linebacker, and cornerback. Now entering his fourth season with the Buffalo Bills, Neal has solidified himself as a dominant special teamer while proving that he can step in and contribute just about anywhere in the back seven on defense in a pinch.
Drafted in the fifth round of the 2018 NFL draft as a safety, Neal was initially overwhelmed by the sheer volume of an NFL playbook. But Neal’s combination of athleticism, hunger, and love for the game allowed him to carve out a role early on special teams while drawing the eye of the veterans ahead of him on the defensive depth chart.
“It was kind of hard at first, coming from a small school to the NFL,” Neal told Cover 1. “It was a lot. Just a lot of plays. The NFL is just very competitive, and that’s one thing I do not lack – that competitiveness. But going through that transition was very challenging. I had some great leaders around me, with Micah (Hyde) and Jordan Poyer and they’d just tell me ‘You’re very athletic. You got some abilities that we don’t have and you’ll play for a long time if you just stick with it.’
So I took the special teams thing and just ran with it. They saw the things that I already saw in myself and eventually I knew that I could just take over on the special teams side and make that my main thing until I got that shot on defense like I did. So it’s just about, hey, control what you can control at the time and your time will come.”
For late-round draft picks, contributing on special teams is a sure-fire way to lock in a spot on a 53-man roster. And for an athlete like Neal that stands 6-feet, 203-pounds, with a 4.56-second 40-yard dash, a 40.5-inch vertical, and a 10-foot-2-inch broad jump, flying down the field and demolishing a returner is the perfect gig.
As a rookie, Neal was surrounded by vets who followed paths that were similar to his and knew what it takes to go from Day 3 draft pick to NFL starter. Poyer was a seventh-round pick that primarily played special teams for his first four years in the NFL before ultimately joining the Bills as a starting safety. Hyde was a fifth-rounder that played at least 200 special teams snaps in each of his first four seasons. But the one player who really took an interest in Neal early on was Lorenzo Alexander. Undrafted in 2005, Alexander transformed himself from a defensive tackle into a linebacker that was one of the premier special teams players in the NFL for over a decade.
Alexander saw something special in Neal and took him under his wing. The two spent a lot of time together talking about what it takes to make it in the NFL and this time was something Neal will never forget.
“Lorenzo definitely took me under his arm and taught me a lot of things, taught me the ins and outs. He was just there. Guys have their families and other things going on, but Lorenzo really took time out of his life to just have dinners with me, talk and give me the game. Really just teaching me the ins and outs of it all. He saw where I came from and that I didn’t really know much, so him just teaching me, and all those dinners – just taking time away from his family for me was huge. He just taught me so much. It was huge because he was a special teams guy.
I look at him and how he came into the NFL and he had a huge transformation from what he used to do. Even his body, the way he looked. The way he looks at the game, that’s a real deal business guy. And if anyone needs help in a certain area, he’s the guy to talk to because he knows how to do it. It’s amazing what he’s done in the NFL and that’s something I really saw, like man, if he put that work in, I can also.”
Alexander’s tutelage paid off for Neal, and quickly. He led the team with seven solo tackles on special teams as a rookie. In his second year, Heath Farwell joined the team as Buffalo’s special teams coordinator. Farwell played 10 seasons in the NFL, earning a Pro Bowl nod and a Super Bowl ring as a special teams captain with the Seattle Seahawks and Minnesota Vikings.
Farwell immediately saw something special in Neal, who viewed his coach’s vote of confidence in him as even more valuable than his coaching tips.
“It wasn’t as much about him teaching me as it was just trusting me,” Neal told Cover 1 about what Farwell added to his game. “He really gave me the keys and let me direct it. He just told me, ‘Do what you do and do it the best. Once you stop thinking, you’re unstoppable.’
So again, I just took it and ran with it. I like Heath a lot. He taught me a lot about special teams, but he’s said the things he sees in our unit – not only me, our core special teams guys – he says it’s really something special, something that he said he hasn’t seen in a long time. And he said the same thing about me individually, he said he seems a lot. He gives me praise and I just try to go out there and give him whatever he asks for, no questions asked.”
That second year, Neal once again led the team in special teams tackles with nine, but he also saw an increased role on defense, playing 220 snaps. He racked up 36 tackles, two tackles for loss, and one forced fumble in 15 games, making one start.
“Siran Neal is an up-and-coming special teams guy, a gunner who is loaded with talent,” Farwell said prior to last season. “Him being on this team on special teams is so valuable. We have two very, very good gunners that are really going to control it on the outside.”
Special teams is one of the most important phases of the game, but it’s often the most overlooked by casual fans. Sure, explosive kick returners make highlight reels, but it’s guys like Neal, and their ability to chase them down and prevent big returns that play a huge role in providing their teams with good field position.
“That’s an area most people won’t understand,” Neal said. “Fans like offense, they score. They like defense, they intercept the ball, they take the ball away. But the thing is, special teams plays a big part in all of that, especially with the field position. Field position is so big on the percentage of a team scoring or a team not scoring. I just take my huge role and do that part. My favorite part, or unit, of special teams – and I take them all seriously – but it’d definitely have to be kickoff or punt, where I get to do down and hit somebody, or casue forced fumbles and really take control of the game.”
In 2020, Neal continued to shine on special teams, once again leading the team with seven tackles. But he saw his defensive playing time dip to just 120 snaps. On a team loaded with depth and talent as the Bills, all Neal can do is focus on himself, on his job, and being ready to perform when his name is called. Talent isn’t an issue for Neal. We’ve seen him fly down from a deep safety alignment and bring down Aaron Rodgers.
Lined up in the slot in Buffalo’s 2019 Wild Card loss to the Houston Texans, Neal chased down Deshaun Watson from the backside for a huge sack.
He’s solid in coverage and can stuff opposing running backs at the line of scrimmage, too. But the opportunities are simply limited when there are premier players littered throughout the secondary. Neal doesn’t worry about his playing time, because he knows the ferocity he brings to the defense when he gets on the field. He’s all about the team.
“That’s something I don’t really get into. I don’t talk about it. That’s their (the coaches) job. I just know every position on the field,” Neal says about his role on defense. “If I need to play corner, I play corner. If I need to play nickel, I play nickel. If I need to play dime, I play dime. If I need to go in and play linebacker, that’s what I’ll do for that game. I just learn the ins and outs of the defense so that they know whenever they need me, I just go in and do my job until the next opportunity I get. And until (I get a bigger role), I’m that core special teams guy. I can’t worry about when I’m getting on defense because when those times come, I shine.”
The Bills are a closely-knit group and the core has been together long enough to understand their roles while sharing the desire to play for each other. After the loss to Kansas City in the AFC Championship last year, there’s a lot of noise from the outside about needing to dethrone the Chiefs. But Neal doesn’t want to hear any of those rumblings. Heading into the 2021 NFL season, he’s intense and confident about the team’s chances.
“We’re not focused on nobody but ourselves,” he says. “We focus on what we have to do and we take it one day at a time. Right now we focus on team bonding and trusting our teammates. So when we go to war, we know what we do. We come out as warriors. We don’t worry about what other people do. As long as we focus on ourselves, I feel like we’re unstoppable.”
Watch the full interview with Buffalo Bills CB Siran Neal on our YouTube Channel below: