FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- Atlanta Falcons coach Dan Quinn and his players were in a somber mood Friday as sources confirmed to ESPN that Pro Bowl free safety Keanu Neal was lost for the season with a torn ACL.
"That one hurts for us because he certainly exemplifies not only our style, but [what we stand for] as a ballplayer and as a teammate, too," Quinn said. "We're bummed for him."
Neal was injured during the first half of the Falcons' 18-12 loss to the Philadelphia Eagles in Thursday night's season opener. He returned to play in the second half before exiting the game for good.
A reporter asked Quinn if Neal aggravated the knee injury upon returning to action.
"I don't think that's the case," Quinn said. "I think it was one of those instances where they weren't expecting the MRI and the imaging to look like it did. The tests that they assess on the field and those things were what they'd expect. So when they got to discover [the tear] this morning, you can imagine he was certainly heartbroken as well."
Neal, a hard-hitting, in-the-box safety who has worked to improve his coverage skills, had three forced fumbles, two fumble recoveries and one interception last season as a Pro Bowler. The 2016 first-round draft pick from Florida had 116 combined tackles in 2017.
Quinn said the Falcons will look for an immediate replacement internally and mentioned Damontae Kazee, Jordan Richards and nickelback Brian Poole as candidates. Kazee, listed as the backup free safety to Ricardo Allen, was the team's standout during the preseason with his playmaking ability and caused a turnover against the Eagles. Richards, a 2015 second-round draft pick of the New England Patriots, was recently traded to the Falcons in exchange for a conditional seventh-round draft pick in 2020. The Falcons expected Richards to come in and back up Neal.
Allen actually played the bulk of the strong-safety snaps following Neal's departure Thursday, while Kazee saw time at both safety spots. Richards was inactive while still getting up to speed with his new team.
Kazee, at 5-foot-11, 190-pounds, might be a little small to take on a regular role as the in-the-box safety, although he plays a physical style. Richards also is 5-11 and is 20 pounds heavier.
Quinn did not rule out signing a veteran when asked about Eric Reid, the former San Francisco 49er who remains a free agent and has faced scrutiny for taking a knee during the national anthem. Reid supports friend and former teammate Colin Kaepernick's fight against racial injustice.
"We have talked about that," Quinn said about Reid. "We'd like to go in-house first. The reason that is is because of the addition of Jordan and the emergence of Kazee. We'll go down that road first. ... When you put a player down for the year on IR, there'll be some opportunities that we could look at as well. From a starting standpoint, we'll look at in-house first."
Players talked about dedicating their play to Neal moving forward, starting with a Week 2 NFC South clash with the Carolina Panthers.
"Obviously tough," cornerback Desmond Trufant said. "I feel for him. That's my brother. I mean, the crazy part about it is, I don't know how many plays he did on it. ... You can't replace a guy like that. We just have to pray for him and pick up the slack."
Said Allen: "Everybody knows that's a super-hard loss. He's one of our leaders on our team. He's one of our enforcers on our team. But we're going to keep rolling, and we're going to do it for him."
Defensive end Takk McKinley expressed his sadness when talking about losing Neal.
"It's very disappointing,'' McKinley said. "You know, [Keanu], he was a leader on this team, our best player. Losing him, somebody else has got to step up. We all got to step up. It sucks but at the same time, you just have to step up and go without him.''