When Lewis Neal begins rookie minicamp with the Dallas Cowboys next week, he’ll walk into a familiar situation.
He’ll play in a similar scheme to the one he played at LSU in 2015 under then-defensive coordinator Kevin Steele. He’ll participate in the same practice drills Ed Orgeron put him through the past two years. And in practice, he will battle guard La’el Collins, a starter for the Cowboys who played four years at LSU.
“It’s going to be like old times,” Neal said this week.
Eight ex-Tigers were selected in the seven-round draft, but eight more signed undrafted free agent deals over the weekend. Neal and the other seven got to pick their destination: DE/OLB Tashawn Bower (Vikings), TE Colin Jeter (Colts), DB Rickey Jefferson (Raiders), TE DeSean Smith (Bears), DB Dwayne Thomas (Patriots), WR Travin Dural (Saints) and OL Josh Boutte (Browns).
Of LSU’s outgoing class (draft-eligible juniors who left early and seniors), only kicker Colby Delahoussaye remains unsigned, a testament to the talent of a roster that fell short of expectations in 2016.
“Everyone is getting some kind of opportunity,” said Jeter, a former junior-college player who evolved into a two-year starter for the Tigers. “I’m sure everyone is going to take advantage. I’d love to see them all on the field again in the NFL.”
First, there’s the chore of making a team.
The players will compete in minicamps, many of them scheduled to start next week, before training camp begins in July. Preseason games follow before teams must cut their rosters to 53 players.
The deals that undrafted free agents sign aren’t guaranteed, aside from a normally small signing bonus. For instance, Jeter’s contract with the Colts includes a $1,000 bonus. By comparison, former LSU cornerback Tre’Davious White, a late first-round selection, is expected to receive a signing bonus of more than $5 million.
Small bonus or not, Jeter and Neal are just happy to continue their football careers, though there’s the sting of not being selected in the 253-pick draft. Jeter knew he was on “the bubble,” he said. Neal knew his statistics as a senior would hurt.
It did, he said.
“I’m going to be straight with you,” said Neal, the highest-rated of the eight undrafted players. “The reason I didn’t get drafted is because of sack numbers, but I know my work. (The) Cowboys got a steal, and everybody knows that.”
Neal finished with eight sacks as a junior but had 3½ last year as a senior. He attributes the decline to LSU’s defensive scheme change — from a 4-3 to a 3-4 front — and his subsequent position move. The defensive end in the 3-4 is a different position than in the 4-3, Neal said. A 3-4 end is more like a defensive tackle, he said. He played in that spot about “85 percent” last season, he said. There are fewer opportunities and fewer sacks.
“Not everybody fits every scheme. Those 4 (technique) positions are made for 290- to 300-pounders,” the 270-pound Neal said. “I’m not that. I wasn’t a selfish player. I could have said, ‘No, I’m not playing that.’ But who else is going to play it?”
Still, he’s thankful for his senior year at LSU.
“It helped me out in the long run because it helped my versatility, and I got a chance to be coached by coach Pete (Jenkins),” Neal said.
Neal’s weekend experience was different than that of many undrafted free agents. He previously developed a relationship with Cowboys defensive line coach Ben Bloom. Bloom ran the defensive line drills during LSU’s pro day. Bloom and Neal spent much of the draft exchanging text messages.
“He saw me in person,” Neal said. “He knows what I got and where I fit. It’s different from a scout.”
Neal whittled a list of a dozen suitors to a top three: the Cowboys, Chargers and Buccaneers. He chose the franchise with which he’s most familiar.
“Coach O is familiar with all of the (Cowboys) coaches,” Neal said. “He’s familiar with the Jones family. They run the same thing I run my junior year. The same drills that Coach O does, they do every day. I already know everything we’re going to do. I already do it, and I already perfect it.”