No one could have expected Griffin Neal to end up at Tulane’s pro day.
He was busy working out with his quarterback coach Rudy Carpenter, trying to perfect his craft and prepare for his next opportunity, when they heard the Green Wave didn’t have a senior quarterback to throw passes at the workout.
Carpenter and his partner, Rod Dowhower, got on the phone and started pulling strings. They got Neal in included in the event.
It was a long shot. Not many people outside of Minnesota or his hometown of Fargo, North Dakota, had ever heard of Neal, who played at Division III Concordia College and then spent the past year playing in a semipro league in Germany.
But Carpenter knew Neal could play and was hopeful the showcase would let people see what he had been watching since the two started working together in December.
“When he was playing in college, it wasn’t like he was really coached on being a passer,” Carpenter said. “When we got him, we basically got a 6-foot-5, 225-pound, tough, physical athlete with a very strong arm. We got to mold him into being an effective passer.”
No one probably expected the invitation to Tulane’s pro day, which was held at the Saints’ facility on Airline Drive, to work out so well. Saints quarterback coach Joe Lombardi and assistant general manager Jeff Ireland were among those in attendance, and they were so impressed with Neal that they asked him to stick around after the workout and put him through another 30-minute session.
They gave him a portion of the playbook to study and extended an invite to rookie minicamp. But the Saints decided to bring Neal back for Friday’s local pro day and had him lead a scripted workout. They quizzed him about the playbook. He had it all down.
Instead of waiting to see how he did at rookie minicamp, they decided to sign the quarterback to a three-year contract Friday.
It was a quick rise for a quarterback who hasn’t spent much time throughout his career doing the kind of things that most quarterbacks are asked to do.
“Concordia is a triple-option team,” Carpenter said. “Literally. Like, old-school Oklahoma, like back in the day with Barry Switzer.”
Neal didn’t throw a ton in college. As a senior in 2014, he completed 152 of 242 passes for 1,963 yards with 15 touchdowns and six interceptions. He still had the itch to keep playing when his college career ended and headed over to Germany to play for the Hildesheim Invaders.
It was there that he finally got a chance to really show his stuff as a passer. He took traditional three- and five-step drops. Unlike in college, he had to throw with some timing and accuracy. It was mostly a success, as Neal connected on 67.2 percent of his passes for 3,268 yards, 30 touchdowns and five interceptions.
But that was just a start. After coming back here, he linked up with Carpenter and really went to work learning his craft. He learned defensive fronts, blitzes, pass protections, coverages, route combinations and all of the other things a more-experienced quarterback who played in a modern offense might already know.
“He’s made improvements in a short amount of time,” Carpenter said. “I actually think it’s helped him, because unlike all these kids who are getting ready for the combine and trying to kill the Underwear Olympics, Griff wasn’t really going to do that. He spent the last four or five months of his time trying to perfect his craft at the quarterback position.”
Neal might be a little bit behind the quarterbacks who come out of pro-style offenses. But Carpenter, who works with many Division I quarterbacks, thinks the Saints’ new quarterback is on par with many of the players at the position entering the league in terms of understanding the game.
“I don’t think he’s much further ahead or much further behind than those guys,” Carpenter said. “I say that because I work with a lot of college kids who run the zone read and the spread or the Air Raid offense in college.
“These kids don’t know if the ball is pumped or stuffed. They aren’t asked to do much.”
The question is where Neal fits in with the Saints. The depth chart looks set. Luke McCown, who recently signed a two-year contract, and last year’s third-round pick Garrett Grayson are expected to battle it out to be Drew Brees’ top backup.
“Hopefully, if it all goes good for Griff, maybe he can be a practice-squad guy.” Carpenter said
Why not? Neal seems to have a knack for taking advantage of unexpected opportunities.