LSU defensive end Lewis Neal, a Wilson native and Hunt High product, wasn't selected in the NFL draft over the weekend but signed a free-agent contract with the Dallas Cowboys immediately after the draft concluded Saturday.
Steve Franz | LSU Athletics
By Paul Durham
Give Lewis Neal some credit.
He knows how the game is played, which should come as no surprise given one of the best qualities attributed to the LSU defensive end in many NFL draft analyses is his intelligence on and off the field.
Neal knew that by the sixth round of the NFL draft Saturday he was going to be better off not getting taken in the last two rounds. The Hunt High graduate and Wilson native had hoped to be taken by the fifth round, but that didn’t happen. In fact, Neal, who was a two-year starter at LSU, didn’t hear his name called at all — but his phone wouldn’t stop ringing.
When a host of NFL teams called to say they wanted to sign him to a free-agent contract, it was Neal’s turn to choose. He opted to become a member of the Dallas Cowboys organization.
“I heard from them throughout the entire draft. Teams kept contacting me and so I had a list,” he said Saturday night after a long day. “Basically the reason why I chose the Cowboys is they need pass rushers and I know what I can get in the long run. I’m familiar with the coaching staff at Dallas.”
Neal, who never redshirted and graduated from LSU in less than four years, h as an innate ability to understand situations quickly. He’s had so much success trading on the foreign currency exchange that he opened his own firm in December. Neal knew that he would have been a high-round draft pick if he came out after his junior season, in which he led the Tigers and was sixth in the SEC with 8.0 sacks. But when LSU switched to a 3-4 defensive alignment this past season, Neal’s numbers tumbled to just 3.5 sacks, which isn’t a lot for a defensive end who is barely 6-foot-1 and weighs less than 280 pounds.
Still, Neal has supreme confidence in his abilities, so he hoped that he would be drafted and become the first Hunt High product to do so.
“I was disappointed but at the end of the day, I don’t question anything because now I’m in a perfect situation,” he said.
Maybe a bit optimistic without a lot of guaranteed money, but he’s got a point.
The Cowboys, who ranked 13th in the NFL in sacks last season, only drafted one defensive end — Michigan’s 6-6, 277-pound Taco Charlton, whom Dallas took in the first round with the 28th overall selection.
“They need defense,” Neal said. “The scheme they have fits great. They want me to play on the left end but I can move around.”
To say he was elated to get a shot playing for the Cowboys, who looked a lot more like “America’s Team” last season than they had in years, is an understatement.
“I know that playing for the Cowboys I’ll get the recognition that I deserve,” Neal said. “Everything happens for a reason.”
Neal said he knows Dallas defensive ends coach Ben Bloom.
“They know me. They know where I can play,” said Neal, who signed a standard free-agent contract with a signing bonus. If he makes the team, it will be a three-year deal.
Neal spent a month in Dallas after the season training for the NFLPA Collegiate Bowl and preparing for the draft, so he has plenty of contacts there. He will leave for a three-day mini-camp in Texas on May 11 and then start preparing for his first NFL training camp in July.
For Neal, whose workout habits at Hunt and LSU (where he holds the program power clean weightlifting record) were legendary, not getting drafted is just the type of motivation he needs.
“Oh yeah, man, motivation ain’t even the word!” he said. “They’re going to have to kick me out the facility!”