There is a sense of expectation around College Station ahead of the 2021 college football season. One of the reasons for the optimism above is the return of nearly the entire defensive depth chart, including 2022 NFL Draft prospect Leon O’Neal Jr. The Texas A&M safety is sure to attract plenty of attention this fall, with his scouting report proving an entertaining but question-inducing evaluation.
Leon O’Neal Jr. NFL Draft Profile
- Position: Safety
- School: Texas A&M
- Current Year: Senior
- Height: 6’0 1/4″
- Weight: 211
- Wingspan: 76 1/2″
- Arm: 31 5/8″
- Hand: 10″
Leon O’Neal Jr. Scouting Report
In February 2017, O’Neal tweeted that he would be the best safety in the 2021 NFL Draft. Having spurned his opportunity to enter that class, he tweeted this last February that he was the best safety in the country. Bold claims indeed, but does his scouting report back it up?
There’s certainly plenty to enjoy about the Texas A&M safety’s game.
O’Neal is an imposing downhill threat, demonstrating impressive closing speed. He can fly into the backfield from an athletic standpoint, possessing quick footwork to help him navigate through traffic and lay a hit on the quarterback or ball carrier. There are also good examples of backpedaling on his tape.
The senior safety has had a reputation as a heavy hitter since his high school days, which is apparent on his tape. He does his best work in and around the box where he can lower his shoulder, lay the boom, and punish quarterbacks and running backs alike.
His above-average length enhances his ability as a tackler. At 6’1″, he is considerably shorter than Notre Dame’s Kyle Hamilton, but his length allows him to wrap up as a tackler. Furthermore, he’s demonstrated that he can use that length in coverage.
Although O’Neal does his best work coming downhill, he has flashed ability in coverage. His ability to click and close is apparent in short-to-intermediate coverage. Additionally, he has shown stellar football instincts with the interceptions on his résumé. Finally, O’Neal is a vocal and visible leader on and off the field.
Areas for improvement
There’s no question that O’Neal has the attributes to be a strong safety in the NFL. However, some areas for improvement and apparent limitations in his game could stymie his NFL Draft stock.
Despite impressing with his downhill closing speed, O’Neal doesn’t possess exceptional long speed. During his high school career, he was clocked at 4.76 seconds in the 40-yard dash. While it was claimed he played faster than that in high school, he certainly lacks the top-end speed of other prospects.
As a result, it’s unlikely he can be considered as anything other than a box safety at the NFL level. O’Neil has mainly played as a split-field safety, and his lack of experience and athletic limitations means he is unlikely to play single high at the next level. This could be detrimental to his NFL Draft stock.
Although he has been disruptive in coverage in the short and intermediate areas of the field, there are some improvements to be made in man coverage in terms of route recognition and ensuring he finishes plays.
Leon O’Neal Jr. Player Profile
A heavy-hitting, tough-tackling, four-star safety out of Cypress Springs in Texas, O’Neal was the jewel in the crown of the Texas A&M 2018 recruiting class. In addition to his star status, he was the eighth-ranked safety in the class, the eighth player in Texas, and a top-100 player nationally.
Although O’Neal ultimately ended up at A&M, his recruiting journey was far from straightforward. Having held over 30 offers from across the nation resulting from a junior season where he racked up 86 tackles, 2 interceptions, 4 pass breakups, and 2 forced fumbles, he committed to the Aggies in June 2017.
Despite the commitment, interest from elsewhere remained high throughout his senior campaign. O’Neal consistently demonstrated disruptive playmaking skills, amassing 78 tackles, 5 forced fumbles, 4 pass breakups, and 4 tackles for loss.
Meanwhile, Texas A&M was far from the model of consistency. Slumping to their lowest win total since 2011, Kevin Sumlin was relieved of his duties as head coach. The uncertainty spooked their incoming star safety, and O’Neal rescinded his commitment.
Not for the last time in his young career, the entertaining defensive back kept the Aggies faithful in suspense. Through January, he remained unsigned, taking visits to Clemson and Georgia while entertaining a visit from Alabama head coach Nick Saban. However, just two days before National Signing Day, he announced his recommitment to Texas A&M.
O’Neal Jr.’s career at Texas A&M
Despite his impressive recruiting profile, O’Neal spent most of his freshman season working on special teams. He registered defensive stats in just five of his 12 regular-season appearances. A solitary tackle for loss against Alabama was the only notable contribution.
However, in the bowl game against NC State, the Texas A&M safety gave fans a glimpse of his star potential. His then-career-high 6 tackles included a tackle for loss. Meanwhile, he snagged his first career interception, running the pick for 25 yards.
The performance was a catalyst to a starting role at safety as a sophomore. In the season opener against Texas State, O’Neal added another interception to his résumé. Although his reputation as a hard-hitting strong safety was enhanced with 41 tackles, including 3 tackles for loss, he showed development in coverage with pass breakups against Mississippi State, South Carolina, and LSU.
With the expectation that O’Neal would be a key leader in the secondary in 2020, he dropped a surprise spanner into the works before spring camp. Following a series of terrifying tweets for Texas A&M fans, it appeared that their star safety had entered the transfer portal.
A surprise announcement, but O’Neal is still in College Station for his senior season
The announcement surprised both fans and teammates alike. Yet, O’Neal ultimately remained in College Station for his junior season.
Despite the uncertainty coming into the season, the Texas A&M product thrived. For the second consecutive year, he opened the campaign with an interception. Having been influential in coverage against LSU in 2019, he again tortured the Tigers, logging his first multiple-pass-breakup game.
A team-leading and career-high 8 tackles in a win over Auburn put the cap on a season of highlights. O’Neal amassed a career-high 48 tackles, 2 interceptions, and 5 pass deflections. His performances throughout 2020 put his name on the map as a potential sleeper safety in the 2021 NFL Draft class.
Nevertheless, O’Neal opted to come back for his senior year. With his return alongside safety stablemate Demani Richardson, the Aggies have one of the best safety duos in college football this fall. Both have the opportunity to be in the top 10 safeties in the 2022 NFL Draft class. Furthermore, O’Neal heads into the season as a top-100 player.
Tony Pauline’s scouting report for Leon O’Neal Jr.
Positives: Physical, hard-charging safety who is best playing downhill. Instinctive, quickly diagnoses plays, and aggressively goes after opponents. Possesses a closing burst, flashes on the scene, and gives a lot of effort. Sure-handed tackler who breaks down well, squares into ball handlers, and brings opponents down in space. Forceful up the field defending the run and on the blitz. Keeps the action in front of him, effectively quarterbacks the secondary, and gets teammates in proper position.
Negatives: Lacks speed to the flanks and is late getting to the spot laterally. Struggles in coverage and cannot stay on the receiver’s hip out of breaks.
Analysis: O’Neal is a tough, physical safety who comes with a limited game. Best making plays in the box or downhill, he’s limited to a traditional strong safety position and may have to play in a zone scheme.