GREEN BAY – Mike McCarthy would have loved to have kept it a secret. So much for the best laid plans of mice and NFL head coaches.
In a perfect world, the Green Bay Packers head coach would have been able to keep the experiment of working defensive end Mike Neal at outside linebacker under wraps. But from the moment Neal lined up there in the team’s first open organized team activity practice – an open-to-the-public, open-to-the-media workout at Clarke Hinkle Field on May 21 – there was no hope of surprising the San Francisco 49ers with it on opening day Sept. 8.
But subterfuge aside, the move makes Neal an intriguing player in the Packers’ grand defensive scheme. It was a clear signal that the coaching staff sees potential in the fourth-year player, who has battled injuries but has flashed when healthy.
“Schematically, we’re going to do some different things and we’re going to expand Mike Neal’s role,” McCarthy said in a slightly annoyed tone when asked about the experiment after practice that day. “All the specifics of that I’m sure we can wait until Week 1 to get in to all of that.”
Neal, a 2010 second-round draft pick from Purdue who missed 26 of the first 28 possible games of his NFL career (including playoffs) because of injuries, finally blossomed last season once he was able to play consistently.
During his disappointing rookie season, Neal strained an abdominal muscle during training camp and missed the first three regular-season games, then missed the final 11 regular-season and four playoff games with a right shoulder injury that required surgery after he tore his rotator cuff and partially tore the labrum. In the two games he did play, though, Neal forced a fumble against Detroit and had his first NFL sack against Washington.
Neal then missed the first half of the 2011 season after suffering a knee injury in an August training-camp practice and was a non-factor upon his return to the field.
But last season, after serving a four-game suspension for violating the NFL’s policy on performance-enhancing substances – Neal said he was suspended for taking Adderall, for which he actually had a prescription – Neal was a different player. In only 10 games and 323 snaps, Neal registered 4.5 sacks, plus four quarterback hits and 17 hurries, according to ProFootballFocus.com. His 7.2 grade from PFF was one of only four positive pass-rushing grades on the team, and second only to star outside linebacker Clay Matthews, who had 13 regular-season sacks, three postseason sacks and a 15.2 overall pass-rush grade.
Neal, who is listed at 6-foot-3 and 294 pounds, seems awfully big to be playing outside, where 2012 first-round pick Nick Perry was viewed as big at 265 pounds last year. But at the very least, he gives the Packers another intriguing pass-rushing option for defensive coordinator Dom Capers to use in his game plans, in addition to Perry, Matthews, Dezman Moses and defensive linemen B.J. Raji and Datone Jones, the team’s first-round pick.
“All these doggone quarterbacks that can run around, you’ve got to have guys that can run and catch ’em. You want to put your most athletic guys out there,” Capers explained. “Datone Jones, Mike Neal – those are two nice-size guys who are athletic. With Perry and Clay, that’s a pretty athletic group.
"I think the more (Neal) can do, the more versatile it's going to make us. It'll make it harder for the offense to identify some of the things we're doing. He's been primarily an inside rusher for us. We liked the way he rushed inside last year. We just are trying to look to expand his role. If he can be both an inside and outside rusher, then that's an asset to us. ... The more versatile a guy is, the more flexibility he gives you on defense. And Mike's a guy that has a combination of strength, size, speed, quickness, power that we're trying to get him work."
For his part, Neal had no idea of the team’s plans when he showed up for the offseason program. But it appears this will be more than just a spring experiment. Even though Neal figures to work primarily at defensive end and may only line up at outside linebacker for a handful of snaps each game, he will clearly be given the opportunity to be a difference-maker on a defense that registered the fourth-most sacks in the NFL last year (47).
“From my standpoint, I’m a football player. And there are football coaches. And the coaches ask me to do one thing, and that’s what I do. I don’t ask any questions I just go along with the road they present to me,” said Neal, who is set to become an unrestricted free agent after the season. “So as of right now if that’s what it is, that’s what it is. I don’t know any plans going down in the future. Heck, I don’t know what’s going on tomorrow. I just know that if this is where I lined up today, that’s where I line up at. If it may be elsewhere then that’s elsewhere but I’m just playing whatever they tell me to.
“(This) just gives me more opportunities to use what I’ve got. You look at an outside linebacker in our defense. They’ve got to be athletic. They’ve still got to be strong. They’ve still got to be able to move. They’ve got to have agility and I think I possess all of those skills, so for me it’s no different, it’s just learning a different position.”
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