GREEN BAY – None of them – not Aaron Rodgers, not Clay Matthews, not Dom Capers – had been asked about Mike Neal. And yet, while the questions pertained to him, all three brought up the fifth-year outside linebacker/defensive lineman hybrid unprompted.
“Our defense is primed and ready,” said Rodgers, who had been asked about the offseason addition of veteran pass rusher Julius Peppers. “Adding Julius, a healthy Clay Matthews with the depth we have now with Mike Neal and Nick Perry, it will be a good test for our offense every day in training camp.”
Matthews, too, had been asked about Peppers, who figures to line up on the opposite side of him in passing situations.
“It's going to present some difficulties for the offense to not only block the two of us but other guys who have stepped up in recent history – Mike Daniels, Mike Neal coming on strong,” Matthews said. “[We] should be a formidable pass rush this year. So I'm looking forward to it.”
And then there was Capers, who finds himself with considerably more pass-rushing options than he had at the end of last season, when Peppers was playing for the Chicago Bears, Matthews was out with a broken thumb and Perry was fighting through a foot injury. He, too, had been asked specifically about Peppers, who like Neal will split his time between being a lineman and an outside linebacker.
“[Peppers] is one of those versatile guys. You’ve seen we used Clay in a lot of different ways. You’ve seen Mike Neal be a hybrid-type of guy,” Capers said. “[Neal] played a lot more last year than what we anticipated this time last year because he was still a down lineman ,and he played a lot more outside. He falls into that hybrid category where he can play a number of different spots.”
The point of this he said-he said-he said routine is this: While the talk of the offseason was envisioning what a healthy Matthews and a still-something-left-in-the-tank Peppers could do in tandem, don’t sleep on the potential contributions of Neal, who returned after a brief free-agent foray this spring, signing a two-year deal that included a $2.5 million signing bonus and could be worth as much as $8 million.
Neal, who turned 27 last month, ended up playing 751 snaps last season, the most of any outside linebacker, because of the injuries to Matthews and Perry, and finished with five sacks, four quarterback hits and a team-high 37 hurries, according to Pro Football Focus. He dropped roughly 20 pounds last offseason in preparation for his hybrid role, and although he remains a work in progress with some of the skills required to be an outside linebacker (especially dropping in coverage), he got better as the season wore on.
More importantly, he saw action in all 17 games (including the playoff loss to San Francisco) after battling injuries his first three NFL seasons. His previous career high for games was 11 in 2012, when he missed four games while on an NFL suspension for violating the league’s policy on performance-enhancing drugs. He played just two games as a rookie second-round pick from Purdue in 2010 because of a shoulder injury that required major surgery, and he played in just seven games in 2011 because of a nagging knee injury suffered in training camp.
That’s why, after the team drafted defensive end Datone Jones in the first round last year and told Neal of the position change plans, he wondered if it was the beginning of the end for him.
“At first, when they drafted Datone and moved me out there, I started looking at it as, ‘Maybe this is just them trying to find me something to do,’ and then if I didn’t work out, I’d get traded or released,” Neal admitted. “[Instead], it’s kind of been a blessing in disguise.”
In more ways than one. Not only has Neal proven to be effective as a stand-up player, but the weight loss likely played a role in him finally staying healthy. Now, it’s a matter of replicating his success from a year ago.
One way the Packers could use Neal would be in bringing back their so-called “Psycho” package, a nickel personnel group that utilizes one down lineman and five linebackers. After unveiling it early on in his tenure with the Packers, Capers hasn’t used it much in recent years, in part because of a dearth of worthy linebackers.
Neal gives Capers the flexibility to play both as the lone lineman, something he’s done in the past, or serve as one of the five linebackers.
“We’ve got all the packages. It’s just going to be which ones work and which ones we think will be best to best utilize our personnel,” Capers said. “I think you make a mistake if you just try to take your guys and fit them into a defense, you have to take your defense and fit it around the guys. That’s what we’re kind of going through right now.”
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