Week One simply cannot get here soon enough for Mike Neal. The 6-3, (formerly) 294-pound pass rush specialist out of Purdue has been one of the most talked about Packers since OTAs, and this time it’s not because of his ability to stay healthy or his four game Adderall suspension from last year.
Neal shaved off about 10 pounds from his playing weight and spent most of OTAs at outside linebacker, instead of his customary defensive end position.
Clearly the Packers are looking for answers in stopping some of the more mobile quarterbacks of the NFC that they will have to defeat to get to the Super Bowl this season. While Robert Griffin III and Russell Wilson are two that come to mind, it was Colin Kaepernick that absolutely shredded the Green Bay defense in the playoffs in January to send the Packers home early.
Defensive coordinator Dom Capers and outside linebackers coach Kevin Greene obviously see something in Neal. He was one of the best pass-rushers on the team last year according to Pro Football Focus’ grades. He boasts elite speed and quickness for a man his size. And he doesn’t care where he plays.
For a guy who didn’t even know he was going to be getting extensive reps at outside linebacker at OTAs and minicamp, Neal’s transition was not necessarily a bumpy one after a few days of practice. The fact that Green Bay selected defensive end Datone Jones in the first round probably motivated Neal to work harder than ever to assure himself of a roster spot. With a suspension and a pesky knee injury already under his belt, it’s put-up or shut up time for the former Boilermaker.
With Clay Matthews and Nick Perry already entrenched as the starters at outside linebacker and Ryan Pickett and Datone Jones likely taking large shares of the playing time at the ends, Neal may have the benefit of being a situational rusher. While my colleagues here at Acme may disagree with me, it’s becoming clearer to me that Neal may see more than a handful of snaps at outside linebacker this year.
Neal can present a matchup problem for offensive tackles, tight ends and running backs that will try to keep him from the quarterback. If Jones shows he’s not ready Week One, Neal can be a stopgap at end. If Perry has shown he’s not far enough along in his development, Capers will not be opposed to giving Neal a few snaps at outside linebacker as well.
And while Packers fans certainly have their interests piqued at actually seeing Neal at outside linebacker, another aspect to consider is the potential trickle-down effect on the roster. If defensive ends Johnny Jolly and Jerel Worthy show that they cannot make an impact in 2013, perhaps both Josh Boyd and Gilbert Pena are kept on the 53-man roster if Neal is going to be counted on more as a linebacker.
It’s certainly exciting to see how Neal does Week One of the season. But it’s also important to remember that head coach Mike McCarthy never mentioned changing Neal’s position, only expanding his role. So while Neal has displayed some pretty good outside linebacker chops in shorts, he will still most likely remain being counted on as a defensive end.
The returns of Jolly and Worthy will have an effect on Neal’s role as well as the developments of outside linebackers Perry and Nate Palmer. Ultimately, Neal will get snaps where he is needed most. As Greene has already stated about the young defender’s talent, Neal could probably do whatever he wants to.
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