Will defensive end Mike Neal be asked to go from having his hand in the dirt to playing an outside linebackers’ position? Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports photograph
Sometimes the NFL’s off-season does crazy things to analysts and fans alike and in the Green Bay Packers’ case this year, it seems to be the hybrid role that’s being carved out for Green Bay defensive end Mike Neal.
In the 2013 organized team activities (OTAs), Neal was seen playing a few snaps at outside linebacker, which is a bit of a departure from his normal defensive end role.
The 6-3, 294-pound fourth-year pass-rusher from Purdue certainly wouldn’t be the first player to make the transition from defensive end to outside linebacker in a 3-4 scheme either.
2006 #1 overall draft pick Mario Williams experienced mixed results when he made the shift on the Houston Texans in 2011. But Adalius Thomas was named to the Pro Bowl for his pass-rushing exploits at linebacker after he was drafted as a defensive end by the Baltimore Ravens.
It’s certainly fun to speculate what these valuable OTA snaps at linebacker mean for Neal. After all, he is among the fastest and quickest linemen the Packers have. Outside linebackers coach Kevin Greene has already gone on the record raving about Neal’s athleticism, too – athleticism that linebackers require to run with pass-catching, move tight ends.
Mike Neal gestures to the crowd for sacking Chicago Bears quarterback Jay Cutler (not pictured) during the second half at Soldier Field. The Packers beat the Bears 21-13. Grabowski-USA TODAY Sports photograph
Certainly a position change would be designed to take advantage of Neal’s ability to get to the quarterback. According to Pro Football Focus, Neal rushed the quarterback on nearly 77 percent of his game snaps in 2012, finishing with 4.5 sacks. And any pass-rushing help that Green Bay can find to keep double teams off of perennial Pro Bowler Clay Matthews would obviously be welcomed.
But Neal’s new reps at outside linebacker should not be construed as a response to the Packers utilizing their first round pick on defensive end Datone Jones. Nor should it be a seen as an attempt to light a fire under last year’s first round outside linebacker Nick Perry, who had an underwhelming six-game rookie campaign that ended with a trip to injured reserve (wrist).
In this ever-changing NFL, versatility is king. The New England Patriots have built a dynasty under that belief. Packers’ head coach Mike McCarthy and defensive coordinator Dom Capers have told the media that this experiment is not to give Neal a new position, but rather to increase his value to Green Bay’s defense.
The Packers still list Neal as a defensive end on their website. And Neal has already said that he has not been asked by anyone on the coaching staff to shed pounds off of his massive frame to fit a more conventional outside linebacker’s body type.
Jones and Perry are already penciled in as starters in their respective positions this year. And it’s pretty unreasonable to expect that an oft-injured veteran in Neal will supplant either player for Week One of the season.
New York Giants quarterback Eli Manning (10) scrambles from Green Bay Packers outside linebacker Brad Jones (59) and defensive end Mike Neal (96). Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports photograph
That said, it will also be fairly surprising if Neal isn’t asked to take snaps off the bench to keep both players fresh as they transition to their first full seasons in the NFL.
Neal’s position certainly won’t be changing anytime soon. But it’s clear that his role and expectations from the coaches have already increased significantly from where they were just one year ago.