In his fourth NFL season, it's time for Mike Neal to put his talent fully on display.
By PAUL IMIG FS Wisconsin
Green Bay Packers beat writer Paul Imig will be analyzing the 25 most important players to the Packers' success in the 2013 season. Check back each day to see the latest player on the list.
Note: This is not a list of the team's 25 best players or a series about past success, but rather which of them means the most to how Green Bay will fare this year. Criteria such as depth at that player's position, general expectations and overall importance of that player having a good season are all highly considered.
NO. 21 -- MIKE NEAL, DEFENSIVE END / OUTSIDE LINEBACKER
AGE / EXPERIENCE
25 (turns 26 on June 26) / Fourth NFL season
WHY HE'S NO. 21
Can Neal actually become an effective outside linebacker? That's what the Packers are hoping to turn the 294-pound Neal into after three relatively disappointing seasons on the defensive line.
Already during minicamp and offseason training activities, Green Bay's coaching staff (especially outside linebackers coach
Kevin Greene) was working extensively in converting Neal to this new position. Spending that much time, effort and energy with one player shows how much the Packers still believe in Neal. He hasn't lived up to being a 2010 second-round pick, but the talent is there for him. Or at least the team hopes it's there.
It's not an easy transition for Neal, who is listed as weighing 40 pounds more than the average outside linebacker on Green Bay's roster. While Neal said during minicamp that the team hasn't asked him to lose weight, it's likely part of his new job description. Greene even commented that he hopes Neal is "a tad lighter" than 280 pounds. If true, that means Neal is nearly 15 pounds lighter already than his official weight from the 2012 season.
Neal is No. 21 because this is really his last chance to impress the Packers and become a player that is asked to stick around for a few more seasons. This is the fourth year of his rookie contract and Green Bay's front office has been quite patient with Neal's slow development and frequent injuries. At outside linebacker, Neal could be a true difference-maker for the Packers' defense, and that's just what defensive coordinator Dom Capers needs to have.
EXPECTATIONS FOR 2013
Neal won't be expected to be a starter on the defensive line or at outside linebacker, but Green Bay's defense needs him to be a factor somewhere. If the experiment works and this is the exact change that Neal's career needed, the Packers' outside-the-box thinking in this situation will be deserving of much credit.
Neal has always been a good pass rusher. That's what he does well. The reason Neal hasn't been the every-down player that Green Bay hoped he would be is because of his struggles in stopping the run. According to data from ProFootballFocus.com, of Neal's 323 snaps last season, 247 of them (76.5 percent) were rushing the quarterback.
Now that Neal will likely be spending a lot of time standing up at the outside linebacker position, the expectation is that he can at least be a designated pass rusher. The larger field of vision that Neal will benefit from -- as opposed to playing with his hand in the dirt looking right at an offensive lineman -- should give him a chance to take advantage of his speed and strength around the outside.
However, the Packers actually added to Neal's overall level of responsibilities. Now, instead of just stopping the run or rushing the quarterback, he'll have to be able to drop back in coverage. That may be his biggest obstacle in this position switch working.
After picking up 4.5 sacks in 2012 in only 11 games, Neal will be expected to produce at least that many in 2013.
Also not to be overlooked with Neal is how important it will be for him to stay healthy. That's the biggest factor that's slowed his career to this point. He played in only two games as a rookie and seven games in 2011, but aside from his four-game suspension in 2012, Neal missed only one game due to injury last season. That's a step in the right direction for him.
WHAT WOULD THEY DO WITHOUT HIM?
Without an effective Neal, the Packers would be more reliant on rookie outside linebacker
Nate Palmer -- whose agent described him as a designated pass rusher -- to have a bigger role in 2013.
Because Neal could be playing a bit of a hybrid position, the depth chart at both outside linebacker and on the defensive line needs to be analyzed. The outside linebacker position is thin, with
Clay Matthews and Nick Perry as the starters and
Dezman Moses as the only surefire backup. Palmer should also get some snaps there. It is this lack of depth that is part of the reason for Green Bay switching Neal to outside linebacker.