GREEN BAY, Wis. — Mike Neal feels like a new man. After serving a four-game suspension for a violation of the NFL’s policy on performance-enhancing substances, the third-year Packers defensive end is back with the team and ready for a fresh start.
“Let’s put it this way: It’s like letting somebody out of jail before they knew he was innocent,” Neal said. “The suspension could have been helped. But it’s just like being freed from jail. It’s like, ‘OK, now it’s time for me to live my life and do what I do.’ I’m going to do that.”
Neal, 25, insisted once again that he “didn’t do anything wrong” to warrant his suspension, claiming on multiple previous occasions that he began taking physician-prescribed Adderall for attention-deficit disorder. However, with the team and league unaware of Neal’s condition when he first began the medication, the NFL took action. Neal appealed his suspension, but it was not overturned.
“When I first got suspended, I was pretty upset, just with the nature of missing my first two seasons practically (with injuries) and then having to serve the suspension,” Neal said. “I kept myself positive and I was able to let it go and I feel good.”
With Neal back practicing with the Packers this week, the team has been granted a one-week roster exemption. Coach Mike McCarthy now has two potential deadlines by which to make a decision on the defensive end’s status. McCarthy, along with general manager Ted Thompson, could opt to activate Neal to the roster by 3 p.m. Saturday. If they choose that route, Neal could play Sunday against the Colts. Otherwise, McCarthy and Thompson have until 3 p.m. Monday to decide if they want to keep Neal on the 53-man roster or release him.
“I thought Mike looked good today,” McCarthy said Thursday. “Obviously, (we’ll) evaluate the tape, just like we said at the beginning of the week. We’ll take the full week to determine what we do with Mike.”
McCarthy was especially impressed with Neal’s conditioning. That was a focal point for Neal while he was away from the team, training for nearly three weeks in Tampa, Fla.
“He looks to be in great shape,” McCarthy said. “He wasn’t winded at all. Fresh legs.”
The decision of whether to keep Neal could come down to a battle between him and fellow defensive end Phillip Merling. It seems highly likely that Neal will continue his career in Green Bay, especially after Merling was a healthy inactive for last weekend’s game against the New Orleans Saints.
“I never feel like I have to prove anything to anybody but myself,” Neal said. “I was able to let a lot of my frustrations go the first two years, and proving to myself that I belong here is one of my biggest things. As long as I can do that, I’m content.”
Neal, a second-round pick by Green Bay in 2010, has played in only nine games so far in his NFL career. A series of injuries in consecutive seasons have kept him from fulfilling the potential Thompson saw in him as a pass rusher coming out of Purdue.
“The best I’ve felt in three years,” Neal said. “I can say that without lying or trying to sugarcoat anything, it’s the best I’ve felt in three years. So I’m going to let that carry out.
“As far as being pressured, frustrated, negative, I let all that stuff go. I’m probably the happiest I’ve been since I’ve been here.”
While Neal was away from the team for the past month, he stayed in communication with several teammates, mostly with linebacker Clay Matthews. Neal didn’t watch much of the Packers’ actual games, as some conflicted with his sleep schedule and another was on a channel he doesn’t receive.
But Neal believes he’ll be able to pick up right where he left off, which was the preseason finale in which he had perhaps his best game ever in a Packers uniform.
“No rust,” Neal said. “I think that one of the biggest things from this offseason was that I was able to pick up where I left off every time I left. I came into OTAs and felt good, came into training camp and did the same thing and got better. I feel like I’m going to do the same thing now.”
That’s why Neal doesn’t want to wait any longer to get on the field for regular-season action. If he’s able to impress McCarthy and defensive coordinator Dom Capers enough this week in practice, he may not have to wait.
“Any competitive person would be like, ‘You know what, I’m going to go play,’ ” Neal said. “So that’s who I am. I’m a competitor. I want to play. But if it’s not my time, it’s not my time.”