Green Bay Packers beat writer Paul Imig will be analyzing the 25 most important players to the Packers’ success in the 2014 season. Check back each weekday to see the latest player on the list. You can find every report here.
NOTE: This is not a list of the team’s 25 best players, but rather it’s a list of which players mean 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. 18 – MIKE NEAL, OUTSIDE LINEBACKER / DEFENSIVE END
AGE / EXPERIENCE
26 / Fifth NFL season
WHY HE’S NO. 18
Mike Neal still has the potential to be a very good football player, and it remains easy to see what made general manager Ted Thompson and the Green Bay Packers decide to draft him in the second round back in 2010. Neal’s skill set is that of a true difference-maker on defense. Injuries, however, took him off the field for the vast majority of his first two NFL seasons. It was fair to wonder going into the 2012 season if Neal was just a workout warrior who couldn’t stay healthy and who couldn’t translate his athleticism into being a productive NFL player. But while Neal hasn’t taken the league by storm in the past two years, he’s stayed mostly healthy (appearing in 27 of a possible 32 regular-season games) and started to provide a spark at times for the Packers’ defense.
Neal had a productive 2012 season on the defensive line, recording 4.5 sacks and receiving a positive grade from ProFootballFocus. When Neal reported to the team the following offseason, however, defensive coordinator Dom Capers and his staff had big plans for him. Green Bay envisioned Neal as a hybrid player, one who would split his time between outside linebacker and defensive lineman. Given that outside linebacker was the new position to Neal, he spent most of his time working with then-coach Kevin Greene and that group.
Neal’s new role became much less hybrid and more permanent outside linebacker. That only happened because of injuries on defense, though. While ProFootballFocus wasn’t as kind to Neal in 2013, he had a career-high 5.0 sacks, intercepted his first NFL pass and recorded the second forced fumble in his four years with the Packers.
Neal is No. 18 on this list because the difference between the good version of Neal and the injured version of Neal is significant for Green Bay’s defense. If the Packers can team Neal with Clay Matthews and Julius Peppers, the three of them could wreak havoc on opposing quarterbacks. But if Neal suffers another injury or is ineffective, it would be a setback for Green Bay that would be a bit difficult for the team to overcome.
EXPECTATIONS FOR 2014
The Packers re-signed Neal this offseason to a two-year, $8 million deal with $2.5 million guaranteed. That type of money to an oft-injured player shows just how much Green Bay believes Neal can still accomplish. Neal might just now be hitting his stride, and the Packers clearly didn’t want to watch him as he played the best football of his career in another uniform.
That renewed commitment from the organization to Neal does bring with it increased expectations of him. Two years ago, most people would have been happy if Neal was just able to appear in 10 games and make a few plays. That won’t be good enough anymore, though.
Neal has had a full season at outside linebacker now, so he should be much more comfortable there. Then, if Capers can get him into advantageous situations as a defensive lineman, Neal could really help Green Bay’s defense get back to a point with which head coach Mike McCarthy would be satisfied.
Outside linebacker is a position with above-average depth on the Packers roster. Of course, Matthews is on one side, and if he’s healthy, he’s an elite NFL player. Peppers was added to the equation this offseason and will join Neal as a part-time outside linebacker, part-time defensive lineman.
Beyond those three, the Packers still have 2012 first-round pick Nick Perry. McCarthy always looks for players to take a big step forward in Year 2, and Perry didn’t accomplish that. That makes Year 3 vital for Perry, but for Green Bay to count on him performing like a top player right now would seem like a mistake. Rookie Carl Bradford will look to make his mark at outside linebacker, as will second-year players Andy Mulumba and Nate Palmer.
On the defensive line, there are a lot of good options if Neal isn’t performing well in that portion of his job description. Mike Daniels, after a breakout 2013 season, is obviously going to be a major factor for the Packers’ defensive line. Datone Jones will look to put his quiet rookie season behind him and perform like the first-round pick that he was. Josh Boyd finished his rookie season on a high note last year, and Green Bay is still hoping that Jerel Worthy can make his presence felt. Peppers will be part of this rotation, too, as will rookie third-round pick Khyri Thornton. It will be B.J. Raji and Letroy Guion manning the interior at nose tackle.