Packers Annual Checkup: DL Mike Neal

Today is the 33rd day of FOX Sports Wisconsin Packers writer Paul Imig’s offseason evaluations of every player on Green Bay’s roster. Click here for all of Paul’s previous evaluations and come back every day through mid-March for Paul’s in-depth film and statistical analysis. Coming up soon:

Saturday, March 2: WR Jordy Nelson

Sunday, March 3: OT Marshall Newhouse
Monday, March 4: OLB Nick Perry
Tuesday, March 5: DT Ryan Pickett
Wednesday, March 6: TE Andrew Quarless
Thursday, March 7: NT B.J. Raji

Season stats: 13 games (11 regular season, two postseason); 12 tackles, zero missed tackles, 4.5 sacks, 17 QB hurries, zero forced fumbles, three penalties committed
Best game: Week 15 win at Chicago (1.5 sacks, two tackles; played 19 of 55 defensive snaps; season-best 3.1 PFF rating)
Worst game: Week 8 win over Jacksonville (zero sacks, zero tackles, one QB hurry, one penalty committed; minus-1.7 PFF rating) season rating: 3.4 (No. 8 out of 23 on Packers defense; third-best among Packers defensive linemen)
Expectations at the start of the season: Low
Expectations were … Exceeded
Looking live: Entering Neal’s 2010 rookie season, expectations for the second-round pick were high. Injuries, however, knocked Neal out from all but two games that year as the Packers went on to win the Super Bowl without him on the field. In Neal’s second season, his training camp knee injury required surgery and kept him sidelined until Week 11. Even when Neal did play 170 snaps late in 2011, his body was clearly still in training camp mode while the rest of the team was gearing up for the postseason. That’s why, as Neal approached this past season, expectations for him had been reduced considerably. The Packers knew Neal would be unavailable for the first four regular-season games of the 2012 season due to a violation of the NFL’s policy on performance-enhancing substances. Though Neal claimed that it was just a technicality that got him suspended, it was yet another factor that put him at risk of even being a part of Green Bay’s active roster upon being cleared for action in Week 5. Neal battled more injuries in 2012, including one to his shoulder that landed him on the inactive list in Week 14, but none was serious enough to completely stop him from contributing for the majority of a full season. 
Upon further review: Neal wouldn’t have been a second-round pick three years ago if he weren’t a talented player. His ability to rush the passer is where he can make his mark in the NFL, but Neal’s body simply wasn’t allowing him to get that chance. Neal’s suspension turned his 2012 season into only a 12-game schedule, which was actually beneficial. It still remains to be seen whether Neal can show up to a training camp and stay relatively healthy for a full season. It was an encouraging sign for Neal, though, that he made it through 13 games in 2012. When healthy, Neal was not an every-down defensive lineman. He was rarely on the field in Dom Capers’ base 3-4 defense, instead being used mostly in situations that were likely passing plays. Neal was in on only 75 running plays, compared to 247 passing plays. That’s what Neal is in the NFL, a specialty-type pass rusher. He struggled against the run on those 75 snaps, often being brushed aside by the opposing offensive line. But when he was able to just go directly after the quarterback without worrying about much else, Neal found a role that worked for him and helped the Packers.
Overall 2012 grade: C
Status for 2013: 99 percent chance of being on the Packers’ active roster next season. Green Bay lacks quality depth on its defensive line already. With Jerel Worthy likely to miss significant time in 2013 after undergoing offseason knee surgery, that group will be even thinner in overall talent. Given that, Neal shouldn’t be in much danger of not making the team next season. At this point in his career, his role has been established, but can he stay healthy for 16 games and be the consistent pass rusher on the defensive line that the Packers need him to be? If he is able to accomplish that, it should be considered a success for Neal.

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