Packers Annual Checkup: Mike Neal

Healthy for a full season and learning a new position, Mike Neal found success at outside linebacker and earned a new contract from the Packers.

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FOX Sports Wisconsin’s Paul Imig gives an in-depth statistical analysis and film study of every Packers player in his annual offseason checkup. Check every weekday through mid-April for his latest report.

Mike Neal, outside linebacker / defensive end

Season stats: 17 games (751 snaps; 66.1 percent of total defensive snaps); 48 tackles, five sacks, 37 quarterback hurries, five tackles for loss, one forced fumble, 11 missed tackles, one interception, one pass defensed, 27 stops (solo tackles that resulted in offensive failure); in coverage 53 times, being targeted six times, allowing six receptions for 57 yards, zero touchdowns season rating: minus-12.6 (ranked No. 24 out of 26 on Packers defense)

Best game: Week 5 win vs. Detroit (played 46 of 68 defensive snaps; six tackles, one sack, five QB hurries, zero missed tackles, three stops; 4.6 PFF rating)

Worst game: Week 6 win at Baltimore (played 54 of 70 defensive snaps; zero tackles, three QB hurries, three missed tackles, zero stops; minus-4.2 PFF rating)

Expectations at the start of the season: Medium

Expectations were … Exceeded

Looking live: When Mike Neal arrived at organized training activities (OTAs) in May 2013, he was in for a surprise. After three years exclusively as a defensive lineman, Neal was going to be taught the outside linebacker position, and he embraced the change. "It’s allowed me to learn new things that I wasn’t able to see with my hand in the dirt," Neal said May 28. "It’s allowed me to be able to use my speed and quickness. It’s just allowed me to do a whole lot of things that I couldn’t do before. It’s actually fun." Defensive coordinator Dom Capers explained that the Packers were "looking to expand his role." Capers added, "it gives you more flexibility in terms of being able to rush inside or outside or if you want to drop him out." Neal was ranked No. 21 on FOX Sports Wisconsin’s "Most Important Packers in 2013" pre-training camp series. Unfortunately for Neal, he suffered an abdomen injury while training on his own, forcing him to begin training camp on the Physically Unable to Perform (PUP) list. Neal missed the first nine practices and the first preseason game. But, in only his second full practice, Neal showed early signs that playing outside linebacker could be a perfect fit for him, displaying speed and power in one-on-one pass-rushing drills. He was at it again a day later, with coach Mike McCarthy describing it as Neal’s "best practice of training camp."

Upon further review: The position switch for Neal was absolutely a successful experiment by the Packers. Though he did line up along the defensive line at times, he was far more of an outside linebacker than he was a hybrid-type player (but see below for how that could change in 2014). Neal was really only good at one thing, rushing the passer, but he has such a talent in that area that it makes him valuable to Green Bay’s defense. He was tied for third on the team in sacks, but Neal actually led the Packers with 37 credited quarterback hurries. The biggest issue with Neal through his first three NFL seasons had nothing to do with a lack of talent, but rather that he was injured far too often. While Neal once again had various injuries in 2013 that bothered him, he didn’t let it keep him off the field for any regular-season games. Green Bay managed those injuries by not having Neal practice much at all during the second half of the season. Neal seemed determined to have his first 16-game season, and he accomplished that. However, in the playoff game, Neal was lost after just five snaps with a knee injury. Neal was exposed at times for looking like the inexperienced outside linebacker that he was. When not running straight towards the quarterback, Neal struggled with other elements of the position. He also missed far too many tackles (11), finishing the season with a ratio that showed for every four tackles that he successfully made, he missed one. Players can’t miss 20 percent of the tackles that they attempt.

Overall 2013 grade: B

Status for 2014: One-hundred percent chance of being on the Packers’ active roster to begin the 2014 season. Neal was signed to a two-year contract extension March 12, 2014. Now the questions revolve around what type of role Capers and the defense uses Neal in next season. Green Bay intended to use Neal in a hybrid role in 2013, playing a relatively even mix of outside linebacker and defensive line, but those plans were ended early on by injuries. If the Packers can figure out how to best put Neal in situations that allow him to get after quarterbacks, he could thrive and quickly become one of Green Bay’s most important defensive players. Not that Neal was ever lacking motivation before, but at age 26 and with only signing a two-year extension, he could hit free agency again in 2016 and be a sought-after player if he stays injury-free and produces at the level that he’s capable of.

Next: Wide receiver Jordy Nelson

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