Neal Plans To Reward Packers For Their Patience
by Mike Conklin
October 6, 2012
It doesn't seem that long ago that Ted Thompson and the Packers were excited about the "juice" a young defensive lineman could bring the Packers.
"We think he fits very well into our system," Thompson said the day he was drafted. "We feel like he'll be a good asset for us in our sub packages, rushing the passer from the inside."
Nearly the same exact words were spoken about Jerel Worthy and Mike Daniels last April, but in this case Thompson was actually talking about Mike Neal in 2010.
The Packers were very high on Neal coming out of Purdue, and for a while early in his rookie season it looked like they may have struck gold with their second round pick. Ten days into training camp, Dom Capers was asked by reporters which players had stood out in the first few practices. After watching Mike Neal repeatedly displace offensive linemen into the backfield, he was the first player Capers mentioned.
“When (Neal) gets his hands on (opposing linemen), you can tell,” Capers said. “He had a couple plays, the short-yardage and goal line plays the other night in the scrimmage where you’re trying to knock them back, so he created a new line of scrimmage for us. Those are the kind of guys you need in those situations, where now the linebackers have got good angles to work off of."
There was a lot of buzz around Neal as he emerged as a player to watch throughout training camp, and he impressed his teammates as well. Bryan Bulaga was a fellow member of the same rookie class and often faced Neal during one-on-one blocking drills. Bulaga learned quickly that Neal's strength made him a tough adversary.
“He’s a strong guy,” said Bulaga after practice one day. "Very strong guy, good player. You don’t want to get off-guard with a bull rush on him or you’ll be on your back.”
As one of the emerging leaders of the defense back in Neal's rookie year, B.J. Raji agreed.
“I think he has a bright future in this defense,” Raji said. “The way it’s designed, he’s able to use his quickness. The guy has tremendous power and strength."
Not to be outdone, the man Neal was targeted to replace probably gave him the biggest praise of all. Cullen Jenkins was impressed by how quickly Neal emerged during that first training camp.
"He's strong as heck, real explosive," Jenkins said of Neal, who had timed 4.89 seconds in the 40-yard dash at the scouting combine. "He's one of the best D-linemen that I've seen come in as a rookie, ready to contribute right away. It's pretty impressive some of the things he can do — and he's still raw and he's still getting used to this stuff, so he's only going to get better."
It looked like the sky was the limit for Neal back then, but then he hit the first speed bump. He suffered some rib cartilage damage during practice the week before the season opener, and wasn't able to join the team on the field for the first month. Little did the Packers know at that time that injuries would become a recurring theme for Neal.
He finally made it on to the field to debut against the Lions in Week 4, and made a strong first impression in limited action. On one play, he was able to shoot a gap and met running back Jahvid Best just after he got the handoff, and he was able to force a fumble. He played even better the following week against the Redskins.
In that game, Ryan Pickett injured his ankle on the team's first defensive series. As a result, Neal had to step up and play a significant role, logging more than 50 snaps. Even though he was learning on the fly, he made a difference on the field. He notched five tackles, his first career sack, a quarterback hit and a pressure. He also held up well against the run; in a combined effort, Neal and his teammates were able to hold Redskins running back Ryan Torain to 2.5 yards per carry. After that game, Washington head coach Mike Shanahan had high praise for the Packers' defensive front.
"The defensive line we played against is probably the best in the NFL. If they’re not, I don’t want to play the team that has better personnel than they do."
That was high praise for a unit that prominently featured a rookie in only his second NFL game. With Ryan Pickett out and Cullen Jenkins limited because he had a club on his broken hand, Neal was thrown into the fire, played heavy minutes, and rose to the challenge. In his weekly in-depth review after film study, the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel's Bob McGinn gave the defensive line a 4 1/2 out of 5 rating. McGinn is a notoriously tough grader.
More importantly, the coaches were high on Neal after studying the film too. Dom Capers chimed in the day after that game.
“I think Mike brings a lot to the table,” Capers said. “You saw the one sack that he had where he just overpowered the guy, and he can do that. Really, that’s the perfect type of lineman for us, because it gives you the flexibility on third down.
“Mike certainly gives you a strong guy that has good movement in there, and I think you’re going to see him continue to get better. I’m encouraged. He’s got to stay healthy and stay on the field, practicing.”
And that's when the wheels went off the tracks for Neal's fledgling career.
Although nothing had yet been announced to the media at that point, Capers may have had an idea that Neal came out worse for the wear from that Redskins game. At some point in the second half, he had injured his shoulder. Neal tried to practice with a shoulder harness in the days following that game, but it soon became clear that the injury was more serious than it first appeared. Within two weeks, Neal was placed on injured reserve and had season ending surgery for a torn rotator cuff and labrum. It all seemed to happen so fast that it caught the team, fans, and especially Neal off guard.
"I played the whole fourth quarter like that," Neal said shortly after his surgery. "Of course, it hurt. But in the middle of a game, you don't realize the extent of an injury. You just keep playing. It's kind of crazy."
Defensive line coach Mike Trgovac had been excited about Neal's development, and was clearly disappointed that his latest project's season was cut short. He wasn't even able to manage much of a quote.
"That's a shame," said Trgovac. "He's going to be a really good player."
Clearly, the Packers front office agreed with Trgovac's assessment. The following offseason they allowed Cullen Jenkins to leave in free agency, thinking that Mike Neal would help fill the void. Unfortunately, the wheels came off the tracks again for Neal.
Even though his shoulder wasn't fully healed by the time training camp started in 2011, Neal was fully expecting to play through the pain and was off to a decent start in training camp. Out of the blue he went down in a heap during a non-contact drill in practice on August 16, in what teammates described as a "freakish" injury to his left knee. After unsuccessfully trying to rehab the knee, Neal eventually had to have surgery about a month later to try to repair the damage. As a result he didn't see the field again until late November, at which point he was only a shadow of the player the Packers saw before the injury. Some people around the organization feel that there may have been non-football related reasons that he even suited up at all last year, considering the extent of his injury.
"Personally, I think he played because he didn't want to be labeled as the guy who played in two games in two years," opined ESPN Milwaukee's Jason Wilde on his daily radio show. "He probably should have been IR'd last year, and they didn't. And I think part of it was perception.
"I think that they wanted him to at least get the experience even though they knew that he wasn't 100 percent, and get him that playing time and get him that feeling of, 'All right, I've played now...I wasn't at my best, but I played.' I just wonder if that's not part of it."
Whether or not Neal and the Packers were trying to avoid the inevitable comparisons to former first round bust Justin Harrell will never be known, Neal admitted later that he was dealing with continuous pain and playing at about 75%-80% of full strength. Staying true to their usual form, the Packers were not particularly forthcoming about the extent of Neal's injuries. In fact, throughout the course of Neal's career there have been a few instances where his injury situation was shrouded in mystery. As a result, many observers are unsure what to think about the once-promising player.
When Neal injured his shoulder against the Redskins in 2010, it was not announced until days after the game. His injury seemed downplayed throughout the week and he even participated in practice, although the team did not reveal until later that he wore a harness. Then without playing another down, he ended up being shut down for the rest of the season. Fans were left wondering what happened.
A strange series of events surrounded his knee injury during the following training camp as well. The injury looked serious at first and there was immediate concern that it was season-ending. Within a couple days, however, the Packers revealed that the injury was not as bad as it was once feared and Neal's injury status was even listed as "day-to-day". With little explanation, the days dragged on into weeks. A month after the initial injury, the team announced after the fact that Neal had undergone surgery and would miss "significant" time. The injury originally labeled as "day-to-day" then turned into three months.
After Neal finally returned to the field in Week 11, he was mostly a non-factor. He only managed three tackles, no sacks, and two quarterback hits for the final seven games of the season. By that time, many observers were left wondering if he was a lost cause.
As last season wound down, Neal understood his situation. He knew the team would likely give him another shot, but that the jury was out on whether they could depend on him to produce.
"I'm a high draft pick and they invested a lot of money in me, so I think they're gonna ride it out and see what I can do," Neal said last December. "If I was a sixth- or seventh-round draft pick, then I'd be sweating bullets because I know they wouldn't waste their time.
"It's a business. They'll be drafting somebody to come in and try to play in front of me next year."
His prediction proved to be correct. The Packers spent second- and fourth-round picks on defensive linemen Jerel Worthy and Mike Daniels, and questions arose about whether or not Neal would even make the team. Ultimately, if Neal is healthy and productive he offers a different skill set than either of the rookies. If he showed the promise that he flashed in those two games in 2010, the Packers would find a role for him.
But before he even had a chance to suit up and show the team that they shouldn't count him out yet, the league ruled that he would be suspended for four games for a charge that he felt was unfair. Some felt at the time that his career may be in jeopardy. With a strong training camp despite the fact that his reps were limited due to the pending suspension, Neal put those thoughts to rest. Now four weeks later, with the suspension now lifted and Neal having been added to the roster, he is planning to hit the ground running and reward the Packers for their patience.
“Let’s put it this way, it’s like letting somebody out of jail before they knew he was innocent," Neal said. "You can’t help injury. It’s part of the game you have to deal with. 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."
If the Packers can get anything at all out of Neal this season, in many ways it would be like an unexpected gift. When they face top quarterbacks such as Drew Brees last week, the Packers will need to be able to generate pressure without blitzing if they want to be successful. Against the Saints, Clay Matthews was able to generate one sack and three hurries, but the rest of the team combined only pitched in one sack and two hurries. If Neal is able to add anything to the pass rush, it would certainly be welcome. For his part, he thinks he's ready.
"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."
Photo Credit: Packers.com