Thursday, May 23, 2013
Packers: Finding ways to use Mike Neal
By Kevin Seifert
All we know for sure is that on May 21 -- more than two months before training camp and 109 days before the start of the regular season -- Mike Neal was working as an outside linebacker during a Green Bay Packers organized team activity (OTA).
Does that mean Neal has a new position? Or is this simply a spring experiment? I doubt even the Packers have an answer to that question yet.
Neal has been a defensive end for the past three years, and despite his well-chronicled athleticism, his listed weight of 294 pounds would be rare even in a 3-4 scheme. Based on his comments to local reporters Tuesday, Neal hasn't been asked to slim down or prepare in any other way for a new position.
Coach Mike McCarthy didn't provide specifics but seemed to confirm the Packers want to use Neal in different ways this season, referencing the way some teams ask defensive linemen to drop into coverage during zone blitzes.
Asked about having a 294-pound linebacker, McCarthy said: "It depends on how you use big guys in space. [You can have] a defensive end dropping in the fire zone, too. Schematically, we're going to do some different things. I want to expand Mike Neal's role. The specifics of that, I'm sure you can wait until Week 1 of the regular season to get into that."
Neal had his most productive season last year, finishing with 4.5 sacks, mostly because he was healthy enough to play in 11 games. But his path to a full-time role in 2013 is probably blocked, even with 2012 second-round pick Jerel Worthy recovering from an ACL tear. The Packers made defensive end Datone Jones their No. 1 draft pick last month, veteran Ryan Pickett is returning and the team plans to give Johnny Jolly a chance to resume his career after a three-year suspension.
Meanwhile, at least from the outside, the Packers seem set at outside linebacker with Clay Matthews, Nick Perry and Dezman Moses on the roster. Veteran Brad Jones has also played outside.
So what does this mean for Neal? The guess is the Packers want to use him in some of the hybrid roles that defensive coordinator Dom Capers is known for creating. The Minnesota Vikings attempted a similar experiment last season with defensive end Everson Griffen, who worked as a linebacker during part of training camp en route to a role that occasionally saw him working as a stand-up pass-rusher/linebacker.
In the end, this is the time of year to find out if a talented player can contribute in non-traditional ways, especially if the roster could be set up for others to fill the traditional roles. Mike Neal is athletic enough to do it. We'll see if he and the Packers can make it work.