Packers pleased with Neal's conversion

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Bob McGinn, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
Sunday, September 22, 2013

GREEN BAY—The Green Bay Packers' coaching staff, from Mike McCarthy on down, keeps trying to minimize the successful conversion of Mike Neal from defensive line to outside linebacker.

To me, it's positively stunning that a 300-pound man could drop about 25 pounds in a matter of weeks and then be performing this well just four months after his first practice ever in a two-point stance.

“Oh, without question,” said a personnel man who scouted Neal coming out of Purdue in 2010 but wasn't aware of his conversion.

“That Mike Neal? To think he'd be standing up, I wouldn't have thought that. A D-tackle moving all the way to outside backer? Oh, wow. To me, that's a big, big stretch.”

McCarthy and his coaches now view Neal as a natural linebacker in their fire-zone scheme.

McCarthy, position coach Kevin Greene and teammate Clay Matthews all expressed confidence Neal will register eight to 10 sacks if he can beat the injury bugaboo that wrecked his early years in Green Bay.

After watching every move that Neal has made in the first two games, I wholeheartedly agree. He's a more valuable rusher and player than Nick Perry, and with good health his feel for the position should intensify and only increase his impact.

With Matthews chasing quarterbacks toward him from one side and an improved push collapsing things inside, one can envision the hard-charging Neal getting effort sacks as well as those that he creates.

It's also possible Neal will put up the kind of numbers that might price him right out of Green Bay, where the Packers have too many (15) unrestricted free agents up in March. There's no reason for him to sign early, either, because his market value is so fluid.

Staying healthy is the key not only to Neal's financial future but also the Packers' pass rush.

If he does, Neal could follow in the footsteps of relative unknowns such as Baltimore outside linebacker Paul Kruger, who had seven starts and 15 sacks in four seasons before going to Cleveland for $40.5 million over five years, or Oakland defensive end Desmond Bryant, who signed with the Browns on the same day in mid-March for $34 million over five years. His four-years totals were 18 starts and 11 sacks.

“That's what could wind up happening,” an NFL personnel director said. “He could be like the Bryant guy. All of a sudden he went big on the market. It just takes one buyer.

“I like Neal as an outside backer. He really is a 220-pound man pumped up to 285, 290. Now that he's lost all that weight, you see this degree of athleticism, explosion and movement. He's pretty good. He should be starting there eventually.”

Neal has said he weighed about 305 pounds in February, a month after the season. Changing his diet dramatically (mostly fish) and his workout program significantly (more running), he said he was 275 at the start of training camp.

McCarthy, Greene, defensive line coach Mike Trgovac and three scouts couldn't recall a 295-pound defensive lineman reducing to Neal's weight and succeeding as an outside linebacker.

“This is amazing, actually,” one NFL scouting veteran said. “I didn't think he was athletic enough.”

My reaction when the move became public in May was that it was a last-ditch experiment trying to salvage Neal's career and would be doomed to failure.

At the time, I had no idea Neal would lose that weight, and I also couldn't see him ever dropping smoothly into flat and hook zones, changing direction with ease and rallying to the ball in space.

When the weight came off, Neal still looked lost in two off-season practices. After Neal reported in late July with an abdominal problem and sat out until Aug.12, his chances to make the team in his old inside-rush role, let alone become skilled enough to play outside linebacker, seemed no better than 50-50.

“But we should know our players better than anybody,” McCarthy said. “I never blinked about it when I made the decision in February.”

There was not one iota of linebacker talk when the Packers drafted Neal in the second round to play the run as a base 3-4 end and rush inside as perhaps the next Cullen Jenkins.

Greene said he brought up the possibility of linebacker “a couple years ago” to both coordinator Dom Capers and Trgovac.

“When we first started talking about this I thought it was a very good idea,” said Trgovac. “He really understands football. I know the guy has taken a lot of heat but he's very serious about his profession

“I knew he would have to lose a little weight and would take that very seriously, which he did. He's strong as all hell. I had no qualms, but I wasn't sure how he would do in coverage.”

The decision was made after McCarthy met with Capers in their postseason interview.

“There were certain things I didn't think we needed to be using him anymore,” said McCarthy. “We were trying to create pass rush from within. I thought it was intriguing to create this 'elephant' position.

“Mike's a technical guy so it fits his personality. He was ready for it at this point in his career. I felt it was a natural move for him.”

Described by one scout after last season as “a small man in a big man's game,” Neal had been washed out too often against the run, at least when compared with Ryan Pickett, B.J. Raji and C.J. Wilson.

Then, after the Packers brought back Johnny Jolly as a fourth wide-body and drafted Datone Jones in the first round to boost the interior rush, there was all the more reason to let Neal cram with Greene all the while maintaining a two-point role in the sub rush.

In two games, all 24 of Neal's snaps as a defensive lineman have been exclusively as an inside sub rusher. He's too light now to be a base end, anyway.

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