Mike Neal hasn’t had a great career with the Green Bay Packers, in fact if a grade were given — it would be an incomplete. The powerful defensive end/linebacker was drafted in the second round of the 2010 NFL Draft and was viewed by many as the long-term replacement for Cullen Jenkins.
Ideally, he would be able to play 3-4 end on run downs, then bump inside and pressure the quarterback as a defensive tackle in nickel situations. Yet, Neal’s first two seasons were a complete waste due to injuries. In 2010, he played just enough to flash some potential but his season ended after just two games, three tackles, one sack and one forced fumble.
2011 was an another season that ended on injured reserve after two tackles in seven games.
Then in 2012, after missing the four games of the season due to a suspension, Neal began to turn it around. He played in 11 of 12 possible games and posted solid numbers as an interior pass-rusher with 4.5 sacks and 11 tackles.
After moving to outside linebacker in 2013, Neal had his finest pro season with 39 tackles, five sacks, one interception and most importantly 16 games played.
Now, Neal has put the Packers in a tough position. On the one hand, he did play surprisingly well at outside linebacker this past season and could be a solid starter at the position for years to come — worthy of a solid contract. On the other hand, the Packers have to be weary about giving anyone with Neal’s kind of injury history guaranteed money.
Entering the offseason, the Packers are projected to have around $28 million in cap space but have a number of starting caliber players headed for unrestricted free agency, so they need to be wise with their money.
The question we need to ask ourselves is throwing a decent chunk of guaranteed money Mike Neal’s way in a multi-year contract a smart thing to do?
Two years ago, the answer was an obvious no. Even as recent as last offseason it would have been no. Now, things have changed and Neal has proven he can rush the passer, proven he can stay healthy and proven to be a versatile, athletic defender on a team lacking athletes.
There aren’t many players that are strong enough and athletic enough to rush the passer as an outside linebacker in a 3-4 front, from the defensive end spot in a four-man line and also as an interior lineman. That is an incredible skill set and in today’s world, pass-rushers, who can pressure the quarterback from multiple positions, are extremely valuable.
Moreover, re-signing Neal would virtually eliminate any possible need at outside linebacker. With Clay Matthews, Nick Perry and Neal, the Packers would have one pro-bowler and two other talented pass-rushers with loads of potential. I could even foresee a scenario where Matthews, Perry, Neal and Mike Daniels are on the field at the same time. Neal and Daniels rushing from the inside, Matthews and Perry from the edge.
So my answer would be yes, pay the man, to a point.
Free agent spending gets out of hand and I would not be surprised to see another team throw a bunch of money at Neal, more than they should. If that happens, the Packers should let him walk but if a chance to reach a deal of fair market value arises, they should take advantage.
Last offseason, former Packers starting outside linebacker Erik Walden, earned a four-year $16 million deal from the Colts and with Neal probably having a brighter upside, I would expect it to take even more than to get him signed.
But after watching him finally grow into the player the Packers thought he could be when they used a second-round pick on him, it seems like a reasonable price to pay, especially when the alternative is watching Neal blossom into a star wearing another team’s uniform.