The Green Bay Packers don’t normally participate in the first couple of days during the NFL Free Agony Frenzy, but when they do, it’s to re-sign their own players.
Yesterday, the Packers did just that re-signing versatile defensive end/outside linebacker to a new two-year contract. At this time, the terms of deal have not been disclosed but regardless, this was a huge re-signing for the Packers and their pass rush.
The former University of Purdue product, who the Packers selected in the second round of the 2010 NFL Draft, finally came into his own over the past two seasons after doing next to nothing his first two years, expect hanging out in the training room because he was always injured.
Yet, something changed after he re-joined the team in 2012 after a four-game suspension for violating the NFL Substance Abuse policy. During that season, Neal played mostly in nickel situations as an interior pass rusher and he reminded the Packers why they drafted him so high after producing 4.5 sacks.
Neal, who was moved to outside linebacker out of necessity in 2013, had by far his best season, playing in 16 games for the first time, starting 10. He also posted career-highs in tackles with 39 and sacks with five.
It would have been a shame to see Neal leave, particularly after he finally started paying dividends for the Packers, so it was a shrewd move to re-sign him.
Furthermore, head coach Mike McCarthy has been talking all offseason about how he wants the defense to be more multiple in 2014 and few players can help him achieve that more than Neal.
If Neal keeps playing the majority of his snaps at outside linebacker, then the Packers will have a deep group there as he would be joined by the venerable Clay Matthews and Nick Perry, giving the Packers three versatile, talented pass rushers on the outside.
However, McCarthy recently stated that he still believes Neal is at his best when rushing the passer from the inside, ‘”I think Mike on third and 5-plus playing the three-technique (DT) is the best thing he does,” McCarthy told the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel. “He’s not built for space. Maybe another year of training we could improve some of that. However, he didn’t have whole lot of training.
Neal can make an impact on the outside pass rush but it sounds like McCarthy also wants him to get back to rushing from the inside as well and putting him next to Mike Daniels, who registered 6.5 sacks as an interior rusher last season, could create a dangerous combo opposing teams will have to reckon with.
In addition, Neal could see time at the new elephant position McCarthy has talked about his offseason. Essentially, the elephant is a player that lines up outside the tackle as a defensive end or outside linebacker.
Neal, Perry and Datone Jones could see time in this role, bringing even more versatility to the Packers defensive front.
General manager Ted Thompson, who is normally very conservative this time of year, should be commended for keeping Neal, who is primed for a breakout season and brings the pass rush presence and versatility, McCarthy wants on his defense.