When the Packers selected Justin Harrell with the 16th pick in the 2007 NFL draft fans cringed throughout Packer Nation. At the time Harrell was one of the biggest surprise picks of the draft, being taken over future NFL starters Leon Hall, Michael Griffin, Dwayne Bowe, Jon Beason, Anthony Spencer, Joe Staley and Ben Grubbs. Harrell's NFL career was doomed before it even started, and he went on to play in total of 14 games in four seasons before being cut. This was one of Ted Thompson's lowest points and one of the worst draft picks in Packers' history. Ever since this dreadful pick, Packer fans have been wary of the Packers when they select a defensive lineman. There are constant worries that Thompson is selecting another injury-prone lineman that won't last more than five seasons with the Pack. In 2010 the Packers took another risk when they selected Mike Neal in the second round.
At the time Neal was a highly ranked D-lineman from Purdue who seemed to fit the Packers' 3-4 defense system. Coming into the league, the 6'3", 294 pound D-lineman had the size and athleticism to be a three-down player for the Packers. During his time at Purdue, Neal was noted as a physical freak who had set weight-lifting records at Purdue with a 510-pound bench press and a 615-pound squat.
Neal was brought in to eventually replace the aging Cullen Jenkins, and after rave reviews to begin the season, the skepticism soon disappeared. After missing the first three games in his rookie season Neal came on strong in weeks four and five. In week four against the Detroit Lions, Neal forced a Jahvid Best fumble, and the next week he received extensive playing time against the Washington Redskins and recorded a sack.
The excitement in Green Bay was short-lived however, and the concerns that every Packer fan had begun to re-emerge. Those were the only two games Neal played in 2010 due to a right shoulder injury, and a knee injury in 2011 limited him to a total of seven games and during this time he was extremely unproductive. In 2012 Neal's struggles continued as he was suspended the first four games of the season due to Adderall.
Once again it looked like the Packers picked a bust on the D-line and fans were ready to ship Neal off and accept another failure. To regain the status he received as a second round pick, Neal would have to redeem himself in the last 11 games of the 2012 season.
That is exactly what he did.
In the final 11 games Neal finally started to display all the potential he had. He recorded a total of 4.5 sacks (5.5 career sacks) and received regular playing time. The sack total may not jump out to most, but considering he only has 5.5 career sacks it shows Neal was progressing significantly in 2012 when he was finally able to stay healthy.
This coming season could be a make or break season for Neal, and many could argue that his role on the defense is one of the most important on the team. Before adding Datone Jones in the draft this year, Neal was by far the most athletic lineman for the Pack. His long arms allow him to disengage off blockers, and his combination of strength and speed make him a force against tackles or guards.
Neal is an absolute athletic freak and this is something the Packers have lacked outside of Clay Matthews. Neal is a force when healthy and more experience will only improve his game. The Packers have even experimented with Neal at outside linebacker this off season in order to increase his snaps. No one should expect Neal to transition to a full-time OLB, but the Packers are showing that they want to make Neal a key contributor on defense.
On run downs and pass rushing situations Neal can stand up and allow the Packers to bring in an extra D-lineman or secondary player. Neal even dropped his weight (down to 285) in order to feel more comfortable in his movements, and he can line up at any position on the D-line.
Neal will have to prove that he can stay healthy (only has played in 19 total games out of 48 possible), and he is already off to a rough start by missing a large part of training camp due to an abdominal injury. The Packers expect Neal to be ready for the season opener against the San Francisco 49ers, and Neal will have the chance to display his talents against one of the best offensive lines in the league.
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