By: Matt Bove
When Mike Neal was suspended for the first four games of the 2012 regular season for violating the NFL's substance abuse policy it looked he was going to end up being a bust.
The 6-foot-3, 294 pound defensive lineman was selected by the Packers in the second round of the 2010 NFL Draft. Neal was considered a reach at the time by most NFL Draft analysts. He was viewed as having great potential, but he never really lived up to it at Purdue, mostly due to injuries.
Neal only played in two games as a rookie before injuring his shoulder vs. Washington and having to have season-ending shoulder surgery. Neal had a sack in that game and Washington head coach Mike Shannhan raved about him after the game, so it was a very disappointing injury as he seemed to be progressing.
The Packers had so much confidence in Neal heading into the 2011 season that they let Cullen Jenkins go to the Philadelphia Eagles in free agency. Jenkins was a key member of the 2010 Super Bowl team and the Packers were counting on Neal to replace his inside pass rush. That decision backfired, as Neal had to have knee surgery after injuring his knee in a non-contact drill in training camp.
Neal returned Week 11 vs. Tampa Bay, but was never 100% the rest of the season and made only a minimal impact. The Packers were never able to replace Jenkins' pass rush last season and that was the downfall of their whole season.
With Neal's injury history the Packers certainly could not trust him again heading into this season. The Packers drafted Jerel Worthy in the second round and Mike Daniels in the fourth round in last April NFL Draft to bolster the defensive line. They also brought in free agents Daniel Muir, Anthony Hargrove and Phillip Merling to add competition as well.
Once Neal got suspended it was very easy to see him getting lost in the shuffle with all of these new players. He would have to stay healthy in training camp and produce or risk being cut. Neal told Zach Heilprin of ESPN Milwaukee.com that he didn't even think he was going to stick around.
"After I got suspended, and I saw the way that the draft went and all the guys that they brought in, I knew my chances of making the team were probably slim, Neal said. "That's just how I looked at it from my perspective. They may not have thought that, but that's pretty much how I looked at it."
Neal earned his roster spot in camp and once he returned from his suspension in Week 5 at Indianapolis he has not looked back. He earned his first sack in about two years in his first game back and has been a solid pass rusher for the Packers ever since.
Neal has not missed a game due to injury this year, which is a huge accomplishment for him. Not only has he been on the field, but he has been producing as well. According to Pro Football Focus, Neal has 18 pressures in 178 pass rushing snaps this year, which is the fourth best rate among all 3-4 DE's in the NFL. Also, Neal is second on the team with 4.5 sacks in 10 games this season.
Neal was used almost entirely as a pass-rushing specialist in sub-packages until two weeks ago. Injuries to C.J. Wilson and Worthy have forced Neal to take on a larger role in the base defense. Neal has turned into an even bigger force with Clay Matthews back in the lineup. According to Pro Football Focus, Neal has three sacks and three quarterback hurries in the last three games with Matthews back. Having Neal and Matthews pass rushing and running stunts together has become deadly in the past two weeks, much like it was with Matthews and Jenkins.
Neal is one of the most athletically gifted players on the team, especially for his size. His upper-body strength is absolutely amazing and when you combine that with his athleticism you get a pass rushing force. This is what Ted Thompson saw when he selected him in the second round in 2010. Neal has completely turned his career around this year and he is a prime example of why you should never give up on a player to early.