The Green Bay Packers defense presented a vexing problem in 2013, ranking 31st overall in Football Outsiders' opponent-adjusted metrics (28th against the pass and 30th against the run), and this was a primary reason the Pack posted their worst record since 2008. However, one shining light in that injury-plagued, relatively ineffective unit was defender Mike Neal, who has proven over the last few seasons that he can be effective at just about every position along the front seven. The Packers agreed, signing Neal to a new two-year deal on Wednesday, which was announced on Twitter by the man himself.
Hi Green Bay!!! I'll enjoy your winters for two more years!!
— Michael Neal (@mneal96) March 12, 2014
We had Neal ranked as the top inside linebacker in this free agency class, but limiting him to any one position is a bit of a misnomer, because he can play so many roles. Selected by the Packers in the second round of the 2010 draft out of Purdue, Neal took a while to get going as various injuries and a 2012 suspension for violating the NFL's policies on performance-enhancing substances got in the way. But in 2013, he played in all 16 games for the first time in a season, logging 10 starts and amassing five sacks, four quarterback hits and a team-high 37 quarterback hurries.
Neal came out of college as a 294-pound defensive lineman, but he proved his value to the Packers last season by slimming down to 275 pounds and rushing the passer from the edge, often with Clay Matthews as his bookend. He started the 2013 season penciled in as a lineman, but replaced Nick Perry as OLB and started to take off.
"Mike's a great athlete," Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers said last year. "And to me, in this day and age with everything being so specialized, this is a really nice thing to do with Mike. He's more natural at his size right now ... and I think we've kind of discovered this is a pretty good role for him to be in."
Neal got a look from the Arizona Cardinals during his free-agency period, but seemed to know that Green Bay was the place for him.
"Like I told a couple people around personnel, I've been in the Midwest my whole life," Neal recently said. "Grew up in Merrillville, Ind., went to Purdue, got drafted here. I don't like to leave it. It's what I'm used to and what I'm comfortable with. If they'll have me back then I'll be glad to be back." Grade: A. Neal has an injury history that bears watching, but assuming that the money is relatively low, this was a very smart re-signing for a team in need of definition on defense. And with the NFL's increasing need for multiplicity on defense, I'm a bit surprised more teams weren't looking to add Neal to their rosters.