Friday, February 28, 2014

2014 Packer Free Agents: Mike Neal Really Isn't A Linebacker

Mike Neal is a good story for the Green Bay Packers. After knee injuries kept him off the field for well over a year, and kept him ineffective for halves of two more seasons, he finally came on late in 2012 to provide them with another pass rusher. Last year they made the surprising decision to move an almost 300 lb. lineman to outside linebacker. If Neal wasn't the biggest linebacker in the NFL season, I don't know who was bigger.

Previous 2014 Packer Free Agents: Sam Shields, James Starks and Andrew Quarless, B.J. Raji and Ryan Pickett, Marshall Newhouse, and a bunch of other guys.
There are already some rumors of interest in him, which makes sense because he's coming off his rookie contract and entering what should be the prime of his career. He finished 2013 with 5 sacks, which was fairly impressive considering he was playing through a few injuries late in the season. Because of LB Clay Matthews's hamstring and broken wrist, the lousy play from rookies LB Nate Palmer and Andy Mulumba, Neal, and inconsistency/injuries with LB Nick Perry, Neal was the most reliable outside linebacker they had last season.

The big problem is that he's not really an outside linebacker. Thankfully he didn't drop back into pass coverage all that often, but he wasn't very good at playing in space against the run and he earned a negative run defense grade from Pro Football Focus. When he's out on the edge, he just couldn't react to a running back like any of the other linebackers on the roster. It's not really his fault; it's the reason why there aren't a lot of 280-290 lb. outside linebackers in the NFL.

There had been a rumor that the Packers were going with smaller defensive lineman next season so maybe a move back to the line would help him, but if they really liked him as a defensive lineman then I doubt they would have moved him to outside linebacker in the first place. Though he had 5 sacks in 2013, a large part of his success was that he had a lot of opportunities to rush the passer. He only earned a positive grade as a pass rusher in three games last season, according to Pro Football Focus (Lions and Bears at Lambeau, and Falcons).

At best, he's a complementary pass rusher, he's got a long history as an injury risk, and he doesn't have an obvious position. He's an interesting player who's young, played multiple positions, and been effective at times. I can see why other teams are interested in him. However, I don't see how he makes the Packers' defense any better in 2014, other than to provide depth. I'm not expecting the Packers to promise him a starting role next season, but I think he will get such an offer from another team.

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