The coaches can say whatever they want, but it’s pretty obvious that Mike Neal is taking snaps at outside linebacker because he didn’t get the job done at defensive end last season. Despite being built like The Incredible Hulk, the former Purdue star got pushed around more often than a middle school kid wearing sweater vest and a pocket protector. Moving Neal away from the line of scrimmage is a last-ditch attempt to find a position for a player, who in all reality, probably doesn’t have a position in this defense.
Now down to 275 pounds, Neal at least looks like a prototypical outside linebacker. Unfortunately, he doesn’t have the physical skills to play that position either. He has tight hips and lower-body stiffness, and his 40 time (4.87) is pedestrian. The thought of using him in coverage is laughable, and while he should be able to set the edge in the run game, forget about him changing directions or getting to the perimeter.
Perhaps Dom Capers will use Neal as an “elephant” – the position Tony Bennett, Tim Harris and Bryce Paup helped make popular decades ago. Essentially, it’s a 3-4 outside linebacker who rushes the QB about 75 percent of the time. The elephant lines up on the open side, away from the tight end. I could see Neal being used in that role for 10 to 12 snaps a game, but I’m not sure if that’s the spot for him either.
Whether the coaching staff wants to admit it or not, Neal really isn’t an end or a linebacker. He’s an interior pass rusher. And he won’t be anything more than that until he leaves Green Bay and joins a team that employs a 4-3. Until then, the Packers need to keep him healthy and hope he can contribute alongside Datone Jones, B.J. Raji and Mike Daniels in the nickel and dime packages. That might not sound like enough of a payoff from a player picked 56th overall, but that’s probably all they’re going to get.