Mike Neal knew that as a second-round draft pick, the Green Bay Packers were counting on him to contribute to their defense from the get-go.
But the gravity of it all hit the rookie defensive end from Purdue a few days before training camp when a rather important member of the team pulled him aside.
“About three or four days before camp, Aaron Rodgers came up to me and told me this could be an opportunity to get significant playing time, so make the most of it,” Neal said. “That meant a lot. Aaron’s a cool guy and when I first got here, he had nothing but welcoming words. But it also let me know that somebody’s counting on me, especially that it was somebody like Aaron, that means a lot.”
A quick check of Neal’s snap count during the first week of camp shows that was no joke. With last year’s starting left defensive end Johnny Jolly serving a one-year suspension for violating the NFL’s substance-abuse policy and oft-injured defensive end Justin Harrell in and out of practice as usual, Neal has gotten more work than even he anticipated.
He spent an entire practice this week working with the No. 1 defense on a day when coach Mike McCarthy gave selected veterans the morning off. But even with the full squad on the field, Neal’s workload has been significant. He has been a mainstay as the No. 2 right end behind starter Cullen Jenkins and also has figured prominently in the nickel package. On Friday, Neal and Harrell got work with the starters as the two down linemen in the nickel when they shared reps with Jenkins and B.J. Raji.
Neal immediately jumped over second-year pro Jarius Wynn, who played in 11 games last year, on the depth chart. Wynn has been working almost exclusively with the third-team defense. He’s also well ahead of the other rookie defensive end the Packers picked, seventh-round pick C.J. Wilson.
“You’ve got to be excited about what Wilson and Neal have shown and the progress they’re making in pads,” McCarthy said. “Historically you see young players or players coming off of injury, it takes them a little longer during the initial days of camp to get their feet underneath them and pad level and things like that. I’m excited about the progress they’ve made. They are starting to play with the tempo that is needed play in and play out.”
The 6-foot-3, 300-pound Neal looks like a near lock to be either the fourth or fifth defensive lineman, meaning he will be active on game days from the start. Given how much the Packers plan to rotate their linemen, he’s bound to get at least a dozen or so snaps a game.
“Just give me two (more) weeks, and I’ll be ready,” Neal said.
He has more than a month before the Sept. 12 opener at Philadelphia.
Another sign of just how high he has climbed on the depth chart came during a special teams period on Friday. He was on the top kickoff return team as one of the middle protectors. Playing on special teams is new to him. He said he didn’t do that at Purdue.
The bigger adjustment, however, has been to Dom Capers’ 3-4 scheme after playing in a 4-3 defense in college.
“It can be very frustrating, but the coaches are doing a great job of coaching me on the fly,” Neal said. “But they’re like, ‘You need to get this, you need to learn and learn it quick and get it to translate on the field.’ I think the biggest thing is I’ve got to learn from mistakes in a hurry.”
Neal has one thing the coaches can’t teach — power. He set all sorts of weight-lifting records at Purdue. His strength has been evident, especially in one-on-one pass rushing drills. He has a more than respectable 8-8 record in the individual drill, although most of his victories have come against undrafted rookie guard Nick McDonald. However, he’s also had reps against veteran tackle Mark Tauscher, fourth-year pro Allen Barbre and second-year guard T.J. Lang, and has used his bull-rush move to at least get some push against them even if he didn’t score all-out victory.
“Strong, real strong,” Tauscher said when asked to describe Neal. “There’s no question he can help us. He’s a talented guy with a lot of athleticism, but his strength is his strength.”
Lang said: “Strong kid. Quick. You can tell just by looking at the kid that he’s strong. You’ve really got to play low against him. He’s going to be a good addition to our D-line.”
As effective as Neal’s power moves have been, he knows he can’t rely on brute strength alone.
“You can only bull rush a guy so many times before he figures out he’s going to bull rush me, and there are ways to counter a bull rush real quick,” Neal said. “Strength is the key, but there are technical things you have to develop, too.”
Some of those developments are starting to show.
“You can tell his No. 1 move is his bull rush, and he likes using his strength,” Lang said. “But I’ve also seen him slant inside and use the club and rip. I think he’s adding more moves learning from guys like Cullen Jenkins. The more experience he gets, the better he’s going to get.”