The way Mike Nealís career has gone, it would figure that heís having his best training camp.
The Green Bay Packersí oft-injured defensive end, the one they spent a second-round pick on in the 2010 draft, has played in just nine regular-season games in his two NFL seasons. He went more than 13 months ó from early October 2010 to late November 2011 ó without playing in a game because of abdominal, rib, shoulder and knee injuries.
Neal now proclaims himself healthy and ready to play, except that he canít play ó at least not until Week 5 of the regular season because of the four-game suspension he received this offseason for violating the NFLís policy on performance enhancing drugs. He said he took the attention-deficit-disorder perscription drug Adderall without notifying the league.
A few locker stalls away is fellow defensive end Anthony Hargrove, who was suspended for the first eight games of the season for his role in the New Orleans Saints bounty program.
Nearly two weeks into training camp, both look like they could help resurrect the Packersí 32nd-ranked defense of a year ago.
ďThe biggest challenge is to keep their spirits up mentally,Ē defensive line coach Mike Trgovac said recently. ďTheyíre football players. They want to get out there and practice. Thatís the biggest challenge for me, to talk to those guys and let them know that theyíre important parts of the team.
ďThey want to get out there and play, but there are other guys weíve got to get ready because they wonít be here for a while. On the other (hand), you want to keep their skills sharp. Itís a fine line. Quite frankly, itís the first time Iíve ever had to deal with this, so itís a new thing for me as well.Ē
It might be easier for Trgovac and the Packers if Hargrove and Neal were struggling through practices and didnít warrant snaps. But that hasnít been the case.
The 6-foot-3, 294-pound Neal has flashed some of the power that the Packers fell in love with before the 2010 draft. They havenít seen much of it because of all the time he has missed. In his rookie training camp, he strained an abdominal muscle and injured a rib that kept him out the first three weeks of the regular season. He played two games in which he posted five tackles and a sack before he tore up his right shoulder on Oct. 10, 2010 and missed the rest of the season.
Then last summer during a training camp drill on Aug. 16, he planted wrong and twisted his left knee. Surgery knocked him out until the Nov. 20 game against Tampa Bay. He played in seven 2011 games plus the playoff game but was ineffective, making just six tackles combined.
ďI feel good regardless of whatís happened in the past,Ē Neal said. ďI get chills, as you can see, because Iíve never felt like this. Iím in a position where people look at me like, ĎOh, heís not going to do anything,í and I just feel good. Iím moving faster than I ever have. I feel way more explosive than Iíve ever been, and itís beneficial to me.Ē
Meanwhile, Hargrove, the eighth-year veteran who was signed for the league minimum as a free agent, has brought an energy to practice that has become contagious among the defensive players.
Hargove remains hopeful that his eight-game suspension at the very least will be reduced. He said Monday that heís keeping a close eye on former Saints teammate Jonathan Vilmaís efforts to get his year-long suspension shortened. ESPN reported late Sunday that the NFL was in talks with Vilma to reduce the suspension, although the league has denied it.
ďWe had the settlement conference a few weeks ago, and I was hopeful we could work a deal out,Ē Hargrove said. ďBut Iím still suspended for eight weeks.Ē
If the suspension sticks, Hargrove soon will have to start planning for his time away. He said he was unsure what restrictions will be placed on him during the suspension, saying he has received three different letters from NFL commissioner Roger Goodell and ďthings keep changing, so Iím not really sure exactly what Iím going to be allowed to do and not do. Hopefully as things keep going, things will become more clear on what Iím allowed to do.Ē
Most likely, Hargrove will face the same sanctions as Neal, who beginning with Week 1 of the regular season will be prohibited from having contact with any member of the Packersí staff.
ďBecause of that, planning has to be done prior (to the suspensions),Ē said Rob Davis, the Packers director of player development who has offered to help Neal and Hargrove find internships, jobs or a place to work out in order to keep them occupied during their suspensions.
Neal said he already has devised a plan for his time away. He thinks he can stay sharp by following the same routine he has established for the break between the end of the offseason program in June until the start of training camp in late July, which he spends in Tampa.
ďThatís going to be my approach to it, just like Iím going back to get ready for training camp,Ē Neal said. ďMy whole style of attack is going to be the same. Iíll probably lift three times a week and run to keep myself in shape. Iíll write every play down because Iím not allowed to take my playbook, and Iíll study my plays. To keep a clear head, I probably wonít watch any football because I donít want to beat myself up over it.Ē
Hargrove was less certain about his plans but said he probably will return to his home in Port Charlotte, Fla.
The Packers can carry both Hargrove and Neal during their suspensions without having to count them on their 53-man roster, which essentially buys them time to decide whether to keep them on the team. Injuries and depth on the defensive line may dictate that. So could their play the rest of the preseason.
ďIím feeling solid about my camp,Ē Hargrove said. ďItís a different place for me, a different situation. Usually you donít have anything like this hanging over your head, and Iím not faulting anybody for that. But itís just a different place, so I feel like Iíve had to take a different approach to camp. Iíve used some of the things Iíve done the last couple of years ó Iíve coached semi-pro football ó and Iíve taken on, not a coaching role, but just helping guys and paying close attention in practice and just being there for the guys.Ē
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