Healthy Neal expects big season 'off the edge'
Mike Neal pushed through the pain. For two straight seasons, playing with a bilateral sports hernia, the Green Bay Packers outside linebacker never missed a game.
But, Neal said, he never felt healthy.
Exhaustive treatment failed to prevent his hernia from being a problem. The pain lingered, affecting him during the season. Finally, he had enough.
Neal said he had surgery this offseason, one he expects to finally heal an injury that's been difficult to shake.
"Hopefully," Neal said, "put the nail in the coffin, man. It's annoying. This isn't the first time I've dealt with it. This isn't the first time I've had it fixed.
"It was something I was able to push through. I was able to play. Coming back into camp the last three years, I've dealt with the same thing."
Neal practiced Monday for the first time since training camp opened last month. He was limited, but for an outside linebacker position thinned with injuries, his return was a positive sign.
It was the third straight year Neal's preseason started with a stint on the physically unable to perform list, allowing him more time to rest — and heal — his body. Neal would've preferred to practice from the start of camp, he said. He felt healthy, but the Packers' medical staff was determined to be cautious.
No, Neal said, he doesn't expect the lost reps to be detrimental. He gave no indication of how much he'll play Thursday when the Packers open their preseason at the New England Patriots — "that's above my pay grade," he said — but made it clear he'll be ready for the regular season.
"I mean, how many times do we write the story about Mike Neal every offseason?" Neal said. "I made it the last two years 16 games, and I think that I played well. So I don't think it'll be any different this year.
"Preseason football means nothing. I'm not going to make any money, or our team is not going to get any better. Any situation you have is not going to make any difference. I just need to be ready for Week 1."
Finally healthy, Neal could boost arguably the deepest position on the defense. While the hernia didn't limit his snaps the past two years — he had 746 in 2013, 654 in 2014 — it did provide a significant obstacle as he transitioned to a new position.
Initially, Neal said, he didn't expect to play full-time outside linebacker. The former second-round pick arrived in the NFL five years ago as a 300-pound defensive tackle. He was a three-technique at Purdue, mixing it up in the trenches.
That changed in 2013 when coaches told him they'd "sprinkle" him in at outside linebacker. As the season went on, injuries decimated the position. Neal played so well with increased snaps on the edge, the Packers moved him there full time before the 2014 season.
"They were like, 'You looked good at that. How would you feel about playing there on a more consistent basis?' " Neal said. "I felt confident, and that's when the progress started, my second year getting back to the position. I was like, 'I don't want to be 285, 275 (pounds) and play outside linebacker.' So the transition pretty much started there."
Neal said he's 258 pounds now, six heavier than last season's playing weight. He said shedding pounds came naturally. Still, his workouts were exhaustive. At times, Neal said, he'd lose 20 pounds in a two-week period.
The constant running led to his hernia.
"It's never easy," Neal said. "You ask guys to lose that much weight, and you run, and you run, and you run. It's a whole different position. It's a whole lot on your body. They know that, and they've been able to work with me really good. I haven't missed a game because of it."
Neal has played well in his new role. His 91/2 sacks the past two seasons rank third on the Packers' defense, behind linebacker Clay Matthews and defensive end Mike Daniels. It was Neal's third-down sack that clinched the Packers' home win against the Patriots last season, arguably their most impressive victory.
With constant production, not everyone inside the locker room knew Neal was injured. Fellow outside linebacker Jayrone Elliott — a rookie last season — said he had no idea.
"He seemed like he was handling everything well," Elliott said. "He came every day, went to work and still helped the young guys out like Clay and (Julius Peppers) does. Nick (Perry) was handling a lot too as far as injuries.
"They do a good job of hiding it, whatever they're going through. I look up to them for that."
Now that the transformation is complete — and the injury is in his past — Neal said he expects the offseason work to be worth it.
There are more demands placed on an outside linebacker. No longer in the trenches, Neal is doing more than absorbing blockers. He said his leaner body helps in pass coverage, but that's not where he excels.
Neal expects to be more explosive rushing the passer, strengthening what he does best. With Matthews playing inside linebacker this season, the Packers could use all the edge rush they can get.
"I want to be able to pick up speed coming off the edge," Neal said, "and being lighter just allows you to be able to move a little bit better. So I just wanted to be able to move around a little better. By losing the weight, it's definitely helped.
"The biggest thing for them is to see 16 games, to be able to do that for a third season in a row. This is the best I've felt dealing with any issue that I've had. I'm just hoping to stack that up."
— firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @ByRyanWood.