Nothing was wiping that smile off Rajion Neal’s face. Never mind the scoreboard. His teammates were gone, most of them exiting quietly after an injury-plagued night at Lambeau Field, but the final player inside the Green Bay Packers’ locker room still was holding court.
This was the kind of game Neal had dreamed about since being undrafted two years ago. A night he’ll always remember, Neal told reporters huddled at his locker. Life on the NFL’s roster bubble is never easy. The stress can be overwhelming.
Neal took several steps — at least 36 yards’ worth — toward erasing any uncertainty with the crowning moment of his stellar second training camp with the Packers.
“I don’t know,” Neal said when asked about his odds of making the Packers’ roster, “but I ain’t feeling too bad about it. I’m happy, man. I’m thankful.”
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Gratitude hasn’t been a natural reaction during Neal’s past 18 months. Despite rushing for 1,124 yards and 12 touchdowns as a senior at Tennessee, Neal wasn’t selected in the 2014 draft. He signed with the Packers and started well in training camp last year before tearing his MCL in the preseason opener.
Neal believes that injury cost him a job. Instead of being the Packers’ third tailback, he spent half the season on their practice squad.
So, yes, Neal was pleased with his five catches for 61 yards and four carries for 23 yards against the Philadelphia Eagles. His performance makes him the apparent front-runner to be the Packers’ third tailback this season.
He’s more thankful to make it through August uninjured.
“I’m blessed to be in my third preseason game,” Neal said, “versus last year only being in one. I think as long as I keep putting together good stuff — and those guys up there keep taking care of me — we might be in business.”
He had his “good stuff” working Saturday night.
Neal caught three passes for 58 yards in the Packers’ final drive before halftime, showing the versatility he believes separates him from competitors Alonzo Harris and John Crockett. He weaved through blocks and dodged tackles on a 36-yard touchdown off a screen pass.
Neal knew he had a shot at the end zone as soon as he turned up field. Receiver Ty Montgomery held his block on the perimeter long enough for Neal to get past. Guard Garth Gerhart took care of the final tackler, peeling inside to plant an Eagles defender.
“I just saw bodies dropping,” Neal said. “…The guys up front gave me a great foundation in getting on their blocks, shedding them. Once we got in the open field, it was over from there. They basically just gave me a whole lane to just run through.”
On its own, the touchdown was a well-blocked example of what can happen when an entire offense executes together. Neal’s consistency over the course of the game was even more impressive. Five times, quarterback Brett Hundley threw him a pass. Neal caught all five.
His polish as a receiver came from another winding, unexpected path. Neal only played full-time running back in his final two years at Tennessee. Early in his career, he split time between tailback, receiver and Wildcat quarterback.
Neal never expected to play receiver in college, but it’s beneficial now. For some running backs, catching passes never comes naturally. When Neal runs routes, he’s able to revert to his experience as a receiver.
“It just gave me a different respect of how those guys catch,” Neal said. “The techniques, I guess you could say. The mindset they have. Just the fundamentals of catching the ball has really helped me a lot. Because that’s what’s taught to the receivers — how to catch, what hand placement is, tracking the ball with your eyes, body control. I think that was a big deal for me.”
He thinks his receiving ability could be a big deal in the Packers’ offense, too. Every snap revolves around MVP quarterback Aaron Rodgers. There’s no better way, Neal believes, to complement Rodgers than surrounding him with as many pass-catching threats as possible.
That’s how Neal views his roster odds as Packers general manager Ted Thompson starts cutting players this week. Neal sees his value on the field. He believes there’s a role he can fill in the Packers’ offense.
He only hopes coaches agree.
“It’s so hard to say,” Neal said, “because you just never know what it is, exactly, what they may want as far as in their third back. Granted, they may want versatility, but who knows? They may want a bigger body. They may want a sledgehammer. They may want a slasher. So you just kind of never know. You just hope that what you’re putting out there is good enough.”
Neal caught Packers coach Mike McCarthy’s attention Saturday. On a night with few positives, McCarthy said his tailback keeps making the most of his opportunities. That’s the only way a player on the NFL’s roster bubble earns a job.
With one preseason game left, Neal almost has reached his goal. Still, he knows, there’s no time to relax. One slip, and all of his progress could be wiped away.
“Oh, it’s scary,” Neal said. “It’s scary. He was just like, ‘Our team is not going to look the same by a day or two.’ So, yeah, my heart dropped. Because you build relationships, you build friendships. You hate to see some of these people go, because it’s like in the blink of an eye they’re gone. All it is now is just a text message and a call away.”
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