Mike Neal saw the writing on the wall by the end of the NFL draft’s second day, when the Green Bay Packers spent their 88th overall pick in the third round to select Utah State outside linebacker Kyler Fackrell.
In truth, the outcome was inevitable before the draft. When general manager Ted Thompson chose to re-sign outside linebacker Nick Perry to a one-year, $5 million deal, it sounded the alarm. Entering the offseason, it seemed clear the Packers would re-sign Perry or Neal – not both.
They chose their 2012 first-round pick. Perry has struggled to stay healthy early in his career, but he showed flashes of pass-rush ability in last season’s playoffs.
Fackrell was the latest sign. A clear indication the Packers had started what will be a gradual but consistent process of remaking their outside linebacker position. In response to a tweet that Fackrell's selection made Neal's return unlikely, Neal tweeted, "You're 100% right!" By the end of the draft’s second day, director of football operations Eliot Wolf made it clear what Fackrell’s addition meant.
“Mike Neal's moved on,” Wolf said.
Thompson later backed away from such a definitive statement — “I wouldn’t characterize it like that. There's a lot of different things that can happen during the course of an offseason that would change things,” Thompson said — but it’s getting late in the offseason and Neal remains available on the open market. He reportedly visited the Seattle Seahawks and Detroit Lions, yet remains unsigned.
Maybe he’ll find an NFL home for the 2016 season, but if the Packers were missing out by not signing Neal, it stands to reason two of their fiercest rivals would have jumped at the chance to sign him.
Neal is just one piece in the Packers' remodeling of the outside linebacker position. Earlier this offseason, the Packers chose not to tender Andy Mulumba a restricted free-agent contract. They also added 2013 first-round pick Datone Jones to the edge as an outside linebacker and elephant rusher, though Jones could play defensive end snaps early in the season with Mike Pennel suspended and Josh Boyd released.
The Packers did not exercise Jones’ fifth-year option for 2017. If he plays well at his new position, he could earn a second contract much like Perry. Though, like Perry, that contract probably would be a short-term deal.
After Fackrell, who has not yet signed his rookie contract, Clay Matthews will be the only other outside linebacker with multiple years (three) left on his contract. Matthews played the past season and a half at inside linebacker, but Packers coach Mike McCarthy is committed to returning him to the edge.
Julius Peppers enters the final season of his contract in 2016. Since the Chicago Bears released him two years ago, he has been a revelation in Green Bay. A second contract with the Packers can’t be ruled out, but Peppers will turn 37 years old in January. With his mileage, he knows any season could be his last.
Neal’s apparent departure should provide more defensive snaps for Jayrone Elliott, who enters his third season after being undrafted out of Toledo in 2014. Elliott has been a special-teams ace for the Packers, but he also flashed enough pass-rush potential to deserve extra snaps as he enters the final year of his contract. He had two sacks in the Packers' first four games last season, part of a productive opening stretch that also included a forced fumble and game-clinching interception against Seattle.
Elliott’s three sacks last season were only one less than Neal. He played 177 snaps, according to Pro Football Focus. Neal played 750.
That, as much as anything, shows why it’s the right time for the Packers to move on from Mike Neal. His four sacks on 434 pass-rush attempts were among the fewest for 3-4 outside linebackers in the league last season. A consistent pass rush can win Super Bowls. The Packers surely prefer more productivity from a player who started 15 games.
It looks now like an inglorious end to Neal's tenure. He was named in an Al Jazeera America report last season linking NFL players to performance-enhancing drugs. The report also cited Packers linebackers Clay Matthews and Julius Peppers, both of whom denied its validity. Neal, who started 2012 serving a four-game suspension for violating the NFL's performance-enhancing drug policy, would not comment on the report directly when asked after a December game in Arizona.
The report provided no paper documentation to prove its claims and was immediately discredited by its leading source. Two weeks later, Al Jazeera America announced it would fold. It's unlikely the report had any effect on the Packers' decision regarding Neal this offseason.
Ultimately, Neal had a successful career in Green Bay. In a league where on average only 36 percent of drafted players see the end of their four-year rookie contract, there can be no other conclusion.
Neal remade himself before the 2013 season, dropping 40 pounds when he moved from defensive end to outside linebacker. He was the prototype for defensive coordinator Dom Capers’ now-popular elephant rusher position. In his second contract — a two-year, $8 million deal — he was a solid contributor.
One month shy of Neal’s 29th birthday, the Packers want to get younger at outside linebacker. After six seasons, 29 starts and 19 sacks, Wolf said, Neal has moved on. Just remember his apparent departure isn’t the only change for the Packers' outside linebacker position.
In a year, the depth chart could look very different.