Eleventh in a series looking at the Green Bay Packers’ free agents in advance of the start of the 2016 league year Wednesday.
Mike Neal was admittedly nervous the first time he ventured into unrestricted free agency in 2014.
Unless you’re one of the top-tier players hitting the open market, the uncertainty and unpredictability of your first NFL offseason without a contract can make for some sleepless nights. It did for Neal before he finally agreed to a two-year, $8 million deal to remain with the Green Bay Packers.
Next week, Neal will head back to free agency after tallying 69 tackles with 8½ sacks over the last two seasons. This time, however, the Packers’ outside linebacker is at peace with whatever outcome awaits. He’d like to be back in Green Bay again, but understands it’s not always that simple.
“I would love to be here,” said Neal during the Packers’ final locker room on Jan. 18. “They’ve given me everything I could ask for and stuck with me through thick and thin and gave me an opportunity. That’s what you can be thankful for. You’ve got to be optimistic. You’ve got to understand that there’s 31 other teams. You’ve got to wait and see.”
Neal’s move from the defensive line to outside linebacker in 2013 kept him healthier and probably saved his career. He played in all 48 regular-season games over the past three seasons with 116 tackles and 13½ sacks after having only 17 tackles and 5½ sacks in 19 games in his first three NFL seasons.
A three-year transformation resulted in Neal dropping 40 pounds and returning for camp last year in the mid-250s. Neal started 15 of the 16 games he played in, tying for third on the team in sacks (four), second in tackles for loss (10) and fourth in quarterback hits (11). He led all outside linebackers with 825 defensive snaps.
Neal’s move was a test for a defense that has since loaded itself with dual-threat elephant rushers. Recently, the versatility of Nick Perry, Julius Peppers and Datone Jones has continued to blur the lines between defensive ends and outside linebackers.
The Packers have four edge rushers under contract for next year in Clay Matthews, Peppers, Jones and Jayrone Elliott. Former undrafted free agent Andy Mulumba also could return this offseason on either a restricted tender or through free agency. So where does that leave Neal?
That’s for the Packers to determine. Perry is also a free agent and Neal will turn 29 in June. While he’s battled a recurring core muscle injury that has required a pair of sports hernia surgeries, it doesn’t compare to his frustrating first three seasons when rib, shoulder and knee injuries kept him on the sideline.
Reflecting on his move outside, Neal couldn’t be happier with how everything turned out.
“Most definitely. What can you ask?” Neal said. “You’ve been with your hand in the dirt your whole career and then somebody asks you to stand up to be something completely different in the National Football League. That’s not an easy transition. You have to be happy with what you’ve done. You can always get better, and I know that I can get better.
“There’s still a lot of football left ahead of me. I’m proud of what I did. I can’t look back and say that I would do anything differently.”
Mike Neal, seventh-year outside linebacker
The skinny: Unrestricted free agent.
The snaps: 921 total (825 defense, 96 special teams).
The stats: 36 tackles with four sacks.
2015 salary: $3 million.