GREEN BAY – Mike Neal was surprised as anyone.
A defensive end for his first three NFL seasons, the Green Bay Packers fourth-year player found himself lining up at outside linebacker for a majority of Tuesday’s first open-to-the-public organized team activity practice of the offseason. And before doing so, he didn’t hear a peep from coach Mike McCarthy about the idea.
“They haven’t told me anything,” Neal said after practice about a possible future at a new position. “There is no long term. This is OTAs. It’s just them getting a feel for something. If I knew I would tell you. I have no clue.”
It’s possible that Neal’s appearance was just the coaches trying something out. It’s May, after all, and nothing will be decided two months before training camp even opens.
But there is recent history for such a move. Last year – after playing outside linebacker for his first three years – the Packers moved Brad Jones to inside linebacker for much of the offseason. Though he would eventually return to the outside in training camp, the work inside paid off, as injuries would force him to start 10 games there.
A permanent move for Neal would be a bit more extreme, though, and leave him to learn the new position quickly.
Throughout is time in Green Bay, and during his college years at Purdue, Neal has lined up as a defensive lineman – either playing defensive end or defensive tackle. And when healthy – he’s had success. His 4.5 sacks last year were the second-most on defense despite playing just 10 games.
“From my standpoint, I’m a football player,” Neal said. “And they are football coaches. And the coaches ask me to do one thing and that’s what I do. I don’t ask any questions. I just go along with the road they present to me. So as of right now if that’s what it is, that’s what it is. I don’t know any plans going down in the future. Heck, I don’t know what’s going on tomorrow. … I’m just playing whatever they tell me to.”
The Packers list Neal at 6-foot-3 and 294 pounds, which would make him by far the biggest outside linebacker on the roster. The closest is Nick Perry, who is listed at 265 pounds, and some thought he was too big for the spot last year. When asked Tuesday how much he weighed, Neal wouldn’t give a number.
“I’m light enough to play it,” Neal said. “And I’m heavy enough to play inside (at defensive end).”
Coach Mike McCarthy wouldn’t directly address the question of Neal moving to outside linebacker permanently but indicated changes could be coming.
“Schematically, we’re going to do some different things and we’re going to expand Mike Neal’s role,” McCarthy said. “All the specifics of that I’m sure we can wait until Week 1 to get in to all of that.”
The issues that Perry ran into last year after having playing along the defensive line his entire college career could also be an issue for Neal. Perry struggled when dropping into coverage, and Neal could have the same problem.
“I’m comfortable in my athletic ability,” Neal said of his experience defending the pass. “I do believe that for a defensive linemen – not only do I have defensive linemen skills but I think that, as far as me athletically, I think that I can do that. I mean as long as I’m going forward, even if it’s dropping into coverage, I’ve never doubted my athletic ability. I feel a lot more agile than I have in the past. I’m a lot more confident in myself than I have been in the past so for me – if anything – it would just be learning from a different perspective and just take it from there.”
Neal is an intriguing prospect at outside linebacker. He’s said in the past that he believes he’s a three-down lineman but the move could signal otherwise. He rarely got time in the team’s base 3-4 defense last year, playing instead as one of the down linemen when they went into their nickel defense. With the addition of first-round pick Datone Jones to the rotation. Neal could be better served outside.
“You look at an outside linebacker in our defense,” Neal reasoned. “They’ve got to be athletic. They’ve still got to be strong. They’ve still got to be able to move. They’ve got to have agility and I think I possess all of those skills, so for me it’s no different, it’s just learning a different position.”
Zach Heilprin covers the Packers for WBEV and WXRO radio in Beaver Dam, sister stations of ESPNWisconsin. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/zachheilprin.