At a listed 6-foot-3 and 294 pounds, Mike Neal is a giant.
The average weight of the Green Bay Packers' six full-time outside linebackers is 254.2 pounds. Based on the depth charts at Ourlads.com, the average weight of the NFL's 32 projected starting 3-4 outside linebackers is 258.7 pounds. Of those 32 projected starters, only six are listed at 270-plus pounds: Cleveland's Paul Kruger (6-4, 270), Philadelphia's Trent Cole (6-2, 270), Kansas City's Tamba Hali (6-3, 275), Arizona's Lorenzo Alexander (6-2, 275), New Orleans' Will Smith (6-3, 282) and the Jets' Quinton Coples (6-6, 285).
Cole and Smith are making the move after their teams changed to 3-4 schemes following postseason coaching changes. Coples is making the move to make way for first-round defensive lineman Sheldon Richardson. In all three cases, the players are shedding weight to increase their quickness for coverage responsibilities.
Neal has done likewise, though neither Neal nor any of the coaches have even hinted at his current weight. Regardless, given he's the heaviest player on the list and he'll be pulling double-duty as he's expected to remain a vital defensive lineman on passing downs, Neal almost certainly will be the heaviest outside linebacker in the league when given that opportunity.
"Explosive," was outside linebackers coach Kevin Greene's first impression. "Fine young man, hungry, good work ethic, explosive and is willing to do whatever he can to help this defense, to help the team."
For obvious reasons, the coaches haven't talked in specifics about Neal's role. However, after a breakout third season of 4.5 sacks and 12 quarterback hits (team's count) in 11 games, and as the third-most productive pass rusher among 3-4 defensive ends, according to ProFootballFocus.com's pass rushing productivity metric, it's a pretty safe assumption that Neal will reprise his role as the team's top interior rusher on passing downs.
While Neal has struggled against the run as a defensive end in the base 3-4 scheme, his combination of size and athleticism would be an asset on, for example, a first-and-10 play in which the offense is as apt to pass as run.
An enticing possibility on passing downs would be for defensive coordinator Dom Capers to dial up more of his psycho (one lineman, five linebackers, five defensive backs) and bat (one lineman, four linebackers, six defensive backs) packages. Capers could use first-round pick Datone Jones as the lone lineman and use Neal as one of the blitzing linebackers.
"If you try to block him with a back, he'll overpower most backs with his size and explosiveness," Capers said.
Moreover, Neal would allow the defense to show one look and morph into another just before the snap.
"It opens up a lot more things you can do," Capers said. "He can line up as an inside rusher and he can move and become an outside rusher. He can line up as an outside rusher and we can (move) and he can become an inside rusher. I just think with where the game is today, the more athletic ability and more guys that you can put on the field that have the ability to either rush or drop gives you more flexibility, more speed on the field."
Obviously, there are challenges and concerns. It's always dangerous to craft a big role for a player who has been challenged to stay on the field. Health concerns notwithstanding, Neal might be athletic but he's not as fast or as quick as a natural outside linebacker. Plus, Neal has to learn the big picture of football. He's spent his entire football career in a three-point stance, with his eyeballs a foot or two away from the blocker's eyeballs. Now, he'll be on his feet. He'll have vision of the entire offensive formation.
"Obviously, he's learning a lot of new things at outside linebacker in our Okie (base 3-4)," Greene said. "Just increasing his vision, whereas before he never really had to understand where all five eligibles are and what that means to him. So, his biggest thing is expanding his vision and understanding what everybody means to his job.
"It's reps. It's repetitions — and that's true with anybody transitioning to this position. You just need more reps, you need more time in cleats on the grass and seeing things and making mistakes and learning from them."
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Bill Huber is publisher of Packer Report magazine and PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org, or leave him a question in Packer Report's subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at twitter.com/PackerReport.