Neal will be a leaner — and, perhaps, meaner — defender in 2013 as he gets ready to be a hybrid defensive end/outside linebacker.
"I'm 275 (pounds) right now," Neal said on Friday after being sidelined for the first day of training camp with an abdominal injury. "So, I'm feeling a little bit lighter. It's more natural for me to be this weight. I feel better at this weight. I think I utilize my abilities better at this weight. They've given me the option to play around with it and (said), 'Where do you feel comfortable at?' They told me I didn't have to lose any, but if I wanted to, they'd see how I moved. It was up to me, how I felt."
Neal is coming off an impact third season in the league. After playing just nine of a possible 32 games during his first two seasons and then opening 2012 by serving a four-game suspension for breaking the league's substance-abuse policy, Neal rang up 4.5 sacks in 11 games. He finished second on the team in sacks, had almost twice as many quarterback hits (12) as the next two defensive linemen combined by the team's count, and was ProFootballFocus.com's third-ranked pass rusher among 3-4 defensive ends with 20 total pressures out of 192 pass-rushing snaps.
Neal, however, struggled in the run game. According to league data, the defense allowed 6.11 yards per rushing play with Neal in the game compared to 4.55 with Neal out of the game. That difference of negative-1.56 yards was the worst on the team by a large margin, with M.D. Jennings' differential being negative-0.80 yards. To be sure, that doesn't all fall on Neal. He played almost exclusively in nickel pass-rushing situations in schemes meant to take away the pass.
Nonetheless, the Packers made a career-defining and career-changing decision. To take advantage of his explosiveness and pass-rushing production, they'd give him a new position. Rather than purely being a bulked-up defensive end, the coaches decided to use Neal occasionally at outside linebacker.
How much he'll play at either spot is, for obvious reasons, a closely guarded secret.
"The good thing," Neal said, "is they let it be known that, 'You've got an opportunity. We're putting you in a position we feel definitely will give more opportunity to you. What do you do? You rush the passer. So, we'll give you every opportunity to do that from every position on the line of scrimmage.' It's just one of those things you have to learn every position. You never know where you're going to line up next."
The drawback is putting too many eggs in the basket of a player who has had injury issues, a fact driven home by Neal failing his pre-camp physical — though, by all accounts, this is a minor injury and his absence is more precautionary than anything. Neal has a history of knee and shoulder injuries. Reducing his weight by 20 pounds, thanks to a diet of egg whites in the morning, salmon for lunch and dinner and no carbs, will take some of the strain off of his ligaments.
Neal, entering his final year under contract and with free agency beckoning, is ready for the challenge.
"I'd like to say that at 294 I was really explosive, and that's not really good because if you've got all that muscle, you're pulling too much on tendons and stuff like that," Neal said. "And I've had tendon and ligament injuries. I mean, I've looked at it and I know it's one of those things. You're 300 pounds, but you can move a little bit faster than them. But, you're doing a lot of pulling and yanking on stuff that you shouldn't. The loss of weight will definitely be better on my body."
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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.