The muscle-bound Neal, a second-round pick in 2010, had done nothing in his first two seasons other than collect a paycheck and throw around 45-pound plates in the weight room with the ease the rest of us pick up a paper plate in the kitchen.
In 2010, Neal played in two games. Two. The start of his season was derailed by an abdominal injury and it ended with a torn rotator cuff that required surgery.
In 2011, after sustaining a knee injury during a noncontact drill in training camp, he played in seven games. He might as well have played in zero games considering he was in on just five tackles.
In 2012, he missed the first four games for violating the league's substance-abuse policy.
To that point, he had played in nine of a possible 36 regular-season games, with a meager contribution of one sack and 10 tackles.
If he were some nameless seventh-round pick, Neal acknowledged last year, the Packers probably would have cut their losses. Instead, his signing bonus of $1.16 million forced the Packers into being patient in hopes of getting some sort of return on their sizable investment.
Their patience was rewarded. He played in 11 of the final 12 games last season and finished second on the team with 4.5 sacks.
During the offseason, the Packers took a less-is-more approach with Neal. By making him a hybrid defensive end-outside linebacker, Neal could cut weight and get to, as he put it, his "natural size," which would reduce the stress on his joints. He could use his athletic ability to produce as an interior rusher on third down, or he could go outside and use his strength to set the edge against the run and rush the passer.
It was an all-or-nothing gamble by the team. Given his injury history, making Neal a featured player in the scheme was akin to putting too many eggs in a flimsy basket. Then again, what was there to lose? For all of his strength, there was no reason to believe Neal could be an every-down player on the defensive line.
So, Neal came back a changed man. He's gone from 305 pounds to 275. Coach Mike McCarthy said Neal was "exceptional" against Detroit and defensive coordinator Dom Capers said Neal played his "best" game, with one sack and four or five additional pressures. Whether he lined up inside or outside, Neal was a force. The type of force the Packers hoped they were getting four long years ago.
Not only was Neal a changed man, but he was a game-changing man.
"I can't remember the last time I had six tackles, three tackles for a loss. That was probably my best game of my career," Neal said on Wednesday. "I think playing outside linebacker gives you the ability to be able to make those plays. It's hard to be able to do that on the inside but when you have a little bit of freedom standing up and being able to take shots, I think you can make those plays."
When the Packers drafted Neal, they envisioned another Cullen Jenkins. Neal never got close to replacing Jenkins but, for at least the next few games, they'd happily take Neal doing a reasonable impression of Clay Matthews.
It's funny how things work out. When the Packers drafted Datone Jones in the first round, it appeared Neal was living on borrowed time.
"When they drafted Datone and moved me out there," Neal said last week, "I started looking at is as, ‘Maybe this is just them trying to find me something to do,' and then if I didn't work out, I'd get traded or released."
Now, Neal is being counted on to help keep the defense — and perhaps the team's championship aspirations — afloat without its indomitable playmaker.
"I think that if you look at the fact that I've had (Kevin Greene) as a coach and Clay Matthews, a four-time Pro Bowler, helping me out, I think success is nothing less than what they expect," Neal said on Wednesday.
"The biggest thing with me is just playing football the way Mike Neal knows how to play. I think one of the biggest things with me is I'm not as relentless as Clay but I think the mind-set of I don't like to get beat on any play gives me a lot to hang my hat on. That's the style of football I'm going to play — mess up, no mess up, just a go-getter attitude."
The "bust" label from his first couple seasons hurt Neal. It wasn't so much the outside perception but what he expected of himself.
So, to be in this position — a player that's being counted on — means the world to him.
"I'm just humbled, honestly," he said. "I missed a lot of football over my career — three years almost. I look at last year almost as my rookie year and this is just my sophomore year, to be quite honest with you. Being able to cash in on everything, it's hard to (describe) it but being in this position now, I've been pretty blessed."
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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.