Rajion Neal’s bid to make the Green Bay Packers’ roster as a rookie last year was doomed by a knee injury.
That injury has fueled Neal’s charge to the front of the pack of the Packers’ No. 3 running back battle.
“When I had to go through rehab, I watched the Packers and it just felt so wrong being away from football,” Neal said after Saturday’s preseason loss to Philadelphia. “Knowing that a football season is going on and I’m out here rehabbing and trying to get myself right and waiting for my call to come back, that was terrible. That’s just something that I don’t want to feel again. I definitely keep that in the back of my mind. It’ll humble you quick, I can definitely tell you that.”
If the Packers’ indeed keep three running backs – not a lock considering they might have to carry three suspended players into Week 1 – Neal solidified his standing ahead of John Crockett and Alonzo Harris. Neal carried four times for 23 yards and caught five passes for 61 yards, including a 36-yard touchdown.
“You talk about a young man that's had an opportunity to be on our practice squad and now he's getting more and more opportunities each and every week throughout this preseason,” coach Mike McCarthy said following the 39-26 loss. “He's made plays, particularly the last two weeks, with those opportunities, both in the kickoff return and a big-time play on the screen. He's doing a lot of good things.”
Probably enough good things to make the roster if the final 53 were being picked when the team reviews the film on Sunday. But Neal is well aware that he hasn’t reached the finish line just yet. There’s a practice on Tuesday and a game on Thursday against New Orleans.
“I definitely think I put a good foot forward,” Neal said. “But at the end of the day, we’ve still got one more left.”
Neal delivered three impressive plays. On the first play of a drive that started with 3:04 remaining in the first half, Neal gained 18 yards on a screen from Brett Hundley. Then, on third-and-10 from the Eagles’ 36, he caught another screen, took advantage of blocks from lineman Garth Gerhart and receiver Ty Montgomery and went the distance for a touchdown. Later, on second-and-15 in the third quarter, Neal took a handoff and ran off right tackle for a gain of 14. He ran through an arm tackle just past the line of scrimmage and took an Eagles defender for a ride to gain about a dozen yards after contact.
“You’ve got to (gain yardage on your own), because that’s what they preach here,” Neal said. “You’ve got to get downhill. In this league, they say good backs, you’ve got to make something for yourself. Those guys up there are blocking. Sometimes, a guy may run through or there may be a couple arms out there. The more you can help those guys out, they appreciate it a lot.”
Neal has been the No. 3 back throughout training camp. He’s been on the practice field every day while Crockett missed the first week of training camp with an ankle injury and Harris missed Saturday’s game with an injured hand. It’s quite possible this performance sealed the deal, though Neal isn’t ready to celebrate.
“It’s sort of hard to say because you just never know what it is exactly that they may want in their third back,” Neal said. “They may want versatility. Who knows? They may want a bigger body. They may want a sledgehammer. They may want a slasher. You just kind of never know. You just hope that what you’re putting out there is good enough.”
So far, so good. At 220 pounds, Neal boasts a diverse skill-set. Not only is he big enough to run through tackles, but with one year of receiver experience at Tennessee, he offers something that not even the sure-handed Eddie Lacy can to the offense.
“It’s big, especially with the type of quarterback and offense that we have, and then you look at the type of backs that Eddie and James are,” Neal said. “If I’m able (to make the team), that would be a real complement to them and A-Rod and all the receivers outside. As long as I keep pushing, I think we’ll be all right.”
Bill Huber is publisher of PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at email@example.com or leave him a question in Packer Report’s subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at www.twitter.com/PackerReport.