If the pick was a surprise to Packers fans, who might've been eyeing up Georgia Tech running back Jonathan Dwyer or another offensive tackle like USC's Charles Brown or Maryland 's Bruce Campbell – two players going to the Packers in various first-round mock drafts – it was a bigger shock to Neal.
"You know, I had no clue Green Bay would pull the trigger and grab me," said Neal, who didn't even recall talking to any one from the Packers at the Senior Bowl, NFL Combine or his pro day. "Did I think I would go this high? I come from a real good family of faith, we've been praying for years and years for this to come. We always put our faith in God, and God is No. 1 in our hearts. When they called me and told me I would be a Packer, I felt so blessed. I am blessed for the opportunity."
It's not just his faith that's strong. Neal is a legend in the Purdue weight room. The 6-foot-3, 294-pounder holds several team weight room records and has thrown up 510 pounds on the bench press on several occasions, along with a 615-pound squat and 385-pound power clean.
Neal started 23 of his final 24 games at left defensive tackle for the Boilermakers and recorded 11 of his 13 career sacks over that span. As a senior, he earned all-Big Ten Conference honorable mention and was named Purdue's defensive captain. Neal notched 35 tackles, including 20 solo stops, and 11.5 behind the line of scrimmage. His 5.5 sacks ranked 10th in the Big Ten.
Arriving in West Lafayette, Ind., as a 245-pound defensive end in 2005, Neal went to work bulking up his frame while maintaining his pass rush ability. By fall 2006, he had added 25 pounds and saw limited snaps as a reserve defensive tackle. As a senior, he played as heavy as 302. Green Bay will be moving Neal back to the position he starred at for Merrillville ( Ind. ) High School in its 3-4 defensive scheme.
"We think he fits very well in our system," Thompson said. "He's almost ideally suited to be a 3-4 defensive end and he'll be a great asset in our substitution packages rushing the passer from the inside."
Physically, Neal is similar in size to current Packers starting end Cullen Jenkins (6-foot-2, 305 pounds), though lighter than Johnny Jolly (6-foot-3, 325). With a quick first step and the speed to run a 4.89 40-yard dash, Neal will get work as an inside rusher in the nickel, as well as on the outside in the base defense. That versatility, even more than his strength, is what convinced the Packers to take him.
"I played a little bit of five-technique at Purdue, I played three-technique at Purdue, I played a little nose tackle at Purdue," Neal said. "Whatever they need me to play, I am more than willing to play.
Packers defensive line coach Mike Trgovac sees a lot to like about his newest student. Neal has good foot movement, strength at the point of attack and rarely lost a one-on-one block as a collegian.
"He'll help us in both areas (run and pass)," Trgovac said. "That's what we were looking for, not just a guy that was a pass rusher and not just a guy who was a run player. One of the best things he did, in their movement defenses, he did a very good job of moving to the inside or moving to the outside. If you watch us play, we do a ton of that. A lot of the things that we do, we saw on his tape."
Through a combination of his ability to play multiple spots and the fact that Purdue's defense spent a lot of time on the field, Neal rarely left the game. That impressed Trgovac, as well.
"A lot of these guys will leave for seven or eight plays," Trgovac said. "This kid very seldom ever left the game. He's got great stamina. We're very excited to have him. He's a hard-playing guy, good pass rusher, good athlete and he's sure got the numbers – a guy that runs like he can with his size."
Neal knows the expectations will be high for a second-round pick, but he can't wait to get to his NFL career started.
"I am a hard-nosed football player. I know when I get off the ball and get to blockers, I'll knock them off the ball. I think I'm a tough football player and that's what I will bring to the Packers."