By Jon Meerdink
What do you do with a guy who's only been truly healthy once and had what could be a fluke good year only after a last ditch position change? Well, in the Packers' case, you may want to just sign him and hope for the best.
I'm speaking, of course, about Mike Neal, the talented by woefully injured defensive tackle/defensive end/outside linebacker who seemed to finally break out of his shell last year. You know the story to this point. Injury after injury after injury had derailed Neal's career, limiting him to just 20 of 38 possible games between 2010 and 2012. But a perhaps visionary move by Kevin Greene had Neal lining up at linebacker in training came at the start of last season, and although it seemed like a shot in the dark, it worked. Neal had his most productive year to date.
But it was also a contract year, and now Neal is an unrestricted free agent...and a man without a position. After years of shifting from spot to spot, what is he? Is he truly a linebacker? Does he add weight again and become an end? Should he go really extreme and drop down to 210 pounds and complete the switch to safety or cornerback?
Fortunately, the Packers' needs might serve in Neal's best interests. With B.J. Raji, Johnny Jolly, and Ryan Pickett all hitting free agency, Datone Jones and Nick Perry underperforming, and nobody else stepping up at linebacker, the Packers need bodies at two spots, and those two spots are places where Neal has already contributed.
It's not even so much that Neal was a world beater last year as the Packers need players, and they need players that can produce. Neal did produce when he was given chances last season, and although he's an injury risk based on his history, there may be no choice.
Salary, however may be a sticking point, and that's as much because it's still not clear what Neal is. In a 3-4 system, pass rushing outside linebackers get paid far more handsomely than linemen, and linebacker is where Neal was used most frequently in 2013. On top of that, Neal is 26, and if he signs a four or five year deal, this may be his one chance to really cash in on his talents. He's going to take whatever opportunity he can get to make as much money as he possibly can.
In the end, Neal's versatility and the Packers needs might make him more valuable in Green Bay than anywhere else. There may not be much of a market elsewhere for a guy without a well defined position to really get paid, but if the Packers find themselves hurting on the line and at linebacker, Mike Neal might just be the answer.