Despite a recent report from Pro Football Weekly suggesting the Green Bay Packers may cut Mike Neal following the 2012 NFL draft, releasing the 24-year-old, third-year defensive end without seeing him in another training camp makes very little sense.
It’s easy to understand the thought process behind the original idea, however.
Two injury-riddled seasons after the Packers picked Neal in the second round of the 2010 NFL draft has some thinking of former first-round bust Justin Harrell. A four-game suspension for violating the league’s performance enhancers policy has others envisioning Johnny Jolly, a talented defensive end who continues to fight his codeine demons.
Neal is certainly skating on thin ice—maybe the thinnest of ice.
But if that ice is going to break, the Packers should let it happen on the warm, humid practice fields outside the Don Hutson Center. Cutting Neal anytime before—like following the NFL draft—would be doing a disservice to a roster that needs to sap every ounce of talent from the defensive players GM Ted Thompson will bring to camp.
For all of Neal’s red flags, little incentive exists for Thompson to cut Neal loose before he gets the chance to stack him up against a couple of the likely picks at the position and the remaining players at the defensive end depth chart.
Get Neal into camp, see where his knee and shoulder are at physically, figure out his mindset following a tough 24 months and then make a final decision on whether or not to move forward. While the coaching staff will get a limited opportunity at those things over the next couple of months, there’s no better situation to go down the check list than training camp.
If Neal shows that he can give the roster something over the final 12 games, I’d assume Thompson would find him a spot on the final 53-man. At just $490,000 for the 2012, Neal if far from a salary-cap strain.
If he’s the same ineffective player he was over the final nine games of 2011, or can’t keep himself on the practice field, then you make the decision to let Neal go. The bust label would be “proven,” and there’s little financial fallback for giving him the pink slip.
And here’s the thing: Thompson is more willing to give a young player like Neal too many chances than too little. Look at Harrell. Look at Pat Lee, a fellow former second-round pick who played out his rookie contract in Green Bay despite showing very little.
At this point, even with the injuries and suspension, Neal is probably a chance short of hitting Thompson’s limit. At a position so thin and starved for difference makers, it’s hard to see why Thompson would change his historical course with Neal.
When push comes to shove, this decision shouldn’t be made too soon.
Neal has failed the organization for two straight seasons, but he isn’t yet a failure. Thompson should give Neal a chance to make something for himself in a make-or-break training camp, and then sit down to decide his fate with the Packers.
I can’t see Thompson making this decision any other way.