Over the course of the next several days Cheesehead TV will have a brief position-by-position offseason preview, taking a look at what's in store for the Green Bay Packers in free agency and the NFL Draft..
This past offseason, the Packers made Clay Matthews the highest-paid linebacker in football but unfortunately Matthews missed six full games (including playoffs) and parts of three others due to injury.
After missing only one game due to injury the first three years of his career, Matthews has now missed 10 full games the past two season combined, frequently leaving the Packers without their best defensive player.
When healthy, Matthews can be a dominant force on the football field, as evidenced by his team-leading 7.5 sacks and three forced fumbles despite all the time he missed.
For a change, Mike Neal played 16 games for the first time in his career and actually led the outside linebackers in total snaps played. He fought through an abdomen issue all season long and actually had to exit the Packers' playoff game, although the injury is reportedly not serious.
Neal's transition to outside linebacker and significant weight loss to play the position has been admirable. He led the team with 37 quarterback hurries (according to ProFootballFocus.com), but as a naturally big-bodied player, he still has issues playing in space.
The same can be said of Nick Perry, another defensive end/outside linebacker hybrid. Perry appeared to be coming on early in the season before a broken bone in his foot, compounded by a sprained ankle, made him far less effective down the stretch.
Now Neal is set to become a free agent and his future with the Packers is in question. The constants at the position are Matthews and Perry, but they need to stay healthy if the Packers are going to see major improvements on defense.
The addition of Andy Mulumba as an undrafted free agent was a nice development in Green Bay, and he appeared to make progress as the season went on.
Nate Palmer had a nondescript rookie season and has a lot of room to improve if he hopes to make the team again in 2014.
Long-Range Free Agency Outlook
Mike Neal––While Neal received occasional playing time as an interior pass rusher in 2013, he appears to have found his calling as a defensive end/outside linebacker hybrid.
His stock might be his highest ever after staying largely healthy in 2013 and having a productive season, perhaps enough to generate significant interest on the free-agent market.
As a former second round draft choice, there will be teams looking to add Neal to their roster. The question is, "For how much?"
If former Packers outside linebacker Erik Walden could command a contract worth four million dollars annually in free agency, such as he did last year, Neal should be able to find a similar deal, if not more.
The Packers may not be willing to match such an offer if bidding gets that high. They have to save money to re-sign the likes of Sam Shields, Evan Dietrich-Smith and others, as well as extend Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb.
Long-Range NFL Draft Outlook
The Packers have already invested multiple recent first round draft picks into the outside linebacker position and don't figure to do so again, at least not in 2014.
For better or worse, the Packers will be banking on the health of Matthews and Perry, no matter what may happen to Neal in free agency.
Of course, if Neal departs, the need for depth at outside linebacker may increase in Green Bay, it just won't be filled in the first round.
Ted Thompson and the rest of his scouting and personnel department are undoubtedly hard at work looking for those college defensive end/outside linebacker hybrids that are not always easy to project to the pro game.
Brian Carriveau is the author of the book "It's Just a Game: Big League Drama in Small Town America," and editor of Cheesehead TV's "Pro Football Draft Preview." To contact Brian, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
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