Neal's return gives defense flexibility

GREEN BAY, Wis. -- Out of necessity last season, Mike Neal played the majority of his 735 defensive snaps at outside linebacker.

And it went perhaps better than could have been expected.

The former defensive end tied for the third on the team with five sacks, including four in the final seven games.

That's what made it surprising last month at the NFL scouting combine to hear coach Mike McCarthy say he felt Neal's best position still was an inside pass rusher.

"I still think the best thing, in my opinion, that Mike Neal does is rush from a '3' technique, particular in third down in the sub package," McCarthy said. "I think he's a real force in there."

So where does that leave Neal for 2014 now that he has re-signed with the Packers?

The best answer might be that he plays some of both, which was actually the intention last season. Both McCarthy and defensive coordinator Dom Capers have said their plan for 2014 is to get more versatile and be more multiple in their defensive packages.

That could mean Neal lines up as an outside linebacker in some early down packages and then moves inside to rush from a three-point stance on third downs and obvious passing situations.

Such a role could bring out the best in Neal.

Neal also could be in line to play an elephant end, a position McCarthy said he and Capers planned to explore this season.

Regardless of which position he plays, perhaps the most critical thing he must do is repeat his durability from 2013. After playing in just 20 of a possible 48 games combined in his first three seasons, Neal played all 16 regular-season games last season for the first time in his career, although he dropped out of the playoff game against the San Francisco 49ers because of a knee injury.