By ZACH HEILPRIN
Mike Neal remains defiant.
The Packers defensive end is one of two Green Bay players facing a suspension this fall. But as the team held the first practice of the organized team activities portion of their off-season program, the former second-round pick continued to claim he was innocent of violating the National Football League’s policy on performance-enhancing substances.
“I’m approaching it as the simple fact that I didn’t do absolutely anything wrong,” said Neal after practice. “It was a miscommunication between me and my doctor at home, and the medical physicians here. That’s just it. I got suspended for no reason, and that keeps my head held high. I didn’t do anything wrong.”
The NFL disagreed and rejected Neal’s appeal earlier this year.
In March, Neal told Fox Sports Wisconsin that the positive test was a technicality and not an issue where he was taking a performance enhancing substance. He said that his doctor prescribed some medication to him, and he didn’t inform the Packers about it. Players are allowed, according to the policy, to take medications with banned substances as long as they clear it with the NFL prior to starting the medication.
The league hasn’t commented on the validity of Neal’s assertions but, if true, there is a similar case playing out in Houston. The Texans punter, Brett Hartmann, will serve a three-game suspension this season after he tested positive for a performance enhancing drug that turned out to be Ritalin, which he was using as part of his treatment for attention deficit disorder. The NFL has since approved Hartmann to take the drug, but even though he was prescribed it, he didn’t have the prior approval and therefore the suspension stood.
As for Neal, the suspension comes at an inopportune time for a couple of reasons. He’s missed 28 of a possible 37 games over his first two years in the league due to injury. After being unable to play the first three weeks of his rookie season in 2010, he returned and subsequently suffered a shoulder injury two weeks later and was put on injured reserve in late October. Last year, with a spot on the defensive line open for the taking after Green Bay let Cullen Jenkins leave via free agency, Neal injured his knee when he slipped during a non-contact drill in training camp. He finally made his season debut in November, but was largely ineffective, finishing with three tackles and no sacks. His injury history has drawn comparisons to that of another high draft pick of the Packers, Justin Harrell, who could never get healthy and was released last year.
With that in mind, Neal said it was great to get back out on the field this week and when asked if he was healthy, he replied, “I can say I haven’t felt this good in a long time.”
Injuries aren’t the only concern for Neal. He must also contend with a bunch of new faces that were brought in during the off-season to shore up a defense that finished last in the league and allowed the most passing yards in NFL history.
General manager Ted Thompson dipped into free agency in a serious way for the first time in several years, and added defensive linemen Daniel Muir and Anthony Hargrove, who himself is facing an eight-game suspension for his role in the New Orleans Saint’s bounty scandal.
Green Bay didn’t stop there, choosing defensive players with their first six picks in April’s NFL Draft, including defensive ends Jerel Worthy and Mike Daniels. And finally, on Wednesday, the Packers announced the signing of another defensive lineman, Phillip Merling, a former second- round pick of the Miami Dolphins, who was released last month.
What that means is Neal has only the OTA’s and training camp to show the team he deserves another shot to make an impact and earn a roster spot. And he knows it.
“I’m getting as much as I can,“ Neal said of his practice reps. “I’m bumped down on the depth chart for a good reason. I’ll get my looks when I can. Improve when I can. Just let it ride out and see how it happens.”
Zach Heilprin covers the Packers for WBEV and WXRO radio in Beaver Dam, sister stations of ESPNWisconsin. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/zachheilprin.