Merrillville grad Ryan Neal led Southern Illinois

Merrillville grad Ryan Neal led Southern Illinois with 84 tackles last season at the safety position and tied for the team lead in interceptions with three.

When Purdue standout defensive lineman Mike Neal became the Packers' second-round pick in the 2010 draft, "little brother" Ryan was there to soak it all in.

He was a freshman at Merrillville, where Mike had dominated the sport. Ryan looked in the mirror and wondered: "Maybe I can do that, too."

Well, at 10:35 p.m. Saturday, Ryan Neal signed a priority free-agent deal with the Super Bowl champion Eagles as a safety.

He played four years at Division I Football Championship Subdivision school Southern Illinois and remembered what his brother had always told him: "If you're good, the pro scouts will find you."

And Ryan Neal was very, very good.

"I've stopped pinching myself. I've got to get back to work," said Ryan, who received offers from the Falcons and Eagles after the draft.

Philly didn't draft a safety but signed three undrafted rookie safeties in Neal, Jeremy Reaves from South Alabama and Stephen Roberts from Auburn.

"They told me they thought I fit in with what they've got going on and the attributes I have that are needed for that position," Neal said.

"I've always put high expectations on myself. I'd say I have the expectations of a first-rounder."

Neal will need to perform like one when he gets to camp. Philly already has an outstanding safety duo in Malcolm Jenkins and Rodney McLeod. Depth is a concern with the only other experienced safety being Chris Maragos, used almost exclusively on special teams.

The Eagles play a 4-3 base defense and quite often actually deploy three safeties. They have a glut of cornerbacks now, and it would not be surprising to see one or two of them working out at safety during OTAs this May.

Philadelphia is also up against the salary cap, with only $2.158 million to spare. That could price the Eagles out of several available big-name safeties.

Neal is a load at 6-foot-3 and 200 pounds, having started as a true freshman at SIU. His 226 career tackles are 27th all-time in school history. His 84 stops last season led the team and he tied for the lead with three interceptions.

"I consider myself smart and I go all out. I do my best to put in a maximum effort every single play," Neal said. "And even though I might not make a play, I know I did it to the best of my ability.

"What makes me tick is I enjoy the game, the feeling of putting the helmet on, the shoulder pads, seeing the field, holding the football — everything — ever since I was a little kid."

In a strange twist to his signing, a web site called "Inside Iggles" covers the Eagles and had several draft stories with a Ryan Neal byline.

"Really?" said our Neal. "Wow. That's crazy.

"I know I didn't write anything."

Mike Neal retired after six seasons with Green Bay but continues to mentor Ryan, who now has a chance to carry on the family name.

"He's been that way since I was in college. We always stayed in contact," Ryan said. "His advice has been second to none. He laid out the road map for me keeping my grades up and being a good person."

According to the web site statista.com, the average NFL career is 3.3 years. Frightening, isn't it?

Mike Neal often reminds his little bro of that.

"Enjoy it every step of the way until you hang it up because as quick as it comes, it goes," Ryan said. "(Mike) remembers getting the call, walking in, and walking right out.

"It goes by that fast."

And to think, had Ryan Neal signed with the Eagles after the 2017 draft, he might be wearing a Super Bowl ring today.

"That's the plan," he chuckled. "Got to get at least one."

The door is now open.

This column solely represents the writer's opinion. Reach him at al.hamnik@nwi.com.