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The Forgotten Man

by Mike Conklin

E-mail: mikeconklin@packerpedia.com
June 23, 2012

 

The Packers have made bold moves to address the problems with their defensive line last year. They traded up to draft Jerel Worthy. They signed Anthony Hargrove and all the baggage that came with him. They brought Daniel Muir back into the fold. They even took a flier on Phillip Merling.

And then, there's the Forgotten Man. The draft pick nobody's talking about.

When Mike Daniels was drafted with one of the compensatory picks at the end of the fourth round, fans gave a collective shrug. After thumbing through the draft guides and doing a little research on him, he seemed like a decent enough player. He just didn't seem to fit what the Packers needed.

To make matters worse, there was barely any news on him throughout the offseason program because he was held out with a shoulder injury. Whether it's fair or not, one reason fans may be a little hesitant to get excited about Daniels is because he may subconsciously remind them of Mike Neal.

Neal was drafted out of a Big Ten school, just like Daniels. Neal was drafted a shade earlier than where some of the "experts" had him rated, just like Daniels. Neal was nicked up during college, just like Daniels.

And as mentioned previously, at first glance he just didn't seem to be a good fit. Since Dom Capers came to town and the Packers switched to a 3-4 defense, we have had it pounded into our heads what a 3-4 defensive end should look like. The prototypical 5-technique end necessary for this defense should be a physical specimen: tall with long limbs, yet agile and heavy enough to be stout against the run. Scouts like for these players to be at least 6'4" and over 300 pounds. Daniels, on the other hand, is 6'0", has short arms, and had to put on 60 pounds during college just to get up to 290.

So why should we be excited to see what he may bring to the table?

For one thing, Iowa cranks out NFL players. Mike Daniels was on a line with several other players who were drafted, including Adrian Clayborn (1st round), Christian Ballard (4th), and Karl Klug (5th) all selected a year ago. In the last three years Iowa also had five offensive linemen drafted, so during practice he went up against first round guys like Riley Reiff and Bryan Bulaga.

"We feel good about the people we know at Iowa on the coaching staff," said Ted Thompson after the draft. "We've had good success with Iowa guys. We feel like we have a good chance to have success with Mike."

"When you pick a player out of Iowa, they've been producing players," added Dom Capers. "Offensive linemen and defensive linemen. Mike Daniels is a guy we saw last year, when they had a couple linemen last year. He was a guy who stood out. We were very impressed with him in the interview (at the combine). We think he's an all-football guy who brings a lot of energy."

As Capers alluded, the Packers had their eye on Daniels for a while. They noticed him while scouting the three aforementioned defensive linemen drafted last year. Some observers said that there were moments when he looked like the best of that group. Obviously, he made an impression on the Packers brass.

As the radio voice for the Packers, Wayne Larrivee has a lot of access to people within the organization. Shortly after the draft he checked with one of his sources, and wrote the following in his blog on JSOnline:

"I told my source I didn’t understand the selection of undersized Mike Daniels in the 4th round out of Iowa. This is where a smile came across his face; 'Scouts pick.' I asked what does that mean? He said, 'Unique, really good inside pass rusher. He is very quick, a longtime wrestler so he understands leverage and hands. He will be a change of pace guy.'”

Packers scouts have acquitted themselves well in the past, so if a smile came across the face of Larrivee's source during that interview, maybe one should come across ours too. The wrestling angle is worth noting as well. Many young defensive linemen don't make an impact early in their career because they need time to learn how to use their hands effectively in the trenches. With a background in wrestling Daniels may be ahead of the game in that regard. Football scouts across the league are certainly aware of the benefits of a wrestling background. For example, Tennessee Titans General Manager Ruston Webster is a big fan of drafting former wrestlers, and ended up drafting a couple of them this year.

“To me, wrestlers do have that natural leverage, and they understand leverage and they understand how to use their hands, and typically they are tough guys,” Webster said. “That’s why I think that you see it more in guards and centers and defensive tackles. It's something that to me, when a guy has been a wrestler, especially when he has been a successful wrestler, it says something about his toughness and his commitment."

Daniels has been asked which of his former teammates at Iowa he took after the most, and his answer was Karl Klug, a fifth round draft pick of the Titans last year. Klug came in and impressed coaches early despite the lack of an offseason, earned playing time, and went on to rack up a team-leading seven sacks as a rookie. Klug also had a wrestling background in high school, and credited that to his rookie success.

“I think (wrestling) helped me out a lot,” Klug said. “Even though that was in high school, I still think that’s helped me up to this point as far as being aggressive with my hands, understanding leverage and playing underneath the guy. In wrestling, you are constantly in an athletic stance. You have bent knees. That’s how you want to play football — you don’t want to stand straight-legged.” (Insert Donnell Washington reference here.)

Mike Daniels also has other intangibles that the Packers liked. He showed great leadership, having been named team captain as a senior. He also won the Iron Hawk Award, which is “presented to the student athlete who has maximized his physical potential on the playing field through his persistent dedication to Strength and Conditioning.” That attribute should fit in nicely with the Packers draft-and-develop philosophy. He appears to be a good guy from a solid family background, and volunteered many hours to help at-risk kids. Sounds like Packer People, right up Ted Thompson's alley.

But as we all know, it doesn't matter how great of a guy as he may be...the only thing that really matters is whether he can get it done on the field. Daniels did that at Iowa. He started 21 games for the Hawkeyes over the past two years, and led the team in tackles for loss and sacks during that period. After playing through an ankle injury early last year, he really started coming on toward the end. He finished third in the Big Ten in sacks with nine, and added 13.5 tackles for loss.

One of the intriguing things about him is that he was just starting to hit his stride at the end of the year. Judging by how he finished his college career, his arrow appears to be pointing upward. Consider his final three games:

                  
  • Purdue: Career-best nine tackles. Five tackles for loss including three sacks.
  • Nebraska: Matched career-best nine tackles. One pass break-up.
  • Oklahoma (Insight Bowl): Five tackles. Three tackles for loss, including two sacks.

In a three game span against some good opponents, Daniels racked up 23 total tackles, 8 tackles for loss, 5 sacks, and one pass defensed. He will be looking to parlay that strong finish into a solid training camp. In this year's crowded and talented group of defensive linemen, Daniels will truly have to stand out if he wants to make an impact. But he is no stranger to long odds.

Barely recruited as a prep player despite posting gaudy numbers, he and his coach had to make their own highlight film and send it out to schools all over the country. Somehow one of them ended up on Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz's desk.

"He was not a highly recruited player out of high school," said Ferentz. "We got on him late, actually. It was the January after a bowl game. We got back and his film was sitting on my desk. We really liked what he did. He played running back and defensive tackle in high school at about 225. That’s a little bit of an unusual combination."

Although Villanova made overtures, Iowa was really the only school that went after him. It only helped put a massive chip on his shoulder.

"I have a lot of resentment," said Daniels. "How did I almost end up not playing college football? How does that go unnoticed? Between me and the man who made my highlight tape, I basically took care of my recruitment myself."

Daniels bided his time and played sparingly his first two years at Iowa, channeling that determination along the way. As time went by, Ferentz could not help but notice him during practice.

“It was like, ‘How are we going to keep this guy out of the lineup?’” Ferentz recalled thinking during practice. "Mike has a tremendous motor. He plays hard all the time; his feet never stop and he plays with great, great desire. That's where it all starts for an outstanding player."

Despite the fact that the defensive line had three players that were drafted after the season, Daniels still started eight games as a junior in 2010. He will find himself in a similar situation this August, but after all he has been through to this point, he remains unfazed.

"I'm ready to go up to Green Bay and just work my tail off."

For Daniels, his hard work has paid off in the past. Just how much of an impact he'll be able to make will be one of the many compelling storylines of training camp.

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