Mike Daniels entered the NFL as an overlooked fourth-round draft pick in 2012.
Safe to say, Daniels no longer is overlooked. In December, he signed a four-year contract extension worth $41 million, making him one of the NFL’s highest-paid defensive linemen. Last month, Daniels was named the 95th-best player in the league in NFL Network’s annual countdown of the top 100 players. Last week, the Packers Hall of Fame announced that Daniels was selected the team’s 2015 MVP.
“It was cool,” Daniels said of his debut on the players-selected NFL Network list. “Starting to get a little bit more recognition, and just got to keep improving myself, improving on my craft and everything else is a product of that. It’s not a goal; those are the products. The goal is to be the best.”
Those “products” aren’t the finish line in his journey, he insists. Rather, they serve as confirmation to Daniels that he’s on the right path. It’s a path he’s gone down before. Coming out of Highland Regional High School in Blackwood, N.J., he was a 6-foot, 225-pounder who posted career totals of 2,203 rushing yards as a running back and 27 sacks as a defensive lineman.
After sending his highlight tape all over the country, he got just one nibble from a high-profile school: The University of Iowa and coach Kirk Ferentz.
“I’m used to not having anything and then finally something big happening,” Daniels said. “I’m used to being in that position, so when I do get a new contract, Top 100, things of that nature – it’s just like, ‘OK, cool. Just have to keep working.’ That’s just the mentality.”
The money and the acclaim didn’t change Daniels’ offseason routine. Again, he spent time boxing to hone his feet and his hands. And he’s been a staple in the Packers’ offseason program.
After a breakout season of 6.5 sacks in 2013, followed by back-to-back seasons of 16 starts, more will be demanded of Daniels in 2016. When training camp begins in late July, defensive line will be the weakest position on the team. B.J. Raji’s decision to sit out the season left a big void in the defense. With Mike Pennel facing a four-game suspension to open the season and Datone Jones moved to outside linebacker, the Packers have only two defensive linemen to even play a snap in the NFL — Daniels and Letroy Guion.
“He was awesome for us,” Daniels said of Raji. “It’s tough that he’s gone but we definitely have the guys here that can do a good job there for us.”
That will thrust rookies Kenny Clark (first round) and Dean Lowry (fourth round) into key roles from the get-go. Lowry, in particular, will get Daniels’ attention, as both were self-made stars in college who got dinged in the draft process because of physical shortcomings (for Daniels, it was height; for Lowry, it was arm length).
“I think Dean gets overlooked quite a bit, as most of us mid-rounders do, and I’m going to keep letting him know that. ‘Nobody’s talking about you, so that should make you really upset.’ Yeah, I look forward to getting those guys back out here. I like the young guys we’ve got out here working now. I think our culture really is changing for the better on the defensive side of the ball.”
Daniels has been a big part of that, both as a player and as a vocal leader. His rise to stardom has been as startling as his mighty two-handed thrust into an offensive lineman’s chest. After barely playing on defense as a rookie, Daniels now has money and acclaim. What hasn’t changed is his attitude and desire and passion.
“I was never motivated by a contract,” Daniels said. “I was motivated by being the best. So, I just compete against myself every day and push to get better.”
Bill Huber is publisher of PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org or leave him a question in Packer Report’s subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at www.twitter.com/PackerReport.