Few sights have been more consistent at the Green Bay Packers’ training camp than Mike Daniels beating a center or guard in one-on-one pass rushing drills.
The second-year defensive lineman has been winning about every-other snap in the one-on-ones (14-16 record), and even when he’s lost he’s usually managed good push. Combined with his play in 11-on-11 periods and the preseason opener last week, and Daniels is making a strong argument for the team’s most improved player from last season.
That doesn’t mean Daniels will be a great player in 2013 — a good share of his wins have come against offensive linemen who probably won’t make the Packers’ roster, and production will be much tougher against other teams’ starters and game plans.
But Daniels’ explosive, violent rushes have caught notice of his coaches and teammates and suggest he can help upgrade the Packers’ inside pass rush as part of a defensive line group that in one offseason has become one of the team’s strengths.
“He’s a beast,” cornerback Tramon Williams said Thursday. “I took some time and watched some of their one on ones, he’s put on about 15 more pounds, and it’s showing. His motor was amazing at the size he was last year, and he still has that motor with the extra 15 pounds, carries it well. Shows up on the field moving linemen like freight. I think he’s going to be a key piece.”
Daniels is one of three players this summer who have changed the Packers’ outlook on the defensive line. Another is first-round pick Datone Jones, who before injuring an ankle last week appeared every bit worth the No. 26 selection overall in this year’s draft. And the third is 30-year-old Johnny Jolly, who after three years out of football because of an NFL suspension has defied the odds and has a legitimate chance to make the team.
As a 3-4 defense, the Packers often have only six defensive linemen, but they now appear deep enough that general manager Ted Thompson and coach Mike McCarthy will have to keep at least seven and might even be persuaded to go unusually heavy with eight. And that’s not counting Jerel Worthy, who’s coming back from knee-reconstruction surgery and might return at midseason, though he also could miss the entire year.
Along with Jones, Daniels and Jolly, the defensive line includes mainstays B.J. Raji and Ryan Pickett. Then there’s C.J. Wilson, a fourth-year workmanlike run stopper who is playing with a little more strength this season; Mike Neal, who is splitting time at outside linebacker and as an inside rusher on the line; and fifth-round pick Josh Boyd, a space eater who flashes decent athletic ability for a big man (310 pounds).
Jones looks like he’ll have a major role in pass and run defense. Daniels lacks the length (he’s 6-foot-0) to be an every-down player, but he’s on his way to winning his share of snaps as a rotational pass rusher and occasional fill-in against the run.
This week in practice, with Jones out and defensive coordinator Dom Capers wanting to look at his less proven players, Daniels and Mike Neal have worked regularly as inside rushers in the nickel and dime packages. When the regular season starts, B.J. Raji and Jones probably will be first up in that role, but Daniels and Neal are on their way to playing regularly also.
“I like the combination of people that we can put out there,” Capers said Thursday.
Last year, Daniels was coming off shoulder surgery following his senior season in college at Iowa and was a relatively minor character in the Packers’ season.
He didn’t practice his rookie offseason, slowly worked into a backup role and wound up playing 273 snaps on defense (playoffs included), which ranked sixth among the team’s defensive linemen — only Phillip Merling, who was waived after four games, and late-season call-up Jordan Miller played fewer. Daniels finished the regular season with two sacks and two fumble recoveries.
This year, after adding about 10 pounds into the mid-290s over the offseason, he’s stood out far more than last August on the practice field. Then in last week’s preseason opener against Arizona, ProFootballFocus.com graded Daniels’ performance highest on the defense on the strength of his two quarterback pressures (one hit and one hurry) and stout play against the run.
“He’s a strong guy,” Capers said. “He’s got natural leverage on most people because he’s compact, and he has enough explosiveness and quickness to get off the block and go make the play when he’s blocked. He’s a good combination of explosiveness and quickness, and he’s got as much of a defensive temperament as pretty much anybody we have. He’s a naturally intense, tough guy.”
Neal likewise is a little different player than last season, though he’s dropped weight, to the 275- to 280-pound range, so he could become an outside linebacker along with his previous role as an inside rusher.
Neal previously pumped up to the low 290s, so he doesn’t have the bulk as a rusher that he had his first three seasons in the NFL. But he has been quicker in this camp, and Capers said he’s seen no downside to Neal playing lighter as a rusher. Capers said Neal will play extensively in Saturday night’s preseason game at St. Louis.
“There are a lot of really good rushers his size in the league,” Capers said. “It’s a good combination of big guys and guys like Mike (Neal) and Datone (Jones) in that 280 to 290 range.”
Jolly, in the meantime, is in the running for a job based mostly on his flashes disrupting the run game. His conditioning will play a big role in whether he makes it, because when fresh he has shown much of the energy and instincts he brought to the field in 2009, his last season in football.
The Packers list Jolly at 325 pounds but he likely weighs 340 or more. He stayed in Green Bay after offseason practices to train with the team’s strength and conditioning staff and worked into good enough shape to give himself a chance in camp. But he’s still not in the condition he was in ’09.
If the Packers keep eight defensive linemen, there’s room for him and Boyd. If not, the final roster spot on the line could come down to Jolly or the 24-year-old rookie.
“(Jolly’s) a football player, he just sees things fast,” Trgovac said. “Now (it’s a matter of) getting the whole part of his legs, the stamina and all that back, and (we) still have 2½ weeks to go before we get there.”
With or without Jolly, the Packers could be looking at a measurably better inside rush than they’ve had the last few seasons. If Daniels’ play on the practice field carries over to games, the Packers could field any of four inside rushers (Raji, Jones, Neal and Daniels) who are consistent sack and pressure threats.
“We’ve just got to wait and see on that one,” Trgovac said. “We’ve played one preseason game. But with the additions we’ve brought in here, we have probably the best competition since I’ve been here. We have a lot of guys that can play.”
— firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @PeteDougherty.