Mike Daniels was scrolling through his phone near the end of last season when the picture popped onto his screen. Nostalgia immediately set in.
It was from his senior year at Highland Regional High School in Blackwood, N.J., and is of a hardly recognizable Daniels on the podium after a wrestling tournament. He cut down to 207 pounds that year to avoid having to compete as a light heavyweight.
Now in his fourth year on the Green Bay Packers’ defensive line, Daniels looks a lot different. Today, he hovers around 310 pounds following a rigorous offseason spent in Green Bay that included MMA training and round-the-clock trips to the weight room.
“I look like I ate that guy,” Daniels said with a laugh. “You should see how people who haven’t seen me since like we were in high school or whatever. … They’re like, ‘The last time I saw you, you were like a receiver.’ I’m like, ‘I know. It’s weird to me, too.’ ”
Friends, family and former classmates aren’t the only ones who have noticed a change. It’s also made for a popular topic around Lambeau Field since the team arrived for the start of training camp this week.
Coming off back-to-back seasons of leading the line in sacks, Daniels wanted to take his training to the next level. So he reviewed his usual offseason routine and decided to take “it up a notch, definitely significantly harder.”
He came back slightly heavier than last year and his progress shows. The potential downside of putting on weight is that it might diminish his explosiveness and quick twitch, but Daniels believes he’ll maintain his functionality because the extra pounds are “good muscle.”
Saturday’s first padded practice at Nitschke Field will give him his first chance to test it out.
“I feel great,” Daniels said. “I feel like I move the same, I’m just excited to feel the weight when the pads come on. That’s why I’m so excited because it’s going to be fun to have a little bit more anchor back there.
“I’ve definitely learned to manage my weight the right way. I grew up wrestling so I know how to shed what I don’t need and eat properly. It’s an accumulation of all the knowledge I’ve gathered throughout the years training.”
It wasn’t his goal to purposely push the scale. A few times, he even scared himself, but it’s pretty much been the same story since he was first taken by the Packers in the fourth round of the 2012 NFL draft.
Daniels gained a chunk of his weight working with strength coach Chris Doyle at the University Iowa. He arrived in Green Bay somewhere in the 280s (enough though he was listed at 291 pounds) and then shot up to around 298-301 during his second year. He settled in the 301-305 range last season.
Daniels knows it’s only natural that he’ll lose some pounds once the regular season starts. Depending on the practice, sometimes a meal can be the difference between three or four pounds. During a practice at Iowa, he remembers shedding nine pounds in water weight on a 100-degree day.
Packers defensive back Micah Hyde remembers that “skinny” kid. What’s impressed him is how Daniels has been able to maintain his quickness. While the body may have changed, Daniels’ hunger hasn’t been satisfied.
“He’s put on a lot of weight and that’s just Mike D — he has that motor and can handle that weight pretty well,” Hyde said. “I think for him, he was a little frustrated at Iowa early in his years because (Iowa) had so many D-linemen. We had guys coming out with (Adrian) Clayborn, (Christian) Ballard, we had so many big names that he hardly got onto the field, but once his junior year came along everyone can see what he did.
“He’s come a long way. I’ve luckily been able to see the whole process.”
Daniels says he’s not focused on what comes after the 2015 season, but it’s difficult to ignore the fact he’s entering the final year of his rookie contract. His 12 sacks the past two seasons have provided a pass-rushing element the defensive line has lacked since Cullen Jenkins left in 2011.
Last year, the 6-foot lineman started all 18 games (including playoffs) and recorded 41 tackles with 51/2 sacks. He earned a nearly $1 million raise this offseason based on playing-time incentives given to players who were selected in the fourth round or later.
Daniels could earn even more with another strong season, but don’t tell him that.
“Honestly, all that contract stuff is a huge distraction,” Daniels said. “So I don’t put much energy into it. What’s supposed to happen will happen whatever that may be. I’m just here to improve. I don’t set any goals. Every day I come in here, how can I get better? How can I improve? Anything outside of that, it’s irrelevant.”
Daniels’ presence will be important for the line, especially early on when the Packers are without Datone Jones and Letroy Guion, suspended for drug-related incidents. Jones already has been suspended for one game and Guion faces a three-game ban if his suspension isn’t reduced upon appeal.
Daniels talked with both players and are “so far past that.” However, what’s still fresh on Daniels is the Packers’ 28-22 overtime loss to Seattle in the NFC title game six months ago.
The Packers had the Seahawks’ offense on lockdown until the final minutes of regulation. The positive that Daniels drew from the disappointment was that it showed the defense what it’s capable when clicking. It also reminded them how quickly it can fall apart if not careful.
“The best thing about that is we see that we can do it,” Daniels said. “I think that’s one of our issues is getting over the hump. I think we got over the hump, but we need to make sure we fully clear it this time. Once we know we can do it, the bar is set, the standard is set and it’s time to get to work.”
Daniels jokes that all the questions about his weight have made him a little self-conscious. Even when he was asked by a reporter on Friday if he’s bigger, Daniels replied, “Do I look fat?”
So what does he see when he looks back at photos of old Mike Daniels?
“Same mentality,” he said. “Different body.”
— firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @WesHod.