As the 2015 season has progressed, a lot of needs started to boil to the surface for the Green Bay Packers.
General manager Ted Thompson cauterized one potential hole Monday when he signed defensive lineman Mike Daniels on a four-year, $42 million extension that includes a $12 million signing bonus. The contract will pay Daniels $22 million in the first 15 months and makes him one of the NFL’s highest-paid 3-4 ends.
The 6-foot, 312-pound defensive lineman undoubtedly was the biggest unrestricted free agent the organization needed to address this offseason. The steady progress Daniels has displayed in the heart of Dom Capers’ defense provided ample evidence the long-term commitment was a safe investment.
“Mike has always been a buzz saw,” Packers coach Mike McCarthy said. “His play style was definitely that at Iowa and he brought that energy to the table. I think he’s just matured in every way. I mean as far as a student of the game. His work ethic is at the highest level. He’s a bigger man today than when he first got here. He does a great job.”
With the Super Bowl window wide open, Thompson and chief negotiator Russ Ball likely paid a little more than they wanted to retain Daniels, but recent history shows the Packers probably were right in ponying up.
The Packers burned through a lot of resources the last time they needed to replace a productive pass-rushing defensive lineman. It took Thompson three drafts to stumble across Daniels after veteran Cullen Jenkins signed a five-year, $25 million deal with Philadelphia after the 2010 season.
Green Bay then invested a first-round pick (Datone Jones, 2013) and two second-rounders (Mike Neal, 2010, Jerel Worthy, 2012) in search of his replacement. Neal and Jones have been productive players, but proved to be better suited as outside rushers. Worthy, neutralized by NFL cadences, was a bust.
Instead, it was Daniels’ fourth-round selection in the 2012 NFL draft that sparked a turnaround. The undersized rusher has amassed 117 tackles and 18 sacks in his first 59 regular-season games. He has developed into an every-down player the past two seasons.
“I’m happy to see him rewarded with a contract and I’m happy to see that we’ve got him locked up on a contract,” Capers said. “Guys like him that come in and earn that contract, because he does all the things you ask him to do as a coach, and there’s never any doubt about his commitment and I think those types of things influence other guys on your defense. You need some guys with that type of attitude on a defense.”
Daniels’ extension was met with roaring approval from the locker room after news broke Monday morning. Several of his teammates, including fellow Iowa alumnus Micah Hyde, mobbed Daniels when he walked into the team’s weight room.
Daniels made it clear to his agent, Brian Mackler, it was his hope to stay in Green Bay. In turn, Mackler kept Daniels out of the discussions, while the two sides were close to a deal. Conversations heated up this past week until “lightning struck” Monday. Before 9 a.m. Tuesday, the deal was finalized.
The decision to remain in Green Bay was simple for Daniels, who maintains a year-round residence in the city. He also recalls conversations with veterans who told him how lucky he was to start his NFL career in Green Bay. He took that message to heart.
“I told him I wanted to be in Green Bay. I want to be with this team,” Daniels said. “This team is in it every year. It's a great, historic franchise. We had quite a few vets from other teams, free agents, my rookie year, and all they kept saying to us rookies were, 'Wow, you guys, you don't understand how fortunate you are to start your careers off in Green Bay.' Why would I want to go anywhere else?”
How much salary-cap space Daniels will eat up in 2016 depends on the structure of the deal. Still, the Packers should remain in good standing with the cap expected to rise another $10 million next season. The team has 15 free agents to address, including five unrestricted players on defense.
Defensive tackle B.J. Raji and end Letroy Guion, outside linebackers Mike Neal and Nick Perry and cornerback Casey Hayward are scheduled to hit the market. Who leaves and who stays could go a long way in determining how Thompson allocates his draft picks this spring.
As of Monday, Hayward said he wasn’t aware of any contract negotiations going on between his representation and the team. On the defensive line, Raji (29) and Guion (28) returned on one-year deals and likely will be looking for long-term deals this offseason.
Daniels, former undrafted free agent Mike Pennel and Josh Boyd are the only full-time defensive linemen the Packers have under contract for 2016. With Raji's and Guion’s futures uncertain, Thompson agreed to up the practice-squad salary of rookie sixth-round pick Christian Ringo to prevent him from signing elsewhere.
If Raji leaves, nose tackle likely would rise on the team’s list of needs. Regardless of Neal and Perry’s future, outside and inside linebacker might top the list regardless with Julius Peppers one month shy of 36.
“We’re building something great here,” Daniels said. “In a perfect world, you’d like to keep everybody, but the nature of the business doesn’t always equate to that.”
Daniels repeated several times that nothing changes for him. His goal is to win “Super Bowls with this team.” Each day, he still carries the same chip on his shoulder that he brought into the NFL and feels like the defense has the necessary pieces to be a force in 2016 and beyond.
“I’m still pissed. That’s never going to change,” Daniels said. “It’s just how I approach the game, it’s how I play. The fact that I signed a contract doesn’t change the fact that I got overlooked in high school, doesn’t change the fact that I was consistently called short coming out of the draft. I’m not strong, I can’t play the run and all this other stuff. It doesn’t change the fact that I had to grind to get to where I’m at. Success is just a product of the work I’m doing. I’ll just keep on working.”
The locker room knows what it’s getting in Daniels, a passionate leader who has a knack for making the opposing quarterback’s life as miserable as possible on a weekly basis. When the draft board goes up in April, Thompson knows at least one hole that doesn’t need to be filled.
“Whenever he says something, it’s words of wisdom,” Hyde said. “Mike D, whenever he says something we know it’s time to go and we need to go out there and battle. If I was to take anyone into an alley for a street fight, I’m taking Mike D because that guy has your back. He has everybody’s back in here and his ultimate goal is he wants to win.”
Now, the Packers have him for the next four seasons.
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