Daniels' deal bodes well for defensive line

This is Part 6 of a 10-part series grading Packers players and coaches. Today, we rate the defensive line.

Weston Hodkiewicz
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Green Bay Packers defensive end Mike Daniels removes coaches one of the teams in the Gridiron Divas Powderpuff Game, which benefits the American Cancer Society, held at Ashwaubenon High School on Oct. 27, 2015.

Arguably the best player who stepped onto the field for the Green Bay Packers this season wasn't chosen to play in Sunday's Pro Bowl.

You won’t find his name on any all-pro lists or see him at any postseason award shows. As has been the case most of his football career, Mike Daniels’ work remains unheralded to the masses. To understand it, you have to look past the stat sheet and see where he fits into the bigger picture.

Over the past four years, Daniels has become the piston that powers the Packers’ defense. Coordinator Dom Capers’ zone-blitz scheme has evolved in recent years, but interior pass rush remains paramount to the defense’s success. The faceless trenches are where Daniels excels.

Grading the 2015 Packers by position

Daniels, a 6-foot, 312-pound pit bull, received only one Division I scholarship offer coming out of high school and was the 26th defensive lineman selected in the 2012 NFL draft. He might not have had the measurables the scouts seek, but the Packers saw the work ethic and desire.

The organization acknowledged Daniels’ value in December when they rewarded him with a four-year, $41 million extension that included a $12 million signing bonus. In the process, they took care of their biggest impending free agent, who likely would have commanded even more on the open market.

General manager Ted Thompson has been willing to go to the 11th hour in recent years with the likes of cornerback Sam Shields (four years, $39 million), receiver Randall Cobb (four years, $40 million) and right tackle Bryan Bulaga (five years, $33.75 million) before reaching a deal on the eve of free agency.

However, he didn’t want to play the same game with Daniels, especially with veteran nose tackles B.J. Raji and Letroy Guion also approaching free agency again. It keeps the Packers’ most productive inside pass rusher (16 sacks over the past three seasons) in the fold through 2019.

The only thing that’s missing now is a Pro Bowl bid. If anything, the snub should give the 26-year-old Daniels one more thing to fuel his fire.

“I’m still pissed. That’s never going to change,” said Daniels when asked last month if the extension will change his mentality. “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.”

2015 Packers season in review

Mike Daniels

Possesses a rabid tenacity and carries an iceberg-sized chip on his shoulder at all times. May have been overlooked earlier in his career for his size (6-foot-½), but it has become the driving force behind his success. Packs an incredible punch on bull rushes that often get underneath linemen and push them off their spot. Once seen as a rotational pass rusher, Daniels has molded himself into an every-down player with an unrelenting work ethic. He stayed in Green Bay during a contract season and returned for the start of the offseason program at 312 pounds. Had a career season with 49 tackles (six for a loss) while playing a career-high 702 defensive snaps (67.4 percent). His 53 pressures were the sixth-most among 3-4 defensive ends, according to Pro Football Focus. Can get washed out in the run game at times. Recorded three of his four regular-season sacks before the team’s Week 7 bye. Hampered during the final stretch of the season by hamstring and quad injuries, Daniels ended a seven-game skid without a sack in the divisional playoffs in Arizona. Daniels has tried to rein in his big personality, but remains a leader on and off the field.

Grade: A-minus.

B.J. Raji

After a biceps tear sidelined him for all of 2014, Raji impressed many inside the organization with his renewed dedication and commitment to conditioning. Dropped down to 327 and played out of his mind during the first month of the regular season. Ended a three-year drought with a half a sack in the opener against Chicago and then put together one of the finest performances of his career the next week against Seattle. Raji, who turns 30 in June, isn’t the pass rusher he was during his first three NFL seasons, but his sudden first step was back in a return to nose tackle. Took more pride in his role as a run defender and made a formidable pair with Daniels in big nickel packages. Displayed maturity in turning to yoga to increase his flexibility and realizing he needed to lose weight. His play came back down to earth as the season wore on, particularly after he injured his groin in Week 5. He still made 17 starts and finished with 22 tackles (two for a loss) with two passes defensed while playing 439 defensive snaps in the regular season. He’ll be an unrestricted free agent for the third time in as many years this offseason and likely will be seeking a multi-year contract.

Grade: B-minus.

Raji in no rush to ponder free agency

Mike Pennel

The best undrafted rookie the Packers have signed since cornerback Sam Shields in 2010. The 6-foot-4, 332-pound defensive lineman carved out a more defined role despite the Packers having more defensive-line depth this season. His ability to play anywhere on the line earned him five starts at five-technique end. His brute strength made him difficult to move off his spot from the start, but better technique and pad level have made that task even more problematic for opposing linemen. When his pads are down, Pennel is able to extend his arms, keep his eyes in the backfield and disengage from his blocker. Did a better job of working off double teams and flashed playmaking ability with his first career sack and forced fumble. Exuded professionalism in his first two NFL seasons despite discipline questions in college. He had 25 tackles on 286 defensive snaps, second only to Daniels on the line. Also added four quarterback hits.

Grade: C-plus.

Letroy Guion

His play in relief of Raji in 2014 likely would’ve earned him a multi-year contract if not for a February arrest in Starke, Fla., for felony possession of marijuana and presence of a firearm while committing a felony. After agreeing to a plea bargain, Guion signed a one-year deal with the Packers with heavy incentives. Earned $2,609,375 of the contract after being suspended for the first three games of the season for violating the NFL’s personal conduct policy. Stayed in Green Bay after the arrest and during the suspension, but struggled upon his return. A switch to five-technique end didn’t go well and Guion quickly fell behind Pennel in the base defense. Was pushed around early with offenses frequently attacking his gap in the run game. He played much better in the final month, particularly in short-yardage and goal-line situations. After registering 3 1/2 sacks in 2014, Guion provided little as a passrusher with only one quarterback hit. Finished with 21 tackles on 329 defensive snaps.

Grade: C.

Datone Jones

Depth on the defensive line thrust the 2013 first-round pick back into a limited role in the dime package. Looking to get Jones more opportunities, the organization gave the green light at midseason to moving him to outside linebacker. Two weeks into his shift to a two-point stance, Jones had perhaps the best game of his career against Minnesota when he registered two sacks and four quarterback hits on Vikings quarterback Teddy Bridgewater. Moved outside because of his strength and pass-rush ability, Jones was better than expected at setting the edge in the run game. Was asked to drop into coverage only three times, according to Pro Football Focus. Jones finished the season with 20 tackles, three passes defensed and three sacks in 15 games. He also was third on the team in hits (12) and tied for fourth in tackles for loss (seven). Jones probably won’t live up to the first-round hype, but he has been a good rotational rusher for the Packers. His value could increase this offseason with several upcoming free agents at outside linebacker and defensive lineman. With one year remaining on his rookie contract, it seems unlikely the Packers will pick up his fifth-year option this offseason.

Grade: C.

Josh Boyd

Boyd fell behind Mike Pennel as the starting five-technique end in the season opener against Chicago before breaking his ankle on the third defensive snap against Seattle in Week 2. Underwent surgery and was placed on season-ending injured reserve the next day. Has 28 tackles with no sacks in 27 career regular-season games. Decent rotational hand. Coaches like his quick twitch. Availability uncertain for the offseason program, but should get a chance to earn a place back on the roster in training camp. Turns 27 in August.

Grade: Incomplete. and follow him on Twitter @WesHod.

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