GREEN BAY - Mike Daniels has spent his entire football career outside the spotlight.
The Green Bay Packers defensive lineman received only one NCAA Division I scholarship offer while in high school, and even after a standout career at the University of Iowa, he watched as 25 players at his position were selected before him in the 2012 NFL draft.
But entering his fifth pro season, the 6-foot, 310-pound Daniels finally is getting noticed. It started with the four-year, $42 million contract extension he signed with the team in December that made him one of the highest-paid 3-4 defensive ends in the league. It followed with him being named a Pro Bowl alternate after the best season of his career.
The accolades have continued to roll in during the off-season. Daniels checked in at No. 95 in voting by his peers for the NFL Network's “Top 100 Players of 2016." He also was named the team’s most valuable player for 2015 by the Packers Hall of Fame and will be honored at its banquet July 23.
“You feel as though you get ignored, ignored, ignored,” Daniels said. “So when the things do start to happen, I’m used to not having anything and then something big happening. I’m used to being in that position. When I do get a new contract, Top 100, things of that nature, it’s just like, ‘OK, cool.’
“Just keep working. That’s the mentality.”
He did appreciate being recognized by his peers as one of the top players in the game, although it won’t change him. Nobody has to worry about Daniels getting lazy because of his new financial security or complacent because of player rankings.
"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," Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers said after Daniels received his new contract. "You need some guys with that type of attitude on a defense.”
Daniels had the best season of his pro career in 2015, leading the defensive line with 66 total tackles while adding four sacks, an interception and a forced fumble and playing a career-high 702 defensive snaps. His 53 pressures were the sixth-most among defensive ends playing in a 3-4 scheme, according to Pro Football Focus.
People apparently took notice.
“It was cool,” Daniels said of the recognition. “Starting to get a little bit more recognition, and just gotta 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.”
Daniels is ready to do his part for a Packers defense that he wants to see get nasty, reiterating what he said at the start of the offseason program in April. The unit ranked 15th in the NFL last season and perhaps was as good as it has been since the team won the Super Bowl in 2010.
There is little question the Packers have some big talent on defense playing next to and behind Daniels, but he believes there's another level they can reach.
"We can still get a little nastier," said Daniels, who then was asked what exactly that meant.
“Did you watch that playoff game between the Bengals and the Steelers?” he said, referring to the January showdown between the two AFC North rivals that featured a flag-filled final minute.
Bengals linebacker Vontaze Burfict was penalized for unnecessary roughness after hitting a defenseless receiver, which was followed by an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty on cornerback Adam Jones when he got in the face of Steelers assistant coach Joey Porter after a fight broke out on the field.
The penalties put Pittsburgh in position to hit the game-winning field goal and were two of the 47 fouls called in the three games between the teams last year.
“You don’t want the flags, but you can teeter that line a little bit,” Daniels said. “You can flirt with it a little bit. When another team is a little more concerned with things other than just playing football, then you’re in their head mentally and I think that’s something we can continue to improve on.”
Daniels said a player can’t be taught to be nasty. He believes you either have it or you don’t. When he looks around the locker room, Daniels says he sees teammates who have it in them but haven’t yet brought it out. He said sometimes players are thinking too much and more worried about their assignment than “laying wood on a guy.”
Daniels remembers when safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix arrived in Green Bay. Daniels told the youngster he'd seen him put a good hit on a few guys and wanted to make sure that continued.
“And that’s what I’ve seen from him,” Daniels said. “Morgan (Burnett) is a guy who’s going to show up in terms of being physical, and Letroy (Guion) and I were just junkyard dogs in the middle. Mike Pennel is really getting comfortable, and also it’s a level of comfort, too. … a guy like Jake Ryan. He comes in there, he’s an outside backer playing inside as a rookie. He has to start midseason against an eventual Super Bowl-contending team and the guy’s head is spinning. It’s tough to play like that.”
Which is where veterans like Daniels come in, he said. To teach the younger guys how to bring out the toughness inside them.
“When you have older guys who allow for that culture to develop, then the young guys learn how to play through their assignment but do it in a mean, nasty way,” Daniels said. “We got a guy like Sam Barrington, Ha Ha’s older, myself, Letroy, we’re older guys and we definitely encourage that behavior. And the guys that don’t have it, it’ll show because they won’t be here.”