GREEN BAY – Kenny Clark thought it was a bad joke. At the very least, his teammates were mistaken. He’d just returned from the hot tub, down a hallway that connects to the defensive line wing inside the Green Bay Packers locker room, when Dean Lowry and Reggie Gilbert delivered the news.
Mike Daniels, they said, had been released.
No way that was real, Clark thought. He looked at Daniels’ locker. His stuff was still there, hanging under his No. 76 name plate. Surely he wasn’t gone.
“I didn’t believe it,” Clark said.
Earlier Wednesday, Aaron Rodgers encountered Daniels inside Lambeau Field. They chatted, went their separate ways.
Daniels clearly didn’t expect it was his last day with the Packers.
“Then next thing I know,” Rodgers said, “I get a text from somebody that Mike is getting taken upstairs. When you say that, like so-and-so just went upstairs, you know what’s happened. I was surprised. I really was.”
As shock swept across the Packers fan base Wednesday in the wake of Daniels’ release, the reaction inside the Packers locker room was no different. Moments before Clark stepped into the hot tub, he’d been sitting next to Daniels at their lockers. There was the typical banter. Daniels discussed the upcoming schedule. Then he left for lunch.
Clark didn’t see him again.
Daniels’ former teammates were left to process the shock and, with no time to spare, move forward as training camp opened Thursday. Gone was a deep, boisterous voice, a personality receiver Davante Adams admitted “could be a bit much” at times, but one the locker room had come to expect. Daniels long made his punch-you-in-the-mouth, take-no-prisoners demeanor clear, broadcasting it to all who would listen. He made no apologies if his intensity ruffled others.
“Mike will definitely be missed,” Rodgers said. “… Hope we don’t have to play against him.”
Over in the defensive line wing, there was nothing subtle about what Daniels’ departure meant for those who remain. It’s been a turbulent start to camp for the unit, filled with surprises. That Lowry signed his three-year, $20.35 million contract one day before Daniels’ release is no coincidence. A former fourth-round pick like Daniels, Lowry will take many of the snaps his former teammate left behind. He’ll join Clark as a leader in the locker room.
Lowry said contract negotiations went quickly. The team first approached his agent a couple weeks ago.
“It really wasn’t on my mind too much the past year,” Lowry said. “It all happened so fast. That’s kind of out of the way, and now it’s just playing football.”
Lowry was with Clark earlier this week when he got the offer. Clark congratulated him after it became official. Inside the locker room Thursday, he smiled when asked about Lowry’s extension.
Clark knows what it meant for Lowry, yes, but also himself.
“I was happy for him,” he said. “Congrats to Dean. Hopefully I’m next.”
Clark knows Daniels’ release allowed the Packers more financial flexibility, money that might go to him. The former first-round pick is entering the final year of his rookie contract, though the Packers hold a fifth-year option for 2020. The closer Clark gets to the open market, the more leverage he might have to negotiate a richer deal. But the security of guaranteed money – and not needing to wait for it – is always enticing.
Clark said Wednesday no negotiations for an extension had begun. Regardless, the Packers know it’s important to get a new deal done sooner than later.
“I don’t know what’s going to happen, honestly,” Clark said. “I would love to be here for a long time.”
The business of football might be what Daniels’ release impacts most, but his departure will be felt elsewhere. On the field, Lowry said he always appreciated the constant attention Daniels received from opposing offensive lines, how the veteran was able to overcome those double-team blocks. In the meeting room, Clark knows he’ll need to be a more vocal leader.
For Clark, that might not be a big change. Even if Daniels had stayed through the end of this season, the Packers defensive line now belonged to Clark. The balance of power shifted early last season. By the time Clark had six sacks before December, becoming a fringe Pro Bowler, nobody questioned if he was the best player up front.
“I felt like it was my room, really,” Clark said. “I’m not one of those guys that, I’m not big on yelling and trying to show everybody that, but I felt like I put in the work and my film spoke for itself, really. So, yeah, I felt like it was my room.”
And yet, Clark said, there are lessons Daniels imparted that he’ll keep. The way he worked every day. His unshakable confidence. The intensity he demanded.
Mike Daniels set a hardened tone on the Packers defense. Clark doesn’t want that tone to change.
It’ll be his job to carry it forward.
“His mindset was crazy,” Clark said. “He felt like he could bull rush anybody. His move, that move was going to work every single game, and it did. He never shied away from it, and that’s the type of mindset that you’ve got to have in order to compete against the best. You’ve got to feel like you’re the best guy out here, you’re the best guy on the team. You’ve got to feel that way, and you’ve got to really believe it. And his mindset was that all the time, no matter if he had a bad game, good game. He came in day in and day out, and he brought that mindset.
“So really just that, his aggressiveness, how he played blocks, how he plays the run. He was a dominant player. So good luck to him, and I really appreciate him for that, because that’s where I’m going to take my game, from his game.”