Secret Superstars 2014: Packers
Over the past 15 years, the Packers have oddly been more successful picking defensive linemen in the middle of the draft than they had been at the beginning of the draft.
They had a pattern of adding a key contributor every other year starting in 2000 with Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila, followed by Aaron Kampman, Corey Williams, and Johnny Jolly. Since 2000, they have also spent five picks within the first 55 on the defensive line. It started with Jamal Reynolds and Justin Harrell who have a combined 32 games and three sacks to their name.
This trend has even continued recently. B.J. Raji could only get a one-year deal with the Packers to re-sign, Jerel Worthy is on the roster bubble, and Datone Jones saw fewer snaps as his rookie season went on rather than more. Not only have the Packers’ early-round defensive line busts continued, but so has their trend of finding middle-round defensive gems. With the 132nd pick in the 2012 draft, the Packers drafted Mike Daniels. In his second year with the Packers he was able to emerge as their Secret Superstar.
Early Playing Time
The Packers spent the 2012 improving the defense spending all six picks on that side of the ball. The Packers let go of Jarius Wynn and Howard Green and replaced them with Jerel Worthy and Mike Daniels. In training camp, Phillip Merling beat out Mike Daniels to push him down to seventh on the defensive line depth chart.
Mike Neal was suspended for the first four games of the 2012 season which moved Daniels up to sixth on the depth chart. The Packers first gave Daniels playing time in Week 2 where he recorded a sack and hurry on 14 pass rushes. This helped lead to the release to Merling. After no pressure in the following two games, the return of Mike Neal had Daniels returning to the inactive list. Week 5 was the last time Daniels would be inactive in either 2012 or 2013. A Week 5 injury to B.J. Raji pushed Daniels up the depth chart once again. Once Raji returned from injury the Packers opted to keep six linemen on the active roster.
From Week 8 to Week 15 Daniels was accomplishing at least one pressure per game despite limited playing time which led to a slow increase in playing time. Thanks to the Titans playing a lot of three wide receiver sets, the Packers trusted Daniels with 48% of the defensive snaps in that game. A Week 17 injury to Jerel Worthy led Daniels to play in over 30% of both playoff games where he recorded another pressure in each. He ended the season with 12 pressures which was more than fellow rookie Jerel Worthy despite Worthy receiving more snaps. His Pass Rushing Productivity of 6.0 was second-best on the team just behind Neal.
Making the Most of Opportunities
The Packers made a lot of changes to their defensive line from 2012 to 2013. Jerel Worthy missed most of the season with injury and Mike Neal was moved to outside linebacker part time. To replace them, the Packers saw the return of Johnny Jolly while adding Datone Jones and Josh Boyd in the draft. At that point Daniels still struggled to receive playing time. Pickett, Raji, and Jolly played in the base defense while Mike Neal and Datone Jones played in the nickel, with Daniels only playing to give one of those five players a rest.
By Week 2 the Packers started using Neal more at outside linebacker which led to more nickel snaps for Daniels. That game was somewhat of a breakout game for Neal, as he had a tackle for a loss in the run game, two pressures in the pass game, and an additional pressure which led to the offense grabbing his facemask to prevent Daniels from getting any closer to the quarterback.
In Week 5 and 6, despite only playing in 19 run snaps, he had two tackles for a loss, two for short gain, and a goal line stop on 4th-and-1. This led to a steady increase in his snaps against the run.
Due to a Week 5 injury to Clay Matthews followed by a Week 6 injury to Nick Perry, Neal began taking all of his snaps at outside linebacker allowing Daniels to take the majority of the nickel snaps for the first time in his career. He played so well in those nickel snaps that there was no way he would give them up. In the five-game span from Week 7 to Week 11, he had four sacks, four hits, and 11 hurries over 120 pass rush snaps.
From Week 7 on, Daniels recorded at least one hurry every single game. He also recorded a sack or hit in all but three games, with two of those games occurring against the Bears. Late in the season the Packers allowed rookie Josh Boyd to receive more playing time. Jerel Worthy, as well as the Packers’ outside linebackers, returned from injury which allowed Neal to play some snaps on the defensive line again. Despite all of that, Daniels remained in for the majority of nickel snaps. In each of the last four games of the season, Daniels played in at least 50% of the team’s snaps.
This offseason the Packers continued to rework their front seven. Ryan Pickett and Johnny Jolly were both unrestricted restricted free agents and neither have been retained to this point. C.J. Wilson was also a free agent and signed with the Raiders. In their place, the Packers signed Letroy Guion in free agency and added Khyri Thornton in the draft. If Mike Daniels wants to continue to increase his playing time, it will need to come in the base defense. The competition for those three spots seems to be between Raji, Worthy, Guion, Boyd, and Thornton, but Daniels certainly deserves to be given a chance to get those snaps.
Some of Daniels’ pass rush snaps could also be in danger if everyone stays healthy. In general, the Packers will likely only have four pass rushers on the field at a time in nickel situations. They already have Clay Matthews, Nick Perry, Neal, and Datone Jones. They added Julius Peppers in free agency and rookie Carl Bradford will be fighting for snaps as well. With how effective Daniels has been, it would be very surprising to see a large decrease in playing time, but the competition is certainly there.
In two years, Daniels has been given a lot of opportunities due to injury and has made the most of the situation each time. He has improved and now faces more competition than ever. If the competition can push him to continue his improvement, we will be looking at one of the best 3-4 defensive ends in the league. If not ,then he could continue to struggle for playing time.
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