Starting his third season in the National Football League, Mike Daniels has smashed any and all expectations that draft analysts had pegged for him. As a senior in 2011, Daniels was a team captain, an All-Big Ten performer, and a Senior Bowl candidate. After only one season as a full-time starter, that's a heavy accomplishment.
The momentum he had during his senior year sputtered, though, as a shoulder injury held him back during the draft process. Instead of performing at the combine, he was forced to sit out. He did manage to add over ten pounds on top of his college playing weight during the measurement portion of the Indianapolis visit, which was a big positive for him. In Bleacher Report's scouting report of him, his size was brought up as a knock.
The senior year injuries and offseason shoulder surgery are a concern, although it speaks to tremendous mental and physical toughness that he played through it all.
His performance at the end of last year coming back from injury was impressive. Interviewed at the combine, Daniels said, “Those last few games [showed] that I’ve come along with my healing process and definitely [played] how I should have been playing all season.”
At 6 feet, he is small for today’s D-line, but he uses quickness to work his way inside past blockers. Multiple scouts have expressed concern over his size.
The saying "the eye in the sky doesn't lie" was absolutely correct regarding Daniels. When watching him play football, it's hard to come away unimpressed. In a Draft Breakdown cutup of Daniels facing Oklahoma during his senior season, he tackles a running back for about a negative seven-yard play on the second clip of the footage. Even in college, he was flashing the ability to be a penetrating, destructive force at the NFL level.
Looking at Daniels as a professional, he could be one of the rare athletes who might actually have a better professional career than collegiate. In March, Bleacher Report named Daniels the fourth-best 3-4 defensive end in the league.
Daniels came out of nowhere to shock the Packers and their fans with his ability in 2013. His athleticism has allowed the team to rebuild the defense with versatility and hybrid sets in mind.
If his 2013 season was a shock, what he's done in 2014 is a power plant on the loose. At the rate that he's currently going, he should hit career highs in just about every category in 2014 with the green and gold. To help illustrate how dominant the now 4-3 defensive tackle has looked over the first two games of the season, we'll break down his eight most impactful plays from the New York match up.
Play 1: first quarter 9:07
Mike Daniels lined head-up on New York Jets' left guard Brian Winters, a second-year player out of Kent state, here. The team lined up in a 4-3 look with Julius Peppers standing up as the left defensive end and Mike Neal crouching at right defensive end.
Daniels beat his man off the ball. A zone-blocking concept from the offense, the back side of the offensive line needed to takeout the back side of the defense with low blocks. Freely roaming the back side were Guion, Clay Matthews, Peppers, and A.J. Hawk. With Daniels occupying two offensive linemen, efficiently walling off the option to continue to the sideline, the running back had to cut into the swarming back side of the defense. The result of the play was a carry of zero yards.
Play 2: first quarter 0:21
Again, Daniels was matched up on Winters. Really, the defensive setup is the same as the previously highlighted play. Both tackles were head up on the guards, while the defensive ends were standing up. Matthews is also stretched out on the play.
Quickly getting off at the snap, Daniels absolutely beat everyone to the punch. He was free in the backfield before the ball-carrier even had completely control of the ball. An explosive athlete, Daniels showed his finest trait here: his explosive burst. Even the offensive linemen who were mere inches away from him pre-snap couldn't catch up to him.
With nice depth on the play, Daniels was able to make a tackle on the carrier six yards behind the line of scrimmage. The first big play on the defensive side of the ball came solely by way of a former Iowa Hawkeye.
Play 3: second quarter, 11:21
On this play, the defense gave a different look. Backed up near the end zone, the Packers came out with a 4-3 Under look. Daniels was on the outside shoulder of the left guard, while Guion lined up on the right shoulder of the center. Peppers was again a standing defensive end. The Jets came out in a Wildcat package for the play.
Unable to beat Daniels off the snap, he, again, burst into the backfield to make a play. The running back had to attempt to shake the defensive tackle simply to breath. The blocker assigned to Daniels stretched, fell to the ground, attempted to pull the back of his jersey. It's the only part of him that he could catch at that point.
Daniels again made a nice solo play that resulted in no yardage. It was obvious that when Daniels wasn't double-teamed, he was going to create chaos in the backfield.
Play 4: second quarter, 5:12
During this snap, the Jets sent a man in motion to the top of the screen. With him, they ran a screen pass. You're thinking to yourself "defensive linemen don't make impacts on outside screen plays," but Mike Daniels isn't a typical defensive lineman. He's lined up on the opposite side of the right hash on this play.
With the pass completed, most defensive tackles would stop on the play altogether; Rarely do they get into position to make a play. Daniels, though, is an anomaly. Before he was a great defensive tackle, he was a great special teams player, which 3-4 defensive linemen rarely are. His all-around athleticism is great for his BMI.
He continued towards the ball at full speed and got in on the tackle. Again, the play was stopped before any yardage was gained. The New Jersey-born player was already having one of the best days of his career.
Play 5: second quarter, 2:00
The squad went back to their earlier looks on this play, again putting Daniels directly across from Winters. Threatening to score, the Packers needed to make a play to stop the drive in its tracks. On the previous red-zone possession, Daniels had made the tackle for no gain.
With Winters stretched to the left, Daniels beat him using his hands and worked his way back to the right. The second-year player was out of position to turn back, as his right arm was completely extended to the left of the defensive tackle. And to the right of Winters? A large opening leading directly to quarterback Geno Smith.
Trying to make a play, Winters threw his body at Daniels, which was ineffective. Daniels was headed for Smith, looking for the kill.
Holding onto the ball just long enough for Daniels to get a lick on him, Smith released the pass, which sailed near the end zone. Daniels may not have racked up a sack on the play, but he forced a poor throw from Smith.
With too much air under the ball, the result of the play was as an interception. There's no way that play is made if Daniels doesn't recognize and exploit the fact that the guy blocking him is out of position. Without Daniels' rare burst, most players can't close in on Smith in time on that play, meaning the QB would have had more time to make a stronger throw, which could have changed the result of the pass drastically.
Play 6: third quarter, 14:56
Another change-of-pace play, Daniels lined up as the nose tackle in the 4-3 on the snap. Guion, the typical nose tackle, played the under tackle role to the right of him. This is also a 4-3 Over look, a bit different than the previous 4-3 Under looks.
Beating and walling off his man, Daniels entered the backfield with balance and promise as he closed in on the ball-carrier. When he identified the free tackle, he began to cutback, where Mike Neal, a free defensive end, was there waiting for him.
After a couple steps, the tandem met at the running back. Assisting on the tackle, Daniels again made an impressive play, this time near the opponent's end zone. The result was a two-yard gain for the Jets.
Play 7: third quarter 10:19
Again lined up as a 4-3 Over nose tackle, Josh Boyd, a second-year player out of Mississippi State, was in as the under tackle.
After beating two men off the ball, Daniels continued to fight across them to force the ball-carrier to redirect. Creating chaos behind the line-of-scrimmage is a premier attribute to have for a defensive player, and Daniels had successfully checked that box off on the play.
With the running back hesitating, Daniels closed in. The result of the play was a two-yard run, but coming off a double-team, that's about as good of a play as you could ask for a defensive tackle to make.
Play 8: third quarter, 1:51
Returning to the under tackle role in a 4-3 Under, Daniels started the play with his helmet on the outside shoulder of the guard. Guion was back in as the nose tackle for the play.
Winning the jump, he again uses his hands to shed Winters. With Smith's eyes in the opposite direction, Daniels had the potential to close in for the sack. The issue was that New York's center, who recognized the need to assist Winters in pass protection, was staring at him.
In the end, the two offensive linemen chased Daniels to no avail. The Green Bay lineman used his terrific closing speed to rack up his second sack of the season. From this point on, Daniels faced mostly a combination of double-teams and avoidance; he had made his mark on the team.
Also on that play, he had a holding penalty called on one of the offensive linemen that were chasing him behind the line-of-scrimmage. Not only was he beating the Jets' line, he was embarrassing them with his talents.
At the end of the season, Mike Daniels may receive the recognition he deserves. Ask the casual NFL fan about Daniels, and you're more likely to receive a sentence ending in a question mark than a statement on his play. He just might be the most under-appreciated player in the league.
As far as penetrating under tackles go, the big names in the league are Geno Atkins, Jurrell Casey, and Gerald McCoy, but Daniels can hold his own with names. He's been called small and undersized since before he even wore a white G on his helmet. Names mean nothing compared to the production he's able to create by himself.