GREEN BAY – Mike Daniels had high hopes for 2018.
For the Packers. For the defensive line. For himself.
But just as it looked like the picture was coming into focus for Green Bay’s defensive front with the addition of Muhammad Wilkerson and maturation of Kenny Clark, fate had other plans.
Wilkerson was lost for the season after Week 3 in Washington. Clark was in midst of a coming-of-age campaign before a late-season elbow injury caused him to miss the final three games.
And Daniels, fresh off his first Pro Bowl appearance, was forced to finish the year on injured reserve for the first time in his seven-year career after injuring his foot against Seattle Nov. 15. It was a tough blow for a player who had only missed two NFL games due to injury at that point.
Over the last six weeks, all Daniels could do was watch from the sideline, through a three-game losing skid that culminated in a home loss to Arizona and the franchise’s first in-season coaching change in 60 years.
A 31-0 loss to Detroit in the season finale began a transformative offseason in Green Bay. Matt LaFleur was hired as head coach, and Za’Darius Smith and Preston Smith were tabbed to replace pass-rushing stalwarts Clay Matthews and Nick Perry.
Daniels, back on the practice field for this week’s voluntary veteran minicamp, sees a roster hungry for redemption.
“I can say the team has a very, very big chip on its shoulder,” Daniels said. “I know me, personally, I went down in November and I’ve just been fuming ever since. I’m excited to get a chance to hit somebody coming into July.”
Despite the foot injury ending his season prematurely, Daniels said he still had a relatively normal offseason. He performed his rehab at team facilities and was cleared to participate in the team’s offseason program once it began April 8.
Making life easier was the fact LaFleur retained defensive coordinator Mike Pettine, a move that permits the Packers to build on perhaps the biggest silver lining to the 2018 season.
The departure of Matthews and Perry leaves Daniels as the second-eldest player on the defense behind cornerback Tramon Williams, but he feels the Smiths will be welcome veteran additions.
The two new pass rushers haven’t wasted any time integrating themselves into the locker room. Having talked in the past about the need for a meaner mentality on his side of the ball, Daniels believes the Smiths give Pettine’s defense the edge it needs.
“The feel, it’s where it’s supposed to be,” Daniels said. “I’ve made a lot of comments in the past. I really feel like this is kind of what I expected, when I made those comments when I was younger is what I see now, and it’s really exciting. Those guys, they come out, they work hard and put in extra work. They come in early, leave late. Great team leaders already and they just got here.”
Daniels, who resides in Green Bay year-round, saw all the renovations made around Lambeau Field this offseason – from new turf in the Hutson Center to the brighter lighting system and white paint leading to the Packers’ locker room.
He loves all of it, especially the line LaFleur uttered to the media Tuesday about “when you come to the Green Bay Packers, obviously, you respect the tradition, the history, but for us and this football team, it’s about making history.”
Daniels has been a part of five playoff teams, two of which advanced to the NFC Championship Game. To play in a Super Bowl, however, it’s up to the players in today’s locker room to make it happen.
“You can’t forget Brett Favre, Reggie White, B.J. Raji, Clay Matthews, Charles Woodson, those guys aren’t coming back to help us,” Daniels said. “Josh Sitton, Scott Wells, those guys aren’t coming back. Chad Clifton, Nick Barnett, they’re not coming back. This is our time. This is our team. This is us. We have to get it done.”
The byproduct of the injuries to Daniels, Wilkerson and Clark last year was it opened up snaps for Dean Lowry, Montravius Adams and undrafted rookie Tyler Lancaster, who buoyed Green Bay’s defensive line during the final two months.
It’s possible the Packers add to that group over the next three days, especially considering they’ve taken at least one defensive lineman in 22 consecutive drafts. Daniels will be watching the NFL Draft closely over the next few days. If the Packers take a D-lineman, he’ll be waiting with outstretched arms.
Take a look at Packers playing in college and in Green Bay.
Meanwhile, Daniels is champing at the bit for his chance to return to Pro Bowl form after the most challenging year of his NFL career.
“That was extremely hard, extremely hard, especially when you know you could’ve contributed to helping the team do better in some areas,” Daniels said. “It wasn’t fun at all, but I’m glad it happened because I had some time to really sit back, reflect, and refocus and kind of get back to the basics. I thank God for that.
“Without last year, I don’t have the offseason I had, just really focusing down on everything and getting my body together, and putting everything where it needs to be.”