Let there be no mistake as the Green Bay Packers begin the 2017 season: the team's hopes and dreams on defense ride on one player and it's not the one with flowing locks that wears No. 52.
The defense's fate instead rides on the arms and legs of the man who wears No. 76 and in the past has described opposing quarterbacks as "food."
That's right, it's Mike Daniels' party and opposing offenses can cry if they want to.
For years the focus for many on the outside has been on Clay Matthews and what he does for the Packers' defense. It's easy to see why, given what he did during his first few seasons in the league and the run to Super Bowl XLV. Despite having issues staying healthy as of late, opposing offenses still scheme around Matthews and where he is on the field. That's the impact a playmaker has, and Matthews is still a playmaker.
While he can still make an impact, Matthews is no longer the leader of the defense — if he even was to begin with.
That role now belongs to Daniels. Green Bay lost its vocal leader when Charles Woodson was released after the 2012 season and it's no secret that the defense struggled after that season. The defense fell from 11th overall in 2012 to 25th in 2013. It was clear Woodson's presence was missed.
Enter Daniels. He was a rookie during Woodson's final year in Green Bay, and he has become the vocal leader the cornerback once was.
In 2014, Daniels said he wanted to step up more as a defensive leader. The defense responded with their best showing in years, finishing up ranked 14th in total defense and the Packers came within a whisker of making a trip to the Super Bowl.
The Packers rose to 12th overall in total defense in 2015 before plummeting to 21st last season, thanks mainly due to an injured and poorly performing secondary. For his part, Daniels was rewarded with a four-year contract extension late in the 2015 season.
Entering 2017, everything begins with Daniels. If he and his teammates along the defensive line can disrupt the line of scrimmage, then the linebackers can do their thing, which in turn helps the young secondary.
It's a well-worn football cliche, but it really does all begin in the trenches. Daniels' endless of supply of energy can fuel the entire defense. The man just simply destroys offensive linemen and eats them for lunch.
Daniels brings a swagger and an attitude to a defense that needs it.
Look how Daniels described his workout routine to the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel recently:
"Bench press tall buildings, squat small civilizations, run a couple laps around the earth for a warmup...All in a day’s work.”
Who wouldn't want to run through a wall for this guy? Young players love hearing this kind of stuff.
With second-year men Kenny Clark and Dean Lowry beside him, Daniels has the chance to leave his mark on the defensive line for the long-term. The unit is now a force to be reckoned with and given the depth issues at outside linebacker and the youth movement in the secondary, it is the strongest part of the defense.
Daniels and company are literally and figuratively on the front line of the battlefield known as an NFL line of scrimmage. If he can elevate the play of his fellow defensive linemen, that wave will lift the rest of the defense. Linebackers will be able to get into the backfield and get to the quarterback, and the young defensive backs will be able to play more aggressively and force some turnovers — a staple of defensive coordinator Dom Capers' scheme. It also will take some pressure off the young secondary if the Packers can generate a consistent pass rush. You can't rely on players adjusting to the speed of NFL receivers to carry you on defense. One needs to look no further than the 2016 Packers to understand why.
Daniels wants to be great. Someday he could be mentioned alongside Reggie White, Willie Davis and Henry Jordan as the best defensive linemen in Packers history. All three of those won championships in Green Bay and Daniels is in search of his first.
As the 2017 season kicks off this week, that will be Daniels' goal. The talent and the drive are there. To become immortal in Green Bay, you need to win a championship and immortality is within his grasp.
The quest starts against the Seattle Seahawks on Sunday. Whether or not the defense is up to challenge lies on Daniels' shoulders, arms and legs.
Would you bet against him? It would not be wise to do so.