Perhaps we should have seen it coming after free agency. Or after the Green Bay Packers reached in the minds of many by selecting Rashan Gary. Once the alert hit the collective NFL, ‘Packers to release Mike Daniels,’ the entire Green Bay offseason shot into clearer focus.
The combination of Daniels and Kenny Clark wrought havoc in the NFC the last two years, a trend that began in 2016 when Clark showed flashes of the player he was to become. But the fit was always a little wonky. For a 3-4 defense—and yes such designations can be overrated, but they’re not useless—to use a nose tackle and a three-technique defensive tackle isn’t how the modern NFL tends to be played (It’s called a 3-4 “under” front and it was a favorite of Dom Capers). Even so, there were times when the pair of interior disruptors could quite literally eat four blocks between them.
Daniels went to the Pro Bowl in 2017 — as is often the case, this was a year after he really ascended to that level. Clark will likely head there in 2019 under the same auspices. Why then, sign Za’Darius Smith to an enormous deal when his best pass rushing came from inside, often as a standup de facto 3T player?
Ask Brett Hundley and the Packers how tough Za’Darius is to block when he’s coming downhill with a head of steam from that spot.
In retrospect, this should have been the writing on the wall. Most assumed it would simply mean the subversion of Daniels’ role, not the exclusion of it entirely. Perhaps Daniels would be that single defensive lineman with his hand down as the Ravens show in that blitz look. Pettine loves formations just like that one, especially with a blitzer off the slot.
But this is clearly Daniels’ spot, where he’s always been the biggest factor.
The difference, though, is Za’Darius can play outside as a standup pass rusher as well, or as a 3-4 defensive end if they really wanted him to. This defense could look much more like the traditional 3-4 front if and when they decided to do that. Here he is in Baltimore as one of two players with his hand in the dirt on a sure passing down.
Could Daniels play here? Maybe. More likely, the Packers would use Kenny Clark or Dean Lowry simply because they’re more athletic and better suited to rush from that spot. Now, that player is clearly Smith, just in Green & Gold instead.
While some balked with sticker shock at the price for Smith, Mike Pettine will utilize him all over the formation. Part of being able to disguise and bring pressure stems from the ability to put players all over the field. When players can only line up in specific locations, it’s makes it easier for offenses to pinpoint and predict where they’ll be. Quarterbacks and offensive lines set protections swiftly and with better precision if they know where everyone is coming from, which starts with where they’re lining up. If a guy like Smith can line up everywhere, that leads to indecision and confusion, or at least a greater challenge for the offense.
None of this should be taken to proclaim Daniels a bad player. He’s not. But his release, in context, makes more sense and that’s just the beginning.
Green Bay doubled down with pass rushers, signing Preston Smith. To some, this felt like overkill. Sure, the Packers cut Nick Perry and allowed Clay Matthews to walk, but two high-priced free agents at the same position? Conventional wisdom underscored the notion Za’Darius would be spending plenty of time inside. If it’s the case, as I would argue, that Kenny Clark provides the better pass rush than Daniels at this point in their careers, then the primary interior rushers the team should want are Smith and Clark.
Once that became true, justifying nearly $11 million toward Mike Daniels seems like the kind of bargain Green Bay ultimately decided it was: not worth it.
Smith, too, can play that 5T if so desired, with his length and size at 6-foot-6 and nearly 260. In fact, I thought it might be his best position when he was coming out in the draft. If he’s going to be a primary outside linebacker and Za’Darius a primary inside pass rusher, the skill sets are hardly redundant, making the decision to spend big on both come into clearer financial focus.
Rashan Gary’s selection with the 12th overall pick suddenly makes more sense as well. Gary played on the edge at Michigan, but by design, usually on the same side as the tight end as a way of combating the run game. He consistently held up there, one of the reasons he never truly reached his potential as a pass rusher. Defensive coordinator Don Brown built his defense around Gary’s ability to take on multiple blocks and keep guys like Devin Bush clean to make plays.
It’s hard to imagine a player better suited to play both outside as a stand-up linebacker or inside than Gary. For starters, he’s one of the most athletic edge players in the common draft era. That’s not hyperbole, it’s science. He’ll have to develop his pass rush game out there, but he’s already an elite run defender, capable of handling multiple blockers. Expect him to take plenty of snaps with his hand down as well.
Philosophically, we now see the vision here. Bulking up wasn’t an accident for Brian Guteukunst. Gary and Za’Darius each tip the scales at 275+ with length. Preston Smith is the “small” one of the trio at a listed 256 pounds. All three can play any spot on the line, including the departing Daniels’ preferred 3T, but importantly, they are not limited to that spot.
Mike Pettine played two defensive linemen or fewer on 58.1% of snaps last season per Pro Football Focus. Expect that number to jump up even further last season, but it indicates a fundamental football ideology. He’s fine playing small, preferring to throw a bunch of DBs on the field to cover. The flaws show up when that smaller front can’t hold up against the run, or consistently rush the passer without blitzing.
Expect the Packers to play a considerable amount of time with three listed outside linebackers on the field at once with at least one playing inside. Oren Burks appears to have wrangled the second inside linebacker job, bringing more size a season after Pettine had to play Jermaine Whitehead at linebacker.
With “base” expected to be nickel, the starting group upfront could be as simple as Clark and Lowry as the DL with Za’Darius and Preston Smith lined up ... wherever Pettine wants. Burks and Martinez play behind them with five defensive backs on the field. Bigger outside linebackers and the extra true inside linebacker give the front more size/strength, while not sacrificing pass rush or coverage ability.
Could the Packers have found a way to incorporate Mike Daniels into that vision? Sure, we saw it last season. None of this is a commentary of the wisdom of moving on from Daniels a day before training camp opens. But now that we’ve seen it happen, there’s an intuitive path to understanding where Green Bay had been looking to head all along.