When word first came down that the Green Bay Packers were cutting Mike Daniels on Wednesday, the most common reaction among fans of the team was shock. That shock then gave way to anger for many fans, as Daniels was a fan favorite for much of his seven-year career.
Then, as the day went along, more and more details came out that gave more context to the release. The first and easiest to obtain was Daniels’ contract number. The $10.7 million cap hit he was scheduled to have this season was a large figure, and freeing up about $8 million in space clearly played a significant part. Looking back at the Packers’ additions in free agency and through the draft shows the team’s commitment to taller, longer, more versatile players up front.
But one subtle comment from beat writer Tom Silverstein went a bit under the radar. Check out the last sentence of this tweet:
The #Packers shopped DT MIke Daniels around the NFL before releasing him, an NFL source said. His $10M cap number was a hindrance. He’s considered a third-down inside rusher now by #Packers and others.— Tom Silverstein (@TomSilverstein) July 24, 2019
If the Packers truly think Daniels is only a third-down pass-rusher at this point, then the release makes complete sense, especially in light of their offseason additions. On obvious passing situations, the Packers have a ton of options for interior rushers. Kenny Clark can do the job tremendously well, and Dean Lowry has shown plenty of chops in those situations as well, while Montravius Adams and rookie Kingsley Keke represent additional potential options. Then there are the outside linebackers, as the team has been quick to note that Za’Darius Smith and Rashan Gary will definitely put their hands on the ground in those situations. There’s also a good chance that the team sees some of those players — Clark and Smith in particular — as being better options than Daniels right now anyway, making him a second or third option in those situations.
Now, that analysis is certainly up for debate. Daniels has been an effective run defender throughout his career, anchoring well on base downs and eating up blockers. However, he did seem to slip a bit in that area in 2018, Mike Pettine’s first year as defensive coordinator, even before his injury struck. That and his 30th birthday passing in May would surely be reasons for the Packers’ reported evaluation of his value as a player for the coming season.
Given his projected role as a situational interior rusher, Daniels was unlikely to play more than 50% of the team’s snaps in those situations, based solely on the other options that Pettine has at his disposal. If the team then does not see him as being a suitable option on base downs any more, then a $10.7 million cap hit is absolutely unacceptable and moving him would be the obvious choice.
That cap hit was the 9th-highest among all defensive tackles in 2019, according to Spotrac, and by this writer’s count it would have fallen behind only five other 3-4 defensive ends. In today’s NFL, you simply cannot pay a situational player like a star, which is what Daniels’ contract was set to do.
Now that money will be freed up for an extension for a true star in his prime, as the 23-year-old Kenny Clark will be due a new contract after 2020. Locking him up — whether that happens during 2019 or next offseason — will be a pricey proposition, and the Packers surely have an eye on that extension when considering the salary cap ramifications of this move. Keep in mind that any unused cap space rolls over year-to-year, so even if the Packers don’t sign Clark in the next few months, the extra $8 million opened up now will still be available.
A move like this all comes down to value. The Packers determined that they were better off eating $11.1 million in cap space to move on from Nick Perry, because the future cap space that release freed up was more than worth it to let him walk. They evidently feel that opening up $8 million now is worth it to let go of a player who is no longer a three-down difference maker.
When Daniels inevitably catches on with another team, his 2019 season will show whether Brian Gutekunst and company were wrong in their assessment of his remaining capabilities.