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The case against releasing Mike Daniels

The veteran defensive end only fails to fit in a defense that isn’t worth running.

NFL: Seattle Seahawks at Green Bay Packers Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports

On Wednesday, the Green Bay Packers released seven-year veteran defensive tackle Mike Daniels. It’s obvious why the Packers didn’t keep him, as he was taking up 5% of their 2019 salary cap and he’s coming off an injury-plagued season, now finding himself on the wrong side of 30. It’s also obvious why they could not trade him, as he is coming off an injury, and this close to camp, few teams have the necessary cap space to add him to their roster.

With the obvious out of the way, let’s discuss what Mike Daniels is and is not, and what he could be expected to do going forward.

1. Mike Daniels is not injury prone

A star Packer defensive lineman sustained a sustained a pretty serious injury that prematurely ended his 2018 campaign. Fortunately it wasn’t a soft tissue injury or a knee or anything like that.

That defensive lineman? Kenny Clark, who was shut down by an elbow injury at the end of 2018. Mike Daniels was also shut down with a foot injury, but the point is that this is a tough game and players will get hurt no matter what. Daniels was incredibly durable for his first 4 seasons in the league, and played in 14/16 games in his fifth. All of a sudden everyone is acting as if Daniels can’t stay on the field.

There’s a narrative here, of course, that Daniels is older (30), and that foot injuries are warning signs for bigger players, but Daniels, monster though he is, isn’t actually huge, 30 isn’t actually that old, and it’s entirely possible that he has several good years remaining.

2. A One Year Deal

It’s also worth noting that if Daniels were to get hurt again, the Packers aren’t committed past this season. Having a player in the last year of his deal is one of the most enviable spots to be in. If he leaves, you may (and in this scenario likely would) receive a compensatory draft pick. You are not out multiple seasons of production. Your cap is not tied up by some multi-year signing bonus. And, while the “contract year” phenomenon is overstated (and maybe a myth), motivation is motivation.

I called his deal “cheap” on twitter which is, perhaps overstating things a bit, but while his $10.7 million cap hit may seem large in a vacuum, given his level of production and versatility he is a bargain. The Packers can say all day that they see him as a rotational player, but he can rotate into several different spots depending on need.

The Packers save $8 million by cutting him. Imagine you didn’t have Mike Daniels on your favorite team and they signed him to a 1-year, $8 million dollar deal. How does that sound to you?

3. Mike Daniels is still very good.

While Daniels was injured last season, and his conventional stats were not up to his usual standard, he was still a disruptive force on the line. And as Doug Farrar points out in his column at Touchdown Wire, Daniels still brings rare versatility:

“In just 233 passing snaps, he amassed two sacks, three quarterback hits, and 27 quarterback hurries—once again doing so from all over the defensive line. He also posted 18 total stops, pointing to his ability as a run defender.”

The Packers’ scheme under Mike Pettine doesn’t use that many defensive linemen and relies heavily on rotational players. Again, this is fine and makes some degree of sense, but Daniels’ versatility should be extra valuable in the modern NFL. For instance, Matt LaFleur loves to pass out of run-heavy sets to create mismatches for his receivers. Daniels ability as a pass-rusher and run-stopper is the exact antidote to this, as he can keep you out of bad rotations.

4. Depth and the New Guys

I have absolutely no issues with the signings of either Za’Darius or Preston Smith, and Za’Darius should slide right in as a nice fit on the defense, ostensibly making Daniels expendable. With Kenny Clark upfront anchoring the middle, the Packers should have a formidable front, at least until something goes wrong. This is football, and something will go wrong.

If Kenny Clark were to get injured (as he did last season), it would be a disaster, and any replacement would likely give you either run-stuffing or pass rush, but not both. Pairing a replacement with Daniels would go a long way towards easing such a loss. That’s the disaster scenario though, there are many more mundane reasons to doubt the Packers’ depth. You will read a great deal about how Montravius Adams “flashed” last year, but when writers write that someone “flashed” it’s just a nice way of saying they were bad most of the time. Rashan Gary is a combine superstar but disappointed on the field at Michigan, and he’s unlikely to contribute a ton in year one. Fadol Brown and Tyler Lancaster are just guys.

The Packers didn’t seem to know what to do with Daniels in this defense, but that strikes me as a simple lack of creativity. Daniels is solid-to-exceptional across the board and can be the difference against certain teams (like Seattle). I always dislike when good players are cut due to scheme fit. It often means the scheme is bad.

5. What to do with $8 million?

Most people seem to think extensions are coming for David Bakhtiari (currently signed through 2020) and Kenny Clark (also signed through 2020 due to the 5th year option). There’s nothing wrong with extending either player as they are among the best at their positions, but it’s worth noting that the Packers already have these players, and losing Daniels to lock up either one for the 2021 season really is sacrificing a bit of now for a more nebulous future.

Clark’s 5th year option would pay him about $10 million, and an extension will presumably lessen that 2020 cap hit by extending him, and paying him more overall, and less than $10 million on a yearly basis. Perhaps they can use the savings gained in 2020 to bring in someone of Mike Daniels’ caliber. If such a player were available.

The Front Office

I’ve liked almost every move the front office has made this offseason, especially in free agency, and if this move had been necessary to overhaul the team it would make more sense. The fact is that cutting Daniels and getting nothing at all for him was unnecessary. Maybe it will prolong the status quo for an additional year, but it has a real tangible cost in this one.

I know that making these calls is tough, and I know the Packers did not make the decision lightly, but I hope they don’t find themselves halfway through a promising season, suddenly with no interior pass rush. Even more so, I hope they don’t find themselves with Mike Daniels on the other side of the field twice per season.