Wojo: With Mike Daniels, Lions' defense gets animation, hoping for domination
Allen Park — Football is mostly about physicality and fit. Can you hit someone? Do you know where you’re supposed to be when you attempt to do so?
It’s especially true in Matt Patricia’s defense, which features multiple fronts and adaptable skill sets, the fit as important as the hit. And apparently, word is spreading, as encouraging evidence mounts.
Mike Daniels is here now, another big chunk on the Lions’ stacked defensive line, because of what he saw and heard, shortly after the Packers surprisingly cut him last week. Thirteen teams called within an hour of his release, and Daniels, who made the Pro Bowl in 2017 and was one of the NFL’s most productive tackles during his seven seasons in Green Bay, said the choice was easy.
Why did he think he’d fit here, on a Lions team that was 6-10 a year ago and is being largely overlooked again?
“Coach Patricia, flat out,” Daniels said Sunday after reporting to camp. “He’s just a genius, he really is, man. He understands the game of football, he knows what it takes. To be able to play for a coach like that, it means everything. I’m so excited, if I could do a backflip, I’d do one right now.”
OK, some perspective. Daniels is 30 and missed the final six games last season because of a foot injury. The Lions paid handsomely, a one-year deal with $7.8 million guaranteed. The Packers weren’t willing to keep him for similar money, and in this league, everyone’s expendable, even one of Green Bay’s most-popular players.
But this is an impressive acquisition, as Daniels was coveted by many. His arrival could make the Lions’ already-deep defensive line as menacing as any in football. Truly, that’s not an exaggeration. It’s also not a guarantee.
After GM Bob Quinn fleeced the Giants last October and acquired Damon “Snacks” Harrison for a fifth-round pick, the Lions run defense rose from 26th in the league to second, according to Pro Football Focus analytics. The Lions have four highly-graded defensive linemen in Harrison, A’Shawn Robinson, Trey Flowers and Da’Shawn Hand. They also have Romeo Okwara, who led the team with 7.5 sacks, and now Daniels, who missed just four games in his career before last season.
When the Lions landed Flowers, one of the biggest free-agent prizes, he cited his respect for Patricia when they were together in New England. Patricia’s Patriot defenses often weren’t dominating statistically, but were so versatile and varied, they could adjust to whatever the opponent presented, and almost always improved as a season unfolded.
That’s how Patricia turned Lions castoff Kyle Van Noy into a key player. That’s why Quinn drafted big linebacker Jahlani Tavai in the second round, higher than most projected, to fit a thumping defense. In this scheme, just about anyone could line up anywhere, and you might see Daniels and Harrison side by side, stuffing the middle.
There are unknowns, such as Daniels’ recovery from the foot surgery. But there’s a lot to like about the talent piling up. The Lions finished 10th in the league in total defense (yards allowed) after a horrid start, and in Patricia’s second season, the unit should be deeper and stronger, led by a line that could be top-five.
“(Daniels) is very intense, he loves football,” Patricia said. “He’s a blue-collar guy, he’s one of those guys that loves the grind of the game. Another guy that is very smart, when you talk to him about different schemes and different things that he can do.”
To a one-time prospective rocket scientist like Patricia, intelligence matters. And it’s easy to see how Daniels was an instant hit with his new head coach, whom he met for the first time when he signed.
Daniels is a huge fan of comic books and anime, the Japanese film and TV animation. There’s even a 12-minute documentary on Daniels’ obsession, entitled, “He was anime.” In the short film, Daniels calls himself “a dork with muscles,” and describes how anime — with its martial-arts influence — became an escape when he was growing up in New Jersey. He was skinny and bullied and not yet a football standout, and was only a two-star recruit when signed by Iowa.
“For the longest time, I didn’t understand it,” Daniels said in the documentary. “I’m like, why is everybody just treating me like crap? Why is everybody just mean to me? Why are people trying to take my lunch money? Why are people, like, hitting me upside my head for no reason? Why are people, like, trying to push me in the mud?”
He can say it now with a laugh, along with a message. A quirky mind isn’t always embraced in football, but an active mind is vital. Patricia can relate, happily admitting to a long-standing “Star Wars” obsession, in addition to his aeronautical engineering studies at RPI.
On the field, no one is fooled by Daniels’ friendly — you might call it animated — demeanor. Lions offensive tackle Taylor Decker has gone head-to-head with Daniels a few times over the years and enjoyed it, sort of.
“He’s a super fierce competitor, a huge motor,” Decker said. “He would be yapping in games a little bit. He’s a little spicy. So it’ll be fun, you want to have some energy and competitiveness in practice. I think he’s gonna be great for us to have.”
Daniels should have motivation along with his motor, and will ramp up the competition in a loaded room. Harrison held out of mandatory minicamp in search of a new contract, but reported for training camp. If he has any concern that Daniels is insurance against an impasse, Harrison dismissed it with cheerful tweets welcoming the newcomer.
There also were reports Daniels wanted to sign in the NFC North to get two shots at his former team. He downplayed the revenge factor, and in fact, offered a twist on, essentially, the first firing of his career.
“I just thank God that I got cut and have an opportunity to play with a defensive genius,” said Daniels, who has 29 career sacks. “I know (Patricia) does things the right way, that’s how I try to do things, as best I can. I just really love this game of football, and I’m gonna give everything I have.”
The Lions hope he has plenty left to give. If he does, they’ll have plenty of ways to hit.