Fire and ice: Packers defense finds emerging leaders

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GREEN BAY — The contrast can be heard in volume, seen on the practice field and realized, perhaps, with a better defense.

“Some guys, they can look and see, ‘OK, he’s doing things the right way, he’s leading by example,” said Packers defensive lineman Mike Daniels. “Other guys, they might need that kick in the tail, they might need that fire.”

The Green Bay defense, in need of improvement as they eye another Super Bowl run, has two emerging leaders to lean on. Daniels provides “that fire,” a palpable passion on the practice field and in front of cameras. A newly signed teammate provides an icy cool example of professionalism.

“I’m not a big rah-rah guy,” said Packers outside linebacker and defensive lineman Julius Peppers. “I’m not going to be loud and vocal; I will be when it’s necessary but for the most part I just want to show you how it’s done.”

A year ago, neither Daniels (coming off an injury-slowed rookie year) nor Peppers (on the Chicago Bears) were looked to as leaders on the Packers defense. As training camp rolls on this year, teammates see both as leaders in a room that already has established veteran presences like cornerback Tramon Williams and linebackers Clay Matthews and AJ Hawk.

I’m a pretty quiet cat by nature.”

—Julius Peppers, Packers Linebacker/Defensive Lineman
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“It’s a perfect mixture, I think,” said Hawk. “You have a guy like Mike Daniels, you have a guy like Julius [Peppers]. You have 11 guys on the field at the same time, there’s a lot of different personalities out there.”

The Icy Blast from Free Agency

Julius Peppers surprised everyone signing in Green Bay. Only he, his agent and the Packers front office knew of his courtship by the Packers.

“I’m a pretty quiet cat by nature,” said Peppers. “I wasn’t going to tell anybody.”

After 12 NFL seasons and 8 Pro Bowls, Peppers found himself in his third locker room, and felt “a little anxiety” meeting the guys he’d soon call teammates. The transition, he said, has been easy; even as teammates already look to Peppers as a leader even as he finds his way around a new city.

“It’s kind of something that you have to be ready to take on when you come in,” said Peppers. “My style is to basically do it, show you a good example. When it’s necessary, say something, that’s just my thing.”

Mike McCarthy has lauded Peppers for his willingness to give advice to his teammates, noticing second-year tackle David Bakhtiari picking the brain of the guy he tangled with twice as a rookie. The quiet nature of Peppers is somewhat similar to another veteran free agent addition who helped Green Bay to their last Super Bowl.

“I think at the end of the day in an NFL locker room what you do on the field is what really speaks volumes,” said McCarthy. “It’s great to have a vocal leader and so forth, but the performance is the key. When you have someone who performs like Charles Woodson performs, that carries immediate respect and credibility, and that’s the same thing with Julius.”

The Fire Within

Mike Daniels admits that, as a rookie and even early into his second year, he had to bite his tongue at times; which isn’t easy for a guy who has always liked to speak his mind.

“That’s part of the rite of passage,” said Daniels. “You have to earn the right to speak, in my opinion.”

Other guys, they might need that kick in the tail, they might need that fire.”

—Mike Daniels, Packers Defensive Lineman
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Daniels found his voice about halfway through last season, speaking up and sharing his desire to see a meaner defense in sometimes colorful ways. Daniels says it’s his passion shining through. During this year’s training camp it’s common to hear Daniels’ booming voice exhorting his teammates and occasionally jabbing members of the offense.

“I’m a loving person, nice to everybody,” said Daniels. “On the field, you can’t be like that, you have to be different. It’s about giving it your all. Sometimes you have to cross the line, within the rules. I’m just very passionate about football.”

Members of the defense see Daniels as a leader, but so does the longest-tenured Packer.

“I think Mike has definitely separated himself as one of the leaders if not the leader of that defense,” said Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers. “He has the respect of those guys, and he has the respect of the offensive players. This is a big year for him. I think the sky’s the limit for him as a player, but maybe more importantly, as a leader.”

Like Rodgers, Daniels draws the chip on his shoulder he plays with from doubters in his life. Big and strong now, he vividly remembers a time when people saw him differently.

“I used to get picked on a lot when I was younger,” said Daniels “That the reason I started listing weights a lot in high school because I didn’t want to get messed with in high school. I figured if I was big, people weren’t messing with me.”

Daniels only had one scholarship offer to play college football, from his alma mater Iowa.

“I’m not the most talented, I’ve never been the most talented, and that’s just how it is, but I refuse to let anybody outwork me,” said Daniels.

“A Lot of Different Characters”

The Packers weren’t hurting for leaders, but few teams would turn down neither the veteran presence of a Julius Peppers nor the emerging passion of a Mike Daniels.

“You need [more vocal] guys on the team,” said Peppers “You need guys like myself; you need a lot of different characters on the team for this thing to work right.”

Neither Daniels nor Peppers is trying to step on toes. Both are happy to lean on established Packers defenders like Matthews, Hawk and Williams, and point to Rodgers as one of the premiere players in the league. Both, however, see their leadership roles as a way to help the Packers defense continue to reach new heights.

“As long as they’re all doing things the right way and with the right purpose, I think that’s perfect,” said Daniels.

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