Mikey Daniel is one of a kind.
As an undrafted rookie out of South Dakota State, Daniel is the only member of the Falcons’ backfield who is being tasked with learning two positions at once. A tailback in college, Daniel decided to make the transition to fullback during the pre-draft process because he felt that was the best route for him to take if he was to make an NFL team’s roster.
A big back at 6-foot-2 and 232 pounds, Daniel certainly has the size to play fullback. But as the Falcons scouted Daniel, they liked his college tape enough to where they still feel he can carry the ball at the next level.
“I’m the only one in the room that truly plays both fullback and running back,” Daniel said. “That’s just value. It leads to mismatches, it leads to questionable calls by defenses. Because how do you treat me? Do you treat me as a fullback, do you treat me as a running back? There’s just so much they can do with me that has a lot of upside. I’m really excited about it.”
While many NFL teams have a fullback on their roster, it’s not a position that is used as frequently as it once was. Daniel, however, saw a niche that he could carve out thanks to his size and versatility in the backfield. He relied heavily upon Minnesota Vikings fullback C.J. Ham, who has become a mentor for Daniel, when making this switch. While Daniel and Ham first connected on social media, Daniel had followed Ham’s college career at Augustana, a Division II university located directly 60 miles south of South Dakota State in Sioux Falls. Ham, like Daniel, was a tailback in college. Ham, who was also undrafted, recently signed a four-year, $12 million extension.
“He was letting me know there was a real market and opportunity for guys like us,” Daniel said. “Obviously it shows. He just got a new contract extension. I knew that being a bigger-body guy that I had the opportunity to make that happen.”
Daniel’s path to the NFL follows the customary tale of an often-overlooked player with potential. Growing up originally in Seattle, Daniel’s family moved to Brookings, S.D., where South Dakota State sits, when he was 10 years old. As he became a star at Brookings High School as a freshman and sophomore, Daniel took a chance on himself by accepting a scholarship to attend IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla., as a junior. But after one year at IMG, Daniel said he returned to Brookings for family reasons. Back at Brookings as a senior, he rushed for 1,500 yards and 22 touchdowns. But as Daniel put it, recruiting dried up once he returned home. He did hold offers from Army and Mississippi Valley State, but he felt it was best to walk on with the hometown Jackrabbits.
Daniel maintained his walk-on status before earning a scholarship during the spring semester leading into his third-year sophomore season. But as he earned more playing time, it never seemed like he could break into a starting role.
That wasn’t any fault of Daniel’s. In 2017, three South Dakota State running backs, including Daniel, got at least 100 carries in a committee approach. Daniel actually led the backfield in rushing touchdowns that season with 11. In 2018, Pierre Strong Jr. took over lead-back duties as a talented playmaker, en route to being named the Missouri Valley’s Freshman of the Year. Strong continued lead-back duties in 2019 while posting more than 1,000 rushing yards in consecutive seasons.
Meanwhile, Daniel was effective as a change-of-pace back. But as injuries piled up in 2019, including one to Strong, Daniel found himself as the last man standing in the final two games of the regular season. Strong injured his knee against Northern Iowa, which put Daniel in the top spot for the remainder of the game. He finished the 38-7 win with 21 carries for 82 yards and a touchdown. A week later against South Dakota in the annual South Dakota Showdown Series, Daniel carried the ball 17 times for 125 yards and a touchdown in a 24-21 loss.
Albeit in a defeat, South Dakota State head coach John Stiegelmeier believes that game served as validation for Daniel.
“Deep down inside he probably wanted to say to me, ‘You waited too long, Coach,’” Stiegelmeier said. “But he didn’t. He was just proud to be part of the team and the effort, and against a rival. I couldn’t be more proud of the young man.”
Stiegelmeier said he was always a believer in Daniel’s abilities dating back to his freshman season in high school. It just so happened that each of Daniel’s seasons as a key contributor, he was part of talented backfields in each of his years on the roster. Interestingly, South Dakota State’s actual fullback from the 2019 season, Luke Sellers, signed with the Detroit Lions as a priority free agent after the draft.
With that in mind, Stiegelmeier noted that Daniel has the potential to make him look silly if Daniel makes the most of his opportunity with the Falcons.
“Here’s a guy who was the second- and third-string back in our offense most of his career, and he has a chance in the NFL,” Stiegelmeier said. “Either that says we’re pretty dumb, or he’s a special guy.”
Looking at it from the bright side, Daniel said the lack of wear and tear could benefit him in the long term.
“Now that I’m on the backside of it, I’m kind of grateful for it,” Daniel said. “In the time, you want to be on the field, you want to be playing, you want to take all the snaps. Definitely having the lower repetition has saved my body.”
While Daniel received a good bit of attention from NFL scouts during the pre-draft process, he wasn’t invited to the scouting combine. He was hoping to put forth an impressive pro day showing that could have helped his standing as a potential draft pick. Then the COVID-19 pandemic hit, which canceled those events.
Needing to adjust, Daniel traveled to IMG Academy to film a makeshift pro day that was sent to every NFL and CFL team. And the numbers for the new fullback were impressive: a 4.62 40-yard dash, a 37-inch vertical leap, 27 reps on the bench, a 10-foot broad jump and 4.09-second short shuttle.
“My numbers were statistically running back numbers with a fullback size body,” Daniel said.
Still, without the ability to work out and interview with teams in person, it was always going to be hard for Daniel, like many of the small-school prospects, to be drafted. This year featured a record-low six FCS players who were selected.
Along with Atlanta, the Kansas City Chiefs and Los Angeles Chargers showed a ton of interest in Daniel during the pre-draft process. But the Monday before the draft, Daniel received a call from Dan Quinn, who was the only NFL head coach to call him. Once the draft ended, Daniel decided the best fit to start his career would be with the Falcons.
In addition to being a flexible back who can play running back and fullback, Daniel is also expected to get some preseason reps catching passes. Of course, Quinn wanted to vet Daniel’s special teams background, as well, which is crucial if he’s going to make the roster as a depth addition at this particular position.
“I like the versatility of him,” Quinn said. “Fullback, halfback, he has good hands, he has a special teams role. Those are usually the type of players that are going to work hard, find their own niche and carve out that role.”
While Daniel can play fullback, the Falcons signed Keith Smith to a three-year contract this offseason. Even though Daniel opted to transition to the position, it’s clear the Falcons do view him as a ballcarrier who can play multiple spots on offense. There was a notion that Atlanta would draft a running back since it was a perceived need. But given the plethora of running backs in every draft class, perhaps scouting and signing someone like Daniel was the plan all along when it came to addressing the position.
Daniel figures to enter the preseason as one of the more intriguing rookies on the roster.
“The good thing about signing with the Falcons is they don’t just see me as a fullback,” Daniel said. “They see me as a hybrid, a guy that has position flexibility. They want to use me all over the field. It was a good fit for me to go to Atlanta.”