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A new friend: James Daniels is a student of the game the Bears can appreciate

A quick learner and one of the most talented center prospects Iowa has ever seen, Daniels is prepared for his NFL obstacles.

Daniels is set to quietly and calmly join the Bears’ offensive line with an edge.
Matthew Holst/Getty Images

The emotion that James Daniels showed when the Bears called to inform him that they were drafting the stalwart collegiate center, is the authentic Daniels you get through every interaction.

Daniels, 20, is just beginning his NFL journey. To his fortune, he gets to start it with an offensive line guru in Harry Hiestand: who can mold him into a special player. He gets to be as unique and vulnerable as possible while he works to become a cornerstone of the Bears’ offensive line. Because to be a great offensive lineman, you not only have to be individually talented and technically sound, you also have to work in tune with your teammates. You have to move and act as one, not separate mismatched puzzle pieces.

Where Daniels can excel unlike many run-of-the-mill players that have come before him, is that his open stance leads to necessary building from the beginning. He can break himself down, understand his flaws, and effectively revitalize as a better player in the manner he accomplished at Iowa.

The Bears drafted Daniels highly because they appreciate his athleticism and his penchant for adaptability. They will entrench him as a starter, because they expect greatness from the get-go.

I spoke with Max Brekke, managing editor of SB Nation’s Iowa website Black Heart Gold Pants, to better understand how Daniels’ NFL career in Chicago is prepared to take off.

How will Daniels fit in Chicago? Is he someone that can be an Olin Kreutz long-term “star” center for the Bears?

Max Brekke: If healthy, Daniels can be a long-time center for Chicago. He was expected to go in the first round and was considered by many to be the best center prospect other than Billy Price from Ohio State.

He obviously dropped to the early second round. The guess is that teams looking at Daniels might have been concerned with knee injuries that he dealt with at Iowa - he had knee surgery prior to the 2016 season - and that scared some off. But he doesn’t seem to be concerned with that himself (after all, he missed only three games total during the two years that he was a regular on the line following his surgery).

If Daniels’ knees don’t end up becoming an issue, he’ll absolutely have a long career in the NFL.

Daniels is one of the most malleable offensive linemen in this draft at 20-years-old. What was his development like at Iowa and how does that translate to the rigors of the pro game?

MB: To quote an NFL scout who watched him play guard in 2015, Daniels “looked like shit” as a true freshman. Saying he’s come a long way is an understatement.

Daniels came to Iowa as a four-star recruit out of Warren, Ohio, so big things were already expected of him before he stepped on campus. He exceeded those expectations by putting on weight, solidifying his techniques, and becoming a student of the game under the Hawkeye coaching staff. He’s such a smart kid, and if you’ve heard him speak to the media already, you understand that as Daniels is an incredibly articulate and thoughtful 20-year old.

His game should translate just fine to the NFL. Iowa head Kirk Ferentz is known for running an old-school offense that scheme-wise, is about as close to an NFL offense as you’ll see at the collegiate level. As a result, Daniels comes in with less of a learning curve than your typical rookie offensive lineman. In the years where Iowa has a big-time NFL prospect like Marshall Yanda or Brandon Scherff, professional scouts mention that these guys are more like second-year players because they already have experience with pro systems.

There are concerns about Daniels’ size, for as much as someone at over 300 pounds can be “undersized.” He doesn’t always throw his weight around. Can you shed any light on how this might affect him in the NFL?

MB: I wouldn’t worry about his size. He’s a bit short for a lineman at 6-foot-3, but at 305 pounds with his long arms, its not an issue. This has been a critique about Iowa linemen forever. Scherff, Yanda, Riley Reiff and more were panned entering the draft for their size, whether it be short arms or small bodies. Daniels is another name to add to that list. With his mental acumen and the development program for linemen at Iowa, he’ll excel.

What is the best way for the Bears to use Daniels in their offense? What kind of an impact can he have immediately, and what is his ceiling in the NFL?

MB: Daniels is at his best as a run blocker, which is why Matt Nagy and company want him in Chicago. Iowa utilizes a zone blocking scheme, the attack Nagy used in his time with the Chiefs. Daniels was one of the focal points for that rushing offense. His quickness and agility make him incredibly versatile. That’s especially when he was asked to pull and act as a lead blocker on outside runs.

Daniels is also great at getting to the next level and finding someone to block, if not multiple defenders.

And in the passing game, Daniels is not nearly as much of a finished product, but he’s certainly no pushover.

Over the past couple years, Daniels has been adequate in pass protection and has only improved with time. I’m not sure that I ever saw him get bulldozed into his own quarterback during his time at Iowa. He’ll need to polish up to take on NFL caliber defensive tackles, though. With the way he’s developed over the past couple years, I wouldn’t expect that to take long.

As for Daniels’ eventual impact in the NFL, I think he’ll be the Bears starter at center when they take on Green Bay to start the season, allowing Cody Whitehair to move over to guard. That’s contrary to what general manager Ryan Pace says. He’s a good enough player to start in the league immediately and I’d venture to say that he’s already better than some guys who are on Chicago’s roster (*cough* Hroniss Grasu). Daniels has had elite offensive line coaching under Ferentz. By working with Hiestand, a noted friend of Ferentz, he’ll prove to be a staple at center for years.

What will you remember most about Daniels during his time at Iowa? What stuck out to you about the player and man?

MB: Not a lot of players get an opportunity to play as true freshman for the Hawkeyes, let alone on the offensive line. That makes the fact that Daniels became a regular rotation player as a true freshman more impressive. Ferentz thought a lot of Daniels when he was just 17. He became a lynchpin on the offensive line at age 18, and now at 20-years old, he’s been called the best center prospect Ferentz has coached in his 40 years as a football coach.

Having that high of praise from a guy who coached offensive lines in the NFL throughout the 1990s and has put over 20 offensive linemen in the NFL says a lot about who Daniels could be. Ferentz can barely hold back his praise of the star center.

“I’ll say this about James - I don’t know if I’ve ever coached a more talented center prospect. That includes my time in the NFL,” said Ferentz of Daniels. “He’s got some skills that are just really unusual. And he’s a really intelligent guy. One interesting thing about him, you get the feedback from the NFL folks. That’s strictly off film. They haven’t had a chance to investigate the kind of person he is and his intelligence.”

Robert Zeglinski is the Bears beat writer for The Rock River Times, an editor for Windy City Gridiron and Inside The Pylon, and is a contributor to Pro Football Weekly and The Athletic Chicago. You can follow him on Twitter @RobertZeglinski.