Back on draft weekend, it raised some eyebrows when the Bears revealed their plan to move second-round pick James Daniels to guard – after he had started 23 games at center for Iowa over the previous two seasons.
But versatility is one of the things that prompted the Bears to use the 39th overall draft pick on Daniels, who won’t turn 21 until after the regular-season opener.
“The benefit of having a guy like James Daniels is he can play different positions,” coach Matt Nagy said. “So [we’ll] be able to let him come in here and play guard and see what he can do, learn from the other guys, let (offensive line coach) Harry (Hiestand) teach these guys the technique. He’s a young kid now, (and) his arrow is pointing up, (and) it gives us an opportunity to let Cody (Whitehair) grow at center. That’s his spot.”
For the sake of continuity, allowing Whitehair to remain at center is important, especially after the way he helped quarterback Mitch Trubisky transition as a rookie taking snaps directly from center, after he operated out of the shotgun at North Carolina. Whitehair was mostly a guard at Kansas State, but 28 of his 32 NFL starts have been at center, including all 16 as a rookie, since he was drafted in the second round (56th overall) in 2016.
Hiestand, who is one of the most respected O-line coaches in the NFL, has signed off on the move, which gives it instant credibility. Daniels doesn’t seem at all overwhelmed by the move, and it could make his transition to the NFL smoother.
“My true freshman year at Iowa, I played all guard,” Daniels said. “It’s hard, but you don’t have to make the calls, and you don’t have to snap, which are two things that centers do that people don’t realize how hard it is.”
The fact that Daniels’ technique is better than most rookies’, and that he’s a quick study, should help him overcome the hurdles that come with the position change.
“He’s doing well,” Nagy said Saturday, after weather forced the practice inside the Walter Payton Center for a second straight day. “When you see him in the huddle, when we’re calling plays, he’s very focused. You can see he’s listening to the plays; he’s trying to understand it. He’s just so entrenched into what’s going on. He’s not looking (like) anything is too big for him.
“This kid is really into it. He’s into the details. When you have a kid who’s into it like that, you’re at an advantage because he’s going to listen. He’s going to be a sponge and soak everything up, so he can develop.”
The rookie minicamp roster lists the 6-foot-4 Daniels at 295 pounds, which would be small for an NFL guard, but he said he weighed 310 when he left Iowa on Thursday. Daniels said he can add or subtract weight depending on the target weight he’s eventually assigned, and Nagy doesn’t see that as a problem, especially for a still-growing 20-year-old with a large frame.
“He’ll naturally get bigger, and (strength-and-conditioning coach) Jason Loscalzo is putting together some weights for these guys that we want to see them at. He will get better, he’ll get stronger, and we’ll kind of monitor that (weight) and make sure it’s not wrong one way or the other.”
Daniels is considered a fine technician because of his college training under coach Kirk Ferentz, but that doesn’t mean that he lacks grit.
“He is a little more finesse and a little more of a technician,” Nagy said. “But that doesn’t mean that he doesn’t have that (toughness) in him. There’s evidence on tape that he plays that way. You like to have that nasty in the O-line guys, and he’s got it. He’s a nice kid, but when he plays on the football field, he plays hard. The kid is 20 years old, so it’s exciting to know that he will have a lot of growth.”
If the move goes according to plan, Daniels soon will grow into a starting NFL guard.