He's young. He's athletic. He's smart.
And now James Daniels, age 20, is the newest member of the Chicago Bears. The center from Iowa was selected with the No. 39 pick during Friday's NFL draft in Arlington, Texas.
At 6-foot-3, 309 pounds, Daniels only earned honorable mention status on the all-Big Ten Conference teams. But NFL teams don't care about subjective awards; there's a reason Daniels turned pro early after receiving a second-round draft grade from the NFL Advisory Committee.
Hawk Central columnist Chad Leistikow broke down what the Bears can expect from this high-upside lineman from Warren, Ohio.
While he won't turn 21 until after the 2018 NFL season openers (he was born Sept. 13, 1997), Daniels has been viewed by some as one of the draft’s best center prospects in years. Daniels’ quickness and agility numbers at the scouting combine were off the charts (his time of 4.40 seconds in the 20-yard shuttle was No. 1 among all offensive linemen; his 3-cone time of 7.29 was No. 2).
Then at Iowa’s Pro Day a few weeks later, Daniels helped soften one of his few potential deficiencies — that he could be undersized at the NFL level — by adding another three pounds to his measurements.
Daniels, who on Iowa’s Rose Bowl team of 2015 became a rare true freshman to play on Kirk Ferentz’s offensive line, takes good angles and is superior at run blocking. He is extremely comfortable in the zone-blocking schemes Iowa deploys and has shown film where he not only keeps pace with downfield linebackers, but mauls them.
An unnamed scout for an NFC team, according to NFL.com, said pre-draft that Daniels “would come in and challenge for best center in our division right away.”
In short, Daniels is a nimble, fast, still-learning offensive lineman with the ability to thrive at any of the three interior-line positions in the NFL.
Nagging durability questions have been attached to Daniels’ career to date. He missed two games as a sophomore and one as a junior with knee issues. And until recently, he had been dealing with a hamstring injury.
Even last season, when Daniels was at his best as a Hawkeye, Iowa still only managed a pedestrian 3.76 yards per carry and allowed 25 sacks. That wasn't on Daniels; but he did have some obvious pass-blocking misses at Iowa. And it was his poor snap at Wisconsin that directly resulted in a Badgers’ touchdown in the third quarter of a 17-14 game.
Daniels will need to improve his ability to power block at the next level to be the Day One starter that analysts say he can become.
Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz says the 20-year-old is one of the best center prospects he’s ever coached.
Leistikow’s final thoughts
In January, after Daniels had made the decision to turn pro early, Kirk Ferentz — the 20th-year Hawkeye head coach and longtime offensive line assistant under Hayden Fry at Iowa and under Bill Belichick in the NFL — said this of his departing center: “I don’t know if I’ve ever coached a more talented center prospect, and that includes my time in the NFL. He’s got some skills that are unusual.” Ferentz would add, “In my mind, he could go and play guard for anyone (in the NFL) next year.”
That right there speaks volumes. The reserved Ferentz isn’t known to puff up players with praise, and he's seen hundreds of linemen up close in his lengthy career.
But beyond the obvious measurable talent in Daniels’ testing,the Bears are getting a high-character, extremely intelligent and very affable young man who will be an asset in the locker room. While still raw in his skills, Daniels has all the tools — if his knees can hold up — to become an eight- or 10-year starter in the NFL.
Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 23 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.