By Robert Zeglinski
BOURBONNAIS – When they selected James Daniels in the second round of the 2018 NFL Draft, Ryan Pace and company insisted Daniels, a college center for Iowa, would be playing left guard for the Bears. No questions asked. This, of course, had to be taken with a grain of salt because the Bears hadn’t yet seen Daniels even put on one of their helmets.
This, more than anything, was early and senseless competitive posturing that had no bearing on what the future would hold for Daniels in Chicago. And it appears that Nostradamus attribution was at least partly correct.
After featuring at left guard through most of the off-season, Daniels has been slowly but surely getting repetitions at center near the close of this year’s Bears training camp. Some of it is by necessity as fourth-year center Hroniss Grasu sits out due to injury.
And some of it is the 20-year-old getting comfortable at the professional level at a position he previously starred in. At a position that can easily be estimated is Daniels’ best place to play in the NFL. If not now, then certainly in the near future. Perhaps that future is closer than the Bears would like anyone to think.
“He’s growing, he’s growing there,” said Matt Nagy of Daniels’ progress thus far at center. “There are so many assignments as a center that you have to worry about in the run game and pass game. And then you have to snap the ball back to the quarterback too, and we do a lot of gun so that’s difficult.”
Where we stand, the Bears still have a “quarter of a season” to go before their opener in Week 1 against the Green Bay Packers, as Nagy put it a few days ago. Four preseason games to iron out competitions and positions across the roster. Four games to find out if Daniels can eventually last longer at center when the Bears originally said he wouldn’t at all.
With that kind of potential for offensive line shuffling this close to the regular season, the Bears could place themselves in position for relative disaster. Two years ago, when they made a quick shuffle of Cody Whitehair to center from left guard (ironically what Daniels has mostly played in Chicago until now) after ironically an injury to Grasu in mid-August (football is a flat circle), the offensive line was left in relative shambles to start the 2016 season. Five men had to relearn each other’s tells and refine their communications with each other with little time to spare. When you mess with the chemistry of an offensive line after so many repetitions, you’re asking for trouble.
While Whitehair himself shined individually, it took a few games of beatings by the Houston Texans and the Philadelphia Eagles for the whole group to gel collectively. They eventually settled in, but not without much trial and tribulation. A similar situation could eventually play out for Daniels and friends, depending on when, or if he features as the man in the middle in the 2018.
Right now, it seems like a solid bet that we’ll see Daniels at center eventually if he continues to progress there the way he already has. But don’t expect that time to come in a Sunday night atmosphere against the Bears’ rivals in the Packers on the road. The Bears and offensive line coach turned guru Harry Hiestand know how important is it to not mess with the balance of an offensive line this close to the season.
In the event of a switch, Whitehair would shift over to left guard, and Eric Kush would become the Bears’ primary swing man. But that switch will patiently wait in the wings.
“Cody’s playing center. That’s for sure,” said Hiestand of Whitehair and Daniels’ place approximately a month from now.
The opportunity to revisit this conversation, and potentially piecing together the ideal Bears offensive line with Daniels snapping the football to Mitchell Trubisky comes later. Especially if Daniels continues to plug away at two positions. You never know what could happen, and what circumstances dictate out of situations up front.
“We like where he’s at right now,” Nagy said of Daniels’ development at center. “He’s going to continue to get better and better.” R.
Robert is a writer and producer. He’ll be with the Bears through all of training camp. Find him on Twitter @RobertZeglinski.