By Robert Zeglinski
BOURBONNAIS – In a game like football where it’s easy to watch the ball and ignore everything else, a center isn’t normally the center of attention. Ironically, even as they’re the only person to touch the ball every play, a center is normally an afterthought in highlight reels.
Bears’ 2018 second round pick James Daniels is no ordinary center. Following a stellar performance against the Cincinnati Bengals in Chicago’s second preseason game this August, Daniels has uncharacteristically had all the recent conversation surround him.
That’s because the 20-year-old rising phenom in Daniels just might be Chicago’s long term answer in the middle. The natural only had a week of practice at center before he manhandled a variety of Bengals defenders. He might be the bruiser and leader of their offensive line for a decade. An athletic and intelligent freak, Daniels might be one of football’s best centers for a long time. The sky is the limit for a man who cannot yet legally buy an alcoholic beverage.
But that time still isn’t now. The Bears are emphatically making sure they see more before any firm declarations are made about Daniels’ long term prospects at center.
“James had a good day, which was great to see,” Matt Nagy said of Daniels’ performance in Cincinnati. “But we like where Cody (Whitehair) is. Cody’s doing a great job.”
Cody Whitehair, the Bears’ current starting center until further notice, hasn’t received nearly enough time to get fully acclimated at a position he excelled in his rookie 2016 season. That’s a comfort aspect of the Bears’ offensive line building the team is positive to facilitate this time around.
If Daniels is going to take Whitehair’s job at center and have him switch over to left guard (where Whitehair was originally projected before injuries), he’s going to have to take it by force. One preseason performance as the No. 2 isn’t enough. He has to earn it.
“If you go back to OTA’s remember we said we want to make sure we keep him (Whitehair) honing in on that position,” Nagy expressed confidently. “The center’s like playing quarterback. You start moving guys around at different spots and you’re playing with fire in my opinion.”
To his mentally tough credit, Daniels isn’t thrown off by the Bears’ constant shuffling. Wherever he does end up at the end of this month, be it at center or left guard, the young man has acclimated to the game quickly: just as he and the Bears believed he always would.
“They’re both difficult, it’s more that you just have to know each spot,” Daniels maintained of his center and guard juggling. “It doesn’t bother me. When I got drafted I knew that I’d be playing both. It’s not anything I’m worried about.”
Shaheen and newfound comfort
Criticisms of the Bears’ second round pick last year in Adam Shaheen were too many too count. He couldn’t run polished routes, often seeming robotic. He struggled as a blocker, often being steamrolled by even the most average of linebackers and defensive ends. He was too immature to excel as a 23-year-old making the jump from Division II college football, a raw and untapped talent.
What a difference a year makes with an NFL off-season training program and coaching staff that’s emphasized Shaheen’s development and ability. While the 6-foot-6, 270 pound Shaheen is ideally not anywhere close to his ceiling, he’s come a long way since his deer-in-the-headlights rookie year. Performances like his quality spot play against Cincinnati where Shaheen had three receptions for 53 yards are small examples of how far he’s come.
Shaheen’s routes are more polished. He understands how to get open on a regular basis by reading coverages. His physicality at the point of attack is noticeable as he’s putting his sizable frame to more optimal use. And he’s no longer afraid of playing under the intensive NFL microscope as he speaks with more aplomb publicly.
A year older, a year wiser. And, a year maximized.
“I’m just recognizing coverage and where you need to be,” Shaheen dished of his improved route running. “How you get there is everything.”
Part of that improved awareness is a freedom given to the Bears’ pass targets. A freedom they weren’t afforded in an archaic offensive scheme under John Fox and Dowell Loggains in 2017. Shaheen knew and felt the contrast immediately, which he’s taken full advantage of.
“There’s not so much focus on a perfect square cut, whereas you need to be in this hole at this time,” Shaheen mused of the Nagy offensive receiving philosophy. “You might even just be in that hole to pull away a defender and open up a teammate.”
As Shaheen said himself, the intricacies of the finer route don’t matter as much as how weapons like him actually get to his spot on time. If you can accomplish being there for your quarterback in the confines of a play’s design, you’ve reached your goal. It’s how you get there indeed. There’s no window dressing, you’re just “trying to get open”, as Shaheen laughed.
The real test of the second-year tight end’s progression now comes against a Denver Broncos defense featuring some premier pass rushers and edge defenders like Von Miller and rookie Bradley Chubb. Becoming a better pass catcher was one thing. Shaheen holding his own while blocking against tenacious players of this high level is another.
The Bears will hold joint practices with the Broncos in Denver through most of next week followed by a preseason game in Denver. That’s more than enough sample size for guys like Shaheen to understand how much his blocking has improved. It’s a challenge he’s looking forward to.
“I think once we saw the schedule, all the tight ends knew what this would be about,” Shaheen said of Denver’s litmus test. “It’ll be a good challenge and a chance to get better.”
Jackson taking control
Not that he hasn’t starred previously in this training camp, but I thought Saturday night was Eddie Jackson’s best practice of roughly this entire approximate three weeks in Bourbonnais. The second-year safety Jackson was regularly matched up against Shaheen, Trey Burton, and most notably Anthony Miller, and he dominated.
On every occasion, Jackson won with great discipline by not allowing the bigger Shaheen and Burton to create space with their size. Part of shutting down big tight ends is not letting them getting leverage on their routes and having impeccable timing. About jamming them and taking their innate advantages away. That wasn’t and isn’t an issue for Jackson as a more comfortable NFL sophomore.
With Miller, Jackson never bit on any of the rookie’s highly touted quickness and speed at the line of scrimmage. He never let him run past him after Miller turned on the burners: he can easily match Miller’s speed. When Miller tried to simply outmuscle and outrun Jackson, he tripped over his own feet at the overcompensation and Jackson took the easy interception back the other way. The safety essentially ran Miller’s route for him several times.
Aside from the plays where Jackson was the end-all be-all in direct opposition in pass defense, how he came up in run support while quickly diagnosing calls was also commendable with perfect instincts. How he supported his secondary teammates in bracket coverage to assist them in making plays was more than noteworthy too. All of this being skills that Jackson’s consistently shown in camp, and those traits shining more than ever under the lights in the final open practice of the Bears’ 2018 camp.
Coming off a season where he was the first Bears safety since Mark Carrier in the early 1990’s to record at least five takeaways as a rookie, it appears the 24-year-old Jackson is more than prepared to become one of the best safeties in football. It appears that the self-proclaimed “quarterback of the defense” is prepared to make the leap towards stardom.
Fourth tight end and running back battles solidified
Meanwhile, in the depth running back and tight end positional competitions, Taquan Mizzell and Daniel Brown are chugging along in completely opposite directions.
In his third year, Brown looks like a solid No. 4 tight end who has really progressed as a receiver and versatile tight end for a reserve. As Burton’s primary backup as the “U” tight end, Brown should prove serviceable in that role if needed based on the consistency of his playmaking throughout camp, and especially on Saturday night with more than a few highlight grabs in the end zone.
To Mizzell, it’s now clear why the Baltimore Ravens cut the former undrafted free agent tailback and Virginia standout last year: he’s not an NFL-caliber player. With Benny Cunningham nursing an injury, Mizzell has received every shot to impress Chicago’s coaching staff in this year’s first two preseason games and in the last few practices of camp.
You can’t count the number of flash plays Mizzell’s made in that time, because he hasn’t made any. You don’t have enough hands to count the number of routine receptions and runs he wastes with drops and completely misreading running lanes.
Saturday night where Mizzell was a regular lowlight, looked like the last nail in the to-be-cut coffin for the player affectionately and curiously called “Smoke.” R.
Robert is an editor, writer, and producer. You can find him on Twitter @RobertZeglinski.