Typically, I wouldn’t put a whole lot of stock into a single preseason game, but Chicago Bears rookie center James Daniels needs to be starting. Not starting at left guard, no, Daniels needs to be starting at center. While we don’t have a lot of tape to dissect for Daniels, we do have quite a bit of film on incumbent center Cody Whitehair.
After a solid rookie campaign in 2016, you can make the argument that Whitehair has been trending downward since. This is not meant as a negative article towards Whitehair, quite the contrary. Let’s keep in mind for a moment that Whitehair wasn’t drafted to be the center, he was drafted to be the left guard. After a season-ending injury to Hroniss Grasu and Pro-Bowl guard Josh Sitton fell into the Bears’ lap, Whitehair was shifted from left guard to center, supplanting veteran Ted Larsen.
The Bears were very fortunate with the health of their offensive line during that 2016 season and Whitehair played the whole season at one position. Last year was a different story, however. With injuries to both Sitton and right guard Kyle Long, Whitehair was moved around to all three interior offensive line positions. Some blame his up-and-down 2017 season on being moved around, but I have always maintained that guard was his best position and the film on the 2017 Bears proves just that.
This is where it gets interesting. The Bears spent a second-round draft pick on Daniels, who was considered to be one of, if not the top center prospect in college football. What sense does it make to draft a left tackle to be a left guard and then move him to center, while two seasons later taking a center and moving him to left guard? It doesn’t make sense to me, especially considering Whitehair’s well-documented issues with shotgun snaps.
Unfortunately for Whitehair, those issues have not subsided. In just 9 snaps, 8 of which were in a shotgun formation, Whitehair had 3 off-target snaps and a bad holding penalty.
This is an extremely small sample size, but the fact remains that these are issues that have plagued Whitehair in his career. I fully believe that taking some of the responsibilities of playing center off of his plate would do him wonders. In another small sample size from 2017, let’s look at Whitehair versus the Pittsburgh Steelers.
In the first video, he struggles to get to his second-level responsibility (#50). It didn’t end up affecting the play much but had Jordan Howard broken that tackle, Whitehair’s responsibility was there to clean up the play.
There were some other examples of this as well but overall, Whitehair was solid at center. Again, this isn’t an indictment of his play, I just feel it was better at guard, which you will see below:
Whitehair mauls his man here and puts him on the ground. I have found that he was able to latch onto his assignments easier when not needing to snap the ball first.
Here is another example of Whitehair driving his assignment completely out of the picture. This is something I saw consistently when he was at guard.
This is a picture-perfect reach block. This is a strength of Whitehair’s game but it’s almost entirely negated at center.
But if we are going to shift Whitehair to guard, someone has to play center. This is where the pick of Daniels comes into play. His film from the University of Iowa was excellent but now we finally have some NFL tape to dissect. Daniels is a true technician and likely already the most technique-sound offensive lineman on the roster. (Note: I only used tape from the first half).
Let’s start with pass protection, where Daniels was virtually flawless in his Bears debut. You want a clean pocket to step-up into as a quarterback, and Daniels delivered just that.
Look at the separation that Daniels gets here. He has total control of the nose tackle here. File this in the dictionary under the word “stonewalled.”
Daniels does an excellent job of turning the defender, sensing that his quarterback was starting to run, and giving him just the tiniest little veteran move to pull the arm down. This is a 20-year old who is wise beyond his years.
Nothing gets through the middle of the pocket when Daniels is there. It was really impressive to watch actually.
As good of a job as Daniels did in the passing game, his most impressive blocks came in the ground game. First up is this combination block. Basically what that means is that there is an initial double-team of a defensive lineman and one player will scrape to the next level to block a linebacker or safety. This is one of the best examples of a combination block that you will ever see.
This drive was so impressive for Daniels, I’m just going to post the whole thing. He basically gets the Bears a touchdown on this drive all by himself. This is the first of his abuses of the Bengals’ nose tackle (#92).
Daniels just pushes a 320-pound nose tackle 5-yards out of the way like it’s nothing. The technique combined with the strength to be able to make this block in such a dominating fashion is rare, even at the NFL level.
This isn’t perfect but it’s pretty good. Daniels is able to keep the leverage to give quarterback Chase Daniel enough room to try and go over the top. They didn’t score here, but Daniels did help Daniel pick up the first down.
This is the touchdown run for Taquan Mizzell. Daniels is initially beat but recovers quickly and then overpowers the nose tackle to open a massive hole for Mizzell.
This play was so good, I wanted to show it again, but from behind the end zone. From this angle, you can actually see the secondary push that Daniels gets. Keep in mind that is a 320-pound man he is pushing around like that.
Needless to say, I think that the Bears found a starting caliber offensive lineman with the 38th pick in the draft. The question isn’t when he will beat out Eric Kush for a spot on the starting offensive line, I think we all know that is inevitable.
The question for me is whether or not the Bears will do the smart–and obvious–thing, which is to move Cody Whitehair to left guard while inserting James Daniels at center.
If the Bears organization truly believes that they can take a big step this season, then the answer is simple. James Daniels needs to be the starting center, and that change needs to happen this week.
Follow Andrew on Twitter: @BearsLink82 –Feature Photo Credit: USA Today