The Steelers made a significant upgrade to their offensive line on Tuesday, signing free agent guard James Daniels to a three year, $26.5 million contract.
Daniels is a fairly big-name signing. He was ranked among the Top 30 available free agents by most pundits, and he started 48 of 54 games for which he was active in Chicago. His PFF grade, for those who put stock in such things, ranks 18th among all guards since 2019. This suggests Daniels, while not an elite lineman, is an above-average player who, at age 24, has both experience and room to grow.
Daniels is a product of the lineman factory that is the University of Iowa. Recent Iowa alumni include Marshall Yanda, Eric Steinbach, Brian Bulaga, Riley Reiff, Brandon Scherff and Austin Blythe. The best interior lineman in the upcoming draft, Tyler Linderbaum, is an Iowa product as well. As a graduate of the Kirk Ferentz system, Daniels is tough, disciplined and fundamentally sound. He is not the most powerful lineman you will see. While the following clip has been popular on Twitter recently, this is more the exception than the rule. The Las Vegas defender makes this worse than it should have been by trying to jump inside the block. Daniels happens to catch him as he does, then flips him and drives him into the ground:
It’s an impressive block. But Daniels makes his living more as a technician who uses his hands and feet to win position on defenders than as a player who bulldozes them. He is especially effective on zone schemes, where he tends to stay square and communicate well with his teammates. When he gets to the second level, he is excellent. He has the athleticism to cover up linebackers, and once he does, they rarely escape the block.
Daniels is also solid in pass protection. He does a great job of covering the feet of a defender with his own. This means he mirrors their movements well. Daniels can get out and pull, too, which suggests the Steelers may re-discover their sweep and trap schemes, both of which disappeared last season.
His biggest weakness appears to be handling big, physical defenders at the point of attack. He can struggle to get a push in one-on-one situations, and is susceptible to a well-executed bull rush. Stylistically, he’s more David DeCastro than Ramon Foster. If Daniels winds up reminding Steelers fans of DeCastro, they will be thrilled.
Here is some film of Daniels in action. Daniels is the right guard, No. 68, in all the clips that follow.
First, we see him blocking outside zone schemes, in which Chicago invested heavily. The Steelers did not run much outside zone last season. It’s a scheme that works best with the quarterback under center, which Ben Roethlisberger was not fond of, and it takes a good deal of communication from the line, which the Steelers lacked. This season, with Mitchell Trubisky likely at quarterback, and a line coach in Pat Meyer who has experience teaching the scheme, I expect the Steelers to run it regularly.
The tricky thing about outside zone is that linemen are asked to reach the play-side shoulder of a defender in an adjacent gap. So, in the still frame below, Daniels must cross the center to block the 1-tech. The center will help him by chipping the 1-tech before he climbs to the backer. Still, to make this block effectively, a lineman must be quick off the ball, have great feet and use his hands well:
Daniels does all of these things. Look at how fast he gets out of his stance, and then, at the point of contact, how he uses his left arm to turn the shoulder of the defender. This keeps the defender from crossing his face. Daniels’ hand placement is excellent, as he strikes the defender near the play-side armpit, rather than in the middle of his chest. That may seem like a little thing, but it provides him the leverage he needs to get the defender turned. Details matter in the trenches, and Daniels treats them diligently.
Here’s an outside zone run on which Daniels is expecting the center to climb to the play-side backer and to leave Daniels to block the nose tackle. Minnesota, however, runs a line stunt, with the front slanting to its right. They also attempt to bring a linebacker through the A-gap. This forces the center to stay on the nose, while Daniels must adjust quickly to pick up the blitzing backer. Both linemen execute their blocks nicely, creating a seam through which the back squeezes for a good gain:
This type of communication was largely absent in Pittsburgh last season, as the Steelers allowed a shocking number of run-throughs and missed assignments. Daniels brings an understanding of how to execute core run schemes that is more advanced than any returning player up front.
Another strength Daniels possesses is an ability to block at the second level. When Daniels is the uncovered player on zone schemes and is tasked with climbing to the backer, he’s very good. He keeps his shoulders square and strikes his target with what coaches call “sticky hands.” This means he maintains contact through the duration of the block. As a result, defenders have a hard time disengaging from him:
Daniels doesn’t just make contact, though. He moves people. In a wide-zone rushing attack like the one Canada should develop for next season, this movement is important because it creates seams through which a back can cut. Najee Harris didn’t enjoy many of those seams as a rookie, so clips like the one below, where Daniels gets great horizontal movement at the second level, will be a welcome sight:
As a puller, Daniels is capable. He won’t make anyone forget Alan Faneca, but he opens his hips well, keeps his pad level low and, most importantly, runs his feet through contact. A common error on trap and kick-out blocks is that linemen get in bad position by trying to hit their target as hard as possible. This can cause them to have too much weight forward and to quickly fall off the block. Daniels, as we see below, is a bit more measured in his approach, but he maintains contact effectively, which is more important than trying to deliver a knockout blow:
That said, Daniels isn’t averse to trying to flatten a player. Here, he hits the backer, who is scraping over top of the play, so hard he spins him around. What I like most, though, is how Daniels continues to pursue the block. He understands that one big blow won’t automatically remove a defender from a play, so he stays after him and makes contact again several yards up the field:
In pass protection, Daniels plays with balance and a wide base. He can lose inside leverage with his hands at times, but his 34 inch arms allow him to maintain contact with a rusher, like we see here:
I said before that Daniels does a nice job of covering the feet of a defender with his own. Watch here how he shifts his weight easily on an inside rush move and keeps his feet active. When the rusher moves back outside, Daniels moves with him. His has good balance in protection, which keeps him from being beaten on stunts or inside games, and he uses his hands extremely well.
I love this next clip. Coaches talk about “finding work” on plays where a blocker is not engaged. Here, Daniels has no rusher in his immediate gap. He recognizes the tackle to his right does not need help, so he falls back inside and flattens the nose to keep him from collapsing the pocket. This play shows both great teamwork and a high motor on Daniels’ part.
Daniels’ biggest weakness is his strength against bull-rushers and bigger, gap-stuffing tackles. He is not particularly thick in his lower half, and it effects his ability to drive and anchor. Here, he gives up ground and is nearly pushed into the quarterback by an aggressive bull rush:
The problem is that Daniels is too high in his pass set, and he loses the hand-battle for first contact. Pat Meyer is a big believer in having his interior linemen set the depth of the pocket while the tackles set the width. This means the guards must anchor in and not get driven back like we see here. Getting Daniels to play low and strike first should be a point of emphasis for Meyer.
Getting beat to first contact can create problems for Daniels in the run game, too, especially against bigger players. Here, he gives up his chest and gets jolted backwards at the snap. Though Daniels fights to recover, and eventually digs out his defender, the initial stalemate closes off the front side of the play and forces the back to cut up into a pile of bodies:
Even though Daniels loses this encounter, you can see what a fighter he is. He never stops his feet, and he plays hard to the echo of the whistle. That last trait could make him a fan favorite in Pittsburgh, where tenacity is generally appreciated.
Daniels should start at right guard for the Steelers. He did, however, make 23 starts at center at Iowa and 8 more in Chicago with the Bears. So, should a need arise at the center position, where the Steelers do not have a starter set in stone, Daniels could be the answer. Most likely, though, he’ll wind up at guard, where he’ll represent an upgrade over Trai Turner. Daniels is an excellent fit for Matt Canada’s offense in that he has the length, athleticism and aggressiveness for a movement-based scheme. Daniels has the potential to be Pittsburgh’s best free agent offensive line signing since they inked Jeff Hartings back in 2001. Hartings won a Super Bowl with the Steelers a few years later. How sweet it would be if history repeated with Daniels.