The answer is as clear as the nose on your face. Some years the answer is up for debate, but not this offseason.
Who is the most underrated player for the Pittsburgh Steelers? This offseason, we could actually quantify that descriptive question to say most disrespected player.
The current answer is clear and without question to anybody paying attention: James Daniels.
I believe that the reasoning behind the disrespect is grounded in the stubborn mindset of a portion of the fanbase stuck in their ways. Let me try to clarify.
The Steelers offensive line performance reached what was quite possibly an all time low in recent seasons. The precipitous decline started in 2019; as reliable standouts like Maurkice Pouncey, David DeCastro, and Alejandro Villanueva seemingly faded all at the same time. That reality left the franchise with too many holes to fill with bargain bin specials and mid round projects. Ben Roethlisberger and the Steelers offense suffered the consequences.
Steelers fans across the globe have been screaming for high priced free agents and first round draft picks ever since. I readily admit that I was one of those screaming the loudest for the Steelers to substantially invest in their foundations, both of the offensive and defensive variety. Football games are won, and lost, in the trenches.
In his closing act as Steelers GM last offseason, Kevin Colbert finally addressed the elephant in the room. He masterfully signed two huge offensive line upgrades in James Daniels and Mason Cole. Both talented young men brought proven experience to the equation, at team friendly prices. The results were immediate and obvious, as they stabilized an offensive line that was in disarray the season prior.
Mason Cole provided communication and leadership at center that was definitely missing in 2021, but James Daniels was easily the Steelers best offensive lineman last season, and the most successful free agent addition for the franchise in recent memory.
Daniels is powerful, athletic, and versatile. He is an ideal fit for Pat Meyer's zone blocking concepts, with the footwork and fundamentals to excel at combo blocking, plus the mobility to reach the second level consistently. He was credited with giving up a grand total of 0 sacks on the season. Yes, you read that correctly. Zero. A big goose egg.
With all that being said, the question still remains, "Why is James Daniels receiving so much disrespect from a portion of the Steelers fanbase this offseason?" In other words, why are so many fans suggesting that the Steelers best offensive lineman last season be moved to center? As if that wasn't bad enough, a recent article on another site dedicated to the Steelers went so far to suggest that the Steelers might be looking to trade Daniels this offseason.
The illogical reasoning behind these suggestions is easy to decipher. The Steelers signed Isaac Seumalo and Nate Herbig this offseason, two players Steelers assistant general manager Andy Weidl knows very well from his time with the Philadelphia Eagles. The irrational suggestions for James Daniels Steelers future began to appear as many fans inaccurately evaluated the actual abilities of one of those Steelers free agent additions.
Isaac Seumalo is as advertised. One of the most accomplished and fundamentally sound interior offensive lineman in the NFL, he is Pro Bowl caliber. Seumalo will be the Steelers best offensive lineman the moment he steps on the field. He has reached a level as a professional that James Daniels is striving for, but that actually makes sense, as Daniels is a few years younger. Seumalo is in his prime, where Daniels is just approaching his.
The confusion begins, and ends, with Nasty Nate Herbig. Herbig is destined to be a huge fan favorite in the Steel City. In his introductory presser, Herbig expressed his passionate desire to see the field for the Steelers this season, and suggested he would even punt to make that happen. That type of no nonsense competitive nature will captivate the imagination of Steelers Nation without fail.
The creative possibilities definitely get your juices flowing. I have even suggested using the massive Herbig as a sort of Refrigerator Perry type fullback in short yardage and goal line situations. I get the feeling that Herbig is going to bring the fun back to the Steelers offense. Surprise jet sweep, anyone. Imagine the poor soul being asked to set the edge.
The problems start when numerous fans, and apparently a fellow writer, believe that Seumalo and Herbig were brought in to Pittsburgh to be the starting guards. If that is the case, James Daniels is a man without a position.
That is a problem easily remedied for the majority of those well intentioned but misinformed fans: Simply move the versatile Daniels to starting center, a position he excelled at in college, and has played in the NFL during his tenure with the Chicago Bears. The main problem with that suggestion is twofold.
First off, Daniels is coming off easily the best season of his young NFL career partly because he finally enjoyed a full season of positional stability. Secondly, the Steelers already have the aforementioned Mason Cole at center, another player who enjoyed the best season of his career in 2022. Cole isn't elite, but he definitely is steady and dependable, and he showed admirable toughness last season playing through a nagging lower leg injury. Daniels and Cole have developed strong chemistry and trust in each other's execution.
Herbig is a powerful people mover, and has the versatility to man any interior position. That being said, Herbig is nowhere near Daniels level as a complete offensive lineman. Herbig doesn't possess Daniels superior mobility or athleticism. Herbig is not a realistic threat to Daniels starting right guard position, but that doesn't mean he can't compete for a starting position.
Herbig should provide some real competition and motivation for the aforementioned Cole. The Steelers maybe looking for more power from the center position, seeing how they have committed to improving their talent and depth on the interior this offseason. I wholeheartedly believe that Cole is the starter to begin training camp, but he shouldn't be too comfortable or over confident. Ideally the competition will bring out the best in both young men.
As far as the trading Daniels rumors goes, I am honestly incapable of rationalizing the mere suggestion. There is absolutely no reason to trade your best offensive lineman, one who only improved throughout the season, and at 25 years old is only approaching his professional prime. By the way, Daniels still has two years left on his very reasonable team friendly contract.
Bottom line; sometimes we are all guilty of trying too hard to read between the lines, and we get lost in the translation. Other times, it's written in Braille apparently.