James Daniels

Bears notes: Are James Daniels, Cody Whitehair headed for a position swap?

8-11jamesdaniels.jpg
USA Today

Bears notes: Are James Daniels, Cody Whitehair headed for a position swap?

PHOENIX — Matt Nagy hinted Tuesday the Bears could have James Daniels and Cody Whitehair swap positions on the interior of their offensive line, moving Daniels to center and Whitehair to left guard. 

It was a noticeable change in tone from Nagy about where both those players may best fit on the offensive line. In the days and weeks after the Bears drafted Daniels in the second round of 2018’s NFL Draft, Nagy was adamant Whitehair would stay at center despite Daniels starring at that position while in college at Iowa. Whitehair, while being a steady presence at center for the last three seasons, began his pro career as a guard before a last-minute switch to center after the Bears signed Josh Sitton a few days before the 2016 season began. 

“We’re kind of in the middle of that right now looking at how they played at those particular positions — not just those two, but everybody,” Nagy said. “And so we’re going to stay open to that and if we feel like it’s going to be better to switch somebody we’ll do that, and if we don’t then we’ll stick with where we’re at.”

If the Bears do execute that switch, it would represent the only change to their starting offensive line from 2018. All five regular starters are returning this year, with Daniels and Whitehair being joined by tackles Charles Leno and Bobby Massie and guard Kyle Long. 

Harry Hiestand’s group was one of the league’s best pass-protecting offensive lines, though the Bears frequently struggled to run the ball with any consistent success. Perhaps swapping Daniels and Whitehair could be a way to help generate improvements on the ground. 

Organized Team Attendance 

Nagy said the Bears expect all their players to show up for the team's offseason program, which begins April 15, and into OTAs in May. Only one player — wide receiver Anthony Miller (shoulder) — who expected to participate in the voluntary shorts-and-helmets practices of OTAs. 

Nagy cited that 100 percent attendance as another sign of the strong culture permeating Halas Hall. 

“They’ll be there,” Nagy said. “Again, that’s who we are. I’m not worried about one guy not showing up.”

Comp Pick USA

The Bears haven’t been awarded a compensatory draft pick — given to teams who, essentially, lose more important players than they sign in free agency — since 2009, but that could change in 2020 with Adrian Amos and Bryce Callahan landing sizable contracts with the Green Bay Packers and Denver Broncos, respectively. 

Part of the Bears’ comp pick drought has been because of an aggressive approach to free agency. The team could’ve, perhaps, received a 2018 comp pick after losing Alshon Jeffery to free agency in 2017, but instead signed Mike Glennon, Prince Amukamara, Markus Wheaton, Dion Sims, Quintin Demps and Kendall Wright, among others. 

The other issue has been, simply, the Bears haven’t had many good players recently. And when their own good players did become free agents, the team’s roster wasn’t healthy enough to let them sign elsewhere, nor was their cap maxed out to prevent them from being brought back. 

That changed in 2018, and the departures of Amos and Callahan, as well as guys like Josh Bellamy, Kevin White, Eric Kush and Bryan Witzmann signing elsewhere, could help trigger an end to that comp pick drought. OverTheCap estimates the Bears could receive fourth- and fifth-round picks for Amos and Callahan, though Pace cautioned that the formula to determine the awarding of those picks is complicated and subject to change. 

Still, as the Bears move forward, the top of their roster — Mitch Trubisky, Eddie Jackson, etc. — will get more expensive. And staying competitive while allocating a significant amount of cap space to a few players is massively helped by drafting well. Adding a few comp picks in the future will give the Bears more spins of the wheel as they look to add cheap, productive talent to their roster. 

“We kind of knew going into free agency that was a possibility,” Pace said. “Now there’s things that take place and they’re even talking about tweaking some of the — the equation’s complicated enough. One of the things I think is those guys have to be on those teams for 10-plus games, for example, so you’re never really set until the season unfolds. 

“But it’s something we’re mindful of. I think a lot of the good clubs, you see the Rams doing it, they figure out a way to take advantage of that system and for us the key is to continue to draft well and we’ll be in a position for these compensatory picks.” 

London Calling

While Nagy said he hasn’t made any decisions yet on the Bears’ travel plans for their game in London against the Oakland Raiders, it sounded like he’s leaning toward having his team have a shorter across the Atlantic Ocean. Nagy cited the Kansas City Chiefs’ trip to London in 2015 — when he was the team’s quarterbacks coach — for which the team left the United States for England on Thursday, held a practice Friday and played the game Sunday. 

Other teams have opted to leave earlier and hold more practices in England. It’s worth noting that Doug Pederson — the Chiefs’ offensive coordinator in 2015 — had the Philadelphia Eagles fly to England the Thursday before their Sunday game against the Jacksonville Jaguars at Wembley Stadium in 2018. 

Nagy said he wants to allow his players some time to soak in London, but that certainly won’t be the primary goal of the trip. 

“It'll be 90 percent football and just a sprinkle (of other activities),” Nagy said. “We're over there on a business trip, that's why we're there. But at the same time it's great culture for the guys to see and be a part of and some guys have never been over there. That's a part of life. If you can balance it and make sure you do it the right way, I'm good with that.”

Lastly, the best thing we saw this week...

… By far was Andy Reid’s Bitmoji, which Nagy shared with a group of Chicago-based media during the league’s coaches breakfast Tuesday morning. Specifically, the Bitmojis we saw were of Reid's character in a Tommy Bahama Hawaiian shirt and him chowing down on a sizable stack of pancakes. 

Nagy, too, has a Bitmoji, and lamented the social media platform not having a visor option to put on his avatar, which looks like this:

Bears grades and needs: Is offensive line consistency a good thing?

Bears grades and needs: Is offensive line consistency a good thing?

2018 depth chart

Tackles

1. Charles Leno
Usage: 16 games, 99.3 percent of offensive snaps
2019 status: $8.9 million cap hit

Leno’s steady improvement since being picked in the seventh round of Phil Emery’s final draft continued in 2018, with the 27-year-old allowing 32 pressures on 634 pass blocking snaps — roughly in line with pressure rates of veterans like the Rams’ Andrew Whitworth and the Giants’ Nate Solder. Leno was solid as a run blocker, though as is the case with the rest of the line (and the coaching staff, and the running back unit) there’s room for improvement. 

His durability is important, too: The only snaps he missed in 2018 were in that season-ending win over the Minnesota Vikings, when Matt Nagy pulled a number of starters in the fourth quarter. The last time Leno didn’t play 100 percent of his team’s offense snaps in a game previous was Week 3 of the 2015 season. 

Meanwhile, Leno’s 2019 cap hit ranks 20th among left tackles, per Spotrac. The contract extension he signed prior to the 2017 season looked even better in 2018, as Leno continued to build on the upside he showed early in his career. 

2. Bobby Massie 
Usage: 16 games, 99.5 percent of offensive snaps
2019 status: $3.8 million cap hit

Only three tackles with over 1,000 snaps allowed fewer pressures than Massie — those being the Chiefs’ Mitchell Schwartz, the Seahawks’ Duane Brown and the Ravens’ Ronnie Stanley. That’s good company in which to be. 

Additionally, only four tackles with over 1,000 snaps committed fewer penalties than Massie’s four, and he allowed just one sack, two hits and 23 pressures, per Pro Football Focus. With that backdrop, Ryan Pace’s move to sign Massie to a contract extension looks smart — especially given how his contract is structured, keeping his cap hit low in 2019. With Leno and Massie together again, the Bears can move forward with confidence their tackles will keep Mitch Trubisky upright again this season. 

3. Bradley Sowell
Usage: 16 games, 4.7 percent of offensive snaps, 17.7 percent of special teams snaps
2019 status: $1.8 million cap hit

Sowell fits well as a swing tackle who was used in a few different ways last year: As a sixth offensive lineman (30 snaps, one of which was on “Santa’s Sleigh”), as a fullback (eight snaps, all in Week 17 against the Vikings) and in the slot (one snap). The question for Pace, though: Do all those traits make him worth keeping in the face of a potential $1.5 million in cap savings by cutting him?

The answer is, probably, yes. Sowell played well in 2017 as both a guard and a tackle, and his athleticism does allow Nagy to do some outside-the-box things with him. But without much cap space available, perhaps Pace will roll the dice with an unproven backup for cheap. 

4. Rashaad Coward
Usage: 0 games
2019 status: Exclusive rights free agent

Coward had a trial by fire in 2018, when he had to learn how to play right tackle while largely lining up against Khalil Mack during mid-week practices at Halas Hall. He’s an intriguing prospect, one the Bears weren’t willing to risk losing by trying to sneak him onto the practice squad last year. Depending on the kind of growth he showed under the tutelage of Harry Hiestand, he could be back in a reserve role in 2019. 

5. Cornelius Lucas
Usage (with New Orleans Saints): 1 game, 5 percent of offensive snaps
2019 status: Reserve/future contract

Lucas is a five-year veteran who’s appeared in 37 games in his career, but only played in once in each of the last two seasons (lone starts with the Rams in 2017 and Saints in 2018). If the Bears were to part with Sowell, he’d have an opportunity to compete to be the team’s swing tackle this year. 

6. Dejon Allen
Usage: Practice squad
2019 status: Reserve/future contract

Allen spent 2018 on the Bears’ practice squad, and the 6-foot-3, 290 pound Hawaii alum will have a shot at sticking around as a practice squad player again in 2019. 

Guards

1. James Daniels
Usage: 16 games, 70.9 percent of offensive snaps
2019 status: $1,579,581 cap hit

Daniels steadily improved throughout his rookie season, and acquitted himself well as the Bears muted the impact Ndamukong Suh and Aaron Donald had on their 15-6 win over the Rams in December. His future looks bright as the Bears seem to move forward with Cody Whitehair as their center and Daniels locked in at left guard. 

“We like where he's headed,” offensive coordinator Mark Helfrich said last month. “He's a guy that again is kind of a quietly confident, he's naturally a quiet guy and the more you're around him, I think he just has that calmness. … We believe in him. It's not a situation where we are going 'Hey we have to turn this way or that way or the other.’ He's going to have some tough matchups and we expect him to win them."

2. Kyle Long
Usage: 8 games, 47.5 percent of offensive snaps
2019 status: $8.5 million cap hit

Long seems like a candidate to have his contract re-structured, as the Bears value his presence but also may not be keen on committing $8.5 million to a guard — and a guard who hasn’t played a full season since 2015. The Bears declined to pick up Josh Sitton's $8 million option a year ago, opting to replace him with a combination of Eric Kush and James Daniels. 

When healthy, Long is critical to the Bears’ success running the ball. The good news is he said on locker cleanout day he feels confident in his health — “no knives this offseason,” he quipped. “It’s gonna be pretty awesome. Jettisoning Long, too, would leave a significant hole in the right side of an offensive line that otherwise is returning all of its starters from 2018. How the Bears approach Long in the coming weeks and months will be an important storyline to follow. 

3. Bryan Witzmann
Usage: 10 games, 49.6 percent of offensive snaps, 10.1 percent of special teams snaps
2019 status: Unrestricted free agent

Witzmann lent a steady hand in place of Long from Weeks 8-16, allowing only 16 pressures in 306 pass-blocking snaps, per Pro Football Focus. He didn’t allow a pressure against the Rams in Week 14, and the Bears’ offensive line didn’t fall apart after he swapped in for the injured Long. He played in all five of the Bears’ games in December, which represented Jordan Howard’s best stretch of the season, too. The Bears could do worse with a backup guard. 

4. Eric Kush 
Usage: 15 games, 32 percent of offensive snaps, 14.9 percent of special teams snaps
2019 status: Unrestricted free agent

Kush began the season as the team’s starting left guard and struggled to run block consistently. He began rotating with Daniels in Week 4, then rotated with Witzmann in Week 9 and didn’t play an offensive snap after that. Based on that lack of usage, the Bears will likely move on from him this offseason. 

5. Willie Beavers
Usage: Practice squad
2019 status: Reserve/future contract

Beavers, a former fourth-round pick of the Minnesota Vikings in 2016, has bounced around practice squads over the last three years, including the Bears’ in 2018. 

Centers

1. Cody Whitehair
Usage: 16 games, 100 percent of offensive snaps
2019 status: $1,344,180 cap hit

The Bears will need to work out an extension for Whitehair, who played every single one of the Bears’ offensive snaps in 2018 and earned a trip to Orlando as a Pro Bowl alternate. His steady presence, ability to read opposing defenses and good relationship with Trubisky is important for the Bears’ offense. 

What Whitehair’s extension could look like will be interesting to see, presuming he indeed signs one sometime between the start of training camp and the beginning of the season. Perhaps something similar (and a little richer) than the three-year, $27 million extension signed by Seahawks center Justin Britt (a 2014 second-round pick) will be the starting point. 

2. James Daniels
Usage: 0 snaps at center

Daniels played 122 snaps at center during the preseason but didn’t play at all there during the regular season. He’ll likely remain the team’s backup center going forward, though. 

Level of need (1-11, with 11 being the highest): 5. Teams can always use quality offensive line depth, and the Bears will need to address their interior reserves, whether that means bringing back Witzmann or looking elsewhere. It wouldn’t be surprising to see the Bears draft an offensive lineman, as Pace has done every year as the team’s GM (Hroniss Grasu and Tayo Fabuluje in 2015, Whitehair in 2016, Jordan Morgan in 2017 and Daniels in 2018). 

Level of need (1-11, with 11 being the highest): 5

Teams can always use quality offensive line depth, and the Bears will need to address their interior reserves, whether that means bringing back Witzmann or looking elsewhere. It wouldn’t be surprising to see the Bears draft an offensive lineman, as Pace has done every year as the team’s GM (Hroniss Grasu and Tayo Fabuluje in 2015, Whitehair in 2016, Jordan Morgan in 2017 and Daniels in 2018).  

Previous needs & grades: QBs | RBs | WRs | TEs 

Click here to download the new MyTeams App by NBC Sports! Receive comprehensive coverage of the Bears.

Bears James Daniels stands tall against NFL’s best DT Aaron Donald

james-daniels-1211.jpg
USA TODAY

Bears James Daniels stands tall against NFL’s best DT Aaron Donald

Rookie guard James Daniels laughed and shook his head in the aftermath of the Bears’ 15-6 win Sunday over the Los Angeles Rams:

Had he ever gone against a defensive tackle anything like Rams All-Pro Aaron Donald?

“I don’t think I’ve ever played a D-tackle like that one,” Daniel said. “He rushes unique compared to other defensive tackles. [Ndamukong] Suh plays like a lot of other tackles but just better than they do. But Donald is different.

“No defensive tackle I’ve ever played has played like that. He protects his chest and that’s why offensive linemen have trouble. You’re trying to ‘punch’ him but he protects and there’s nothing you can punch. He’s at an angle. That’s why he’s so good. If you really look at tape, you see how he protects, and he was doing a great job every play of keeping his hands inside.”

Daniel, who didn’t get his first NFL start until Game 7, has played every bit like the second-round draft choice he was this year. Against Donald on multiple occasions Sunday, he and right guard Bryan Witzmann faced a modern incarnation of similarly-undersized Hall of Fame defensive tackle John Randle.

The result was a win for the Bears and a game in which Donald, the NFL sack leader with 16.5 over 12 games, managed just one (of the Rams’ three for the game) hit on Mitchell Trubisky to go with one solo tackle and one assist. It was Donald’s least-productive 2018 day since Week 1 at Oakland.

Donald did beat Daniels on more than one occasion. But it’s what happened next that made perhaps an even greater impression.

Daniels recovered within the play, kept his physical and mental balance – “If you start panicking,” he said, laughing, “that’s not going to be good” – and kept Daniels at bay in pass protection and, along with Witzmann and center Cody Whitehair, moved the Rams tackle as part of the Bears amassing a season-high 194 rushing yards.

“He just kept his poise, stuck to his basics and technique, and against a guy like that, that’s what you gotta do,” Whitehair said. “There’s going to be ups and downs and it’s all in how you respond to it.”

Coach Matt Nagy saw the same: “One of James’ biggest strengths is if he happens to lose a little leverage he can recover, but for the most part he was very consistent. And man, for being such a young kid, very calm, composed and that was one of the big things we talked about as a team was to stay calm and composed and next play mentality, he did that.”

Daniels credits Whitehair, himself a fellow second-rounder, with helping him through the rough spots of acclimating to the NFL. Whitehair also was instrumental in executing a blocking scheme that dealt with a Rams front seven that included five No. 1 draft picks.

“That was one of the biggest challenges that he’s ever going to have,” Nagy said. “Not all the time, he was not going against him every play, but there’s times where he’s out there and Aaron has so many great moves. But I thought [Daniels’] technique was really good last night. He never lunged too much, he stayed balanced.”

Click here to download the new MyTeams App by NBC Sports! Receive comprehensive coverage of the Bears and stream the ‘Football Aftershow’ easily on your device.