James Daniels

James Daniels dubbed Bears' 2020 breakout candidate

James Daniels dubbed Bears' 2020 breakout candidate

The Bears offensive line wasn't good in 2019. It was downright brutal at times. And it's because of the unit's sub-par play that both guard and tackle have been mentioned among the top offseason needs heading into free agency and the 2020 NFL Draft.

But it wasn't long ago that James Daniels was a highly decorated second-round pick out of Iowa. In fact, it was just two years ago. The second-year starter had his ups and downs in 2019, but he may have the most upside of any of the starting offensive linemen slated to return next fall.

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Daniels posted the Bears' third-highest season grade on offense from Pro Football Focus (70.3) and was the team's highest-graded starting offensive lineman. At just 22 years old, the arrow is pointing up for him.

In fact, he was dubbed the league's breakout candidate at guard in 2020:

The Bears moved Daniels to center to start 2019, switching his spot on the line with Cody Whitehair, after he had played left guard the entirety of his first season. Daniels earned a 63.2 overall grade at center, which would have been good for 22nd out of 37 qualifiers at the position. Meanwhile, his 73.9 grade at left guard would have ranked fifth among 39 qualifiers. It remains to be seen how the Bears use Daniels in 2020, but it’s clear that he performed better at guard. As talented as he is at just 22 years old, another season with position continuity could have Daniels poised to break out.

It's often difficult to recognize one offensive lineman's positive play when the group, as a whole, struggles. But Daniels was a bright spot in an otherwise dark year for the Bears' big uglies, and he remains a key cog in an offense looking to take massive strides in 2020.

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New Year's Resolutions for the Bears' offense, defense, and special teams

New Year's Resolutions for the Bears' offense, defense, and special teams

It's Resolution season, baby. Time to set some lofty goals, slowly walk them back by March and forget them altogether by June. What's important is that we said them out loud now, so it counts. The Bears are probably setting some resolutions, or othey should because they finished 8-8. Here are some suggestions, just in case they needed any help, no pressure or anything: 

Offense – Figure Out Who Actually Plays What Position On The Offensive Line 

You'd think this would already be a somewhat-heavily emphasized part of the offense, and yet the Bears cannot seem to figure out where they want Cody Whitehair or James Daniels to play. 

"I think there's a couple of things there," GM Ryan Pace said when asked why the offensive line regressed in 2019. "The injury to Kyle [Long], switching Whitehair and James, injury to [Bobby] Massie late in the year. We struggled in that area this year. That's real, and I think we know it starts up front with those guys. That's something we've really got to look at. From a personnel standpoint we're gonna look at it. From a schematic standpoint, we're gonna look at it." 

Pace also said the team is still "evaluating" the long term plan for both Whitehair and Daniels, so even if the GM is playing his cards close to the vest, it's not a great look that the Bears have found themselves in a sort of no-man's-land with two very talented offensive linemen. For what it's worth, according to Pro Football Focus' grades, the Bears run- and pass-blocking almost immediately improved following the Week 10 switch. Fixing the running game is going to be one of the largest undertakings of the offseason, and fixing that starts with the offensive line. The firing of Harry Hiestand and subsequent hiring of Juan Castillo provides a peek into what direction the Bears are taking this offseason, but there are still plenty of questions up front that require honest assessment. 

Defense – Go To Yoga With Khalil Mack

Akiem Hicks missed 11 games this season. Danny Trevathan missed six, and Roquan Smith missed four. The Bears were due after 2018's injury-free season, but having three All-Pro-caliber starters, all in the middle of the defense, miss that much time was a dramatic swing in the wrong direction. Khalil Mack, however, continues to look stylishly comfortable in all of his yoga gear while playing every game of the season for the fifth time in his six-year career. And even in a "down" season, Mack finished as PFF's 16th-best pass rusher. False correlations? Maybe! But you probably can't go wrong doing whatever Khalil Mack's doing. 

Special Teams – Don't have too much fun in Miami 

I don't know why I titled it that, they're allowed to have as much in Miami as they want. Eddy Pineiro will spend his offseason training in South Florida with Pat O'Donnell, and that unit, along with holder Patrick Scales, have reportedly grown close:

"I think that Scales and Pat O’Donnell should get a lot of credit because they’ve helped raise him also just with their veteran leadership," said Special Teams coordinator Chris Tabor of Pineiro's late-season success. "The group is really tight and I’m proud of them.”

For Pineiro's part, the kicker said that while he's always working on improving his technique, his top priority while in South Florida will be putting on weight. Though he ended his season hitting his last 11 kicks, only one of those – the lone three points in a loss to Kansas City – was from farther than 40 yards. Pineiro admitted that having to consistently kick a cold ball took some getting used to, especially as he continued to work his way back from a pinched nerve in his kicking knee. Just throw a couple footballs in the freezer when you're down there, Eddy. 

Is the Bears' inconsistent run game fixable in 2020?

Is the Bears' inconsistent run game fixable in 2020?

The Bears identified David Montgomery as the centerpiece of their run game overhaul earlier this year, trading up in the third round to draft him with the 73rd overall pick. Ryan Pace and Matt Nagy, then, didn’t envision Montgomery averaging just 3.5 yards per carry a dozen games into his rookie year. 

But that’s where the Bears stand with Montgomery, who’s rushed 172 times for 594 yards as the Bears enter the final four games of 2019. It feels like Nagy trusts Montgomery, but not the Bears’ run game. 

“I’m very happy with where he’s at,” Nagy said last week. “Love the kid to death and I think he has a really bright future.”

But the Bears need to get more production out of Montgomery, whose three best games have come against bad and depleted defenses (Washington, the Chargers, the Lions). He’s averaged fewer than three yards per carry in five games this year, leading Nagy — who has a quick trigger finger with going away from the run anyway — to have games like Green Bay and New Orleans where he shows no trust in the run game at all. 

But the Bears’ positive assessment of Montgomery is grounded in reality. All the things he did at Iowa State have showed up in the NFL — the shiftiness, the toughness, the patience, the vision, etc. It’s how he was able to turn this...

And then this...

... Into a 10-yard gain and a first down on the Bears’ game-winning drive against the Detroit Lions on Thanksgiving. The stop-start ability, patience and toughness to grind out five extra yards after contact are all reasons why the Bears wanted Montgomery, and felt comfortable trading Jordan Howard — who, based on his running style, would’ve been stopped at the line of scrimmage — to the Philadelphia Eagles. 

Plays like that one are why Nagy, in the game, said he felt like the Bears were gaining five yards per carry (Montgomery averaged 4.7) — a feel which helped him open up his playbook and call more running plays. 

“It makes it a lot easier, because it’s open to what the next play call’s gonna be based off of second-and-3, second-and-4, second-and-5,” Nagy said. “It’s way easier. You felt that. Now, every week is different, because there’s some weeks where you play a defensive line or a defensive front that’s totally (different). 

“You can’t just put on Tecmo Bowl and all the sudden be playing this front on arcades. … It’s different every week, so we’ve gotta try to scheme things up as much as we can. But last week felt good.”

The question, then, becomes: How do the Bears get this out of Montgomery on a consistent basis, and not just against sub-optimal run defenses missing guys like Damon “Snacks” Harrison?

Part of it, certainly, is Nagy’s scheme and playcalling. Montgomery is the kind of back who can wear down a defense with his physicality, even if he’s only gaining three yards per carry over the first two or three quarters. There needs to be a greater long-term commitment to getting Montgomery touches. 

Of note: It does not necessarily mean running more under center. Montgomery is averaging three yards per carry when the Bears are under center (91 attempts) and four yards per carry from the shotgun (81 attempts), though that latter number is skewed thanks to a 55-yard run against the Chargers in Week 8. Even removing that run from Montgomery’s shotgun runs, he’s averaging 3.3 yards per carry in those — still higher than his under center average. 

But there’s a larger issue in play here, and it’s the Bears’ offensive line. 

It’s a problem that pre-dates Montgomery and Nagy’s scheme and playcalling, too. Pulling from Football Outsiders’ offensive line database:

2017
3.65 adjusted line yards (28th)
58% power success (26th)
26% stuffed (28th)
1.2 second level yards (11th)

2018 
3.92 adjusted line yards (28th)
67% over success (18th)
20.5% stuffed (22nd)
0.96 second level yards (31st)

2019 (through Week 12) 
3.61 adjusted line yards (29th)
46% power success (30th)
21% stuffed (24th)
0.73 second level yards (32nd)

The pattern here: The Bears have not been efficient running the ball with different schemes and running back depth charts, though they've largely had the same personnel on their offensive line. Charles Leno, Cody Whitehair, Kyle Long and Bobby Massie have accounted for 66.8 percent of the snaps played by Bears offensive linemen in the last three years, serving well as pass protectors but not as run blockers. 

The addition of James Daniels in 2018 did not help improve the Bears’ run game, nor has replacing Long with Rashaad Coward in 2019 under the watch of offensive line coach Harry Hiestand. 

And the Bears have little wiggle room for changes to this unit in the offseason. Massie and Whitehair signed new contracts in 2019 and aren’t going anywhere. Leno carries a dead cap figure of over $7 million in 2020. Daniels’ cap hit is a shade over $1.5 million next year, too, making him a valuable asset for a team lacking gobs of cap space. 

Effectively, you can expect all four of those players to return in 2020, with the only question being where Daniels and Whitehair play on the interior. At this point in their careers, Leno, Whitehair and Massie are all who they are, for better or for worse (Whitehair, to be fair, is still one of the Bears’ best players). So expecting significant improvement from that group may not be fair, Daniels aside. 

That leaves right guard as the position up for grabs, with Long likely to be cut and Coward likely to slide into a reserve role in 2020. But how much improvement, realistically, can the Bears get out of one addition to their offensive line room?

Washington’s Brandon Scherff is the top guard free-agent-to-be, but the Bears would have to get creative — and not address other holes on the roster — to sign him to, say, a five-year, $65 million deal with $35 million or so guaranteed (he might even command more than that). Someone like New Orleans’ Andrus Peat, a former top-10 pick who’s currently out with an arm injury, could be a less-pricey — but still pricey — option, given he was a Pro Bowler in 2018. 

The Bears could also target a guard with one of their two second-round picks, seeing as they used one on Whitehair (2016) and Daniels (2018). 

It feels like the Bears need a physical brawler to play right guard, sort of along the lines of what Long was in his prime. But those guys are not necessarily easy to find, especially with limited resources. 

This is the root of the Bears’ run game problems. An offensive line consistently generating a run push would give Nagy the confidence to call more running plays, giving Montgomery more opportunities to carve out a consistent four or five yards per carry. 

But finding the solution to this problem does not appear easy. And that may mean the Bears go through 2020 without an effective run game, again. 

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