James Daniels has been a popular name on the free-agent radar of New York Jets fans
With the New York Jets possessing a gaping hole at the right guard spot, they are going to be linked to every free-agent guard with a pulse. It is important for us to separate the real studs from the pretenders if we want to get an idea of where New York will be focusing its attention once free agency opens.
One of the players who Jets fans have commonly pointed to as a top option to fill the right guard spot is James Daniels of the Chicago Bears. The 2018 second-round pick (39th overall) has started 48 games in Chicago and is still only 24 years old. He’ll turn 25 in September.
Is the young Daniels a worthy target for New York?
I believe that he is.
Below, we’ll break down every aspect of Daniels’ free-agent profile to get an idea of whether or not the Jets would be wise to target him.
Before digging into Daniels’ game, we need to get a ballpark estimate of what he might cost.
Spotrac estimates that Daniels will earn a four-year, $29.5 million contract ($7.3 million per year). At the moment, that would be the 16th-largest contract in the NFL among guards in terms of total value. It would rank 18th in terms of average annual value.
With those numbers in mind, let’s analyze Daniels’ production to see if he would be worth such a contract.
Daniels’ run-blocking is his greatest appeal – particularly when it comes to his athleticism in that phase.
At the 2018 NFL Scouting Combine, Daniels posted a 4.4-second time in the 20-yard shuttle (97th percentile all-time among OL) and a 7.29-second time in the 3-cone drill (96th percentile). Those marks helped him earn a RAS (Relative Athletic Score) of 9.24 out of 10.
The Iowa product has used those skills to become a great zone-blocker in the NFL.
Pro Football Focus scored Daniels with a zone-blocking grade of 82.2 in 2021, which ranked 10th-best out of 70 qualified guards. He ranked 61st with a gap-blocking grade of 49.9, but that weakness was minimized in an extremely zone-heavy Chicago offense. Daniels and Bears teammate Cody Whitehair zone-blocked on 71.9% of their run-blocking snaps, tying for the highest rate among guards.
OK James Daniels (RG)….you have my attention. pic.twitter.com/S4NIKFq64v
— Andrew Russell (@PFF_AndrewR) February 22, 2022
Interestingly, Daniels entered the NFL at a relatively average weight of 306 pounds, but he has bulked up since then. He was reportedly up to 315 pounds in 2020 and was listed at 327 pounds in 2021.
Overall, Daniels has been a consistently solid run-blocker in the NFL and can be relied upon to maintain that in the future if he stays in a heavy zone-blocking scheme. In his four NFL seasons, he has had a run-blocking grade no lower than 65.3 (2019) and no higher than 71.8 (his career-high in 2021).
For reference, the mark of 65.3 ranked 33rd out of 93 interior offensive linemen in 2019 and the mark of 71.8 ranked 30th of 103 interior offensive linemen in 2021.
With the Jets running a zone-based running scheme under offensive coordinator Mike LaFleur, Daniels would be right at home if he made the move to Florham Park.
There are some concerns with Daniels in pass protection after he went through a rough year in that phase.
In 2021, Daniels gave up 40 pressures on 701 pass-blocking snaps. That’s a pressure rate of 5.71%, which ranked 48th out of 68 qualified guards.
Play 9 on Offense, Obvious Cover 4 & we have two hooks on outsides vs off coverage, Dalton doesn't throw either (Herbert is Wide left, Jesse James wide right, Jakeem Grant in the backfield vs zone is nuts), panics & takes the sack. Bad rep by James Daniels who doesn't move feet. pic.twitter.com/XKYQNn2AOH
— Bearlissimo (@Bearlissimo1) December 7, 2021
Fortunately for Daniels, there are a lot of factors working in his favor that suggest his 2021 pass-blocking woes may not be a sign of things to come.
This was an outlier year for Daniels in pass protection. He was a consistently good pass-blocker prior to 2021. From 2018-20, Daniels allowed 48 pressures on 1,325 pass-blocking snaps, a pressure rate of 3.62%. That’s a good number. For reference, it would have placed 17th among the aforementioned 68 qualified guards in 2021.
It’s also interesting to note that Daniels actually earned a good PFF pass-blocking grade in 2021 despite his poor pressure numbers. Daniels’ 68.3 pass-blocking grade at PFF ranked 26th out of 68. It was by far the highest mark posted among the 27 worst guards on the pressure rate leaderboard.
What does this tell us?
Well, PFF grades the quality of each play, not merely the result. Exactly how bad or how good a player was on a given rep is crucial in PFF’s grading system.
So, the disparity between Daniels’ grade and pressure numbers could mean that, although Daniels gave up pressure frequently, the plays in which Daniels gave up pressure tended to be fairly inoffensive losses that either took a long time to occur, could partially be blamed on someone else, or did not cause much damage to the play. It likely also means that Daniels’ good plays in pass protection tended to be very good plays that earned high praise in PFF’s grading system, suggesting that when he won, he won in an overpowering fashion.
Daniels’ 68.3 pass-blocking grade in 2021 is directly in-line with his career composite average of 68.7. With that in mind, it does seem like there is a good shot that his 2021 numbers prove to be an outlier. After all, he spent much of the year blocking for Justin Fields, who held the ball for an average of 3.06 seconds per dropback (3rd-longest in NFL).
Teams need to do some extra homework on Daniels in this phase after a lackluster season of production, but most pieces of evidence suggest that Daniels should return to pass-blocking at an effective level in the future.
PFF awarded Daniels with an overall grade of 71.0 for his efforts in 2021. That ranked 19th-best out of 70 qualified guards, including ninth-best among right guards.
Save for a shortened season in 2020 where he had a 65.4 overall grade, that marked Daniels’ third straight year of improvement and the continuation of strong reliability he has provided since his rookie year. Daniels had a 68.4 overall grade in 2018 and a 69.9 overall grade in 2019.
Daniels offers experience at all three positions along the interior of the offensive line. He has played 1,625 career snaps at left guard, 1,121 snaps at right guard, and 508 snaps at center.
Daniels exclusively played left guard as a rookie before moving to center at the start of his second season. The results were mixed and he moved back to left guard around the season’s halfway point, forging a strong finish to the year.
In his third season, Daniels remained at left guard. He moved to right guard for the 2021 season, starting all 17 games at the position.
Daniels has played 54 career games out of a possible 65. All 11 of his missed games were due to a season-ending pectoral muscle tear in 2020. Outside of that, he has yet to miss a game.
Should the Jets go after Daniels?
It seems like Daniels would be a great option to fill the Jets’ starting right guard spot. He’s a perfect scheme fit and matches their timeline from an age standpoint as he is entering the very beginning of his prime.
The question marks are his pass-blocking and his cost.
Daniels’ pressure prevention in 2021 was not good and would make him a lateral move compared to what the Jets got from their guards this past season. If the Jets evaluate Daniels’ film and think he truly is a 40-pressure kind of guy, it lowers his value significantly.
However, as we broke down above, most signs point us to believe that Daniels’ 2021 pass-blocking struggles were an outlier and that he will be a solid pass-blocker going forward. If the Jets believe in those signs – which they likely will if they look at the entire picture – they would be wise to keep Daniels on their radar.
It will be interesting to see how high Daniels’ price tag goes. I think the number estimated by Spotrac (four years and $29.5 million) would be an absolute bargain for a 25-year-old guard who is arguably a borderline top-10 player at his position.
The 2020 guard market includes some useful comparables. Ereck Flowers earned a three-year, $30 million deal from the Dolphins in 2020 after proving himself to be an approximately league-average guard for Washington in 2019. Graham Glasgow signed a four-year, $44 million deal with Denver after four great years with the Lions (consistently posting slightly better production than Daniels’ peak).
Daniels’ track record of performance lands directly in between those two players, so he should find himself with a contract in their ballpark. I think it’s more likely Daniels earns somewhere around $10 million per year than the $7.3 estimated by Spotrac.
A four-year, $40 million deal seems realistic for Daniels. That would currently be the 15th-largest contract among guards in terms of total value and the 11th-largest in terms of average annual value.
All things considered, I think my answer is yes, I would be willing to sign Daniels to that contract if I were the Jets. He checks so many of the boxes that New York is looking for.
From a general standpoint, it is also worth noting how valuable it would be for the Jets to knock out their right guard spot before the draft.
Locking down a right guard would allow the Jets to operate with freedom at the top of the first round. They would avoid pressuring themselves into forcing the selection of an offensive lineman, which would be especially risky in a class where most of the top guard options in the top-10 are not actually pure guards, but tackles who don’t have a ton of experience (if any) on the interior.
I believe the Jets should try to nail down the guard position before the draft, and of the free agents who are good enough to fill the role, Daniels offers the best combination of youth, production, and scheme compatibility.