I write profiles about draft prospects the Rams are very unlikely to select, so I thought I'd change it up a bit and write about a free agent the Rams aren't going to sign. It is difficult for the Rams to make it work with salary cap constraints and doesn't fit Snead's MO to spend big money in free agency at the center or guard position. Theoretically, the Rams could pursue an expensive FA like Daniels, because the Rams could create cap space by restructuring some of their expensive players, but Snead recently that the Rams have no intention of doing this and that the plan is for the Rams to build through the draft this year instead of trying to push a bunch of money into future years with aggressive restructuring.
Unless you think that is just smoke and misdirection (I don't think it is, I think Snead will follow the stated plan) don't expect the Rams to make a big splash in free agency. Still, on TST we can dream, right? "What if" scenarios can be fun to explore. What if instead of trying to draft a rookie center to plug and play, the Rams decided to drop a big bag of cash to attempt to acquire a veteran lineman in free agency this year?
One such potential target I'd propose for this alternate universe offseason plan would be James Daniels of the Chicago Bears.
Back in 2018, I had first round draft grades on both Frank Ragnow and Daniels. Todd McShay said Daniels was the best center in the draft and the 18th overall draft prospect, calling him a good fit for zone heavy scheme teams. Early in the process, mock drafts and sims had Ragnow available in the 3rd round, which I couldn't believe. In the actual draft, Ragnow was the 20th overall pick by the Detroit Lions. He's gone on to become one of the best centers in the NFL, but got injured last year and missed almost the entire season. Daniels was an early 2nd round pick, taken 6 slots after Austin Corbett. The Rams didn't have a 1st round pick that year (or a 2nd) due to prior trades for WRs (Sammy Watkins and Brandin Cooks) and eventually drafted Brian Allen in the 4th round (I thought it was a terrible pick). Four years into his career, Daniels has established himself as a versatile and quality interior lineman and is expected to sign a lucrative deal on the open market (assuming the Bears don't step up and pay to keep him).
Here are some key considerations when it comes to Daniels:
Daniels is very young and doesn't turn 25 until after the start of the 2022 season. He was younger than normal as a draft prospect. To compare, Creed Humphrey turns 23 in June, so Daniels is less than 2 years older than Humphrey. Josh Myers and Quinn Meinerz both turn 24 in July, so Daniels is only 1 year older than both of those players. Austin Corbett and Brian Allen both turn 27 years old in the fall, so Daniels is 2 years younger than them, even though all 3 are from the same draft class.
Age is one factor that is expected to drive up the salary for Daniels, because he is at an ideal juncture where he has years of NFL experience and development, but he's still young enough to be in the prime of his career. If you sign him to a 5 year contract, he could complete the entire 5 years and still be under the age of 30 at the conclusion of the contract.
Daniels has an average PFF grade of 68.9 over the last 3 years, which is very close to Rodger Saffold's average grade of 70.1 over the same time period. Saffold has an $11 million salary on a 4 year deal he signed in 2019. Saffold was 31 years old in 2019. Saffold is better at run blocking than pass blocking. In 2018, the season before he signed his new contract, Saffold had a 71.6 run blocking grade from PFF. Daniels had a better run blocking grade (76.3) last season in comparison.
These are the PFF season grades for Daniels:
68.4 (2018). Played left guard that season as a rookie.
69.9 (2019). Played center to begin the season, then got moved over to guard in the middle of the year.
65.8 (2020). Played LG, suffered season ending torn pec injury in Week 5.
71.0 (2021). Career best PFF grade, playing at RG. 71.8 pass blocking grade (27th among guards) and 76.3 run block grade (17th best guard). Graded as 19th best guard out of 82 players. Gave up more QB pressures in 2021 than he had in prior seasons. Had quad injury in training camp and graded out better in later games compared to beginning of season.
PFF named Daniels the 40th best NFL free agent. They said he's one of the best pass blocking guards in the league and that he's an excellent fit for zone blocking teams.
PFF suggested that a contract for Daniels would be 5 years with an average salary of $10 million.
A reporter for the Chicago Tribune talked to different NFL agents, with one estimating a salary of $12 million per year.
A Bears fans article reviewed comparable deals and came up with an estimate of 5 years for $48 million, an average salary of $9.6 million.
Spotrac had a much more conservative estimate of 4 years and $29.45 million, average salary $7.3 million.
All of the guard needy NFL teams have fans clamoring for their team to look at Daniels. Even the Bucs after the retirement of Ali Marpet could join the long list. Easy to imagine a bidding war for his services.
Career So Far
As a rookie, Daniels began on the depth chart behind former Ram, Eric Kush, but gradually Daniels was worked into the lineup and became a full time starter by the middle of the season. He started 10 games that season.
Daniels was moved over from LG to C prior to the start of his 2nd NFL season. The offense struggled, so the Bears decided to swap Cody Whitehair and Daniels, moving Whitehair back over to C and have Daniels play guard. The Bears lost to the Rams around the time this transition happened.
In year 3, Daniels got hurt early in the season. He bounced back with a solid 4th year, playing at RG, so Daniels has substantial starting experience at all 3 interior offensive line positions. Daniels finished ranked higher than both Austin Corbett (68.8 grade last year) and David Edwards 66.4 grade).
I imagine Daniels could have graded out even higher, but for the fact that the OL around him was mediocre. The Bears moved Whitehair over to guard, where he had struggles (similar grade to Edwards) and the starting center, Sam Mustipher, ranked 36th out of 39 centers. Teven Jenkins, the high draft pick at OT, had a back injury and didn't play until very late in the season. At RT, both Germain Ifedi (former 1st round Seahawks disappointment) and 5th round rookie Larry Borom (injury replacement for Ifedi in middle of year) were equally mediocre. Watching plays on video, to me it looked like Daniels did a nice job many times helping to cover for other linemen and those other guys would have looked worse if Daniels hadn't been playing between them. So, you can't just look at his PFF grade in isolation, consider the overall context. Also might not have helped that Justin Fields was a rookie QB who didn't have the greatest pocket presence at times last year.
Combine Measurements and Profile
Currently listed by the Bears at 6'4'' tall and 327 pounds, over 20 pounds heavier than his Combine weight.
Combine: 6'3'' tall, 306 pounds, 33 3/4'' arms, 9.5'' hands.
6.70 draft grade from LZ, round 1 to 2 projection.
21 bench reps, 30.5'' vert, 9' broad jump, 7.29 sec (3 cone), 4.4 sec (shuttle)
Notice he has long arms for a center. Brian Allen has 32 3/8'' arms. Daniels had good agility scores. Allen had a 4.71 sec shuttle time. The goal for a good NFL center is typically listed as about 4.5 seconds.
I watched several games on the Bears and this is how I'd evaluate Daniels as an NFL player:
One of his best traits. Daniels is a smart football player. Not surprising, because this was the book on him coming out of Iowa. Does a fantastic job most of the time against twists and defensive games. Repeatedly stuffed twists with great awareness and timing.
Some examples. Initially he's helping the C block the DT, but his eyes immediately scan out to check on the edge rusher as he's engaging the DT. He sees that the RT is beaten right away to the inside and Daniels switches over and escorts the DE past the QB, saving the day.
Great timing against T-E twist. Effective block on DT, passing it off to the RT, then switches off onto the DE with perfect timing to protect the QB. Very nice quick reaction to DT twist.
Delivers strong shove to DT as Daniels backpedals, helping to give C time to get into proper position, then is able to get enough depth to slide over and help the RT against the edge rusher. Outstanding and not easy rep to win.
Of course, can't be aware to everything 100% of the time. There is a play where he's surprised by an E-T stunt and TJ Watt slams him to the ground.
Handling Bull Rushes and Pass Blocking
This one is a mixed bag. He has solid size and weight, so I didn't see a single play where he was 100% put on ice skates and run over. If he lands a good initial punch and establishes his base, Daniels can absorb even a quality bull rush. Even against Kenny Clark of the Packers, he did a solid job stopping some good pass rush attempts. Daniels's long arms are his best physical weapon on both pass and run blocks and he uses that length to help dissipate the momentum of the bull rusher. Waltzed with DT, holding hands like dance partners. Difficult for defenders to disengage when Daniels gets his hands on them.
On the other hand, Daniels has average foot quickness and doesn't drop or reestablish anchor particularly well. So, I saw several instances where he was walked back to the QB at what I'd call a moderate pace, causing the front of the pocket to get caved in. One of these plays nearly caused an INT as the RG gets pushed into the QB. I guess it is better than the RG getting discarded or knocked on his backside, but those are still negative plays, because the QB has no place to step up and if he doesn't move he's going to end up getting hit by the RG before he has time to throw the ball.
Displays patience on pass set. Not fooled by head fakes, doesn't lunge too early, times his initial punch well and with accuracy, maintains wide and balanced base.
Lacks foot quickness to slide laterally on pass blocks to extend range. His long arms save him here and extend his recovery range, but once that runs out he can get in trouble and the defender can slip by him. For example, the DT defeats his initial punch by pushing his arms up in the air, then goes to the inside, able to pressure the QB as LG can't recover and cut off the penetration. Great awareness to twist in middle, but the LG oversets trying to pick up the 2nd DT, allowing the DT to slip by him and sack the QB. DTs can defeat his punch with swipe moves and get around his edge. Head fake by DT, then 2 hand swipe beats punch, Daniels can't recover, giving up QB pressure.
Does pretty well handing counter moves, but is vulnerable to a 2nd counter move, because once he reacts laterally to the 1st move he struggles to shift his body weight back in the opposite direction. In other words, if the pass rusher goes up the middle, then starts going to the right, then suddenly goes back towards the left, that last change of direction will typically put Daniels in trouble.
Good hustle and effort as helper pass blocking to protect the C and OT.
Solid upper body strength. Wide frame, latches on to defenders with long arms. Balanced mover into initial engagement on zone run blocks.
Bears got a long run against the Rams last season. On this play, Daniels gets his left hand inside on a solo block against Aaron Donald. His length bothers AD, and Donald's arms aren't long enough to retaliate and disengage. Daniels controls leverage with his hand on the outside of AD's shoulder pad, helping to keep the gap open for the RB to cut into open space and when the CB loses containment it results in a huge gain. Locked up A'Shawn Robinson on another play. Even against elite run defenders, Daniels can make some quality run blocks.
Lethargic as pull blocker, doesn't burst out of stance. Average agility on combo blocks. Not a drive blocker. Doesn't finish blocks with aggression, can get shed eventually if required to sustain run block for longer period of time.
Does not have good change of direction ability in open field to adjust to fast defenders. Lacks burst climbing to 2nd level. Does not turn around in tight quarters at 2nd level coming off of a combo block.
Lacks core strength and leg drive. Doesn't have enough power to uproot defenders and move them off their spot on solo blocks.
Doesn't appear to be great at getting around defenders to seal off. I wonder if this could be one of the reasons he's played more G in the NFL and not C.
Scheme limitations. Not suited for gap scheme or power scheme teams, a more effective player for zone scheme teams. This could take him out of the market for some squads unless they want him only as a C and aren't as interested in him as a G.
While James Daniels might not be on the same talent level as guys like Quenton Nelson or Zack Martin, he's still a good NFL starter and he's validated his draft position. Billy Price, Will Hernandez and Austin Corbett were all drafted ahead of Daniels and in my opinion, Daniels is better than all of those 3 players. He's added weight since entering the NFL. He has starting ability at all 3 IOL positions. At his age, the best football for Daniels in the NFL could still be ahead of him.
SteelersDepot had a nice article about Austin Corbett, saying he'd be an excellent FA target for the Steelers (who once had an outstanding OL, but have really struggled and had a poor OL last year). They noted that Spotrac estimated Corbett could get a 4 year $35 million contract, which is near $9 million in annual salary and said that Corbett was worth it at that cost. If we assume that Daniels is worth more, he could land at least $10 million per year.
Would Daniels be worth it to the Rams at that price? Not if you think the dollars are better allocated elsewhere. But, if the alternative is either to try to plug and play a middle to late round pick, start an untested player who formerly was on the practice squad or sign a cheap FA who is a journeyman or castoff from another team, those other options also carry risk.
I think there is about zero chance the Rams will try to enter a bidding war for Daniels. The contract restructures necessary to create the space would potentially create salary cap problems in future years. This is one of the consequences of some of the "all in" moves the Rams made to win the Super Bowl, they don't have as much cap flexibility to go after someone like Daniels this year. Since the Rams won the SB, maybe it was worth it, but in a "what if" hypothetical, I wonder if with better long term planning the Rams either could have signed Daniels in 2022 or traded for him last year and given him an extension.
Similar to looking at the draft prospects expected to be top 75 selections in this year's class, Daniels might be an interesting player to look at in the window, but all we're doing is window shopping, as there is essentially no chance they'll end up with the Rams.