The following is the eighth of nine stories featuring an ascending young Bears player heading into the 2021 season:
How he was acquired
Daniels was the Bears' second pick (39th overall) in their loaded 2018 draft. He is the highest picked Bears offensive lineman of the Ryan Pace era.
Coming out of Iowa, Daniels was considered as both a center and guard prospect. Daniels started 23 games at center for the Hawkeyes in his three years on campus, living up to high status as Iowa's only four-star recruit in their 2015 signing class.
ESPN's Mel Kiper and Todd McShay both predicted that Daniels would be selected in the first round, specifically with the 30th pick owned by the Minnesota Vikings. Kiper called Daniels "a plug-and-play guard" while McShay called Daniels the best center in the draft, ranking him 18th overall.
"Daniels is talented enough to develop into a player similar to the Eagles' Jason Kelce," wrote McShay. "Daniels made the line calls at Iowa and is a smooth mover and technician whose initial quickness and athletic ability make him a good fit for zone-heavy schemes."
With Cody Whitehair entrenched at center and Charles Leno Jr. and Bobby Massie handling both tackle spots, guard was considered one of the Bears' top priorities in the draft.
After Daniels fell to them in the second round, Pace confirmed that Daniels would begin his NFL career at guard, rather than displacing Whitehair at center.
Prior to 2020 season
Daniels saw his first action in Week 1 of his rookie year, four days before his 21st birthday. Daniels entered the season behind veteran guard Eric Kush on the depth chart and only played on special teams.
Daniels did not see any time on offense until a Week 4 blowout of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. For the next two weeks, Kush and Daniels split reps with Kush getting the starts. In Week 7, Daniels took over the starting position and played every offensive snap for the rest of the year.
The Bears offense had one of its most productive years of the decade as the team went 12-4 and won the NFC North.
Encouraged by Daniels' progress, the Bears entered the 2019 season with the plan to switch Whitehair back to guard, his college position, and move Daniels to center.
The Bears offense struggled out of the gate. After losing their fourth straight game, a 22-14 loss to the Philadelphia Eagles in which the Bears only managed 163 yards on offense, the offensive line reverted to its 2018 arrangement with Whitehair at center and Daniels at guard.
Members of the coaching staff stressed the move was due to Whitehair's familiarity with quarterback Mitchell Trubisky and did not reflect their view of Daniels.
"I just like him, period," said then-offensive line coach Harry Hiestand. "I just like him as a football player and as a person. He gives us everything he has every day. He's got a lot of ability, and over time, as he gets stronger and becomes more confident playing in this league and grows and matures, he's gonna be fun to watch."
The offense showed some improvement in the last half of the season, going 5-3 to leave the Bears with an 8-8 record.
In the lead-up to the 2020 season, new offensive line coach Juan Castillo confirmed that the team would start the season with Whitehair at center and Daniels at guard, though he didn't rule out that Daniels might be called upon at center in a pinch.
"They're both very talented," said Castillo. "I think that Cody had already lined up at center before, and I think they both are going to have to play center. James can play center if he needs to. I like James' length at the guard position. I like Cody's leadership at the center position."
Daniels looked like an improved player during training camp. At 23, he was finally the age at which many NFL players begin their career.
Daniels indicated that he was happy to remain at guard and was relieved the drama of the position switch was behind him.
Daniels showed off his value as a powerful inside lineman in the first three games of the season. The Bears' run-heavy attack mirrored the type of offense in which he played at Iowa.
"I think just another year of experience has helped him there," said Whitehair. "He's put on some weight. He's really got stronger in the offseason. You can definitely see the power that he brings coming off the ball."
Daniels suffered a season-ending pectoral injury in the Bears' 20-19 victory over the Super Bowl-bound Buccaneers in Week 5. At the time, the team acknowledged that losing Daniels would create a big hurdle.
The Bears placed Daniels on injured reserve on Oct. 14, where he would remain for the rest of the season.
"It's a tough loss for the offensive line," said fellow offensive lineman Germain Ifedi. "Me just getting here this year, I've been able to watch him grow and become so much more consistent of a player under Juan—an up-and-coming young offensive lineman. That's a tough injury to see for a guy that works so hard."
Daniels' injury marked the beginning of a five-week scrambling of the offensive line in which a new lineup started every week. The line settled in Week 11—when Sam Mustipher took over at center and Whitehair moved out to guard.
With Mustipher a potential long-term solution at center, Daniels and Whitehair could be the Bears' starting guards of the future.
"That's a ways off," said Castillo, "and I think there'll be some good competition. When you talk about James being a center, sometimes you're used to playing both sides, so I think that yes, there's going to be some good competition, and we'll be really good inside."
Check out the best photos of the 2020 season—taken by Bears photographers—featuring players on the offensive side of the ball.