Not often in the NFL landscape does a team have the chance to add an experienced starting interior offensive lineman with nearly 50 career starts under the age of 25 in free agency.
That’s the opportunity the Pittsburgh Steelers were afforded in free agency in March when they pounced on signing starting right guard James Daniels away from the Chicago Bears to a three-year deal worth just over $25 million.
Initially, the investment in a player like Daniels had many around the black and gold rather excited, considering his age, versatility and overall experience, coupled with the caliber of play he could provide on the interior. Then, training camp and preseason action started, and the early returns on the Daniels signing were, well, not good.
Daniels struggled mightily in training camp under first-year offensive line coach Pat Meyer, who was teaching a new pass blocking technique that Daniels had never used before. He wasn’t the only player to struggle up front in training camp, but through eight games of the 2022 season, Daniels has become that rock in the middle of the Steelers’ offensive line under Meyer, steadily improving his game each and every week.
Currently, Daniels is the Steelers’ highest-graded offensive lineman, according to Pro Football Focus, at 70.2, which also has him as the 15th-best guard out of 81 in the NFL, per PFF’s grading system.
That steady improvement and consistency has pleased Meyer, who told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s Brian Batko that Daniels has improved as much as anyone across the board in the offensive line room.
“He’s improved from a technique standpoint as much as anyone, with what we’ve been asking him to do since he got here Day 1,” Meyer stated to Batko for the Post-Gazette. “It’s different. Everybody coaches a different style, and they’ve all worked at it, but I’d probably say he’s improved as much as anybody from a technique standpoint.”
Early on in his work with Meyer, Daniels was slow to adjust to the independent hand usage and overall aggression Meyer pushed in his practices from a pass protection standpoint. Trying to learn how to use independent hands by shooting them at the defender and being a bit aggressive in his pass sets had Daniels a mess in the early going.
His hand usage was poor, his feet were all over the place and he looked like a major miss in free agency for a Steelers team attempting to rebuild the offensive line on the fly.
Then, Daniels settled in and has been the Steelers’ best lineman — by far — through eight games. He’s played very well in pass protection, allowing just nine pressures on the season on 360 pass blocking reps and has not allowed a sack at the midway point of the season, per PFF.
While the Steelers’ offensive line hasn’t been very good in recent weeks, allowing a ton of pressures and sacks, especially in Week 8 against the Eagles, Daniels has been the steady presence on the offensive line under Meyer, continuing to play at a strong level overall.
Based on his improvement and growth to this point in the season, hopefully, there is more to come down the stretch for a guy many around the Steelers envision being the leader of the offensive line moving forward.