INDIANAPOLIS — Iowa center James Daniels has become a fast riser at the NFL combine with his measurables, quickness and pedigree.
To have suggested Daniels was even a combine candidate — let alone an NFL draft prospect — three months ago would have seemed like a reach. Daniels was a third-team All-Big Ten center, appeared too light and sometimes lost battles to larger defensive tackles.
A few days after the regular-season finale against Nebraska, Daniels received an unexpected text from coach Kirk Ferentz.
“Right after the Nebraska game, coach Ferentz brought me in and talked to me and said I’d have the opportunity to be able to leave early,” Daniels said. “So, he asked around and then we filled out the paperwork for the NFL draft advisory committee. With all of the feedback he got, we thought it’d be best if I declared early.”
Ferentz had every reason to want Daniels to stay at Iowa. Daniels is a 20-year-old, third-year junior. He’s the best athlete to play center at Iowa and had the chance to become an All-American this fall. The Hawkeyes’ young offensive line could use an anchor at center, of which Daniels would provide.
But Ferentz also wants what’s best for his players. He didn’t tell Daniels to leave Iowa, but by providing that information, he helped Daniels reach a logical conclusion. Daniels received a second-round grade from the NFL advisory committee, and it was in his best interest to leave. It even caught some of his teammates by surprise.
“It was at first but then I kind of thought his progression and how fast he has developed and it’s really not surprising at all,” Iowa guard Sean Welsh said. “He’s an incredibly talented guy, athletic. Can move really well and open up his hips. It’s not surprising looking back on his career.”
Daniels had a few spot starts as a freshman in 2015 before stepping as the starting center in 2016. He’s a gifted athlete who excels as a zone blocker. With exceptional arm length at 33¾ inches, Daniels can keep defenders at bay in pass protection. He stood 6-foot-3⅜ and weighed 306 pounds, which can help with drive blocking. Among offensive linemen, Daniels won the 20-yard shuttle in 4.4 seconds, was second in the 3-cone drill in 7.29 seconds, tied for sixth in the vertical jump at 30.5 inches and was 10th in the broad jump at 9 feet.
“Because of [Daniels’] zone blocking ability, his size and his athletic ability, [Ohio State’s Billy] Price might be the only center going ahead of him,” said Dan Shonka, national scout and general manager of Ourlads Scouting Services. “Some people think he can play guard.”
Ferentz said the same thing after Daniels declared for the draft.
“James is a hell of a developmental prospect, if you will,” Ferentz said. In my mind he could go and play guard for anybody next year, just about anybody in the league.
“I don’t know if I’ve ever coached a more talented center prospect. That includes my time in the NFL. He’s got some skills that are just really unusual. And he’s a really intelligent guy. And one interesting thing about him, you get the feedback from the NFL folks. That’s strictly off film. They haven’t had a chance to investigate the kind of person he is and his intelligence.”
Daniels was academic All-Big Ten last year and displays both charisma and intelligence in every interview.
“He’s an incredibly bright guy,” Welsh said. “He’s very smart and he’s very good situationally. It’s one thing to be book smart and great in the film room. When he’s out there and it’s flying around, he’s able to zone in and ID the look and get everyone set. He’s very quick and really intelligent.”
Daniels’ athletic ability attracted admirers, and he had meetings arranged with 20 teams over two days at the NFL combine in Indianapolis. He’s viewed primarily as an interior lineman by NFL evaluators. Daniels credits his fundamentals with helping him excel in college and they will be even more vital at the next level when facing All-Pros such as Aaron Donald or Fletcher Cox.
“You have to be cautious of your technique,” Daniels said. “If you have one elbow out, if your hands are late, anything like that, you’re going to get beat, quickly. You get beat in college by players if you have bad technique. In the NFL, they’re going to expose you like that [snaps fingers].
“You just have to be very careful, steps, hands and feet, all of that.”