Young but experienced, James Daniels already a leader on Steelers’ offensive line

James Daniels spent most of the first four seasons of his NFL career as “the young guy.”

Now that he has joined the Pittsburgh Steelers — even at just 24 years old — he is the most tenured veteran.

Life comes at you fast, especially for a player who made his NFL debut at age 20. And even moreso for someone going from a Chicago Bears offensive line that had a 40-year-old left tackle last year to a Steelers unit in the midst of a total overhaul.

“It does feel kind of weird being the older guy now because in Chicago, I was always (among the youngest),” Daniels said this week during organized team activities. “Last year, when (rookie tackle Larry Borom) started, that was my first time playing a game with a guy younger than me.”

Not this year — not if judged by NFL experience. Among the 15 offensive linemen on the 90-man roster, no one has started more career games than Daniels. He has started the past 48 games he has played over the past four seasons for the Bears, including all 17 last season at right guard — the position he is taking over for the Steelers in 2022.

Aside from a pectoral injury that kept him out of 11 games in 2020, Daniels started every game for the Bears since he took over seven games into his rookie 2018 season.

That compelled a reporter to tell Daniels he was “the most decorated” member of the Steelers offensive line.

“I am not decorated,” Daniels said with a laugh. “I have a couple starts … but I wouldn’t say I am decorated.”

Along a Steelers offensive line that last season started two rookies and a second-year player who was a first-year starter, indeed Daniels is the most “decorated.”

“It is kind of weird to (be) one of the most experienced guys in the room,” Daniels said, “but we all work with each other, and it doesn’t matter if it’s your first game or if it’s your 20th game. If it’s third-and-8, you’re expected to block.”

Though right tackle Chuks Okorafor and center Mason Cole (both third-round picks) were taken in the same draft class as Daniels (a second rounder) and each is older (Okorafor by 36 days), Daniels has them both beaten in games started and snaps played.

Left tackle will be manned by second-year pro Dan Moore (16 career starts) and left guard by either second-year Kendrick Green (15 career starts) or third-year Kevin Dotson (13 career starts).

It’s a situation that has made a unit leader out of Daniels — even though he will be just 24 when the season starts Sept. 11 in Cincinnati.

“I would say our overall (leader) probably (is) James,” Dotson said. “James came in, and he’s kind of taking control of it. But he’s not like, ‘You need to do this; you need to do that.’ It’s more, ‘I used to do this when I was over here, so I just think this would help us’ kind of thing. He has some real good ideas when it comes to different (techniques).”

The 6-foot-4, 327-pound Daniels played at Iowa, a program with a reputation for producing quality NFL offensive linemen. The Steelers targeted him in free agency, in part, because of his rare combination of experience and youth. He signed a three-year deal worth $26.5 million.

He’s a fifth-year pro, but there are a handful of rookies across the league who are older. Steelers seventh-round pick Chris Oladokum is, for example. First-round quarterback Kenny Pickett, like Daniels, will be 24 on the season opener.

“That’s crazy, man, crazy to think about that, how there are players coming into the league that are my age or just a little but younger or even older,” Daniels said. “But it is pretty cool that I am still a young guy, and I still have the experience.”

If a 24-year-old had joined the Steelers offensive line just three years ago, he would have been the young guy by far. For many years, the group of Alejandro Villanueva, Ramon Foster, Maurkice Pouncey and David DeCastro started for the Steelers.

DeCastro’s nine-year tenure with the team ended last June when he was cut with an injury designation, his career seemingly over. Though veteran Trai Turner was a one-year stopgap in 2021, Daniels is the heir apparent to the six-time Pro Bowl honoree DeCastro at right guard.

“He was considered one of the best guards of the 2010s,” Daniels said. “His picture is hanging in the offensive line room, so it’s very honorable I am getting a chance to do my best to carry on his legacy.”

Chris Adamski is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Chris by email at cadamski@triblive.com or via Twitter .

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