Welcome to Heavy In The Trenches, a weekly Wednesday column by Heavy NFL insider Matt Lombardo, bringing you insight on the latest storylines and rumblings around the league. You can follow Matt on Twitter @MattLombardoNFL.
Justin Fields arrived in Chicago offering much promise, but the Bears have yet to hold up their end for their young quarterback.
Fields, 23, is about to embark on his second season as the Bears starting quarterback after Chicago traded up nine spots with the New York Giants to select him No. 11 overall in the 2021 draft.
But, after drafting a pair of defenders with two top-50 picks in 2022, it remains to be seen if Fields can elevate the pieces around him — let alone carry all the weight of turning the fortunes of a franchise that hasn’t won a postseason game since 2010.
“I’m not optimistic about how this year is going to go for [Justin Fields], largely because of the personnel the Bears have put around him,” former NFL quarterback, Jordan Palmer, who hosts the new YouTube show, “The Room,” told Heavy.
Fields completed just 58.9% of his passes as a rookie, good for 1,870 yards, 7 touchdowns and 10 interceptions in 12 games.
But, despite a draft class that included seven receivers chosen in the second round, with projected starters George Pickens, Skyy Moore and Wan’Dale Robinson among them, new Bears general manager Ryan Poles opted instead to fortify the defense. With two picks in Round 2, the Bears selected cornerback Kyler Gordon and safety Jaquan Brisker, over helping its potential franchise quarterback.
“I don’t see people on that team who are going to win 1-on-1 matchups,” Palmer said. “At least not enough for Justin to play at the level he’s capable of playing at. Especially, because he grew accustomed to playing with guys who won their one-on-one matchup 100% of the time at Ohio State.”
As the Bears roster is currently constructed, there’s certainly reason to be optimistic that Darnell Mooney makes major strides, after catching 81 passes for 1,055 yards and 4 touchdowns in 2021. But Byron Pringle, Velus Jones Jr., Equanimeous St. Brown and Dante Pettis have never shown the ability to be consistent threats.
Beyond ignoring a glaring need and possibly adding the talent around a quarterback getting his footing as the starter, there’s also the matter of what the Bears lost over the offseason.
Poles certainly doubled down on defense, but the Bears also let star receiver Allen Robinson walk out the door.
“I played in Chicago,” Palmer said. “The expectations are so high, the pressure is very real, and I’m just shocked at all the things the Bears didn’t do to support their young quarterback.”
The good news for Fields, despite a new general manager, new head coach, and defensive-minded Matt Eberflus who don’t have any ties to Fields beyond inheriting him in their new situation, offensive coordinator Luke Getsy arrives with the experience of helping elevate Aaron Rodgers’ game to the point of a perennial MVP candidate.
So, where do the Bears and Fields go from here? How special does Fields need to be, not only to put the Bears in a position to compete in the NFC North, but secure his long-term future in the Windy City?
“It’s a bad offensive line, there’s no getting around that,” a current NFC executive told Heavy. “It’s going to be a really long year for Justin. But, I still like him, when they put enough help around him. He’s someone you can win with for a while.”
Fields isn’t alone as a young quarterback whose success of his team hinges on major strides being made in year two.
“I do think the top three quarterbacks [drafted in 2021] have the potential to be franchise quarterbacks,” the executive said.
Here’s a look at what could be in store for each of the first-round quarterbacks, chosen in 2021, in their sophomore NFL seasons.
Trevor Lawrence, Jacksonville Jaguars, No. 1 overall pick
Trevor Lawrence has all of the tools, and finally the stability around him, to potentially lead the Jaguars to the kind of season that surprises a lot of people.
Lawrence was hailed by many inside the league and out, as the most complete quarterback prospect since Andrew Luck and in a lot of ways the savior to the Jaguars’ decades of futility.
Unfortunately for Lawrence, his first NFL head coach was Urban Meyer. Who was fired on December 16, 2021, during what might be the most tumultuous season in league history.
Meyer’s missteps included controversy surrounding hiring Chris Doyle as strength coach despite allegations of racism and bullying, signing Tim Tebow and keeping him on the roster through much of training camp, later skipping out on the team flight home after a Thursday Night Football loss, being spotted at a bar with a woman who wasn’t his wife dancing provocatively with him, and countless other incidents underscoring how in over his head he was as a head coach.
“When you go from the stability that Trevor Lawrence had in high school, to the stability he had at Clemson, to the instability that he had last year,” Palmer said. “I just feel like, I would assume Trevor went through most of the year where preparing to play the game was often times the second-most important thing he had to do each day, because there were so many fires to put out.”
Lawrence showed moments of promise as a rookie, passing for 3,641 yards with 12 touchdowns and 17 interceptions, despite facing more drama than he had to date in his football life.
“I don’t think you can even evaluate Trevor Lawrence last year,” Palmer said. “I kind of just throw the whole year out.”
This season, thanks to the additions of wide receivers Christian Kirk and Zay Jones, return of Clemson teammate Travis Etienne at running back and the Jaguars fortifying the offensive line by signing veteran guard Brandon Scherff, not to mention the calmer waters that come with Super Bowl winner Doug Pederson arriving has head coach and former quarterback Press Taylor at offensive coordinator, Lawrence could be primed to live up to his pre-draft hype.
“With the stability he has this year, I think Trevor is going to get a chance, for the first time in his NFL career, is helping himself and his team get better,” Palmer told Heavy.
Zach Wilson, New York Jets, No. 2 overall pick
Zach Wilson has all of the physical traits to be the face of the Jets’ franchise and become the next star of New York Football.
Whether he lives up to those lofty aspirations, though, remains to be seen. It just may hinge on his ability to stay healthy and stay on the field for 17 games.
“He missed five games last season,” a long-time NFL evaluator told Heavy. “You want to believe Zach Wilson breaks out this year. I think their running game is going to be really solid, but he has to stay healthy, and he already has the knee injury this year. The Jets have to figure out what he can and can’t do. This is a big year for him.”
Expectations were high for Wilson and the Jets’ offense, after New York added burner Garrett Wilson in the first round, to round out a receiving corps that includes Corey Davis and Elijah Moore. Not to mention the stability a veteran tight end like C.J. Uzomah, signed as a free agent, offers a young quarterback.
But, Wilson’s meniscus injury casts a familiar cloud over a franchise that has been snakebitten for decades.
Trey Lance, San Francisco 49ers, No. 3 overall pick
Trey Lance is one of the great enigmas of the upcoming NFL season.
There was a healthy amount of skepticism surrounding Lance emanating from the 49ers during his rookie season, but he might be best positioned among last year’s incoming rookie quarterbacks to emerge as one of the league’s premier players at the position.
“I have a feeling that the Niners are going to put Trey in a position to succeed,” Palmer explained. “And, he’s going to miss some throws, and he’s going to make some spectacular throws. I think by midseason, we’re going to see him settle in, and look like a top-tier quarterback.”
In 2021, a fractured hand and knee injury kept Lance largely holding the clipboard for Jimmy Garoppolo, but when he did see the field, Lance passed for 603 yards with 5 touchdowns to just 2 interceptions.
One current NFC personnel executive tells Heavy that Trey Lance is “the safest bet,” to have a breakout season, especially because of the 49ers’ roster around him.
Lance’s supporting cast has made a conference championship game and a Super Bowl over the past three seasons, so the opportunity is there for Lance to make an instant and immediate impact.
“I think Trey’s stats will be really good,” Palmer said. “With that defense, and the scheme they’re able to put together, and the personnel … I think Brandon Aiyuk is going to have a breakout year. He’s still got George Kittle and Deebo Samuel. I’d expect for Trey Lance to have a really big year.
“I really expect Trey to miss some throws, and to make some spectacular plays. I think he’s going to have the kind of year that we look back on and say ‘he really developed.'”
Mac Jones, New England Patriots, No. 15 overall pick
Mac Jones’ rookie season was unspectacular but was simultaneously just about everything the New England Patriots needed him to be.
Jones was the definition of efficient, producing a 92.5 passer rating, passing for 3,801 yards with 22 touchdowns to 13 interceptions while guiding New England to a 10-7 finish and AFC Wild Card berth. For his efforts, Jones was the only rookie quarterback to make the Pro Bowl.
Whether there’s more meat on the bone than Jones showed last season, though, remains to be seen.
“The thing with Mac Jones is that he’s going to be the same player,” an NFC personnel executive told Heavy. “He’s the same guy he was last year, and he’ll be the same guy 10 years from now. The only reason he was a Pro Bowl type quarterback [last season] is because he has a hell of a running game, a hell of a defense, a hell of a team around him, and the greatest coach to ever do it.”
To Jones’ credit, the Patriots lacked explosive talent at wide receiver in 2021, yet he still finished in the league in passing yards.
New England responded to Jones’ promising rookie campaign by trading for DeVante Parker and drafting Tyquan Thornton in the second round of the 2022 draft.
New England’s offense has been stuck in the mud all summer, struggling to gain any sort of traction. Can Jones overcome those issues? Is there more to his game than he showed last season?
Jones’ consistency and availability have some in league circles really optimistic.
“What I really like about Mac Jones,” the executive said, “is that he’s going to play every Sunday. He may throw for 250-300 yards every week, he’s going to be smart, he’s not going to have a lot of turnovers, and he’s going to be the ‘move the chains’ guy. The same thing he was last year.”
Bengals’ Jessie Bates Has Much at Stake
Jessie Bates returned to Cincinnati Bengals training camp on August 23, after contract extension talks broke down this offseason, but the former All-Pro safety’s future remains uncertain.
Cincinnati used the franchise tag on Bates, and the 25-year-old is set to make $12.91 million in 2022. After the two sides failed to reach a long-term accord, the stage is set for a “prove-it” year, of sorts, for Bates.
Safety is now viewed as one of the premium positions on the roster, along with cornerbacks, edge rushers, offensive tackles, wide receivers, and of course, quarterbacks and Bates is one of the league’s best.
Bates was instrumental in the Bengals’ run to the Super Bowl in 2021 while producing 87 total tackles, 18 run stops and intercepting one pass.
In the aftermath of Chargers star Derwin James signing a record-breaking four-year contract worth $76.5 million, which includes $42 million guaranteed, there is a belief that Bates is next in line for a mammoth payday.
“My best guess is Jessie Bates is next,” a prominent agent recently told Heavy. “Whether he’s back in Cincinnati, and whether he comes close to James’ numbers depends on what kind of season he has.”
In some ways, Bates controls his own destiny.
During the postseason, Bates was all over the field, recording 20 total tackles and intercepting 2 passes in four games. The Bengals are looking for that kind of production, and disruptiveness, to translate through an entire season.
Complicating matters for Bates will be the potential for the 2023 NFL draft to feature one of the most gifted collections of players at the safety position in recent memory.
“This is going to be the best safety draft in NFL history,” an NFL executive recently told Heavy. “Not just from a talent standpoint, but there might also be more safeties picked next spring than any other year.”
So, what can Bates do to stand out? How does he take the next step on the field and into the next tax bracket at a position that NFL teams are spending money hand over fist to solidify?
“I’m not so sure there’s much he can do to play his way into that pay level,” a long-time personnel evaluator told Heavy. “Teams pay Derwin James, they pay Jamal Adams, they draft Kyle Hamilton in the top-20 because those guys are more than safeties. They can play nickel cornerback, they can make plays against the run, they rush the passer, Jessie’s going to have to show he can do all of those things if he wants to be paid like one of the most impactful players, because he hasn’t consistently been that guy.”
Predicting the NFC East
The Bills and defending Super Bowl champion Rams kickoff the 2022 NFL season in just over two weeks on Thursday Night Football on September 8.
In the lead-up to the season opener, I’ll be offering my best guesses for how each of the eight divisions will play out, next up with the NFC East.
1. Philadelphia Eagles (11-6)
This might be the most complete roster that Howie Roseman has built. Especially after prying game-breaking wide receiver A.J. Brown from the Tennessee Titans on draft night, and adding the likes of veteran EDGE rusher Haason Reddick, linebacker Kyzir White, and cornerback James Bradberry to a defense that finished 14th in total defense in 2021.
The NFC East is shaping up to be a two-team race to the postseason, and after everything we have seen so far through training camp and two weeks of the preseason, it sure seems like the Eagles are going to be tough to beat.
Don’t just take my word for it, there’s a strong feeling inside the league that Philadelphia has a lot of pieces in place to put together a special season.
“I really like the Eagles this year after everything they put together,” an NFC player told Heavy, on the condition of anonymity to discuss another team. “They have an absolutely loaded roster, and I think Jalen Hurts has a huge year. That kid is bound for success.”
The Eagles’ ceiling will ultimately be defined by whether quarterback Jalen Hurts can make major strides, in his second season as the starter, after passing for 3,144 yards with 16 touchdowns to 9 interceptions in 2021.
2. Dallas Cowboys (10-7)
It’s been 17 years since the NFC East saw a repeat champion, and based on the first glimpse of the Dallas Cowboys this summer, that streak may be pretty safe.
While we have yet to see the likes of Dak Prescott, Ezekiel Elliott, Tony Pollard, CeeDee Lamb, or many of the Cowboys’ star players on either side of the ball during the preseason, some of the same issues that reared their head last season remain. The Cowboys have been penalized 25 times through two weeks of exhibition games, after drawing the most flags in the league in 2021.
“Depth is a real concern for them,” former NFL Executive of The Year Randy Mueller told Heavy. “I think they have a less talented team now than they did last year. That doesn’t mean they won’t be good, but it’s going to come down to the coming together and development part. That concerns me, because I haven’t seen that, yet.”
The NFL remains a quarterback-driven league, and while Prescott remains the best quarterback in this division, and there’s some firepower in Dallas, it might come down to whether the talent on the roster can overcome some of Mike McCarthy’s deficiencies as a head coach. So far, there’s not much evidence to support that thesis.
3. Washington Commanders (8-9)
The Commanders have some talent, and Carson Wentz should be a minor upgrade over last season’s quarterback carousel in the Nation’s Capital.
Terry McLaurin is one of the more underrated wide receivers in the entire league, and first-round pick Jahan Dotson already looks the part of an instant impact player. But, Wentz is going to need to be far more consistent than he was at any point in Indianapolis and will be facing significantly more talented defenses, just inside the Commanders’ six division matchups.
Despite a bounty of former first-round picks in the front seven, the Commanders finished ranked No. 22 in total defense last season, and the defensive line has seemingly regressed through the first half of the preseason. This could be an uphill climb for Washington to compete, in 2022.
4. New York Giants (4-13)
Despite their 2-0 start to the preseason, this has been a nightmare summer for the New York Giants.
Between quarterback Daniel Jones and the Giants’ offense failing through a month’s worth of practice to establish any sort of identity, and injuries wreaking havoc, it would be difficult to envision Brian Daboll’s first training camp as head coach getting off to a worse start.
This was always going to be a transition year for the Giants. Especially after new general manager Joe Schoen took the necessary restrained approach to free agency this offseason, and was diligent about not compounding the mistakes of his predecessor by pushing bad money into future years. Only the Chicago Bears boast more cap space than the Giants’ $50.5 million in spending flexibility in 2023, so there is a bright light at the end of the tunnel.
The roster will be marginally more talented, and young players like Kadarius Toney, Wan’Dale Robinson, Kavon Thibodeaux, and Xavier McKinney have the potential to be foundational building blocks for the future.
But, it’s hard to imagine this team being more competitive than it has been over the past half-decade if Jones doesn’t play like a top-10 quarterback, however, based on what we’ve seen this summer, he may be fortunate to hold off Tyrod Taylor for the starting job for 10 weeks.
“Obviously, it didn’t go my way. Coach named Baker the starter. And my mindset is—it is what it is. And for me, right now, I’m gonna do everything I can to support Baker and get him ready to play a game.” – Panthers QB Sam Darnold, on losing the competition for the starting quarterback job to Baker Mayfield
It really is hard to fathom what Matt Rhule was doing, dragging out the quarterback battle between Darnold and Mayfield through much of training camp and two preseason games.
From the moment the Panthers acquired Mayfield in a trade with the Cleveland Browns, the job was seemingly Mayfield’s to lose.
Rather than dedicate the bulk of first-team reps in practice, and snaps with the starters in the Panthers’ exhibition slate to Mayfield, Rhule split them up. And started backup quarterback P.J. Walker against the Patriots in Carolina’s second of three exhibition games.
The Panthers didn’t even acquire Mayfield until July 7, so he didn’t have the benefit of working on timing with his wide receivers this spring, or learning the intricacies of the scheme until he arrived for training camp last month.
Whatever Rhule was trying to accomplish in terms of winning the respect of his locker room by possibly showing that he was committed to playing the best quarterback, an argument can be made that he squandered the opportunity to get the most out of that quarterback by staging a competition in the first place.
Maybe it’s time to stop scrutinizing Tom Brady‘s every single move?
Brady, roughly eight months after returning from a brief 44-day retirement, returned to the Buccaneers on August 22, following an 11-day team-approved departure to attend to “personal matters.”
The hand-wringing from some observers over Brady stepping away during a point in training camp where the installs have long been completed and missing a pair of preseason games that he likely wasn’t going to play in, anyway, were wasted energy on the parts of fans and members of the media, alike.
There was even a bizarre, alternate reality conspiracy theory that Brady jaunted off to record an episode of FOX’s The Masked Singer. Seriously.
For all we know, this brief preseason reprieve was part of the bargain with his family to return to the NFL in 2022, in the first place.
And, after all, this wasn’t quite Dennis Rodman leaving the Bulls to go party in Las Vegas for two days in the middle of the regular season, in 1997-98.
Life went on for the Buccaneers during Brady’s hiatus, and come September, no one will even remember that he cashed some vacation days in the middle of 7-on-7s.
If anyone has earned the right to step away from football — during a time when no meaningful games are being played, to tend to family, it is Brady. Who knows how many more seasons Brady, who turned 45 on August 3, will play.
Winner of seven Super Bowls, after appearing in 10, Brady is the greatest quarterback to ever play the game and one of the most accomplished winners in American sports history. Brady probably needed a couple weeks to clear his head and recharge for a 23rd season, but I’m not sure we needed to spend a couple weeks questioning and dissecting it.