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.
Not all 2-1 starts are created equal.
After the Chicago Bears‘ first three games of the season, alarm bells should be echoing through Halas Hall.
That’s because, to date, the Bears offense is the most one-dimensional in the NFL. Quarterback Justin Fields has often been running for his life when he isn’t misfiring his wide receivers. That is, when he’s even asked to pass, at all.
Fields is averaging just 15 passing attempts per game, a league-low among quarterbacks who have started all three weeks. By comparison, the second-lowest total is Atlanta Falcons quarterback Marcus Mariota‘s 26.3 passes per contest.
Sure, the Bears boast the second-leading rushing offense in the NFL, averaging 186.7 yards per game, but trying to win without a viable aerial attack isn’t sustainable.
“That offense is a total mess,” an NFL offensive coordinator told Heavy, on the condition of anonymity to discuss another team. “Justin Fields has regressed, dramatically. You never saw him make the mistakes he’s making now, or play as poorly as he is, for the former staff.”
While the play from the second-year QB, who is largely auditioning for the role as the Bears’ quarterback of the future for new general manager Ryan Poles and head coach Matt Eberflus who did not draft him in the first round nor have any long-term allegiances to him, has been disappointing, Fields is far from the only concern facing Chicago’s offense.
Entering Week 4, the Bears are averaging a league-low 265 total yards per game. Fields has yet to surpass even 125 passing yards in a single game, and while rarely asking Fields to throw, Equanimeous St. Brown and Darnell Mooney are the only wide receivers to catch more than 2 passes. They’ve caught 4 apiece.
“Having a defensive-minded head coach isn’t helping,” the coordinator said. “It’s just a bad deal all around for them, especially for Justin.”
Fixing the Bears and helping Fields is going to be a difficult process.
“I don’t think they’re going to find the solution to their problems in free agency,” a league source suggested. “They’re in dire need of wide receiver and offensive line help.”
For Poles and Eberflus, the question becomes just how committed the Bears are to building around Fields this season.
Chicago could always try to add a veteran player such as Giants wide receiver Kenny Golladay, Jets wide receiver Denzel Mims, or any of the number of offensive linemen who could be available from the bottoms of rosters across the NFL. Plus, in free agency, Travis Benjamin and Alex Bachman could provide a needed jolt to the Bears’ return game, and contribute meaningful offensive snaps.
But, just how much of this upcoming offseason’s league-high cap space is Poles willing to sacrifice? Just for the possibility of a few more wins and an improved situation for a young quarterback that he must evaluate this year?
“They don’t really have a choice,” a league source told Heavy, when asked if he expects the Bears to try to make major upgrades. “They have to do something, anything, to see if they have a franchise quarterback or not.”
Surprising September Storylines
Jalen Hurts’ Eagles soaring
“He’s a top 10 quarterback, for sure,” an NFL quarterbacks coach told Heavy. “The way he’s playing right now.”
Philadelphia and Miami are the last of the NFL’s unbeaten, and Hurts has led the way, wildly exceeding even the most optimistic expectations in the City of Brotherly Love.
Hurts has to date answered the call with dramatically improved deep-ball accuracy, timing and chemistry with second-year wide receiver DeVonta Smith, and A.J. Brown’s presence seems to have unlocked a consistency and upside in Hurts’ game that had previously been missing.
Through the Eagles’ first three games, Hurts is the NFL’s third-leading passer, completing 67.3% of his attempts for 916 yards with 4 touchdowns to 1 interception and a 106.5 passer rating that ranks fifth in the league.
“Back in Alabama, he was more of a power thrower than a polished passer,” an AFC personnel executive told Heavy. “I’m really impressed with what the Eagles have done with him, playing to his strengths.
“I’m still not convinced he can see and win from the pocket in January, but not many quarterbacks have the ability to do that consistently, either.”
Eagles head coach Nick Sirianni has crafted a scheme that allows Hurts both to accept what the defense is giving via short and intermediate routes to the likes of tight end Dallas Goedert in the flat, Miles Sanders and Kenneth Gainwell out of the backfield, and speedy receiver Quez Watkins on the seam, but also allowing Hurts’ arm talent to flourish by stretching the field with Brown, Watkins and Smith.
A potent combo that has fueled Hurts’ arrival and powered the NFL’s leading offense.
“As a duel-threat with all of the weapons they have around him, that reminds me a lot of his time at Alabama,” the executive said. “He’d be totally miscast in a West Coast Offense scheme, but he’s at minimum a mid-tier quarterback with what they’ve built and how he’s played.”
Lamar Jackson Playing the Best Football of His Career: Will it Matter?
The first month of the season has served as a refresher course on what makes Lamar Jackson one of the most electrifying and game-altering talents in the sport.
Through the Baltimore Ravens‘ first three games, Baltimore has produced 1,141 yards of total offense, and Jackson has accounted for 992 of them. Put another way, Jackson has made up 87% of the Ravens’ offensive output.
How will Jackson’s fast start, which includes posting a league-high 119 passer rating, impact his future extension with Baltimore? Heavy spoke to multiple agents, a former general manager and salary cap expert to get a sense of how Jackson is changing the narrative, and the trajectory of future talks.
“I think he gets exactly what he was looking for,” a prominent agent who represents multiple quarterbacks told Heavy. “The problem is going to be the guarantee. That Deshaun Watson contract was an act of desperation by the Browns.”
Cleveland, of course, fully guaranteed Watson’s five-year pact worth $230 million, despite the quarterback facing over two dozen credible sexual harassment and assault allegations.
Jackson is likely using Watson’s deal as a benchmark, but sources inside of the league and out believe that’s unrealistic.
“His play isn’t going to change the negotiations at all,” Heavy contributor, and former NFL Executive of The Year Randy Mueller said. “The Ravens know what they have, and their value isn’t going to change. He’s a good player. They know that. It just comes down to playing style and him holding up over 17 games.
“They’re just never going to give the full guarantee, if that’s the hangup. That’s just not going to happen.”
Some have questioned whether Jackson is ever going to come close to a better offer than he received prior to the season from the Ravens, that included three years fully guaranteed, a league source confirmed. The Ravens hold all of the leverage because they can use the franchise tag on Jackson for as many as the next three consecutive years.
“Lamar is never going to be a free agent,” Mueller explained. “And that’s the only way the full guarantee will come into play.”
The AFC West Underwhelms
During the summer, there was a prevailing thought that the AFC West wouldn’t just be the most dominant division in football, but there was a chance that as many as three playoff teams could emerge from the gauntlet.
It’s early, not even a quarter of the way through the season, but so far all four teams have fallen flat.
With only two games so far between division rivals, the AFC west is a combined 5-8. Worse, the Raiders are winless, after some believed Las Vegas had aspirations as a possible Super Bowl dark horse.
Even on Sunday afternoon, the Kansas City Chiefs couldn’t establish any sort of momentum, Patrick Mahomes was held to a season-low 78.5 passer rating, as the middling Indianapolis Colts handled business in a 20-17 win. For Kansas City, the game was marred by special teams mistakes and sloppy offensive play.
“I don’t think they should be too worried,” an NFC personnel executive said of the Chiefs. “Watching their game, it was a really fluky loss. Just a bad day.”
The AFC West has had a few bad days to begin the season. Time will tell if the Chiefs, Chargers, Raiders, and Broncos build any sort of momentum, or if the runaway preseason hype train stalled out in the station.
NFL Power Rankings Entering Week 4
1. Buffalo Bills (2-1)
2. Miami Dolphins (3-0)
3. Philadelphia Eagles (3-0)
4. Green Bay Packers (2-1)
5. Baltimore Ravens (2-1)
6. Los Angeles Rams (2-1)
7. Kansas City Chiefs (2-1)
8. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (2-1)
9. Minnesota Vikings (2-1)
10. Cincinnati Bengals (1-2)
Quote of the Week
“If the right situation presented itself, I would definitely be interested. And there’s no utopia, if you will, when it comes to teams, but if I felt like it was the right situation, I would have an interest in that. That all being said, that could come in a year, that could come in two years.”
– Former New Orleans Saints head coach Sean Payton, via NewOrleans.Football, on his future
There were whispers of speculation, even within moments of Payton’s departure from the New Orleans Saints after resigning in January 2022, that his next move would be as head coach of the Dallas Cowboys.
Instead, Payton is spending the year off the sidelines and in the studio, as an analyst on FOX.
Meanwhile, Dallas’ inconsistent start to the season, the same concerns surrounding penalties and lack of a cohesive offensive identity could very well put Dallas Cowboys head coach Mike McCarthy on Jerry Jones’ hot seat by season’s end.
Reuniting with Jones would be a bit of old hat for Payton, who was the Cowboys’ quarterbacks coach from 2003 through 2005 prior to taking the New Orleans job.
Payton seems to be enjoying his role on FOX’s NFL coverage, but if anyone can handle Jones’ temperament and the pressure of coaching the Dallas Cowboys, it’s Payton. If the Cowboys get bounced early in the postseason, again, don’t be surprised if those whispers build to a crescendo.
The Chargers might be the NFL’s most snake-bitten franchise.
On September 15, the Chargers drove 75 yards on 11 plays to open the second half against the Chiefs to extend a 17-7 lead, inside Arrowhead Stadium, looking the part of a team that garnered significant preseason Super Bowl buzz.
A pair of reversed interception calls that cost Los Angeles that pivotal Thursday night game against a bitter rival have been the least of the Chargers’ worries.
Quarterback Justin Herbert, who entered the season as a legitimate MVP candidate, suffered a rib injury in the fourth quarter against the Chiefs, and its lingering effects were evident 10 days later in a blowout loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars.
Meanwhile, All-Pro offensive tackle Rashawn Slater was lost for the season with a torn bicep against Jacksonville. And, All-Pro edge rusher Joey Bosa suffered a significant groin injury, as well. On top of Herbert not being fully healthy.
Now 1-2, with a banged-up quarterback, the Chargers still face a remaining gauntlet that includes games against the current unbeaten Miami Dolphins, a rematch with the Chiefs, clash with the defending Super Bowl Champion and SoFi Stadium neighbor Rams, plus a trip to Cleveland against a Browns team that’s building steam.
This was supposed to be the Chargers’ year.
After finishing 9-8 last season, general manager Tom Telesco went all in; signing premier cornerback J.C. Jackson, trading for All-Pro edge rusher Khalil Mack, and adding interior defensive lineman Sebastian Joseph-Day via free agency, expectations were raised significantly.
Following the offseason flurry, many believed this Chargers team had plugged its most glaring holes, and behind Herbert would emerge as a team to beat.
Instead, Los Angeles has just one win, over the lowly and winless Raiders, and has been outscored by 31 points in losses to Kansas City and Jacksonville.
So far, no one is running away in the AFC West, which has been the most disappointing division in football. But, the Chargers suddenly have more questions than answers and will be going on the road — where they are just 7-9 since 2020 — the next two weeks to try to answer them.