Mailbag: Predicting the AFC, Cowboys’ Biggest Concern & Lions’ Upside

Jerry Jones

Getty Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones gives a thumbs up before an NFL game.

With NFL training camps into their second week across the league, Heavy’s NFL mailbag series continues on August 5 — hosted by Heavy NFL insider Matt Lombardo — to answer questions about your favorite team(s).

In addition, join the thousands of fans following @HeavyOnSports on Twitter and Instagram to see some of your questions answered live.

Dallas Cowboys

Which team can least afford major injuries to starters (besides the elite QBs) in training camp?

Injuries certainly play a starring role in the NFL story this time of year, and we have already seen teams viewed as serious contenders suffer serious losses during the first couple weeks of training camp.

Over the past 10 days, we have already seen the Tampa Bay Buccaneers lose Tom Brady’s handpicked center, Ryan Jensen, to a significant knee injury, and Dallas Cowboys wide receiver James Washington went down with a fractured foot.

When it comes to a question like this, I tend to look at it as which contenders would be impacted the most if a key contributor at a key position, without the plug-and-play depth to replace them on a run towards the postseason.

Given that criteria, I think the answer here is the Dallas Cowboys.

Dallas is already pinning much of their success in the passing game on CeeDee Lamb’s shoulders, and without Washington, the Cowboys are expecting Michael Gallup to take another step forward and will rely more than expected on third-round rookie Jalen Tolbert and Noah Brown, who has never caught more than 20 passes in a season.

Meanwhile, on defense, the Cowboys are razor thin along the defensive line, other than DeMarcus Lawrence. Lawrence missed 10 games due to injury last season, and the Cowboys wisely converted Micah Parsons back to his natural position as an edge rusher, but this group might not be able to survive an injury to any of its key pieces up front.

Throw in the comparative roster depth in Philadelphia, and a key injury here or there could sink the Cowboys from a two-horse race to NFC also-rans, in a hurry.

New England Patriots

Who will have the better year in the Patriots’ offense: DeVante Parker or Jonnu Smith?

The Patriots have historically been a team that funnels the offense through the tight end position, dating all the way back to Benjamin Watson, the late Aaron Hernandez, and of course, Rob Gronkowski.

I don’t see that changing, especially in Mac Jones‘ second season as a starter and Jonnu Smith’s second season in New England.

A couple of factors are in play here; Jones was his most effective as a rookie in the red zone, where he had the seventh-best completion percentage among NFL quarterbacks, and his deep-ball completion percentage was just 37.1% as compared to his under pressure accuracy, which was fourth in the league.

All of that is a roundabout way to suggest that Smith has the potential to not only emerge as Jones’ security blanket when pressured, but also as a dangerous weapon inside the 20-yard line, where he caught 5 passes for 25 yards and a touchdown in 2021. I’d expect that number to jump significantly.

Parker is obviously going to serve as the Patriots’ field-stretcher, especially after averaging 12.9 yards per reception in 2021, but it feels as though those opportunities deep downfield may be sparse, by comparison to Smith’s target share.

People inside the league are bullish on Jones, and Smith, making strides this fall.

“Jonnu’s a really good pass-catching tight end,” an AFC personnel man told me upon his signing last spring. “He can run, he’s athletic, and he’s improved each year. I don’t see any reason why that wouldn’t continue.”

Detroit Lions

Is there a sense of tangible optimism in league circles about the Lions and the direction of their rebuild? We’ve heard a lot about it this offseason from the media, but curious to hear the sentiments from the inside.

The Detroit Lions seem to be an organization that is going about their rebuild exactly the right way.

Detroit resisted the urge to reach for a quarterback, and landed an elite blue-chip building block with the No. 2 overall pick, in EDGE Aidan Hutchinson, there’s some really exciting young talent at wide receiver, especially Amon-Ra St. Brown who could be on the cusp of becoming a household name this fall, and Dan Campbell seems to be doing everything in his power to instill an attitude and winning culture.

But, for culture to really take root, a team has to eventually start winning. And, I’m not sure that’s going to happen this year, or with Jared Goff as the long-term solution at quarterback.

“They were 3-13 last year for a reason,” an NFL offensive coordinator told Heavy, on the condition of anonymity to speak freely about another team. “They’re a six-win team this year, tops.”

I tend to agree with that sentiment. Though, if Goff makes strides in his second year in the system, and D.J. Chark makes an impact, this could be a team that pushes for .500.

It’s an uphill climb for the Lions in a division that houses the reigning MVP, Aaron Rodgers, and a Packers roster with the talent in place to make a legitimate run at the Super Bowl, along with the Chicago Bears who — at least in my opinion, have more upside than the Lions thanks to Justin Fields’ potential to make a big leap in his second season.

However, with the fourth-youngest roster in the NFL and the potential to land a transcendent quarterback in the 2023 draft, the future is seemingly far brighter in the Motor City than the present.


Who are the AFC Playoff teams by order of seeding?

This is fascinating to ponder.

I’m not sure I can recall a period where the quality of rosters and overall difference in talent between the conferences has been this vast.

Whereas in the NFC, there is seemingly a clear line of delineation between about six teams (Buccaneers, Packers, Rams, 49ers, Eagles, and Cowboys) and the rest of the conference, there might be a legitimate Super Bowl argument for six teams in the AFC.

Beyond that, you could easily sell me on as many as 12 teams(!) having real postseason aspirations.

Throw the AFC into a hat, and I think that it winds up looking something like this in 2022:

  1. Buffalo Bills (AFC East Champs)
  2. Los Angeles Chargers (AFC West Champs)
  3. Cincinnati Bengals (AFC North Champs)
  4. Tennessee Titans (AFC South Champs)
  5. Kansas City Chiefs (AFC Wild Card)
  6. Miami Dolphins (AFC Wild Card)
  7. Baltimore Ravens (AFC Wild Card)

We’ll check back in January to see if these predictions were worth the bandwidth they’re written on.

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