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.
It’s early, but it might be time to sound the alarm about the Dallas Cowboys.
No team was called for more penalties than the Cowboys, who averaged eight per game in 2021, and Dallas picked up exactly where they left off in the 2022 preseason opener against the Denver Broncos as they were flagged 17 times.
In fairness to the Cowboys, head coach Mike McCarthy sat the vast majority of the players expected to make an impact on Sundays this fall. But, regardless of who donned the star in Denver, this did not look like a team ready to play.
“Denver overwhelmed them,” former NFL Executive of The Year and Heavy contributor Randy Mueller told me. “They couldn’t block them. It was concerning because Dallas seemed unprepared. Some of the same things that hit them last year hit them right in the face already this year, and they weren’t ready for it.”
While quarterback Dak Prescott, running backs Ezekiel Elliott and Tony Pollard, and wide receiver CeeDee Lamb wore visors as spectators, the Broncos exposed some of the Cowboys’ biggest flaws that stopped Dallas’ season dead in its tracks in the NFC Wild Card Round back in January remain some of their biggest concerns as 2022 looms.
In the Cowboys’ home playoff loss to the 49ers, Dallas was flagged 14 times. It sure seems like the more things change, the more they stay the same, for this team.
“Denver’s defense overwhelmed them so much up front that they were grabbing, and holding, and jumping offsides,” Mueller pointed out. “They just looked discombobulated. It was bad for the sight test.”
Beyond the penalties, and despite Prescott being arguably the premier quarterback in the NFC East along with real playmakers on defense — with the likes of DeMarcus Lawrence, Micah Parsons, Anthony Barr, and Trevon Diggs — there are real cracks in the armor for the reigning NFC East champions. Especially on offense.
The Cowboys’ decision to trade wide receiver Amari Cooper to the Browns this offseason was a clear vote of confidence that CeeDee Lamb was on the cusp of becoming one of the game’s elite at the position.
However, James Washington is expected to miss up to 10 weeks after fracturing his foot, Michael Gallup won’t be ready for Week 1 as he recovers from a torn ACL suffered in 2021, and the Cowboys are leaning on the likes of third-round rookie Jalen Tolbert, Noah Brown, and a receiver room of journeymen to pick up the slack.
That could be a tall order for a team expected to compete, and staring down the barrel of facing four teams who made the playoffs last season in the first six games of the 2022 campaign.
“I don’t think the young guys have developed,” Mueller said. “There may be a couple young guys who have a chance, but they’re not ready for prime time. That’s probably why they shut down most of their playmakers [against the Broncos] because they just aren’t deep, at all. Depth is a real concern.”
Even if Tolbert makes an immediate impact, he and Lamb alone might not be enough firepower to help the Cowboys through the gauntlet of the season’s opening stretch.
The good news for the Cowboys is there is still time.
Time both to fix the fundamental mistakes that reared their ugly head against Denver, and plug the holes on a roster that seems top-heavy with potential stars but paper-thin behind them.
“I’d probably go looking for a veteran receiver,” Mueller said.
Likewise, the offense will likely funnel through running backs Ezekiel Elliot and Tony Pollard, who combined for 41 runs of 15 yards or more in 2021. But, if the offensive line’s struggles in the exhibition opener are any sort of harbinger of what’s to come, Dallas might need to give their backfield stable some help, as well.
“I think they really need a blocking tight end,” Mueller explained. “And I don’t think they have that right now. They got eaten up on the corner, on the edges, and didn’t knock anybody back. I think that blocking tight end could be something they’re missing. Especially to control those edges.”
The needs on the Cowboys’ roster can certainly be filled between now and the regular season opener season-opener against Tom Brady and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. But, the character of the team and the glaring concerns that should have been a wake-up call after last season ended prematurely are of far bigger concern.
“Maybe the biggest worry is that the speed of the game was a struggle for the players that the Cowboys played the other night,” Mueller explained. “They look like a team that wasn’t being leaned on, wasn’t being drilled, wasn’t being commanded. It just seemed like a team that hadn’t been drilled on any of this stuff.”
Jaquan Brisker Looks Like a Steal for the Bears
The Chicago Bears have a proud tradition of defensive excellence and just might have found the next Monster of The Midway in the 2022 NFL draft.
Jaquan Brisker, chosen by the Bears with the No. 48 overall pick out of Penn State, in the second round, made his presence known immediately during his preseason debut against the Kansas City Chiefs.
Brisker, is a 6-foot-1 and 200-pound safety who hits like a linebacker and isn’t afraid to throw his weight around against the run, or rush the passer, either.
“Some guys are elite in the passing game but average against the run, or vice-versa,” Brisker’s college head coach, Penn State’s James Franklin told Heavy. “Jaquan has a chance to be special in both.”
Against the Chiefs in Week 1 of the preseason, Brisker played 39% of the Bears’ snaps, while producing 4 tackles, 1 tackle for loss and breaking up a pass.
It was only one exhibition game, but it was easy to see why Bears general manager Ryan Poles coveted the Pittsburgh native as one of the centerpieces of a defensive overhaul that also included fellow top-50 pick Kyle Gordon at cornerback.
During his three seasons as a starter in Happy Valley, Brisker was arguably the heartbeat of the Nittany Lions’ defense. He produced 151 total tackles in 34 games, along with 10 tackles for loss, 5 interceptions, 14 pass breakups and a fumble recovery.
Off the field, Franklin says, there’s a chance not only did the Bears land a versatile playmaker on the back-end of their defense, but potentially the type of person an organization can build its culture around.
“Jaquan is very coachable,” Franklin explained. “He’s humble, driven to be great, and football is really important to him. Obviously, he has great physical traits, but what makes him so special is how much he loves the game and how great he wants to be at it.”
Brisker was a one-man wrecking crew in his preseason debut that flashed a little bit of everything he did at Penn State to put him high on draft boards across the league this spring. It was only one game, but he looks like he has the chance to be special.
The Bears need him to be.
After all, Chicago’s defense has really lost its roar in recent years.
In 2021, the Bears finished sixth in total defense, third against the pass, but tied for 24th against the run, allowing 124.8 rushing yards per game. Brisker’s instincts near the line of scrimmage could really level up the Bears’ defense, in that regard.
“What I liked the most about him coming out is he’s really unselfish and really willing to help out in run-support,” an AFC personnel executive told Heavy. “He flashes in coverage at times, and is probably more of a strong safety.”
Ahead of the 2022 NFL draft, Pro Football Focus gave Brisker an 89.5 coverage grade, 67.4 run-stopping grade, and an overall grade of 82 as the outlet’s third-highest graded safety in the class.
Now, Brisker has the look of a plug-and-play, instant impact starter for the Bears, and perhaps a building block as Poles aims to build a defense capable of terrorizing visitors to the Windy City, again.
Predicting the AFC South
The Bills and defending Super Bowl champion Rams kickoff the 2022 NFL season in just over three 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 AFC South.
1. Indianapolis Colts (12-5)
The Colts had all the pieces to play spoiler in the AFC playoffs and perhaps make a run at the Super Bowl last season. Well, almost all of the pieces.
Carson Wentz’s disastrous Week 18 showing against the lowly Jaguars knocked the Colts from contention. Wentz was sacked six times and held to 185 passing yards with 1 touchdown and 1 interception in a 26-11 drubbing, before punching a one-way ticket to Washington as his potentially his last ride as an NFL starter before being relegated to journeyman backup status.
However, after trading for quarterback Matt Ryan, and dropping him behind arguably the NFL’s premier offensive line, with possible 2,000-yard running back Jonathan Taylor and a litany of weapons in the passing game, this just might be Indianapolis’ time, in a very winnable division.
That’s at least the prevailing sentiment among some inside the league.
“It’s hands down the Colts’ division to lose,” an NFC Executive told Heavy, on the condition of anonymity to speak freely about another team. “Adding Matt Ryan, having that running game, those receivers, and a solid defense … They’re going to be very tough to beat.”
2. Jacksonville Jaguars (10-7)
Look out for the Jaguars.
Freed from the burden of one of the most dysfunctional situations in all of sports — Urban Meyer being in way over his head and way overmatched as an NFL head coach — Jacksonville boasts one of the more talented young rosters in the league that finally has an adult in the room, in head coach Doug Pederson.
Expect Trevor Lawrence to be one of the more improved players in the entire league. Thanks to a revamped offensive line, the return of his former Clemson teammate Travis Travis Etienne at running back, along the additions of Christian Kirk and Zay Jones, the Jaguars’ offense has the firepower to sneak up on some people this fall.
Defensively, Jacksonville spent big, bolstering the front-seven with No. 1 overall draft pick Travon Walker, who has played like he’s been shot out of a cannon after an offseason’s worth of criticism leveled at the Jags’ selection, along with Folorunso Fatukasi taking up space in the middle, this front-seven is going to give offensive lines fits.
3. Tennessee Titans (9-8)
Tennessee perennially feels like underachievers, especially in January, and after dealing away A.J. Brown from quarterback Ryan Tannehill’s supporting cast, it feels like a similar ending is in the cards for the Titans, once again.
Tannehill took a step back last season, and replacing Brown with rookie Treylon Burks doesn’t feel like much of a spark to reignite the veteran. After Malik Willis’ strong showing in his preseason debut against the Baltimore Ravens, it seems there’s a real chance the Titans have a future at the quarterback position, which may be among the weakest links on the roster.
4. Houston Texans (4-13)
The Texans aren’t a roster that is anywhere close to being ready to be competitive, even if second-year quarterback Davis Mills has breakout potential in his second NFL season.
Brandin Cooks and Nico Collins are nice weapons, and bookend tackles Tytus Howard and Laremy Tunsil should inspire optimism about the future in Houston. But, this defense has the chance to be among the most porous in the NFL.
The Texans’ future hinges on Mills taking a leap. Even if he does, it might not be nearly enough to move the needle this season, though.
Quote of The Week
‘He’s a freak. That’s a special talent.’ – Pittsburgh Steelers WR Diontae Johnson on rookie George Pickens
It’s nothing short of remarkable, the Pittsburgh Steelers‘ ability to identify, draft, and develop elite young wide receivers since what feels like time immemorial.
Pickens has only been wearing the Black and Gold for one training camp and a single exhibition game, but he certainly looks the part of the Steelers’ next great wideout, continuing a tradition that has included Johnson, Chase Claypool, Juju Smith-Schuster and Antonio Brown, to name a few.
Already running with the first-team offense, Pickens was chosen No. 52 overall, and looks to add ridiculous value to the Steelers’ vertical passing game.
After making several highlight reel catches in practice that have gone viral on social media, and catching three passes for 43 yards and a touchdown against the Seahawks in Week 1 of the preseason, fans are already envisioning the nightmares Pickens is going to cause opposing secondaries.
Pickens isn’t just the latest in a line of potentially elite Steelers wide receivers, but the 11th player chosen at the position in the 2022 NFL draft also follows in the footsteps of Ja’Marr Chase, Justin Jefferson, Jaylen Waddle, DeVonta Smith, and others, who burst onto the NFL scene and instantly emerge as their team’s most prolific wideout.
“Everything trickles up these days,” an NFC personnel executive told Heavy. “These 7-on-7 camps are more competitive than ever, high school offenses are mirroring college offenses, and the NFL is asking receivers to do a lot of the same things they did on Saturdays, when they arrive in the league on Sundays.”
Whether it’s Pickens, the Falcons’ Drake London, Commanders’ Jahan Dotson, Titans’ Traylon Burks, Chiefs’ Skyy Moore, or some combination of the top receivers in this year’s rookie class who pushes to surpass 1,000 yards, the trend seems destined to continue.
As for Pickens, he might also be the backstop of a recent trend in how the Steelers operate, as well.
Smith-Schuster signed his second contract with the Kansas City Chiefs, and James Washington with the Dallas Cowboys, but the chances Pickens’ arrival makes Claypool expendable and the Steelers opt instead next spring to fire up the wide receiver assembly line all over again, would seem slim.
“If it were me, I’d re-sign Claypool as soon as he’s eligible,” the executive said. “Pickens is a different kind of receiver, and they could be a nice young duo to build around.”
Golladay, of course, became the league’s highest-paid wide receiver at the time he signed a four-year deal worth $72 million, authored by former Giants general manager Dave Gettleman.
At the time, Golladay’s signing was hailed by long-suffering Giants fans as the kind of move that would elevate the franchise, especially after the 6-foot-4 and 213-pound wide receiver capped his career in Detroit catching 183 passes for 3,068 yards and 21 touchdowns through his first four seasons.
However, after failing to reach the end zone in his first season in East Rutherford, Golladay has done little to offer any optimism he’s on the cusp of returning to form.
“That deal looks awful today,” one agent familiar with the wide receiver market told Heavy. “But, it looked nearly as bad the moment it first got signed.”
It’s no secret that under first-year general manager Joe Schoen, the Giants are in the infancy of a long overdue rebuild, but it is also appearing more and more glaringly obvious that Golladay’s contract could be a roadblock toward New York reaching the destination of a roster capable of returning to the postseason for the first time since 2016, anytime soon.
The high-water mark for Golladay and the Giants’ offense this summer, at least to date, is the practice Heavy was in attendance for. That day, Jones and head coach Brian Daboll made a concerted effort to get Golladay involved, and he responded with several big catches deep downfield.
Since then, Jones has struggled mightily tossing interceptions, and it is hard to justify Golladay as the Giants’ No. 1 wide receiver after plays like this in New York’s exhibition opener against the New England Patriots:
What’s worse, is Schoen can’t even get out from under the Golladay mess left behind by his predecessor.
Golladay carries a $21.5 million cap hit for the 2022 season, and the Giants would be forced to eat $35.6 million in dead money if he is released this summer. Next year, is the first exit ramp in Golladay’s deal, as New York would save $6.7 million against the cap in 2023 if he is released.
“They definitely overpaid and got themselves into a bind,” a second agent told Heavy. “Especially coming off the injury, he just hasn’t been the same player.”