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.
Heavy’s 2022 NFL training camp tour is in full swing, having already made a pair of stops at the camps of NFC East division rivals seemingly headed in opposite directions.
In Philadelphia, the Eagles have one of the most balanced rosters of Howie Roseman’s tenure as general manager, despite abundant questions surrounding whether Jalen Hurts is the quarterback to maximize it.
Meanwhile, across the river and an hour up the Jersey Turnpike, the New York Giants are in the infancy of a rebuild with even less certainty at quarterback than their NFC East foes.
Checking In From Eagles Training Camp
Not to be overshadowed by dynamic offense, Philly’s defense ready to take flight
PHILADELPHIA, Pennsylvania — Roseman stood on the sidelines, joking with Brandon Graham following Saturday’s, August 6 training camp practice and there was something poetic about the moment.
Graham was the first player Roseman ever drafted as general manager, with the No. 13 overall pick in 2010, who went on to make one of the franchise-defining plays of the Eagles’ first Super Bowl victory in 2018. The 13-year veteran may be surrounded by more talent than ever, thanks to Roseman’s efforts the past two offseasons.
“This is the most talented defense I’ve ever been part of,” Graham told Heavy. “It just comes down to us taking advantage of it.”
There’s a palpable sense of optimism surrounding this team, in large part because of Roseman’s heist of acquiring dynamic wide receiver A.J. Brown, while preserving the Eagles’ optionality that comes with two first-round picks in 2023.
But, perhaps what should have the Philly faithful even more excited is that as defensive coordinator Jonathan Gannon enters his second season, he now has his players in place to run his system, thanks to Roseman’s bold moves.
Five new faces could lift the Eagles’ defense to new heights this fall.
Haason Reddick returns to his hometown, after signing a three-year deal worth up to $45 million, as the centerpiece of a pass rush that produced just 29.0 sacks in 2021.
After the former Panther finished the 2021 campaign with ESPN’s eighth-best pass-rush win rate, Gannon now has a Swiss-Army Knife of a weapon to deploy from the strong-side, with his hand in the dirt, or off the weak-side to create havoc in opposing backfields.
Few things matter more to a successful defense than relentlessly pressuring the passer, and Roseman wasn’t done bolstering a group that produced the second-fewest sacks in the league last year.
Roseman took Jordan Davis No. 13 overall, the same pick as Graham, and the rookie looks equally capable of planting the likes of Jack Davis deep in the South Philly soil during one-on-one drills, as driving him into the quarterback’s midsection, with ease.
Davis, 6-foot-3 and 341 pounds, is a brick house of a human who has the acceleration of a Ferrari when the ball is snapped.
Jordan Davis made this look too easy 😳
Warning: Strong Language
— B/R Gridiron (@brgridiron) August 8, 2022
After producing 11.5 tackles for loss and 7.0 sacks, the Eagles have a stonewall of a run-stuffer on their hands for their annual matchups against the Cowboys’ Ezekiel Elliott and the Giants’ Saquon Barkley, but at least from what he’s shown in practice against the starting offense, Davis may also prove to be a potent interior pass-rusher alongside Fletcher Cox.
Inside linebacker Kyzir White arrives as a steady veteran with a nose for the football, who has flashed tremendous instincts in coverage from the middle linebacker spot so far this camp.
White finished last season with 145 total tackles, 1.0 sack, and 53 run stops as the heart and soul of the Chargers’ defense. Now, at age 26, he’s the elder statesman in a young linebacking corps brimming with confidence and playmakers, such as T.J. Edwards, and Davis’ former Georgia teammate, Nakobe Dean.
During Saturday’s practice, White showed strong instincts in coverage, jumping a route in seven-on-sevens to bat away a pass from Jalen Hurts that was intended for running back Miles Sanders. The Eagles are hoping White makes that kind of impact when the games count for real.
As multiple teams around the league were scared off by a possible torn pectoral and torn meniscus, Roseman adeptly and boldly paired need with value, stopping Dean’s slide in the third round, after he entered the draft as a potential top-10 prospect.
Special teams coach Michael Clay called Dean “a hardhat worker,” and didn’t rule out the possibility that he would play on special teams this fall, in addition to pushing for meaningful snaps in the Eagles’ linebacker rotation.
Dean produced 8.0 sacks in 2021 as one of the most dominant players on a defense that produced five first-round picks.
It isn’t difficult to close your eyes and envision Reddick and Dean racing off the edges towards the quarterback with Davis collapsing the pocket up the middle.
Just the way Gannon drew it up.
Meanwhile, on the back-end, the Eagles’ quietly might have one of the more difficult secondaries to throw on in the NFL. Especially after scooping James Bradberry off the scrap heap after he was released by the Giants.
Having the chance to face his former team twice per season, Bradberry said, was a motivating factor for his decision.
Bradberry is just one year removed from a brilliant 2020 campaign, where he was among the NFL’s stingiest cornerbacks, intercepting 3 passes, and holding opposing quarterbacks to a meager 70.1 passer rating when throwing his direction.
That direction will be the right side of the field, opposite four-time Pro Bowler Darius Slay in the Eagles’ secondary.
“That’s a huge benefit when you have a lot of experience around you,” Eagles safety Anthony Harris said, following practice on August 6. “Those are guys who know different schemes, they can look at each other and understand they’re on the same page. It’s a great addition when you have two guys who are so talented with so much experience.”
It’s one thing for a defensive coordinator to find his footing with a roster of holdovers from the prior regime. But, these are now Gannon’s players, signed and chosen by Roseman to fit the vision of what this team aims to be on defense.
That’s the kind of synergy that can help a defense make major strides.
The Eagles will go as far as Hurts and a potentially electrifying offense that features Brown, smooth route-runner DeVonta Smith, tight end Dallas Goedert, and arguably the NFL’s premier offensive line will take them in 2022.
But, the defense Roseman has built Gannon gives Philadelphia the chance to take some of the pressure off the young quarterback, and perhaps could hold the key to this team reaching its now sky-high expectations.
If they reach their potential, maybe Roseman and Graham will have the opportunity to share another conversation in six months, this time joined by a seven-pound piece of Tiffany silver.
The Latest From Giants Training Camp
Time to worry about Daniel Jones?
EAST RUTHERFORD, New Jersey — Giants head coach Brian Daboll’s concern about Daniel Jones should be reverberating from East Rutherford to the East River.
On Monday, August 8, Jones was replaced for a rep with the first-team offense by backup quarterback Tyrod Taylor. Based on Daboll’s comments throughout camp combined with the Giants’ offense consistently struggling to move the football this summer, one has to wonder if a far more lasting change could be in the offing.
“Each day, he’s making progress,” Daboll said of Jones on August 3. “Made good decisions. Had a couple turnovers, which one was a little slip on the skill guy and a timing route. So, I thought the other one (Cornerback) Adoree’ (Jackson) made a really good play. Attacked the ball well. We always try to limit those the best we can. But I think he’s making progress. Decision making. Trusting his reads. Still got a ways to go.”
Six words hung in the air inside the Giants’ indoor practice facility where Daboll was addressing the media, like an anvil over Jones’ head.
Still got a ways to go.
Granted, this will be Jones’ fourth offense in as many NFL seasons, but that Daboll believes that Jones still has “a ways to go” from a decision-making standpoint as the quarterback enters his fourth season is worrisome.
That day in practice, Jones led the first-team offense down the field during a walkthrough period to open the day, before badly missing Kadarius Toney on a slant pattern as the ball fell to the ground out of bounds in the corner of the end zone and four yards beyond Toney’s reach. Jones’ incompletion forced the field goal unit onto the field. During a walkthrough.
Then, there was this play that went viral from the Giants’ open practice at MetLife Stadium on August 5.
Im so disappointed. pic.twitter.com/390OCowqbK
— Ashton Anthony (@ashtongriffith_) August 6, 2022
Two plays do not tell an entire story.
But, reports have been relentless out of Giants camp of the offense failing to gain any traction. And of Jones’ frequent interceptions.
From the vantage point of seeing one practice on our training camp tour, the No. 6 overall pick in the 2019 draft is struggling mightily both pushing the ball downfield, and hitting on timing routes outside the numbers.
Jones’ teammates, to their credit, continue to say all the right things about their quarterback, and are behind him as he enters a crossroads season.
“His work ethic hasn’t changed,” Giants left tackle Andrew Thomas told Heavy. “He’s working extremely. hard. He’s the first guy in, last guy out, and is trying to be a leader on the field as much as he can. In practice he’s been doing pretty well. It’s a new offense, but he’s been able to make plays.”
Those in charge of Jones’ future are singing a different tune, at least in their actions, which matter far more than words.
The Giants, and general manager Joe Schoen, screamed from the mountaintops their skepticism that Jones has what it takes to develop into an elite quarterback, when the organization declined to pick up his fifth-year option hours before the 2022 NFL draft.
Who can blame them?
For that matter, who would blame Daboll for keeping his options open at the most important position in the sport?
Especially since this is Daboll’s first opportunity as a head coach, at the helm of an organization that has had four head coaches since 2017.
If things don’t change, and change drastically, there is going to come a time when Tyrod Taylor gets his shot.
When Taylor’s on the field, the ball jumps out of his hand, and the offense seems to have real momentum.
Taylor’s opportunity may come for a day during practice with the first-team offense. Or, it may come in Week 6.
But, the Giants cannot hope to make progress with a young group of receivers and in forging a winning culture, if Jones can’t establish a rhythm or effectively hit in the vertical passing game.
Daboll is so confident that Jones and the offense will right the ship that Jones, running back Saquon Barkley, and the rest of the starters on offense will play in the first preseason game against the New England Patriots.
Meanwhile, many teams this time of year make a point to rest their starters, in order to protect them from injury as long as possible by playing them as little as possible in exhibition games.
But, after Jones had what some deemed “the worst practice of the summer” on August 8, and New York’s offense still lacks any semblance of an identity three weeks into training camp, Week 1 of the preseason serve as much as an audition for Jones to keep his grasp on the starting job as it is an opportunity to show he can move the ball against a defense wearing a different helmet.
Schoen’s and Daboll’s jobs depend on quickly turning around the fortunes of a franchise that is a pathetic 22-59 since the end of the Obama Administration.
Likewise, neither general manager or head coach have any loyalty to Jones. They did not draft him, and they aren’t committed to him beyond this season.
If the Giants are going to have any chance at success, and if the latest duo running the show at Quest Diagnostics Training Center is to have any longevity, realizing when it’s time to look in a different direction at quarterback may prove critical.
That time may be coming sooner than you think.
Predicting the NFC North
The Bills and defending Super Bowl champion Rams kickoff the 2022 NFL season in just over six 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 North.
Green Bay Packers: 12-5
Aaron Rodgers has taken home the NFL’s last two MVP awards, and even with DaVante Adams now on the receiving end of Derek Carr’s passes in Las Vegas, this is one of the deepest and most talented rosters in the entire league.
Everyone knows the firepower the Packers’ offense possesses, but Green Bay also has one of the most menacing front-sevens in football, complemented by Adrian Amos and Darnell Savage in the secondary. This is going to be an even tougher defense to score on in 2022, than the group that held opponents to just 21.3 points per game.
Playing in the NFC North, with at least two teams in the midst of full-fledged rebuilds, the Packers still face eight teams who made the postseason in 2021.
Chicago Bears: 9-8
Justin Fields has drawn rave reviews from the Bears’ coaching staff this summer and seems primed to make major strides in his second season.
“His leadership and grasp of the offense is outstanding,” Bears head coach Matt Eberflus told reporters on July 26. “His footwork and fundamentals are through the roof, too.”
Fields is ideally positioned to have a breakout campaign, playing in offensive coordinator Luke Getsy’s quarterback-friendly system. Likewise, Darnell Mooney, Equanimeous St. Brown, and Byron Pringle have sneaky upside.
Defensively, the Bears have a long way to go, especially after trading Khalil Mack to the Los Angeles Chargers. But, if Fields and the offense make strides, the schedule is favorable for Chicago to climb the NFC North ladder and emerge as one of the NFL’s surprise teams in 2022.
Minnesota Vikings: 7-10
The Vikings feel like they are making the same mistake that the New York Giants made over the past decade, and the Atlanta Falcons did, before finally ripping the Band-Aid and trading quarterback Matt Ryan to the Indianapolis Colts. Minnesota is seemingly straddling the line between trying to hang on with a middling veteran quarterback and tearing it down with a full-fledged rebuild.
That strategy rarely winds up working out.
Dalvin Cook and Justin Jefferson are two of the more prolific players at their positions, but it isn’t easy to wonder how much more productive they would be and how much more dynamic the offense would be with someone other than Kirk Cousins behind center.
The Vikings are going to have to wait at least another year to find out.
Detroit Lions: 5-12
Dan Campbell promised a team that would “eat kneecaps” and embodies the fighting image of the city of Detroit, during his introductory press conference as Lions head coach, which will go down as one of the ages.
However, Campbell’s maiden voyage produced a 3-13-1 finish that began with an 0-10-1 start. Not what he had in mind.
“They’ll be better,” an NFC coach recently told Heavy. “I really like offensive coordinator Ben Johnson, he’s a smart kid and a rising star. But, it’s not a great coaching staff overall.”
With Campbell calling the plays, it’s fair to wonder just how high quarterback Jared Goff’s ceiling is, even with a dynamic playmaker like Amon-Ra St.Brown at wide receiver.
There’s some young talent on the roster, and Aidan Hutchinson has the potential to make an immediate impact. But, the Lions just have a ways to go before they’re going to be legitimate contenders in this division.
Quote of the Week
“This is going to be the best safety draft in NFL history. Not just from a talent standpoint, but there might also be more safeties picked next spring than any other year.” – NFL Executive on the 2023 NFL draft
Strong words from a long-time personnel evaluator, during a conversation with Heavy in early August.
There were 19 safeties chosen in the 2022 NFL draft, and the executive believes that number will be eclipsed in 2023.
Alabama figures to play a starring role, and there’s a chance that the Crimson Tide could have five defensive backs chosen in the first round, with Jordan Battle, DeMarcco Hellams and Malachi Moore all in the mix to hear their names called as the first defensive backs off the board.
This could be a draft where the deepest position is met by an abundance of teams looking to fill a glaring need, with the likes of the Pittsburgh Steelers, Green Bay Packers, New England Patriots, and Detroit Lions potentially looking for safety help in the early rounds.
Fitzpatrick just signed a long-term extension, but the Steelers could be looking to pair him with one of the top prospects in next year’s class, after the 25-year-old held opposing quarterbacks to just an 83.4 passer rating in 2021. There’s a real possibility Pittsburgh trots out an all-Alabama safety duo next fall.
Meanwhile, the Patriots are always on the prowl for playmakers in the secondary and might need to replace Devin McCourty at season’s end, if he follows his brother into retirement.
Likewise, with Adrian Amos — who graded out as one of the premier safeties in the league in 2021 — entering the final year of his contract, the Packers don’t have much quality depth behind him.
Fans of dominant defense should make a point to tuning into Alabama games on Saturdays this Fall because it sounds like, as always, the Crimson Tide feature a bounty of players about to play starring roles on Sundays on defenses across the league in 2023.
The New York Jets‘ future, and Zach Wilson’s 2022 prospects, took a massive blow on August 8.
When franchise offensive tackle Mekhi Becton went down with a fractured kneecap, his season ended before it had the chance to get underway.
However, Becton’s injury doesn’t just leave a gaping hole at one of the most important positions on the roster — and to Wilson — but further complicates how the organization moves forward with the No. 11 overall pick in the 2020 draft, less than a calendar year before general manager Joe Douglas must make the decision whether to pick up his fifth-year option.
“Two years ago, I thought he showed promise as a solid left tackle,” veteran offensive line coach Paul Alexander told Heavy. “So, when they moved him to right tackle this summer, it kind of surprised me. Losing him is a loss at a critical position.”
Becton has only started and finished eight games in his career, and his latest injury casts some doubt over a season in which the Jets were hoping to see Wilson make major strides behind what they hoped was a fortified offensive line and with added talent around him.
Douglas certainly has options, as the Jets hosted five-time Pro Bowler Duane Brown for a visit ahead of the team’s Green-White scrimmage, and have been linked to the former anchor of the Seahawks’ offensive line for weeks.
According to league sources, the Jets were courting Brown in the first place because of concerns over whether George Fant’s knee would hold up and the fact that he was a limited participant throughout the offseason.
Obviously, that pursuit and any subsequent signing of Brown now takes on new urgency, after Becton’s injury.
But, even if the Jets sign Brown or former All-Pro Jason Peters, it is an undeniable step back for an offensive line that finished last season ranked 11th in the NFL by Pro Football Focus.
Douglas spent four years in Philadelphia, so he knows Peters’ game inside and out. After all, the pair won a Super Bowl together. But, Peters is well out of the prime of his career, at this stage, after allowing 8.0 sacks and 28 pressures last season in Chicago.
“You can’t replace Mekhi,” Alexander said. “There’s just no one close to comparable available.”
So it goes, for a franchise that has been snakebitten for decades.
Just as optimism begins to seep in, disaster strikes.