The next NFL game is the first that counts for real, the preseason is a speck in the distance in the rearview mirror, but some teams are still hard at work trying to improve their rosters.
Whether it was Philadelphia Eagles general manager Howie Roseman strengthening his Executive of The Year candidacy before the season even begins, by plucking a pair of assets for underachieving wide receiver Jalen Reagor in a deal with the Vikings, and trading for safety Chauncey Gardner-Johnson, or the Panthers scooping up a playmaker in Laviska Shenault, this was a busy week across the league.
And as the regular season rapidly approaches, could more moves be on the horizon?
Heavy’s football mailbag series continues on Friday, Sept. 2 — hosted by Heavy NFL insider Matt Lombardo — to answer questions about your favorite team(s).
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New York Jets
Do you expect the Jets to still look at a swing offensive tackle, after signing Duane Brown and George Fant?
There’s no doubt that Mekhi Becton’s injury threw a wrench into the New York Jets‘ offensive tackle plans.
Even before New York signed Brown on August 15, multiple sources told Heavy the plan was for Brown to start at left tackle opposite Becton with Fant in the swing-tackle role due to concerns about Fant’s health and getting fully up to speed in the offense.
Multiple agents who represent offensive linemen claim the Jets are not making calls on veteran linemen, but some inside the league have heard differently.
“I guarantee you they’re looking,” an NFC personnel executive told Heavy. “A lot of teams are looking. They’re not good enough, or deep enough.”
The executive suggested Jason Peters as a fit, although the 40-year-old was also named as a fit for the Dallas Cowboys.
Peters showed last season with the Chicago Bears that despite his age, he is still capable of playing at a high level. According to Pro Football Focus, Peters allowed 6.0 sacks in 853 total snaps, but produced a 77.5 overall grade.
Still, if the Jets — or any team wind up signing Peters, the executive has a word of caution.
“If you expect a veteran with 10-plus years of experience,” the executive said, “and you expect them to be a starter, you better hope you get eight games out of them. Hope. During the season. Because, once you get comfortable with an older guy at that position, if he gets hurt, you’re totally screwed, again.”
Even without Becton, the Jets’ offensive line should be dramatically improved, especially after how strong Brown looked during training camp. Time will tell if they choose to add depth, and take the risk that comes along with signing a veteran.
Los Angeles Rams
Are the Los Angeles Rams in the market for help at tight end, or are they content to enter the season with two?
Back in February, the Los Angeles Rams carried three tight ends on the roster into the Super Bowl against the Cincinnati Bengals, and while quarterback Matthew Stafford’s supporting cast is going to look vastly different, arguably the biggest change is at tight end.
Following final cuts at the end of the preseason, Tyler Higbee and Brycen Hopkins.
So, it would seem like this could be a position the Rams dip into free agency or scour practice squads around the league to find depth. Not so fast.
Multiple league sources told Heavy that Rams general manager Les Snead believes Los Angeles is “good at tight end,” and not actively shopping for help at the position.
This shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise, though. Last season, while Higbee was third on the team in targets (85), he was only tight end on the roster to log more than 10. In Sean McVay’s offense, especially after what we saw from Matthew Stafford, the passing game is built around pushing the ball vertically downfield. Likewise, Higbee is an above-average run-blocker, as well.
What is the thinking around the league on slot corners transitioning to safeties? What are the key traits that allow it, and why does it make sense?
As mentioned above, the Philadelphia Eagles‘ acquisition of Chauncey Gardner-Johnson has the chance to be one of the most impactful moves made over the past month.
In a lot of ways, as Heavy’s Ryan Messick pointed out, the trade is an outstanding value from a financial standpoint, as Gardner-Johnson is slated to make $7.5 million per season, as compared to the top-10 safeties who will collect an average of $10 million per season.
However, according to some inside the league, Gardner-Johnson is unique in that his positional versatility makes him an ideal fit for what the Eagles and coordinator Jonathan Gannon ask their safeties to do.
“It really comes down to the philosophy of the defensive coordinator,” an NFC Scouting Director told Heavy, on the condition of anonymity to speak freely about another team. “So, if you’re going to be playing a little more man-coverage, and your pressure is going to come from your front-four, then your slot corner has to mirror what the defense is; he has to be smart, he has to be fast, he has to be physical, and above all else, instinctive. That’s what Gardner-Johnson is.”
Gardner-Johnson’s ball skills in coverage were evident during his time in New Orleans, as he held opposing quarterbacks to a passer rating of just 80.6 when targeted, while intercepting 3 passes and also producing a sack.
In Philadelphia, the Eagles now have a weapon they can deploy on the back-end of their defense in a multitude of ways; be it in deep coverage, creeping up near the line of scrimmage against the run, or dropping into the slot in nickel or dime sets.
“The Eagles are going to be playing a little more zone,” the scouting director explained. “You can take Chauncey Gardner-Johnson and play him in the box, if he has to cover a tight end in man-coverage, or you can have him play the field because of his range to get over the top of a route if they’re playing cover-two, or if you’re in cover-three, he can be a curl-flat defender and go make a play because he’s a solid tackler.”
As one former general manager told Heavy, the NFL is much more likely to pay a premium for safeties who fit Gardner-Johnson’s mold of positional fluidity rather than a pure strong safety, a notion the scouting director agrees with.
“The Eagles were probably trying to find a way to be a shut down on the back-end defense,” the scouting director explained. “They have James Bradberry, they have Darius Slay on the outside, it’s about them playing their best five defensive backs. They found their best five.”