NFL Execs Dish on ‘Best Move of the Entire Offseason’ & Kenny Pickett Hype

Kliff Kingsbury

Getty Kliff Kingsbury reacts to a call against the Seattle Seahawks in 2021.

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.

The NFL made it perfectly clear how poorly it viewed the incoming 2022 rookie quarterback class.

Only Kenny Pickett, chosen by the Pittsburgh Steelers, after playing his college ball across the hallway from his new NFL team’s facility, at the University of Pittsburgh, was chosen in Round 1.

Pickett’s slide ended with a call from Mike Tomlin at pick No. 20, and it wasn’t until Desmond Ridder’s phone rang from a 404 area code as the Atlanta Falcons’ selection in the third round, that another quarterback was chosen.

“It was a really, really weak class,” an AFC personnel executive told Heavy. “Everyone knew it all along, but everyone tried to sell those guys to each other.”

The Steelers stuck to their convictions, and nabbed the hometown kid, pinning their hopes and expectations on his 6-foot-3 and 220-pound frame.

For Pickett, his career begins in Latrobe, Pennsylvania, in a training camp battle for the Steelers’ starting job, against one of the top free agent signings at the position, Mitchell Trubisky.

The Steelers are hoping that Pickett authors the next great success story for one of the NFL’s most storied franchises. One of Pittsburgh’s more beloved former quarterbacks believes Pickett can lead a renaissance in the Steel City.

“I really liked his neck-up perspective,” former Steelers quarterback Charlie Batch told Heavy. “You could really see that the game slowed down for him [last season at Pitt]. He’s always in command at the line of scrimmage, and it seems like he processes information really quickly.”

Leading the Panthers to an ACC Championship, in one of the rare down seasons for Dabo Swinney’s Clemson Tigers is one thing. Dissecting, slicing, and dicing NFL defenses with a razor-thin margin for error is quite another.

“Now, it’s a matter of whether he can anticipate,” Batch explained. “Whether he can throw a receiver open, rather than throw to an open receiver at the college level, and that’s something that will reveal itself in the earliest stages of training camp.”

Fortunately for Pickett, his receivers have a knack for getting open.

Dionte Johnson headlines a prolific receiving corps and caught 107 passes for a career-high 1,161 yards last season. Chase Claypool enters his third season, when most receivers really hit their stride, after catching 121 passes for 1,733 yards and 11 touchdowns through his first two seasons. And, Pat Freiermuth emerged as a legitimate, game-altering red-zone weapon as a rookie, catching 7 touchdowns.

The battle between Pickett and Trubisky for who will get the keys to the black and gold Ferrari will be one of the most watched camp battles in the entire NFL.

After passing for 4,319 yards with 42 touchdowns and 7 interceptions, as a senior last Fall, Pickett arrives in the Steelers’ wing of their shared practice facility with the University of Pittsburgh with a wealth of knowledge on how to survive in the football-crazed market as well as a track record of success.

However, not everyone is convinced that Pickett has what it takes to keep the Steelers in the thick of what could be the most competitive division races in the NFL.

“I thought he was just ‘okay,'” a rival AFC personnel executive told Heavy. “My biggest concern is he doesn’t have a strong arm.

“He has a nice sense of timing, is fairly accurate, and has decent mobility,” the executive said. “If he starts, the Steelers better be sure his supporting staff can carry him.”

Even if Pickett makes a Joe Burrow, or Justin Herbert, or Lamar Jackson-type immediate impact, at least on paper, the Steelers face an uphill climb of Kilimanjaro proportions to overtake the Bengals, compete with the Ravens, and overcome a talented Browns roster inside the division.

The Steelers missed the NFL playoffs in 2021-22 and were run out of their home building by their bitter rival, the Cleveland Browns, in the AFC Wild Card round.

Meanwhile, the Browns significantly upgraded at quarterback, by trading for Deshaun Watson this offseason. And the Bengals came 65 yards away from a game-winning touchdown in the 2022 Super Bowl.

So, where does that leave Pittsburgh?

Batch, who serves as the Steelers’ color commentator during preseason games, believes regardless of whether it is Pickett or Trubisky behind center, Pittsburgh’s trajectory comes down to making major improvements on the defensive side of the football.

“I think the Bengals, the defending conference champs, are the team to beat,” Batch said. “First and foremost, all those teams [in the AFC North] can run the football. The Steelers need to fix their run defense right away. When you finish dead-last, basically, in run-defense, which is basically unheard of in Pittsburgh, they’re really hoping Tyson Tyson Alualu can secure that front. If they can, I think they’ll be okay.”

For the Steelers to compete in 2022, Pickett — and that run defense, are going to need to be far better than okay.

5 Offseason Moves That Will Define the 2022 NFL Season

The movement across the NFL this offseason wasn’t just frenetic, it also has the chance to reshape the league’s balance of power in 2022.

After an all-out arms race, all four teams in the AFC West can legitimately make preseason claims as the team to beat in the division, the Buffalo Bills just might have opened up a lead as Super Bowl favorites Sydney McLaughlin would envy, the reigning AFC champions filled their most glaring weakness, and that’s barely touched on the nearly unprecedented quarterback shuffle.

In Arizona, the Cardinals are wholly and completely committed to Kyler Murray, and not just after making him the second-highest paid quarterback in the league by way of guaranteed money at signing ($104 million)

When the Cardinals shipped the No. 23 overall pick in the draft to the Baltimore Ravens for wide receiver Marquise “Hollywood” Brown, general manager Steve Keim effectively dropped a game-altering weapon for Murray, into an offense that’s brimming with them.

“That was the best move of the entire offseason,” an NFC personnel executive told Heavy, on the condition of anonymity because he isn’t authorized to speak about other teams publicly.

Brown caught 91 passes for 1,008 yards and 6 touchdowns, as Ravens quarterbacks produced a 92.3 passer rating on his 139 targets. Keim and head coach Kliff Kingsbury are hoping Brown has a similar impact on Murray’s development, as he did when on the receiving ends of Lamar Jackson‘s passes in an MVP campaign.

Likewise, Brown’s arrival softens the blow of DeAndre Hopkins’ absence, as the playmaker continues his recovery from a torn MCL, suffered in December 2021.

“Once DeAndre Hopkins gets back and healthy,” the executive says. “Teams are going to have to single [cover] Brown, and I don’t wish that on anybody. He has big time, big time speed.”

While the NFL landscape will look dramatically different in September, these are the five moves that will be the most impactful in the chase for the Lombardi Trophy.

Here are the five moves that will shape how the 2022 season plays out: 

5) Cincinnati Bengals Sign OT La’el Collins

Somehow, Joe Burrow finished as the NFL’s sixth-leading passer in 2021. Burrow accounted for 4,611 yards, 34 touchdowns, and 14 interceptions, as he emerged as arguably the NFL’s brightest stars at the position, despite playing behind an offensive line Pro Football Focus ranked 20th in the league, and surviving 51.0 sacks.

After this offseason, Burrow won’t need to worry much about those offensive line woes.

Cincinnati set out to fill its most glaring need, which arguably kept the Bengals from hoisting the Lombardi when Rams All-Pro Aaron Donald burst through the line forcing a Burrow incompletion in the waning seconds of the 2022 Super Bowl.

General manager Mike Brown plugged the hole at offensive tackle with one of the premier players available at the position, La’el Collins.

Collins, 28, arrives into the Queen City as PFF’s No. 15 ranked offensive tackle, after allowing only two sacks and 17 pressures last season in Dallas. He’ll now be charged with helping keep Burrow upright, and opening running lanes for Joe Mixon, after producing an 89.8 run-blocking grade in 2021, which just might be enough to propel the Bengals back to Super Sunday.

4) Los Angeles Chargers Sign CB J.C. Jackson

The Chargers had a major problem.

Already staring down the barrel of two dates per season against Patrick Mahomes and the electrifying Kansas City Chiefs, the Chargers witnessed the Denver Broncos trade for quarterback Russell Wilson (much more on that below), and the Las Vegas Raiders would ultimately make one of the league’s headline-grabbing moves by acquiring All-Pro wide receiver Davante Adams.

At that point, the movement across the division almost neutralized whatever upside Los Angeles had, in having one of the game’s most up-and-coming quarterbacks, Justin Herbert, behind center.

Enter, J.C. Jackson.

Jackson was viewed by many as the prize of free agency, after holding opposing quarterbacks to a meager 47.8 passer rating and intercepting eight passes in 2021.

Dropping the 6-foot-1 and 200-pound lockdown cornerback into a secondary that finished 13th in passing defense last season is exactly the kind of transcendent move that can help a defense at all three levels.

Pairing Khalil Mack opposite Joey Bosa with Jackson anchoring the perimeter in the secondary not only gives the Chargers a defense that is a worthy complement to its high-octane offense, but just might put them in the AFC West’s catbird seat.

Russell Wilson

Getty ImagesRussell Wilson throws during mandatory minicamp in 2022.

3) Denver Broncos Trade for QB Russell Wilson

Staying in the AFC West, and speaking of the aforementioned Russell Wilson trade, the Broncos last season finished two games out of the AFC Wild Card and lost three of their final four games by six points or less.

Broncos general manager George Paton needed a blockbuster if Denver was ever going to compete in a division that houses three of arguably the top-12 quarterbacks in football, including maybe two of its five most gifted passers.

Wilson has the big-game experience that comes from winning a Super Bowl, and appearing in another, to lead a young and talented offense, as well as the skill-set to elevate the players around him. Wilson will need to, if the Broncos are going to return to the postseason for the first time since beating the Panthers in the 2016 Super Bowl.

2) Las Vegas Raiders Trade for WR Davante Adams

Adams is viewed by many inside the NFL as the league’s premier wide receiver, and for good reason.

During his time as Aaron Rodgers’ favorite target, and the Packers’ top receiver, Adams caught 669 passes for 8,121 yards and 73 touchdowns, including logging a career-best 1,553 receiving yards in 2021.

Last season, Rodgers produced a prolific 117.4 passer rating when targeting Adams, who only dropped four of 166 targets. The Raiders are betting big that Adams’ consistency will raise quarterback Derek Carr’s game to new heights, after making the 29-year-old the highest-paid player at the position.

Las Vegas made the postseason, before falling to the eventual conference champion Bengals, 26-19 on Wild Card Saturday, in a game that saw Carr pass for 310 yards with just 1 touchdown and an interception.

After dropping Adams into an offense that includes dynamic tight end Darren Waller, running back Josh Jacobs, and productive slot receiver Hunter Renfrow, the Raiders have the potential to be an offensive juggernaut in Josh McDaniels’ first season as head coach, and perhaps even a threat to win the loaded AFC West.

1) Buffalo Bills Sign EDGE Von Miller

The Buffalo Bills entered the offseason with a Super Bowl caliber roster, but couldn’t get off the field in the final :13 seconds or in overtime in Arrowhead Stadium against Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs in their most recent Super Bowl quest.

So, forward-thinking general manager Brandon Beane broke the bank, adding one of the Los Angeles Rams‘ Super Bowl heroes in hopes that Von Miller plays a key role in finally replacing Buffalo’s generational postseason heartbreak with the unbridled joy of finally bringing the Lombardi to the banks of Lake Erie.

“He’s exactly the kind of crafty veteran that defense needed,” a long-time personnel man told me at the time of Miller’s signing. “He wears down tackles, especially late in the game, and he feasts in big spots.”

Miller might not be the same player he was in his prime, but he still produced 9.5 sacks in 2021. And, Miller is just another piece of what is an elite front-seven in Buffalo; Tremaine Edmonds, Ed Oliver, and Greg Rousseau now make up one of the more formidable fronts in the game.

If Buffalo finally climbs the mountaintop, after four Super Bowl losses in the 1990s, signing Miller figures to be a major reason why.

Quote of the Week

“Look, I’m the head coach. Ultimately, I’m responsible for everything. So just leave it at that. That’s what it is.” New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick, via NESN, on who will call the offensive plays this season.

This is “the Patriot Way” on steroids.

Belichick has yet to announce whether Matt Patricia or Joe Judge will be calling the plays for the Patriots’ offense this upcoming season.

It’s hard to figure out what kind of mind games, or three-dimensional chess Belichick is trying to play, here. Eventually, if this news doesn’t leak — and Patriot Place is the closest thing to a fortress in sports — cameras will catch either Patricia or Judge calling the plays during a preseason game and that will be that.

However, by trying to shoulder the public responsibility and insulate either Patricia or Judge from any blame, Belichick is seemingly showing little confidence that either is up to the task.

Judge, after a disappointing two-year tenure as New York Giants head coach, arrives in Foxboro as New England’s “offensive assistant/quarterbacks coach,” while Patricia is the “senior football advisor/offensive line coach.”

This isn’t the first time the Patriots haven’t named a coordinator, but it certainly is toeing the line of becoming a distraction as New England opens camp and the regular season rapidly approaches. Ironically, this is probably the last thing Belichick aims to orchestrate.

Predicting the NFC South

The Bills and defending Super Bowl champion Rams kickoff the 2022 NFL season in just over seven weeks, on Thursday Night Football on September 8.

In the lead-up to the season opener, we’ll be offering our best guesses for how each of the eight divisions will play out, beginning with the NFC South:

1. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (14-3)

Tom Brady set the record for shortest retirement from professional sports and is back in the saddle of a roster that is pretty damn close to being worthy of being called prohibitive Super Bowl favorites in the NFC.

Brady’s 40-day hiatus makes Michael Jordan’s previous record of a 17-month retirement look permanent, by comparison.

With Wilson dispatched from Seattle, Rodgers losing Adams in his arsenal, combined with arguably the most winnable division in the NFL, this just might be Brady’s easiest path back to his 11th Super Bowl. That road got a little easier still on Tuesday, July 26, when the Buccaneers signed seven-time All-Pro wide receiver Julio Jones.

Don’t for a second believe that reaching double-digit Super Sundays wasn’t a prime motivator to return, and I wouldn’t be betting against Brady to expand on that milestone.

Getty Carolina Panthers running back Christian McCaffery.

2. Carolina Panthers (10-7)

Watch out for the Panthers, who could be one of the NFL’s sleepers, if that offense can stay healthy.

After trading for former No. 1 overall pick Baker Mayfield, and selecting offensive tackle Ikem Ekwonu in the first round of the 2022 NFL draft, Carolina’s offense has the chance to take a major step forward. Especially if Mayfield can play within the confines of the offense, and get the most out of versatile running back Christian McCaffrey, and receivers D.J. Moore, Robbie Anderson, and Terrace Marshall.

The Panthers’ acquisition of Mayfield was one executive’s top move of the entire offseason across the league. If Mayfield lives up to that billing, after beating out Sam Darnold for the starting quarterback job, Carolina could surprise.

3. New Orleans Saints (9-8)

These aren’t your father’s New Orleans Saints. And they aren’t Sean Payton’s, obviously, either.

Yes, the Saints have plenty of firepower on offense; Alvin Kamara is among the most dangerous versatile threats in the game, and Michael Thomas is a game-breaker. However, New Orleans seemingly squandered some serious draft capital this spring and is banking on Jameis Winston coming back better than ever after tearing an ACL last season. That might be too much to ask.

4. Atlanta Falcons (2-15)

Top to bottom, this might be the least-talented roster in the NFL, and it is hard to believe that isn’t by design.

The Falcons traded Matt Ryan to the Indianapolis Colts, in the strongest signal yet that Atlanta is finally onboard with undertaking an overdue rebuild. Despite drafting Desmond Ridder, and signing free agent Marcus Mariota, there’s no guarantee that Atlanta has its quarterback of the future on the roster.

This could be the type of season that gives them their chance to control the board in the 2023 draft.

Final Thought

I couldn’t be more excited to be contributing to Heavy.

If you read a similar incarnation of this column from a past life of mine, I’m beyond thrilled that you have followed me here. If this is your first time, welcome. Thrilled to have you.

It isn’t lost on me how valuable you, the fans, and readers are.

This will be my third season covering the NFL nationally, and I have some big and exciting things in store for the days, weeks and months ahead.

None of it would be possible without the alignment of vision between myself, and some incredible people, including the countless other contributors who are helping to build something I believe has the chance to be truly special.

We’ll be taking you to several training camps in the coming weeks, giving a first-hand glimpse as some of the most fascinating teams in the league prepare for the upcoming season. When the games count for real, we’ll be there, unearthing the kind of insider nuggets and information you have come to expect from this space.

There will be new and exciting ways for you to interact with myself, players and decision-makers inside the NFL in the months ahead. The NFL season will be here before you know it.

I’m so glad that you’re along for the ride!

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