Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, NFL training camps have gotten underway. Twenty Tar Heels enter camp scattered amongst the 32 NFL rosters, many of whom enter a crucial year in their careers. Here is a preview of the breakdown of those 20 former Tar Heels as they begin an unorthodox training camp.
Aaron Crawford DT/Baltimore Ravens
2019: 50 ttkl, 9.0 TFL, 3.0 scks (stats with Tar Heels)
The undrafted rookie enters camp following a great senior season in a Tar Heel uniform, but has his work cut out for him. Veteran Derek Wolfe and rookie Justin Madubuike are almost certainly locks to make the roster, meaning Crawford will be looking to beat out Justin Ellis, a guy who has some experience with the Ravens after playing four games with them a year ago. If he can beat out Ellis, something he definitely has the talent and skill set to do, the Ravens have shown they like depth on the defensive line.
Andre Smith LB/Carolina Panthers
2019: 16 GP, 0 GS, 5 ttkl
The first season of Smith’s NFL career was mainly spent attempting to stay on the team’s active. Last year, though, he was able to become a full time active roster player, as he was active for all sixteen games. This season, the Panthers will be looking for him to take a major step forward in year three for a linebacking that is having to find a way to replace future hall-of-famer Luke Kuechley. While free agent acquisition Tahir Whitehead will take over the starting role, Smith is listed on the team’s two-deep and will battle Jermaine Carter Jr. to be the team's top rotational inside linebacker.
Charlie Heck OT/Houston Texans
2019: 12 GP, 12 GS, ½ sack allowed (stats with Tar Heels)
The Tar Heels best pass protector in each of the past three seasons is now part of the attempt to rebuild a Houston Texans offensive line that simply couldn’t keep Deshaun Watson upright. Heck is currently listed as a third-string guard, but with so much uncertainty around an offensive line outside of Laremy Tunsil. It may take some time and finding the right fit is key, but there is a lot of upside for Heck that he’ll hope to showcase in the next few years. For now, he will look to battle for a spot somewhere on the Texans two-deep.
Cole Holcomb LB/Washington Football Team
2019: 16 GP, 15 GS, 105 ttkl, 6.0 TFL, 1.0 sck, 3 FF, PD
Holcomb’s climb from a walk-on at Carolina to becoming a NFL starter as a rookie has been an amazing one. When Washington drafted him in the sixth round last year, they were not expecting to get a new cornerstone of their defense. Holcomb had a phenomenal rookie season and will now look to build on that under the direction of new defensive minded head coach Ron Rivera and his new system. He will have to show improvement in pass coverage this year, but Holcomb has a bright future.
Eric Ebron TE/Pittsburgh Steelers
2019: 11 GP, 2 GS, 52 tar, 31 rec, 375 yds, 3 TD
Ebron took a step back after a career year in his first season in Indianapolis back in 2018. He now has a new home after signing a two-year deal with the Steelers, but he will once again share the tight end duties again this season with Vance McDonald, another tight end who took a significant step back production-wise in 2019. If Ebron can stay healthy, the hope is that he can get back up near that 500 yards mark that he’s hit quite often early one in his career. The Steelers are also hoping he can help them in the red zone, an area the team struggled mightily a year ago.
Giovani Bernard RB/Cincinnati Bengals
2019: 16 GP, 2 GS, 53 rush, 170 yds, 43 tar, 30 rec, 234 yds
Bernard had the worst statistical season of his career in 2019, but is still holding on to the backup running position behind Joe Mixon, who firmly took his spot as one of the top running backs in the league a year ago. Bernard is still a weapon that the Bengals like to use out of the backfield quite often, but with a out in his contract after 2019, the wonder has to be if what he brings to the table as a receiving back will be enough for him to hold on to the job? While it will be hard to take reps away from Mixon, Bernard needs to make the most of the snaps he does see. One goal for him has to be improving upon a 3.2 yards per carry average from a year ago, but that will have to come with help from an offensive line that really struggled to run block a year ago and didn’t do a whole lot to upgrade that unit in the offseason.
Jake Bargas TE/Minnesota Vikings
2019: 13 GP, 3 rec, 15 yds, TD (stats with Tar Heels)
After a career that flew under the radar in Chapel Hill as the team’s primary blocking tight end, Bargas will be looking to make the Vikings as a fullback. The move seems to fit him well and the Vikings are still a team that carries a fullback and uses that position quite a bit. The problem for Bargas is that the versatile C.J. Ham enters his fourth season with the team after signing a four-year extension with the team this offseason. It’s highly doubtful that the Vikings will carry two fullbacks, so the goal for Bargas has to be to show the staff enough that the word gets out for a team that may be looking to add a fullback to their practice squad or active roster sometime this year. No preseason games really hurt Bargas’ chances to earn a job in his first year in the NFL.
Jalen Dalton DE/New Orleans Saints
Dalton was a practice squad player a year ago and will now attempt to be elevated to the active roster. The good news is, the depth at defensive end is thin and as he showed with the Bears in the preseason last year, that might be the better fit for him. If he stays inside at defensive tackle, it will be a much tougher task with Sheldon Rankins, Malcolm Brown and Mario Edwards Jr. ahead of him on the depth chart. Dalton showed last year that he has the talent to impress, but unless he can make that move out to defensive end, there just might be too much ahead of him for him to crack the 53-man roster.
Jason Strowbridge DE/Miami Dolphins
2019: 12 GP, 44 ttkl, 6.0 TFL, 2.5 scks, 3 FR, PD
The Dolphins got a great value pick with Strowbridge and it is already showing why. He is listed as the backup to Christian Wilkins at one defensive end spot and the third-string option at the other defensive end spot. He likely won’t see more than rotational reps this year, but he looks to be in a promising situation for his future.
M.J. Stewart CB/Cleveland Browns
2019: 10 GP, 1 GS, 35 ttkl, 0.0 TFL, PD
The former second round draft pick, believe or not, enters an extremely crucial point in his professional career. He was waived by Tampa Bay earlier this offseason and now he is buried on the Browns depth chart. Unless he can impress in training camp, there is a legit chance that Stewart could be without a job this year, just three years into his rookie contract. Stewart is another player who could have really used a preseason to prove himself.
Mack Hollins WR/Miami Dolphins
2019: 16 GP, 3 GS, 23 tar, 10 rec, 125 yds, 2 ttkl
Hollins enters a crucial year of his young career in the final season of his rookie contract. After coming over to the Dolphins, Hollins struggled to find a role in the offense, but a door was opened with both Allen Hurns and Albert Wilson voluntarily opting out of the season. Hollins is now listed on the two-deep as the backup to Gary Jennings Jr., who the team seems to really be encouraged by, but simply lacks experience. Hollins has a great opportunity to earn a big role this season in Miami and potentially set himself up to continue to earn a little more money this upcoming offseason on the free agent market.
Malik Carney DE/Denver Broncos
Carney faces a tough road to land on the active roster in Denver, just as he did in Detroit a year ago. The Broncos depth at outside linebacker is strong and it is hard to see the Broncos giving up on guys like Justin Hollins or Derrek Tuszka, who they’ve used draft picks on in each of the past two drafts. If there were preseason games that were being played, I’d like his chances a little better, but I think it will be another year on the practice squad for the former Tar Heel pass rusher.
Mitch Trubisky QB/Chicago Bears
2019: 15 GP, 15 GS, 326-516, 3,138 yds, 17-10 TD-INT, 48 rush, 193 yds, 2 TD
The headliner of the guys entering a crucial year in 2020 is Trubisky, a former No. 2 overall pick who will look to keep his starting job in Chicago. The Bears signed Nick Foles to challenge Trubisky for the starting job this offseason after his struggles getting the ball downfield a year ago. So far in camp, he has looked better than Foles and there is some thought that this may be just what he needed to motivate himself, but his leash will be short this year, meaning it’s important for him to get off to a good start this year.
Myles Dorn S/Minnesota Vikings
2019: 13 GP, 83 ttkl, 4.5 TFL, 2 INT, 6 PD
Dorn is another undrafted rookie who faces a tough road to earn a roster spot. Anthony Harris and Harrison Smith are locked into their starting roles, but behind them, the depth is questionable to say the least. The problem is, the Vikings spent late round picks on both Josh Metellus and Brian Cole II and they also selected three cornerbacks in this year’s draft. His skill set is hard to ignore, but it’s hard to see the Vikings parting ways with a draft pick over an undrafted free agent unless he blows them away. It’s possible, but Dorn has a hill to climb.
Robert Quinn DE/Chicago Bears
2019: 14 GP, 14 GS, 34 ttkl, 13.5 TFL, 11.5 scks, 2 FF, 3 PD
Quinn received a lucrative five-year deal with the Bears this offseason following a huge 2019 for the Dallas Cowboys. He will look to help Khalil Mack and the team provide even more pressure on the quarterback than they have over the past couple of seasons as they look to help this team return to the playoffs. Expect another productive year in a system that fits Quinn very well.
Russell Bodine C/Detroit Lions
After being cut a year ago by the Patriots, Bodine landed on his feet with the Lions this season. He will not play in 2020, however, as he has voluntarily opted out of the season.
Ryan Switzer WR/Pittsburgh Steelers
2019: 9 GP, 0 GS, 11 tar, 8 rec, 27 yds, 8 PR, 3.6 avg, 9 KR, 18.4 avg
Switzer enters his fourth season in the NFL and 2020 is a crucial season for him to prove himself. After struggling for most of last year as the Steelers primary return man, the Steelers appear that they are going to look in a different direction at both kick and punt returner. While he may eventually be able to reclaim one or both of those jobs at some point this season, the focus for Switzer should be to make his presence felt offensively, something he struggled to do a year ago. He’ll be looking to steal reps away from Diontae Johnson, a task easier said than done after Johnson’s big rookie season. Getting some nice reps on film will be important for a guy who is entering the final season of his rookie contract.
T.J. Logan RB/Tampa Bay Buccaneers
2019: 13 PR, 9.5 avg, 13 KR, 20.8 avg. 3 rush, 10 yds, 2 rec, 13 yds
Last year, Logan didn’t see much action for the Buccaneers offensively, but found a solid role as one of the team's top returners. This year, however, it appears the team will be looking in a different direction in their return game, which could leave him searching for a job later on this summer. The singing of LeSean McCoy and the drafting of KeShawn Vaughn didn’t help his case to stay on the roster, but ultimately, it will come down to whether or not Logan can beat out the guys ahead of him on the depth chart in both the running back depth chart and kick returner depth chart, Dare Ogunbowale. If he can beat out Ogunbowale, a task easier said than done because of Ogunbowale’s receiving prowess, he could find him on the Buccaneers active roster again this season.
Tre Boston S/Carolina Panthers
2019: 16 GP, 16 GS, 68 ttkl, 1.0 TFL, 3 INT, 11 PD
Boston seems to have found some stability after three teams in three years and that will serve him well. Boston has been one of the league’s top ball-hawking safeties in the past few seasons, pulling down eleven interceptions in the last three seasons. Boston looks set to be a starter once again this season and with all that has left the Panthers this offseason, he will be one of the veteran leaders of this extremely young team.
William Sweet OT/San Francisco 49ers
Sweet was signed just last week by the 49ers, meaning he faces long odds to make the active roster for the defending NFC champs. The move was made after Jake Brendel and Shon Coleman opted out and Sweet will now compete with Justin Skule, Colton McKivitiz and Jaryd Jones-Smith for reps, a group that will be tough to beat out with as late as Sweet joined the fold.