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MAQB: Risks and Potential Reward of the Panthers' Aggressive Deal for C.J. Henderson

Why Carolina felt comfortable taking a chance on an underperforming corner, and yet another failed draft pick for the Jaguars. Plus, the Bears' scheme for Justin Fields, Bill Belichick's comments on Tom Brady, a familiar Justin Tucker kick and more.

One game left in a wild Week 3, and before we move on to the NFC East nightcap we got a trade ...

Cornerback CJ Henderson, QB Justin Fields and Patriots coach Bill Belichick

• The Panthers’ move to get corner C.J. Henderson is, indeed, an aggressive one. And a big part of why it’s a gamble is figuring out what Henderson mindset is. Much of the issue with Henderson, and trouble in getting him going the last few months, stemmed back to a simple question: How much does he really want to play football? Yes, I know people get upset when a player’s love for the game is questioned, but that was a very real thing for the Jaguars, and is especially vital when you consider how Henderson’s potential as an athlete has outpaced his production as a player. The Jaguars did their best the last two months to try and get the best from Henderson, and now the Panthers will get a swing at the same challenge. And if it works out, they’ll have two corners drafted in the top 10 playing on rookie deals when Jaycee Horn gets back from injury. But the “if” here is indeed a big one.

• So why do the Panthers feel good about it? Their corners coach, Evan Cooper, gave Henderson his first scholarship offer, when Henderson was still on his high school’s J.V. team, and Cooper was on staff at the University of Miami. The two have remained in contact since, and so Cooper’s background with Henderson was a factor in bringing him in. Based on that background, there’s also a belief that Henderson will be a better fit for Matt Rhule’s program than he was for Doug Marrone or Urban Meyer. And we’ll invoke the “if” again here … If it works out, the Panthers really just moved one of their picks in April down two rounds (they sent a three to the Jags and got a five and TE Dan Arnold back), and they’ll have him for less than $1 million for the rest of this year, $2.48 million for next year and $3.41 million in 2023.

• Meanwhile, the jettisoning of Henderson really highlights, once again, the task in front of Meyer in Jacksonville. The Jaguars have had 13 top-10 picks since 2008—Derrick Harvey, Eugene Monroe, Tyson Alualu, Blaine Gabbert, Justin Blackmon, Luke Joeckel, Blake Bortles, Dante Fowler, Jalen Ramsey, Leonard Fournette, Josh Allen, Trevor Lawrence and Henderson. Seven of the 13 were top-five picks. Just two got second contracts from the team, and those two deals, for Alualu and Bortles, were moderate Band-Aid contracts that led to their departures from Jacksonville. Also, of the 13, now just two—Allen and Lawrence—remain on the roster, and Lawrence has been on it for three real games. So, really, the root of the problem is here, and it’s why the change in the organization had to be so seismic with Meyer’s arrival. Meyer’s ability to really change things will, in large part, ride on his ability to do better in that area.

• It’ll be interesting to see what the Bears do going forward with Justin Fields—because I can say their approach surprised their opponent on Sunday. In the Browns’ study of the Bears, they found the offense to have a Shanahan/Sean McVay type of foundation under center and an Andy Reid foundation out of shotgun. And through looking at that stuff, and seeing what Fields did in the preseason, and how effective the Bears could be running the ball from the former rather than the latter, they expected the Chicago staff to play Fields under center a lot on Sunday. It didn’t happen. Only four of Fields’s 45 snaps came from under center, and the Bears ran the ball only 13 times on the afternoon (a reason why seven of Fields’s third downs were of the third-and-10-or-longer variety), more often than not creating a sitting-duck situation with Fields’s dropping out of the shotgun and the Browns’ fierce front’s attacking Chicago’s shaky offensive line. The interesting thing is that, really digging into Fields’s past, you’ll find that Ohio State incorporated more under-center looks (the Buckeyes ran none with Dwayne Haskins as quarterback) in 2019 and ‘20 because Fields was good playing off play-action that way—and they even now use Fields working from under center in their teaching tape with their young quarterbacks. And there are examples of Fields’s excelling from under center all over from his time at Ohio State, going all the way back to his second touchdown pass as a Buckeye …

There are more examples too—big plays against Indiana the last two years (last year, it was a dime off play-action for 40 yards to Garrett Wilson), and even in throwing on fourth-and-1 to put Penn State away last Halloween. The bottom line here, as I see it, is the Bears have to do everything they can to get Fields in the best position to succeed. And I know a lot of people who know Fields well also feel like the answers are there for the coaches. We’ll see if they take them.

• While we’re on the Browns-Bears game, I think it’s worth mentioning how Cleveland DC Joe Woods is deploying his safeties, and the value those guys are bringing to the field. Both John Johnson and Ronnie Harrison were out there for every single snap, all 45 of them. Second-year pro Grant Delpit, who lost his rookie year to injury, was in there for another 17 snaps. And the moving parts made the Browns more athletic and flexible against the Bears, and a lot less predictable. Generally, Cleveland used Johnson as its centerfielder and Delpit as the sort of swing safety, capable of playing close to the line or away from it. And the ability to put the fast-improving Delpit out there allowed for the staff to use Harrison more as a utility player—in nickel packages against two-tight end sets, Harrison would actually take Troy Hill’s place as the slot corner; and in the dime, he’d move into an outside linebacker role. With this, too, you’re seeing Woods do a little more, and move a little further away from the San Francisco style of defense he came from in 2020. The results, of course, spoke for themselves. The Bears wound up with 47 total yards, a number that was outpaced by the amount of sack yardage (67) they took.

• What Bill Belichick said on WEEI in Boston on Monday about Tom Brady’s return to Foxboro this weekend might’ve sounded off the cuff or nonchalant—but I can pretty much guarantee you it wasn’t. Here are his words, as heard on The Greg Hill Show: “Look, I have so much respect and appreciation for Tom and everything he did here, and for me and for our team. We’re just getting ready to compete against Tampa this week, and we’re going to keep our focus on that.” So what’s the purpose of them, if what Belichick did was so intentional here? To me, it’s the Patriots’ coach trying not to add to a story that’s already gathered into an avalanche of pregame hype. If Belichick hadn’t acknowledged Brady as a great player—and different from other great players—then that’s a story. Same goes if Belichick were to give Brady a tongue bath. So as usual, Belichick is not talking to the media, but through the media, in getting his message across. And my guess is the tone here from the coach and his staff will be consistent all week.

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• Come for Jameis Winston. Stay for DeMario Davis.

All kidding aside, I thought it was interesting to hear Davis, the Saints’ defensive captain, reference the plight of New Orleans in his pregame speech. So I asked him about it postgame. “It was just to the team—we have to understand our position. This team is the lifeblood of the city and no matter what’s going on, whether it’s good times or bad times or right now it’s adversity going on in our city, when we play well, it gives the people in the city as a whole hope,” Davis says. “It’s always better as a team when you’re playing for something that’s bigger than yourself, and we get the opportunity to do that every time we step on the field. And it’s a unique opportunity and a unique position to be in. And I just wanted to challenge everybody with that, to understand that, it’s a lot more going on out here than just ourselves and individual performances. We’re playing for something much bigger, and so we just wanted to own that.” I’d say they gave people back in New Orleans something to feel good about, and right before they were set to return to Louisiana for the first time in a month.

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• So, Justin Tucker, have you ever banked a kick in, the way you did your 66-yarder on Sunday? “Not in a regular-season game,” Tucker says, over the phone Sunday night. “I have a way, maybe it’s unique, but I remember specific kicks, the ones that kinda stand out. And there was a preseason game in like 2014, I hit a ball from like 57 on a soaking wet field in Tampa Bay. That ball hit the crossbar from 57 and bounced in, but typically, I would like to think typically I’m trying to clear the crossbar by a significant amount so I don’t make it close. But when you’re from 66 yards away, you’ll take what you can take, no doubt.” So after that conversation, obviously, I had to try to find the kick. Tucker had the distance and venue correct. And we’ll give him some leeway on the year (the kick in question happened in ‘13). Here it is …

• Do I need to say quietly that Kirk Cousins has actually been really, really good through the Vikings’ 1–2 start, and even in the face of Dalvin Cook’s injury? Cousins is pacing for career highs in completion percentage (73.9%) and passer rating (118.3), and is close on yards (306.0 per game). And his work reflects pretty nicely on first-year coordinator Klint Kubiak, who is, incidentally, Cousins’s fourth coordinator in as many years in Minnesota, and his sixth coordinator in as many years overall (Sean McVay, all the way back in Washington, was the last OC Cousins worked under for consecutive years).

• Fun MNF game this week—and I love that we get to see Dak Prescott and Jalen Hurts square off. Because, to me, as far as how each entered the league, Prescott is a good comp for Hurts. Both were used aggressively as runners in college, playing for coaches (Dan Mullen for Prescott; Lincoln Riley, and a number of guys at Bama, for Hurts) with reps for developing young quarterbacks. And each had some development to undertake in the passing game once they got to the NFL. Prescott, obviously, wound up getting there as a passer, and it’s still early, but Hurts has made good progress. It’ll be fun to see if the latter can get where the former is, and in that way Monday night should be a good measuring stick for the Eagles’ starter.

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