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Mailbag: What Should We Make of Some of These Surprising Starts?

Looking into how worried the Chiefs should be, if the Panthers are legit and what's happening with the Steelers' offense. Plus, when the Patriots can be considered a real contender again?

Lively mailbag this week. So let’s (figuratively) dive in …

From Rye Kellz (@RyeKellz): Are you worried about the Chiefs?

Rye, I did some homework here, so I’ll share my notes from Sunday with you …

• C Creed Humphrey, 79 of 79 offensive snaps.
• G Joe Thuney, 79 of 79 offensive snaps.
• OT Lucas Niang, 79 of 79 offensive snaps.
• OT Orlando Brown, 79 of 79 offensive snaps.
• G Trey Smith, 79 of 79 offensive snaps.
• LB Nick Bolton, 52 of 66 defensive snaps.
• CB Mike Hughes, 50 of 66 defensive snaps.
• DT Jarran Reed 46 of 66 defensive snaps.
• CB DeAndre Baker, 31 of 66 defensive snaps.

Those nine guys, all at important positions, played zero snaps for the Chiefs in 2020, and four of them (Humphrey, Niang, Smith, Bolton) had never played an NFL snap, period, before this year. And then you have second-year guys like L’Jarius Sneed, Clyde Edwards-Helaire and Mike Danna who are playing major roles.

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So sure, Patrick Mahomes, Travis Kelce, Tyreek Hill, Chris Jones, Frank Clark and Tyrann Mathieu are all still around (though Clark and Jones were out Sunday), and still the most important players on the team. But this particular Chiefs team is going through a pretty healthy amount of transition and putting a lot of trust in the coaches’ ability to develop green players into pieces ready to compete for a championship in January and February.

The good news is this is really just the ground floor for a lot of that transition, and things should get better as the season wears on. And if everything works out, the team will have a good layer of players on rookie contracts that should help balance the books with the stars’ cap numbers continuing to rise.

From Shane (@storyhiii): Are the Panthers legit?

Shane, I believe they are. But I say that with two important caveats.

  1. The Jaycee Horn and Christian McCaffrey injuries really sting, for obvious reasons.
  2. Sam Darnold needs to continue to deliver.

And when I call those things caveats, I’m not saying either will necessarily get in the Panthers’ way. C.J. Henderson’s acquisition, when combined with the team’s institutional knowledge of Henderson (we wrote about his connection to Carolina corners coach Evan Cooper in the MAQB the other day), could mitigate the damage in losing Horn, and Chuba Hubbard has the potential to help manage the short-term loss of McCaffrey.

As for Darnold, it sure looks like OC Joe Brady’s plan to simplify verbiage and reads for his QB, in an effort to get him playing faster, is working. He’s gotten better with every game. And I feel like we have to continue to remind everyone that this is a 24-year-old who went third in the draft three and a half years ago. The talent is there.

The rest of the foundation, as I see it, is there too. Carolina’s still going to have to add a piece or two to the offensive line, but progress has been made in shoring up that area of the team. The defensive front, behind Brian Burns, Derrick Brown and Haason Reddick, has blossomed into a legitimate team strength. And if you add those two groups together, you can see how Matt Rhule and Scott Fitterer are building through the line of scrimmage.

I picked the Panthers to make the playoffs before the year. I picked Rhule to win Coach of the Year. I’m not backing off either of those predications as we head into October.

From ryan (@ryan003m): It seems the Patriots hit on two picks in 2020 (Kyle Dugger and Michael Onwenu). It’s early but if they have hit on two in 2021 (Mac Jones and Christian Barmore) how many more drafts and hits till they are contenders again?

Ryan, it’s a good question. The way I look at it, the failures of the Patriots in the draft from 2017 to ’19, and to some degree ’16 too (now that Joe Thuney’s gone), have left a canyon in New England’s roster. The reality is that the dearth of players worth paying from those years is why the team had the cap space to be aggressive in free agency in March and felt comfortable spending so freely (since there wasn’t a huge need to save room for homegrown players that they were planning to pay).

The best players left from 2017 to ’19 are probably Isaiah Wynn, Damien Harris and Ja’Whaun Bentley. So a middling, injury-prone left tackle, a good tailback and an average linebacker.

With that established, you’re right, there’s some promise in the last two classes. From the 2020 group, Dugger and Onwenu are already good players. Josh Uche has really flashed early in Year 2, and Devin Asaiasi showed some promise in the summer (he’s stuck behind Hunter Henry on the depth chart). The 2021 group has got a lot already from its first two picks, Jones and Barmore.

I still think the Patriots need another offseason. The future at corner is cloudy (Stephon Gilmore and J.C. Jackson are pending free agents), as it is at linebacker; help is still needed at receiver, and the offensive line could use assistance. That’s why I saw the Patriots as a 10–7, one-and-done playoff team going into this year—thinking Bill Belichick and his staff could get a little extra out of the group—with next year bringing, potentially, a real contender.

That, in some ways, sort of works out for the Patriots anyway, since by the time we get to next fall, Jones will be through the normal rookie-quarterback ups and downs.

From Britsoxer (@britsoxer): How do the Patriots solve their protection issues?

Convince Dante Scarnecchia to come out of retirement again?

I’m only half-kidding when I say that. The Patriots look like they’ve regressed along the offensive line, and it’s hard not to look at how, when Scarnecchia retired the last time, the dip in play in his second year away was serious enough that his replacement, Dave DeGuglielmo, was fired and he was coaxed back out of retirement. This, again, is Scarnecchia’s second year away.

Draft picks haven’t been developing the way they used to, for sure—2019 middle-rounders Hjalte Froholdt (cut last year) and Yodny Cajuste (a fringe backup) didn’t work out, and second-year pro Mike Onwenu has taken a step back after a strong rookie year—and that was apparent in the need to trade for Chiefs’ backup Yasir Durant in the summer. And as you said, Jones has been knocked around a lot, considering how well the team’s run the ball.

What stings for the Patriots here is that this was supposed to be a team strength. It really hasn’t been.

From Ross Fishman (@FishmnRoss): Are the Jags regretting not getting a good pass-catching TE in free agency or the draft?

Ross, I think the answer to that lies in the team’s insistence on getting Dan Arnold back from the Panthers in the Henderson trade. Carolina really wasn’t looking to deal Arnold; he was only moved because Jacksonville really wanted him. And part of the reason he makes so much sense for the Jaguars is that the team loves what Chris Manhertz can bring them from a blocking standpoint, which helps Trevor Lawrence in a number of ways.

Having Manhertz on the field helps the run game and can help in protection, and getting Arnold to pair with him in 12 personnel (two-tight-end sets) gives them flexibility to use him as an extra lineman—since Arnold, a converted wide receiver, can bring plenty in the passing game.

Now, you can argue that the Jaguars would’ve been better off just getting the third-rounder back for Henderson and not giving up a pick as part of the deal (presumably to get Arnold back as part of it), because Jacksonville needs all the draft capital it can get. But if Arnold’s an investment in Lawrence’s development, both in giving the rookie another target and freeing them up for Manhertz to do more for him, then I totally get it.

From Bom Trady (@BomTrady8400): What’s up with Tampa’s defense? Asking for a friend.

Tell your friend that they should be fine.

It’s interesting, when I was at Bucs camp this summer, I remember asking where the weakness, or potential weakness, on the team was. And the answer I got—maybe fourth offensive tackle, sixth interior defensive lineman or fifth corner—seemed to me to be just another signal of how loaded the roster was. And still is. But we’re going into Week 4, and it turns out the Bucs are already stressed in one of those areas.

Fact is, Tampa Bay felt really good going into the season, and had every right to feel that way, about their triumvirate of 24-year-old corners—Carlton Davis, Jamel Dean and Sean Murphy-Bunting. Well, Murphy-Bunting went on IR after dislocating his elbow in Week 1, Davis is fighting a hamstring injury, and Dean left Sunday’s game against the Rams with a knee injury and probably won’t play in the Brady-Belichick Bowl this week.

In the short term, given how aggressive coordinator Todd Bowles likes to be, and how the defense is built that way, being nicked at corner’s not good. But I think so long as those guys get healthy, and stay that way, the Bucs should come out of this O.K.

carson-wentz-mailbag

From ... (@cineburns) Why have the Colts been so disappointing?

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Cine, sometimes the easy answer is the correct one—it’s injuries and it’s the quarterback.

On Sunday, the Colts were without big-money right tackle Braden Smith, and three-time first-team All-Pro guard Quenton Nelson went down. On top of that, Nelson, Carson Wentz, All-Pro linebacker Darius Leonard and Pro Bowl center Ryan Kelly have missed significant on-field time over the last two months. Left tackle Eric Fisher is just coming back, and it’s from a torn Achilles (a bad injury for a big man), and he hasn’t hit his stride yet.

So there’s that, and then there’s Wentz himself. To this point, it’s hard to see a whole lot of difference from a quarterback who looked broken last year in Philly. Maybe it’ll come in time. If there’s any place it’s going to happen, Indy, with Frank Reich there, is it. But the fact that quarterback play has been average at best puts the Colts where teams looking for answers at the position often are—needing to be just about perfect everywhere else to win.

Now, over the last four years, I’d say GM Chris Ballard and coach Frank Reich have earned the benefit of the doubt. They went 28–20 and made the playoffs twice over the last three years with three quarterbacks (Wentz being the fourth in four years), and the roster is now stocked with cornerstone players entering their respective primes. But it’s not a stretch to think that Andrew Luck’s sudden retirement in August 2019 continues to haunt them.

Bottom line, they need to get healthy and get a full, honest assessment of Wentz’s future over the next few months. There’s still a lot right here. But as we’ve seen time and again, being wrong at quarterback can render the rest moot.

From Shane (@storyhiii): Time for the Steelers to bench Big Ben? Offense has looked so stale?

Shane, I don’t think you can bench Ben Roethlisberger after deciding to go into the season with him, unless you’re 100% sure you have a better option behind him (that, in this case, would be either Dwayne Haskins or Mason Rudolph). If you replace him and it doesn’t work, you can kiss your season goodbye.

And maybe this is like the situation with Peyton Manning in 2015. If it is? Well, the Broncos did win the Super Bowl that year. They just had to radically change their formula to do it, and saddle up behind a dominant defense and efficient run game. The good news for Pittsburgh, as I see it, is that the ingredients are in place on Mike Tomlin’s roster to do the same sort of thing.

So I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Najee Harris’s usage spiked in Week 3—after getting the ball 32 times over two games against the Bills and Raiders, he touched it 28 times in the Bengals game alone. And I don’t think it’s happenstance that the Steelers have looked like a different team since T.J. Watt went down with a groin injury, since Watt’s the one guy who takes Pittsburgh’s defense from merely good to great.

Now, the Steelers will need more than just a lot from those two. Dan Moore and Kendrick Green need to come through as rookies on the offensive line, and a defensive interior that’s aging will have to get/stay healthy (Stephon Tuitt’s on the shelf for now as it is). But if we’re ranking the guys in terms of importance? I think Harris and Watt top Roethlisberger on the list. Because if they have huge years, the quarterback won’t have to have one.

From Cincyfan (@Darktraveler1): What’s your take on Cincy’s defense? Potential top 10?

Cincy, I don’t know if they’re a top-10 defense, but I do believe a lot of things have come around for a group that was maligned over the last couple of years, and much of it has to do with a concerted effort the front office made to acquire players from winning programs to captain that unit. All you need to do is look at the roster to see that.

Trey Hendrickson and Vonn Bell came from the Saints. Chidobe Awuzie came from the Cowboys. Mike Hilton came from the Steelers. Trae Waynes came from the Vikings. D.J. Reader came from the Texans, when Houston was a perennial playoff team. And the results were obvious through camp to all the coaches there, with communication and play-speed ratcheted up on a day-to-day basis in a way that actually helped the offense develop as much as did the defense.

Now, I’m not going to sit here and tell you it’s an elite group or anything like that. But it’s by far the best unit Cincinnati’s fielded since Zac Taylor arrived and brought in Lou Anarumo to run the defense. And it should keep getting better. Add that to the way Joe Burrow’s come off his knee injury, and I’d expect the Bengals to be in the mix in December.

From Christoffer A. (@cvoersaa): Will Kyle Shanahan be more hesitant to start Trey Lance after seeing the struggle the other rookie QBs are going through?

Christoffer, I don’t think Shanahan’s going to base his decision about whether to go to Trey Lance or not on anything but what he sees. What has he seen thus far? In the spring, he saw a player who simply wasn’t ready to be a starter. After 40 days away, between minicamp and training camp, Lance made such great strides that the coaches felt compelled to at least give Lance a run at Jimmy Garoppolo, even if the chances of the rookie’s winning the job remained remote. And now, we’re into the season.

If you watch the preseason games, you saw the upside and the downside of playing Lance. He’s an incredible athlete with a cannon for an arm. He’s also whip smart and has good instincts. But the Josh Allen comps you hear are apt (because I’ve heard them legitimately made by enough NFL folks)—he’s not what he will be two or three years from now.

The obvious question, then, is why the Niners shouldn’t play him if it worked out the way it did in Buffalo, with Allen’s starting there as a rookie. And the answer is that the Bills were in a very different spot in 2018 than the Niners are now. That year, you’ll remember, the Bills took on more than $60 million in dead-cap charges to turn the page financially and got a whole younger everywhere. It was the season that Sean McDermott and Brandon Beane chose to sacrifice for a greater good, and that showed up in the team’s record (6–10).

The Niners, on the other hand, have a playoff roster that was in the Super Bowl just 20 months ago. Kyle Shanahan and John Lynch are in Year 5 (Beane and McDermott were in Year 2). And San Francisco has an above-average starting quarterback with four years of background in Shanahan’s offense. Simply put, the Jets and Jags can afford to ride lumps out with Trevor Lawrence and Zach Wilson. The Niners aren’t in that spot.

So be patient. You’ve got a good team now, and Trey’s time will come.

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From K1SZN2021 (@KSzn2021): Do you see the Cardinals somehow beating the Rams in week 4 to stay undefeated?

If it were in Arizona, I’d think hard about it. But the Rams are playing too well, and that game is at SoFi Stadium. So I’m gonna stick with Matthew Stafford & Co.

From Craig Ginsberg (@CraigAdamGP): Any chance that the Giants would fire Dave Gettleman during the season? Seems like it would be very out of character for ownership, but there doesn’t appear to be any reason for optimism, and something clearly has to change here.

Craig, I don’t think so. And I think the Maras would have a hard time firing Gettleman, period, because he’s been a loyal soldier over such a long period of time. So if there’s a change, I think it’ll be more graceful than a midseason axing.

That said, I do think change is on the table, because it’s pretty obvious that owner John Mara isn’t pleased with the state of the franchise. How much change? I think he’ll stick with Joe Judge as his coach, and a shakeup will come in scouting (if the Giants keep losing) with the team’s having one of three paths to take from there.

  1. Find a personnel guy to match with Judge. Titans director of player personnel Monti Ossenfort, who’s close with Judge from their time in New England, would be one name to watch there. I’d have put New England scouting chief Dave Ziegler on the list too, but he was just promoted to director of player personnel in Foxboro.
  2. Promote from within. Both assistant GM Kevin Abrams and college scouting director Chris Pettit are well thought of in the building and throughout the league, and the Giants have a long history of hiring people they’re connected to.
  3. Go outside to find a new football czar. You’re the New York Giants. People are going to line up for the job. So it might make sense to just go get the best of the best.

And amid these options, there’s this—some feel like the organization has too many people who have worked there for too long, and it could use a bit of a reset. If the Giants keep going the way they have, we’ll see if John Mara feels that way too.

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From BigBub (@Big_Bub): How hot is Matt Nagy’s seat and who would be a suitable replacement?

Bub, I think one of two things has to happen in Chicago the next three months—either the Bears make the playoffs, or they look like an ascending team with a young QB who’s rolling—to avoid some level of change in football ops there. The team will be set to enter a critical phase, with a first-round quarterback going into the meat of his rookie contract, in 2022.

In this week’s MAQB, we wrote about some of what went wrong on Sunday in Cleveland, and I’d encourage all of you to check out the details on that. In there, you’ll see there are some simple things the Bears can do to adjust that might help Justin Fields get rolling a little bit. And the fact that he’ll be playing against the Lions (presuming he’s healthy enough to start and Andy Dalton isn’t) rather than the Browns should help, too.

A bad game is a bad game, and Sunday’s game was a bad one for both the Bears and Fields. What would be worse is if the same problems crop up again, and there are things under the staff’s control to prevent that.

And if all this doesn’t work out? Well, then I’d expect the Bears’ next coach to be of the quarterback-centric variety. There are options at the NFL level (Panthers OC Joe Brady, Bucs OC Byron Leftwich, Chiefs OC Eric Bieniemy, Cowboys OC Kellen Moore, Rams OC Kevin O’Connell, Bills OC Brian Daboll), and the chance Chicago makes a run at Fields’s well-regarded college coach (although, trust me, I really hope Ryan Day stays at my alma mater for a long time to come, and I don’t think he’s looking to leave).

But as I see it, the Bears aren’t there yet.

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