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NFL Preseason Preview: Tar Heels Edition

Check out which former Tar Heels are among the 2880 players aiming for a spot on an NFL roster this season

NFL: Indianapolis Colts-Training Camp Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

With the Hall of Fame game between the Denver Broncos and Atlanta Falcons scheduled for the night of the 1st of August, today marks the point at which there will be no more weeks in the year without some form of NFL football. Hooray! As basic, uninspired, and sloppy as preseason play is, it’s always welcome after post-Super Bowl doldrums for football fans. It’s been a great summer for sports if you’re into that kind of thing, but football has a special thrill to it. And what preseason lacks in actual quality, it at least partially makes up for in narrative: Thirty-two 90-man rosters are going to be cut down to 53 due in large part to how the players on the bubble perform under the bright lights of the big leagues, many of them seeing their first professional action. Of course, UNC’s got a fair number of players vying for those spots, rookies and veterans alike. Let’s run through them.

(This preview will not include unsigned free agents such as Elijah Hood, who was waived by the Panthers at the start of training camp, and Tre Boston, who has not been signed after playing with the Arizona Cardinals last year. It’s just too hard to find a comprehensive list of them.)

Roster Locks and Near-Locks

(rookies in italics)

I’ll be brief here, because plenty of ink has already been spilled on these guys and plenty more will be as the preseason goes on and these guys run (mostly) with the first team. Special mention goes to Eric Ebron, who just a year ago was moving teams and approaching bust status before catching 13 touchdowns with the Indianapolis Colts and landing himself a spot on the NFL’s Top 100. Holcomb’s spot, too, may need some explanations; 5th-round picks are usually probably safe, but it’s a long shot to consider many of them “locks.” But Washington has released their leading tackler from last year, Mason Foster, and are apparently looking to Holcomb to be part of a committee that fills that gap. Hollins and Jones are coming off big injuries and hoping for their first real chance to contribute in the NFL, but both guys’ teams are very high on them. Aside from those three, though, you’re probably not going to be seeing a ton of these guys in August: They’ve been around and productive in the league for a while, their coaches know what they have in them, and their primary competitions are in practice.

Near the bubble

This is where things get interesting. This group can be separated into two rough categories: Veterans on the Decline, featuring Bodine, Williams, Hurst (a bit of a stretch here), and Cooper; and Unproven and Undervalued Youngsters, featuring the rest. The first group first: Williams had a good but unspectacular rookie contract in Denver before a couple of even more underwhelming years in Miami and Detroit before landing in New Orleans. He’s probably the safest bet to make it out of this bunch due to both his prior success and an injury at his position; Sheldon Rankins is not going to be ready Week 1 after sustaining a torn Achilles last year. The Saints’ DT depth in general isn’t great, so Williams appears safe if on the back end. Cooper’s got a bit to prove, but with a fairly weak offensive line group, his destiny is in his own hands. Hurst used to start for the Ravens, but has been overtaken by Orlando Brown, and while he provides some swing value, he’s never been a great NFL tackle and could be expendable. And Bodine played well after being pushed into starting duty for the Bills last year, but between his late-season injury and the Bills immediately going out and grabbing Mitch Morse in free agency, he’s fighting an uphill battle. I think he’ll be on an NFL roster come September, but likely not the Bills.

To the other group: Logan appears safe; the old staff loved him and he’s a great complement to David Johnson, but he’s going to have to show out to Kliff Kingsbury and his team. Smith should be good as an inside linebacker, a position where the Panthers are elite but thin as they transition to a 3-4 defense, but was a 7th-round pick who was injured last year, so he’s got a lot to prove. As for the rookies, I think their likelihood of sticking with their current team ranks Sweet, Carney, Ratliff-Williams. Sweet, to me, was the weakest NFL prospect of the three, but he’s gone to a team with precious little line depth and a coach whose system is vastly different from anything else in the NFL, giving him a significant leg up. Carney has been impressing in camp and showing up on numerous “UDFA with a chance to stick” articles and tweets from Detroit media, so that’s pretty exciting. He’ll have to show some production in preseason games, though. And Ratliff-Williams is in the thick of a crowded room of backup WRs in Tennessee, though he certainly helped his case with a two-touchdown day the other day. He might get some run with 2nd- and 1st-stringers if he keeps up that kind of production.

Outside Looking in

  • DT Jalen Dalton, Chicago Bears - It took him some time to find a team as a UDFA after an underwhelming college career. The Bears have one of the better rosters top to bottom in the NFL and Dalton will have to produce much more than he did in college in order to have a chance of sticking.
  • WR/TE Bug Howard, Denver Broncos - After starring in the short-lived AAF, Howard surprisingly spent a lot of time looking for an NFL home. He impressed the Broncos at an open tryout and was seemingly set for a preseason where he could show off his talent and toughness before being carted off at Thursday’s practice. It’s nothing serious, reportedly, but he’s going to need to get back on the field quickly for a chance to impress enough to get an NFL paycheck this year.
  • OL R.J. Prince, Baltimore Ravens - He’s worked some with the second team offensive line for the Ravens with Orlando Brown sitting out the beginning of camp, putting him at 11th on the OL depth chart and 5th among tackles. That’s probably not a successful formula for him, though the Ravens’ offensive tackle group is one of the league’s stronger ones and he could impress some other squads with the opportunity he’s been given.
  • WR Austin Proehl, Los Angeles Rams - He’s a 2nd-year 7th-round pick on his second team, which happens to be the most offensively stacked in the NFL. Hopefully he shines on Sundays enough to impress somebody else, because the Rams’ WR corps is just too deep for him to stick.
  • OL Landon Turner, Carolina Panthers - The Panthers have some figuring out to do among the offensive line, but it’s more about who starts than who makes the team: the personnel seems to be all but set already, and while Turner stands a decent chance of making their practice squad, he’s not a part of that group. He could absolutely put in some work and get noticed, though: He was, uniquely among players in this list, on a 53-man roster just a couple of years ago.

So for those of you football fans who like UNC more than any pro team, that’s who you’re looking for in the games of this upcoming month. Best of luck to all Heels in the NFL and we hope to see them succeed as much as possible!