The NFL has been... strange this year. Stadiums’ piped-in noise has been inconsistent, coaches are willingly flouting mask protocol, and, most unfortunately, injuries have been absolutely running rampant across the league. Still, it’s football, and it’s been happening relatively COVID-free (with just A.J. Terrell having tested positive so far among players who are playing). Meanwhile, UNC has just had two weekends off, one thanks to COVID and the other pre-scheduled, so those of you who don’t already have a team to be rooting for, or don’t watch the NFL at all, or are Jets fans, might have found yourself turning to Sunday ball to fill in the unexpectedly long gap that a lack of Tar Heel football has left - or at least thinking about it. This recap is for you: to find the Tar Heel football in the NFL, and catch you up on what’s going on so far with UNC’s many NFL alumni.
There are 20 players in the NFL (including the practice squad, injured reserve and COVID-19 opt-outs) who have previously worn a Tar Heel uniform, and I’ll go ahead and list them here: Aaron Crawford, Andre Smith, Antonio Williams, Tre Boston, Robert Quinn, Mitchell Trubisky, Giovani Bernard, M.J. Stewart, Russell Bodine, Kareem Martin, Charlie Heck, Mack Hollins, Jason Strowbridge, Myles Dorn, Jalen Dalton, James Hurst, Eric Ebron, William Sweet, T.J. Logan, and Cole Holcomb. Out of those players, the following are on practice squads: Crawford for the Baltimore Ravens, Smith and Williams for the Buffalo Bills, Kareem Martin for the Detroit Lions, and Sweet for the San Francisco 49ers. Additionally, Dorn (Minnesota Vikings), Logan (Tampa Bay Buccaneers), and Dalton (New Orleans Saints) are on their teams’ injured reserve list and unlikely to see time this year, Russell Bodine opted out of playing for the Lions this year due to concerns about coronavirus, and James Hurst is serving a 4-game suspension for performance-enhancing drugs. That leaves 10 players who have seen action to update you on this year, and here they are, in no particular order:
- It’s probably not controversial to say that Robert Quinn is the best active player in the NFL to have played for the Tar Heels, off the back of an 11-sack season that earned him a big-time contract with the Chicago Bears. Quinn is less than 20 sacks away from getting to 100 sacks for his career, and 10 years in, that’s a really respectable career. After being inactive in the Bears’ first game, Quinn recorded a heck of a sack in Week 2 against the Giants before being held without a counting stat against the Falcons in Week 3 (but he did get pressure, averaging the second-lowest distance from quarterback along the Bears’ line according to Next-Gen Stats). He’s comfortably starting and hopefully continues to make an impact.
- On the other side of the ball of the Bears, the news is less Tar Heel-friendly: Mitchell Trubisky, after an uneven performance that managed to get two wins anyways, was benched in the game against the Falcons while staring at a 16-point hole, and after Atlanta gifted Nick Foles the victory, Foles has been named the starter for at least one week going forward. The Colts’ defense has been among the league’s best through three weeks and just terrorized Sam Darnold, so we’ll see if Trubisky sees action if/when Foles struggles. We know he was signed, instead of a Cam Newton, so that Trubisky would have every opportunity to take the starting job. Now’s his chance to do it.
- Tre Boston is still starting for the Panthers and doing pretty well despite the majority of fans complaining about him because of the one thing he doesn’t do all that well, which is tackling. He saved the Panthers’ first win on Sunday when he was one-on-one with Keenan Allen in the end zone and broke up a pass, not an easy task for any DB. He’s got 17 tackles through three games as the veteran in a dangerously young DB group.
- M.J. Stewart is looking for a fresh start after being perhaps the most maligned of the set of Bucs secondary players who went into Tampa as high draft picks and didn’t live up to their billing at all, and he might get it with the Cleveland Browns. He’s the backup nickel corner right now and making his primary appearances on special teams, and had 3 tackles on Sunday against Washington.
- Giovani Bernard is easily the player on this list with the longest stint with the same team, now in his 8th year with the Cincinnati Bengals. He’s doing what he’s done since Joe Mixon arrived in town, which is serving as a third-down back and making good on limited touches. With Joe Burrow seeing his first NFL action, the role of checkdown back is more important than usual, and Gio already has 12 catches for 98 yards through three games, including a 42-yarder on Sunday in the Bengals’ tie against the Eagles. For comparison, he’s carried the ball just twice.
- Charlie Heck, the first Heel drafted in the 2020 draft, made the 53-man roster for the Houston Texans, but is listed as 3rd-string and has been inactive through three weeks. Still, that he made the roster is fairly impressive in and of itself, particularly given that he was considered a reach at the time.
- Jason Strowbridge, the other Tar Heel drafted this year, has been in a similar situation: coaches raved about his pass rush ability in training camp, but he has yet to see the field this year despite being healthy. It’s wise not to read too much into this given his lack of a preseason to get game reps, but you hope that he’ll start to get cycled in as the Miami Dolphins’ season goes on.
- The Dolphins also employ former UNC fan favorite Mack Hollins, who has been seeing a snap a game or so at wide receiver but mainly making his money as a special teams gunner. The Dolphins have a lot of moving parts, though, so this might change. Maybe he’s practicing with Tua Tagavailoa and can break out once the rookie starts starting.
- Eric Ebron, after an unfairly maligned start of his career with the Detroit Lions and an unfairly praised short stint with Andrew Luck’s Colts, finds himself on the receiving end of Ben Roethlisberger’s resurgence this year. He’s seen more action every game and rewarded his coaches and quarterback with the faith: just one catch on two targets from 40 snaps Week 1, 3 catches on 5 targets from 50 snaps (and the start) in Week 2, and now 5 catches and a touchdown on 7 targets from 60 snaps in Week 3. He’s already got 113 yards receiving, so while he’s not going to be a 1,000-yard tight end, he is actively involved and making the Pittsburgh Steelers’ offense better.
- And finally, Cole Holcomb, after breaking out as a rookie for the Washington Football Team last year with 105 tackles, started the season on the second string behind the team’s newly acquired ageless wonder, Thomas Davis - if you know anything about Ron Rivera, you know he loves Davis. Unfortunately, Holcomb injured his knee in Washington’s season opener and has been unable to play the team’s last two games. Hopefully he comes back soon and healthy and can continue contributing.