Fit. Need. Roster spots. Potential.
Any of these things could get you on an NFL roster, or even a practice squad. Things did not go to plan for the Tar Heels last season, and just as rising tides lift all ships, they all sank when the level dropped.
Carolina only had four players selected in the 2022 NFL Draft, one fewer than the previous year. UNC had talent on both sides of the ball, but couldn’t ever figure things out to beat teams they should have (looking at you Georgia Tech, Florida State, probably Pitt, and definitely South Carolina) or not get humiliated in a game they had in the bag (sigh, NC State).
Perhaps an NFL team can take these talents and squeeze some lemonade out of them. In any event, the following Tar Heels have a path forward towards an NFL roster spot. This opportunity should be grabbed with both hands.
Steady as she goes has kind of been the story of Gemmel’s UNC career. The unquestioned leader of the defense, he had a lot of youth to direct in his final season in Chapel Hill, but he lacked (and clearly missed) an athletic partner in the middle to attack the quarterback. With Chazz Surratt off to Minnesota and Eugene Asante not up for the task in the beginning of the 2021 campaign, Gemmel, and the defense as a whole, found life post-Surratt difficult.
Gemmel lacked the kind of explosive play that pops on tape, and his relatively modest size (6’1”, 225 lbs) made him a gamble in the draft. But as a free agent signing, he can go into camp, digest the play book, and show San Francisco’s coaches that he can direct a defense.
San Francisco’s starting middle linebacker Fred Warner has led the team in tackles since being drafted by the 49ers four years ago, and has not missed a game. He’s not going anywhere. Warner and new back-up Oren Burks, signed from Green Bay, are both 6’3”, so Gemmel doesn’t quite fit San Francisco’s profile. A year on the practice squad seems likely, and if Gemmel successfully heals from offseason shoulder surgery, he could eventually stake a claim if Warner opts to leave in free agency, or find a role on special teams.
Things didn’t pan out for Walston the way that he hoped when he came back for his Covid-bonus season in Chapel Hill. Sam Howell was fixated on Josh Downs, and the tight end position in Phil Longo’s offense was never accused of being saturated with pass attempts, and by the middle of the season, more of them began going to Kamari Morales.
No matter. Walston kept his head down and blocked, blocked, and blocked, but did catch a touchdown in the Duke’s Mayo Bowl, albeit at a point when the Tar Heels were already humiliated and soundly beaten.
San Francisco has one of the top tight ends in the NFL in George Kittle and a full depth chart behind him. Ross Dwelley is the longest tenured backup 49er, and Walston will have some difficulty overcoming him, aside from just getting a seat at the table.
Super-duper senior Tomon Fox finally says farewell to Chapel Hill after six seasons (he redshirted his true freshman season and took the Covid bonus year). He had his best season stats-wise in the 2021 campaign, with highs in solo tackles (24) and sacks (9). If the defense as a whole had performed better, Fox probably would have been drafted in the later rounds.
The New York Giants are an interesting fit for Fox. They were the 18th ranked defensive line last season, so there’s plenty of room to improve, but their interior defensive line was their deepest and most productive source of pressure.
2021 Second-round pick Azeez Ojulari from Georgia showed potential last season (8 sacks) to solve this pass rush problem, but absent a marquee free-agent signing, Fox could make the squad and see rotational snaps, should the Giants fail to hit the quarterback from the edge.
UNC’s offensive line is a tough mystery to solve. They allowed 48 sacks on Sam Howell last season (worst in the ACC), but still had two members drafted to the Giants, and Tucker was signed by Pittsburgh.
There is tape of dominant performances from the entire squad in the 2020 season, perhaps that is what NFL teams are hoping to see more of. Jordan Tucker, like all of Carolina’s offensive linemen, have versatility and played positions all along the line, though he should project as a right tackle.
Pittsburgh will be an interesting case study in offensive line play, and how well the Steelers are regarded. They were the 26th ranked offensive line in the NFL last season, but their sacks and pressures allowed totals aren’t as bad as you’d expect because Ben Roethlisberger got rid of the ball so quickly, usually for six-yard passes. Do those stats begin to climb with Tar Heel legend Mitch Trubisky or rookie Kenny Pickett under center?
Pittsburgh’s current right tackle Chukwuma Okorafor is the entrenched starter and will not likely be displaced. Tucker’s best hope for now is to make the practice squad and unfortunately get his NFL education at the hands of T.J. Watt for a year.
Tampa Bay had the second-best secondary, with the top-ranked outside cornerbacks in the NFL last season. Add to that a trio of top-25 ranked safeties (Antoine Winfield, Jordan Whitehead, Mike Edwards) and the chances of Kyler McMichael seeing the field on defense next season are slim.
Best to make the practice squad or coverage unit on special teams, and hope to get picked up by another team. Choosing to sign for the Bucs as a free agent is a tough call, unless you’re counting on Florida’s lax Covid policy to get the starters in quarantine for significant portions of the season. Tampa Bay is gonna be tough to break into for any Rude Boy, even Tony Grimes or Storm Duck.