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Tar Heels in the NFL: 2023 Season Edition

As the NFL regular season begins, here are some UNC alumni to keep tabs on, including several recent draftees getting their shot

Cincinnati Bengals v Washington Commanders Photo by Michael Owens/Getty Images

College football season is well underway, and today, the professional game kicks off as well, and so begins arguably the best time on the sports calendar. There’s already plenty to be excited about for UNC football fans after their squad shellacked South Carolina, collecting more than half of last season’s sack total on the way. That said, you might also want to spare a thought or three for the many Tar Heels on professional rosters this season, from rookies to 12-year vets and from minimum-contract players to impact starters. Let’s run through all 16 Tar Heels to be on opening-day 53-man rosters, and I’ll try and hit the big stories along the way.

Depth and Special Teams

M.J. Stewart played a decent amount for the Houston Texans last year, recording 41 tackles, a forced fumble, and two fumble recoveries for arguably the league’s worst team. He’s listed as the Texans’ backup strong safety to start the year and may see more snaps than expected this weekend if Jimmie Ward isn’t able to play. Mitch Trubisky seems to have found a home as the backup quarterback in Pittsburgh, where starter Kenny Pickett has repeatedly praised his mentorship and effect on the locker room. Offensive lineman James Hurst has been a mainstay on the New Orleans Saints the past four seasons, though last year was his first time in several years without a start and could signal the beginning of the end for a guy who’s turned an undrafted contract into a 10-year career. Chazz Surratt fell quickly from his lofty status as a third-round pick for the Minnesota Vikings for myriad reasons, but after landing on the New York Jets’ practice squad at the tail end of last season, he’s apparently impressed enough this offseason to earn a spot on the roster, where he’s a backup in a thin linebacking group. That reunites him with Michael Carter, who might see more action than expected this weekend with the running backs ahead of him, Breece Hall and Dalvin Cook, both apparently not 100% back from injuries sustained last year. On the other New York squad, offensive linemen Josh Ezeudu and Marcus McKethan are both backups for the Giants’ unit; Ezeudu is a second-teamer and McKethan is a third-teamer. Ezeudu may have the opportunity to hop into the starting lineup; the Giants seem desperate for anybody to give them a reason not to start Ben Bredeson. He does seem fully recovered from the neck injury that sidelined him last season, which is a huge relief.

Established Starters and Impact Backups

Spoiler alert, but Dyami Brown is probably ecstatic about the quarterback change in Washington, as he gets to catch balls again from the guy who helped him become a third-round pick in 2021. The Commanders are waiting on him to become a starting-quality wide receiver opposite Terry McLaurin, and he had a couple of impressive preseason touchdowns that might indicate that he’s ready to take that step after a so-far very quiet NFL career. Brown is currently listed as McLaurin’s backup with Jahan Dotson at the other starting spot, but he’ll probably be on the field a fair amount.

Ty Chandler also had an impressive preseason and, with Dalvin Cook moving on to the Jets, finds himself as RB2 for the Minnesota Vikings — and I’m not sure he can’t be better than Alexander Mattison. He’s going to play, and play plenty, in addition to being the Vikings’ kick returner. Cole Holcomb decided to leave the Commanders in free agency and sign a nice contract with the linebacker-hungry Pittsburgh Steelers, where he’s currently listed as the starter in the middle of Mike Tomlin’s defense — if anybody appreciates an old-school, hard-nosed two-down linebacker in the NFL, it’s the Steelers. Mack Hollins had the best season of his career last year in Las Vegas and was rewarded with the opportunity to start in Atlanta, albeit for one of the worst wide receiver rooms in the NFL. He’ll be a distant fourth fiddle to Drake London, Bijan Robinson, and Kyle Pitts, but that kind of complementary role is exactly where he shined as a Heel.

And finally for this section, we’re going to get the privilege of watching Javonte Williams in action again after an ugly multi-ligament injury early last season. Williams got some live reps this preseason and appears ready to put the injury behind him and be the featured running back in Denver. He’s drawn rave reviews for how he’s attacked his rehab and his team definitely believes him him, turning down multiple opportunities to add to their backfield. I’m sure every UNC fan has utmost confidence he’s going to be that guy.

Rookies and New Starters

Josh Downs, drafted (for insane value, might I add) in the third round by the Indianapolis Colts, has already earned the starting job at slot wide receiver in Indy after what was by all accounts a phenomenal camp that established immediate chemistry with Anthony Richardson. He had a couple of bad drops in preseason action, which is sometimes a killer for rookie recievers’ chances at getting back on the field, and it didn’t affect his standing with his coaches at all. Other, higher-drafted rookie receivers like Quentin Johnston and Jaxon Smith-Njigba are garnering more attention, but we know how much of a mistake sleeping on Josh Downs is.

Several of us may have watched Antoine Green torch the Carolina Panthers’ third string as a receiver and a returner for the Detroit Lions. That performance may have solidified him a roster spot on the Lions’ 53, though he was also probably helped by Jameson Williams’ suspension for gambling to start the season. There’s a chance he’s the starting kick returner for the Lions, though, as one of just two Lions on the 53 who returned kicks for them in preseason. Notably, rookie running back Jahmyr Gibbs did not, and definitely could.

Asim Richards started his offseason with the Dallas Cowboys fairly slow but acquitted himself well in fall camp and preseason, impressing the Dallas coaches enough to earn the primary backup spot at left guard on an offensive line unit that’s been the envy of most of the league for years now. He might even start this weekend after an injury to starting left guard Tyler Smith. Richards didn’t play much guard at UNC, and his ability to step into that position as a pro is just another indicator of how quickly he’s able to pick up this sport when it’s drilled into him right.

And finally, of course, Sam Howell is the starting quarterback for the Washington Commanders this year after beating out Jacoby Brissett and delivering a pretty pristine preseason performance in the Commanders’ last game. He’s got every opportunity to prove himself a franchise quarterback after his precipitous fall in last year’s draft and the denial of an opportunity to start his coach now admits he deserved, and even better, he’s working with Eric Bienemy in his first season away from Andy Reid.

A hat-tip to R.L. Bynum, who has a similar article up at his website Tar Heel Tribune. I wrote this independently of him, but regardless, he deserves the shout-out.