Tar Heels in NFL: Javonte Williams, Trubisky two of six UNC alums named starters; who will play and who got released?

By R.L. Bynum

After running into the NFL spotlight during his rookie season, Denver Broncos running back Javonte Williams takes on a greater role with heightened expectations. The power back and Pittsburgh quarterback Mitch Trubisky will probably be the Tar Heels who will have the brightest spotlight on them as the NFL season starts this weekend.

After 29 UNC alums entered NFL camps, only 16 will be on active opening-weekend rosters, with three on practice squads, one suspended and another out for the season. Williams and Trubisky are among six Tar Heels listed as starters.

The NFL season started with Thursday’s 31–10 Buffalo Bills win against the reigning Super Bowl champion Los Angeles Rams. Bills linebacker Andre Smith wasn’t there because he is serving a suspension for violating the league’s policy on performance-enhancing drugs. His first game won’t be until an Oct. 30 home game against Green Bay.

First-year Denver coach Nathaniel Hackett, the Green Bay Packers’ offensive coordinator the previous three seasons, has stated that he wants Williams to be “the guy.”

Williams still will likely share carries with Melvin Gordon III, but, unlike last season, it will be as the starter. He has a new quarterback running the show in former N.C. State star Russell Wilson, who played with Gordon at Wisconsin.

Rivalries quickly get forgotten when you see talent.

“When I turn on the film and watch Javonte, I am like, ‘Wow, this guy is amazing,’ ” Wilson told The Denver Post. “He’s special. Just watching his decision-making, his cuts, and his vision — I know he’s a Tar Heel, so I don’t know if I can brag about him too much.”

Williams, known for his punishing running style and the ability to run through defenders, says he’s learning more about what he needs to do to be successful in the NFL. He’s progressed from running like a linebacker.

“I feel like at first, that’s what I was doing,” said Williams, Denver’s second-round pick in the 2021 NFL draft. “But now I’m starting to really understand running back. How to set people up, how to hit the hole. When I was in college, I was playing running back as a linebacker, but now I’m starting to understand how to play running back.”

It isn’t clear how the carries will be allocated under Hackett after Williams and Gordon each got 203 when Denver went 7–10 last season. Coach Vic Fangio, who was criticized for not using Williams more, got fired after last season.

“I don’t know how they will do the rotation,” Gordon told the Post. “I don’t know what the future holds, but I just want to put my best foot forward so when I do go out there, they go, ‘OK, we need to get him out there more.’ I know I have the game.”

NFL Network’s Peter Schrager ranked Williams as the No. 1 breakout player for 2022.

Trubisky’s first start since 2020 with the Chicago Bears will be Sunday in Cincinnati as the man who replaces Ben Roethlisberger as the Pittsburgh Steelers’ starting quarterback.

Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said he’s comfortable with what the QB, entering his sixth NFL season, has shown him.

“He’s a guy that came to us with franchise quarterback experience,” Tomlin said. “He’s comfortable in those shoes. He’s been the focal point of a football team in the organization before. He’s had success in doing so.”

Trubisky, the second overall pick in the 2016 NFL draft by Chicago, signed a two-year, $14.2 million free agent contract in the offseason after a season as the Buffalo Bills’ backup quarterback behind star Josh Allen.

“Like I mentioned, when we acquired him, he took the Bears to the playoffs two out of four years. He has a winning record as a starting quarterback. Those things were attractive to us,” Tomlin said. “His athleticism and mobility were attractive to us. He took care of the football in-stadium; all our quarterbacks did.”

Trubisky said that he looks forward to Sunday’s game.

“It’s going to be huge,” Trubisky said. “It’s something I looked forward to, something I’ve worked for. I’m just grateful for the opportunity, and I’m going to take full advantage. I had a really good camp. I came in here with a lot of experience, showed I could lead the team, showed I’ve been playing really well, throwing the football really well. Now we go out there and execute on the field.”

Other UNC alums slated to start are New York Jets running back Michael Carter, Washington middle linebacker Cole Holcomb, Chicago defensive end Robert Quinn and New Orleans left tackle James Hurst.

Carter, a fourth-round pick in the 2021 draft, might be leaned on a lot in the New York Jets’ opener at home against Baltimore. With quarterback Zach Wilson (knee injury) available in Week 4, at the earliest, production from Carter will be important. Joe Flacco starts for the Jets at QB in the meantime while Wilson recovers.

“We’re going to lean on Michael Carter to be a leader for us in all facets,” Jets offensive coordinator Mike LaFleur told Newsday. “Not just for the running backs but for every group. He’s earned that right the way he shows up every single day, the way he works, his attitude. I love that kid.”

Carter, who became the Jets main running back in Week 3 last season, may share carries with rookie Breece Hall, a second-round pick out of Iowa State. But how much that happens is unclear.

Holcomb, whom the Commanders named as one of their captains, started all 16 games last season. Entering his fourth season, he recorded 83 tackles and 55 assists in 2021.

Quinn is back as a starting defensive end for the Chicago Bears after collecting 49 tackles and 18½ assists in starting all 16 games last season. The elite pass rusher, who enters his 12th NFL season and third in Chicago and was named one of four captains, will make $17.1 million this season, the largest salary-cap hit of any Bears player.

New Bears coach Matt Eberflus switched to a 4–3 defense, meaning Quinn could play more in a linebacker spot, which is his natural position.

Hurst is entrenched on the New Orleans Saints offensive line after he started 15 games last season. He’s entering his eighth NFL season and third in New Orleans.

Giovani Bernard, 30, returned to Tampa Bay practice Monday after injuring an ankle in the Bucs’ first exhibition game. He practiced fully Friday, was taken off the Week 1 injury report and is expected to play in Sunday night’s opener in Dallas. Bernard, who signed a one-year deal in the offseason, is listed as fourth string after touching the ball only 31 times last season. Most of his usage will likely be as a third-down back.

Two other running backs who are fourth-teamers and might not see much playing time outside of special teams are Minnesota rookie Ty Chandler and the New York Giants’ Antonio Williams.

Even though Mack Hollins will play behind starter Davonte Adams at one wide receiver spot for the Las Vegas Raiders, he should get his opportunities after some impressive play in camp and during exhibition games. He enters his sixth NFL season, including the last three with Miami, where he collected 223 reception yards on 14 catches last season.

Charlie Heck started 13 games on the Houston Texans’ offensive line last season after starting once during his rookie season, thanks to Laremy Tunsil’s thumb injury. With Tunsil fully recovered, Heck will be the backup at left tackle.

Entering his fifth NFL season, M.J. Stewart Jr. is a second-string safety with Houston after only starting three games the last two seasons with the Cleveland Browns. According to Pro Football Focus, Stewart’s grade of 89.2 when playing in the slot was second in the league among safeties last season.

The rookie likely to get the most playing time is versatile Giants offensive lineman Joshua Ezeudu, who is listed as second string at both left guard and left tackle.

Barring injuries or a Commanders blowout win, quarterback Sam Howell isn’t likely to play early in their season. He’s behind starter Carson Wentz and backup Taylor Heinicke on the depth chart.

Undrafted rookie linebacker Tomon Fox beat out Quincy Roche for the New York Giants’ third-string rush linebacker spot and is expected to get a lot of special-teams snaps.

Buffalo signed cornerback Kyler McMichael to its practice squad after Tampa Bay released him during camp. Also on practice squads are Minnesota safety Myles Dorn and New York Jets linebacker Chazz Surratt (whom the Vikings released during camp.)

Released from injured reserve with settlements were wide receiver Bug Howard by Tampa Bay and defensive lineman Jalen Daulton by Atlanta. Baltimore released defensive tackle Aaron Crawford with an injury designation but didn’t resign him.

Rookie linebacker Jeremiah Gemmel was previously listed on Denver’s practice squad but is no longer listed.

New York Giants rookie offensive guard Marcus McKethan is out for the season after tearing his right ACL in an Aug. 5 scrimmage.

Other Tar Heels released and not yet signed with another team are fullback Jake Bargas (released by Minnesota, then Chicago), defensive end Aaron Crawford (Baltimore), wide receiver Dazz Newsome (Chicago), wide receiver Austin Proehl (New York Giants) and offensive tackle Jordan Tucker (Pittsburgh).

When to watch Tar Heels;
status of other alums

Giovani Bernard, Tampa Bay Buccaneers running back
Place on depth chart — Fourth string behind Leonard Fournette, Rachaad White and Ke’Shawn Vaughn
2021 statistics —
12 games, 8 rushes, 58 yards (24 longest); 23 catches, 123 yards, 3 TDs, 1 fumble; 1 kickoff return for 18 yards; 2 punt returns, 7 yards
Season opener — 8:20 p.m. Sunday at Dallas, NBC
Dyami Brown, Washington Commanders wide receiver
Place on depth chart —
Backup to Terry McLaurin at one wide receiver spot
2021 statistics — 15 games, 12 receptions on 25 targets, 165 yards (13.8 average; longest 48 yards); 1 rush for -4 yards; 16 snaps (23%)
Season opener —
1 p.m. Sunday vs. Jacksonville, Fox
Michael Carter, New York Jets running back
Place on depth chart — Starter ahead of rookie Breece Hall
2021 statistics — 14 games, 147 carries, 639 yards (4.3 average, longest 55), 4 TDs; 36 receptions on 55 targets, 325 yards (9.0 average; longest 23)
Season opener —
1 p.m. Sunday vs. Baltimore, CBS
Ty Chandler, Minnesota Vikings running back
Place on depth chart — Fourth string behind Dalvin Cook, Alexander Mattison and Kene Nwangwu
2021 statistics (UNC) — 13 games, 182 carries, 1,092 yards (6.0 average, longest 60), 13 TDs; 24 receptions, 216 yards (16.6 average; longest 75)
Season opener —
4:25 p.m. Sunday vs. Green Bay, Fox
Joshua Ezeudu, New York Giants offensive lineman
Place on depth chart — Second-string at left guard behind Shane Lemieux; second-string at left tackle behind Andrew Thomas
2021 statistics (UNC) —
Played 737 snaps in 12 games, starting 11 and was All-ACC Honorable Mention
Season opener —
4:25 p.m. Sunday at Tennessee, Fox
Tomon Fox, New York Giants linebacker
Place on depth chart — Third string at weakside linebacker behind Kayvon Thibodeau and Oshane Ximines
2021 statistics (UNC) — 13 games, 23 solo tackles, 10 assists, 33 total tackles, 8.5 sacks, 10 tackles for losses, hurried QB six times
Season opener —
4:25 p.m. Sunday at Tennessee, Fox
Charlie Heck, Houston Texans left tackle
Place on depth chart —
Backup behind Laremy Tunsil
2021 statistics — 15 games, 13 starts, 709 offensive snaps, 41 special-teams snaps
Season opener — 1 p.m. Sunday vs. Indianapolis, CBS
Cole Holcomb, Washington Commanders linebacker
Place on depth chart —
Starting middle linebacker ahead of David Mayo and Milo Elfler
2021 statistics — 16 games, 83 tackles, 55 assists, 2 tackles for losses, 2 interceptions, 1 TD, 1 sack, 2 forced fumbles, 1 recovered fumble
Season opener —
1 p.m. Sunday vs. Jacksonville, Fox
Mack Hollins, Las Vegas Raiders wide receiver
Place on depth chart —
Backup behind Davante Adams at one wide receiver spot
2021 statistics (Miami Dolphins) — 17 games, 14 catches, 223 yards (15.9 average, 65 longest), 4 TDs; 5 special-teams tackles; 1 tackle
Season opener —
4:25 p.m. Sunday at Los Angeles Chargers, CBS
Sam Howell, Washington Commanders quarterback
Place on depth chart — Third string behind Carson Wentz and Taylor Heinicke
2021 statistics (UNC) — 12 games, 217–347, 9 interceptions, 24 TDs, 3,056 yards (76 longest); 183 rushes, 828 yards (62 longest), 11 TDs
Season opener —
1 p.m. Sunday vs. Jacksonville, Fox
James Hurst, New Orleans Saints tackle
Place on depth chart —
Starting left tackle
2021 statistics — 14 games; 12 starts; 724 offensive snaps, 52 special-teams snaps
Season opener —
1 p.m. Sunday at Atlanta, Fox
Robert Quinn, Chicago Bears defensive end
Place on depth chart — Starting right defensive end ahead of Dominique Robinson and Kingsley Jonathan
2021 statistics — 16 games, 38 tackles, 11 assists, 18½ sacks, 16 tackles for losses, 11 QB hits, 4 forced fumbles
Season opener —
1 p.m. Sunday vs. San Francisco, Fox
M.J. Stewart Jr., Houston Texans safety
Place on depth chart —
Second sting at one safety spot behind Jonathan Owens
2021 statistics (Cleveland Browns) — 12 games, 30 tackles, 9 assists, 2 tackles for losses, 1 forced fumble, 4 special-teams tackles, 1 pass breakup; 1 kickoff return, 20 yards
Season opener — 1 p.m. Sunday vs. Indianapolis, CBS
Mitchell Trubisky, Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback
Place on depth chart — Projected starter ahead of Kenny Pickett and Mason Rudolph
2021 statistics (Buffalo Bills) — 6 games; 6 of 8 passing for 43 yards (longest 15), 1 interception; 13 rushes for 24 yards (longest 22)
Season opener — 1 p.m. Sunday at Cincinnati, CBS
Antonio Williams, New York Giants running back
Place on depth chart — Fourth string behind Saquon Barkley, Matt Breida and Gary Brightwell
2021 season (Buffalo Bills) — Spent season on practice squad
Season opener —
4:25 p.m. Sunday at Tennessee, Fox
Javonte Williams, Denver Broncos running back
Place on depth chart —
Starter ahead of Melvin Gordon III
2021 statistics — 17 games, 203 carries, 903 yards (4.4 average; longest 49 yards), 4 TDs; 43 catches on 53 targets, 316 yards (7.3 average, 42 longest), 1 TD
Season opener — 8:15 p.m. Monday at Seattle, ESPN, ABC
Suspended (violating performance-enhancing substance policy)
Linebacker Andre Smith, Buffalo (first game will be Sunday, Oct. 30 vs. Green Bay)
On practice squads
Safety Myles Dorn, Minnesota
Cornerback Kyler McMichael, Buffalo
Linebacker Chazz Surratt, New York Jets (released by Minnesota)
Released during camp and unsigned
Fullback Jake Bargas, Chicago (earlier by Minnesota)
Defensive tackle Aaron Crawford, Baltimore
Linebacker Jeremiah Gemmel, Denver (earlier by San Francisco)
Wide receiver Dazz Newsome, Chicago
Wide receiver Austin Proehl, New York Giants
Offensive tackle Jordan Tucker, Pittsburgh
Released from injured reserve with settlements
Defensive lineman Jalen Dalton, Atlanta
Tight end Bug Howard, Tampa Bay
Out for the season

Guard Marcus McKethan, New York Giants — suffered torn right ACL in an Aug. 5 scrimmage


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