With one full week of preseason action already in the books, the 2021 NFL season is quickly approaching.
There are several intriguing storylines to follow among the long list of Utah ties in the NFL.
How will No. 2 pick Zach Wilson fare as a rookie?
Former BYU quarterback Zach Wilson is thrust into a situation with the New York Jets where there are expected to be many bumps and bruises for him, particularly this season. The Jets were one of the league’s worst offenses a year ago and the team is coming off a 2-14 season.
Still, there’s optimism surrounding New York after an offseason of change. Question is, just how long will it take for Wilson and the Jets to be successful? And is Wilson really the answer at quarterback for New York, which traded his predecessor, Sam Darnold, before taking Wilson with the second overall pick in the 2021 NFL draft?
So far, Wilson has had good days and bad days in training camp. His preseason opener left an overall positive impression, as he completed 6 of 9 passes for 63 yards, didn’t turn the ball over and led a field-goal scoring drive in a quarter’s worth of work. On his two drives, the Jets converted 2 of 4 third downs and he led the team into the opponent’s territory both times.
Jets first-year coach Robert Saleh has been quick to praise his rookie quarterback throughout the offseason, particularly regarding his willingness to learn.
“He’s curious about everything. He’s got all these questions, what he sees on tape,” Saleh said of Wilson, per ESPN’s Rich Cimini. “… To me, he’s so far ahead with regard to how he sees the game.”
Urban Meyer’s first test as an NFL head coach
Former University of Utah coach Urban Meyer is back in the coaching business, taking over for the moribund Jacksonville Jaguars. This is Meyer’s first experience coaching at the top level of the sport, after taking both Florida and Ohio State to a national championship at the college level before taking a break from coaching.
Now, he inherits a franchise that has won more than six games in a season just once over the past 10 years, when the Jaguars advanced to the playoffs in 2017. Outside of that season, Jacksonville has finished either third or fourth in its division every year since 2011.
Meyer will have his own quarterback to mold, with the team taking Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence with the top overall pick in the 2021 draft. And the Jaguars spent plenty in the offseason to improve their roster. How Meyer adjusts to the pro game is the question.
Former Jaguars Pro Bowl tackle Tony Boselli believes Meyer has what it takes to succeed in the NFL.
“Every great organization in this world has great leadership and the NFL is no different. And one thing that Urban has proven throughout his career, at multiple places … he’s a great leader,” Boselli said on The Herd with Colin Cowherd.
“He’s not, you know he’s not an offensive mastermind, he’s not a defensive mastermind, never been a coordinator at the college level. He’s just a leader, and I think you see that, he’s come in from Day One of him taking charge and saying, ‘This is who we’re going to be this is how we’re going to do things,’ and he has instant credibility because remember, this is a super young team.”
Taysom vs. Jameis: The Saints’ quarterback battle
Former BYU quarterback Taysom Hill is getting his first chance to be a starting quarterback, though he’ll need to beat out veteran Jameis Winston for the right to replace retired All-Pro Drew Brees.
Depending on who you believe, one or the other holds the inside track to the starting job. There’s a couple things certain, though: Winston is the more traditional passer and has vastly more starting experience with Tampa Bay, while Hill is the dual threat who’s trying to show he’s more than just a utility player.
This has the feel of a quarterback battle that could last into the season, if the Week 1 starter hits some struggles.
The Saints’ first preseason game didn’t provide much clarity: while Hill started strong before sputtering (including an interception), Winston led two touchdown drives after a cold start (and also threw an interception).
“I’m not making comparisons with the quarterbacks right now,” New Orleans coach Sean Payton said after the game, per ESPN. “It doesn’t matter who (played better), really, with six turnovers, right?”
How will Penei Sewell fit in as a rookie on the Detroit Lions offensive line?
Former Desert Hills offensive tackle Penei Sewell is also expected to start as a rookie. Like Wilson, he was a top 10 draft pick this year, going No. 7 overall to the Lions.
Sewell is lining up at a different spot than he was while starring at Oregon, though, as Detroit has moved him over to right tackle from his usual spot on the left side.
He started at right tackle in the Lions’ preseason opener, and after giving up a sack on the Lions’ third offensive play, he settled into a groove and played 22 offensive snaps. Now Detroit is hoping he can turn into the franchise player Sewell was touted as during the draft process.
He’s got the right mentality.
“It kind of goes to the mentality that I’ve kind of picked up over the years is the next play,” Sewell said, per the Lions’ website. “Because at the end of the day, I can’t really change what just happened or happened in the past. So, just got to focus on what’s next and go from there.”
What’s going to happen with Jordan Love?
Well, for now, former Utah State quarterback Jordan Love is the backup quarterback for the Green Bay Packers.
There could still be plenty of quarterback drama in Wisconsin in the future, though.
Beginning in late April, one of the prevailing storylines around the NFL’s offseason circled around reports that Aaron Rodgers was unhappy in Green Bay and may not want to play for the Packers again. The reigning NFL MVP did not report for mandatory camp, but finally agreed to an amended deal to keep him in Green Bay for the 2021 season.
Love, meanwhile, earned some valuable first-team reps during the offseason with Rodgers absent, and now he is expected to take the lion’s share of QB snaps during the preseason, his first time taking NFL snaps in a live game after COVID-19 canceled the preseason last year. In his NFL debut last week, he threw for 122 yards and a touchdown in a half of play, with a 110.4 QB rating.
Like last year, Love will be an afterthought this season as long as Rodgers stays healthy. This time, though, there’s more uncertainty about the future, and at least the Packers are getting more time to evaluate Love, their 2020 first-round draft pick.
How will the second-year Utes perform with a year under their belt?
The 2020 class of Utah Utes that joined the NFL was full of potential, particularly on the defensive side of the ball. Cornerback Jaylon Johnson and safety Julian Blackmon turned into immediate starters for the Chicago Bears and Indianapolis Colts, respectively, as did defensive tackle John Penisini with the Lions.
While safety Terrell Burgess missed half of last season with an ankle injury, he’s in contention for a starting job with the Los Angeles Rams this season. Defensive linemen Leki Fotu (Arizona) and Bradlee Anae (Dallas) will have opportunities to play more as well.
Offensively, running back Zack Moss had a promising rookie campaign end with an injury in the playoffs. He was impressive during training camp this summer prior to a hamstring injury but has since returned to the field, according to Bills Wire, and will contend for playing time again with fellow back Devin Singletary.
Undrafted quarterback Tyler Huntley is also getting his chances, too. While Lamar Jackson, the NFL MVP in 2019, is the undisputed starter in Baltimore, Huntley has played himself into a solid opportunity to be the backup for the Ravens, especially after an impressive preseason opener last week.
“He took a big step in that direction to be the backup quarterback, I thought, and we’ll just see where it goes,” Ravens coach Jim Harbaugh said Monday, after Huntley led the game-winning drive in the Ravens’ win over New Orleans.
Will others in this Utah rookie class make an impact?
Beyond Wilson and Sewell, several other Utah ties could make a roster this season, and perhaps make an impact. The best opportunity comes from former BYU offensive tackle Brady Christensen, a third-round pick by the Carolina Panthers who’s been moved around the line during his short NFL time and is embracing the change.
He started at right tackle and also played some left guard while logging 55 offensive snaps in the Panthers’ preseason opener last Sunday.
“When I first got out there, I was telling my family, I felt like it was almost a video game, like the lights and everything,” Christensen told reporters Tuesday. “But once I got on the field and started playing, it was just football. It’s what I love to do.”
Others to watch include late-round BYU draft picks like defensive tackle Khyiris Tonga (Chicago), wide receiver Dax Milne (Washington) and cornerback Chris Wilcox (Tampa Bay), and undrafted free agent linebacker Isaiah Kaufusi had a nice preseason debut for Indianapolis, with five tackles, including a tackle for loss on a fourth down to stop a drive deep into Colts territory.
“He has progressed very well. He really has,” Washington head coach Ron Rivera said of Milne, per the team’s website. “You see his natural route running ability showing in certain situations, circumstances.”
Old faces in new places
Several Utah ties find themselves in new towns this season.
Former BYU running back Jamaal Williams moved on from Green Bay to NFC North rival Detroit. Another ex-Cougar, linebacker Harvey Langi, returns to New England after time with the Jets.
Two former Utah lineman Jackson Barton and Sam Tevi are looking for a fresh start with the New York Giants and Indianapolis Colts, respectively.
And two former Utah State linebackers, Kyler Fackrell and Nick Vigil, moved on to new opportunities with the Los Angeles Chargers and Minnesota Vikings, respectively, after one-year stops in other franchises in 2020.
Veterans chasing a Super Bowl
No Utah ties took home a Super Bowl title last year when the Tampa Bay Buccaneers beat the Kansas City Chiefs in Super Bowl LV. Instead, six Utah ties with the Chiefs were denied a chance at a repeat.
There’s no shortage of Utah ties seeking their first Super Bowl championship this year, or their first in a long time.
The Saints used the franchise tag on former Utah safety Marcus Williams this offseason, a show of commitment for a New Orleans franchise that is trying to make a long-awaited return to the title game despite four straight playoff appearances.
Former Utah State linebacker Bobby Wagner is the undisputed leader of the Seattle Seahawks defense, though he and the Seahawks haven’t won a Super Bowl title in nearly a decade.
Former BYU linebacker Fred Warner is one of the game’s top up-and-coming defenders, but he’s still seeking another chance at the championship after the 49ers lost to Kansas City in the Super Bowl two years ago.
“I’ve been telling the guys that you’ve got to prepare your mind for this to be the hardest training camp you’ve ever endured,” Warner said earlier this summer, per NBC Sports. “Because if we really want to have the season we want, you’ve got to go through hell to make it to heaven. So that’s what my mindset is going into it. That’s why I’ve been preparing my body and my mind just for that.”