Summer Huddle: UNC Tar Heels alumni to keep an eye on in the NFL

Chris Baird, Triangle Sports Network
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Daniel Lacy, Correspondent

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – National Football League (NFL) players across the league are coming together to get back into the swing of things in organized training workouts before training camps open in July.

Here’s an overview of where a select and notable group of UNC Tar Heels alums stand on their respective teams heading into the 2017 season.

Julius Peppers, Defensive End, Carolina Panthers

At 37 years old, Peppers is the oldest player on this list, but could also make an argument for being the most talented.

Entering his 16th season, he is a nine-time Pro Bowler who ranks fifth on the all-time NFL sack list with 143.5.

Peppers has been a model of consistency, as he has garnered at least seven sacks in the past nine seasons and in 14 of his 15 previous NFL seasons.

Over the offseason, Pepper signed a one-year deal to rejoin the Carolina Panthers, who selected him second overall in the 2002 NFL Draft, after originally leaving in 2010 for the Chicago Bears, where he spent four seasons before going to Green Bay for three years.

While Peppers is likely to earn a starting role, he will see limited snaps due to his age and competition at the position with Charles Johnson, Mario Addison, Wes Horton and Daeshon Hall.

Robert Quinn, Defensive End/Linebacker, Los Angeles Rams

Another premier pass rusher, Quinn is a two-time Pro Bowler and former first-round draft pick whose best season came in 2013, where he registered a career-high 19 sacks and seven forced fumbles.

However, after putting together a respectable 10.5-sack season in 2014, he has combined for just nine sacks in 17 games over the last two seasons as he ended each year on Injured Reserve.

Quinn is not only tasked with bouncing back from injuries, but adjusting to a new coaching staff with a different scheme.

In defensive coordinator Wade Phillips’ 3-4 scheme, Quinn will start at outside linebacker in base formation, assuming he can stay healthy, but slide back down to defensive end in other packages, according to Rams Wire.

Zach Brown, Linebacker, Washington Redskins

Brown is coming off the best season of his career in which he tallied 149 tackles with the Buffalo Bills, good for second in the NFL, and added four sacks, four pass deflections, two forced fumbles and an interception.

Despite his Pro Bowl-caliber season, Brown left Washington for Buffalo during the offseason on a one-year deal.

While Brown put up solid numbers in his first four seasons with the Titans, where he was a full-time starter and former second-round draft pick, the change of scenery in Buffalo clearly benefitted him enroute to his first Pro Bowl season.

With that being said, Brown’s ability to duplicate his breakout season will depend on how well he fits in Washington’s scheme in comparison to Buffalo’s.

Giovanni Bernard, Running Back, Cincinnati Bengals

There was a lot of hype surrounding Bernard coming out of college as a dynamic dual-threat running back, and he didn’t disappoint, tacking on over 1,000 all-purpose yards in each of his first three seasons.

However, he failed to do so last season after ending the year on Injured Reserve due to a torn ACL.

To make matters worse for Bernard, the Bengals picked Joe Mixon in the second round of this year’s draft, likely cutting into Bernard’s workload.

While that pick affects fellow running back Jeremy Hill more than Bernard, Mixon has more of an all-around skillset and likely would’ve been a first-round pick if it wasn’t for his atrocious off-field record, and has a shot at not only seeing extensive playing time, but earning the starting gig over Hill and Bernard.

Russell Bodine, Center, Cincinnati Bengals

Since the Bengals drafted Bodine in the fourth round of the 2014 NFL Draft, he has started every game at center for the team.

However, he has struggled at times, especially in pass protection, and is entering the final year of his rookie contract.

With the being said, this is a make or break year for Bodine, as he has a shot at a big contract if he can prove that he can be a reliable starting center in the NFL.

Eric Ebron, Tight End, Detroit Lions

Ebron has been slightly underwhelming for a former first round pick, as his struggles with dropped passes and run blocking have slung him in and out of the Lions’ starting lineup.

Last season was Ebron’s first as a full-time starter, and while he put up a career-high 61 catches for 711 yards, he only had one touchdown, down from five in 2015.

The Lions did pick up Ebron’s option for the 2018 season, so he has two more guaranteed seasons in Detroit to try to dig into some of his untapped potential.

Connor Barth, Kicker, Chicago Bears

Barth has endured an up-and-down career, earning a franchise tag in 2012 but getting released by three different teams since then.

Despite converting 78.3 percent of his field goals – the second-worst figure of his career in which he has hit 84 percent of his field goal attempts – the Bears re-signed him over the offseason and he figures to be in their plans, unless undrafted rookie Andy Phillips does enough in training camp to take his job.

Da’Norris Searcy, Safety, Tennessee Titans

Searcy has been a consistent starter for the Bills and Titans over the last three seasons, combining for 15 pass deflections and five interceptions over that time span.

However, according to Pro Football Talk, Searcy took a pay cut over the offseason and is in danger of getting edged out of the lineup by rising talent Kevin Byard and free-agent addition Johnathan Cyprien.

If that is the case, look for Searcy to try and carve out a role on special teams or as a quality depth player.

Sylvester Williams, Defensive Tackle, Tennessee Titans

One year removed from winning a Super Bowl with the Denver Broncos, Williams decided to leave after his rookie contract expired and join the Titans.

The run-stuffing nose tackle, who has 94 tackles and six sacks in 48 career starts, will fight for a starting role in Tennessee and, at the very least, act as a rotational player who primarily comes in on running downs.

Jonathan Cooper, Guard, Dallas Cowboys

The former seventh overall pick didn’t work out in Arizona and bounced around to New England and Cleveland in a one-year span before joining the Cowboys during the offseason.

Cooper has a chance to revive his career in Dallas – his fourth team in as many years – as he joins what is widely regarded as the best offensive line in the NFL.

Dallas currently has depth issues on the offensive line after Ronald Leary left in free agency and Doug Free retired, allowing Cooper to compete with La’El Collins, Byron Bell and Chaz Green for starting spots at left guard and right tackle.

Mitchell Trubisky, Quarterback, Chicago Bears

Despite signing Mike Glennon to a lucrative three-year deal in free agency, the Bears gave up two third-round picks and one fourth-round pick in the 2017 NFL draft to move up one spot and take Trubisky.

This marked the first of UNC’s six picks in this year’s draft and was the ninth time in NFL history that a player from UNC was picked in the top 10 and the first UNC quarterback to get picked in the first round, according to Carolina Athletics.

A team doesn’t take a quarterback high – left alone give up three draft picks – if it doesn’t see him as its potential quarterback of the future.

With that being said, Glennon is likely to start for the majority of next season to allow Trubisky to sit back and learn, but it is clear that Trubisky will get his shot when he is ready.

Nazair Jones, Defensive Tackle, Seattle Seahawks

Jones was the second Tar Heel off the board after the Seahawks picked him in the third round of this year’s draft.

Seattle boasts one of the top defenses in the league, and it is unlikely Jones will step into a starting role immediately.

Jones, who is better suited as a run defender, will be competing with Ahtyba Rubin, Jarran Reed, Will Pericak and second-round pick Malik McDowell for playing time in the middle of the defense.

Mack Hollins, Wide Receiver, Philadelphia Eagles

Hollins, who the Eagles selected in the fourth round, joins an offense that added Alshon Jeffrey and Torrey Smith to compete at wide receiver over the offseason.

It is clear the Eagles wanted to add weapons for young quarterback Carson Wentz, and Hollins provides elite speed as a deep threat.

With Jeffrey, Smith and Jordan Matthews likely holding onto the top three wide receiver positions, Hollins is unlikely to make an immediate impact on offense, but will likely contribute on special teams while he develops his game.

Ryan Switzer, Wide Receiver, Dallas Cowboys

Switzer was picked not long after Hollins in the fourth round by the rival Dallas Cowboys.

He excels in space and is an option to line up as a punt and kick returner for the Cowboys, but also gives the team slot receiver depth behind Cole Beasley.

Another option is to use Switzer out of the backfield in a scat back type role, something Dallas is in need of after losing Lance Dunbar in free agency.

T.J. Logan, Running Back, Arizona Cardinals

Logan is another Carolina running back who is a force to be reckoned with in the passing game as a dynamic threat out of the backfield.

Unfortunately for Logan, the Cardinals have a superstar three-down running back in David Johnson, who is unlikely to leave the field in any situation.

However, Logan does have elite speed and, like Switzer, can contribute as a kick returner, so he can act as quality depth in case Johnson gets hurt.

Elijah Hood, Running Back, Oakland Raiders

After a promising sophomore season, Hood struggled with injuries his junior year and his draft stock took a hit as he plummeted to the seventh round.

Hood will likely have to fight for a roster spot after the Raiders added Marshawn Lynch in free agency and have young, versatile backups in Jalen Richard and DeAndre Washington.