Every quality offense has a variety of field-tilters with different complimentary skill-sets. There are the classic possession receivers, such as Allen Robinson. Someone has to take the top off a defense and be a threat to score every time they touch the ball. Enter Darnell Mooney and Tarik Cohen. And no functional attack can press forward without a workhorse in the mold of David Montgomery.
But sometimes, it’s about the reliability of each offensive niche. While an offense might succeed being designed around deep shots and or a reliance on one player’s fortitude, chances are it’ll be stymied come January once a competent defense decides to clamp down. A natural safety blanket, or two, is necessary in this situation.
Yes, the Bears already have Robinson, one of the best pure safety blankets in professional football. But they could always use more. Any sane coach or quarterback would state the same. They could always use another person to lean on third-and-long, to simply run past the sticks when it’s time to convert in a crunch time situation.
That’s where former North Carolina Tar Heel Dazz Newsome enters the fray.
I spoke to Akil Guruparan, an editor with Tar Heel Blog — SB Nation’s North Carolina affiliate — to get a comprehensive look at Newsome’s receiving profile. What I found was a young man clearly prepared to be a persistent and reliable headache for defensive backs at the highest level.
1. In three years as a major contributor for the Tar Heels, Newsome made a name for himself as one of the more underrated safety valves in the country. Catching 170 passes in that timeframe is nothing to sneeze at. How would you characterize his journey at North Carolina? How did he stand out?
Akil Guruparan: Newsome was actually recruited as a cornerback, but UNC had a big hole at slot receiver after the departure of Ryan Switzer. Naturally, the coaching staff started training him there. He was kind of a gadget player in his first year, both because he didn’t have a ton of nuance at the receiver position and because UNC was trying to manufacture offense in any way possible. He gained more usage in his sophomore year and quickly established himself as the team’s premier playmaker – he became the full-time punt returner, which he was excellent at; he was UNC’s go-to gadget player for jet sweeps, reverses, WR passes, and the like; he finally established himself as a starting slot receiver who could get open anywhere.
Newsome’s one problem was a major case of dropsies, which were extra frustrating because UNC’s laughable quarterback situation in 2018 meant that every drop was a drive-killer. Few balls were actually finding their way to a receiver’s hands. Then again, other than Michael Carter, Newsome was the only watchable player on that offense because he could actually create yards. He’ll always have a special place in UNC fans’ hearts just for that.
After that dismal season, the coaching staff was overhauled ahead of Newsome’s junior year. His new receivers’ coach, Lonnie Galloway, noticed that he wasn’t actually seeing the football to make plays on it but doing everything on muscle memory. Galloway took him to an optometrist and it turned out Newsome had needed vision correction for years. With his vision corrected and a freshman phenom at quarterback, Newsome exploded, cutting down on the drops, making slot defenders look silly all season, coming up with some truly ridiculous grabs, and becoming Sam Howell’s favorite target. This was while still being a great punt returner.
Newsome’s senior year was more of the same. He got open the same amount, but with Dyami Brown’s improvement and Howell’s gunslinger mentality, he was targeted a little less — including a stretch in the early middle of the season where he wasn’t involved in the offense at all. That started to correct towards the end of the year, and he finished on a high mark against Texas A&M with a typical Newsome touchdown grab.
He’ll be remembered for his ability to come up with some truly insane catches, his do-everything nature on the field, and, of course, the clutch touchdown against Miami in 2019 that truly started the Sam Howell train. Oh and of course, for his attitude – Newsome will get in a defense’s face to let them know he’s better than they are. Some hate it and he was (softly) penalized a couple of times after touchdowns. But when you back it up as often as he did over his UNC career, it’s endearing and gave the team an edge it definitely needed.
2. A major sticking point of Newsome’s collegiate time was that he chose to stray away from family and sign with North Carolina, despite there being a major familial investment in Virginia Tech. Can you give any context to this story? What would you say it shows about Newsome as a player?
AG: Newsome comes from a Virginia Tech family, but UNC has been treating Virginia, and especially the Virginia Beach area where the Newsome family lives, as home turf as far as recruiting goes for several years. UNC’s about as close as Virginia Tech geographically, and UVA is closer but doesn’t have the same football recruiting power as UNC or VT. Both schools got on him hard when he was committed to Maryland, and it seems like it was UNC that convinced him that he could do more elsewhere, because he de-committed from Maryland while visiting UNC’s campus.
From there, I suspect that it was partially a matter of not letting ties cloud him and making sure to make the right decision for him and partially a matter of opportunity. At the time, Virginia Tech had a stable of highly-rated defensive players, and UNC’s defensive recruiting was thin. The incredible part to me is that Newsome committed as a defensive back somewhere where that position was wide open, then switched to offense and managed to star in college anyway. He’s a player who can do anything you need him to for the good of the team.
3. What are Newsome’s strengths as a receiver? What will he do well immediately? How should Bears receivers coach Mike Furrey structure his development plan for him? What do you think his professional ceiling is?
AG: Newsome’s biggest strength is his route running from the slot. He hasn’t faced much press, but if he’s given a free release, he’s an advanced separator at all three levels. He especially likes anything out-breaking, whether it’s a pivot route, a shallow or intermediate out, or a deep corner route, where he can use a nasty inside fake and cross the defensive back’s face to get open at the sideline. He’s done it throughout his career, but the best example is easily his game-winning touchdown against Miami in 2019.
His best path to NFL success will be finding a place where he can refine those skills so they stay sharp against NFL defenses. He’ll probably also need to learn to add some physicality to his route-running. Newsome’s physicality shows up in his run blocking, but he doesn’t use his hands much to fight off defensive backs, and that will have to be a point of focus to maximize his NFL potential. I see his ceiling as a useful, fan-favorite slot receiver and special teamer for a winning team, but not anybody’s primary receiving threat. Let’s say an average of 600 yards and seven touchdowns per year as a cap on expectations.
4. What are Newsome’s weaknesses as a receiver? Where might he struggle initially? What will the Bears’ offensive staff have to particularly focus on early in the course of his development?
AG: His biggest weakness is, still, definitely his hands. The uber-dropsies that plagued him as a sophomore have calmed down. But, they haven’t gone away completely, and he’s prone to concentration drops at inopportune times. I think he’s also got small hands, so I doubt he’ll ever turn into a vacuum. But most of his issues are with securing the ball before making a move or getting hit. On the other hand, his catching ability is clearly really good, because his highlight reel of spectacular catches is insane – I joked on Twitter after the Bears selected him that the short highlight reel they shared on their social media didn’t even have his top-three catches from his time at UNC.
He has talent for the position, but since he only started playing it full-time four years ago (and playing it with his eyes two years ago), the Bears’ staff is going to have to continue working with him on maintaining eyes on the catch until it’s secure.
I think Newsome’s capable, but it’ll take some investment.
5. What is a favorite anecdote or moment of yours about Newsome’s collegiate career that people might not be familiar with?
AG: I’m a big fan of this touchdown against Temple (timestamp 2:03) in UNC’s Military Bowl game after the 2019 season, from start to finish.
He beats his man with an inside-to-out route, Sam Howell beats the safety with a pinpoint throw, and Newsome makes a blind catch on his face mask in the back corner of the end zone. It’s an incredible play.
My favorite part is what happens next – the Temple safety, at whom Newsome has been chirping the whole game as UNC has beaten up on his team, starts hyping Newsome up for him, clearly impressed at the catch and recognizing Newsome’s trash talk as good-natured fun and something that he earns through his play. And Newsome is clearly giving it right back, showing that his banter isn’t mean-spirited so much as making the game more fun for him and his teammates, and occasionally his opponents, too. I think this moment is why Newsome’s post-play antics never wore on most UNC fans, because it shows you that he’s not insulting anybody.
He’s proud of himself and everything he can do, and he’s not scared of spreading that to others. Whatever he does on the field, I’m sure he’ll help give the locker room a positive edge that makes football more fun, and I think that’s pretty cool.