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Across the NFL, free agents have been freed.
Draftees have been, well, drafted.
And apparently bad turns of phrases are running rampant.
From coast to coast, scores of players have either changed teams or found the first of their NFL careers. Areas of need have been addressed. Holes have been filled.
But there’s only so much cap space to be spent. So many players in each draft class.
For some teams, it’s just a matter of numbers. There were more holes to fill than options to fill them with. Others still won’t find out if their needs are met until players hit the field for training camp and games.
And for a fortunate few, “need” is a relative concept—their biggest holes are still small.
However, big or small, many or few, every NFL team has a need that looms above the rest.
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Ross D. Franklin/Associated Press
On one hand, the Arizona Cardinals have expressed a significant level of confidence in young tackle D.J. Humphries. The Redbirds picked up his fifth-year option for 2019, and Humphries told Tim Ring of AZFamily.com he believes he’s matured as a player.
“Maturing over time, I think that’s something that everybody does. I’m just blessed to be in a position to have the opportunity to be able to mature and step in and do the stuff I said I was going to do as a rookie when I was that guy. I’m just blessed to be sitting in front of you all today still in the same colors and show that progress and not have to do it from another team.”
But this is the same Humphries who was inactive for his entire rookie season in 2015 because of poor play—the only first-round pick who was. And while he has improved (nowhere to go but up), he’s missed 14 games over the past two years.
The Cardinals are putting an awful lot of faith in Humphries’ ability to stay healthy and be effective in 2018.
If he can’t, odds are, neither will quarterbacks Sam Bradford or Josh Rosen.
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Steven Senne/Associated Press
To be fair, the Atlanta Falcons are in good shape as they ready for training camp. There aren’t any glaring weak spots, and the team fared well with a draft class headlined by Alabama wide receiver Calvin Ridley and Colorado cornerback Isaiah Oliver.
However, no 53-man roster is perfect, and if the Falcons have a soft spot, it’s on the interior of the offensive and defensive lines.
Atlanta made an effort to bolster defensive tackle with the addition of third-rounder Deadrin Senat, and Grady Jarrett is a capable starter. But expecting Senat to make a big rookie impact is optimistic, and Jack Crawford isn’t the player 2017 starter Dontari Poe (now with the Carolina Panthers) is.
The Falcons were a top-10 defense in 2017 both overall and against the run. Poe’s absence may cause that latter number to drop—and NFC South teams may try to run right at the middle of Atlanta’s defense.
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Patrick Semansky/Associated Press
The Baltimore Ravens hit their gaping hole at wide receiver hard in free agency. And while the additions of Michael Crabtree, Willie Snead and John Brown aren’t a guaranteed fix, general manager Ozzie Newsome improved the Ravens enough at receiver that it’s no longer the biggest weakness.
With Ryan Jensen now plying his trade in Tampa, the Ravens will turn over center duties to Matt Skura, who started 12 games for the team at right guard in 2017. Per Childs Walker of the Baltimore Sun, tackle Austin Howard was impressed by what he saw from the rookie last year.
“He’s that guy who’s coming in early, staying late, doing the things a young guy should do,” said tackle Austin Howard, who plays beside Skura on the right side of the line. “You don’t have to question what he’s doing in the weight room, in the meeting room, even with his note taking. I sit next to him in the meeting room and I see his notes. He’s very diligent in everything he does.”
Skura has experience playing center from his days at Duke, but he’s easily the biggest question mark on Baltimore’s O-line in 2018.
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There will be plenty written over the next few months about the Buffalo Bills’ upcoming quarterback battle between free-agent acquisition AJ McCarron and first-round pick Josh Allen.
It may not matter—because whoever starts will face an uphill climb (and then some) to move the ball through the air.
To be blunt, the Bills may possess the NFL’s weakest cadre of wide receivers—a group the team did little to address in the offseason. It didn’t bring in any veterans of note, and it didn’t draft a wideout until the sixth round (Ray-Ray McCloud).
Buffalo’s best receiver remains fifth-year pro Kelvin Benjamin, who topped 1,000 yards as a rookie with the Carolina Panthers in 2014. But Benjamin’s numbers have fallen in every season since, and he’s faced injury trouble, missing 2015 with a torn ACL.
After Benjamin, the cupboard gets bare. The best stat line of Andre Holmes’ seven-year career is a moribund 47 catches, 693 yards and four touchdowns. Zay Jones struggled badly with drops as a 2017 rookie, injured his shoulder and was arrested on suspicion of felony vandalism in Los Angeles.
There’s little there for McCarron or Allen to work with.
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As with the Bills before them, the Carolina Panthers have a weakness that takes all of 11 seconds to spot.
And that’s if you spend nine seconds enjoying an espresso first.
The Panthers are in better shape at wide receiver than they were at the end of 2017. They added veteran speedster Torrey Smith via trade with the Philadelphia Eagles and used their first-round pick on Maryland’s D.J. Moore.
But Smith caught just 36 passes for 430 yards and two scores with the Eagles last year. He also hasn’t caught 50 balls in a season since topping 1,000 yards with the Ravens back in 2013.
It’s possible Moore will develop into the No. 1 receiver the Panthers need—he has arguably the highest ceiling of any wideout in the 2018 class.
But Moore’s also not the most NFL-ready of this year’s rookie receivers. That ascension is going to take time.
In the interim, quarterback Cam Newton still lacks a go-to pass-catcher after a 2017 campaign in which then-32-year-old tight end Greg Olsen looked his age and receiver Devin Funchess showed he’s more complement than water-carrier.
Look for running back Christian McCaffrey to catch a ton of short passes again this season.
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Paul Sancya/Associated Press
There’s something brewing on the shores of Lake Michigan that hasn’t been seen in a good long while.
As quarterback Mitchell Trubisky enters his second year, he’ll do so with a revamped receiving corps that includes a No. 1 wideout in Allen Robinson and a rookie playmaker in Anthony Miller. They also drafted an impact defender eighth overall in Georgia linebacker Roquan Smith.
But despite what has to be considered a successful offseason, problems remain for the Bears—chief among them the offensive line’s right side.
Right tackle Bobby Massie is an average (at best) starter who’s heading into a contract year with precious little depth behind him. Right guard Kyle Long is attempting to regain his Pro Bowl form after a litany of injuries wrecked each of his last two seasons.
It would take less time to rattle off Long’s parts that haven’t been injured over that span.
Both Long and Massie are being counted on to play big roles in Chicago’s attempt to leave the NFC North basement behind them.
It’s a gamble.
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Jeff Haynes/Associated Press
Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton has a bit of Jekyll and Hyde to his game. Afford the 30-year-old a clean pocket, and Dalton can pick apart a defense with the best of them. Get in Dalton’s face though, and things can get ugly.
Thanks to the awful play of tackles Cedric Ogbuehi and Jake Fisher last year, defenders were in Dalton’s face a lot—and the Bengals missed the playoffs for a second straight season as a result.
Cincinnati tried to improve Dalton’s protection in the offseason, trading down in Round 1 in a deal that brought veteran Cordy Glenn to the Queen City. Any move that sends Ogbuehi to the bench has to be considered a positive.
But the Bengals are counting on Glenn’s ability to do something he hasn’t the past couple of years: stay healthy. Over that span, Glenn has missed 15 games—including 10 a year ago thanks to foot and ankle troubles.
There’s a reason the Bills were willing to part with him.
Fisher’s had injury issues of his own. The 25-year-old has yet to make it through a full 16-game season, and he missed half of the 2017 campaign with an irregular heartbeat.
There’s a good chance the Bengals will be forced to turn back to Ogbuehi at some point in 2018.
And Dalton’s will have guys in his face again.
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Until we see the likes of Tyrod Taylor and No. 1 overall pick Baker Mayfield have on-field success, it’s tempting to call quarterback the Browns’ biggest need. It has been for a very long time—so long that we’ve hit “believe it when you see it” territory.
However, the blind side of that new quarterback’s offensive line is an even bigger problem—one that won’t make it any easier for Taylor or Mayfield to have success.
It’s no surprise that Joe Thomas’ retirement would leave a massive hole on the left end of Cleveland’s offensive line. You don’t just replace a first-ballot Hall of Famer.
And to Cleveland’s credit, it tried to fill the hole. It brought in Chris Hubbard and Donald Stephenson in free agency, and the selection of Nevada’s Austin Corbett in Round 2 indicates Cleveland’s at least considering trying Corbett or Joel Bitonio (both of whom played tackle for the Wolf Pack) on the outside.
Can the Browns get adequate tackle play out of that group (and holdover Shon Coleman)? Possibly.
But it’s nowhere near the sure thing Thomas was.
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Rick Scuteri/Associated Press
For some NFL clubs, it doesn’t take long to spot the biggest need.
Take for instance the Dallas Cowboys, who have a Texas-sized hole at wide receiver.
Dallas already had an issue at the position. In recent years the Cowboys receiving corps was a one-man band. There was Dez Bryant and—not much else.
Now, there’s not even Bryant.
Yes, the Cowboys drafted a pair of wideouts in Colorado State third-rounder Michael Gallup and Boise State sixth-rounder Cedrick Wilson. Gallup’s got significant upside after a standout career with the Rams.
But expecting a Day 2 rookie to carry the pass-catchers isn’t reasonable.
Neither is expecting Tavon Austin to do it.
The Cowboys didn’t have to give up much to acquire Austin from the Los Angeles Rams—just a sixth-round pick. But there’s a good reason for that. The eighth overall selection in 2013 hasn’t had even 525 receiving yards in any of his five pro seasons.
Ezekiel Elliott will see eight-man fronts approximately 117 percent of the time in 2018.
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Joe Mahoney/Associated Press
General manager John Elway and the Denver Broncos can’t be accused of sitting on their hands this offseason. The team added a new starting quarterback in last season’s surprise star, Case Keenum. It bolstered both the weapons around him with rookie wideout Courtland Sutton and the protection around him with veteran tackle Jared Veldheer.
That’s a good thing—because Denver might be throwing the football a lot out of necessity.
After the team released C.J. Anderson in a cost-cutting move, the keys to Denver’s ground game are in Devontae Booker’s hands. The same Booker who has averaged 3.6 yards per carry in two seasons and struggled with fumbling issues.
Rookie Royce Freeman may push Booker to start after a standout career at the University of Oregon. But the 6’0″, 229-pounder needs to show he’s the elusive slasher we saw a few years back and not last year’s grinder who gave rise to questions about a heavy college workload (947 carries in four years).
The Broncos have the makings of a vastly improved offensive team in 2018. But if Keenum’s going to repeat last year’s big numbers in his new home, Booker and Freeman will have to produce on the ground and give the Broncos a measure of balance.
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As Matt Patricia takes the Detroit Lions’ reins for his first NFL head coaching gig, his roster is in good shape. Detroit has posted winning seasons in three of the past four years.
However, the defensive-minded coach faces at least one personnel dilemma: The Lions are hard up for pass-rushing help.
Ezekiel Ansah has shown flashes of dominance over five seasons, and he piled up a dozen sacks a year ago. But both durability and consistency have been issues during his career—he’s missed time in three of five seasons, and nine of those 12 sacks in 2017 came in three games.
After Ansah, things get cloudy. Kerry Hyder broke out with eight sacks two years ago, but a torn Achilles wiped out his 2017 season. Newcomer Devon Kennard has just 9.5 career sacks in four years, although four of those came last season with the New York Giants.
We’ve yet to see exactly what defensive alignment Patricia has in mind, but if his time in New England is any indication we’ll see a little of everything.
It may take that creativity for the Lions to generate pressure on the quarterback. If they can’t, it could be a long year for them in an NFC North that contains Aaron Rodgers and Kirk Cousins.
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By most estimations, the Green Bay Packers had a very good 2018 draft. The Packers added a pair of potential starters at cornerback (Jaire Alexander and Joshua Jackson), help at inside linebacker and a trio of Day 3 wide receivers to help offset the loss of Jordy Nelson.
However, Green Bay’s biggest need entering the offseason remains virtually unchanged.
The Packers were a middle-of-the-pack (see what I did there?) team in sacks last year, ranking 17th in the league with 37. Clay Matthews led the team with 7.5, but Matthews will be 32 when the season starts and hasn’t hit double digits since 2014. Batterymate Nick Perry missed four games and saw his sack total drop by more than 35 percent relative to 2016.
If free-agent signee Muhammad Wilkerson can recapture his 2015 Pro Bowl form, that would be a godsend for the Packers. But if Wilkerson’s production hadn’t plummeted the past two seasons, the Jets never would have released him in the first place.
If Green Bay can’t up the pressure on opposing quarterbacks in 2018, that pressure’s going to transfer to the young Packers secondary.
It won’t hold up forever.
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You may have noticed something of a theme in the first half of this piece: For more than a few NFL teams, the trenches are the biggest area of need with the offseason winding down. It’s a position group that’s as important as it is difficult to remedy.
At the very top of the list of NFL teams hard-up up front is the Houston Texans, who allowed 54 sacks in 2017.
Only the Indianapolis Colts allowed more.
The Texans whiffed on the big-name free agents on the offensive line, and with no first- or second-round pick in the draft, the best the Texans could do in that regard was Martinas Rankin, a tweener prospect whose best fit may well be as a “swing” reserve.
Houston will be putting a lot of confidence in a Day 3 pick (second-year pro Julie’n Davenport), an underachieving free-agent add (Seantrel Henderson, who came over from Buffalo) and a menagerie of replacement-level talents to protect Deshaun Watson this season.
Good thing the kid’s mobile.
He’s going to need those wheels.
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Prior to the NFL draft, there was essentially a tie for the Indianapolis Colts’ biggest problem area in 2018.
Both the offensive and defensive lines needed work—quite a lot of it.
The former got a big boost on April 26 with the selection of Notre Dame guard Quenton Nelson, whom some pundits considered the top overall prospect in this year’s class.
The defensive line, on the other hand, didn’t get a ton of assistance. The Colts added some help in the form of second-round pick Tyquan Lewis, but the former Ohio State star was a rotational player with the Buckeyes who will probably need time to get his sea legs in the NFL.
That leaves Jabaal Sheard and Denico Autry as the front-runners to start on Indy’s new four-man front. Sheard’s the more proven of the two. Twice he’s notched at least eight sacks in a season, but he’s never hit double digits. Autry had five sacks for the Oakland Raiders a year ago, but that’s the high-water mark of his career.
If you can’t pressure the quarterback in today’s NFL, you’re going to get carved up.
Right now, it doesn’t look like a Colts team that was last in the AFC in sacks last year is going to make a leap forward in that regard.
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Oh yeah. I went there.
As the Jacksonville Jaguars showed in advancing to the AFC Championship Game, this is a team that is equipped to challenge for a berth in Super Bowl LIII.
The Jaguars possess a punishing ground game and one of the best defenses in football—maybe the best. That defense added even more pieces in this year’s draft in interior lineman Taven Bryan and safety Ronnie Harrison.
There’s just one problem. One sticking point. One issue looming over the squad.
Robby Blake Bortles.
Bortles isn’t necessarily a terrible quarterback. But among legitimate Super Bowl contenders, it’s hard to argue Jacksonville doesn’t have the worst player at football’s most important position—with very little behind him.
If Andrew Luck’s healthy this year, Bortles is probably the worst starting quarterback in the AFC South.
It’s somewhat understandable that the Jags committed to Bortles moving forward. He did, after all, lead the team to the cusp of its first Super Bowl. The devil you know is better than the devil you don’t and all that jazz.
But Bortles’ shortcomings as a quarterback are very real. And they may well come back to bite the Jaguars in 2018.
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Charlie Riedel/Associated Press
In Marcus Peters, the Kansas City Chiefs had the NFL’s preeminent ball hawk at the cornerback position. Since he entered the NFL in 2015, no player has more interceptions than Peters’ 19.
But Peters isn’t in Kansas City anymore. He was traded to the Los Angeles Rams after the Chiefs tired of his antics between interceptions.
It was a surprising move—one that leaves Kansas City’s secondary very much in flux.
The trade that sent Alex Smith to the Washington Redskins gave the Chiefs Kendall Fuller, who is one of the league’s better young slot corners.
But without Peters, the outside might be a problem. In five years, free-agent addition David Amerson has less than half the interceptions that Peters piled up in just three seasons. Steven Nelson, like Peters, entered the pros in 2015.
His next NFL interception will be his first.
The Chiefs added some corner help on Day 3 of the draft and afterward in rookie free agency, but anything the team gets from that group is going to be found money.
Kansas City’s pass defense was already a mess. The Chiefs allowed 247 yards a game through the air last year. Only three teams gave up more.
Don’t expect that to improve in 2018.
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The Los Angeles Chargers have the makings of a sneaky-good contender in 2018. The team rebounded from an awful start last season to narrowly miss the playoffs, and problem areas like the offensive line and interior defense were bolstered in free agency and/or the NFL draft.
Third-round defensive tackle Justin Jones was brought in in the hopes of fortifying a run defense that was terrible last year, surrendering 131.1 yards per game on the ground—most in the AFC.
There’s still an issue in the middle of the defense, however.
The Chargers drafted a potential starter on the outside of Gus Bradley’s 4-3 in USC’s Uchenna Nwosu, but the “Mike” linebacker spot is still up in the air.
That’s the middle, in case your vernacular needs work.
Jatavis Brown, who logged 76 stops for a second straight year in 2017, was in and out of the lineup last season. That was partly due to nagging injuries, but he also appeared to lose favor with the coaching staff.
When on the field, Denzel Perryman’s been a more consistent performer than Brown. But there’s a big caveat—Perryman has missed 15 games in three years (including over half of last season).
It’s not hard to imagine another carousel where Perryman gets hurt, Brown bounces in and out of the starting lineup, and Hayes Pullard plays like the seventh-round pick he is.
In other words, an unwanted repeat of last season.
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Here’s a news flash:
The Los Angeles Rams spent most of the offseason loading up for a Super Bowl run. There wasn’t a more aggressive team in the NFL when it came to adding impact players, whether it was cornerback Marcus Peters or defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh.
However, that doesn’t mean the Rams are without holes on defense. Among all the additions was one major subtraction—the trade that sent inside linebacker Alec Ogletree to the New York Giants.
This isn’t to say the Rams are barren at the position now. Mark Barron is a proven veteran with a pair of 100-tackle seasons on his professional resume.
But the spot next to Barron is now a question mark. Fourth-year pro Bryce Hager has all of one career start. Ramik Wilson has more experience as a starter, but the former Chief is a liability in coverage.
The Rams have the makings of a formidable defense. But if that defense has an Achilles’ heel, it’s in the middle.
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Adrian Kraus/Associated Press
The Miami Dolphins did a fine job of addressing team needs in the 2018 NFL draft. The hole at tight end was filled with second-rounder Mike Gesicki. Ditto for the one at outside linebacker with third-rounder Jerome Baker.
With that said, though, the Dolphins weren’t able to address the biggest hole on the defense, which they created with the release of star defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh.
Miami made a move to improve its tackle rotation after the draft, acquiring Akeem Spence in a trade with the Detroit Lions. And to his credit, Spence is coming off a great year. His 39 tackles and three sacks both tied career bests.
But neither Spence nor anyone else on Miami’s roster (Jordan Phillips, Davon Godchaux) at defensive tackle is in the same area code as Suh talent-wise.
The financial realities that led to Suh being released—his contract was strangling the team’s ability to add players—is understandable. But there are consequences for that move that could become evident quickly this season.
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Paul Sancya/Associated Press
Need is a relative concept where the Minnesota Vikings are concerned.
The Vikings are as loaded as any roster in the National Football League. They’re flush with talent at the offensive skill positions and have of the most stacked defensive front fours in the league. And the Vikes moved aggressively to (hopefully) upgrade at quarterback by giving Kirk Cousins $84 million in guaranteed money.
This is a team most expect will be in the hunt to make the journey to Mercedes-Benz Stadium in February. But it isn’t flawless.
As things stand right now, it looks like second-year pro Ben Gedeon will be the team’s starter at “Will” linebacker. The fourth-round pick is a hard-nosed player who started nine games for the Vikings last year, piling up 37 tackles.
But compared to stars at the position like Tampa Bay’s Lavonte David and Jacksonville’s Telvin Smith, Gedeon’s running in mud. His sideline-to-sideline quickness and coverage skills are average on a good day.
And in today’s NFL of spread offenses and linebackers tasked with covering backs and tight ends, that could spell trouble for both Gedeon and the Vikings down the road.
You won’t find much sympathy for him or Minnesota around the league though.
Most clubs have bigger fish to fry.
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Steven Senne/Associated Press
This may surprise some people, but the New England Patriots don’t have many holes on their roster.
It’s a stunner. Take a moment to collect yourself.
The Patriots have plenty of talent at the skill positions, including newcomers like wide receiver Jordan Matthews and tailback Jeremy Hill. There’s no shortage on the defensive side either, whether it’s up front with end Trey Flowers or in the back with cornerback Stephon Gilmore and safety Devin McCourty.
They’re the favorites to represent the AFC in Super Bowl LIII, because they are the Patriots. But one thing could quickly derail New England’s championship dreams.
The departure of left tackle Nate Solder in free agency leaves a king-sized hole on the most important blind side in professional football. The Patriots have sixth-year veteran LaAdrian Waddle and second-year pro Antonio Garcia as potential replacements, but neither of those linemen is exactly a proven commodity—especially after Garcia missed his entire rookie season while dealing with blood clots in his lungs.
That lengthy layoff creates serious concerns about Garcia’s long-term potential. Waddle isn’t a starting-caliber tackle.
And if Tom Brady starts getting blasted from behind, the concern level in Beantown is going to hit DEFCON 5 in a hurry.
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Steve Nesius/Associated Press
A great many NFL teams wish they were in the New Orleans Saints’ shoes at this point in the offseason. The Saints have everything a contending team needs: an explosive offense, a stout defense and a superstar quarterback in Drew Brees.
Never mind a 2017 draft class that produced both the Offensive and Defensive Rookies of the Year in Alvin Kamara and Marshon Lattimore.
You know things are going well when a team can shrug off a four-game PED suspension for starting tailback Mark Ingram because his backup is even better.
However, for all the smiles in the Big Easy right now, there’s one area that could quickly become a problem for the Saints.
The Coby Fleener experiment at tight end was a disaster, and now Fleener’s been released. That leaves Benjamin Watson as the No. 1 tight end for the team.
Watson had the best year of his career with Brees and the Saints back in 2015, setting career highs in catches and yardage and tying a career-best in touchdowns. But Watson then missed all of the 2016 campaign in Baltimore with an Achilles tear, and he’s got more than a few candles on his birthday cake.
Thirty-seven, to be precise.
The Saints are putting a lot of faith in an aging player with a lengthy injury history—and the downside is all of us might have to learn to spell Michael Hoomanawanui.
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It could be argued (pretty convincingly) that the New York Giants’ biggest need after free agency and the draft is at the wide receiver position. Sure, the Giants have one of the NFL’s very best at the position in Odell Beckham Jr., as well as a capable slot guy in youngster Sterling Shepard. But after that pair, the talent pool dries up in a hurry—the likes of Cody Latimer and Roger Lewis aren’t scaring many defensive backs.
But the Giants have even bigger issues on the other side of the ball as New York moves to a three-man front under new defensive coordinator James Bettcher.
Who exactly is going to pressure the quarterback?
The Giants traded their most proven pass-rusher, dealing Jason Pierre-Paul to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Like Pierre-Paul, Olivier Vernon has a fat salary, but his career high in sacks (11.5) came back in 2013—the only time he’s had more than 8.5.
Oh, and Vernon’s played exclusively in four-man fronts dating all the way back to his collegiate days at Miami.
The Giants added a potential starter at outside linebacker opposite Vernon in Georgia’s Lorenzo Carter, but rookie edge-rushers usually take time to adjust to the NFL.
And that could lead to a highly sporadic pass rush in 2018.
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Seth Wenig/Associated Press
Maybe there’s some sort of local ordinance in the Big Apple that forbids the acquisition of too many pass-rushers.
Because just like the Giants, the New York Jets are in rough shape in that regard.
Actually, the Jets are even worse off. The days when the Jets were stacked with talent on the defensive line are gone. Sheldon Richardson is in Minnesota. Big Muhammad Wilkerson is in Green Bay.
And while Leonard Williams is still in green and white, he doesn’t have much help.
After missing the entire 2017 season to a back injury, Lorenzo Mauldin enters the fourth year of his NFL career with 6.5 sacks over two seasons. Batterymate Jordan Jenkins has just 5.5 heading into his third season.
That’s not going to come close to getting it done.
The Jets did next to nothing to improve their pass rush in the offseason. No big-money free agents. No high-round draft picks.
No help for Williams, who has only averaged four sacks a season himself.
Todd Bowles has his work cut out for him generating pressure with this bunch.
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The Oakland Raiders have a number of position groups that may or may not be in trouble this season. If things break the right way, a run game spearheaded by Marshawn Lynch and Doug Martin might be just fine. Ditto for a secondary that has some questions at cornerback.
Then there’s the linebacker corps.
Tahir Whitehead topped 100 total tackles in each of the past two seasons with the Detroit Lions. But while Whitehead’s a steady presence, he’s hardly an elite talent. Derrick Johnson is an accomplished veteran with four Pro Bowls to his credit. But he’s also 35 and clearly in decline. Emmanuel Lamur is a decent player, but he’s just that—decent.
If Whitehead can maintain his level of production, Johnson can stay healthy and Lamur can handle an increased role, it’s possible this group can at least be average. And average would be a substantial improvement over 2017.
But it’s also not hard to imagine this group being the weak link in the Raiders defense for the upcoming campaign.
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What with winning the Super Bowl and all, the Philadelphia Eagles are obviously a good football team.
The Eagles’ already rock-solid defensive line is now filthy with the addition of end Michael Bennett. Fourth-round pick Josh Sweat added depth to a linebacker corps that needed it. The secondary’s a little short in that regard but, barring an injury, should be fine.
In other words, picking a biggest “need” for the Eagles involves a fair amount of nitpicking.
The loss of LeGarrette Blount robbed the run game of some of its depth—a Jay Ajayi injury would be costly.
But it’s the wideout corps that stands out as the biggest problem that isn’t really one.
The starters are set. Alshon Jeffery earned a $52 million contract extension after reeling in nine touchdown passes in 2017. Nelson Agholor did more in his third season in Philly than the first two combined. Mike Wallace topped 1,000 receiving yards with the Baltimore Ravens in 2016.
But Wallace is on the wrong side of 30, and Agholor has just the one good season on his resume. If any of those pass-catchers falters or gets hurt, it’s a whole lot of “who?” behind them.
And Markus Wheaton, which may be worse.
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This has to be the saddest area of need in all of the NFL. Ryan Shazier’s spinal injury has already caused him to be ruled out for the entirety of the 2018 season.
The harsh reality is that Shazier likely will never play football again.
That’s a problem for a Steelers team that has one goal this season: a trip to Atlanta and a berth in Super Bowl LIII
Before this year’s draft, there was a boatload of speculation that Pittsburgh would address the hole inside early. The Steelers not only didn’t do that, but they also didn’t draft an inside linebacker at all.
The cupboard isn’t completely bare. Vince Williams has played his entire five-year career in the Steel City, and newcomer Jon Bostic has 32 career starts and logged a career-best 97 tackles in 2017.
But Williams is more a “throwback” linebacker—a downhill thumper. Bostic’s athletic but can be undisciplined. He’s also on his fifth team heading into his sixth season.
There isn’t a linebacker on Pittsburgh’s roster that can sniff Shazier’s range or coverage skills, qualities that are more important than ever in today’s NFL.
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Free-agent acquisition Jerick McKinnon isn’t the biggest running back at just 5’9″. But as David Bonilla reported for 49ers Webzone, general manager John Lynch is confident McKinnon can carry the load as the featured back.
“I think the cool thing about Jerick, even though he’s a smaller guy and a fast guy, he plays big,” Lynch said. “We had some level of concern when we first started looking at him because we let Carlos Hyde walk in free agency.
“We kind of had a cool thing with Carlos being the bigger back, and Matt Breida and other guys being that smaller guy. And Jerick, although small in stature, he plays big. He plays like a bigger back. We think he can kind of be an every-down back as well. We’re excited about him.”
Lynch demonstrated a lot of confidence in McKinnon with a four-year, $30 million contract. But the fifth-year pro has never touched the ball more than 202 times in a season. He’s also missed time twice in four seasons.
If McKinnon can’t hold up under a bigger workload, the Niners don’t have much insurance behind him besides Joe Williams and Matt Breida, both of whom are complementary backs at best.
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Granted, “offensive lineman” isn’t exactly a position in the NFL.
But it’s hard to pick one spot on Seattle’s offensive line that’s a bigger mess than the others.
The O-line was, for lack of a better word, terrible in 2017. According to Football Outsiders, only the Detroit Lions were worse at run blocking last season than the Seahawks. Seattle was rated 26th in pass protection, allowing 43 sacks.
The team didn’t do much to improve in the offseason. There were no free-agent signings of note, and Seattle passed on upgrading the line until the fifth round of the draft.
The Seahawks hope that a healthy Duane Brown can hold down quarterback Russell Wilson’s blind side. But the 32-year-old missed six games last year and hasn’t played all 16 games in a season since 2014.
Per Gregg Bell of the Tacoma News-Tribune, right tackle Germain Ifedi was the most penalized player in the NFL in 2017. D.J. Fluker hasn’t come anywhere close to living up to his draft slot and is on his third NFL team.
There’s an awful lot that has to go just right for this line to be any better than last year’s fiasco.
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To their credit, general manager Jason Licht and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers didn’t ignore the elephant in the room that was their league-worst pass defense in 2017. The Bucs spent a pair of second-round picks on Auburn’s Carlton Davis and North Carolina’s M.J. Stewart.
However, those additions don’t necessarily solve Tampa Bay’s most pressing need.
Sure, Stewart’s a physical youngster whose toughness will come in handy in a Buccaneers secondary that surrendered 260.6 passing yards per game in 2017. Davis has the size, length and wheels that NFL teams covet on the back end.
But neither young corner is a “sure thing” by any stretch. It’s a position with one of the steeper learning curves in the pros.
Veteran Brent Grimes is 34 and not the player he once was. Vernon Hargreaves hasn’t been the defender the Buccaneers hoped he’d become when they selected him 11th overall back in 2016.
If Tampa Bay’s going to make any hay in a loaded NFC South this season, the young secondary is going to have to grow up in a hurry—and hope Grimes turns back the clock.
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Charlie Riedel/Associated Press
In 2017, the Tennessee Titans made Western Michigan’s Corey Davis the first wide receiver drafted in the hopes Davis would become Marcus Mariota’s go-to wideout.
If the Titans are going to get back to the postseason in 2018, that has to happen.
To say that Davis had an uneven rookie season is probably being kind. He missed five games. Only twice all season long did he catch more than five passes—and that’s two more times than he topped 100 yards or found the end zone.
He did score two touchdowns in Tennessee’s playoff loss to the New England Patriots, but that wasn’t the return on investment the Titans wanted from the fifth overall pick.
Rishard Matthews is a capable veteran receiver with 50-plus receptions and 750-plus receiving yards each of the last two seasons. But the Tennessee passing game was limited during that time because Matthews just isn’t a No. 1 receiver. He’s not going to draw double-teams from opposing defenses.
That’s exactly what the Titans need Davis to do: draw coverage away from Matthews and Tajae Sharpe while also providing Mariota with a big target in the red zone.
Sometimes, the biggest need for an NFL team is already on the roster.
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Steve Helber/Associated Press
It would have been easy enough (and accurate) to point to wide receiver as the biggest area of need for the Redskins in 2018. Washington has a shiny new (old) quarterback in Alex Smith, but Smith is short of proven talent at wideout.
The number of 1,000-yard seasons compiled by Washington’s receivers in their respective careers is the same as the number of such seasons I’ve piled up in the NFL.
Zero. Nada. The big goose egg.
But that receiving corps has some potential. And there’s a spot on the other side of the ball where improvement is even more important.
In 2017, no team in the NFL gave up more rushing yards than Washington. The Redskins allowed a whopping 134.1 yards per contest.
Washington moved to solidify that marshmallow-soft front seven in this year’s draft with the selection of Alabama defensive tackle Da’Ron Payne. It marked the second straight year the Redskins used their first pick on a lineman from the Crimson Tide.
With Payne and a healthy Jonathan Allen up front, the Redskins should (in theory) be harder to gash up the middle in 2018.
But until we see it actually happen, fortifying the run defense remains Washington’s biggest need.