Through the offseason all 32 NFL teams have looked at their roster and tried to improve it, whether that is through free agency or the draft. That has resulted in some much improved position groups in combination with the pieces those teams already had. I want to point out six of those newly formed units, who I think will be a strength this season and help their respective teams win football games after hurting them to some degree last year. Here they are:
Eagles Defensive Line
LE Brandon Graham, DT Timmy Jernigan, DT Fletcher Cox, RE Derek Barnett
Bench: DE Chris Long, DE Vinnie Curry, DT Beau Allen, DT Elijah Qualls
Through the first three weeks of the 2016/17 season the Eagles defense on average gave up nine points to opposing teams. That included a match-up against an explosive Steelers offense (even without Le’Veon Bell, as DeAngelo Williams had rushed for 237 yards over weeks one and two), where they held that team to three(!) points. Philly was flying high at 3-0 heading into the bye week, but until the last few games quarterbacks started picking on a couple of below-average cornerbacks and the defense fell to 12th in points allowed. The biggest bright-spots were safety/nickel-hybrid Malcolm Jenkins, a disruptive Fletcher Cox and defensive end Brandon Graham, who might not have had double-digit sacks, but led the league with 40 quarterback hurries and recorded 14 tackles for loss. So what did the Eagles do in the offseason – they strengthened a strength. First they added Timmy Jernigan from Baltimore, who is a rock in the run game and has upside as a power-rusher, and Derek Barnett at 14th overall in the draft – the young man who broke Reggie White’s sack record at Tennessee with 33 total. Moreover, they signed Chris Long, who will show new juice when coming off the bench, a rotational defensive end in Vinny Curry, a run-stuffing nose tackle in Beau Allen and later in the draft they added Washington’s Elijah Qualls, who I think needs to be coached hard, but will be much more disruptive when fresh. Jim Schwartz has a bunch of new toys at his disposal and he will let them loose to frustrate offensive coordinators.
CB Jimmy Smith, CB Marlon Humphrey, FS Eric Weddle, SS Tony Jefferson, NB Tavon Young
Bench: CB Brandon Carr, S Ladarius Webb
The Ravens had a top ten defense last season, which was statistically proven in terms of yards and point allowed. Up until the Dallas game they were ranked first in rushing yards allowed and contained Ezekiel Elliott very well for a half. Then Dak Prescott came out of the locker room and started swinging it, which led to holes opening up for Zeke. Baltimore was in the hunt for the AFC North in week 16 against the Steelers. Le’Veon Bell was great, but what lost them the game was the fact Pittsburgh marched down the field in half a minute by exposing the Ravens secondary. So the organization realized they needed to improve that area. They had a good defense, but not the way you think of a Ravens defense. Ozzie Newsome started the transition by signing free agents Brandon Carr and Tony Jefferson, who was one the best safeties and stat box-fillers in the entire league over the last two years. Then in the first round of the draft they selected Alabama cornerback Marlon Humphrey. He’s a big, physical guy with sprinter speed to lock down the outside, but he lacks some ball-skills and has to get better with his back to the throws. This will allow the Ravens to move second-year man Tavon Young, who had an excellent rookie year for a fourth-round pick, to the nickel spot. The move I loved was the re-signing of Ladarius Webb, who has been with the team for almost a decade now, as he will add outstanding depth together with Carr, who has been a solid starter for a while with the Cowboys. Watch out for this defense to go back to being one the elite units, especially with some other defensive players from the draft.
Browns Offensive Line
LT Joe Thomas, LG Joel Bitonio, C J.C. Tretter, RG Kevin Zeitler, RT Cameron Erving
Bench: OT Roderick Johnson, OT Shon Coleman, OG John Greco
When a team goes 1-15 you really evaluate every position on that team and after obviously the quarterback spot and maybe the secondary to some degree, I thought the Browns’ biggest weakness was their offensive line. Joe Thomas has been the premiere left tackle of the last decade and Joel Bitonio is one of the most underrated guards in football in my opinion, but the rest of that unit struggled mightily, allowing a league-worst 66 total sacks. That’s 17 more than the next-closest unit. I think this was in large part due to letting Alex Mack go in free agency, who then went on to help the Falcons field one of the top five O-lines in the league and reach a Super Bowl. They tried to replace him with Cam Erving, who they drafted in the first round the year prior, but to me his natural fit in the NFL is at tackle. By signing J.C. Tretter from the Packers, who was clearly the league’s best backup center, Cleveland gives themselves the flexibility to move the third-year man out of Florida State to the outside. That leaves the right guard spot up for grabs, so they continued to add pieces with one of the best guards on the free agent market in Kevin Zeitler. All of a sudden that starting five looks like a potential top-10 unit. But not only that, with Shon Coleman and John Greco to bring off the bench now, plus by drafting another FSU alumni and roadgrader in Roderick Johnson, who can line up at tackle or guard, they have solid eight men dressing up for them on gameday.
WLB Kiko Alonso, MLB Lawrence Timmons, SLB Raekwon McMillan
Bench: Koa Misi
The Dolphins’ biggest weakness at the end of last season was the secondary and it showed up when Antonio Brown torched them in the Wild Card-round, basically sending them home after just over the first quarter. Still, their leading tackler from 2015 Reshad Jones was put on IR after week six of last year, Byron Maxwell had an excellent season after a horrible one with the Eagles, they like what they saw in second-year man Xavien Howard and even though newly signed T.J. McDonald will miss the first half of this year’s campaign, they have a solid back-up for him in Nate Allen. To me the question mark for this Miami team was the linebacker unit. Kiko Alonso had a huge year after, once again, leaving the Eagles, recording 115 tackles and two interceptions. After him they didn’t get much help as Koa Misi only played in three games as well as Jelani Jenkins and Spencer Paysinger being back-ups in my opinion. So what did they do? They added a hammer in the middle in Lawrence Timmons from the Steelers, who at age 30 can still run around with the young guys, and then they drafted Raekwon McMillan in the second round, as he was one of the more underrated linebackers coming into the draft, because everybody talked about Haason Reddick, Reuben Foster and Jarrad Davis. I really like the former Buckeye’s instincts and he showed me at the combine that he can move very fluidly in pass coverage. So the Dolphins can start Alonso at WILL, where he can fly around the field, have Timmons control things in the middle as a MIKE and McMillan be an aggressive SAM. That sounds like a formidable trio, plus they have Koa Misi coming off the bench.
CB Vontae Davis, CB Quincy Wilson, FS Malik Hooker, SS T.J. Green, NB Nate Hairston
Bench: CB Rashaan Melvin, CB Patrick Robinson, S Clayton Geathers
While I think the Ravens back-end is going to be better than the Colts’ unit, I believe this will be the most improved secondary from last year. That Indy defensive backfield was banged up all year. Their number one corner Vontae Davis missed the first two games of the season and had to play at not nearly 100 percent, safety Clayton Geathers was available for only nine contests, cornerback Patrick Robinson missed more than half the season and their number two guy on the outside, Darius Butler, exited a bunch of games because he got hurt. It got so bad, the Colts signed DBs to their practice squad, who started the next week for them because they had nobody else. The only guy in that secondary who performed at a high level over the entire year was strong safety Mike Adams, who they let walk away in free agency now. New GM Chris Ballard went into the offseason understanding he had to address the defensive side of the ball and after signing a load of free agents for the front-seven, they went defense-heavy in the draft. Free safety Malik Hooker out of Ohio State was the premiere center-fielder and ball-hawk available, in Quincy Wilson they add a physical bump-and-run corner to line up opposite of Vontae Davis and with their sixth-round pick Nate Hairston out of Temple they get a feisty competitor, who I believe will fight his way into nickel-packages. I think the front office really likes last-year’s draft pick T.J. Green and he will start for them, but he needs to do more in terms of attacking downhill and making tackles now that Hooker will play more of the high role. That line-up would give Rashaan Melvin more opportunities to focus on special teams and Indy wouldn’t have to rely on him and Clayton Geathers as much to stay healthy.
Chargers Receiving Corp
WR Keenan Allen, WR Mike Williams, TE Hunter Henry, SR Travis Benjamin
Bench: WR Tyrell Williams, WR Dontrell Inman, TE Antonio Gates
The Chargers had a rough 2016 campaign. I can’t even count the number of players that went on IR for them from the start of season on. It all started week one against the Chiefs when they got off to a 24-3 start against the Chiefs, but then lost Keenan Allen for the season, who at that point had six catches for 63 yards, and let K.C. come all the way back in the second half. This would be a sign of things to come as they finished the year with a 5-11 record, even though they won against the Broncos once, the Falcons and Texans. I thought together with their number one corner Jason Verrett, Allen was their biggest loss of the season. His ability to create separation and run smooth routes make him a true number one target. Anyhow, the new L.A. team understood that Philip Rivers is at his best when he has a big target at his disposal – much like he did with Vincent Jackson – and so they drafted alley-oop specialist Mike Williams out of Clemson seventh overall in Philly. You combine those two with the speedster Travis Benjamin, whose hands are a little inconsistent, but can take the top of defenses, plus a promising sophomore tight-end in Hunter Henry and you create some big-time match-up problems. Not only do they bring out a scary starting line-up, they have two productive starters from last year back – Tyrell Williams and Dontrell Inman. Those guys might not be primary receivers in the league, but heck of fourth and fifth options at the position. If that wasn’t already enough, an eight-time Pro Bowler called Antonio Gates will be coming off the bench and catch touchdowns in the red-zone, like he has done for a decade now. I believe the entire Chargers team will have a much better season from what they had a year ago, maybe doubling their win-total, and this receiving corp will play a big part in that development.