Continuing my series on the biggest needs for every NFL team after the main phase of free agency and the draft, I’m jumping to the opposite conference. Once again, this could be starters, backups or in one case even a strategic change necessary. Not only is it the lesser accomplished teams that need some help, even the powerhouses could use some serious upgrades. Here we go:
Baltimore Ravens – Center
The Ravens are building another dominant defense, with several key veterans and some young players, who are only getting better at this point. I think they have quality depth at pretty much every position on that side of the ball. Offensively, they are about to make a schematic overhaul once 32nd overall pick Lamar Jackson is waiting to become the dynamic new leader of this team. However, as of now this still is Joe Flacco’s job to lose and he has a completely new set of weapons. They brought over John Brown from Arizona to once again give them a serious deep threat, Willie Snead will take over in the slot for them and they drafted two excellent tight-ends in South Carolina’s Hayden Hurst and Oklahoma’s Mark Andrews. Alex Collins emerged as their featured back last season and they have some young talents behind him. Nevertheless, the offensive line hasn’t experienced continuity in recent years. They get their most important asset back in All-Pro guard Marshal Yanda and Ronnie Stanley is on the brink of becoming a top-tier left tackle in this league. I think you can pencil in two of these three at left guard and right tackle – James Hurst, Alex Lewis and Orlando Brown. I’m not totally sold on what they have at center though. Baltimore picked up Matt Skura as an undrafted free agent two years ago and he started 12 games last season with Yanda on IR. They were forced to give up Ryan Jensen in free agency, since they knew they wouldn’t be able to afford him. He ended up proving them right on that thought, by signing a four-year, 42-million dollar contract with the Buccaneers. I have yet to see Skura at center, but he didn’t look too good at guard last season and I have some doubts. I think Bradley Bozeman, who they picked up late in the draft out of Alabama, is a rock-solid backup, but a sixth-round pick rarely cracks the starting lineup.
Cincinnati Bengals – Right tackle
I don’t think it’s very hard to point out the Bengals’ weaknesses last year. They needed to add to the linebacker level (as they did with the addition of former Bill Preston Brown) and nobody outside of A.J. Green has really proven to be a productive pass-catcher on that Cincinnati roster, but it has been that offensive line that has been killing this team since Andrew Whitworth went to L.A. last offseason. More specifically, the tackles were the ones, who performed at a sub-par level. Jake Fisher and Cedric Ogbuehi were embarrassed for the majority of last season, being rated lower than any other guys at the position, who started the majority of games on the year. Cincy traded for the Bills’ Cordy Glenn, who can be a franchise left tackle, but he has had some serious injury concerns lately. Even if he stays healthy for 16 games, they will need to count on one of those starters from last year as their second book-end. I always liked Fisher more than Ogbuehi, going back to their college days, and I think he could hang in there, if Glenn mans down the left side and they give him some help, but I wouldn’t say that the Bengals are really happy with what they have at that spot either. Bobby Hart was brought in once the Giants waived him. He could be a quality guy to carry on gameday due to his position flexibility, but he’s no starter material either in my book. Like I said, I think this team can hang in there as long as they can slide to the right and help out Fisher by chipping his man with backs and tight-ends, but once Glenn misses any time and they are forced to go back to their starting duo from last season, I’d be seriously worried.
Cleveland Browns – Left tackle
I know I’ve been a little critical of what the Browns did in the draft (as you can read in my draft review), but there is no doubt that this team will be able to compete on Sundays. Their defense is ready to go now that they’ve added a young cover-guy on the outside (Ohio State’s Denzel Ward) and they have surrounded whoever goes under center with some true weapons. I know we’ll have to see if Josh Gordon continues to stay clean off the field and a guy like Corey Coleman develops into a playmaker, but they definitely have potential. They built one of the strongest offensive lines on paper last offseason, but Joe Thomas finally got hurt after more than 10.000 consecutive snaps and retired after a fabulous 12-year career. So the one guy the Browns have been able to count on during that stretch is now gone and they haven’t found anybody to replace him. From the players they had on the roster before the draft, Shon Coleman looked like he might shift to the left side. Being drafted in the third round two years ago out of Auburn, I liked him at right tackle last season, but that will be Chris Hubbard’s spot to lose, since they brought him in from New England. When they worked on their roster in Dallas, they selected UConn’s Austin Corbett very early in the second round. I was a big fan of the big man when I watched his tape, but I thought he projected much better to one of three interior spots, especially center. I know he’s 6’4’’ and had four excellent years on the edge with the Wolfpack, but his lack of arm length is a concern for me and putting a rookie out there at the most crucial spot, who already has a natural disadvantage against guys like Myles Garrett and Carlos Dunlap, who he will face twice per year, might not be the best thing to do.
Pittsburgh Steelers – Inside linebacker
Assuming star running back Le’Veon Bell and the organization come to some sort of agreement until the start of the season, the Steelers have more firepower on offense than any other team in the league. Their O-line can be dominant, they have weapons all over the place and Big Ben proves why he will end in Hall of Fame almost on a weekly basis. However, the defense just came off allowing 45 points to Blake Bortles and company in the Divisional Round of the playoffs. To be honest, I thought that side of the ball was really coming along with the growth of young Artie Burns to go with Joe Haden and Cam Heyward wrecking gameplan’s on a weekly basis. That was until their leader Ryan Shazier went down with a horrible injury. This pick strongly depends on what the Steelers plan to do with first-round draft pick Terrell Edmunds. Pittsburgh made the biggest surprise selections of day one when they selected the former Virginia Tech safety with the 28th pick and I immediately thought about in which role they would plan to use him. The obvious one would be as a matchup piece to slow down the Patriots’ Ron Gronkowski, who sliced them up in the second half of their week 15 matchup, but what is Edmunds’ base position? My belief was that they would use him in a similar role to Arizona’s Deone Buccanon, who they drafted as a safety, but slid right in at linebacker as well. Edmunds is even a little bigger than the Cardinals defender and it would make sense to pair him up with Vince Williams, who they like to blitz more on passing downs. If Pittsburgh actually plans to put him in at safety though, they have a huge hole at inside linebacker without Shazier. I don’t see Jon Bostic or Tyler Matakevich (who I really liked at Temple) as starting NFL linebackers.
Buffalo Bills – Wide receiver
The drought is over. The Bills finally made the playoffs again for the first time since 1999 and still this feels like a totally different team. They traded quarterback Tyrod Taylor to the Browns, which always felt like the move they wanted to make, left tackle Cordy Glenn was sent to Cincinnati for a swapping of first-round picks, linebacker Preston Brown was let go in free agency and Richie Incognito surprisingly decided to retire or so it seems like. Still, this is a promising young bunch. Buffalo moved up in the draft twice to get their franchise guys at quarterback (Wyoming’s Josh Allen) and middle linebacker (Virginia Tech’s Tremaine Edmunds). While the super-talented backer will step right into the starting lineup, A.J. McCarron should be the day-one starter under center. I think defensively they have a good mix of veterans and young players. On offense however, I’m not quite sure about the passing game. LeSean McCoy has been one of the most heavily utilized RBs ever since he moved up North, but they need to take some pressure of him by adding some weapons on the outsid.e When the Bills traded away Sammy Watkins a year ago, it seemed like they were counting on a rookie in Zay Jones to take over as their featured guy. They made a much-needed move for Kelvin Benjamin in the midst of the season, but especially with Jones out for the offseason programs, they need another pass-catcher to build chemistry with the quarterbacks. Andre Holmes appears to be their starting slot receiver, but you can’t work with him and guys like Brandon Reilly, Kaelin Clay or Jeremy Kerley as your number two option. A guy I really like that they picked up as an undrafted free agent is former Virginia Tech receiver Cam Phillips, who always was counted on in the Hokies’ offense. Of course the loss of Richie Incognito leaves a hole at one of the guard spots, but I’m a big fan of fifth-round pick Wyatt Teller, who has a similar nasty attitude of mauling people.
Miami Dolphins – 3-tech defensive tackle
Adam Gase has cleaned up this Dolphins roster and he finally has the guys, he wants to work with. Jay Ajayi, Jarvis Landry, Mike Pouncey and Ndamokung Suh are all gone, but they also brought in Danny Amendola, Josh Sitton and several key pieces in the draft. Eleventh overall pick Minkah Fitzpatrick from Alabama will be the focal point of this defense for years to come, while they added some more speed and playmaking ability to the linebacker unit with Ohio State’s Jerome Baker. Offensively, former Penn State tight-end Mike Gesicki will be a weapon for them and so will the versatile Arizona State running back Kalen Ballage. Most importantly though, Ryan Tannehill will be back on the field after tearing his ACL last summer and missing the entire 2017 season. This will be a huge year for him, as it could determine if he will their quarterback of the future or they will make a change. While there are some question marks for who will take over at right guard, I think the element they are truly missing is a penetrator on the interior of their defensive line. Miami let go of Ndamokung Suh this offseason, because he became a cap casualty and seemingly never quite fit into the locker room. Jordan Phillips does a good job playing at that shade nose spot, but the ‘Phins are counting on second-year man Davon Godchaux to be a disruptive force for them. The LSU alumn has powerful hands, which he can disengage with, but too often he still lets blockers get into his body and a multitude of snaps he looks like just another guy. Cameron Wake and recently acquired Robert Quinn will come around those corners hot, with William Hayes moving over guards on some passing downs, but I don’t think they can count on anybody on the interior to get a TFL for minus two yards on 1&10.
New England Patriots – Pass rushers
Once again, the Patriots lose several key contributors from the prior season and we are talking about how they won’t be able to recover from all of them. That is until they step back out on the field and are in AFC Championship, which they are pretty much every year. Even after trading away Brandin Cooks and letting Danny Amendola walk in free agency, this roster has several capable receivers, which is all Tom Brady needs to move the ball down the field. With the draft pick, they acquired from the Rams, they replaced left tackle Nate Solder with Georgia’s Wynn. While I thought he wasn’t long enough to stay on the outside, he has amazing feet and gives them what they need in their quick-rhythm passing offense. Their 31st overall pick Sony Michel has a chance to be a special, Alvin Kamara-like dual-threat out of the backfield. Defensively, they are coming off one of their worst performances in the Super Bowl, when they gave up 41 points to a backup quarterback and now they are without defensive coordinator Matt Patricia. With Jason McCourty teaming up with his brother, this secondary looks more than formidable and they get their leader in Dont’a Hightower back from injury. The pass rush however, still isn’t where it needs to be. Free agent Adrian Clayborn had a breakout season in 2017 (even though half of his sack production came in one game against a backup tackle, who was left on an island for some reason) and Trey Flowers is one of the most unknown stars of this league. He has position flexibility and can be disruptive along the defensive line. Deatrich Wise saw quite a bit of game-action last season and Derek Rivers is a guy, who I was really high on in last year’s draft, coming out of Youngstown State. So there is some talent. Still, other than Flowers they don’t have a proven guy at getting after the passer. They need someone else, they can count on to put on the heat, no matter where from.
New York Jets – Guard
I did this already a couple of times over the course of last season and beyond, but once again – my hat off to the Jets for playing energetic and being competitive pretty much every week. I honestly didn’t think they would win more than a game or two, but Jamal Adams took over as the leader of this defense and 39-year old Josh McCown had a career year, with the guys behind them playing inspired football. Nevertheless, this is still not the most talented roster by a mile, even though I look at them much different coming into this season. They have two future stars on the front and the backend in Leonard Williams and Adams, who I just mentioned, and a very intriguing cornerback duo, as they brought in Morris Claiborne a year ago and added Trumaine Johnson this offseason, to go with Buster Skrine in the slot. I like the signing of linebacker Avery Williamson and trading a seventh round pick for defensive lineman Henry Anderson on that side of the ball as well. Offensively, Gang Green has an interesting running back room, a bundle of young receivers and whenever he’s ready, a rookie quarterback in USC’s Sam Darnold, who I believe has a chance to be really special. To me there are two real question marks. I like the collection of Robby Anderson, Quincy Enunwa, Jermaine Kearse and others, but who is the alpha dog among that unit? The answer could actually be Terrelle Pryor I believe. The five-year veteran transitioned from quarterback to wide receiver two years and had a monster season with the Browns. Even though he never actually recaptured that magic during his one campaign with the Redskins, I think he still has a lot of room to grow and could be a top-tier guy. Therefore I want to shift my focus on the guard position. James Carpenter should start at one of the spots, but the other one is kind of up for grabs. Brian Winters seems to be the obvious candidate, having started 26 games for them in the last two seasons, but he has missed three contests each year and hasn’t performed very well when he was in the lineup. Ben Braden and Dakota Dozier seem to be the other two options, but Braden was an undrafted free agent a year ago and Dozier has started just five games in his four-year career.
Houston Texans – Offensive line help
Don’t get me wrong – I’m really looking forward to watching the Texans next season. Having Deshaun Watson, J.J. Watt, Whitney Mercilus and most of all high hopes back, will take this team a long way. If all those guys stay healthy, Houston could have a top-tier defense and a special young signal-caller this year. However, looking at them on paper, I can’t help but worry about this offensive line. Outside of center Nick Martin, I don’t think any of the other guys they have up front would start on more than three or four teams. Julie’n Davenport was a developmental prospect in last year’s draft, but he was thrown in the fire early on at left tackle, after trading Duane Brown to Seattle, and he had some rough moments. Zach Fulton and Senio Kelemete saw the field for more than half of last season, but that was more due to injury than talent. Seantrel Henderson came in as a seventh-round pick in 2014 and started 26 straight games for the Bills, but was diagnosed with a disease, that needed two intestinal surgeries, and he has been suspended twice for violating the league’s substance abuse policy. Houston added Mississippi State’s Martinas Rankin in the draft, who has inside-out flexibility and Greg Mancz could probably make a move to guard, but they don’t have much behind those guys and none of them is a proven starter at the current state of their careers. Once again, I’m very exciting to watch this team back with their entire cast and despite not having a first- or second-round pick in the draft, I thought they still added some guys, who could really help them, but I think what they have up front might keep them from being a contender this season.
Indianapolis Colts – Cornerback
Let’s start like this – I’m so happy to finally be able to talk about something else than the Colts offensive line this year. This team’s success is all about Andrew Luck’s health and how he is coming back from shoulder surgeries, after not having thrown “the duke” for about one-and-a-half years. I think it was time for them to move on from Donte Moncrief and Frank Gore, in favor of putting the ball in the hands of their young skill players. Let’s go to the defensive side of the ball. A year ago I said that I thought the Colts might have the worst roster in all of football and that was apparent with their defensive personnel. This season I have a different feeling about them. A lot of the guys they have in the front seven are still unproven and I have yet to see them control games up front, but I see a lot of talented players they have added. I think the key piece to this defense will be free safety Malik Hooker, who fell right into their lap at 15th overall in last year’s draft. He has unbelievable range and ball-skills, plus I already saw some improvement in his tackling security during his shortened rookie campaign. T.J. Green and Clayton Geathers will be competing for the strong safety spot and you will probably see both of them quite a bit. I really liked Quiny Wilson, who they also drafted last season out of Florida, and I think Nate Hairston is a starting nickel in this league. Still, their options at the number two corner spot are less than fruitful. Kenny Moore, Pierre Desir and Chris Milton are no household names and I don’t expect them to be any time soon. I believe opponents will take advantage of whoever lines on the perimeter for Indy early on and force them to grow quickly.
Jacksonville Jaguars – Middle Linebacker
Raise your hand if you predicted a year ago that the Jaguars would be in the AFC Championship game. Nobody? Me neither. I thought they had a good shot at finishing around .500, but I simply didn’t believe Blake Bortles could take them anywhere and I didn’t see the Sacksonville’s defense emerge quite like they did. This team went from being one of the laughing stocks of the NFL to a squad, which was physically dominating opponents on a weekly basis. Heading into this upcoming season, Bortles still looks like their guy, especially since they passed up on homestate sensation Lamar Jackson in the draft. Regardless of who was under center, the plan would have been to hand the ball off to their punishing running back Leonard Fournette 25-30 times a game, behind a big offensive line that added the premier guard in free agency (Andrew Norwell). Newly signed tight-end Austin Seferian-Jenkins had a metamorphosis last season and even though it’s a young room, these wide receivers are extremely talented. Defensively, the Jags’ front looks even scarier with first-round pick Taven Bryan out of Florida added to the rotation. The back-end is what makes this unit so special. Jalen Ramsey and A.J. Bouye are certainly both top five cornerbacks in the league. Tashaun Gipson is an excellent center fielder and Barry Church was an important veteran acquisition a year ago. They lost nickelback Aaron Colvin, but D.J. Hayden and Jalen Myrick will be competing for that spot. Unfortunately, Paul Posluszny retired at the end of season after a very underrated 11-year career and that leaves second-year man Blair Brown to step in for a Jacksonville legend. This team already went into a lot of nickel packages, with Telvin Smith and Myles Jack as their two linebackers, but opponents might decide to punish the Jaguars by having the youngster as part of their base sets and forcing them to stay in those with heavy personnel.
Tennessee Titans – A gameplan to feature Marcus Mariota’s strengths
These Titans might not have a boatload of stars quite yet, but looking at this roster – they have as complete a team as there is. There was no single position I could have pointed out where they would really need an upgrade and at most of them, they have pretty good depth as well. The Titans have a strong offensive line, a bruising runner in Derrick Henry, sophomore receiver Corey Davis looks like a future star and defensively they added key pieces on the edge (Boston College rookie Harold Landry), at inside linebacker (Alabama rookie Rashaan Evans) and in the secondary (free agent cornerback Malcolm Butler). What is truly missing when I watch them on tape, is a plan for how to utilize their dual-threat QB Marcus Mariota in the right fashion. Tennessee is built to push defenses around in the run game and give their receivers one-on-one matchups off play-action. However, when I put on the tape, I see way too many true drop-back plays and they never really made the young signal-caller comfortable at reading the field. Think of Cam Newton when he came out of Auburn’s spread-system. The coaching staff only asked him to read half the field and get comfortable in the pocket, before wanting him to scan the entire field. While one of my biggest critiques of Cam’s mental game has been his tendency to keep tunnel vision, I believe the Titans put way too much on Mariota’s plate once they drafted him second overall. He was thrown into the fire immediately and even though he handled it pretty well, I still believe they should let him operate in a fashion, that makes him more comfortable. New office coordinator Matt LaFleur seems to be a perfect match with the young signal-caller. He brings in a lot of Shanahan influences, when it comes to running zone and heavy boot action off of it.
Denver Broncos – Right guard
Have we all forgotten that the Broncos won a Super Bowl two years ago? We are acting like this team has nothing to do with that 2015/16 squad, but several of their key pieces are still there. Denver’s defense looked like championship material once again early on, until the QB carousel began and Von Miller & company didn’t have a lot of time to exhale. Of course Aquib Talib and DeMarcus Ware are not on that roster anymore, but having Bradley Roby as their number three CB was a huge luxury and we seem to forget that Su’a Cravens was a promising young player. As far as the defensive front goes, Bradley Chubb was a premier draft prospect, who is already technically sound, and last time I checked Shane Ray is still with them – in a contract year. As far as the offense goes, newly acquired Case Keenum is coming off a career year and with their star wide receiver duo, he should definitely be able to give them what a broken down Peyton Manning and Brock Osweiler three years ago run. Even though they don’t have a tight-end on their roster, who has been productive in the league, I love the young talents they have. The O-line now looks pretty formidable, but I think they could use an upgrade at right guard. The Broncos have built that front up through the draft and free agency since the start of last offseason. They signed Ronald Leary from Dallas and Jared Veldheer from Arizona a year ago and capped things off by drafting Garrett Bolles. However, they still lack a piece at right guard to be able to push people around. Max Garcia has had a role as a backup for these Broncos, but he has had his fair share of struggles in pass protection. Connor McGovern was forced into the starting lineup for the five games Leary missed at the end of last season and he got killed. I don’t want to get into the Jeremiah Poutasi’s and Billy Turner’s behind them.
Kansas City Chiefs – Cornerback
No team was hotter at the start of last season than these Chiefs. Kansas City won their first five games of the season, including matchups against both of the eventual Super Bowl teams, but it felt like opponents started figuring out Alex Smith and company on offense, by doing a better job at protecting the edges with their cornerbacks and late pre-snap mix-ups. Now with Patrick Mahomes taking over the reigns and Sammy Watkins added as another deep threat, I expect an explosive vertical attack offensively and not as much work in-between the numbers in the passing game. No matter their approach on that side of the ball, it was the Chiefs defense, which really let them down in a lot of games and they certainly didn’t improve that unit during this offseason. KC added some defensive lineman in the draft and linebacker Anthony Hitchens in free agency, but even with their leader Eric Berry coming back from injury, their secondary looks suspicious since trading away Marcus Peters. Okay, I like Steven Nelson at nickelback and Kendall Fuller is coming over from Washington after a huge 2017 season, but please show me a second quality corner on that Chiefs roster? I’m waiting. I believe Kansas City committed one of the biggest thefts in recent memory, when they acquired Fuller and a third-round pick for Alex Smith, despite having their future guy at the quarterback position sitting right behind him. Nevertheless, I’m not sure about any of the guys, who they could potentially put in as their number two CB. David Amerson was handed a one-year prove it deal, who I liked quite a bit a few years back, but he had a horrible 2017 campaign and not even the Raiders wanted to keep him, despite their cornerback problems. Behind those three guys, I don’t think you can tell me that you have any trust in Keith Reaser, Will Redmond or Ashton Lampkin. The 29th-ranked passing defense now is even more questionable.
Oakland Raiders – Cornerback
The Raiders had kind of a weird draft. I thought they completely messed up by drafting a project tackle in UCLA’s Kolton Miller 15th overall and a small-school freak defensive lineman in Sam Houston State’s P.J. Hall. Some way though, they snagged two first-round talents in the third and fifth round respectively. LSU’s Arden Key I thought was the most natural pass rusher in the nation, when I evaluated him a year ago, while Michigan’s Maurice Hurst was the most disruptive force on the D-line I saw in the last college football season. Key had off-field concerns and Hurst seems to have a serious heart condition, but if they are right and have their minds set on making an impact, those are two starters right there in my opinion. The Raiders’ offense took a little bit of a dip last year, but with Derek Carr, Amari Cooper and a good offensive line coming back, plus the additions of Jordy Nelson and Doug Martin, I see them climbing back up the ranks under John Gruden. The defense is what concerns me. It simply didn’t feel like they could ever stop anybody, when it really counted a year. Khalil Mack is a one-man wrecking crew and like I said, I think they upgraded their front in the middle rounds, but what they have behind it looks pretty shaky. Derrick Johnson should take over as a leader at MIKE and Marquel Lee will benefit from a move to WILL. I love young Karl Joseph and Reggie Nelson is still a playmaker at free safety, but the cornerback position is a question mark right now. Shareece Wright was brought over from Buffalo to play nickel, but nobody really knows, who will start on the outside. Last year’s first round pick Gareon Conley didn’t even see 100 snaps during last season, Daryl Worley’s status is still up in the air after being charged with six offenses and Leon Hall started just seven games in the last three years. There was some speculation that Obi Melinfonwu might move to the outside, coming out of UConn a year ago, but none of these guys have experience covering at the highest level.
Los Angeles Chargers – Tight-end
To be honest, I originally put kicker next to the Chargers’ name and I was ready to say that when the kicker position is your highest priority at this point, you have done something right with your roster. The Chargers are easily one of the most loaded teams in the NFL and while they had serious concerns with their kicking game, in terms of losing several games recently due to last-second misses on field goals as well as being put in unfavorable situations by not being able to convert on easy attempts throughout games, I can’t ignore the devastating injury to their young tight-end Hunter Henry. To me there was no doubt that the Bolts were the favorites to win the division and I looked at them as a potential Super Bowl darkhorse, but once there is something that keeps me from crowning them. I love the collection of wide receivers to go with a slashing Melvin Gordon and a premier veteran QB in Philip Rivers. I even like the offensive line with Mike Pouncey now in the middle and guard Forrest Lamp coming back from injury, after I had him as a top-15 draft prospect a year ago. Defensively, they have a very good argument for having the top duos at edge rusher and cornerback, plus they stole Florida State’s Derwin James to their Kam Chancellor-esque enforcer in Gus Bradley’s one-high safety scheme. They were ready to go and now they are left with Virgil Green and some unknown dudes at tight-ends. Don’t get me wrong – I think Green can stretch the seems and give them some production, but Henry was on his way to becoming one of the bright young stars at the position. There is some chatter going on about the Chargers bringing back Antonio Gates out of retirement and that is obviously a perfect match with Rivers, but the 37-year old does the majority of his work from the 20-yard line in at this point of his career.