As I do every year once free agency and the draft are wrapped up, I wanted to take a look at every team in the league and point out their biggest remaining area that could use some improvement. This could be a need for a top-end starter, a specific role player or simply depth at a position. To specify this a little bit, these are the most important additions the teams should still make to win this year, not necessarily for the future. So I am not considering having to find replacements for older players or some guys a team might not be able to afford a year or so down the road – simply that one hole they need to fill to be more competitive this season. For the first time ever this list does not include a single starting quarterback since I think pretty much all 32 teams are set at that spot at least for the upcoming season – even though I might disagree with them long-term.
Chicago Bears – Nickelback
The Bears are coming off a season in which they had a dominant defense with great players at every level, which helped them win the North for the first time since 2010. While they retained pretty much everybody from that unit, they did let their strong safety Adrian Amos and nickelback Bryce Callahan walk in free agency. In the end I think it is kind of odd how the Packers and Bears basically swapped safeties with Chicago signing Haha Clinton-Dix following a mid-season trade to Washington. Bryce Callahan was one of the best slot corners in the NFL last season. Of course a lot of that has to do with the pieces the Bears had around him in the secondary with one of the top playmaking defenders in all of football when you look at Eddie Jackson and an excellent duo of cornerbacks. However, Callahan still was a big part of what they did on the league’s number one scoring defense. Buster Skrine once was looked at as one of the better number two’s and he was asked to move inside quite a bit when he joined the Jets, but these last two years he has surrendered over 100 yards in penalties respectively and while Callahan allowed only 319 total yards in 2018, Skrine gave up 314 after the catch only. He will definitely be a step down and could be an issue when opposing teams decide to work the slot with quick-rhythm passing that puts their receivers in YAC-situations. Of course they are still looking for a dependable kicker as well.
Detroit Lions – Speed Edge Rusher
So what Matt Patricia is trying to build in Detroit is another version of Foxborough and there is no doubt about it. The offense is becoming more run-centric with Matthew Stafford struggling to be pinched into the role of more of a game-manager, as his coaches up to that point just put him in shotgun 40 times a game and asked him to win games. They drafted Iowa tight-end T.J. Hockenson eight overall to be their version of Rob Gronkowski and they brought in a former Patriot in Danny Amendola to work in-between the numbers. Defensively, Patricia signed one of his former standout players in Trey Flowers, who finally got the recognition he deserved, and he invested heavily into that side of the ball after the first round of the draft. I thought the front office reached on Hawaii linebacker Jahlani Tavaii because he brings that versatility to stand up and play on the edge like a Kyle Van Noy, they got a physical safety in Boston College’s Will Harris, another big defensive end with championship pedigree in Clemson’s Austin Bryant and they made an absolute steal with Penn State cornerback Amani Oruwariye in the fifth round, who I think could be the day one starter across from Darius Slay. However, when I look at their roster I see a bunch of big bodies on the defensive line to shut down the opposing rushing attack, but even Flowers is at his best over guards in sub-packages. So as much as those New England guys covet size, I think the Lions would benefit from a true speed-rushing threat off the corner. However, I understand that they didn’t want to pay a banged-up Ziggy Ansah.
Green Bay Packers – Inside Linebacker
Green Bay might have the most improved defense in the league, when you look at the combination of Za’Darius and Preston Smith being brought in via free agency to come off both edges, Adrian Amos coming over from Chicago and their two first round picks. In contrast to public opinion, I think Rashan Gary will be an excellent addition, because he is exactly the type of chess piece to move along their front to make all these Mike Pettine blitz packages work, and I absolutely love Maryland’s Darnell Savage, who has a chance to be an even better version of Micah Hyde and should at the very least be a really good nickel corner for them righ away. With the big guys in Kenny Clark and Mike Daniels on the interior the position I look at for a potential upgrade would be inside linebacker. Blake Martinez has developed into a pretty good player for them and I liked Oren Burks last preseason, but there is no alpha dog in the middle for this Packers D really. I’m guessing a former Stanford guy in Martinez would be Pettine’s option for the communicator, but I definitely believe one of those quick-trigger, explosive WILL backers could be a star for them because they have the bodies up front to keep him clean. Let’s see if they see somebody in the later stages of free agency who can fill that role or if Burks is their guy for the job. Either way, this is the most talented defense to complement Aaron Rodgers since their Super Bowl run.
Minnesota Vikings – 3-tech defensive tackle
One of the more disappointing teams last season definitely was the Minnesota Vikings – especially the way their defense regressed. Coming off an NFC Championship game appearance with Kirk Cousins signing a huge fully-guaranteed deal with the number one ranked defense in multiple categories, this squad looked poise for another run, but they finished the year 8-7-1 with a disappointing week 17 loss to the Bears that kept them out of the playoffs. While most people want to put the blame on Cousins – and he did fail to come through in some of their biggest games – I think a big reason for their decline was how the defense seemed to fall apart. After keeping opponents to an average of just 15.8 points in 2017, Minnesota allowed more than that in all but two games last season. With that being said, when I look at their depth chart I see everything necessary to get back to that form from two years ago – two excellent edge rushers, a strong duo of linebackers with Anthony Barr pulling out of that contract with the Jets, highly physical boundary corners and an All-Pro caliber safety in Harrison Smith. The one spot that needs an upgrade is that upfield defensive tackle on the outside shoulder of the guard to pair with Linval Joseph. Sheldon Richardson was a monster early on in 2018, but he is now with the Browns, making Shamar Stephen the likely starter at this moment. I could see sixth-round pick Armon Watts compete for that spot, but with the news of Gerald McCoy’s release, he would be the perfect candidate to fill that role.
Dallas Cowboys – Linebacker depth
Man, that Cowboys roster is just loaded. While there is no way I would give Dak Prescott 30 million a year because of all that talent around him looking to get paid eventually, they should be considered as serious contenders in the NFC simply because of how that starting 22 looks like, which should include one of the top offensive lines if Travis Frederick is back healthy, easily a top five running back in the league, now a true number one receiver making things easier for all those other guys, an aggressive defensive line, one of the best cornerback duos out there and an absolute phenomenal trio of linebackers. That combination of Jaylon Smith, Leighton Vander Esch and Sean Lee might be the best in the league, but we already know Lee will miss time eventually, as he always does and Dallas has no obvious next guy up. They have lost both Anthony Hitchens and Damien Wilson to the Chiefs these last two years and their depth chart behind their starting three looks pretty thin. Justin Lillard-March and Chris Covington look to be the two true stand-up backers they would carry with them on gamedays, with the first of them not even reaching 30 tackles in five years on four different teams and the second making just one stop all year as a rookie. Even though two of their defensive linemen from last year are now out of the league, I think the Cowboys made enough additions via free agency and the draft to sustain that type of pass rush, but if one of their three LBs goes down, they will have to do some reshuffling again.
New York Giants – Outside receiver
I don’t want to beat a dead horse and point out the obvious, but since I see this as the Giants biggest need, I think I should mention what they got out of trading Odell Beckham Jr. to Cleveland. Considering that Olivier Vernon for Kevin Zeitler deal was pretty much done and would have been a separate trade otherwise, this is what the Giants got in exchange for one of the most talented receivers of all time – Clemson D-tackle Dexter Lawrence at 17th overall, Old Dominion edge rusher Oshane Ximines at 95th overall and third-year safety Jabrill Peppers. Are you kidding me? Don’t get me wrong, I really liked Lawrence coming out, but the Giants just drafted a nose tackle last year in Dalvin Tomlinson and they also got B.J. Hill if they wanted to use him in more of a penetrating role. I think Ximines was a guy who you could see really works on his craft, but he is kind of a segmented mover without any athletic traits that stand out. And I’m a big fan of Jabrill Peppers, but they basically had the same player in Landon Collins, who they got some big trade offers mid-season and ended up giving up for nothing. All these Dave Gettleman plans seem to make no sense and with the selection of Daniel Jones sixth overall, who I didn’t even have among my top 100 for the draft, that only put the cherry on the cake. So now Big Blue is in serious need of an outside receiver, because they have two slot guys in Sterling Shephard and Golden Tate, who I also like a lot but now take up a large amount of money for primarily inside receivers. The other guys are Bennie Fowler, Cody Latimer and first-round bust Corey Coleman. None of those guys really threaten teams vertically, although I have to say I don’t see Manning throwing the ball more than 20 yards frequently anyway.
Philadelphia Eagles – SAM linebacker
The same way I predicted that the Eagles would win double-digit games ahead of the 2017 season, I thought they would take a step back last year because of the health of Carson Wentz, major losses among the coaching staff and better competition in their division. They obviously did decline, but somehow they still managed to win a playoff game on the road in the Windy City thanks to that double-doink field goal miss. There won’t be any Nick Foles magic this year with him signing in Jacksonville, but Wentz should be fully healthy again and I’m back on the Eagles bandwagon, because I still see a very talented team. They just added a first-round offensive tackle who will eventually replace Jason Peters and at least gives them a capable backup this year, another big-bodied target for their quarterback in Stanford’s J.J. Arcega-Whiteside, their group of running backs is really improved and despite some losses on the D-line, acquiring Malik Jackson should keep them equally disruptive. Last year I struggled to make sense of their cornerback depth chart, but with the way Avonte Maddox stepped up late in the year, having Sidney Jones live up to the potential as a first-round prospect before tearing his ACL at the Washington pro day a little more than two years ago. However, the one spot I see a need for improvement is at strong-side linebacker. Nigel Bradham and Zach Brown should be an excellent combination for those other two positions, but Kamu Grugier-Hill’s name only ever came up when he made some cocky comments ahead of their game against the Cowboys last season. With how much NFL teams use sub-packages and only leave two LBs on the field anyway, I usually wouldn’t worry about that third guy, but in a division with the Cowboys, Redskins and Giants, you need to be able to stop the run.
Washington Redskins – Boundary cornerback
I was ready to hype up the Redskins for the juggernaut they have built on defense, one of the dominant offensive lines when healthy, getting my number two quarterback in the draft without moving up at all and grabbing some playmakers around him. However, once again Washington is the most unlucky team when it comes to injuries, as they just lost linebacker Reuben Foster for the season due to a torn ACL during a walkthrough in practice. It is unbelievable to think of what they have endured these last few years, especially on the O-line, but also with Alex Smith suffering that horrific leg injury and now a highly talented young linebacker, whose career has been marked by accusations and being banged up. So that means they are not nearly as dynamic at MIKE as they were with Foster, but that defense is still loaded with two other Bama boys plugging up the middle, one of the most underrated players in the league in Ryan Kerrigan taking a size/speed freak in Montez Sweat under his wing, Landon Collins now coming over from the division-rival Giants and Josh Norman talking trash, even though he seems to be better at that than covering guys. However, when I look at their roster I see a bunch of slot corners with Fabian Moreau, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, Greg Stroman and seventh-round pick Jimmy Moreland from James Madison. All those guys have either been nickelbacks in the league or have the skill-set to be better in that role. The guy I expect to move outside is Moreau, which would make inside backer the biggest need once again.
Atlanta Falcons – Defensive end depth
These Falcons are a team that I think could really surprise some people in 2019. If it wasn’t for the Redskins, I would say they had the worst injury luck of any team in the league. Their two starting safeties Ricardo Allen and Keanu Neal, running back Devonta Freeman, starting guard Andy Levitre and star linebacker Deion Jones all missed double-digit games, with Jones being the only one to appear in more than three games altogether. After starting the season 1-4 they won three straight games, but a bad loss to the Browns sent them into a downward spiral and injuries started really catching up to them. This year I think they should be considered serious Super Bowl contenders. Steve Sarkisian is finally gone and the front invested heavily into the O-line – so that side of the ball should be taken care of. They let go of Robert Alford this offseason, but I thought Atlanta got tremendous value from grabbing Isaiah Oliver in the second round last year, who I expect to have a breakout year. Other than that they return basically everybody on defense, so the one area should still address is defensive end. I love Takk McKinley’s motor and Vic Beasley is looking to rebound as a full-time hand-in-the-dirt rusher. However, behind that I don’t see enough arsenal to rotate guys through and send waves at the opposing QB the way Dan Quinn would like to do. Adrian Clayborn and Tyrone Crawford provide help off the bench, but neither one of them really threatens you around the edge. I thought they really gave up a lot to move back up into the first round for an offensive tackle that I think would have been there for them anyway in the second and they could have added some juice later on day two.
Carolina Panthers – WILL linebacker
This team is one of the most confusing ones out there. We have seen Cam Newton light up the league in his 2015 MVP season, but we have also seen him get banged up a lot and not bring the same type of energy to the field when things don’t go right. Christian McCaffrey is one of the top dual-threat running backs in the league and they have some dynamic guys at the skill positions, but there are no defined roles. The offensive line has been letting him down quite a bit and I thought they drafted a left tackle, who would benefit from a year in the weight room but will probably be asked to play week one. Left guard looks like a need right now, but Taylor Moton would likely move inside if the rookie starts and I also like third-year man Dorian Johnson. That makes me come back to the defense, where I like what they did up front recently and how they have found guys on the back-end to fit their scheme. Nevertheless, Thomas Davis will not suit up in a Carolina Panther jersey for the first time in 14 years. Shaq Thompson is labelled as a SAM because they like to use him in space as that safety/linebacker hybrid, so it is that weak-side backer position that is up in the air. Antwione Williams looks like the top candidate to earn that spot right now, which is a name no average fan even knows, and they also have Jermaine Carter, who was a fifth-round pick a year ago. Unless they plan on using more under-fronts with first-rounder Brian Burns standing up on the edge, this is an area of need.
New Orleans Saints – Number two receiver
It is weird that whenever the Saints come up, everybody still talks about that missed call in the NFC Championship game, even though that was fourth months ago. Instead we should focus on what this team still has on the roster. They lost running back Mark Ingram in free agency and center Max Unger surprisingly retired. However, this already was the Alvin Kamara show in the New Orleans backfield and they added an excellent center in Erik McCoy out of Texas A&M in the second round, who should be their day one starter. I am a little concerned with Sheldon Rankins returning from a torn Achilles in the Divisional Round, because he was one of the top 3-techs in the league before going down, but I thought the got a major steal with a versatile defensive back in Florida’s Chauncey Gardner-Johnson in the fourth round. While I thought Drew Brees’ arm fell off a little later on in the year, I trust in Sean Payton drawing up plays to help him out on a weekly basis. The Saints have a bunch of pretty good receivers on that roster – Tre’Quan Smith flashed at some occasions last year, Ted Ginn made a few big plays when he was healthy, I like Cameron Meredith as a complementary guy and even Simmie Cobbs, who was snagged off the Redskins’ practice squad at the end of last season could make an impact. However, there is no clear Robin to Michael Thomas’ Batman. We saw what that guy is capable of on several occasions, but I also saw what happened when teams started taking him and Kamara away on third downs by doubling Thomas or putting an extra DB on the running back. They need someone else they can rely on in those spots.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers – Right guard
These Bucs are a team I am trying to like because I have seen what Bruce Arians and Todd Bowles have done together in Arizona. Mike Evans might be the most underrated receiver in the league, Chris Godwin could break out even more in year three, so will tight-end O.J. Howard and Bowles was allowed to add a lot to his defense in the draft with a new key-piece in linebacker Devin White as the fifth overall selection out of LSU and their most-experienced secondary player being Ryan Smith, who has appeared in just 45 career games. Yet, we don’t even know if Jason Pierre-Paul will play again at all after that car accident and they just released Gerald McCoy because of his cap number and not really fitting the scheme. I could keep going, but in the end this will all come down to what Arians can do with Jameis Winston, who probably has one more year to prove that he can be the franchise quarterback Tampa Bay thought they’d select first overall back in 2015. General manager Jason Licht made it clear last season that they wanted to get tougher in the trenches with everybody they added on the offensive and defensive line. However, I think they really overpaid for Donovan Smith and Ryan Jensen. If you combine that with Ali Marpet’s contract, they will pay that left side of the line over 35 million dollars. And still, they have a big hole at right guard. The competition will be between a 2016 fifth-round pick in Caleb Benenoch, a six-year journey-man in Earl Watford and last year’s third-round pick Alex Cappa from Humboldt State. As they say, competition brings the best out of people, but none of those guys seems to be starting material.
Arizona Cardinals – Veteran quarterback
I might fall into the trap of valuing the draft too highly so shortly after the event, but when I just look at bodies and how I had all those guys graded, the Cardinals seem to really have one of the more well-rounded rosters in the NFL all of a sudden. As bad as their offensive line was a year ago, they just had to deal with a lot of injuries last season and they added J.R. Sweezy and Marcus Gilbert. The Cards’ are looking to dust off David Johnson, who not too long ago was in the conversation the top running back in the league, they obviously got their guy of the future to run Kliff Kingsbury’s system and they added a multitude of weapons for Kyler Murray with the rest of their draft. Being without Patrick Peterson for six weeks because of the PED news obviously sucks, but they added Robert Alford and the top corner in the draft. They have a tremendous safety trio and new defensive coordinator Vance Joseph will figure out what to do with all these different bodies in the front-seven. Of course this is a young team that still needs to grow, but they have plenty of veteran leadership over the entire field. However, they are lacking that at one position – quarterback. The most experienced guy in that locker room might be their head coach because Brett Hundley only played in the absence of Aaron Rodgers two years ago and had his fair share of struggles filling in, while Kingsbury at least was part of several NFL training camps and even played a year up in Canada. I’m sure those two will spend a lot of time together, but having an experienced guy behind Murray to teach him some stuff would definitely help.
Los Angeles Rams – Left guard
The Rams are coming off one of the biggest let-down games in a 13-3 Super Bowl loss to the Patriots. Their young genius head coach Sean McVay was humbled by meeting the master in Bill Belichick, Jared Goff looked completely lost, the O-line got beaten up by New England’s pass-rush and there are still question marks about Todd Gurley’s knee after being ineffective for the team’s playoff run. While they did lose Lamarcus Joyner and Ndamokung Suh on defense, they added two safeties in veteran Eric Weddle and Taylor Rapp at a great value out of Washington, plus they got Rapp’s teammate in run-plugger Greg Gaines as a good match for Aaron Donald’s upfield style of play. If there was one area that I think they aren’t quite set, I would look at the left guard spot. Rodger Saffold was signed to a big deal by the Titans and the Rams don’t really have a clear replacement. They have three tackles still developing with last year’s third-round pick Joseph Noteboom from TCU, this year’s third-rounder Bobby Evans from Oklahoma and fifth-round selection David Edwards out of Wisconsin. The weird thing is I really like all three of them, but none of them really fit naturally inside. Since they all have experience running those zone schemes in college, I would guess that one of them will take over that position with nobody else on the roster having any true game experience. Since Noteboom has spent a year on the bench learning the system, he would be the prime candidate, but he is a tackle long-term.
San Francisco 49ers – X receiver
Year three for Kyle Shanahan and John Lynch – time to show some results! The 49ers were a popular darkhorse contender ahead of last season. While I thought they weren’t quite there, they should at least be in the hunt for a playoff spot in 2019. They have slowly rebuilt the offensive line to protect their franchise investment Jimmy Garoppolo, who will have high expectations once again this season. Defensively, they all of a sudden have one of the best front-sevens in football with the additions of Dee Ford, Kwon Alexander and Nick Bosa to go along with what they already had, especially an under-the-radar star in DeForest Buckner on the interior. I’m interested to see what they do personnel-wise on the back-end, but I think they have the pieces they need for that cover-three based scheme, as long as the pass rush gets home. Back to the offense – I like a bunch of those skill-players on the Niners. They have an excellent running back trio and several slot receivers in Jordan Matthews, Trent Taylor and now early second-round pick Deebo Samuel. With that being said, where is the true outside threat, who can win on the perimeter consistently? Third-round pick Jalen Hurd even played in the slot for Baylor after transferring from Tennessee as a running back and should be more a chess piece than an actual outside receiver. Marquise Goodwin and Dante Pettis have yet to prove they are more then pure vertical weapons. Samuel is absolutely the most talented guy among that group and can create a lot of separation, but part of what makes him special is the versatility he brings in the screen games, on jet sweeps and other stuff.
Seattle Seahawks – Right tackle
Boy, that was a quick “rebuild” up in the Pacific North. I thought the Hawks would be a sub-.500 team last season and at the start of the season that is what they looked like. The offensive line could not slow down some of the league’s top pass rushers in Von Miller, Khalil Mack and their respective teammates, and Russell Wilson ran around like a maniac. As the defense started supporting them more and the pressure was taken off the O-line with the heavy run game and play-action off it under Brian Schottenheimer, they started looking like the Seahawks of the old days that pounded defenses and got after quarterbacks themselves. When they met the Cowboys in the Wildcard Round and saw them shut down the rushing attack with penetration, forcing them into more obvious passing situations, you saw that their true dropback protection was still not nearly where it needed to be. They added two road-grading guards in Mike Iupati and D.J. Fluker who will also help out their issues in the protection, but I am getting sick of saying it – Germaine Ifedi is not a starting offensive tackle. His sack numbers were not catastrophic because having Duane Brown on the opposite end allowed Seattle to slide the protection the other way, plus most of their deep shots in the passing game came off play-action, which put less pressure on him. With the additions the 49ers have made on the edges and Aaron Donald demanding double-teams when facing the Rams, this could get ugly.