Predicting the 10 Deepest Positional Units for the NFL's 2012 Season
But the minute one of those superstars goes down with an injury, it can absolutely cripple their team.
Take Adrian Peterson and the Vikings, for example. If he is unable to recover from that ACL injury and cannot contribute as he has in the past, it will set Minnesota back a great deal: Toby Gerhart is good, but he's no Adrian Peterson.
So in the NFL, that old cliche of "putting all your eggs in one basket" can be risky.
That's why depth can be so important. Having a very deep corps at wide receiver or running back or linebacker can provide invaluable insurance against injury or offer a nice backup plan should a starter struggle.
So which teams have the deepest positional groups? Here's a top 10.
No. 10: St. Louis Rams Wide Receivers
Depth: Brandon Gibson, Danny Amendola, Danario Alexander, Steve Smith, Austin Pettis, Greg Salas, Brian Quick, Chris Givens
Prior to the NFL draft, I thought it was a foregone conclusion that the Rams would select Justin Blackmon, the top rated wide receiver. The reason? Other than Brandon Lloyd, who bolted for New England this spring, St. Louis lacked any real production out of their receivers last year.
But a closer look at the 2012 roster might suggest that passing on Blackmon (via all those trades) was a wise choice.
Brandon Gibson finished second on the team in receiving yards; they'll get Danny Amendola back after he missed virtually the entire 2011 season; Danario Alexander is enormous and had a few bright spots last year; and Steve Smith (if healthy) is still a capable and seasoned option.
And then there are four raw talents that have the potential to be stars. Last year's third-rounder Austin Pettis still has tremendous size and athleticism, while last year's fourth-rounder Greg Salas had a couple huge games prior to breaking his leg.
Couple those two with the 33rd overall selection this past April, Brian Quick, and fourth-rounder Chris Givens, and the Rams have surrounded Sam Bradford with over half a dozen good (probably not great) wideouts to throw to.
No. 9: Philadelphia Eagles Outside Linebackers
Depth: Jamar Chaney, Mychal Kendricks, Brian Rolle, Akeem Jordan, Keenan Clayton, Moise Fokou
The 2011 Eagles' defense wasn't quite as bad as people will have you think: they were actually in the top 10 in yards and points allowed. But given all the upgrades they made last summer, much more was expected.
Clearly, they've made even more upgrades this offseason, acquiring DeMeco Ryans and drafting Fletcher Cox. Those two moves strengthen the middle of the front seven, which is good news for Eagles fans, considering how deep the edges are.
Not only do they have Jason Babin (18 sacks) and Trent Cole (11) as pass-rush specialists, but their linebacking corps is extremely deep.
Maybe none of the names mentioned at the top of this slide are stars or Pro Bowlers, but Chaney started all 16 games and recorded 92 tackles, Rolle had similar stats and Jordan and Fokou both started seven games last season.
And Kendricks, the Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year, was a real steal in the second round and very well could wind up as a starter at the strong-side backer position.
No. 8: Chicago Bears Quarterbacks
Depth: Jay Cutler, Jason Campbell, Josh McCown, Nathan Enderle
With all the protection problems the Bears have had and all the sacks surrendered (110) over the past two seasons, Chicago really needs depth at the quarterback position. After this offseason, they seem to have grabbed some.
Jay Cutler is not (yet) in that group of elite quarterbacks, but he clearly has the arm to eventually become one. That could be this is the year.
But if it isn't or if he suffers another injury that costs him time, then the Bears will be ready to proceed with Jason Campbell.
He's not a superstar, or anything near one, but he has started 70 games in the NFL, is only 30 years old and had the Raiders in the playoff hunt last year before that shoulder injury sidelined him for the entire season and prompted the trade for Carson Palmer.
The Cutler-Campbell duo isn't necessarily one of the game's best, but because they have Josh McCown (who has 33 starts and eight years of experience of his own) and Nathan Enderle, an impressive physical specimen with four years as a starter at the college level, they do have considerable depth.
It's highly unlikely that the Bears will keep four quarterbacks and if they do cut one prior to the start of the season it will most likely be Enderle, who was a favorite of the now-departed Mike Martz. If that's the case, the Bears will be the only team in the NFL with three quarterbacks that all have significant time as a starter under their belts.
Maybe none of those passers are in the same class as Aaron Rodgers or Eli Manning, but (as the Texans proved last year) dropping down to your third-string quarterback can happen very quickly. Having a seasoned veteran often trumps having a talented, unproven youngster.
No. 7: Buffalo Bills Cornerbacks
Depth: Terrence McGee, Stephon Gilmore, Aaron Williams, Leodis McKelvin, Ron Brooks, Justin Rogers
The Bills' defense has been pretty awful the last few years: dead last against the run in 2010, 24th overall that same year, and 26th overall last season.
The addition of Mario Williams and the promotion of Dave Wannstedt to defensive coordinator should have things looking up.
But if that defense does actually give the Bills a chance to contend in the AFC East, their collection of corners might be the biggest reason why.
Although Terrence McGee is still not near 100 percent following his knee injury, he is an experienced corner. And while Leodis McKelvin has shown great inconsistency, he's tremendously talented; that's why the Bills spent a high first-round pick on him just four years ago.
Still, it's the Bills' youngsters that provide the most depth to the cornerback position.
Aaron Williams had a tremendous rookie season in 2011, starting six games, and Justin Rogers (who saw the field enough last year to record a pick) reportedly had a fine OTA.
And then there is the pair of SEC corners they selected in this year's draft.
Stephon Gilmore garnered all the attention, and he could very well be a starter by Week 1, but grabbing Ron Brooks—a member on that sensational LSU defense—was another move that provides outstanding depth, be it in the nickel/dime packages or even if one of the veterans goes down.
No. 6: San Diego Chargers Outside Linebackers
Depth: Jarret Johnson, Melvin Ingram, Antwan Barnes, Shaun Phillips, Larry English
Even if he won't have Ray Lewis, Haloti Ngata, Terrell Suggs and Ed Reed beside him in the huddle, Jarret Johnson was one of the biggest free agent moves this spring. He provides tremendous experience and is phenomenal against the run, something that will be critical in that ground-heavy AFC West.
So with that position pretty much locked down (they didn't pay Johnson $10 million guaranteed to audition for a job), it's the other linebacker position that is really up for grabs.
Shaun Phillips should have that spot locked up. He was a Pro Bowler in 2010 and remains a fine pass-rusher, but he is coming off an injury hampered season.
If he needs rest or misses time, Antwan Barnes (who had 11 sacks least year in a somewhat limited role) and Larry English will be there to spell him.
And by adding Melvin Ingram—a very impressive athlete who might play a role similar to the one Aldon Smith was in last year with the 49ers—in the first round of this year's draft, new defensive coordinator John Pagano now has any number of permutations to work with.
No. 5: New Orleans Running Backs
Depth: Mark Ingram Jr., Pierre Thomas, Chris Ivory, Darren Sproles
With the Bounty Gate scandal taking their offensive-genius head coach away for the entire season, Drew Brees' contract woes and the loss of Robert Meachem to free agency, the Saints will surely need to lean more on their four-headed running back monster.
We all should expect to see Mark Ingram Jr. play a much larger role in his second season. The Saints didn't trade up into the first round to have the Heisman Trophy winner be a situational player. So look for him to be the lead back.
Even if he isn't able to assume that position, they have Thomas and Ivory, two backs with plenty of experience, each of whom has led the team in rushing in recent seasons.
So in terms of carrying the football as a complement to the (presumed) dynamic passing attack (again, presumably) led by Brees, the Saints are clearly covered at that position.
But even if Ingram, Thomas, and Ivory do find a way to combine for 1,200-1,500 yards on the ground in 2012, the most explosive playmaker they'll have in their backfield will be Sproles.
As an occasional ball carrier (87 carries) and frequent pass-catcher (86 catches) Sproles has a way of breaking a game open. He averaged over 7.5 yards whenever he touched the ball on a play from scrimmage.
No. 4: New England Patriots Inside Linebackers
Depth: Brandon Spikes, Jerod Mayo, Dont'a Hightower, Bobby Carpenter, Dane Fletcher
Thanks to very poor rankings in total yards allowed the last two seasons, the Patriots' defense has been widely considered the team's Achilles heel.
But there is plenty of talent on that unit, especially at the inside linebacker position.
Jerod Mayo is one of the game's premier inside linebackers. That's why they gave him a seven-year, $49.85 million deal last December. The other inside backer position hasn't played with quite the same level of excellence.
Brandon Spikes has been great at times (20 total tackles, one pick, one forced fumble in the AFC Championship and Super Bowl), inconsistent at other times and incapable of staying healthy still other times. His 2011 backup, Dane Fletcher, did an admirable job filling in at times.
That might be one of the reasons why the Pats made two noteworthy offseason acquisitions that will aid the defense (assuming they stick to the 3-4 they played so much in the playoffs) in 2012.
Bobby Carpenter, who has experience as both an inside and outside backer, may not have ever lived up to this first-round-draft-choice status, but you can bet Bill Belichick will wring out every bit of production from him.
And by selecting Dont'a Hightower towards the end of the first round, they added a real stud from college football's premier defense. Even if he is slotted to play outside linebacker, he'll most likely learn both roles, and with 43 college starts under his belt, he should transition to the pro game pretty quickly.
No. 3: Green Bay Packers Wide Receivers
Depth: Greg Jennings, Jordy Nelson, Donald Driver, James Jones, Randall Cobb
There is probably some kind of "chicken vs. the egg" element to the dominance of the Green Bay passing attack over the last few seasons. Is Aaron Rodgers an MVP because he has an outstanding collection of pass-catchers, or does he have an outstanding collection of pass-catchers because Rodgers is an MVP?
Regardless of the cause, the Packers have the NFL's deepest corps of wideouts. Sure, New England, New Orleans, Detroi, and a few other clubs have three, even four, very good wide receivers. But the Packers have as many as five.
Mr. Dancing With the Stars, Donald Driver, will be back and although he is 37 years old, he remains one of the league's best route runners. He's good for another 40-plus catches if he stays healthy.
But it's the under-30 group that Rodgers will rely on most.
Greg Jennings and Jordy Nelson were perhaps the NFL's top wide receiving duo last year, combining for 125 catches, 2,212 yards, and 24 touchdowns, while James Jones was a frequent big-play receiver, averaging 16.7 yards per catch and scoring two touchdowns over over 65 yards in length.
And then there's Randall Cobb, last year's second-round choice, who only caught 25 passes in 2011 but started to come on strong late in the year. With his speed and elusive running, he only makes that Packer passing game more scary.
No. 2: San Francisco 49ers Running Backs
As great as the Saints' running-back depth is, no team is deeper at the position than the 49ers.
Three-time pro bowler Frank Gore is clearly the centerpiece (and the reason why the 49ers have better depth at the position than New Orleans), but he does have countless miles on him: He's a very old 29 given the fact that he's averaged 254 carries per season the last six years.
They have added a great Plan B for Gore by signing Brandon Jacobs, who is an even greater load to bring down at 256 pounds. The former Giant should be an excellent short-yardage/goal line threat in addition to a complementary piece.
And if Anthony Dixon (also a big body who should fight for the tough yards) somehow manages to earn a roster spot, the 49ers will be able to wear down opposing defense no matter what injuries pop up.
But the reason why the 49ers earn the highest offensive spot on this list is the duo of "change-of-pace" backs they have on their roster.
Last year, Kendall Hunter had a very impressive rookie season. Not only was he a very capable runner (112 carries for 473 yards) and pass-catcher (16 receptions) but he was excellent at pass protection.
That may lead to some confusion as to why the club drafted LaMichael James, a player with a comparable frame who is expected to fill that same role. But given James' speed and track record as a dynamic, game-breaking ball carrier, it's little wonder that they would be willing to spend a late second-rounder on the Oregon star.
No. 1: Cincinnati Bengals Cornerbacks
Depth: Leon Hall, Nate Clements, Terence Newman, Dre Kirkpatrick, Jason Allen, Pacman Jones
For years, the Bengals were considered one of the cheapest teams in professional sports, not just the NFL.
So they sure have come a long way, spending a huge amount of money on one particular position: cornerback.
Assuming Leon Hall can recover completely from his torn Achilles, he should return to All-Pro form and solidify one of the two starting corner positions.
The other spot would seem to be up for grabs, as it has as many as three really worthy challengers and two more that can provide additional depth.
Nate Clements had a fine year in 2011, starting 15 games, breaking up 13 passes and even rushing the passer on occasion, for a team that had one of the NFL's better pass defense.
Still, when the Cowboys cut Terence Newman, Cincy didn't hesitate, snatching up the older but much cheaper two-time Pro Bowler. Newman's presence may or may not lead to Clements being cut (he's due over $4 million this season), but even if the Bengals do unload him, because they have Dre Kirkpatrick they won't be hurting for excellent cover skills and athleticism.
The first-round choice from Alabama has tremendous size, and the Bengals have to be eager to get him on the field.
Should he need extra time to develop, however, because they signed Jason Allen and re-signed Pacman Jones, they are overloaded with depth and speed in the secondary.
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