Every NFL Team's Weakest Link

Russell S. BaxterContributor IMay 12, 2013

Every NFL Team's Weakest Link

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    No teams in the NFL are perfect, even the ones seemingly stacked from top to bottom. Every team has a "weak link" as a starter, and we will be looking for that player here.

    Keep in mind that this isn’t necessarily a knock on a player’s talent. There are several factors that can make any one player their team’s weak spot, particularly if a team is extremely talented.

    Another explanation could be a lack of experience, as younger players are getting their first chance to crack the starting lineup. Of course, poor or questionable play is yet another way to land on this list.

    In all honesty, let’s hope all 32 of these players aren’t on a similar list by the time September rolls around. And when it comes to retaining their starting job, no one wants to receive any bad news…from anyone.

    Finally, a special thanks to Pro Football Focus (subscription required) for its outstanding statistical breakdowns and analysis. And all financial references come courtesy of Spotrac.

Arizona Cardinals: RT Bobby Massie

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    You probably know these facts in your sleep. A year ago, the Arizona Cardinals finished dead last in the NFL in rushing and also allowed a league-high 58 sacks. And dating back to 2010, the team has allowed a whopping 162 sacks in just 48 games.

    Last season also proved to be a rough debut for right tackle Bobby Massie. Pro Football Focus ranked last year’s rookie tied for 47th in the NFL in terms of pass-blocking efficiency, and he allowed a league-high 13.0 sacks in 2012.

    It should also be noted that former teammate and tackle D’Anthony Batiste gave up a dozen sacks last season, second most in the NFL.

    Massie can only hope new teammate and right guard Jonathan Cooper can make life easier when it comes to protecting the quarterback.

Atlanta Falcons: LB Akeem Dent

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    With Curtis Lofton off to New Orleans in 2012, former third-round pick Akeem Dent slipped into the middle linebacking spot in the Atlanta Falcons defense.

    But was he a part of the team’s defensive issues last season, most notably against the run?

    Dent played in all 16 games this past season (13 starts) and totaled 65 tackles, good for just sixth on the team. Both starting outside linebackers, Stephen Nicholas (97) and Sean Weatherspoon (95), as well as three members of the secondary, had more stops than Atlanta’s middle linebacker.

    Entering his third year in the league, Dent needs to make a bigger impact.

Baltimore Ravens: C Gino Gradkowski

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    Imagine having to replace one of the past decade's steadier NFL centers.

    Veteran pivot Matt Birk began his career with the Minnesota Vikings in 1998 and ended it at the Superdome in February with the Baltimore Ravens and a win in Super Bowl XLVII.

    Now it’s up to young Gino Gradkowski to get the ball to quarterback Joe Flacco on a reliable basis.

    But no one’s handing the youngster the job. The Ravens drafted Ryan Jensen in the sixth round in April, and they orchestrated a trade with the Indianapolis Colts to obtain center A.Q. Shipley this past week.

    It should make for an interesting training camp.

Buffalo Bills: LG David Snow

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    A player named David Snow would likely be a perfect fit in Buffalo with the Bills. But replacing one of the team’s most reliable players in recent years figures to be tough sledding.

    The undrafted free agent from the University of Texas was on and off the Bills practice squad in 2012. Now he looks like the heir apparent for left guard Andy Levitre, who signed a lucrative contract with the Tennessee Titans back in March.

    Remember, this was a Bills offense that finished sixth in the league in rushing in 2012 and gave up only 30 sacks in 16 games.

    Safe to say there’s some big shoes to fill here.

Carolina Panthers: RT Byron Bell

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    Some would say that the Panthers are short a wide receiver to pair with veteran Steve Smith.

    Some would also say that it’s hard to throw the ball when your quarterback is feeling the heat.

    And if Carolina Panthers signal-caller Cam Newton wants to be more productive, right tackle Byron Bell must get better.

    While Pro Football Focus tells us that Bell allowed "just" six sacks in 2013, the young performer also gave up 25 pressures. That’s bad news for not only Newton, but the Carolina offense as well.

    Here’s hoping a little more seasoning makes Bell a much better player.

Chicago Bears: RT J'Marcus Webb

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    Fixing the offensive line has been an issue for the Chicago Bears for a number of years.

    This offseason, general manager Phil Emery was diligent when it came to addressing the matter. The team signed free agents in tackle Jermon Bushrod (New Orleans Saints) and guards Matt Slauson (New York Jets) and Eben Britton (Jacksonville Jaguars).

    The Bears also added Kyle Long in the first round of the draft.

    But what to do with tackle J’Marcus Webb, who is now back to right tackle after two seasons on the left side? Many will remember his frustrations of a year ago, particularly on a Thursday night at Lambeau Field (Week 2) against Clay Matthews and the Green Bay Packers.

    It will be interesting to see if Webb is indeed a starter by the time September rolls around.

Cincinnati Bengals: SS Taylor Mays

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    The Cincinnati Bengals field one of the best defensive units in the league. A year ago, Mike Zimmer’s group finished sixth in the NFL in total yards allowed.

    And even if you include the playoff loss to the Houston Texans, the Bengals allowed 20 or fewer points in each of their last nine outings in 2012.

    But now Taylor Mays takes over at strong safety on a full-time basis. The onetime second-round pick of the San Francisco 49ers (49th overall in 2010) started three games last season, but he totaled only 22 tackles and one fumble recovery in 16 games.

    Mays, with zero career interceptions in three NFL campaigns, figures to face a very stiff challenge from third-round pick Shawn Williams this summer.

Cleveland Browns: QB Brandon Weeden

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    Yes, the Cleveland Browns are welcoming yet another new head coach (and more) to town.

    And fortunately for second-year veteran quarterback Brandon Weeden, it is Rob Chudzinski and offensive coordinator Norv Turner to the rescue.

    It was a rough rookie year for Weeden, who finished the season with 14 touchdown passes and 17 interceptions while completing less than 60 percent of his passes. His four-interception outing on opening weekend vs. the Philadelphia Eagles last season was one of six games in which he was picked off at least twice.

    In April, the Browns used four of their five selections on defensive help. Perhaps Chudzinski and the brain trust feel that Weeden is ready to make a major step up in 2013. But the leash could be a short one in the Dawg Pound with veteran Jason Campbell in reserve.

Dallas Cowboys: RT Doug Free

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    As expected, Jerry Jones and the Dallas Cowboys tackled the offensive line in April’s NFL draft.

    And with their selection in the first round, the Pokes opted for a center. Wisconsin’s Travis Frederick fills a hole for a position that had three different starters at various times in 2012.

    But left tackle-turned-right tackle Doug Free let too many pass-rushers go free last season. And he’s costing the Cowboys a hefty price via the salary cap with a hit just over $10 million. Add in the fact that his playing time shrunk in the final four games, and there’s plenty to worry about here.

    So not only is there a concern about his performance, but Free isn’t exactly the cheapest link.

Denver Broncos: LB Joe Mays

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    The good news for Denver Broncos defender Joe Mays is that he’s played everywhere in terms of linebacker.

    The question is whether the five-year veteran is ready to stand up to 16 games of being the starter in the middle in 2013.

    Denver’s defense gave up the second-fewest yards in the league last season and was ranked third against both the run and the pass. But you would have never known that if you saw the double-overtime playoff loss to the Baltimore Ravens in January, in which defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio’s unit surrendered 479 total yards by game’s end.

    Was the Denver defense as good as its ranking? Yes and no. Bottom line is that it has to be better this season if the team intends on making a seventh Super Bowl appearance and the first since 1998.

Detroit Lions: LB Ashlee Palmer

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    The Detroit Lions come off another dismal season made more disappointing by the fact that the team was in the playoffs in 2011.

    And if Jim Schwartz and Co. are to rebound from a 4-12 campaign, they must get more big plays from a team that wasn’t exactly opportunistic.

    The Lions totaled just 17 takeaways in 16 contests a year ago. And to make matters worse, defensive coordinator Gunther Cunningham’s unit didn't return any of those for touchdowns.

    With man in the middle Stephen Tulloch as well as the emerging DeAndre Levy finishing first and third, respectively, on the team in tackles a year ago, Schwartz’s club is settled at two of the linebacking spots. But is Ashlee Palmer ready for a full-time position? The four-year veteran has made nine career starts with the Lions and Buffalo Bills, including a pair for Detroit in 2012.

    The team addressed both the defensive line and secondary during free agency and the draft this offseason, which implies that the Lions are confident Palmer can get the job done.

Green Bay Packers: SS M.D. Jennings

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    Filling the shoes of former Pro Bowler Charles Woodson wasn’t going to be easy. But at least Green Bay Packers safety M.D. Jennings got a head start last season.

    When Woodson was injured midway through the 2012 season, it was time for the second-year pro to step in. After playing in 15 games and totaling seven tackles as a rookie in 2011, Jennings started 10 games in 2012.

    Now, trying to do what Woodson did in his seven seasons with the Pack would be nearly impossible. The former Heisman Trophy winner totaled 38 interceptions and ran back nine for scores while in Titletown.

    And when Woodson returned for the playoffs in 2012, he immediately tried to rectify the team’s biggest defensive deficiency: stopping the run.

    That will be a priority for not only Jennings, but for the rest of Dom Capers’ defenders as well in 2013.

Houston Texans: CB Kareem Jackson

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    We saw two different versions of the Houston Texans defense in 2012.

    If you include the team’s two playoff games this past season, Gary Kubiak’s club allowed a surprising 242 points in their last nine games. Houston gave up just 143 points during its 8-1 start.

    Despite 20.5 sacks from NFL Defensive Player of the Year J.J. Watt, the pass defense became a liability during the second half of the season.

    And former first-round cornerback Kareem Jackson had his ups and down, including a less-than-memorable afternoon against wide receiver Justin Blackmon and the Jacksonville Jaguars in November.

    Jackson led the team with four interceptions and tied for the club lead with 16 passes defensed. But Kubiak’s club can least afford any more inconsistency in a secondary that will now feature veteran free safety Ed Reed but will miss Glover Quin.

Indianapolis Colts: C Samson Satele

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    Lost in the euphoria of last season’s surprising playoff run by the rebuilt Indianapolis Colts is the fact that rookie quarterback Andrew Luck took his share of shots in 2012.

    While the former first overall pick threw 23 touchdown passes last season, he also committed 23 turnovers. And a subpar offensive front saw Luck run out of time too often. The former Stanford Cardinal was sacked 41 times in 16 games.

    Veteran center Samson Satele has made the rounds in the NFL, and he had his problems a year ago. Pro Football Focus tells us that the journeyman blocker allowed six of those 41 sacks. And consider that Chuck Pagano’s club ranked only 22nd in rushing in 2012.

    Could the Colts cut ties with Satele? And is he a lock to hold down the job? It will be interesting to see if he can hold off rookie Khaled Holmes.

Jacksonville Jaguars: QB Blaine Gabbert

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    When you’re coming off the worst season in franchise history, there’s obviously nowhere to go but up. It’s also obvious that like many other teams, the Jacksonville Jaguars have more than one weak link.

    While most expected the team to draft a quarterback in April, new head coach Gus Bradley is hoping that the third year is charming for Blaine Gabbert.

    After struggling as a rookie, the former first-rounder began to show signs of progress in 2012. Gabbert threw nine touchdown passes and just six interceptions in 10 games before getting hurt last season. He also improved his ball security, fumbling five times compared to 14 fumbles in 15 games as a rookie in 2011.

    But speaking of security, does Gabbert have that and the confidence of his teammates? Chad Henne remains in the mix, and the Jaguars added a couple of quarterback prospects in Matt Scott and Jordan Rodgers (yes, Aaron’s brother) after the draft was over.

Kansas City Chiefs: DE Tyson Jackson

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    Once upon a time, the Kansas City Chiefs selected defensive end Tyson Jackson at No. 3 overall in the 2009 NFL draft.

    That seems like an awfully long time ago. And unfortunately, we’ve yet to see a big-time season out of the former LSU star.

    The Chiefs were 27th in the NFL in rushing defense a year ago. And when it came to ranking 3-4 defensive ends against the run, Jackson was a mediocre 27th in the league in that category, according to Pro Football Focus. Jackson produced only 3.0 sacks in 2012.

    Former first-round pick Glenn Dorsey left via free agency for San Francisco this offseason. Is it indeed possible that this could be the final year for Jackson in Kansas City? His play must be noticeably better in 2013.

Miami Dolphins: FB Jorvorskie Lane

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    Sorry, Jorvorskie Lane is not a shortcut to Dan Marino Blvd. But the relatively unknown fullback of the Miami Dolphins needs to make a name for himself in 2013.

    With Reggie Bush now in Detroit via free agency, Joe Philbin needs third-year running back Daniel Thomas and second-year pro Lamar Miller to step up and help the team improve on the league’s 17th-ranked ground attack a year ago.

    But can Lane pave the way behind a new-look offensive line and help either Thomas or Miller reach the 1,000-yard mark in rushing?

    An improved running game can only aid a Dolphins offense that struggled to reach the end zone a year ago. And while fullbacks seem to be headed toward extinction, Lane needs to make an impression this season.

Minnesota Vikings: QB Christian Ponder

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    Many believe 2012 NFL MVP Adrian Peterson carried the Minnesota Vikings to 10 wins and a stunning playoff appearance in 2012. Of course, 2,097 yards rushing, the second-highest single-season total in league history, will do that.

    But the fact remains that quarterback Christian Ponder’s erratic play makes you wonder if he is indeed ready to take the next step.

    The former first-round pick finished 2012 with 18 touchdown passes and a dozen interceptions. All of those picks came in a nine-game midseason stretch. In the other seven games, Ponder threw eight touchdown passes.

    So given Ponder's inconsistent 10-touchdown, 12-interception run, there’s been some skepticism regarding the former first-round pick.

    Ponder threw three touchdown passes and zero interceptions in the playoff-clinching Week 17 win over the Green Bay Packers (then missed the Wild Card Game due to injury). Is that the quarterback we will see come September?

New England Patriots: C Ryan Wendell

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    In his fourth NFL season, Ryan Wendell became the New England Patriots’ regular center.

    But was his performance in 2012 enough to make sure he becomes a fixture on the offensive line for years to come?

    Quarterback Tom Brady comes off his usual outstanding season in which he threw for 4,827 yards and 34 scores to go with just eight interceptions. But the legendary signal-caller was sacked 27 times last season, and six of those (according to Pro Football Focus) came at the expense of Wendell.

    The former undrafted free agent from Fresno State appears to be the man at center going forward, and he's replacing a respected player in Dan Koppen. But Wendell needs to continue to make strides as the team looks to re-emphasize the running game more these days.

New Orleans Saints: LT Charles Brown

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    It’s safe to say that New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees wouldn’t be coming off back-to-back 5,000-yard passing seasons without a little help. The prolific signal-caller has also thrown a combined 89 touchdown passes the last two years.

    He didn’t do it all by himself.

    Now, depending on your point of view, former Saints left tackle Jermon Bushrod, a two-time Pro Bowler in New Orleans but now a member of the Chicago Bears, was a much-improved player from his first two seasons in the NFL. Or was Bushrod simply a product of the Saints' passing system?

    In any case, Charles Brown now needs to step up. The former second-round pick has yet to make a splash in three NFL seasons, playing in just 21 games and making only eight starts.

    Or perhaps we’ll be seeing rookie Terron Armstead in the starting lineup sooner rather than later?

New York Giants: LB Jacquian Williams

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    Off back-to-back 9-7 seasons, there was bound to be change for the New York Giants.

    While 2011 resulted in a Super Bowl XLVI win, last season’s duplicate finish wasn’t good enough to reach the playoffs.

    And while head coach Tom Coughlin and Eli Manning get all the praise and the blame, the latter last season could be attributed to a defensive unit that gave up the second-most yards in the NFL.

    The Giants also ranked 25th against the run, hence one of numerous reasons for the release of defensive tackle Chris Canty and linebacker Michael Boley.

    Enter Jacquian Williams, who has made a total of five starts in two seasons with Big Blue. They’ll need much more out of the young defender in 2013.

New York Jets: FS Josh Bush

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    Seemingly more New York Jets left New York this year than the number of jets from LaGuardia Airport.

    It's a large list in terms of known talent, from cornerback Darrelle Revis, running back Shonn Greene and tight end Dustin Keller to defensive tackle Mike DeVito and safeties LaRon Landry and Yeremiah Bell.

    Speaking of safety, Josh Bush is one of the new faces in the defensive backfield. A sixth-round pick a year ago from Wake Forest, Bush saw action in all 16 games as a rookie but will be making his first NFL start when the time comes. He’ll team with former Jacksonville Jaguars safety Dawan Landry this season.

    And here you thought the topic would be the Jets' quarterbacking. 

Oakland Raiders: LG Tony Bergstrom

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    Once the Oakland Raiders finally made a selection in the 2012 draft, they used the 95th overall pick (third round) on University of Utah guard Tony Bergstrom.

    After sitting for most of the year, the 6’5”, 310-pound blocker will take over at left guard in place of underrated veteran Cooper Carlisle. Bergstrom did play in nine games and make one start in 2012.

    He’ll be asked to do a lot more than that this season. Bergstrom adds some more youth to an offensive front that allowed just 27 sacks a year ago. And if running back Darren McFadden could somehow find a way to remain healthy for an entire season, the Raiders could once again have one of the more feared ground attacks in the league.

    But first things first, and that’s Bergstrom becoming a full-time fixture on the Oakland offensive line.

Philadelphia Eagles: DE Cedric Thornton

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    It’s been a rough few years in the City of Brotherly Love, at least in terms of professional football.

    The usually consistent Philadelphia Eagles have been anything but. And now for the first time since 1998, head coach Andy Reid won’t be on their sidelines.

    Enter head coach Chip Kelly. And also enter new defensive coordinator Billy Davis, who brings the 3-4 defense to Philadelphia.

    One of the changes is installing Cedric Thornton as the starter at left defensive end. The onetime undrafted free agent played in all 16 games in 2012 but did not start a contest.

    Can the 6’4”, 309-pound defender make the conversion to the outside? There are more doubts than solutions here.

Pittsburgh Steelers: LT Mike Adams

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    Last year’s scuttlebutt in terms of the 2012 draft was that the Pittsburgh Steelers were interested in drafting Ohio State’s Mike Adams in the first round.

    Those plans fell through after the former Buckeye failed a drug test (marijuana) at the scouting combine in Indianapolis that year.

    But the Steelers drafted Adams in the second round anyway. He wound up starting six games at right tackle when Marcus Gilbert was unavailable. But he had an erratic rookie campaign on a team looking to rebound from a disappointing season.

    And considering the Steelers were looking for him to be the left tackle of the immediate future, the timing couldn’t be better in terms of bouncing back.

St. Louis Rams: SS Darian Stewart

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    General manager Les Snead, head coach Jeff Fisher and the St. Louis Rams are assembling quite a team in the Gateway City.

    While the addition of first-round wide receiver Tavon Austin drew plenty of attention in late April, let’s not forget that this Rams defense is starting to look legit.

    St. Louis tied for the league lead with 52 sacks last season. And a first-round-laden defensive front just got some more support at linebacker with the addition of Alec Ogletree.

    But it’s the secondary that has a question mark. The corners are solid with Cortland Finnegan and the opportunistic Janoris Jenkins, who returned four of his takeaways for touchdowns in his impressive rookie season.

    But safeties Quintin Mikell and Craig Dahl are both gone. That leaves Darian Stewart and rookie T.J. McDonald as the starters. Stewart enters his fourth NFL season; all 13 of his starts and his lone career interception with the Rams came in 2011.

San Diego Chargers: LT King Dunlap

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    San Diego Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers’ turnover issues the last two seasons have been well documented. Perhaps not as publicized was the pounding the former Pro Bowl quarterback took in 2012.

    Rivers was sacked 49 times last season. Still, he completed 64.1 percent of his passes and somehow managed more touchdown passes (26) than turnovers (22).

    The Chargers were busy this offseason, adding to the offensive line in free agency. Guards Rich Ohrnberger (Arizona Cardinals) and Chad Rinehart (Buffalo Bills) and left tackle King Dunlap (Philadelphia Eagles) helped fortify the unit.

    D.J. Fluker was another key addition in April's draft.

    Dunlap started a career-high 13 games with the Eagles in 2012, 11 at left tackle, and drew mixed reviews. But how sure are we that we will see Dunlap at left tackle in September? The Chargers recently got a visit from free-agent tackle Max Starks (via NFL.com's Ian Rapoport).

San Francisco 49ers: NT Ian Williams

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    Despite last season’s late slump, the San Francisco 49ers defensive unit remains one of the best in the business.

    Shaky play at the corners combined with injuries to Pro Bowlers up front in Justin Smith and Aldon Smith made the Niners look vulnerable when it came to stopping the pass late in the year and in the postseason.

    But at least San Francisco made up for the departure of two-time Pro Bowl free safety Dashon Goldson with its selection of LSU’s Eric Reid with the No. 18 overall pick in April's draft.

    But is Ian Williams ready to take over for unsung nose tackle Isaac Sopoaga, who left via free agency for the Philadelphia Eagles in March?

    This could have some lasting effects for a 49ers defense that ranked fourth in the NFL against the run in 2012.

Seattle Seahawks: LB Heath Farwell

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    On a defensive unit that was among the best in the league last season, the Seattle Seahawks do have a hole or two to patch up.

    One appears to be the right outside linebacker spot, where traditional special teams standout Heath Farwell is the current heir apparent to veteran Leroy Hill, whom the club has yet to re-sign.

    But waiting in the wings is third-year performer Malcolm Smith, the 242nd player selected in the 2011 draft by way of Pete Carroll's USC.

    Despite giving up the fourth-fewest yards in the league and allowing a league-low 245 points last season, the ‘Hawks were just 10th in the NFL against the run. It’s the kind of statistic that will need to improve if Carroll’s team is to upend the San Francisco 49ers in the NFC West.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers: DT Gary Gibson

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    A year ago, throwing the football against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers was in vogue.

    But thanks to rookie linebacker Lavonte David and Pro Bowl defensive tackle Gerald McCoy, no team in the league gave up fewer rushing yards in the NFL in 2012.

    Some of that was the byproduct of clubs preferring the aerial game. Some of it was also the play of underrated defensive tackle Roy Miller, now a member of the Jacksonville Jaguars.

    Now journeyman Gary Gibson inherits Miller’s spot. The onetime Carolina Panthers and St. Louis Rams defender totaled 18 tackles with the Bucs a year ago. And all three of his career sacks came in 2011 with the Rams.

    Don’t be surprised if free-agent pickup Derek Landri or rookie Akeem Spence push hard for Gibson’s spot.

Tennessee Titans: QB Jake Locker

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    It was a rough 2012 for former first-round pick Jake Locker as he inherited the starting quarterback job with the Tennessee Titans. The onetime University of Washington standout would forge a 4-7 record last season as a starter.

    He completed just 56.4 percent of his passes, threw more interceptions (11) than touchdown passes (10), was sacked 25 times and lost the first of four fumbles on the season on a less-than-memorable opening weekend against the New England Patriots.

    With veteran Matt Hasselbeck off to the Indianapolis Colts, it will be up to Locker to show he’s still the man behind center. Former Buffalo Bills veteran Ryan Fitzpatrick is the new backup in Nashville.

Washington Redskins: SS Brandon Meriweather

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    You hate to kick a person when they’re down. But the fact remains that the Washington Redskins secondary was an area of major concern last season. And strong safety Brandon Meriweather was out for nearly all of 2012.

    And it also remains to be seen if the former Pro Bowl safety will be 100 percent by the time Mike Shanahan’s team gets ready for training camp this summer. All signs point to that fact, according to The Washington Post’s Mike Jones.

    But even if he's healthy, will the former New England Patriots and Chicago Bears performer make a difference for a team that gave up 31 touchdown passes in 2012?

    There seem to be more questions than answers here. Hence another reason the Redskins used three of their seven picks in April’s draft on secondary help.