The Biggest Missing Piece on Every NFL Roster

Russell S. BaxterContributor IMay 28, 2013

The Biggest Missing Piece on Every NFL Roster

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    So how far away is your favorite NFL team from winning a Super Bowl…or a playoff game…or a division title…or enjoying a winning season?

    True, while some of the 32 clubs have bigger concerns than others, the focus here is the biggest missing piece for each team as OTAs continue around the league.

    The biggest missing piece means different things to different teams here. In some instances, it could be a position. In others, it could be an entire unit. And there could be numerous reasons for these shortcomings, including recent injuries.

    So for each team, we’ll point out the issue and offer what appears to be the team’s solution. And here’s hoping every club feels good (or better) about itself once training camp starts in a few months.

    Finally, a special thanks to Pro Football Focus (subscription required) for their great statistical breakdowns and analysis.

Arizona Cardinals: Offensive Line

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    Issue: The Arizona Cardinals allowed an NFL high 58 sacks in 2012, meaning the team has given up an astonishing 162 sacks in 48 games over the last three seasons.

     

    Solution?: Besides the return of veteran left tackle Levi Brown (who missed the entire 2012 season), new Cardinals head coach Bruce Arians now has two rookies up front in left guard Jonathan Cooper and right guard Earl Watford, selected in the first and fourth rounds, respectively, in April.

    And if right tackle Bobby Massie continues to progress, the happiest man in Arizona could be new quarterback Carson Palmer.

Atlanta Falcons: Pass-Rusher

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    Issue: The Atlanta Falcons totaled just 29 sacks in 2012, and 10 of them came from defensive end John Abraham, who was released this offseason.

     

    Solution?: The photo here is exactly what the Falcons have in mind for this season.

    Here’s defensive end Osi Umenyiora, the former New York Giants performer now with the Falcons, sacking Saints quarterback Drew Brees last December.

    But even if Umenyiora returns to Pro Bowl form, he fills the void left by Abraham’s departure. Have head coach Mike Smith and defensive coordinator Mike Nolan anything else up their sleeves?

Baltimore Ravens: Third Wide Receiver

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    Issue: The trade of veteran wideout Anquan Boldin to the San Francisco 49ers this offseason leaves the team without its top pass-catcher from not only the 2012 regular season but the club’s Super Bowl XLVII playoff run as well.

     

    Solution?: Emerging wide receiver Torrey Smith and big-play performer Jacoby Jones are now the starters. But the other nine wide receivers on this current roster, including holdovers David Reed and Tandon Doss, combined for 17 receptions last season.

    Reed, who played in only five games last year, has totaled five catches in three years and needs to step up in his fourth season.

    But it sounds like general manager Ozzie Newsome may have some other plans

Buffalo Bills: Inside Linebacker(s)

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    Issue: Only the New Orleans Saints gave up more rushing yards per game than the Buffalo Bills in 2012. The team has now ranked in the bottom five of the league in run defense four straight years.

     

    Solution?: Under new defensive coordinator Mike Pettine, the Bills will implement the 3-4 this season. That means defensive tackle Marcell Dareus moves to the nose and defensive end Mark Anderson shifts to left outside linebacker.

    Linebacker Kelvin Sheppard finished third on the team with 80 tackles last season, but he was traded to the Indianapolis Colts a few days after the draft.

    The jobs inside will go to second-year pro Nigel Bradham, who made 11 starts last season and totaled 57 tackles, along with rookie second-rounder Kiko Alonso.

Carolina Panthers: Free Safety

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    Issue: The Carolina Panthers got better as a team as the season wore on, and their defensive unit allowed only 33 offensive touchdowns. But two-thirds of those came through the air (22) despite a pass rush that produced 39 sacks.

     

    Solution?: Free safety Haruki Nakamura returns for his second season in Carolina. The former Baltimore Ravens performer totaled 54 tackles and a pair of interceptions in 13 games last season with the Panthers.

    But Nakamura was credited with only four passes defensed, as well as zero forced fumbles or fumble recoveries. Stay tuned.

Chicago Bears: Second Wide Receiver

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    Issue: Last season, Pro Bowl wideout Brandon Marshall totaled 118 receptions, 11 for touchdowns. The remainder of the Chicago Bears caught 169 passes, 10 for scores.

     

    Solution?: Will veteran Earl Bennett be the starter opposite Marshall in September? Or will talented Alshon Jeffery become Jay Cutler’s second-favorite target? This duo combined for 53 catches last season, five for scores.

    Now that speedy Devin Hester won’t be in the mix at wide receiver, could new tight end Martellus Bennett (New York Giants) emerge as the team’s second option behind Marshall? Time will tell…soon.

Cincinnati Bengals: Strong Safety

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    Issue: The Cincinnati Bengals defense is one of the best in the business. But strong safety Chris Crocker wasn’t re-signed and that puts Taylor Mays in the driver's seat in terms of the job…for now.

     

    Solution?: Mays started three game last season, but he has still yet to live up to expectations. The former USC standout was a second-round pick of the San Francisco 49ers in 2010 and was dealt to the Bengals a year later.

    Rookie Shawn Williams, a third-round pick from Georgia in April, figures to give Mays a run for his money.

Cleveland Browns: Quarterback

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    Issue: It was a rough debut for Cleveland Browns rookie quarterback Brandon Weeden. The former Oklahoma State standout threw more interceptions (17) than touchdown passes (14) and fumbled six times (losing one) in 2012.

     

    Solution?: The Browns, now under the guidance of head coach Rob Chudzinski and offensive coordinator Norv Turner, added free-agent veteran Jason Campbell to the mix and recently signed Brian Hoyer, who was let go recently by the Arizona Cardinals.

    It’s hard to tell just how much confidence the new staff has in Weeden, who turns 30 in October.

    Of course, a big year by running back Trent Richardson could help.

Dallas Cowboys: Running Back

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    Issue: Last season, only the Arizona Cardinals totaled fewer rushing yards than the Dallas Cowboys. Running back DeMarco Murray missed six games last season but still led Jason Garrett’s team with 663 yards rushing.

     

    Solution?: Can Murray last an entire season? Injuries were also a part of his rookie campaign in 2011, when he showed he could be a top-flight back.

    With former first-rounder Felix Jones gone (Philadelphia Eagles), rookie Joseph Randle is now the main backup.

    A healthy Murray would make life so much easier for oft-criticized quarterback Tony Romo.

Denver Broncos: Middle Linebacker

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    Issue: Only the Pittsburgh Steelers gave up fewer total yards than the Denver Broncos last season. And only two clubs surrendered fewer yards on the ground in 2012.

    Veteran middle linebacker D.J. Williams was let go this offseason and signed with the Chicago Bears.

     

    Solution?: For numerous reasons, Williams barely saw the field last season. Neither did Joe Mays, although he was the team’s starting middle linebacker in four of the Broncos' first five games in 2012.

    Veteran Keith Brooking was the club’s starter in the middle for the other 12 games, but the 15-year veteran wasn’t re-signed.

    Could Nate Irving fit in the mix for the job?

Detroit Lions: Left Outside Linebacker

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    Issue: With Justin Durant taking the free agency highway to Dallas, the Detroit Lions had a hole in a linebacking corps that includes middle man Stephen Tulloch and productive DeAndre Levy. Ashlee Palmer is the man on the spot…for now.

     

    Solution?: Palmer started a pair of games for Jim Schwartz’s team in 2012 and has made a total of nine starts in four seasons with the Buffalo Bills and Detroit. But he’s potentially just one of many new faces on a Lions defense that will feature rookies in defensive end Ziggy Ansah and cornerback Darius Slay.

    And as for that left outside linebacking spot, your guess is as good as anyone’s.

Green Bay Packers: Offensive Line

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    Issue: Only the Arizona Cardinals (58) gave up more sacks than the Green Bay Packers (51) last season. And while four Cardinals signal-callers were on the end of those 58 sacks, Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers was the sole recipient of that aforementioned punishment.

     

    Solution?: Taking a semi-page out of the Baltimore Ravens 2012 postseason, head coach Mike McCarthy has flip-flopped his offensive front. Bryan Bulaga (who missed the final seven games and playoffs a year ago) goes from right tackle to left and Marshall Newhouse takes over on the right side.

    Josh Sitton is now at right guard, while T.J. Lang goes from right guard to left.

    Former first-round pick Derek Sherrod (2011) and rookies David Bakhtiari and J.C. Tretter, a pair of fourth-round selections, may or may not have a say here down the road as well.

Houston Texans: Nose Tackle

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    Issue: The Houston Texans finished seventh in the NFL in both total yards and rushing yards allowed in 2012. But the team also gave up 120 or more yards on the ground in four of their last six outings, including the playoffs.

     

    Solution?: Playing nose tackle means all guts and no glory. But if the Texans defense, which struggled during the second half of last season, wants to elevate its game, it must be more consistent against the run.

    Earl Mitchell is enteing his fourth NFL campaign and totaled 31 tackles and zero sacks a year ago. Of course, teammate J.J. Watt was busy getting to the quarterback (20.5 sacks), so the latter is a moot point, per se.

    Of course, having a healthy Brian Cushing behind him helps as well, but you would like to see a little production from Mitchell when it comes to slowing down the ground game.

Indianapolis Colts: Linebacker

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    Issue: Defense has been an issue, most notably against the run, for many seasons. And last year was no different, as only three teams in the NFL surrendered more yards on the ground than the Indianapolis Colts.

     

    Solution?: Inside linebacker Jerrell Freeman, a 15-game starter in 2012, led the Colts with 145 tackles in his first season with the club. But his play against the run became an issue as the season wore on.

    Pat Angerer missed the early part of the season and didn’t return to the starting lineup until December. Kavell Conner started the majority of 2012 and finished fourth on the team with 54 stops. Head coach Chuck Pagano and defensive coordinator Greg Manusky need to find the right combination here.

    And will free-agent pickup Erik Walden (Green Bay Packers) be the answer at left outside linebacker?

Jacksonville Jaguars: Wide Receiver

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    Issue: The offensively-challenged Jacksonville Jaguars, who scored only 255 points a year ago, looked like they had something going at wideout with the young combination of former first-rounder Justin Blackmon and surprising big-play performer Cecil Shorts. But Blackmon, who led the club with 64 receptions in 2012, will miss the first four games of 2013.

     

    Solution?: Blackmon also finished second on the team with 865 receiving yards and five touchdown grabs. Former Cincinnati Bengals wideout Jordan Shipley returns, and the Jaguars added Mohamed Massaquoi (Cleveland Browns) via free agency.

    For a team already struggling at quarterback, Blackmon’s early-season absence is a big hole to fill and has to be very disappointing for first-time head coach Gus Bradley.

Kansas City Chiefs: Defensive Line

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    Issue: A year ago, the Kansas City Chiefs' front three on defense featured a trio of former first-round picks in end Tyson Jackson, tackle Glenn Dorsey and rookie nose Dontari Poe.

    But this team also finished 27th in the NFL in rushing defense. Dorsey is now elsewhere, signing with the San Francisco 49ers this offseason, after missing the majority of 2012.

     

    Solution?: Play better? New head coach Andy Reid and general manager John Dorsey replaced Dorsey with free agent Mike DeVito (New York Jets), which should help against the run. However, Poe must take some big steps forward, and Jackson has really yet to live up to his lofty draft status.

    Could we see more from third-year pros in defensive end Allen Bailey and nose tackle Jerrell Powe?

    Powe for Poe. Now that would be ironic.

Miami Dolphins: Running Back

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    Issue: In 2011, the Miami Dolphins traded for New Orleans Saints running back Reggie Bush and he surprised many with his play as a runner.

    Bush rushed for 1,086 yards in his first season in South Florida and followed that up with 986 yards on the ground last season. But the former USC star motored his way out of town and signed with the Detroit Lions this offseason.

     

    Solution?: Head coach Joe Philbin has a pair of young runners in second-year pro Lamar Miller and third-year back Daniel Thomas at his disposal.

    The duo combined for 575 yards on the ground in 2012 (325 by Thomas) and it will be interesting to see if one or the other steps up as the main threat or Philbin opts for a 1-2 punch.

    In any case, the Dolphins need a consistent running threat if second-year quarterback Ryan Tannehill is to fully take advantage of his new-look receiving corps.

Minnesota Vikings: Middle Linebacker

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    Issue: Jasper Brinkley finished fourth on the Minnesota Vikings with 99 tackles last season. But the productive defender signed with the Arizona Cardinals in March.

     

    Solution?: Outside linebacker Erin Henderson, whose 80 tackles in 2012 was fifth-best on the team, is now the man in the middle, meaning rookie Gerald Hodges takes over at the right side spot.

    The Vikings defense made some big strides from the previous season, but more work needs to be done. And one of those aspects is improving a run defense that finished a so-so 11th in the NFL in yards allowed in 2012.

New England Patriots: Wide Receivers

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    Issue: Veteran wide receiver Wes Welker, who caught 672 passes in six seasons with the New England Patriots, is now a member of the Denver Broncos. Veteran Brandon Lloyd was also released by the team.

     

    Solution?: Head coach Bill Belichick was busy this offseason, adding the likes of free-agent wideouts Danny Amendola (St. Louis Rams), Michael Jenkins (Minnesota Vikings) and Donald Jones (Buffalo Bills).

    April’s draft brought Aaron Dobson and Josh Boyce in the second and fourth rounds, respectively, and Julian Edelman returns as well.

    Amendola and Jenkins are the expected starters, and we are talking about quarterback Tom Brady. But it will be intriguing to see how they replace Welker’s incredible production.

New Orleans Saints: Right Outside Linebacker

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    Issue: In 2012, the New Orleans Saints gave up the most total yards in a season (7,042; 440.1 yards per game) in the NFL’s 93-year history. Enter new defensive coordinator Rob Ryan, formerly of the Dallas Cowboys, who brings his 3-4 scheme to the Crescent City.

     

    Solution?: Veteran defensive end Will Smith, the team’s best pass-rusher, will make the adjustment to right outside linebacker. But is the nine-year veteran capable of making the transition, which is not as easy as it may appear?

    Smith, who totaled 6.0 sacks during a suspension-shortened 2012, as well as Junior Galette (5.0 sacks) combined for 11 sacks last season.

New York Giants: Outside Linebackers

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    Issue: It just looks odd to see the New York Giants having issues with outside linebackers (memories of Lawrence Taylor and Carl Banks). But this was a Big Blue defense that sang the blues in 2012, allowing the second-most total yards in the league last season.

     

    Solution?: Veteran Michael Boley is gone, and former sixth-round pick Jacquian Williams did see some action as a starter last season. But the left side spot appears up for grabs between a pair of former top-10 picks looking for a full-time job.

    The Giants acquired Keith Rivers (the ninth overall selection in 2008) via trade from the Cincinnati Bengals a year ago. And just recently, the team signed former Seattle Seahawks and Oakland Raiders linebacker Aaron Curry, who was the fourth overall pick in 2009 by the Seahawks.

    It will be interesting to see who gets “first” crack at the job.

New York Jets: Quarterback

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    Issue: After leading his team to back-to-back appearances in the AFC title game, quarterback Mark Sanchez has had back-to-back seasons with 26 turnovers.

     

    Solution?: It’s been like an Agatha Christie novel when it comes to the team’s dwindling quarterback derby. Only a few months ago there were six players in the mix.

    But Tim Tebow was released and veteran David Garrard opted for retirement after trying to stage another comeback. That leaves Sanchez and second-round pick Geno Smith to battle it out, with Greg McElroy and Matt Simms watching and waiting.

Oakland Raiders: Middle Linebacker

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    Issue: In his first season as Oakland Raiders head coach, former Denver Broncos defensive coordinator Dennis Allen had a so-so defensive unit on the field.

    But that expects to change in 2013, and if it doesn’t, it won’t be for a lack of trying.

     

    Solution?: General manager Reggie McKenzie added middle linebacker Kaluka Maiava (Cleveland Browns) to a unit that will have nine new starters from a year ago, eight of them via free agency.

    The four-year veteran totaled 53 tackles, 2.0 sacks and forced a pair of fumbles last season. Oakland finished a mediocre 18th in the NFL in 2012 in both total yards and rushing yards allowed.

Philadelphia Eagles: Left Defensive End

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    Issue: With new defensive coordinator Billy Davis, the Philadelphia Eagles will be making a change in defensive philosophy this season.

    And that appears to be a pretty good idea considering the Birds were 23rd in the league against the run last year, saw their sack total drop from 50 to 30 in one year while tying for the NFL low in takeaways (13) in 2012.

     

    Solution?: Former undrafted free agent Cedric Thornton will try his hand at the starting left defensive end spot. In 16 games a year ago, he totaled 27 tackles and one sack.

    The Eagles also traded for defensive end Clifton Geathers (Indianapolis Colts) in mid-March. It will be interesting to see how both Thornton and 2012 first-round pick Fletcher Cox warm to the new defense.

Pittsburgh Steelers: Tight End

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    Issue: Veteran tight end Heath Miller enjoyed a career year in 2012. He led the Pittsburgh Steelers with 71 receptions and tied for the club lead with eight touchdown catches. But the two-time Pro Bowler injured his knee in Week 16 against Cincinnati and his status for 2013 is uncertain.

     

    Solution?: Here’s hoping Miller can recover as soon as possible.

    The Steelers brought back tight end Matt Spaeth, who had signed with the Chicago Bears as a free agent as few seasons ago but was let go by the club this offseason. They also have David Paulson, a seventh-round pick in 2012 who caught seven passes as a rookie.

    It will be interesting to see how Miller’s absence affects quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, as well as Pittsburgh’s running game.

St. Louis Rams: Left Guard

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    Issue: The St. Louis Rams have remade their offensive line in recent seasons, adding veteran center Scott Wells in 2012 and this year signing free-agent left tackle Jake Long (Miami Dolphins) to protect quarterback Sam Bradford. But left guard Robert Turner signed with the Tennessee Titans this offseason.

     

    Solution?: Turner was a valuable swingman who started at both left guard (seven games) and at center when Wells was injured on opening weekend. Former Houston Texans offensive lineman Shelley Smith wound up starting four games at left guard last season and looks to be the full-time performer at the spot for now.

    Despite numerous changes in the lineup in 2012, the Rams allowed just 35 sacks, down from 55 the previous season.

San Diego Chargers: Offensive Line

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    Issue: Former Pro Bowl quarterback Philip Rivers has had his issues with turnovers the last two seasons. But the San Diego Chargers signal-caller also took a beating last season, sacked 49 times in 16 games.

    It’s worth noting that Rivers hasn’t missed a start since becoming the team’s quarterback in Week 1 of 2006.

     

    Solution?: Via free agency, the Bolts added left tackle King Dunlap (Philadelphia Eagles) and left guard Chad Rinehart (Buffalo Bills) and signed guard Rich Ohrnberger (Arizona Cardinals). Former right tackle Jeromey Clary is now at right guard, while 2013 first-rounder D.J. Fluker will open at right tackle. And veteran tackle Max Starks (Pittsburgh Steelers) joined the team last week.

    Consider that the Arizona Cardinals were the only team in the league to gain fewer total yards than the Chargers a year ago and something drastic needed to be done. We’ll soon find out if these were the right moves.

San Francisco 49ers: Wide Receiver

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    Issue: Emerging former first-round pick Michael Crabtree was the San Francisco 49ers' top pass-catcher both during the regular season and playoffs last year. But he’s expected to miss substantial time after suffering an Achilles injury last week at OTAs.

     

    Solution?: The growing rapport between Crabtree and young quarterback Colin Kaepernick won’t be easily replaced. The Niners had already traded for veteran wideout Anquan Boldin and Mario Manningham remains in the mix.

    There’s also 2012 first-rounder A.J. Jenkins, who was a non-factor as a rookie, as well as Kyle Williams (injured late last season) and rookie Quinton Patton.

    Crabtree will be missed, but head coach Jim Harbaugh and the team should be able to hold down the fort until he returns.

Seattle Seahawks: Right Tackle

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    Issue: Seattle Seahawks left tackle Russell Okung started 15 games last season and was named to the Pro Bowl. Seahawks right tackle Breno Giacomini started 16 games last season and didn’t earn an invite to the Pro Bowl for a number of reasons.

     

    Solution?: Head coach Pete Carroll and the Seattle brain trust added tackle Michael Bowie in the seventh round in April. But could the Seahawks be in the market for a veteran blocker down the road? This is one of the better running teams in the league but could do better in terms of pass protection.

    It's certainly a situation that bears a little watching.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Left Defensive End

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    Issue: Greg Schiano’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers totaled just 27 sacks a season ago. Exactly one-third of those sacks (9.0) came from defensive end Michael Bennett, now a member of the Seattle Seahawks.

     

    Solution?: It’s time for former second-round pick Da’Quan Bowers to show what he can do on a regular basis. For various reasons, he’s yet to make an impact in two NFL seasons. Of course, there’s also speculation that he could miss a little time early in the season following an off-the-field incident.

    In any case, Bowers' disappointing play to date has to have Schiano and the Buccaneers staff a bit concerned.

    Let’s see if season No. 3 turns out to be the charm.

Tennessee Titans: Defensive End

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    Issue: Only five teams in the league gave up more total yards last season than the Tennessee Titans, who also finished 24th in the NFL in rushing defense in 2012.

     

    Solution?: While former first-rounder Derrick Morgan was somewhat adequate against the run last season while leading the team with 6.5 sacks. Meanwhile, right defensive end Kamerion Wimbley, signed to help the pass rush last season, totaled 6.0 sacks and was a liability in terms of rushing defense (see the bottom of the page via Pro Football Focus).

    Both Morgan and Wimbley must be better against the run (quickly), especially in a division that boasts the likes of Arian Foster and Maurice Jones-Drew. And a combined 12.5 sacks between the two is a total you would expect someone the likes of Wimbley to amass by himself.

Washington Redskins: Right Tackle

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    Issue: The Washington Redskins finished first in the league in rushing last season despite the performance of right tackle Tyler Polumbus, who didn’t grade out very well at all, according to Pro Football Focus in 2012.

     

    Solution?: While the Redskins did a great job of keeping their offensive front intact last season, there are certainly concerns regarding right tackle.

    The team did sign free agent Jeremy Trueblood (Tampa Bay Buccaneers) during the offseason and also added veteran tackle Tony Pashos in March. The latter did not play in the NFL in 2012.

    Could either Trueblood or Pashos push Polumbus out of the starting lineup?