One Major Question for Every NFL Team Heading into Preseason Week 3

Russell S. Baxter@@BaxFootballGuruContributor IAugust 22, 2012

One Major Question for Every NFL Team Heading into Preseason Week 3

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    For the most part, the third time's the charm if you want to see extended playing time from the NFL starters in preseason action. You can form some stronger opinions after Week 3, as teams are almost certain to give their regulars at least a half of a game of action.

    While every team is flawed in at least one way, this week’s contests will go a long way to deciding what issues still need to be resolved before the regular season kicks off in a few weeks.

    So here’s a look at what each team will be focusing on most. With jobs to be won and roster spots to be secured, these are indeed interesting and perhaps stressful times for those decision makers on all 32 clubs.

Arizona Cardinals (Quarterback)

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    It sounds like we’re beating a dead horse. This situation figures to play itself out, possibly before the start of the weekend, when John Skelton gets the start Thursday night at Tennessee.

    Granted, the Cardinals’ offensive front has been less than stellar in terms of pass protection and will now be without left tackle Levi Brown for a while.

    But the biggest factor here has been the play of Kevin Kolb, who in his nine-game debut with the Cardinals last season threw nine touchdown passes and committed 11 turnovers. And the former Eagles quarterback has looked anything but confident this summer.

Atlanta Falcons (Middle Linebacker)

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    In four seasons with the franchise, the Falcons defense has been steady but hardly spectacular. Veteran defensive end John Abraham has basically been the pass-rush threat, while the rest of the unit has had its up-and-down moments.

    With the anticipated free-agent departure of middle linebacker and perennial leading tackler Curtis Lofton—who signed with New Orleans—Atlanta brought in former Pro Bowler Lofa Tatupu hoping he could recapture his form from his days in Seattle. But it proved to be a failed experiment, as the oft-injured star—who missed the entire 2011 season—will also miss the upcoming campaign as well.

    Now former third-round pick Akeem Dent and/or veteran Mike Patterson must fill the void left by Lofton. That won’t be easy, regardless of who winds up with the job.

Baltimore Ravens (Outside Linebacker)

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    It’s so deceiving to get caught up in statistics in the preseason, but we will point out that the Ravens have totaled two sacks in as many games, and one came via reserve cornerback Corey Graham.

    That could be the result of many things, but the bottom line is that if the Ravens are going to approach 48 sacks in 2012, they will doing it without (at least temporarily) 2011 NFL Defensive Player of the Year Terrell Suggs, who totaled 14 of those sacks, as well as fellow outside linebacker Jarret Johnson, who is now with San Diego.

    Paul Kruger (5.5 sacks in 2011) steps into one starting role, and rookie Courtney Upshaw is the favorite for the other spot. The latter will be tested by the league's left tackles, and it will be interesting to see if he can hold down the fort for now.

Buffalo Bills (Defense)

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    Yes, the acquisitions of free-agent defensive ends Mario Williams and Mark Anderson are the linchpins of a new-look unit that hopes to improve on a mere 29 sacks last season. And that figures looms even worse considering just over one-third of those came in a single win against the Redskins.

    But even more disturbing may be the team’s run defense, which has been ranked 30th, 32nd and 28th, respectively, the last three seasons.

    Although the team is 0-2 in the preseason, the Bills’ defensive unit has allowed only a pair of touchdowns, and nearly half of Minnesota’s 160 yards rushing last week came from quarterback Joe Webb.

    This week’s matchup with the Steelers may tell us a lot.

Carolina Panthers (Defensive Tackle)

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    As has been well documented, the Panthers gave up a team-record 429 points last season. Injuries certainly played a major factor, as linebackers Jon Beason and Thomas Davis both missed nearly the entire season.

    For the most part, the interior of the Carolina defensive line featured rookies Terrell McClain and Sione Fua last season because veteran Ron Edwards, a free-agent pickup from Kansas City, wound up missing the entire season. But Edwards is now healthy and should make a difference as the Panthers look to improve on last season's 25th-ranked run defense.

    Given the loaded backfield of DeAngelo Williams, Jonathan Stewart and Mike Tolbert as well as the talents of quarterback Cam Newton, Ron Rivera’s team gets plenty of opportunities to improve in practice.

Chicago Bears (Offensive Line)

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    It seems the organization has been addressing this unit forever. And be it scheme or execution, it remains a suspect area and one that will have its share of new looks this season.

    While veteran center Roberto Garza is the mainstay, there seems to be a battle at left tackle. Incumbent J’Marcus Webb (who started all 16 games at that spot in 2011) is hoping to fend off former first-rounder Chris Williams, the Bears’ starting left guard for the first nine games a year ago.

    On the other side, second-year pro and last year’s first-round draft choice Gabe Carimi returns looking to stay healthy after missing the final 14 contests (knee) last season. Swingman Chris Spencer goes from right to left guard, while Lance Louis (Carimi’s replacement for the majority of 2011) returns to his right guard spot.

    Got it? The Bears certainly hope so, as they learned the hard way what life without quarterback Jay Cutler was like down the stretch. That's a case of déjà vu they would prefer not to have.

Cincinnati Bengals (Cornerback)

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    There’s a bit of intrigue when it comes to Marvin Lewis’ secondary, thanks to more than a handful of former first-round draft choices in the mix at cornerback.

    The starters appear set with Nate Clements and Leon Hall, with the latter looking to bounce back from an injury-shortened season. Veteran Terence Newman is also around after being released by the Cowboys this offseason, as are Jason Allen and Adam "Pacman" Jones. And last but not least is rookie Dre Kirkpatrick, who was just activated after injuring himself before the start of training camp.

    Led by a lot of depth up front, Cincinnati made strides last season thanks in part to a pass rush that produced 45 sacks. It will be interesting to see if that manifests itself into more opportunities for a Bengals defense that managed only 10 interceptions a year ago.

Cleveland Browns (Wide Receiver)

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    Rookie Brandon Weeden’s has had the quarterback job for a while, and after a so-so effort against the Lions in the preseason opener, he was a bit sharper last week at Lambeau Field.

    Still, it remains to be seen if the organization has surrounded their elder rookie with enough help. Last season, wideout Greg Little paced the team in receptions and receiving yards while speedy Josh Cribbs tied for the team lead with four touchdown receptions.

    The continued development of Little as well as the play of rookie Josh Gordon (via the supplemental draft) will not only go a long way towards Weeden’s performance but also the Browns’ offensive success. And who knows just how dangerous these young receivers can be with the threat of Trent Richardson in the backfield?

Dallas Cowboys (Offensive Line)

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    It’s been a less-than-scintillating summer for the Cowboys, who have watched injuries wreak havoc on a unit that was already making its share of alterations.

    Left tackle Doug Free and second-year right tackle Tyron Smith have switched sides this season, while the interior members of this group have simply been trying to stay healthy.

    Why all the tweaks after a strong showing by quarterback Tony Romo? Well, keeping him healthy was easier said than done late last year. All told, the Cowboys allowed 24 sacks in their last seven games after giving up just 15 sacks in the team’s first nine games.

Denver Broncos (Defense)

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    For all of their improvement from the previous season, the Broncos still ranked just 20th in the league in yards allowed and 22nd against the run. And while this unit played respectable football in the playoff win over the Steelers, they were taken apart in the divisional round by Tom Brady and the Patriots.

    Enter new defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio and a few key additions, including cornerbacks Tracy Porter (Saints) and Drayton Florence (Bills) and defensive tackle Justin Bannan (Rams).

    While Denver has not allowed a first-half touchdown in two preseason games, there remains some doubts, especially in stopping teams on the ground. And it does little good to have quarterback Peyton Manning when he’s spending the majority of his time on the sidelines.

Detroit Lions (Running Back)

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    The numbers that quarterback Matthew Stafford put up while staying healthy in 2011 were impressive, to say the least. That he was forced to continually put the ball in the air—not a bad option with Calvin Johnson available—also spoke volumes about the issues in the backfield.

    Although Stafford’s 663 passing attempts were the third-highest single-season total by a player in league history, the Lions only ran the football 356 times, the second-fewest carries in the league in 2011, while only three teams gained fewer yards on the ground.

    While oft-injured former first-rounder Jahvid Best remains inactive, don’t be surprised if Keiland Williams winds up the starter in Week 1, edging out Kevin Smith, who’s had his own problems staying healthy.

Green Bay Packers (Running Back)

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    Asking league MVP Aaron Rodgers to come up with a performance that saw him throw 45 touchdown passes and just six interceptions once again is highly unlikely. Asking him to come up with similar numbers this season without the threat of a ground attack would be nearly impossible.

    It’s only been two games, but it’s worth noting that the Packers have already totaled twice as many passing plays (81) as running plays (40). Third-year running back James Starks is expected to be the main man at the position, but the team is giving veteran Cedric Benson a look-see as well.

    It’s hard to offer criticism for a team that had few problems scoring all year, but there’s also been an offseason of going to school on the Pack after they produced the second-most points in a season in NFL history. It will be interesting to see how and what they do for an encore.

Houston Texans (Right Side of Offensive Line)

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    It does border on the obvious, but the questions will remain until we see the Texans line up against the Dolphins in Week 1.

    For the most part, the Texans kept the same offensive line together for the vast majority of the season, and that continuity can’t be overlooked. But while the left side returns (tackle Duane Brown and guard Wade Smith) along with center Chris Myers, right guard Mike Brisiel took the free-agency path to Oakland and right tackle Eric Winston was released, meaning Houston’s loss was Kansas City’s gain.

    In steps Antoine Caldwell, who started the final three games of the regular season a year ago for Brisiel, and tackle Rashad Butler. It remains to be seen how opposing defenses attack these two performers, but we’ll find out soon enough.

Indianapolis Colts (Defense)

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    The formula for success with the Colts during the Peyton Manning era seemingly came down to the star quarterback and company rolling up points and a lead, then turning loose exceptional pass-rushing ends Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis on teams that were forced to throw.

    Stopping the run became an afterthought, and the statistics showed it. Who could forget that the 2006 NFL champions were dead last in rushing defense during the regular season?

    Enter Chuck Pagano and a new 3-4 alignment that has the aforementioned Pro Bowl defenders as the outside linebackers. Establishing a new identity on defense would be a good idea, considering each of the last three rushing champions—Tennessee’s Chris Johnson (2009), Houston’s Arian Foster (2010) and Jacksonville’s Maurice-Jones Drew (2011)—reside in the division.

Jacksonville Jaguars (Running Back)

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    Speaking of last season’s NFL leader in rushing yardage, Pro Bowl running back Maurice Jones-Drew’s holdout this summer has been duly noted.

    It’s hard to ignore the impact the Jaguars’ back had a year ago. Besides his obvious contributions on the ground, which included 1,606 yards and eight touchdowns, Jones-Drew also tied for the team lead with three scoring receptions. And his 11 total touchdowns last season were more than half of Jacksonville’s total (21) as a team.

    So what next for the Jaguars’ backfield, which could include an improved Blaine Gabbert behind center? Former seventh-round pick Rashad Jennings is the main man for now, and at the very least, he’ll get plenty of help from underrated fullback Greg Jones.

    But how long can new head coach Mike Mularkey afford to have MJD M.I.A.?

Kansas City Chiefs (Nose Tackle)

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    Although the 2010 AFC West champions found themselves in the division basement one season later, there were a lot of factors (mostly injuries) that led to the team’s demise last year.

    When head coach Todd Haley was fired and defensive whiz Romeo Crennel made the interim, the Chiefs defense rose to the occasion in the final three weeks, allowing a total of 33 points.

    Last season, the middle of the defensive line was secured by nose tackle Kelly Gregg. However, the veteran defender was not re-signed, perhaps due to the fact that Kansas City’s run defense ranked 26th in the league. The team added Dontari Poe via the draft, but for now, Anthony Toribio has the job.

    If the Chiefs are to make a leap defensively, they’ll need the former Memphis standout (Poe) to live up to his first-round billing…soon.

Miami Dolphins (Wide Receiver)

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    New Dolphins starting quarterback and rookie Ryan Tannehill will naturally need all the help he can get as he prepares to make his first NFL regular-season start against the Texans in a few weeks.

    At his disposal at wide receiver are current starters Davone Bess and free-agent pickup Legedu Naanee, while veteran Brian Hartline will have an impact once he is healthy.

    But there’s little or no experience when it comes to the rest of the wideouts on the roster. Granted, running back Reggie Bush and tight end Anthony Fasano will be important parts of the passing game, but the recent release of Chad Johnson may prove costly, regardless of the reasons.

    Still, if worse comes to worse, Joe Philbin can always give Matt Moore the job and employ Tannehill as a wide receiver, the position he played at Texas A&M before making the switch to quarterback. And yes, we’re only jesting, not suggesting. 

Minnesota Vikings (Secondary)

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    While last season’s Packers and Patriots gave up the two highest single-season totals in terms of passing yards in NFL history, Leslie Frazier’s team was busy allowing a league-high 34 touchdown passes.

    And considering a schedule that will include a half-dozen games against the talented arms of Aaron Rodgers, Matthew Stafford and Jay Cutler, reversing that trend will be easier said than done no matter whom the organization may have added during the offseason.

    Still, two of those new faces are a pair of former Notre Dame safeties in Harrison Smith and Robert Blanton. While the former’s time may be coming sooner than later, the concerns for the Minnesota pass defense remain.

New England Patriots (Left Tackle)

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    There’s a reason that the New York Giants have been able to beat the New England Patriots three consecutive times while holding Bill Belichick’s team to 14, 20 and 17 points, respectively.

    It’s also the reason the Bills went out and bolstered their pass rush with the additions of Mario Williams and Mark Anderson.

    Knocking Tom Brady down and harassing the star quarterback into mistakes is the key to defusing an attack that depends greatly on his accuracy. And one of his key protectors over the past decade or so was left tackle Matt Light, who is now talking football instead of playing it.

    Enter Nate Solder, last year’s first-round draft choice who has had some issues this summer in terms of pass protection. Of course, it also hasn’t helped that a pair of key members of the starting offensive line is either rebounding from knee surgery (left guard Logan Mankins) or hasn’t reported to the team (right guard Brian Waters).

New Orleans Saints (Linebacker Depth)

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    Perhaps in anticipation of the loss of now-suspended linebacker Jonathan Vilma, the Saints spent the free-agency period securing the services of Curtis Lofton (Falcons) and David Hawthorne (Seahawks), both their respective team leaders in tackles in 2011.

    But even the best-laid plans of general managers and coaches can go awry; both are nursing injuries at the moment. Add in the fact the free-agent reserve Chris Chamberlain is lost for the season with a knee injury, and there is some concern in New Orleans, so much so that the team pulled the trigger on a deal to obtain veteran Barrett Ruud (best known for his days in Tampa Bay) from Seattle.

    Both Lofton and Hawthorne figure to be in the starting lineup in Week 1 vs. the Redskins. But they bear watching as the season draws closer. 

New York Giants (Special Teams)

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    The defending Super Bowl champions are far from a perfect team, hence the 9-7 record of a year ago. But when it’s time to play, they proved that they can get their act together when most have them sitting at home for the playoffs.

    While the kicker combination of Lawrence Tynes and Steve Weatherford get the job done, it was return by committee last season by Big Blue.

    But a pair of youngsters could make life easier for the New York offense. Second-year wideout Jerrel Jernigan saw some action on kickoffs last season and could be the missing spark on punt returns. Rookie first-rounder David Wilson has already shown what he can do on kickoffs.

    There’s little doubt that Eli Manning and head coach Tom Coughlin wouldn’t mind dealing with a shorter field on occasion. 

New York Jets (Offense)

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    New coordinator Tony Sparano’s unit, or for that matter any member of Rex Ryan’s team, has yet to score a touchdown in the preseason. Granted, their wide receiving corps' (Santonio Holmes, Jeremy Kerley, etc.) limited playing time has not helped the learning curve, but that goes with the territory.

    While neither starting quarterback Mark Sanchez nor backup Tim Tebow has distinguished himself to date, it hasn’t been all their fault. Jets quarterbacks have been sacked a dozen times in losses to the Bengals and Eagles. The offensive line and right tackle Wayne Hunter, in particular, have been under siege this summer as this unit attempts to get on the same page.

    But it may be time for a little speed reading.

Oakland Raiders (Secondary)

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    For all of the talk of former No. 1 overall pick Carson Palmer being able to enjoy the benefits of a normal offseason, new head coach Dennis Allen had much bigger fish to fry in his first season.

    Like fixing a team good enough to win seven of its first 11 games but troubled enough to go 1-4 down the stretch and give up a disturbing 159 points in those five contests. The biggest culprit for the silver and black was a defensive unit that was riddled by opposing quarterbacks to the tune of 31 touchdown passes, the second-most in the league. All told, Raiders defenders allowed two or more scores through the air in 12 of their 16 games.

    There is a pair of new corners in Ron Bartell and Shawntae Spencer, and both have been tested during the preseason. While the results have been favorable, the acid test will come on a Monday night against the Chargers and quarterback Philip Rivers, who, more times than not, has had the last laugh in this rivalry.

Philadelphia Eagles (Defense)

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    A year ago, the Birds’ disappointing season was lowlighted by far too many turnovers and a defensive unit that had its problems protecting leads in the fourth quarter.

    Led by a line as deep as any in the league in recent memory, there’s little doubt that Philadelphia’s front four will be spending many minutes in opposing backfields. Last season, 46 of the Eagles’ 50 sacks (tied for the most in the NFL) came from the defensive line. And if you’ve seen the team this summer, both of those numbers could increase.

    Still, how this entire group performs under second-year defensive coordinator Juan Castillo is vital to the team’s playoff chances. The addition of veteran middle linebacker DeMeco Ryans can only help, and rookie 'backer Mychal Kendricks has shown promise.

    We’ve seen the sacks, but is the defense ready to come up with those vital stops?

Pittsburgh Steelers (Running Back)

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    While the transformation of the offensive line may be the more obvious selection (and there are definitely some concerns, especially at left tackle), it will be interesting to see the Steelers’ running back situation not only in Week 1 at Denver but for the entire season.

    Starter Rashard Mendenhall was activated off the PUP list but doesn’t appear ready to play, while backup Isaac Redman is nursing a groin injury. The other reserves include Jonathan Dwyer, Baron Batch and rookie Chris Rainey, and Rainey has shown some real speed and big-play ability.

    The Pittsburgh aerial attack may be potent thanks to Ben Roethlisberger and company, but a little balance as well as some pass-blocking by the other members of the backfield will be very important.

St. Louis Rams (Linebacker)

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    Not surprisingly with a Jeff Fisher-coached team, the Rams appear loaded with a trio of former first-rounders in ends Chris Long and Robert Quinn and 2012 rookie defensive tackle Michael Brockers, as well as free-agent pickup Kendall Langford (Dolphins).

    But while tackling machine James Laurinaitis will be patrolling the middle, the outside spots are slated to be handled by veterans Mario Haggan (Broncos), who signed with the team in May, and Jo-Lonn Dunbar, who saw his share of playing time with the Saints last season.

    The latter two will be under plenty of pressure to come up with plays, as St. Louis’ run defense was next to last in the league last season.

San Diego Chargers (Run Defense)

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    Much has been made (and rightfully so) of the demise of the San Diego pass rush last season. The Bolts went from 47 sacks in 2010 (tied for the second most in the league) to a mere 32.

    But some of that can also be blamed on the team’s poor performance in stopping the run. The Chargers ranked 20th in the league in rushing defense, a big drop-off from the previous season when only three clubs gave up less on the ground.

    While the pass-rushing problems are likely solved via free agent Jarret Johnson and rookie Melvin Ingram, the Bolts’ three-man line—anchored by nose tackle Antonio Garay as well as 2011 first-rounder Corey Liuget—must keep Takeo Spikes and company clean if they are to improve as a whole.

San Francisco 49ers (Wide Receiver)

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    They say absence makes the heart grow fonder, but what about virtual nonexistence?

    In last year’s playoffs, 49ers quarterback Alex Smith completed 36 passes in two games against the Saints and Giants, and only eight wound up in the hands of wideouts. While we’ve yet to see free agent Mario Manningham catch a pass, comeback candidate Randy Moss totaled three receptions for 24 yards at Houston.

    Smith was efficient last season, throwing 17 touchdown passes and just five interceptions as the Niners tied a single-season NFL record with just 10 turnovers. But if Jim Harbaugh’s team is to take the next step, it wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world to see the quarterback’s interception total rise a bit, so long as the number of touchdown passes follow suit.

Seattle Seahawks (Quarterback)

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    After two impressive outings regardless of the competition he faced—and let’s not forget he’s a rookie playing with fellow rookies and other backups as well—quarterback Russell Wilson looks like he will get the start this week against the Chiefs.

    In this his third season with the Seahawks, head coach Pete Carroll is headed towards his third different Week 1 starter behind center.

    Free-agent pickup Matt Flynn signed a three-year contract, and the former Packers quarterback appears likely to be the man in September at Arizona. But Wilson’s play is obviously making things very interesting.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers (Defensive Line)

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    When deciding who was responsible for the Buccaneers’ incredible 10-game collapse to end the season a year ago, some pointed to quarterback Josh Freeman, who had a big hand in the team’s league-high 40 turnovers.

    But the Tampa defense was also a major problem, as the unit finished with an NFL-low 23 sacks while ranking dead last against the run for the second time in three years.

    In their two preseason outings, the Bucs have allowed 129.5 rushing yards per game and totaled only one sack. We’re going to have to see something dramatic rather quickly if we’re to believe that this group has made any strides.

Tennessee Titans (Pass Rush)

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    Led by coordinator Jerry Gray, the Tennessee defense got off to a rousing start last season.

    But as the year wore on, the Titans appeared to wear down, and the inability to consistently get to opposing quarterbacks was certainly an issue. Mike Munchak’s team totaled only six sacks in its final four games and an AFC-low 28 quarterback sacks by season’s end.

    To rectify the situation, the team picked up one-time Browns first-rounder Kamerion Wimbley, late of the Raiders. The steady pass-rusher will line up at right defensive end for the Titans. If he can turn the corner on opposing tackles, Munchak’s club could turn the tables on those already handing Houston the AFC South title.

Washington Redskins (Safety)

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    Unlike numerous other seasons where the franchise signed free agents on a whim whether the position needed to be upgraded or not, the Redskins have been stressing the draft the last two years, and with good reason.

    One area that was overhauled and replaced with veteran pickups, however, was the deep secondary, where safeties Brandon Meriweather (Bears) and Madieu Williams (49ers) are the projected starters, although Reed Doughty figures to play a prominent role.

    The Redskins defense improved from 31st in 2010 to 13th last season in yards allowed, and the pass rush produced 41 sacks, which was 12 more than the previous season. Though there are naturally questions surrounding the Skins' new secondary, that kind of heat should provide them with plenty of stability.