Every NFL Team's Biggest Sleeper Heading into Training Camp
Everyone loves to root for underdogs in the NFL. Fans become instantly attached to players who seemingly come out of nowhere to experience success.
While it often seems that way, that's never truly the case. Those players earn their way onto the field with hard work and a penchant for making plays.
Expectations are often tempered for those who contributed little during the prior season, lower-tier draft picks or overlooked offseason acquisitions. When those sleepers develop into impact performers, they can help fuel a deep playoff run.
Let's examine a player on every NFL roster who could fill a vital role in his respective team's season even though he's not viewed as a key component heading into training camp.
LB Kamalei Correa
Last season, Zachary Orr experienced a breakout campaign after becoming a full-time starter at inside linebacker. His 132 total tackles led the Ravens and tied for ninth overall in the league. Unfortunately, a congenital spine and neck condition forced the young defender into a premature retirement.
Orr's absence left a starting spot open in the middle of Baltimore's defense, which Correa is expected seize. The Ravens used the 42nd overall pick in the 2016 NFL draft on the Boise State product, but he played sparingly in his first season.
"Year 1 to Year 2 is such a big difference," Correa said, per the Idaho Statesman's Dave Southorn.
After transitioning to inside linebacker, it took time for Correa to become comfortable in his new role. The 23-year-old now has the opportunity not only to start, but to claim some of Orr's production from last season.
DT Andrew Billings
Billings' career has yet to even begin. After the Bengals selected him in the fourth round of last year's draft, he suffered a torn meniscus during training camp and missed all of the 2016 season.
The injury shouldn't cause anyone to forget how talented Billings is. Even though he fell to the fourth round, he displayed first-round ability due to a combination of raw power and uncanny athleticism for a 325-pound prospect. The devaluation of interior defenders caused him to tumble down the draft board before Cincinnati selected him with the 122nd overall pick.
The Bengals decided not to re-sign veteran Domata Peko this offseason, which created a hole at 1-technique. Even though competition exists from Pat Sims and Ryan Glasgow, Billings should fill that void. His size, strength at the point of attack and ability to disrupt an opponent's backfield should serve as the perfect complement to five-time Pro Bowl 3-technique Geno Atkins.
TE Seth DeValve
The Browns cut ties with former Pro Bowl tight end Gary Barnidge one day after trading up in the first round of April's draft and using the 29th overall pick to select Miami's David Njoku. While Njoku is supremely talented, his arrival wasn't the only reason why Barnidge became expendable.
DeValve provides flexibility and more athleticism to the Browns offense. He ranked first among available tight end prospects in SPARQ rating last year, per Three Sigma Athlete's Zach Whitman. The collegiate wide receiver played well in limited opportunities last season, too, having caught 10 passes for 127 yards and a pair of touchdowns. He displayed the ability to consistently threaten the seam and serve as a red-zone target.
The Browns can use DeValve and Njoku in a variety of ways. Both can line up as traditional tight ends, in the slot or out wide if need be. Considering how suspect Cleveland's wide receiver corps is, these tight ends should see plenty of time together on the field this fall.
CB Cameron Sutton
The Steelers secondary wants to bring a different attitude this season after last year's AFC Championship Game meltdown. This year's third-round pick, Cam Sutton, is another first-round talent who fell in the draft due to injury concerns. He could prove to be a big addition to Pittsburgh's defensive backfield.
"Cam Sutton is pretty on-point in terms of what we saw of his abilities at Tennessee, meaning we saw a player who was able to make plays," secondary coach Carnell Lake said, per the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette's Gerry Dulac. "His neck-up intelligence helped make a lot of those plays, and he seemed to have brought that with him."
Sutton's versatility within the scheme makes him a valuable asset, as he can play outside the hashes or over the slot. The rookie excels when asked to be physical with his jam and mirror in coverage, both of which are areas where the Steelers need to improve.
Wright left the Tennessee Titans as a disappointment after they spent the 20th overall pick in the 2012 NFL draft to select him. The 5'10", 191-pound target managed only 824 yards on 65 catches over the last two seasons, failing to establish himself in an underwhelming Titans receiving corps. In Chicago, he'll have a chance to recharge his once-promising career.
"He's got outstanding quickness," Bears head coach John Fox said, per CBS Chicago's Chris Emma. "He has blended in pretty well with us. He's got good quickness, he's got a good feel for the game. He's had good production in our league, albeit not real recent. I like what I've seen from him."
The Bears are searching for a receiver to establish himself for quarterbacks Mike Glennon and Mitchell Trubisky. The organization took chances on Wright, Markus Wheaton and Victor Cruz in the event former top-10 pick Kevin White or last year's leading receiver, Cameron Meredith, don't produce.
Wright is a vertical threat to pair with the targets who emerge as the team's starting pair. Depending on how the former first-round pick performs during camp, he could force his way atop the depth chart.
OT Greg Robinson
Situation is an overlooked aspect of what makes a player successful, as talent only takes someone so far. Coaches still need to maximize a prospect's potential. Robinson never experienced this during his time with the Rams after they selected him second overall in the 2014 NFL draft.
After the Rams traded him to the Lions this offseason, Robinson might have found the perfect situation to develop into the offensive tackle most envisioned when he came out of Auburn.
"The Lions demand their entire offensive line jump sets defenders in pass protection," former NFL offensive lineman Geoff Schwartz wrote for SB Nation. "It fits perfectly into Robinson’s strong suit. He can use his quickness and strength to overwhelm defenders at the line of scrimmage in the pass game. He doesn't have to be patient and play in space. He can attack."
Robinson dominated in Auburn's scheme by overwhelming opponents. He could do the same in Detroit.
Green Bay Packers
DE Dean Lowry
The Packers feature plenty of depth along their defensive front, even though Letroy Guion is suspended for the first four games of the regular season. With last year's draft selections of Lowry and Kenny Clark as well as the addition of third-round pick Montravius Adams this year, Green Bay's front office built a young core to join Mike Daniels and free-agent acquisition Ricky Jean-Francois.
Lowry, in particular, should prove to be a vital part of the rotation after a strong finish to his rookie campaign.
"He came in here like you would hope a second-year guy that had a little bit of success," defensive line coach Mike Trgovac said, per Mike Spofford of the Packers official site. "You would hope he'd come back with that kind of attitude, and he's been excellent."
The former fourth-round pick is an athletic 6'6", 296-pound defensive lineman with the ability to play defensive end or along the interior. His size, length and versatility give him the potential to eventually push for a starting job.
TE Bucky Hodges
Hodges is a 6'6", 257-pound target with outstanding athleticism. When his size and length are combined with a 39-inch vertical—which led all tight ends at the NFL combine—he's nearly impossible to cover for any defensive back or linebacker.
With the right attitude and willingness to commit to the position as an in-line option, Hodges has the potential to be a big-time target for the Vikings offense. However, he's not a complete tight end at this point, nor should he be considered one.
Instead, Hodges needs to be on the field as a potential slot receiver with the ability to immediately contribute as a third-down or red-zone target. He isn't going to usurp Kyle Rudolph as the starting tight end any time soon (if ever), but the sixth-round pick can fit a specific role within the offense to provide quarterback Sam Bradford with another weapon.
CB Leonard Johnson
When a new coaching staff takes over, they typically bring one or two players from their former team with them to accelerate the transition or provide an opportunity that wasn't present at the previous stop.
The Bills signed cornerback Leonard Johnson to a one-year deal after he spent last season with the Carolina Panthers under defensive coordinator Sean McDermott. McDermott is now the head coach of the Bills, and he liked what he saw of Johnson during OTAs and minicamp.
"The thing that I love about Leonard is how tough he is," the coach said, per the Buffalo News' Jay Skurski. "He's like a little [Mike] Tyson in terms of just the way he approaches the game. He gives us an edge on defense, which is important."
With Ronald Darby and Tre'Davious White set to work outside the hashes as Buffalo's starting cornerbacks, Johnson can carve out a role as the team's nickel corner. He lined up over the slot with the first-team defense during the spring, per Skurski, which suggests the staff expects him to fill that role this fall.
TE Julius Thomas
Once upon a time in a land ruled by Peyton Manning, Thomas became a two-time Pro Bowl tight end. He's no longer that player, but he could return to that level.
Manning wasn't the only person instrumental in Thomas' previous success. Current Dolphins head coach Adam Gase served as the tight end's offensive coordinator during the 2013 and '14 campaigns. Since leaving the Denver Broncos after the 2014 season, Thomas' production tanked. In two seasons with the Jacksonville Jaguars, the tight end produced 76 receptions for 736 yards and nine touchdowns.
"I became a much, much better person in the last two years," Thomas said this spring, per ESPN.com's James Walker. "Having some struggles on the field really helped me grow mentally and in my own personal life."
Returning to the same scheme and playing for the coach who helped make you successful in the first place helps, too. In this particular case, it's time to wake a sleeping giant.
New England Patriots
DT Vincent Valentine
The Patriots are a great offensive team with Tom Brady pulling the trigger. Yet the team also finished No. 1 overall in scoring defense last season.
Even when the spotlight is placed on New England's defense, the interior tends to be overlooked. Instead, Malcolm Butler, Dont'a Hightower or Devin McCourty often receive most of the attention. But the big boys up front, who are eating up blocks and being disruptive, set the tone.
Alan Branch is an immovable object. Malcom Brown has the potential to be a consistent presence in the backfield. Thanks to his intriguing skill set, Valentine falls somewhere between both. According to Pro Football Focus, the 320-pound defender ranked second among rookies last season in run-stop percentage. The site also graded him as the top rookie defensive tackle in pass-rush productivity through the first five weeks of the season, which shows his ability to collapse the pocket.
New York Jets
TE Austin Seferian-Jenkins
The Jets organization remained supportive of Seferian-Jenkins this offseason as he dealt with a drinking problem. Even though he's suspended for the first two games of the 2017 campaign for violating the NFL's substance abuse policy, he's could be on the verge of a breakout season.
"He's running well," coach Todd Bowles said during OTAs, per ESPN.com's Rich Cimini. "It's still early, but he's in a good groove right now."
Seferian-Jenkins never produced like the Tampa Bay Buccaneers envisioned when they used a second-round pick to select him in 2014. In fact, he only managed 55 receptions and 713 receiving yards during his three seasons in Tampa Bay. But if he's healthy and in the right frame of mind, Seferian-Jenkins can dominate in a Jets offense that lacks strong receivers and will be geared toward the tight end position.
S Jeff Heath
The Cowboys will feature a rebuilt secondary this fall after Barry Church, Brandon Carr, J.J. Wilcox and Morris Claiborne all departed in free agency. Heath is one of the reasons why the organization became comfortable with the idea of a completely revamped look along the back line.
In his fifth season as an undrafted free agent out of Saginaw Valley State, Heath appears to have worked himself into a starter's role.
"Every time we've given him a chance to play on defense, he does something really good for our football team," head coach Jason Garrett said in May, per former Star-Telegram beat writer Charean Williams. "Makes tackles, makes interceptions, and he’s just demonstrated that he's worthy to be in this conversation about competing for that starting safety spot."
Heath's maturation will be critical depending on how much the Cowboys have to rely on rookies Chidobe Awuzie and Jourdan Lewis at cornerback. With veterans Nolan Carroll and Orlando Scandrick at corner, Heath could ease his way into the lineup. If the rookies are forced to start sooner rather than later, however, Heath must take over a leadership role.
New York Giants
LB B.J. Goodson
As a fourth-round pick, little is expected of a rookie. But few teams pave the way for one to become a starter like the Giants have for Goodson, even though he barely played last season.
"He has a really good skill set," linebackers coach Bill McGovern said, per ESPN.com's Jordan Raanan. "... He moves well. It looks like he is moving better in the pass, but again, you always move better once you always have a better understanding of how you fit in this scheme."
The Giants decided against re-signing starting middle linebacker Kelvin Sheppard, and they didn't sign or draft a replacement, either. Therefore, middle linebacker is Goodson's job to lose. He'll be tasked with being the defensive play-caller and aligning the defensive front.
He'll need to show a comfort level within the system to retain his status and an ability to drop in space to become a three-down linebacker. Until then, he'll be granted every opportunity to become the Giants' leader in the middle of the defense.
CB Rasul Douglas
Douglas doesn't back down from any challenge. He doesn't need to as a 6'2", 206-pound defensive back with the physical ability to match up against the league's best targets.
More importantly, Douglas displayed tremendous ball skills as a member of the West Virginia Mountaineers before the Eagles selected him in the third round this past spring. He snagged eight interceptions, which was tied for the most at the FBS level.
"I look for him to have, my prediction, is probably to say about three to five picks this year," teammate Alshon Jeffery said, per the News Journal's Martin Frank. "I believe he can do that. Maybe more, we'll see. ...He's going to be a good corner in this league. He’s just got to keep working, keep learning from what his coaches tell him."
Douglas already worked with the first-team defense during minicamp, and he's expected to be one of the Eagles top three cornerbacks at the start of the regular season.
RB Chris Thompson
Someone doesn't have to be the most talented player at his position to understand and execute his role. For Washington, running back Chris Thompson has a defined role as the team's third-down back, which presents plenty of opportunities for the 26-year-old.
"To be in the position he is in, a third-down back, it's a very important position," head coach Jay Gruden said, per Washington's digital media producer Perry Mattern. "He has got to be able to pick up linebackers blitzing and sometimes he is stuck on a 295-pound defensive tackle, sometimes blocking a defensive end and he has to get open against a linebacker, safety in pass routes."
Gruden's trust in Thompson coupled with his play last season can eventually lead to a bigger role, as the former fifth-round pick averaged 5.2 yards per carry. Incumbent Robert Kelley isn't an explosive option, while rookie Samaje Perine still has to prove himself. If those two don't live up to expectations, the 5'8", 191-pound Thompson has a chance to become the team's top tailback. At worst, he'll continue to contribute as the third-down option.
LB Shaquil Barrett
Former first-round pick Shane Ray is expected to take over the vacated starting slot at outside linebacker opposite Von Miller. DeMarcus Ware's shoes will be difficult to fill, but Ray won't have to do so by himself.
Barrett developed into a reliable option in the team's rotation over the last two years, and he can expect an expanded role as the primary backup to Miller and Ray. The 24-year-old has the potential to warrant a bigger role once healthy, but he injured his hip during an offseason workout.
"We received good news this morning when doctors informed us that Shaq's injured hip will not require surgery and can be treated conservatively," head coach Vance Joseph said in late May, per the Denver Post's Nicki Jhabvala. "It's a tough break losing him for at least the next few months, but we’re still counting on him being a big part of our team in 2017."
Barrett's injury may lower expectations for him, but when he does return to the field, he'll do so as one of the Broncos' best run defenders. According to Pro Football Focus, he ranked among the top 10 outside linebackers in run-stop percentage last season. His power also translates to his pass rush as long as his lower-body explosiveness returns.
Kansas City Chiefs
WR Demarcus Robinson
Once the Chiefs released veteran wideout Jeremy Maclin in June, each of the team's young wide receivers suddenly had the opportunity to claim his spot. While former third-round pick Chris Conley is the favorite to earn a starting gig, Robinson has the natural ability to overtake his teammate if he's fully committed.
The former Florida Gator tumbled down draft boards in 2016 after being suspended multiple times in college. Aside from his off-field issues, however, he was one of the most physically gifted receivers in the class. The 6'1", 203-pound target can go and get the ball with the best of them, which is presumably why Kansas City took a chance on his ability with the 126th overall pick.
Since Conley has displayed a tendency to drop passes thus far in his career, another receiver has a chance surpass him. It's up to Robinson to prove he's matured and allow everyone to discuss his talent rather than his past.
Los Angeles Chargers
WR Jamaal Jones
Even as loaded as the Chargers are at wide receiver, Jones impressed the coaching staff this spring.
"Jamaal (Jones) has caught my eye," head coach Anthony Lynn said in May, per Ricky Henne of the team's official site. "The last couple weeks he's been very solid. Catching the ball well. Available. He's doing pretty (well)."
Availability is a crucial component to the entire Chargers wide receiver corps, not just Jones, who missed his entire rookie season last year with a broken thumb.. Keenan Allen's injury history is well-documented. This year's first-round pick, Mike Williams, is dealing with a mild disk herniation in his back as well.
Any lingering injuries provide Jones with more reps. Montana's all-time leading receiver displayed tremendous body control and nifty route-running during his time in college. He may not be the biggest (6'1" and 187 pounds) or fastest (4.59-second 40-yard dash) target, yet he finds way to become available for his quarterbacks.
RB Jalen Richard
No one should expect Marshawn Lynch to go full Beast Mode after returning from a yearlong retirement. He'll be the Raiders' lead back and provide a much-needed physical presence in the backfield, but the coaching staff would be wise to limit his reps to ensure he remains fully healthy and effective.
Both Richard and DeAndre Washington have an opportunity to split some of those leftover carries. The former averaged 5.9 yards per carry last season and finished as the NFL's most elusive back, according to Pro Football Focus. On his first NFL carry, the Southern Miss product broke a 75-year touchdown run against New Orleans Saints.
At 5'8" and 207 pounds, the former undrafted free agent is a compact runner and nearly impossible to line up for a clean shot. Trying to tackle Lynch and Richard may require two different approaches, but both are difficult to bring down to the ground.
CB Rudy Ford
With the Cardinals' search for a starting cornerback opposite Patrick Peterson ongoing, a recent sixth-round pick has a chance to unseat multiple veterans on his way to the top of the depth chart.
The Cardinals selected Ford with their final pick in April's draft. He led the Auburn Tigers in 2014 and '15 in tackles as a safety before converting to nickel corner as a senior.
Once Ford ran a 4.34-second 40-yard dash at Auburn's pro day, he provided teams with a reason to keep him at corner. But the Cardinals had him playing both positions during OTAs and minicamp. Even if he can't find a way into the starting lineup, his versatility should still get him on the field.
"I prefer to play either one," Ford told Doug and Wolf on 98.7 FM in Arizona. "It gives you a chance to look at different points on the field and it just shows versatility, it shows how you’re able to communicate and how you're able to learn in the system."
Los Angeles Rams
WR Mike Thomas
The Rams made a concerted effort to improve their skill positions with the offseason additions of Robert Woods, Cooper Kupp, Josh Reynolds and Gerald Everett. While they expect plenty from each, a 2016 sixth-round pick could provide as much (if not more) of an impact in head coach Sean McVay's new offense.
Mike Thomas experienced his share of rookie struggles last season, having committed a few high-profile mistakes. Changes to the coaching staff should prove to be exactly what the Southern Miss product needed at this point in his career.
"He's kind of found a role for himself," quarterback Jared Goff said, per ESPN.com's Alden Gonzalez. "He's one of our faster receivers and can stretch the defense. I think he enjoys that role and understands that he's going to be an over-the-top guy. It's just a perfect role for him."
The Rams will have to wait for Thomas, however, as he's suspended for the first four games of the season after violating the NFL policy on performance-enhancing substances, per ESPN's Adam Schefter.
San Francisco 49ers
WR Aldrick Robinson
Like the Rams, the 49ers wide receiver corps needed to be overhauled, and new general manager John Lynch did so by signing Pierre Garcon, Marquise Goodwin and Aldrick Robinson in free agency. Among that trio of acquisitions, Robinson received the least amount of attention, as Garcon will presumably be the offense's top target and Goodwin's speed makes him San Francisco's version of Taylor Gabriel.
Whenever Robinson receives a chance, though, he usually shines. Even though he only has 50 receptions in five seasons, he's been effective when targeted. According to PFF Fantasy Football's Pat Thorman, signal-callers have combined for a 100.7 passer rating when throwing to Robinson throughout his career.
More opportunities are bound to exist in San Francisco compared to his time with the Atlanta Falcons, especially in an offensive scheme he's already familiar with after following new head coach Kyle Shanahan to the Bay Area.
RB C.J. Prosise
Eddie Lacy's addition to the Seahawks backfield provides the team with the type of workhorse it lacked after Marshawn Lynch's retirement. However, there's a reason why Seattle signed the running back to a one-year, prove-it deal: He's missed 16 games over the last two seasons due to injuries or being benched.
While Lacy is now in shape and ready to take over a starting role, the next back on the depth chart needs to be prepared if he experiences another setback.
A year ago, the organization spent three draft picks on running backs, including a third-rounder on Notre Dame's C.J. Prosise. A team doesn't invest a high pick in a runner if it doesn't expect him to produce.
Prosise only played in six games as a rookie due to injuries, carrying the ball 30 times for 172 times. But his real value comes as a third-down back, as he converted from wide receiver to running back during his collegiate career. Even if Lacy is fully healthy and contributing, Prosise's ability as a pass-catcher should help him carve out a role.
CB Robert Nelson
After developing into a premier cover corner as a member of the Houston Texans defense, A.J. Bouye capitalized during free agency when he signed a five-year, $67.5 million contract with the Jacksonville Jaguars. The Texans now need a replacement, and Nelson could contribute in some manner.
With Jonathan Joseph and Kevin Johnson expected to start and Kareem Jackson returning as the nickel corner, Nelson is fighting an uphill battle. Yet he performed well last season when he had the opportunity.
"Robert obviously did a nice job as a fill-in player for us last year, during the season came up, had a nice interception against the Colts, both in the first game and in the second game played well in Indianapolis, played for us in a playoff game," defensive back coach John Butler said per Scout.com's Patrick Starr. "So, he’s done some nice things for us."
No NFL team can ever have too many talented corners. Nelson is a solid fourth corner with the potential to seize a bigger role depending on how the 2017 campaign progresses.
RB Marlon Mack
Frank Gore can't play forever, can he? The 34-year-old running back is eventually going to wear down, and the Colts need to establish an heir apparent. Mack is the logical choice after the organization used the 143rd overall pick in April's draft to select South Florida's all-time leading rusher.
"At the end of the day, we went with Marlon because of the speed, and the explosive play-making ability,” general manager Chris Ballard said following the draft, per the Indianapolis Star's Zak Keefer.
With Robert Turbin already on the roster, Mack will have competition to spell Gore this season. The 216-pound veteran runner doesn't have the same capabilities or upside as the rookie, though. Mack finished third among top running back prospects in breakaway percentage, per Pro Football Focus.
The Colts could potentially improve their 23rd-ranked rushing attack by splitting carries between Gore and Mack.
DE Dante Fowler Jr.
It's difficult to consider a former top-three pick a "sleeper." But Fowler hasn't lived up to expectations, and some may be on their way to labeling him a draft bust. The Jaguars have had their fair share of those in recent years, although Jalen Ramsey and Leonard Fournette are trying to flip the script.
Expectations for Fowler dropped after he missed his entire rookie year with a torn ACL and then managed only four sacks during his sophomore campaign. Instead, Yannick Ngakoue developed into the defense's top pass-rusher when he led the Jaguars and established a franchise rookie record with eight sacks.
The team pumped massive amounts of capital into its defensive front with the acquisitions of Malik Jackson and Calais Campbell. Defensive tackle Abry Jones also agreed to a four-year, $15.5 million contract extension this offseason.
These surrounding pieces should allow Fowler to maximize his potential. Once viewed as an elite prospect, he's now the fourth- or fifth-best pass-rusher on the roster. Opponents will concentrate on stopping the veterans along the interior or Ngakoue off the edge, which should present Fowler with numerous one-on-one matchups.
RB Khalfani Muhammad
The Titans built an identity last season around big, physical players, especially along the offensive front. They drafted a 247-pound tailback in Derrick Henry, too. This offseason, however, the organization tried to improve its speed and skill positions.
Seventh-round pick Muhammad is an ideal change of pace from Henry and DeMarco Murray. The 5'7", 174-pound back runs a 4.34-second 40-yard dash.
"And that speed, it's just a different changeup from what we have in our other two backs," head coach Mike Mularkey said, per the Tennessean's Jason Wolf. "Plus again you're talking about another guy who has return ability ... so he brings a lot of value."
Muhammad may never be an every-down back, yet he's an ideal complement to the backs already on the Titans roster with his big-play potential within the offense and special teams.
LB Duke Riley
The Falcons struck defensive gold last season by drafting Keanu Neal, Deion Jones, De'Vondre Campbell and Brian Poole. The communication between the front office and coaching staff provided a clear picture of the position requirements in head coach Dan Quinn's preferred schemes. It thus become easier to identify players who fit the team's culture and could produce early in their careers.
This year's third-round pick, Duke Riley, should be another example of how the team philosophy is flourishing. The 6'1", 230-pound defender displayed tremendous instincts and athleticism during his lone season as a starter at LSU. He's a tailor-made weak-side linebacker set to join a rotation that already features Jones, Campbell and hybrid Vic Beasley.
The connection between Falcons teammates is strong, too. Along with cornerback Robert Alford, Riley and Jones have been working out together, per Matthew Tabeek of the team's official site. The extra work alongside the experienced defenders should provide Riley with an edge over others on the roster.
OT Taylor Moton
Moton was the top-rated pure right tackle prospect available in April's draft. While the right side doesn't receive the same recognition as the blind side, the position's value and importance is increasingly growing, as the NFL's best pass-rushers often line up over the strong-side tackle.
Defenses beat Panthers quarterback Cam Newton to a pulp last season, and the Panthers needed to upgrade along the offensive front. How successful general manager Dave Gettleman was in this endeavor remains up for debate. While the franchise invested heavily in sixth-year left tackle Matt Kalil during free agency and the interior is talented when healthy, right tackle remains up for grabs.
Third-year blocker Daryl Williams already staked his claim as the starter. He told the Charlotte Observer's Joseph Person, "That's where I ended at during the season. So I feel comfortable."
Even so, Moton is a better overall athlete. As long as the 6'5", 365-pound rookie isn't overwhelmed by the speed of the game, he should become the Panthers' starting right tackle.
New Orleans Saints
DE Alex Okafor
Cameron Jordan needs help. The Saints defensive end has been one of the league's most disruptive and consistent performers since his second year in the league, having racked up 45.5 sacks across the past five seasons. However, he hasn't had a legitimate bookend since the organization released Junior Galette two years ago.
Okafor has a chance to shine opposite Jordan, even though he's never been a full-time starter. Prior to the 2016 campaign, the former fourth-round pick started 25 games between 2014-15. His role diminished last season even though he was productive when he received an opportunity to rush the passer.
According to Pro Football Focus, Okafor finished fourth in pass-rush productivity among 3-4 outside linebackers last season. The fact he resided among names such as Khalil Mack, Von Miller, Joey Bosa and Ryan Kerrigan gives an idea of what Okafor is capable of doing with the Saints.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
LB Devante Bond
Lavonte David and Kwon Alexander are set as the Buccaneers' primary linebackers, particularly when the defense is in sub-packages. However, the strong-side spot in the base defense remains available.
Bond has a legitimate chance to claim that role after Tampa Bay used the 183rd overall pick in the 2016 NFL draft to select him. He started only eight games in college, but his raw potential had teams intrigued. Bond needed to adjust to the NFL after being used as an edge defender in a 3-4 front during his time with the Oklahoma Sooners, but a pulled hamstring ended his rookie season before it truly began.
"Late in the season, I knew I was good," Bond said, per Scott Smith of the Buccaneers official site. "I was thinking about coming back that whole time, so the whole time I was getting my mind ready just in case I could."
Bond's preparation and willingness to put in the work despite his injury last season provided him with an edge to start as a sophomore.