1 Problem Every NFL Team's Top Young Player Must Improve

Justis Mosqueda@justisfootballFeatured ColumnistJune 10, 2018

1 Problem Every NFL Team's Top Young Player Must Improve

0 of 32

    Ron Jenkins/Associated Press

    In the NFL, the summer is the time for self-improvement.

    For young players, summers can put them on track for success or derail their careers. OTA and minicamp practices will help them develop their skills and put them head-to-head with the teammates who they'll be competing against for playing time.

    Every NFL roster has at least one key young player who could drastically improve his career by improving in a particular area this offseason, be it durability concerns or refinement of technique.

    The following players, who are either rookies or rookie-contract players, will at a minimum be competing for a Week 1 starting role in 2018. Looking forward, they have skills that could lead them to Pro Bowls, which separates them from their young peers. Their development over the coming months could have an enormous impact on their respective teams this season.

       

Arizona Cardinals: Ricky Seals-Jones' Blocking

1 of 32

    Ross D. Franklin/Associated Press

    After being branded as a can't-miss recruit, Ricky Seals-Jones never cracked more than 560 yards in a season as a receiver at Texas A&M. As a result, he transitioned to tight end with the Arizona Cardinals as an undrafted rookie last season.

    In Arizona's first nine games last year, Seals-Jones didn't record a single catch and only had one target. However, a late breakout led him to finish his rookie year with 12 receptions for 201 yards and three scores.

    Considering his switch to tight end, a position that rarely lends itself to productive rookie seasons, the future looks bright for Seals-Jones. The 23-year-old will need to work on his blocking to win the tight end job in Arizona, though.

    Seals-Jones can't just come into the game as a pass-catching option, as that would tip off defenses. To move past Jermaine Gresham for the top spot on Arizona's depth chart, he'll need to improve as a blocker.

Atlanta Falcons: Deadrin Senat's Lack of Experience

2 of 32

    John Bazemore/Associated Press

    Deadrin Senat can't fix this between now and September, but his making the jump from AAC defensive tackle to the Atlanta Falcons' starting nose tackle in a few months' time is cause for concern.

    For the most part, third-round picks aren't supposed to be immediate starters in the NFL. However, either Senat or post-draft signing Terrell McClain will be starting at nose for Atlanta's defense.

    The Falcons were pressed up against the cap this offseason, which caused starting nose tackle Dontari Poe to join the Carolina Panthers in free agency. Since their hands were tied, they'll now have to rely on a mid-round rookie or a late free-agent signing to address the position.

    A bit of a one-year wonder in a Group of Five conference, Senat has not spent years dominating against NFL-caliber offensive linemen like the other starters on the defensive line do. If he wins the job, he may have to take some bumps and bruises early.

Baltimore Ravens: Alex Collins' Pass-Catching

3 of 32

    Nick Wass/Associated Press

    Of the 28 running backs who recorded more than 125 carries for gains last year, Alex Collins ranked second in yards per carry for positive rush attempts (6.2), trailing only Los Angeles' Todd Gurley. When the Ravens blocked well for him, Collins was clearly one of the NFL's most explosive ball-carriers.

    Unfortunately, his contributions as a pass-catcher didn't match up.

    Javorius "Buck" Allen had twice the number of catches as Collins last year, even though the latter racked up 59 more carries. Danny Woodhead, who carried the ball only 14 times and missed half of the season, caught 10 more balls than Collins, who carried the ball 212 times.

    At the moment, Baltimore strongly declares run or pass depending on which running back is in the game. If Collins can improve as a pass-catcher, that will go a long way toward improving the Ravens' unpredictability. 

Buffalo Bills: Shaq Lawson's Durability

4 of 32

    Bob Leverone/Associated Press

    As a rookie, Shaq Lawson had to recover from shoulder surgery before setting foot on an NFL field in late October. Last year, he finished the season on injured reserve after suffering an ankle injury in early December.

    Since being drafted 19th overall, the 2016 first-round pick has played in only 21 of 32 possible games.

    Six sacks over two years is not what the Buffalo Bills expected when they picked Lawson in the middle of the first round. The Bills, who now have a different coaching staff and front office than the one which brought him in, signed Trent Murphy this offseason as a backup plan to Lawson.

    Lawson and Murphy are in direct competition for playing time opposite of Jerry Hughes, and this season will likely determine which one becomes the long-term starter for Buffalo.

Carolina Panthers: Taylor Moton's Inability to Get on the Field

5 of 32

    Charles Rex Arbogast/Associated Press

    As a rookie last season, 2017 second-round pick Taylor Moton played only 63 offensive snaps.

    Offensive linemen can take time to develop in the NFL, but the Carolina Panthers have little to no room for error on the left side of their line.

    Offensive tackle Matt Kalil has regressed strongly since his rookie season in 2012, and former starting left guard Andrew Norwell signed a megadeal with the Jacksonville Jaguars this offseason. Norwell's projected replacement, Jeremiah Sirles, has only started 15 games in his four-year NFL career.

    Sirles, who is currently on his third NFL team, isn't likely to help Kalil much. For Cam Newton's sake, Moton needs to win one of the jobs on the left side of the line sooner rather than later.

Chicago Bears: Kevin White's Health

6 of 32

    Nam Huh/Associated Press

    Kevin White, the seventh overall pick in the 2015 draft, has recorded 21 receptions for 193 yards across his three NFL seasons to date. A multitude of injuries have kept him off the field, which caused the Chicago Bears to decline his fifth-year option on his contract.

    If White does rebound, though, Chicago could have one of the deepest skill units in the league.

    At running back, the Bears have a bell-cow in Jordan Howard and a pass-catcher in Tarik Cohen. They recently made Trey Burton one of the NFL's richest tight ends to go along with blocking tight end Dion Sims and 2017 second-round pick Adam Shaheen. At receiver, Allen Robinson is expected to be the team's No. 1 target in the passing game, while free-agent signing Taylor Gabriel and 2018 second-round pick Anthony Miller complement him as smaller receivers.

    White's emergence would force defenses to cover formations that include up to four wide receivers or three tight ends. A healthy, productive White would give opposing defensive coordinators headaches.

Cincinnati Bengals: Carl Lawson's Position Ambiguity

7 of 32

    Phelan M. Ebenhack/Associated Press

    In Week 3 of last season, Carl Lawson dismantled Green Bay's backup offensive tackles on the way to a 2.5-sack game, propelling him to an 8.5-sack rookie season. While he played 16 games, he played only 60 percent of snaps or more just three times as a rookie.

    One would assume that he should move into a starting job this season, but instead, he's currently listed as a 4-3 outside linebacker. Meanwhile, 2017 third-round pick Jordan Willis and 2018 third-round pick Sam Hubbard are listed as defensive ends.

    Taking Lawson off the ball, where he won't be a primary pass-rusher, is a mistake.

    Finding a clearly defined role for Lawson other than a one- or two-down "Sam" who has to fit in with Carlos Dunlap, Michael Johnson, Hubbard and Willis in sub packages is the biggest issue Cincinnati must solve between now and September.

Cleveland Browns: Larry Ogunjobi's Workload

8 of 32

    Ron Schwane/Associated Press

    Despite playing only 28 percent of the Cleveland Browns' defensive snaps last year, Larry Ogunjobi ranks second among the team's returning defensive tackles after the trade of Danny Shelton to New England.

    Ogunjobi was productive when he was on the field last season, which begs the question of why he didn't play more. One answer could be that he wasn't ready for an NFL workload yet.

    In college, he played for Conference USA's Charlotte 49ers, who were still scheduling games against Division III schools in 2014. Throughout Ogunjobi's collegiate career, the 2016 Louisville Cardinals were Charlotte's lone Power Five opponent that made a bowl.

    Defensive coordinator Gregg Williams may have wanted to give Ogunjobi time to adapt to the NFL as a rookie. But with Shelton gone, it's time to find out how much he can handle.

Dallas Cowboys: Dak Prescott's Accuracy

9 of 32

    Ron Jenkins/Associated Press

    In 2016, Dak Prescott shocked the world by posting a 104.9 passer rating in absence of the injured Tony Romo. That number dropped to 86.6 in 2017, and he threw nine more interceptions while averaging 1.2 fewer yards per pass attempt as a sophomore.

    After the Cowboys lost tight end Jason Witten to retirement and cut receiver Dez Bryant, they'll need Prescott to look like his 2016 self to make the playoffs. However, he'll be doing so without the help of the skill talent that surrounded him that year.

    Allen Hurns, Terrance Williams, Cole Beasley and Geoff Swaim might be the most targeted Cowboys this season. None of them had more than 600 receiving yards or 60 receptions last year.

    The training wheels are officially off in Dallas. The offense will only go as far as Prescott and running back Ezekiel Elliott will it to.

Denver Broncos: Garett Bolles' Pass Protection

10 of 32

    David Zalubowski/Associated Press

    Since turning down the option in Russell Okung's contract to allow him to walk and sign with the Los Angeles Chargers, the Denver Broncos have had massive question marks at tackle.

    Denver ranked among the NFL's bottom five in offensive sack percentage last year, and first-round pick Garett Bolles was part of the issue.

    Though Bolles only played one year of major college football and turned 25 in May of last year, the Broncos still selected him 20th overall in 2017. His rawnewss manifested itself on the field, as he struggled against elite speed-rushers like Chargers defensive end Melvin Ingram.

    New Broncos starting quarterback Case Keenum worked his magic in his breakout 2017 season in Minnesota behind two established veteran bookends. His circumstances in Denver will be far different, and the Broncos need him to produce to keep the front office and coaching staff intact.

Detroit Lions: Da'Shawn Hand's First Step

11 of 32

    Paul Sancya/Associated Press

    Before suffering a knee injury as a senior, Da'Shawn Hand was a disruptor on Alabama's defensive line. If he were a step quicker, he would have been able to turn more of those disruptive plays into sacks or tackles in the backfield.

    He needs room to grow, but Detroit currently has plenty of space for that.

    After allowing Haloti Ngata to walk in free agency and trading Akeem Spence to the Miami Dolphins, the Lions' top defensive tackles are fellow Crimson Tide player A'Shawn Robinson and Sylvester Williams, who is now on his third team in three years. Williams finished as the NFL's 90th-best defensive tackle in Bleacher Report's NFL1000 series, while Robinson ranked 76th.

    If Hand can get going early, he may end up with a starting job as a rookiea rarity in today's NFL.  

Green Bay Packers: Consistency at Running Back

12 of 32

    Chris Keane/Associated Press

    The Green Bay Packers have three running backs on rookie contracts who can't separate themselves from one another.

    Despite carrying the ball 153 times last year, Jamaal Williams averaged a paltry 3.6 yards per carry. He was the Packers' go-to guy inside the 10-yard line and as a pass protector, but he had only one carry of 15 yards or more all season.

    Aaron Jones was the low-volume, high-production player in Green Bay's backfield, as he averaged 5.5 yards per tote on 81 carries. And Ty Montgomery, a former receiver, had 71 rushing attempts to go with 23 receptions. 

    On paper, Green Bay should use Jones between the 20s, Montgomery as a third-down route-runner and Williams on the goal line and as a pass protector. Unfortunately, those splits would declare to defenses what type of play was coming up.

    At some point, one of these backs must become more well-rounded to seize the starting role.

Houston Texans: Julie'n Davenport's Pass Protection

13 of 32

    Eric Christian Smith/Associated Press

    The only FBS team that Julie'n Davenport's Bucknell Bison played against was Army in 2015.

    When the Houston Texans drafted him in the fourth round of last year's draft, they almost certainly leaned on his performance at the Senior Bowl, where he played more reps against future NFLers than the rest of his collegiate career combined.

    While he wasn't a full-time starter last year, he struggled when he did see the field. But with Duane Brown now out of the picture, the Texans will need to rely on Davenport, free-agent signing Seantrel Henderson and rookie third-round pick Martinas Rankin to protect quarterback Deshaun Watson, who's coming off of a season-ending knee injury.

    If Davenport doesn't make a significant leap this season, Houston might have to spend its 2019 first-round pick on a left tackle to replace him. How he fared as a rookie won't cut it moving forward.

    The jump from the Patriot League to the NFL is significant, but with a quarterback on the mend heading into 2018, there isn't much room for error.

Indianapolis Colts: Daurice Fountain's Quality-of-Competition Question

14 of 32

    Chris O'Meara/Associated Press

    While Northern Iowa did recently produce an all-world skill player in David Johnson, it's rare for FCS programs to pump out NFL talent. The jump from playing low-level Division I teams to NFL squads on a weekly basis chews up and spits out plenty of former college stars.

    This is where the Indianapolis Colts have to start sweating.

    Behind veteran receivers T.Y. Hilton, Ryan Grant and Chester Rogers, the Colts' biggest hope at the position is fifth-round pick Daurice Fountain, who had a breakout 943 receiving yards, 12 receiving touchdowns at Northern Iowa as a senior. After Hilton, there's no proven option, meaning there's plenty of opportunity.

    Could Fountain be Indianapolis' second receiver? Sure. Could he be released in camp? Sure. Iowa State, after all, hasn't sent a cornerback to the NFL draft over the last three years. To say the least, we have no idea how Fountain matches up with NFL-caliber cornerbacks because of who has lined up opposite him.

Jacksonville Jaguars: Yannick Ngakoue's Run Defense

15 of 32

    Tony Avelar/Associated Press

    According to Pro Football Reference's expected points model, the NFL's worst run defense last season (Washington) was worth a net loss of 22.1 points, while the worst pass defense (Indianapolis) was worth a loss of 136.1 points.

    The Jacksonville Jaguars built their team around their top-ranked pass defense. But situationally, third-year linebacker Yannick Ngakoue is much better as a pass-rusher than as a run defender at this point in his career.

    Over the last two years, only two players in the NFL recorded both 13 sacks and five or fewer tackles at or behind the line of scrimmage on the ground: Ngakoue and Miami's Cameron Wake. Ngakoue's 20 sacks and five tackles at or behind the line look like a typo next to the likes of New Orleans Saints defensive end Cameron Jordan, who has 33 tackles at or behind the line to go with his 20.5 sacks since 2016.

    Ngakoue is one of the NFL's last true pass-rushing specialists. If he can round out his game by the time his second contract comes around, he may be a $50 million-plus player.

Kansas City Chiefs: Tanoh Kpassagnon's Penetration Skills

16 of 32

    Ed Zurga/Associated Press

    As a rookie last season, Tanoh Kpassagnon registered only two sacks, which is far fewer than expected from a second-round line of scrimmage defender.

    With outside linebackers Justin Houston and Dee Ford along with bigger pass-rushers in Chris Jones and Breeland Sparks on the team, it begs the question of how Kpassagnon, who's only one year into his NFL career, fits into Kansas City's long-term plans.

    The worry is that he ultimately ends up as another Jihad Ward, who the Oakland Raiders selected with a second-round pick in 2016, only to ship him off for Ryan Switzer two years later. Kpassagnon and Ward were similar athletically coming out of college, and they're similar in terms of production up to this point.

    Teams quickly pull the plug on lengthy pass-rushers who can't actually rush the passer. The Raiders gave Ward only two years, so 2018 might be it for the former Villanova star.

Los Angeles Chargers: Justin Jones' Adjustment to the NFL

17 of 32

    Greg Beacham/Associated Press

    Next year, under tackle Corey Liuget is slated to cost $9.5 million against the Los Angeles Chargers' salary cap. This year, he will begin the season with a four-game suspension for PEDs. While most third-round picks don't get an immediate shot to start in the NFL, especially in the trenches, Justin Jones of North Carolina State may win the Week 1 starting job and run away with it.

    Jones played on a loaded North Carolina State defensive line with four drafted players in this class alone and likely another for the 2019 class in Darian Roseboro. Because of that, it was hard to isolate his play among his teammates on the line. On a Chargers interior line that is not deep by NFL standards, we will quickly learn how talented Jones is and how much of the Wolfpack's success was because of him.

    If he can pick up the pace immediately, he could be a 16-game starter and make it easier for the Chargers to release Liuget as a cap casualty next season. If he can't, the team might have to restructure Liuget's deal, promising him more years for a smaller cap him, effectively promising Liuget a starting role long-term.

Los Angeles Rams: Samson Ebukam's Pass Rushing

18 of 32

    Jae C. Hong/Associated Press

    The Los Angeles Rams' top returning outside linebackers are Matt Longacre and Samson Ebukam, who both played 35.3 percent of the defensive snaps or fewer in 2017. Ebukam, who before last season was at Eastern Washington of the FCS, only has 351 NFL snaps under his belt.

    The team did add Ogbonnia Okoronkwo and Trevon Young in the fifth and sixth rounds of the draft, but history isn't kind to rookie pass-rushers picked outside of the top 150 selections. 

    Last year, Ebukam had just three tackles at or behind the line, good for a tie for 12th among Rams box defenders alone. For the number of snaps that Ebukam played last year, he should have had more production in opposing backfields. As he goes from a rotational player to a starter, that will need to change.

Miami Dolphins: Davon Godchaux's Penetration Ability

19 of 32

    Lynne Sladky/Associated Press

    Last year, Ndamukong Suh led the Miami Dolphins in tackles at or behind the line with 24.5. For every 200 snaps, that's about 2.8. Davon Godchaux, the team's top returning defensive tackle in terms of snaps, averaged a tackle at or behind the line about 1.8 times every 100 snaps, a worse rate than Suh's.

    Over the course of the year, that's going to make a difference. Suh was one of the most productive defensive tackles last year in the backfield, and Godchaux doesn't even have an NFL sack yet. Godchaux, Akeem Spence and Jordan Phillips, NFL bodies whom no one would call above-average, are going to be Miami's three-man rotation this year on the interior. That is not a viable backup plan for losing Suh.

Minnesota Vikings: Laquon Treadwell's Consistency

20 of 32

    Bruce Kluckhohn/Associated Press

    Between the recovery of a gruesome leg injury and a 4.64-second 40-yard dash, Minnesota Vikings receiver Laquon Treadwell had some pretty big question marks going into the NFL draft. Despite that, the Vikings spent a first-round pick on him in 2016, just to have him fall in the depth chart behind Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen.

    At times, we have seen flashes of Treadwell's potential. As an isolated X receiver against the Packers, he made one of the most jaw-dropping catches by anyone in 2017. At only 22 years old, he has plenty of time to turn around his career, but his development in 2018 could go a long way for a contending Vikings team in a competitive NFC.

    If Diggs, Thielen and Treadwell ever all play together at full potential, Kirk Cousins could put up 2016 Matt Ryan numbers, the same year that Julio Jones, Mohamed Sanu and Taylor Gabriel were all clicking.

New England Patriots: Derek Rivers' Lack of Experience

21 of 32

    Steven Senne/Associated Press

    Athletically, Derek Rivers should be a future superstar pass-rusher. Unfortunately, he hasn't played a football game for over a year after he missed his entire rookie season with a knee injury.

    That, compounded with the fact that he played in the FCS for Youngstown State, is a red flag.

    New England hasn't valued pass-rushers much since trading Chandler Jones to the Arizona Cardinals a few years ago, but having a speed-rusher would be nice. The Pats' top two returning pass-rushers are Deatrich Wise and Trey Flowers, who both play more of a length-and-strength form of pass rushing than anything else.

    If Rivers can adjust quickly to NFL speed, he could cut into Adrian Clayborn's playing time. Between Clayborn and Rivers, it's likely that New England's 2018 leader in sacks will come from a player who wasn't on the field in the Super Bowl in February.

New Orleans Saints: Alvin Kamara's Bell-Cow Ability

22 of 32

    Gerald Herbert/Associated Press

    Last year, Alvin Kamara had 120 of New Orleans' 417 carries in the regular season, good for roughly 29 percent. In his last year at Tennessee, Kamara had about 20 percent of the Volunteers' runs. Kamara hasn't been the ball-carrier on a team since his high school days.

    With the suspension of Mark Ingram, which includes limitations to in-season game-planning and access to training over the first month of the year, the Saints will have to make up plenty of carries, as Ingram (230 attempts) carried the ball nearly twice as much as Kamara did last year. And the Saints don't have a proven option behind them. 

    For Kamara, every game in the first month of the season will have to look like his effort against Texas A&M in 2016, by far his standout game at the college level. If workload is going to be an issue for Kamara, it's going to be apparent in Week 1.

New York Giants: Ereck Flowers' Pass Protection

23 of 32

    David Richard/Associated Press

    For three years, Ereck Flowers has been a liability in pass protection for the New York Giants. If not for Ben McAdoo and Eli Manning embracing the quick passing game, Flowers would have been exposed even more.

    The Giants signed former New England Patriots left tackle Nate Solder this offseason, and he will start as the left bookend in New York, but that doesn't push Flowers out of the lineup. Because Solder was the only significant offensive tackle added to the team, it's likely that Flowers will be in a competition with 2017 undrafted free agent Chad Wheeler for the starting right tackle job.

    At this point in his career, Flowers isn't starting-caliber. The 24-year-old is 6'6", and he will always be 6'6", but he needs to begin protecting like an NFL pass protector to start much longer. 

New York Jets: Jordan Jenkins' Pass Rushing

24 of 32

    Julie Jacobson/Associated Press

    In two NFL seasons, former third-round pick Jordan Jenkins has played 1,228 snaps and has just 5.5 sacks to show for it. To put that into perspective, Chris McCain only played 241 snaps last year and registered five sacks—and you don't even know whom McCain played for.

    Jenkins is going on his third year as a Jets starting pass-rusher. Frankly, that's unacceptable. After packing picks to move up to third overall in a trade with the Indianapolis Colts, New York took itself out of the top pass-rushing market in the draft. At the same time, the Colts took two pass-rushers in the second round and added McCain in free agency.

    The Jets chose not to improve the position this year. They had options. Now their only option is Jenkins putting it on himself to record a sack more than once every 200-plus snaps.

Oakland Raiders: Arden Key's Consistency

25 of 32

    Ben Margot/Associated Press

    In 2016, Arden Key recorded 23.5 total sacks and tackles for loss combined. Had he been three years removed from high school, he likely would have been a first-round pick in the NFL draft. Instead, he had to return to school, and his draft stock dropped when he took a leave of absence from the LSU football team during the spring. 

    At one point last offseason, Key was up to 280 pounds.  During the season, Key posted just 9.5 sacks and tackles for loss combined. At the combine, he was down to 238 pounds, one of the lowest numbers we've seen from a pass-rusher in recent years.

    What is there to make of Key? There's a lot of potential with him, but the consistency hasn't been there. With Khalil Mack in the last season of his contract, Bruce Irvin (30) likely to start aging out of his prime and the team just generally having little depth on the defensive side of the ball, hitting on a guy like Key would be big for Oakland.

Philadelphia Eagles: Derek Barnett's Counter Move

26 of 32

    Gregory Payan/Associated Press

    Despite losing Vinny Curry as a cap casualty this offseason, the Philadelphia Eagles' pass-rushing unit is still loaded with Brandon Graham, Michael Bennett, Chris Long and Derek Barnett making up the two-deep. Barnett, a 2017 first-round pick, needs to refine his inside counter move as a pass-rusher before he pushes Graham or Bennett from a starting role.

    In three years at Tennessee, Barnett posted 32 sacks and 52 tackles for loss, good enough numbers to have him declare early for the draft as a true junior. At the combine, he ran a 4.88-second 40-yard dash and a 6.96-second three-cone, matching his profile on the field of a churning edge-bender who was not explosive.

    Against college offensive tackles, that style of play works. In the NFL, pass rushes are either predicated off speed and inside counter moves. If Barnett can prove to the NFL that he can cross the face of tackles as a pass-rusher, giving him a shorter distance to the quarterback as a slower straight-line edge defender, that could go a long way for his career. Barnett is basically the only defensive end in Philadelphia promised any long-term money, meaning that his emergence could save the Eagles a lot of cap space should he command a starting role.

Pittsburgh Steelers: Sean Davis' Coverage Skills

27 of 32

    Don Wright/Associated Press

    It's hard to forget what the New England Patriots did to Sean Davis last year. Overall, the former Maryland Terrapin has had a difficult start to his career. With the additions of Morgan Burnett in free agency and Terrell Edmunds via the draft, nobody knows how the Pittsburgh Steelers secondary will shake out this year.

    All three of these players—Davis, Burnett and Edmunds—are more strong safeties than free safeties or slotbacks. If Burnett or Edmunds spells at linebacker, keeping Davis on the field, he is going to need to improve in coverage or he'll be a liability again.

    If you're unable to match up against slot receivers or tight ends in this league, there aren't many roles in which you can thrive. It's no longer on Pittsburgh to put Davis in an ideal situation; it's on Davis to prove his worth.

San Francisco 49ers: Solomon Thomas' Pass Rushing

28 of 32

    Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

    Last year, former Stanford defensive tackle Solomon Thomas was drafted third overall by the San Francisco 49ers to play 4-3 defensive end for the team. As a 21-year-old rookie, he posted just three sacks (tied for most among returning 49ers).

    That alone tells you Thomas has yet to put it all together and San Francisco has few complements to Thomas in the pass-rushing unit. He's a young position convert but repeating a three-sack season would put the 49ers, who with a last-place schedule and Jimmy Garoppolo might make the playoffs, in a bad spot defensively.

    There aren't a lot of college players who didn't play on the edge primarily who end up doing that in the NFL, so there's no way for us to tell if Thomas' development should kick up this year. 

Seattle Seahawks: Ethan Pocic's Run Blocking

29 of 32

    Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images

    The Seattle Seahawks have struggled to run the ball, particularly in the red zone, since Marshawn Lynch left town. While the Seahawks added first-round running back Rashaad Penny, that does not mean their woes have been solved.

    They have not addressed their offensive line issues aside from swapping Luke Joeckel for D.J. Fluker. Ethan Pocic, a 2017 rookie second-rounder, was one of the reasons the Seahawks handed the ball off to running backs 17 times for -11 yards and zero touchdowns inside the 10 last year.

    When four different running backs can't even get a yard in scoring range, your offensive line might be more of an issue than your backfield.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Vita Vea's Burst Off the Line

30 of 32

    Chris O'Meara/Associated Press

    While Vita Vea tested well at the combine, he played in a lineman-read-heavy scheme in college that told him to get out of his stance once an offensive lineman moved, not when the ball was snapped. This slow-reading technique that had him keep his eyes on the lineman at the start of the play led to quality run stopping but not early penetration, which is what you would want to see from not only a first-round defensive lineman but also any top-100 defensive lineman with an athletic profile.

    On paper, this can be fixed through coaching, but there's no promise that it will be fixed. Players get lost in the transition from their college scheme to the NFL's schemes every year. Last year, Vea had just 5.5 tackles for loss in 12 games, again, as a primary run-stuffer. Vea will be asked to pin his ears back more in the NFL, especially in a 4-3 scheme, which is a drastic change from what he was asked to do in college.

Tennessee Titans: Marcus Mariota's Accuracy

31 of 32

    Mark Humphrey/Associated Press

    It's not often that a quarterback has a career-high interception percentage, a career-high interception total and a career-low passer rating and makes the playoffs, but Marcus Mariota did last year. After missing the playoffs twice while Mariota posted a combined 93.8 passer rating, the Titans secured a wild-card berth with their starting quarterback recording a 79.3 rating.

    Mariota was better when he went 11-16 over his first two years than he was last season. Notably, he was inaccurate against Pittsburgh, when the Thursday Night Football broadcast was working out the kinks of a SpiderCam broadcast. That game particularly showed some of Mariota's worst passes of the season in the clearest way possible.

    A bounce-back year is needed, and Mariota's pass-catchers will have to take that step with him, but don't expect the former Heisman winner to make it back to the playoffs until that box is checked off. Lightning won't strike twice, even in the AFC's wild-card race.

Washington Redskins: Chase Roullier's Run Blocking

32 of 32

    Mark Tenally/Associated Press

    According to Pro Football Reference's expected points model, no running game in the NFL cost its team more points (-73) than Washington's in 2017. Running back was a factor in the equation, but so was rookie center Chase Roullier, who went from a sixth-round Group of Five offensive lineman to an NFL starter in months.

    With projected starting guard Arie Kouandjio already out for the year, Roullier's job in 2018 already got harder. Offensive linemen consistently take jumps in play in their second NFL seasons, and Washington will be banking on that with Roullier. 

slash iconYour sports. Delivered.

Enjoy our content? Join our newsletter to get the latest in sports news delivered straight to your inbox!