The Biggest Concern for Every NFL Team Before the Season Begins
Fanbases would rather not talk about it—and head coaches rarely acknowledge these thoughts to the media—but every NFL team goes into the regular season with major concerns.
The offseason brings new hope, but coaches and front-office executives should always wonder: What could go wrong? When addressing these potential shortcomings, clubs can prevent or mask roster deficiencies and weak spots.
In some cases, we can see the disaster before it unfolds in the regular season.
Going into the 2018 campaign, the Houston Texans were probably aware of their shaky offensive line, so the team, with inexperienced starters at both tackle positions, shouldn't have been shocked to see quarterback Deshaun Watson sacked a league-high 62 times.
What's the biggest potential issue that could derail each squad's 2019 season or adversely affect production on a large scale? We'll pinpoint the problem areas, which include roster and coaching concerns.
Justin Pugh of the Arizona Cardinals stops by to talk Madden 2020 ratings, new teammate and No. 1 overall pick, Kyler Murray, and even declares himself the top NFL beer chugger... and challenges Packers lineman David Bakhtiari. All that and more on the latest edition of The Lefkoe Show.
Arizona Cardinals: Protecting QB Kyler Murray
As a rookie, Kyler Murray will make his fair share of mistakes. He'll face the ups and downs of most first-year players at the quarterback position. In addition to answering critics who view his height (5'10") as a disadvantage, the Oklahoma product must read complex defenses and build a rapport with a new wide receiver group.
The Arizona Cardinals cannot exacerbate the rough patches in Murray's transition with a poor offensive line and expect to see steady progress.
Last year, the front five ranked 26th in pass protection, per Football Outsiders, although injuries factored into the unit's subpar play.
Furthermore, the current group will feature a new left guard—expected to be Justin Pugh—to replace Mike Iupati. Marcus Gilbert will take over at right tackle. Since 2017, he's missed 20 games because of hamstring and knee injuries along with a four-game suspension for violating the league's performance-enhancing drugs policy.
Mason Cole and A.Q. Shipley will battle for the starting center spot. D.J. Humphries must stay healthy; he's yet to play more than 13 games in a season through four years.
Murray can use his legs to escape pressure, but at this stage in his career, he should be focused on keeping his eyes downfield while looking for receivers rather than the incoming pass rush. If the 21-year-old can build an early rapport with his pass-catchers, the Cardinals could score points in bunches.
Atlanta Falcons: Starting Safeties Bouncing Back from Injuries
The Atlanta Falcons' starting safeties went down with significant injuries last year. Keanu Neal suffered a torn ACL, and Ricardo Allen tore his Achilles. In today's world, we see players bounce back from these setbacks, but it's not a guarantee.
Neal was a Pro Bowler in 2017, recording 81 solo tackles, six pass breakups and an interception. Barring a setback, the soon-to-be 24-year-old will return to action this season, but the Falcons would like to see his continued high-level development.
Last offseason, Atlanta signed Allen to a three-year, $19.5 million extension. He's been a solid starter but doesn't have a career ceiling comparable to Neal's. If the 27-year-old isn't the same serviceable component, the front office may not honor the full length of his deal.
During an interview on SiriusXM NFL Radio's Late Hits, Allen called his recovery a "slow process". Meanwhile, head coach Dan Quinn thinks his starting safeties have a chance to participate at training camp, which starts next week, per George Henry of the Associated Press.
With Damontae Kazee set to replace Brian Poole as the primary nickelback, the Falcons—who allowed the sixth-most passing yards per game in 2018—need both of their safeties healthy and performing close to pre-injury form.
Baltimore Ravens: Lamar Jackson Throwing Downfield
Quarterback Lamar Jackson proved he's an explosive playmaker as a ball-carrier, but he didn't show much while throwing from the pocket.
He took over the starting job for Joe Flacco, who suffered a hip injury, and helped lead the Baltimore Ravens to a 6-1 record in the primary role under center. He threw the ball more than 25 times once—in the playoff loss to the Los Angeles Chargers in which he completed 48.3 percent of his passes.
The Ravens can't expect to pull off comeback victories without posing a viable threat through the air in a league that's witnessing an increasing number of explosive passing offenses.
Jackson was his toughest critic following a spring practice, per ESPN.com's Jamison Hensley.
"It's been crazy. It's been everywhere," Jackson said about his throwing technique. "I feel like my hand is a little too high on the football, and that makes the ball go out of whack a lot."
The Ravens will count on the second-year signal-caller to deliver the football. The pass-catching crops includes rookie first-rounder Marquise Brown, who's an electric deep threat; first-year wideout Miles Boykin (6'4", 220 lbs); five-year veteran Willie Snead IV; and tight end Mark Andrews, a favorable target this offseason, per the team's official website.
"If offseason practices are any indication, [Andrews] could be a featured receiving target as a big body [6'5", 256 lbs] over the middle or even split out wide," the website's position breakdown noted.
Jackson will have solid receiving targets, but he must keep his eyes downfield and tighten up on sloppy throwing mechanics.
Buffalo Bills: Josh Allen's Accuracy, Ball Placement
Quarterback Josh Allen hasn't done enough to shake criticism concerning his accuracy. He completed 56.2 percent of his passes through three terms at Wyoming. As a rookie, he connected on 52.8 percent of his throws—that ranked last among signal-callers with at least 100 passing attempts in 2018.
Allen's questionable accuracy isn't a new talking point, but a failure to improve in that area will shorten the 23-year-old's career as a starter.
Perhaps the Buffalo Bills needed to upgrade the pass-catching group. Last year, wideout Zay Jones led the team with modest totals in receptions (56) and yards (652).
This offseason, the Bills signed wideouts John Brown and Cole Beasley, providing Allen with a deep threat and a reliable slot receiver, respectively. And Beasley has a 70.9 percent career catch rate.
Tight end Tyler Kroft put together a solid 2017 term as a pass-catcher, logging 404 receiving yards and seven touchdowns, but the free-agent acquisition broke his foot during the first OTA session.
Robert Foster broke out in the second half of the 2018 campaign, logging three 100-plus-yard receiving games after Week 9. He finished his rookie term with a 61.4 percent catch rate.
Jones, Beasley, Foster and Brown should provide sparks in the passing game for the upcoming season, but Allen must fit the ball through tight windows, which will allow his playmakers to stretch plays into huge gains downfield.
Carolina Panthers: No Clear-Cut No. 2 Wide Receiver
Despite DJ Moore's ball-security issues (four fumbles), he led the team's wide receivers in yards (788) for a strong rookie campaign in 2018. The first-rounder has the potential to develop into a solid No. 1 target. Someone has to step into the No. 2 role to elevate the passing attack.
The Panthers allowed wideout Devin Funchess to walk during free agency; he signed with the Indianapolis Colts, leaving a vacant spot behind Moore.
The front office signed Chris Hogan in free agency, but he had an underwhelming start to the 2018 term even with Julian Edelman serving a four-game suspension for violating the league's performance-enhancing drugs policy. He caught eight passes for 109 yards through Week 4.
Torrey Smith didn't provide much impact in his first season with the Panthers, logging 17 receptions for 190 yards and two touchdowns.
Curtis Samuel could take a big step in his third campaign. He registered 39 receptions for 494 yards and five touchdowns last season. The Ohio State product broke a bone and suffered ligament damage in his ankle during his rookie year and underwent a procedure to address an irregular heartbeat before the 2018 term.
If Samuel goes through the 2019 campaign with a clean bill of health, running back Christian McCaffrey may not have to carry a tremendous load as a pass-catcher out of the backfield. He led the team in targets (124), receptions (107), yards (867) and receiving touchdowns (six) last year.
Chicago Bears: Kyle Long's Availability
The Chicago Bears have built a strong roster on both sides of the ball, but right guard Kyle Long's constant battle with injuries may test the team's depth.
In each of his first three campaigns, Long earned a Pro Bowl invite, but he's missed 22 games since the 2016 campaign because of foot, shoulder and ankle injuries. Last year, Bryan Witzmann started seven games in place of the six-year veteran.
Long returned to action for the NFC Wild Card playoff game, but the Bears have to keep options behind him. Eric Kush and Witzmann signed with the Cleveland Browns during free agency, and the front office added nine-year veteran guard Ted Larsen.
Looking at Long's spotty availability, Larsen should prepare to play at some point in the upcoming season. The Bears signed running back Mike Davis and selected David Montgomery in the third round of this year's draft to balance the offense. Both will need a strong push up front whether it's Long or Larsen clearing the way.
Cincinnati Bengals: Uncertainties Across the Offensive Line
The Cincinnati Bengals offensive line ranked 22nd in adjusted line yards (4.10) and 19th in pass protection last year, per Football Outsiders. Initially, the team seemed primed to show improvement in the trenches.
The front office selected left tackle Jonah Williams in the first round of April's draft. He would've lined up at his natural position with Cordy Glenn prepared to play left guard. However, the rookie underwent shoulder surgery, putting an end to that plan.
Glenn will move back to left tackle, but the Bengals have a question mark at left guard. Clint Boling has retired. According to The Athletic's Paul Dehner Jr., Christian Westerman, who's started two games in as many years, is first in line to take over the contested spot on the interior.
"I'm also on board with [Westerman] getting his shot at left guard, which appears to be option one for what will be a camp battle, I'm hearing," Dehner wrote.
Right guard Alex Redmond will serve a four-game suspension for violating the league's performance-enhancing drugs policy. John Miller, who signed during free agency, could start in his place. He put together a solid contract year in Buffalo, but how will he mesh with his new group in Cincinnati?
The Bengals also re-signed Bobby Hart after he surrendered 11.5 sacks last year, per the Washington Post's STATS.
Miller may be an upgrade over Redmond, but Glenn has missed 18 games over the last three seasons. Westerman's inexperience could show up if he wins the job. The Bengals don't have a clear-cut alternative to Hart at right tackle.
Because Williams will likely miss the entire season, the Bengals' potential across the offensive line takes a hit with less flexibility to swap out underperformers.
Cleveland Browns: Right Side of Offensive Line
General manager John Dorsey traded right guard Kevin Zeitler to the New York Giants in order to acquire defensive end Olivier Vernon. Now the Browns have a viable pass-rushing duo on the ends, but they must fill a gaping hole on the interior of the offensive line.
Austin Corbett will battle Kyle Kalis, who's started two games in as many seasons, and rookie sixth-rounder Drew Forbes for the vacant spot. None of the candidates has extensive pro experience at right guard; Corbett, the front-runner, lined up as a tackle at Nevada.
Moving one spot to the right, Chris Hubbard had a rough first season in Cleveland, giving up 8.5 sacks, per the Washington Post's STATS. While he's capable of a bounce-back year because he flashed solid pass-blocking ability as a 10-game starter with the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2017, it's not a given.
In 2018, now-head coach Freddie Kitchens designed plays that allowed Baker Mayfield to dump off the ball quickly and find high-percentage targets. Nonetheless, the Browns may struggle to stretch the field if the right side of the offensive line crumbles under pressure.
Dallas Cowboys: Pass Protection at Right Tackle
Since 2017, La'el Collins has manned the right tackle spot and struggled to keep pass-rushers away from quarterback Dak Prescott, who was sacked 56 times last season. According to Washington Post STATS, Collins allowed 10 sacks and committed seven holding penalties over the past two campaigns.
The Dallas Cowboys offensive line ranked 28th in pass protection last season, per Football Outsiders. That's not all Collins' fault—Prescott felt immense pressure behind the left guard spot as well—but he was part of a larger problem.
Going into a contract year, Collins will be the subject of scrutiny. According to Bob Sturm of The Athletic, the offensive line's play started to wear on Prescott.
"... Collins put his worst season on wax," Sturm wrote. "And, yes, Prescott started to show the effects of a player who no longer trusted his offensive line, his internal clock, and maybe even the scheme of the offense itself."
If Prescott continues to feel pressure from his right side, the coaching staff should consider alternative options to Collins on the perimeter.
Denver Broncos: Pairing Joe Flacco with a 1st-Time Play-Caller
The Denver Broncos moved on from Case Keenum, trading him to the Washington Redskins and acquiring Flacco from the Baltimore Ravens. While president of football operations and general manager John Elway upgraded at quarterback, the offense will move into uncharted territories with offensive coordinator Rich Scangarello.
The Broncos hired Vic Fangio, a head coach with a background on defense, which places pressure on Scangarello as the lead voice for his unit. The first-time play-caller is stepping into a big role.
When talking to reporters, Flacco didn't seem bothered with the schematic shift. "Terminology-wise, I'm familiar with a lot," he said. "That's kind of made the transition easy."
Despite Scangarello's time working alongside Kyle Shanahan—an innovative offensive mind—in Atlanta (2015) and San Francisco (2017-18), he has to leave his own unique impression on the Broncos offense. Flacco still throws with a strong arm, but the 34-year-old will need direction in a new system.
Flacco played full 16-game seasons in 2016 and 2017, but he couldn't eclipse 20 touchdown passes in either year. He also threw 28 combined interceptions in that period. Scangarello can attempt to squeeze whatever's left out of the veteran quarterback.
If that's not enough, the Broncos ground attack must control games to grind out victories.
Detroit Lions: Unsorted Secondary
The Detroit Lions have a multilayered issue in the secondary. For starters, cornerback Darius Slay didn't commit to showing up at training camp. "Will I be there? We'll see. Time will tell," he said on The Pride Podcast (h/t Dave Birkett of the Detroit Free Press).
Slay has become one of the top cover men in the league. He, along with Tennessee Titans safety Kevin Byard, logged the most interceptions (eight) in 2017; the Lions cornerback also ranked first in pass breakups (26) that year. If his contract holdout lingers, the team may regret playing hardball because of the uncertainties behind him.
Teez Tabor hasn't developed into a capable starter; he doesn't have an interception or a pass breakup in 22 contests. Rashaan Melvin had an underwhelming year in Oakland, logging nine pass breakups and one interception after registering three picks and 13 pass breakups with the Colts in 2017. The Lions hope he bounces back.
Detroit selected Amani Oruwariye in the fifth round of this year's draft. Unless he's a Day 3 gem, the Penn State product will go through rough stages in his transition. The 6'2", 205-pounder needs to refine his footwork to keep up with quicker receivers on the perimeter.
The Lions released Glover Quin, who announced his retirement this month, leaving a void at safety next to Quandre Diggs. Rookie third-rounder Will Harris could earn the starting job this summer, but Tracy Walker, Tavon Wilson and Andrew Adams are also vying for the spot.
If Slay returns, the Lions still have to shore up the opposite side of the perimeter and tab a partner at safety for Diggs.
Green Bay Packers: Aaron Rodgers' Pairing with Matt LaFleur
Aaron Rodgers has played for one full-time head coach as a starter: Mike McCarthy. That football relationship ended after 10-plus seasons, and the Green Bay Packers hired Matt Fleur, who's a first-time head coach and four years older than his starting signal-caller.
According to Bleacher Report's Tyler Dunne, Rodgers changed several of McCarthy's play calls toward the end of their tenure together.
"Either way, he freelanced more than ever," Dunne wrote. "One source with close ties to the team estimates Rodgers changed about a third of the plays McCarthy called. "'An alarming amount. That is embarrassing. And they don't work!'"
Perhaps Rodgers tweaked the calls to provide a spark and invoke creativity. According to Dunne's report, he had the freedom to take charge of the offense over the past years. The 35-year-old may find it difficult to change his ways with a new head coach on the sideline—especially with someone who's an inexperienced play-caller.
LaFleur served as an offensive coordinator under Sean McVay in Los Angeles and became the lead play-caller last year for the Tennessee Titans. When he and Rodgers disagree, how will the final decision shake out?
Most importantly, change can bring hardships. Green Bay's offense may not jump off the screen right away. If the Packers lose a couple of games early, that may be the difference between a trip to the playoffs and an early start to the offseason.
Houston Texans: Protecting Deshaun Watson
In 2018, Deshaun Watson took the most sacks (62), and the Texans' offseason moves reflected their major concern. The front office selected two offensive tackles—Tytus Howard and Max Scharping—in the first and second rounds, respectively. The team also signed left tackle Matt Kalil in March.
The Texans fired general manager Brian Gaine, but the question marks, particularly on the ends of the offensive line, remain prior to the start of training camp next week. According to the Washington Post's STATS, left tackle Julie'n Davenport allowed 8.75 sacks last year.
Kendall Lamm started 13 games at right tackle in that campaign, and he signed with the Browns this offseason. The Texans can lean on Seantrel Henderson at that position. He would've started through the 2018 term, but the 27-year-old broke his ankle in Week 1. The five-year veteran hasn't been able to stay on the field, missing 39 contests since 2016.
Scharping may take reps at guard during training camp. He has a little bit of experience on the interior dating back to his freshman term at Northern Illinois. If he fast-tracks, Howard may push for a starting spot at tackle, but that's a tough task for a rookie out of a small-school program such as Alabama State.
Indianapolis Colts: Consistency of the Ground Attack
Quarterback Andrew Luck hasn't played with a rushing offense ranked higher than 20th; the Indianapolis Colts hit that mark twice—once in 2013 and then during last season.
Luck won 2018 Comeback Player of the Year honors, and he's behind a much-improved offensive line. The unit ranked second in pass protection last season, per Football Outsiders. With that said, the 29-year-old is only one year removed from missing an entire season because of a shoulder injury; the Colts shouldn't rely on him to do all the heavy lifting.
Marlon Mack leads the running back group; he's made 26 appearances (10 starts) over the last two years, racking up 1,266 yards and 12 touchdowns on the ground. The 23-year-old missed four contests because of foot and hamstring injuries last season. Assuming Mack stays healthy, the team needs him to take another step as the featured ball-carrier.
Indianapolis selected two running backs in the 2018 draft. Nyheim Hines went in the fourth round and Jordan Wilkins during the fifth round. They complement Mack and must fill the void if he goes down with an injury. The coaching staff has to optimize the young talent in the backfield to take pressure off Luck.
Jacksonville Jaguars: Leonard Fournette's Durability, Efficiency
The Jacksonville Jaguars selected running back Leonard Fournette with the fourth overall pick in the 2017 draft, but he hasn't played up to his billing. The LSU product has missed 11 games in two seasons and averages 3.7 yards per carry.
Offensive coordinator John DeFilippo told reporters that he plans to feature Fournette.
"We're really looking forward to Leonard having a big year," he said in May. "I'm going to call it what it is: He's going to be a major reason where our offense goes. I'm not going to sugarcoat that. Leonard Fournette needs to be a big part of this offense."
DeFilippo is taking a moderate risk with Fournette's injury history and unimpressive yards-per-carry average. The Jaguars have a decision to make on his fifth-year option next offseason, so the 24-year-old is going into the upcoming campaign with a lot to prove.
As a top-five pick, Fournette sits on the verge of becoming an underachiever. With Nick Foles taking the reins under center, the 6'0", 228-pound running back must stabilize the offense if the passing game takes a few weeks to jell.
Based on Fournette's injury history, the Jaguars may hit a rut at some point with a key player unavailable on the sidelines.
Kansas City Chiefs: Quickness, Coverage at Linebacker
Quarterbacks found success targeting Anthony Hitchens and Reggie Ragland in coverage last season. Neither linebacker looked equipped to chase down running backs or shadow tight ends to disrupt the intermediate passing attack.
The Kansas City Chiefs allowed the third-most receiving yards per game to running backs (56.4) and tight ends (69.1), per Football Outsiders. In order to combat the coverage weakness in the middle of the field, the front office acquired Darron Lee via trade with the New York Jets. He logged three interceptions and five pass breakups last season.
Lee should improve the Chiefs' coverage in shallow areas and against tight ends, but he's one second-level defender. Opposing signal-callers can still isolate and target other linebackers with pre-snap motions and plays designed to expose a portion of the field.
Perhaps defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo will utilize Dorian O'Daniel, who registered three interceptions and seven pass breakups at Clemson. As a rookie, O'Daniel had a minimal role, playing 302 defensive snaps.
Los Angeles Chargers: Sam Tevi at Right Tackle
The Los Angeles Chargers have a simple yet alarming issue at right tackle. In 2018, Sam Tevi took over for Joe Barksdale (knee injury) after Week 1. The former also logged a start at left tackle in Week 5.
Through 16 contests, including 15 starts, Tevi allowed seven sacks, per the Washington Post's STATS. He's the probable starter at right tackle going into the upcoming campaign.
Rookie third-rounder Trey Pipkins lined up at left tackle at Sioux Falls, and a switch to the opposite side seems like a tough ask for a small-school prospect playing out of position.
Back in March, head coach Anthony Lynn expressed confidence in Tevi at right tackle, per ESPN.com's Eric D. Williams.
"... Lynn reiterated that Forrest Lamp will get a chance to compete for a starting job at guard, but he wants to develop his versatility as a tackle so he can be active on game days. Lynn said Bolts are good at tackle with Russell Okung and Tevi," Williams tweeted.
Unless Dan Feeney and Michael Schofield win the competition for the left and right guard spots, respectively, pushing 2017 second-rounder Lamp to right tackle, L.A. seems set to develop Tevi as a starter in his third season.
That move may come back to bite the Chargers if Philip Rivers feels immense pocket pressure on his strong side. The 37-year-old is not a mobile quarterback and would likely have to take more sacks than the team anticipated going into the year.
Los Angeles Rams: How Much Will Todd Gurley Contribute to the Offense?
Travelle Gaines, the trainer of running back Todd Gurley II, confirmed his client has an arthritic knee while on the Pick Six NFL Podcast with CBS Sports' Will Brinson, but he also saw that as an expected condition:
"Everybody knew when Todd came out of Georgia that there would be some kind of arthritic component to his knee, which is part of every surgery whether it's a shoulder, a knee, an ankle. ... If we can pound him less in the offseason while keeping his weight down, working on his strength, working on his agility in short areas, that's going to give him a better chance to be healthy Weeks 14 through 17 when they really count."
The Los Angeles Rams haven't talked about a set workload for Gurley going into the 2019 season, but the front office selected running back Darrell Henderson in the third round of this year's draft. General manager Les Snead also matched the Lions' offer sheet for tailback Malcolm Brown. One or both backups will likely handle a significant number of touches for the upcoming term.
The Rams coaching staff may lighten Gurley's workload early in the year to preserve him for a late stretch and the potentially the playoffs.
Gurley told NFL Network's Omar Ruiz that his knee is "good" heading into training camp, which starts for L.A. on July 27.
The Rams didn't reveal much about Gurley's condition following their Super Bowl LIII loss to the New England Patriots—a game in which Gurley only had 10 rushing attempts for 35 yards—so we will have to wait and see how much he can contribute. The Los Angeles offense will surely undergo changes after featuring him over the last two seasons.
Miami Dolphins: Unproven Pass-Rushers
Rookie first-rounder Christian Wilkins could lead the Miami Dolphins in sacks for the upcoming season. At Clemson, he registered 16 sacks in four terms. On tape, the 6'4", 315-pounder looks light on his feet, flexes his body around offensive linemen to reach the quarterback and wraps with a tight bear hug to finish plays.
The Dolphins will need Wilkins' pass-rushing prowess in the trenches after waving goodbye to defensive ends Cameron Wake via free agency and Robert Quinn through a trade with the Cowboys.
Defensive end Charles Harris, a 2017 first-rounder, will have an opportunity to show his pocket-pushing ability. He's uncertain to participate at training camp because of a wrist injury, per Barry Jackson of the Miami Herald.
"Harris (wrist injury) and the team have been noncommittal about whether he will be ready for team drills when training camp begins," Jackson wrote. "He needs as many team drills as he can get as he transitions to a new role that includes some standup linebacker work."
Harris has three sacks in 27 games, including three starts. Although the 24-year-old is facing a golden opportunity, the Dolphins can't count on him for a breakout year until he shows consistent flashes on the field.
Minnesota Vikings: Dalvin Cook's Durability
Running back Dalvin Cook racked up big numbers at Florida State, finishing with 5,399 yards from scrimmage and 48 touchdowns as a threat to rip off long runs and catch out of the backfield. The Minnesota Vikings selected the dual-threat talent in the second round of the 2017 draft, but he's missed 17 contests.
Four weeks into the 2017 campaign, Cook tore his ACL. Last year, he missed time because of a nagging hamstring injury. The Vikings selected Alexander Mattison in the third round of this year's draft to replace Latavius Murray, who signed with the New Orleans Saints.
At 5'11", 221 pounds, Mattison ran a 4.67-second 40-yard dash at the NFL Scouting Combine. He's a bruising ball-carrier who can catch and pass protect but lacks the speed to outrun defenders in the open field.
The Vikings' rushing offense still needs Cook for chunk plays out of the backfield. If he can't shake off the injury bug, the ground attack won't have the explosive component needed to draw safeties into the box, opening up passing lanes for quarterback Kirk Cousins.
New England Patriots: Covering Tom Brady's Blind Side
Last offseason, the New England Patriots allowed left tackle Nate Solder to walk during free agency; the front office acquired Trent Brown from the San Francisco 49ers to fill his spot. The cycle continues—the 6'8" 380-pound Brown signed with the Oakland Raiders in March.
Barring a trade, the Patriots will likely rely on someone who has yet to start at left tackle to keep Tom Brady's blind side clear.
New England selected Yodny Cajuste in the third round of this year's draft, but he suffered a quadriceps injury, which required surgery and kept him out of spring practices. Isaiah Wynn continues to work his way back from a torn Achilles. With both sidelined, the coaching staff moved left guard Joe Thuney to the vacant position.
Thuney will likely move back to his natural spot, where he's started 48 consecutive games. Last summer, Wynn practiced at left tackle, but the 2018 first-rounder hasn't played a meaningful game at the position since his senior year at Georgia. Cajuste hasn't been able to adjust to the pros through practices yet.
Brady knows how to avoid taking unnecessary hits. Offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels will likely use the ground attack to neutralize the pass rush, but we should expect teams to attack an inexperienced left tackle in order to disrupt the Patriots' passing attack.
New Orleans Saints: Replacing Pro Bowl Center Max Unger
Centers often get overlooked in the NFL, but the best players at the position can shrewdly adjust line protections and call out coverages for quarterbacks in a pre-snap chess game with the defense.
Saints center Max Unger, a three-time Pro Bowler, decided to retire this offseason after 10 seasons. To replace him, the Saints signed Nick Easton and spent a second-round pick pick on Erik McCoy.
Easton missed the entire 2018 season after undergoing surgery to correct a herniated disk in his neck, but the Saints signed him to a four-year deal. Despite that long-term investment, the Saints may tab McCoy as their starting center. He's a three-year starter who spent most of his time at the pivot at Texas A&M.
Whoever claims the starting job has big cleats to fill, as Unger put together his third Pro Bowl year in 2018. We'll see how the loss affects quarterback Drew Brees' pass protection and line shifts before the snap.
New York Giants: Underwhelming, Inexperienced Pass-Rushers
In 2018, the Giants tied with the Patriots for 30th in sacks (30). This offseason, they signed edge-rusher Markus Golden, who played three seasons under defensive coordinator James Bettcher in Arizona, and selected Oshane Ximines in the third round of the draft to bolster their pass rush.
Golden had a productive 2016 campaign, logging 12.5 sacks, but he's missed 17 games over the last two seasons because of knee injuries. Ximines, a small-school prospect out of Old Dominion, will have to adjust to standing up at outside linebacker after lining up as a defensive end in a four-man front in college.
The Giants also might get more out of defensive end Lorenzo Carter, who recorded four sacks in 15 appearances last year, including two starts.
After trading Vernon, the Giants have to rely on their youth movement and hope Golden stays healthy. Bettcher doesn't have a clear-cut consistent threat off the edge.
New York Jets: The Right Side of the Offensive Line
New York Jets quarterback Sam Darnold will have to keep an eye on the pass rush coming from his right side.
According to STATS, Jets right guard Brian Winters has allowed an increasing number of sacks every year since 2015, including 5.5 last season. He could reverse that trend, but the coaching staff should monitor or address any lapses in his pass protection to keep Darnold's jersey clean this season.
Right tackle Brandon Shell provided exceptional pass protection last year, allowing 1.5 sacks in 14 games, per STATS. However, he suffered a season-ending knee injury in Week 15 and underwent knee surgery shorty thereafter.
SNY's Ralph Vacchiano spotted Shell going through team drills during OTAs, which is a great sign for the Jets. He'll need to show functional lateral movement to maintain his pass protection and open lanes for running back Le'Veon Bell.
If Shell isn't the same player from last season and Winters struggles to keep interior defenders out of the backfield, Darnold may feel overwhelming pressure.
Oakland Raiders: Offensive Line Coach Tom Cable
On paper, the Raiders should field a top-10 offensive line.
We don't know how second-year left tackle Kolton Miller will pan out, but center Rodney Hudson and left guard Richie Incognito have six Pro Bowls between them. The latter received a two-game suspension for violating the league's personal conduct policy, but he should start once he returns.
At right tackle, Trent Brown is a mountain of a man capable of shutting out pass-rushers. For the most part, Gabe Jackson has been a solid presence at left and right guard for five seasons.
What could possibly hinder this group?
For whatever reason, offensive line coach Tom Cable's units have failed miserably at protecting the quarterback. According to Football Outsiders (h/t Warren Sharp of Sharp Football), his groups have never ranked higher than 20th in pass protection.
He received the benefit of the doubt last year because the Raiders started two rookies at tackle, Miller on the left and Brandon Parker on the right for most of the season.
After the Raiders upgraded their O-line talent this offseason, Cable must find a way to break a lengthy trend that suggests he struggles to keep his quarterback out of harm's way.
Philadelphia Eagles: Carson Wentz's Durability
The Philadelphia Eagles can only hope quarterback Carson Wentz completes a full season.
He's missed eight games over the last two years because of a torn ACL and a fractured vertebra. He doesn't deserve the injury-prone label yet, but another shortened year will raise some concerns.
If Wentz goes down with another injury, the Eagles won't have Nick Foles to bail them out again. He signed a four-year deal with the Jaguars in March. Instead, Philadelphia would turn to Nate Sudfeld, Cody Kessler or Clayton Thorson for spot duty.
Eagles executive vice president and general manager Howie Roseman signed Wentz to a four-year, $128 million extension this offseason, putting big money behind a franchise quarterback who started the offseason on the mend in consecutive years.
Perhaps Roseman opted to pay his starting signal-caller before his market value jumped higher next year. However, that decision may haunt him if Wentz can't play through a full 16-game slate in 2019.
Pittsburgh Steelers: The Depth-Chart Shift at Wide Receiver
After trading star receiver Antonio Brown to the Raiders, the Steelers must overhaul their receiving depth chart.
JuJu Smith-Schuster is set to lead the pass-catching corps, but quarterback Ben Roethlisberger will need a reliable No. 2 option. Will it be James Washington, Donte Moncrief or Diontae Johnson?
The Steelers spent a second-round pick on Washington in 2018, and he went on to catch 16 passes for 217 yards and a touchdown as a rookie. He's shed some pounds in preparation for his sophomore campaign, and Smith-Schuster recently sang his praises as a breakout candidate.
Pittsburgh took Johnson in the third round of this year's draft. Although he's flashed during the spring, head coach Mike Tomlin isn't sold by practices in T-shirts and shorts.
"I see a guy that looks pretty good in shorts, you know," Tomlin told reporters after the second day of mandatory minicamp. "The physicality and the intimidation element of the game, particularly as it relates to the wideout position, you just don’t know what you’re looking at until you get those guys in uniform."
Pittsburgh signed Moncrief as a veteran option. He's flashed at times in Indianapolis and Jacksonville, but the five-year veteran has been inconsistent, as evidenced by him having only one 50-catch season.
The Steelers may not miss the drama that clouded Brown's exit, but someone else must step into a bigger role for them to maintain a top-notch aerial attack.
San Francisco 49ers: Jimmy Garoppolo's Durability
San Francisco 49ers quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo signed a five-year, $137.5 million contract last offseason, but he's started only 10 career games to date.
Garoppolo spent two years on the bench as a backup in New England before taking the field for the first time in the regular season. Tom Brady served a four-game suspension for the Deflategate controversy, which allowed Garoppolo to show off his arm. He started two games but sprained his AC joint in the second outing.
In October 2017, the Patriots traded Garoppolo to the 49ers. He started five games through the month of December and stayed injury-free, which preceded his multiyear deal the following offseason.
Garoppolo got off to a hot start in 2018 before he tore his ACL in Week 3, ending his season prematurely.
The five-year veteran has started fewer games than four out of five quarterbacks selected in the first round of last year's draft. To prove he's worth his hefty deal, he has to stay healthy first.
Seattle Seahawks: Pass Protection for Russell Wilson
Quarterback Russell Wilson has been sacked 41 times in each of the last six seasons. Last year, the Seattle Seahawks offensive line cleared lanes for the NFL's most potent rushing attack, but the pass protection ranked 30th, per Football Outsiders, and Wilson was sacked 51 times.
Head coach Pete Carroll thought Wilson shared some blame for the high number of sacks early in the season. During an appearance on 710 ESPN Seattle in September, Carroll talked about what he wanted to see from his quarterback.
"I'm finding Russ over-trying a little bit. He’s pressing in difficult situations to try to see if he can come up with a way to make something happen instead of just getting rid of the football… But in the long yardage situation… we need to get rid of the ball and just give up on the play because it’s not happening, and not take an additional pressure."
Carroll would prefer Wilson throw an incomplete pass rather than extend plays and welcome the pass rush in some situations. On the other hand, the quarterback's willingness to make something out of nothing may give Seattle's offense its best chance to produce.
Since wideout Doug Baldwin retired, Wilson will work with a group of understated wide receivers, including second-rounder DK Metcalf and fourth-rounder Gary Jennings. The Seahawks signal-caller may need extra time to find his targets not named Tyler Lockett.
As Wilson develops a rapport with his receiving group, he'll need as much time as possible to push the ball downfield.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers: An Unsettled Cornerback Group
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers have a mix of question marks in the secondary. Head coach Bruce Arians praised the group for a strong showing during the spring and made a bold statement about a largely unproven unit.
"With Carlton [Davis] and Vernon [Hargreaves III], we knew we had two solid corners, now we've got five solid corners," Arians said. "I think Ryan [Smith] came a long way. So, yeah, I think—earmarked as a problem set back in January, that's totally fixed."
Davis had a decent season in 2018, logging 36 solo tackles and four pass breakups in 13 contests, which included 12 starts. He'll likely retain his starting role but needs to make more impact plays.
Hargreaves hasn't shown much in three seasons, although he's missed 22 games over the last two campaigns because of injuries. He's recorded 15 pass breakups and an interception in 26 career outings.
Arians highlighted Smith's progression, but he'll begin the season with a four-game suspension for violating the league's performance-enhancing drug policy. His absence will likely create an opportunity for a rookie to start the season in a prominent role, as he played 40.02 percent of the defensive snaps last year.
The Buccaneers selected Sean Murphy-Bunting and Jamel Dean in the second and third rounds, respectively. Both come into the league with upside, but they'll have to show their potential on the field before the coaching staff can feel comfortable about the secondary.
Tennessee Titans: Pairing Marcus Mariota with His 4th Offensive Coordinator
According to Paul Kuharsky of The Midday 180, quarterback Marcus Mariota added 12-13 pounds to his lean frame during the offseason. He'll need to grow accustomed to the extra bulk, but he's also going through another transition in the coaching ranks.
Matt LaFleur, who called plays for the Titans last year, took over as the Packers' head coach this offseason. In LaFleur's place Tennessee promoted tight ends coordinator Arthur Smith to offensive coordinator.
Headed into a contract year, Mariota must adjust to yet another new philosophy. However, head coach Mike Vrabel insists the in-house hire maintains continuity from last year, per Jim Wyatt of TitansOnline.com.
"The terminology is going to remain consistent, and in order for players to improve and develop, they can’t spend a whole bunch of time learning. Even though the formation is going to be the same, the terminology may have changed, and it’s not going to change. When they hear a formation (this offseason), it’s going to be the same one they learned last April and that we used throughout the season."
The Titans' decision to limit tweaks to the offense may bode well for offensive chemistry and development, but they must account for the additions of wideouts Adam Humphries and rookie second-rounder A.J. Brown.
Mariota has to nail down the timing with those two, both of whom could play major roles, and Smith must teach Mariota and Co. his terminology that isn't already familiar.
Washington Redskins: The Veteran Options at Quarterback
Washington head coach Jay Gruden should have major concerns about the quarterback position.
In the best-case scenario, rookie Dwayne Haskins will win the contested battle outright this summer. If Case Keenum or Colt McCoy start throughout the 2019 campaign, Gruden would likely lose his job.
Denver traded Keenum after his lackluster 2018 season, during which he tossed 18 touchdowns and 15 interceptions. McCoy, who has 29 touchdown passes and 26 picks with a 60.5 percent completion rate across his nine-year NFL career, hasn't been a regular starter since 2011.
Washington selected Haskins with the No. 15 overall pick in this year's draft, but he isn't a shoo-in to start after commanding the huddle for only one year at Ohio State. If the 22-year-old hits rough patches through the preseason, Gruden will have to go with a placeholder until Haskins adjusts to pro-level competition.
Gruden doesn't have a whole season to wait for Haskins' ascension into the starter role, though. He's going into his sixth year in Washington without a playoff win and has a 35-44-1 record.
Running backs Adrian Peterson, Derrius Guice and Chris Thompson may form a strong trio in the backfield, but the Redskins won't win many games if they're unable to push the ball downfield. Keenum (6.9) and McCoy (6.6) have averaged fewer than seven yards per pass attempt in their respective careers.