Reality Check or Surprise Success for Every NFL Team's Biggest Mystery This Year

Maurice Moton@@MoeMotonFeatured ColumnistDecember 21, 2019

Reality Check or Surprise Success for Every NFL Team's Biggest Mystery This Year

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    Patrick Smith/Getty Images

    During the course of a season, we don't see all of the good and bad parts of a football team featured on the big screen.

    A defensive tackle may have developed into a consistent playmaker after a few nondescript years. Or a position group will strength in one area but demonstrate a fatal flaw in another aspect of the game. 

    After 15 weeks, let's put a magnifying glass on each club. Where are the overachievers and disappointments? Which position groups haven't pulled their weight this season? Did a player or unit develop a lot more quickly than expected?

    We'll take a closer look at all 32 teams and unveil a pleasant personnel surprise or unflattering truth for each club in 2019.

        

Arizona Cardinals: DT Rodney Gunter Shines in Consecutive Seasons

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    Arizona Cardinals defensive tackle Rodney Gunter
    Arizona Cardinals defensive tackle Rodney GunterAssociated Press

    Aside from star defensive tackles like Aaron Donald and Fletcher Cox, we don't hear a lot about the interior big men who battle in the trenches every week. Without a high sack count, a 300-pounder is just another player on the front line.

    After a standout 2018 campaign, the free-agent market dealt that cold reality to Rodney Gunter. He recorded 44 tackles, 11 for loss, 4.5 sacks, two forced fumbles and a pass breakup but didn't generate a lot of interest during the last offseason, per Kyle Odegard of the Arizona Cardinals' official website.

    "We thought he had a tremendous season last year," Cardinals head coach Kliff Kingsbury said. "I wasn't here, but obviously watching the film. It didn't, I guess, go the way he wanted in free agency, but he's a tremendous player, a great person and a great teammate. We were thrilled to death to get him back."

    The Cardinals selected Gunter in the fourth round of the 2015 draft, but he didn't flash until 2018, which likely limited his stock despite a strong contract year.

    In 2019, Gunter put together another solid performance before landing on injured reserve with a toe injury, recording 31 tackles, a team-high nine takedowns for loss and three sacks.

    Only on a one-year deal, Gunter will take another crack at free agency in March. Now with consecutive productive campaigns, the imposing defensive lineman could have more suitors on the open market.

Atlanta Falcons: Offensive Line Additions Lead to Growing Pains

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    Atlanta Falcons offensive tackle Kaleb McGary
    Atlanta Falcons offensive tackle Kaleb McGaryJonathan Bachman/Getty Images

    Atlanta Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff made a concerted effort to improve the offensive line through free agency and the draft, but the group has underperformed throughout the year.

    This season, the Falcons haven't run the ball effectively, fielding the 30th-ranked rushing offense. According to Football Outsiders, the unit lists 27th in run-blocking adjusted line yards (3.8), which indicates a meager push to open running lanes. 

    We can excuse rookie guard Chris Lindstrom, who broke his foot in the season opener and has made just three starts. On the other hand, fellow first-year offensive lineman Kaleb McGary has struggled on the field, surrendering 7.5 sacks, per Washington Post's STATs.

    The Falcons signed ninth-year guard James Carpenter to solidify the left guard position, but he's been a lukewarm acquisition, per Dave Choate of The Falcoholic, who wrote, "James Carpenter needs to prove he can be better than a mediocre starting guard to keep his job next year, given that it’s relatively easy to escape his contract."

    Left tackle Jake Matthews also took a step backward after a Pro Bowl campaign, allowing 5.5 sacks so far in 2019 compared to 2.5 all of last year, per Washington Post's STATs.

    Atlanta needs to show patience with its rookies, but the front office signed Matthews to a five-year, $72.5 million extension last year, and Carpenter still has three years on his deal. 

    Lindstrom and McGary could see notable growth next year while Matthews bounces back from a down season, but the Falcons can't feel good about the initial return on their recent investments in the offensive line.

Baltimore Ravens: QB Lamar Jackson's Rise to MVP Front-Runner

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    Baltimore Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson
    Baltimore Ravens quarterback Lamar JacksonScott Taetsch/Getty Images

    Coming into the league, Lamar Jackson had both vocal critics and avid supporters, but forecasters on either side couldn't have envisioned the second-year signal-caller's sudden rise into the MVP spotlight.

    Almost 11 months ago, Baltimore Ravens fans at M&T Bank Stadium booed Jackson as he struggled to throw for 194 yards with a 48.3 percent completion rate. Looking back to the offseason, the 22-year-old had some uneven practices, specifically during passing drills.

    Now, Jackson leads the league in touchdown passes (33). He's a human highlight reel with the ball and owns the record for most rushing yards in a single season among quarterbacks (1,103). 

    Jackson was the last of five signal-callers picked in the first round of the 2018 draft. He also logged the fewest rookie starts within that group. Now, he shines as the current best of the bunch.

    The Ravens have more than just a building block under center. They have a shining star who took the league by storm this season.

Buffalo Bills: Linebacker Group Shows Elite Coverage Ability

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    Buffalo Bills linebacker Tremaine Edmunds
    Buffalo Bills linebacker Tremaine EdmundsWesley Hitt/Getty Images

    When we see the statistics for a stingy pass defense on paper, it's common to think about the secondary. The Buffalo Bills have a star cornerback in Tre'Davious White, who's logged six interceptions and 17 pass deflections, but the linebacker unit has been a major contributor to the team's top-notch coverage. 

    As more offensive coordinators try to expose coverage weaknesses in the middle of the field with pass-catching running backs and tight ends, linebackers must be equipped with the coverage skills needed to stay on the field against spread offenses.

    Bills linebackers Tremaine Edmunds, Matt Milano and Lorenzo Alexander are solid tacklers, but more importantly, they can cover the field on all three downs. The trio has logged a combined 27 pass deflections for the season.

    This year, Alexander saw a slight dip in overall defensive snaps, but he's one pass breakup away from a season high (10). Edmunds and Milano have 1.5 sacks apiece, and the former leads his team in total takedowns (104).

Carolina Panthers: Pass Rush Shows Significant Improvement

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    Carolina Panthers defensive tackle Vernon Butler
    Carolina Panthers defensive tackle Vernon ButlerTodd Kirkland/Getty Images

    After a Week 13 loss to the Washington Redskins, the Carolina Panthers fired head coach Ron Rivera, but he and his coaching staff deserve credit for re-energizing the pass rush.

    In 2018, the Panthers ranked 27th in sacks (35). This year, their defense is tied for first with the Pittsburgh Steelers (49).

    Bruce Irvin (6.5), Gerald McCoy (5.0) and rookie first-rounder Brian Burns (5.5) have all been solid additions to the front seven, logging a combined 17 sacks. Vernon Butler, a 2016 first-rounder, finally flashed his potential with six sacks after recording two in his first three seasons.

    The Panthers need more discipline against the run (ranked 30th), but the defensive line brings enough pocket pressure to put quarterbacks on high alert. The club elevated its pass rush from the bottom to one of the best leaguewide in one season. More impressively, it made those strides while implementing more 3-4 hybrid looks.

    Panthers sack leader Mario Addison, McCoy, Irvin and Butler will become free agents next year. The front office should attempt to retain at least two of them to maintain the pass-rushing production in 2020 and beyond.

Chicago Bears: Tight End Group Disappoints in Passing Game

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    Chicago Bears tight end Trey Burton
    Chicago Bears tight end Trey BurtonJack Dempsey/Associated Press

    An athletic tight end who can run the field and shake off defenders can elevate a quarterback's play in the pocket. When under duress, the signal-caller can toss the ball to a big target who's able to haul in contested passes with a wide-ranging catch radius. 

    In 2018, tight end Trey Burton recorded career highs in receptions (54), yards (569) and touchdowns (six) in his first year with the Chicago Bears. This season, he's battled groin and calf injuries. The sixth-year veteran landed on injured reserve after Week 10. When healthy, he was a non-factor in the passing game, logging 14 catches for 84 yards on 24 targets.

    The Bears selected Adam Shaheen in the second round of the 2017 draft. He flashed as a red-zone target during his rookie term, but the 25-year-old has struggled with injuries over the last two campaigns and landed on injured reserve with a foot injury in November. In eight appearances, he caught nine passes for 74 yards.

    General manager Ryan Pace can't be happy with his recent investments at tight end. Furthermore, none of the players at the position has eclipsed 100 receiving yards for the season.

Cincinnati Bengals: Talented Defense Underachieves

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    Cincinnati Bengals defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo
    Cincinnati Bengals defensive coordinator Lou AnarumoAbbie Parr/Getty Images

    The Cincinnati Bengals field a defensive line that features two-time Pro Bowler Carlos Dunlap, two-time first-team All-Pro Geno Atkins and a budding second-year talent in Sam Hubbard who's logged 63 tackles, eight tackles for loss and six sacks. 

    In the secondary, safety Jessie Bates III has displayed his ball-hawking skills, recording three interceptions and eight pass deflections, leading the team in both categories. Shawn Williams continues to put together solid performances as a reliable tackler with a club-best 68 solo takedowns. 

    Despite the quality talent on defense, specifically on the front and back ends, the Bengals field one of the worst units in the league, ranking last in run defense (158 yards allowed per game), 31st in sacks (23) and 24th in points allowed (25.6 per contest). 

    Play-caller Lou Anarumo will likely have another chance to turn the defense around, but he needs to see more production out of a group that's filled with playmakers.

Cleveland Browns: QB Baker Mayfield Regresses in Sophomore Season

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    Cleveland Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield
    Cleveland Browns quarterback Baker MayfieldRick Scuteri/Associated Press

    The Cleveland Browns have the pieces for a top-10 offense.

    Running back Nick Chubb leads the league in rushing yards (1,408). In March, general manager John Dorsey executed a deal to acquire three-time Pro Bowl wideout Odell Beckham Jr.

    Beckham lines up opposite Jarvis Landry, who recorded at least 81 catches in each of his first five seasons. Kareem Hunt has 387 yards and three touchdowns from scrimmage in six games (two starts).

    After a strong finish to the 2018 campaign, quarterback Baker Mayfield should've shown more promise in his second year. Instead, the Browns field a mediocre passing attack that ranks 19th in yards (223.6 per game). 

    Head coach Freddie Kitchens has called the plays for consecutive years, now with upgraded talent, but Mayfield's completion percentage (60.1), quarterback rating (78.7) and QBR (48.2) have all dropped in 2019. He's thrown for 17 touchdowns and 17 interceptions. 

    The offensive line doesn't deserve all of the blame. The five-man group ranks 14th in pass protection, per Football Outsiders, and Mayfield has only been sacked once for four of his last five outings. 

    The Browns shouldn't lose faith in Mayfield, who's flashed his potential, but the coaching staff must figure out how to optimize his skill set to make use of the talent around him.

    According to Fox Sports' Jay Glazer, Beckham wants out of Cleveland, but the wideout said, "I'm not going anywhere," during a media presser Wednesday.

    Regardless of Beckham's status, Landry, Chubb and tight end David Njoku (who's only played three games this year because of injury) can all spark the passing attack. Mayfield should have the assets to bounce back next season.

Dallas Cowboys: TE Jason Witten Remains Viable in Passing Attack

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    Dallas Cowboys tight end Jason Witten
    Dallas Cowboys tight end Jason WittenWesley Hitt/Getty Images

    In 2018, Jason Witten retired and went into the Monday Night Football booth. After one year as a play-by-play commentator, he returned to the field.

    At 37 years old, Witten may have been viewed as a veteran presence to mentor the young talent at the position. The Dallas Cowboys selected Dalton Schultz in the fourth round of the 2018 draft. Blake Jarwin showed promise last year, logging 27 receptions for 307 yards and three touchdowns. 

    Nevertheless, Witten didn't come back to just offer vocal support. He's played the majority of the offensive snaps at the position (75.8 percent) and posted solid numbers. The savvy tight end is second on the team in receptions (57) and touchdown catches (four). 

    Dak Prescott has season highs in passing yards (4,334) and touchdowns (26). The wide receiver group led by Amari Cooper garners a lot of credit for the quarterback's gaudy numbers, but don't forget Witten's contributions. At the tail end of his career after a season away, he's still a key cog in the offense.

Denver Broncos: Alexander Johnson Flourishes in Starting Linebacker Role

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    Denver Broncos linebacker Alexander Johnson
    Denver Broncos linebacker Alexander JohnsonReed Hoffmann/Associated Press

    The Denver Broncos opened the 2019 campaign with Todd Davis and Josey Jewell at inside linebacker. The front office signed the former to a three-year extension, while the latter had more to prove going into his sophomore campaign.

    Jewell started the first three games, and Alexander Johnson took over in Week 5. 

    Johnson went undrafted in 2015 after a woman said he and another Tennessee football player raped her in November 2014. He was acquitted of aggravated rape by a Knoxville jury in 2018 before eventually signing with the Broncos.

    This year, he's logged 80 tackles, five tackles for loss, 1.5 sacks and one interception.

    Jewell isn't likely to challenge Alexander for the first-string job going forward. The Broncos found their starting inside linebacker, and he's equipped to handle run and pass situations, shoring up the middle of the defense.

Detroit Lions: Defense Takes a Step Back

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    Detroit Lions defensive end Romeo Okwara
    Detroit Lions defensive end Romeo OkwaraRick Osentoski/Associated Press

    Matt Patricia served as the defensive coordinator for the New England Patriots from 2012-17. Through that run, his units ranked in the top 10 in scoring, while two were in the top 10 for yards allowed.

    According to MLive.com's Kyle Meinke, Patricia now has a say in Detroit's defensive play-calling, but Paul Pasqualoni may still have involvement as the coordinator. The Lions rank 26th in scoring defense, giving up 26.6 points per game, and allow the second-most yards with 401.9 per contest.

    Last year, they were 11th in sacks and allowed the 10-fewest yards per game. The front office added cornerbacks Justin Coleman and Rashaan Melvin as well as defensive end Trey Flowers during free agency. 

    General manager Bob Quinn selected linebacker Jahlani Tavai (second round), safety Will Harris (third round) and defensive end Austin Bryant (fourth round) in this year's draft. 

    Among the three rookies, Tavai has provided the most impact with 54 tackles, five tackles for loss, two sacks, two pass breakups and an interception. Harris saw a recent uptick in defensive snaps after the team traded versatile defensive back Quandre Diggs to the Seattle Seahawks. Bryant started the year on injured reserve (pectoral) and battled a hip injury, appearing in two games. 

    Despite the veteran and rookie help, the Lions haven't been able to build upon last year's decent defensive showing. That's a bit troubling with the notable acquisitions on all three levels of the unit.

Green Bay Packers: LG Elgton Jenkins' Emergence in Starting Role

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    Green Bay Packers left guard Elgton Jenkins
    Green Bay Packers left guard Elgton JenkinsStacy Revere/Getty Images

    If guards and tackles received serious consideration for Offensive Rookie of the Year, Elgton Jenkins would come up in discussions for the honor. He's only allowed one sack, per the Washington Post's STATs, and plays a role in opening up running lanes for the ground attack.

    ESPN's Jeff Legwold ranked Jenkins ninth in his top-10 rookie rankings, further highlighting the guard's pass protection on the interior.

    "Jenkins has played every snap in the past 10 games and has not allowed a sack in a one-on-one situation since he entered the starting lineup," Legwold wrote at the beginning of the month. "He's part of the reason quarterback Aaron Rodgers is having one of the cleanest seasons of his career." 

    NFL.com's Chris Wesseling put together his 2019 All-Rookie team and also credited Jenkins for Rodgers' clean pocket.

    "While former All-Pro David Bakhtiari has mixed in a few clunkers this season, Jenkins is a rock in pass protection," he wrote.

    After Week 2, left guard Lane Taylor went on injured reserve with a biceps injury. He started 47 contests at the position between 2016 and 2019, but Jenkins has played well enough to hold on to the first-string spot.

Houston Texans: Max Scharping Claims Left Guard Spot

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    Houston Texans left guard Max Scharping
    Houston Texans left guard Max ScharpingMichael Hickey/Getty Images

    After quarterback Deshaun Watson took a league-high 62 sacks last year, the Houston Texans desperately needed upgrades across the offensive line. The front office selected Tytus Howard and Max Scharping in the first and second rounds, respectively.

    According to Pro Football Focus (h/t Ari Alexander of KPRC 2 Houston), Scharping shone in Week 12 against the Indianapolis Colts.

    "Rookie left guard Max Scharping, a second-round pick, had his best pass-blocking game of the season, scoring an 88.3. He's been strong in pass-block all year," Alexander wrote. 

    Scharping's ability to man the left guard spot comes as a surprise because he spent most of his collegiate career at left and right tackle. He only played four games on the interior as a redshirt freshman. 

    He may give up a little too much ground to powerful defensive tackles, but he'll adjust with on-the-job development. Expect the rookie to hold on to his starting spot at left guard. 

Indianapolis Colts: Passing Attack Desperately Needs Wide Receiver Help

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    Indianapolis Colts wide receiver Zach Pascal
    Indianapolis Colts wide receiver Zach PascalJonathan Bachman/Getty Images

    For most of T.Y. Hilton's career, he's been healthy, missing just four games in his first seven seasons. This year, we found out how badly the Indianapolis Colts need established depth behind him.

    Hilton missed six games because of quad and calf injuries, leaving quarterback Jacoby Brissett with limited downfield options. General manager Chris Ballard signed Devin Funchess to a one-year, $10 million deal in March, but the fifth-year wideout broke his collarbone in the season opener. 

    Rookie second-rounder Parris Campbell logged 18 receptions for 127 yards and a touchdown in seven outings but couldn't stay healthy. The Ohio State product suffered a fractured hand and a broken foot. Chester Rogers registered 16 catches for 179 yards and two scores, but he landed on injured reserve with a fractured knee after Week 13.

    The Colts didn't see much consistency from their young wideouts. Zach Pascal leads the team in receiving yards (547), but he's logged more than two catches in only six of 14 appearances. 

    In the offseason, Ballard should sign multiple veteran wide receivers to bolster the group and provide adequate help for the aerial attack.

Jacksonville Jaguars: Aggressive Defensive Line Struggles Against Ground Attacks

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    Jacksonville Jaguars defensive end Calais Campbell and cornerback Tre Herndon trying to close the gap on a run play.
    Jacksonville Jaguars defensive end Calais Campbell and cornerback Tre Herndon trying to close the gap on a run play.Phelan M. Ebenhack/Associated Press

    We often hear about the Jacksonville Jaguars defensive line destroying quarterbacks. Calais Campbell and Yannick Ngakoue became key cogs in the group's relentless pocket pressure. Rookie first-rounder Josh Allen, who leads the team in sacks (10), has joined the frenzy in Sacksonville.

    On the flip side, with the attention on the quarterback uncertainty surrounding Nick Foles—who was benched for rookie sixth-rounder Gardner Minshew II—we've overlooked the atrocious run defense. 

    Between Weeks 9-14, the Jaguars allowed 195-plus rushing yards in four of their five outings. During a media presser, defensive coordinator Todd Wash explained the issue after the Colts trampled his unit for 264 rushing yards. 

    "It's kind of not the same style of runs, but these misdirection things that are giving us some issues, and that's a big point of emphasis this week going into Tennessee," he said.

    Apparently, the Jaguars' aggressive approach has worked against them. Their opponents have tested the front's discipline with disguise and deception. Despite Wash's ability to pinpoint the problem, Jacksonville surrendered 219 rushing yards to the Tennessee Titans in the following contest.

    Perhaps the Jaguars can patch up their 29th-ranked run defense with a healthy linebacker corps next year. Myles Jack (knee), Jake Ryan (hamstring) and Najee Goode (knee) are all on injured reserve.

Kansas City Chiefs: Dave Merritt, Sam Madison Fast-Track New Secondary

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    Kansas City Chiefs cornerback Charvarius Ward
    Kansas City Chiefs cornerback Charvarius WardJustin Edmonds/Getty Images

    The Kansas City Chiefs field a solid secondary that's mixed with young upstart talent and established veterans. Last year, Charvarius Ward played 12 percent of defensive snaps. Now, he's a full-time starter on the perimeter, tallying a team-leading nine pass deflections and two interceptions. 

    Rookie safety Juan Thornhill has shown the ball-tracking skills that pushed him into the second round of this year's draft, logging three picks and five pass breakups.

    Safety Tyrann Mathieu and cornerback Bashaud Breeland have been solid additions to the defense, combining for 17 pass deflections and five interceptions.

    Play-caller Steve Spagnuolo acknowledged defensive backs coaches Dave Merritt and Sam Madison had an impact on the group, per the Kansas City Star's Sam McDowell

    "I give credit to Dave Merritt and Sam Madison for the job they’ve done back there," he said last month. "I credit those guys and the leaders."

    After the 2018 campaign, the Chiefs had to revamp their 31st-ranked pass defense. General manager Brett Veach inked Mathieu to a three-year, $42 million pact, added Breeland as a bargain-bin signing for $2 million and left it to the coaching staff to develop Ward and integrate Thornhill into the mix.

    Thus far, Merritt and Madison have done a good job with the unit. Kansas City ranks 11th in passing yards allowed—a significant improvement from last year.

Los Angeles Chargers: Philip Rivers' Sharp Decline

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    Los Angeles Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers
    Los Angeles Chargers quarterback Philip RiversJayne Kamin-Oncea/Getty Images

    Some players decline steadily, and others fall hard. Quarterback Philip Rivers doesn't quite fall into the latter category, but he's close.

    After three consecutive Pro Bowl campaigns in which he had at least 28 passing touchdowns, Rivers isn't likely to receive that honor with 21 scores and 18 interceptions in 2019.

    The 16th-year veteran has become a turnover machine, throwing for seven touchdowns and eight picks over the last four outings. The Chargers pondered benching him if his play didn't improve, per NFL Network's Ian Rapoport.

    In recent years, many have penciled L.A. into the playoffs—probably because of Rivers' steady production and sound decisions in the pocket. With his interceptions up and his slight dip in accuracy, Rivers isn't a lock to return as the starter.

    The 38-year-old still has more left in the tank, but the Chargers have to weigh their options with the quarterback coming off one of his worst seasons on an expiring deal.

Los Angeles Rams: OT Bobby Evans' Emergence in Starting Role

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    Los Angeles Rams offensive tackle Bobby Evans
    Los Angeles Rams offensive tackle Bobby EvansJayne Kamin-Oncea/Getty Images

    Initially, the Los Angeles Rams had an issue at right tackle with Rob Havenstein's early-season struggles prior to a meniscus injury, which cost him five games.

    Now, they may have flexibility because of Bobby Evans' solid career start on the right side and collegiate experience on the left.

    "I would say I feel smoother pass setting at left, but I feel stronger on the right, you know what I'm saying?" Evans said, per the Associated Press (via USA Today).     

    Head coach Sean McVay seems to be pleased with the rookie third-rounder's performances in place of Havenstein.

    "I've been really impressed with him—you look at some of the players that he's gone against, the caliber of big-time guys and the way that he's been able to perform," McVay said, per the AP. 

    Left tackle Andrew Whitworth's contract expires at the end of the season, and he turned 38 in December. The Rams don't have to bench Havenstein, who signed a four-year extension last year. They can slide Evans over to Jared Goff's blind side to strengthen pocket protection.

    The rookie could also help the ground attack, which featured Todd Gurley II and the top run-blocking offensive line last year, per Football Outsiders. While it's easy to highlight Gurley's average box-score numbers (741 rushing yards on 188 carries), the Rams' five-man unit dropped from first to 15th in adjusted line yards in 2019.

Miami Dolphins: CB Nik Needham Goes from Undrafted to Productive Starter

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    Miami Dolphins cornerback Nik Needham
    Miami Dolphins cornerback Nik NeedhamSarah Stier/Getty Images

    This year, Nik Needham experienced a career roller-coaster ride. He went undrafted out of UTEP. The Miami Dolphins waived him with the final roster cuts but re-signed him to the practice squad. Once the team promoted him to the 53-man lineup, he made the most of his opportunity. 

    The 23-year-old defensive back has started nine out of his 10 contests and leads the team in pass deflections (10) with 45 tackles, a sack and two interceptions. Through 11 weeks, Pro Football Focus graded him the fifth-best rookie. 

    Needham's development comes as a pleasant surprise for a secondary that lost multiple cornerbacks because of injury. Xavien Howard (knee), Bobby McCain (shoulder) and Cordrea Tankersley (torn ACL) are all out with season-ending ailments. 

    If Needham continues to progress, the Dolphins will have a formidable group ready to challenge passing attacks next year.

Minnesota Vikings: Gary Kubiak and Rick Dennison Immediately Transform Offense

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    Minnesota Vikings running back Dalvin Cook
    Minnesota Vikings running back Dalvin CookStephen Maturen/Getty Images

    Offensive adviser Gary Kubiak can share some credit for his impact on the Minnesota Vikings ground attack, even though Rick Dennison isn't a name that comes up in discussions about brilliant minds in the league.

    Dennison worked with Kubiak in Denver (1995-2005 and 2015-16), Houston (2010-13) and Baltimore (2014). At every stop, they've fielded a top-10 rushing offense. In 2019, the pair may have done their best work. 

    In 2018, offensive line coach Tony Sparano died unexpectedly before training camp. The unit struggled to open running lanes through that campaign.

    This year, Dennison took over as the offensive line coach and running game coordinator. He flipped last year's group that ranked 23rd in run-blocking adjusted line yards (4.09) into the fifth-best unit (4.61), per Football Outsiders.

    Kubiak and Dennison have successfully transitioned the Vikings from a pass-heavy offense to an effective, balanced operation.

    Of course, a healthy Dalvin Cook and rookie third-rounder Alexander Mattison contributed, recording a combined 1,597 yards and 14 touchdowns. The former could miss his first game against the Packers on Monday because of a shoulder injury, per ESPN's Adam Schefter.

New England Patriots: Ground Attack Shows Sharp Regression

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    New England Patriots running back Sony Michel
    New England Patriots running back Sony MichelSteven Ryan/Getty Images

    Last year, the New England Patriots bludgeoned opponents on the ground with their fifth-ranked rushing attack, which featured running back Sony Michel. He missed three games with a knee injury but finished with 931 yards and six touchdowns as a ball-carrier.

    During the 2019 postseason, Michel recorded 336 rushing yards and six touchdowns as a key component to the offense, propelling the Patriots to another Super Bowl victory.

    Based on his impressive rookie campaign, he seemed primed to take another step this season. New England also has James White, Rex Burkhead and rookie third-rounder Damien Harris to maintain a strong, versatile ground attack. Despite the Patriots' backfield assets, they've struggled to run the ball with consistency.

    The rushing offense is 19th leaguewide, and Michel averages 3.6 yards per carry (almost a full yard less than last year). Harris has been a healthy scratch and was recently sidelined with a hamstring injury. He's recorded four rushing attempts for 12 yards. Quarterback Tom Brady has the same number of rushing touchdowns (three) as White and Burkhead combined.

    We can point to changes along the offensive line for the ills of the ground attack. Left tackle Isaiah Wynn has only played six games because of turf toe. Center David Andrews went on season-ending injured reserve before the regular season because of blood clots in his lungs.

    The Patriots usually figure out how to compensate for their injuries and shortcomings during the season. This year, the coaching staff hasn't found the answer to jump-start its ground attack.

New Orleans Saints: DB Chauncey Gardner-Johnson Shines as Versatile Playmaker

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    New Orleans Saints defensive back Chauncey Gardner-Johnson
    New Orleans Saints defensive back Chauncey Gardner-JohnsonJonathan Bachman/Getty Images

    The New Orleans Saints came into the season with two veterans capable of starting at slot cornerback: Patrick Robinson and P.J. Williams. During this year's draft, the front office added Chauncey Gardner-Johnson, a versatile player who can line up as the nickelback and at safety.

    Gardner-Johnson doesn't have a set position, but he's made an impact all over the field, playing most of his snaps in the slot. The fourth-rounder started his first two games in Weeks 7 and 8 in place of Williams, who served a two-game suspension for violating the league's policy and program on substances of abuse, and recorded 10 solo tackles, three tackles for loss and four pass breakups.

    Despite Williams' return, the Saints continued to use Gardner-Johnson to cover the seam areas, supplement the run defense and for occasional blitzes. He's registered 36 tackles, eight pass deflections and an interception this season. 

    The Saints can comfortably move on from Williams, who's on an expiring contract, and start Gardner-Johnson in the slot next year.

New York Giants: WR Darius Slayton Shows Promising Flashes

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    New York Giants wide receiver Darius Slayton
    New York Giants wide receiver Darius SlaytonEmilee Chinn/Getty Images

    During the offseason, the New York Giants signed Golden Tate to a four-year deal and inked Sterling Shepard to an extension of the same length. Both wide receivers were projected to serve as the one-two combination in the aerial attack for years to come.

    The Giants may have a formidable trio. Rookie fifth-rounder Darius Slayton has turned heads this season, eclipsing 120 receiving yards with a pair of touchdowns in two outings. He leads the team with 690 yards through the air and eight touchdowns. The Auburn product ranks fourth and first in those respective categories among rookie wideouts. 

    Tate, Shepard and tight end Evan Engram have missed games this season, but a healthy pass-catching corps could spell trouble for Big Blue's opponents. 

    Quarterback Daniel Jones showed glimpses of his potential before he suffered a high ankle sprain. The rookie first-rounder has three 300-yard passing games in 10 starts.

    With Slayton rounding out a strong collection of pass-catching talent, the Giants offense could see improvements in leaps and bounds next season.

New York Jets: Subpar Offensive Line Saps Production

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    New York Jets tackle Kelvin Beachum
    New York Jets tackle Kelvin BeachumWill Newton/Getty Images

    Prognosticators picked the New York Jets as the team to challenge New England for the AFC East crown.

    No one could've predicted quarterback Sam Darnold would miss three games with mononucleosis, but we didn't pay enough attention to Gang Green's offensive line, which was coming off a below-average year.

    According to Football Outsiders, the Jets' five-man groups ranked last in run-blocking adjusted line yards (3.59) and 18th in pass blocking last season. In 2019, the unit is 25th (3.85) and 30th in those respective categories.

    Before you ask why Darnold is so inconsistent or what's wrong with running back Le'Veon Bell—who's averaging career lows in yards per carry (3.3) and yards per touch (4.1)—take a look at what's going on in the trenches.

    Offensive tackles Kelvin Beachum (four), Brandon Shell (five) and rookie Chuma Edoga (six) have surrendered a combined 15 sacks, per the Washington Post's STATs. The Jets placed Edoga on injured reserve with Grade 2 MCL sprain.

    Center Ryan Kalil came out of retirement, struggled through seven starts and landed on injured reserve with a knee ailment. The Jets traded for guard Kelechi Osemele in March, but he appeared in just three contests and had differences with the team concerning his shoulder injury before the front office released him.

    Fellow interior lineman Brian Winters dislocated his shoulder in Week 10. The team immediately moved him to injured reserve.

    If general manager Joe Douglas allows Edoga to play through his growing pains and Winters remains with the club for the final year of his deal, the Jets will still need three new starting offensive linemen in 2020.

Oakland Raiders: Jon Gruden Struggles with Game-Plan Adjustments

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    Oakland Raiders head coach Jon Gruden
    Oakland Raiders head coach Jon GrudenD. Ross Cameron/Associated Press

    Oakland Raiders head coach Jon Gruden has built a reputation as a sagacious offensive mind and quarterback guru. He calls the shots for his squad.

    Through the first half of the season, Gruden garnered praise for the Raiders' offensive production. The Silver and Black scored 24-plus points in seven of their first nine outings. After Week 10, the club hasn't put more than 21 points on the scoreboard in any contest.

    Teams have successfully countered the Raiders offense through in-game adjustments. According to Team Rankings, Oakland ranks eighth in first-half scoring (12.9 points per game) and 30th in second-half points (6.6 per game). That's a sign of a play-caller who struggles to fine-tune his scheme in the middle of games.

    Following a 42-21 loss to the Tennessee Titans—a game that was tied after two quartersGruden acknowledged his team's subpar play coming out of halftime during a news conference.

    "It's the easy thing to say is the adjustments, and I'm the guy making the adjustments," Gruden said. "... I don't know what we're drinking or what we're eating at halftime or what we're saying, but we gotta do a better job."

    The Raiders' inability to adjust came to the forefront last week. They led the Jaguars 16-3 going into the third quarter, and the offense failed to score in the second half. The team collapsed, losing 20-16 in its final game in Oakland.

Philadelphia Eagles: Carson Wentz and Alshon Jeffery Have Inconsistent Rapport

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    Philadelphia Eagles wide receiver Alshon Jeffery (left) and quarterback Carson Wentz
    Philadelphia Eagles wide receiver Alshon Jeffery (left) and quarterback Carson WentzAssociated Press

    The rapport between quarterback Carson Wentz and Alshon Jeffery seems hit-or-miss. You have to do a deep dive into the numbers to uncover this truth.

    With Wentz healthy this season, Jeffery had an uninspiring year before he suffered a Lisfranc injury that landed him on injured reserve last week.

    Jeffery will finish the term with a career-low 11.4 yards per reception and a 58.9 percent catch rate. This isn't an isolated down year or a blip on the radar.

    In 2017, with Wentz playing at a Pro Bowl level for 13 games, Jeffery logged a 47.5 percent catch rate. He saw enough volume (120 targets) to mask his inefficiencies and finished with 57 receptions for 789 yards and nine touchdowns.

    When Nick Foles took over for Wentz at the end of the 2017 campaign and the Philadelphia Eagles completed a successful playoff run, Jeffery secured passes at a better rate. He converted 18 targets into 12 receptions for 219 yards and three touchdowns in three postseason outings.

    Last season, Jeffery recorded a career-high 70.7 percent catch rate. Foles started three of those games (Weeks 15-17) and helped the wideout record his best outing—eight receptions for 160 yards in Week 15. During that span, Jeffery got 18 targets and made 16 catches, 301 yards and a touchdown.

    Though Jeffery and Wentz had some bright spots over the last three seasons, the wideout isn't producing at the level of a high-end No. 1 wide receiver. Furthermore, he's oftentimes inconsistent with the franchise quarterback. Finally, his touchdown totals have dropped every year since 2017.

Pittsburgh Steelers: WR James Washington Shines Despite Offensive Instability

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    Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver James Washington
    Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver James WashingtonGene J. Puskar/Associated Press

    Just before the season, the Steelers traded Antonio Brown to the Raiders, which put pressure on the secondary wide receivers, especially JuJu Smith-Schuster.

    After Week 2, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger went on injured reserve with an elbow injury. Smith-Schuster has had various nicks and bruises with a toe, knee and head (concussion) ailments.

    The Steelers switched quarterbacks, benching Mason Rudolph for undrafted rookie Devlin Hodges. Pittsburgh's ground attack ranks 26th, and running back James Conner has suited up for only nine games because of a nagging shoulder injury.

    Yet, despite the moving parts around him, James Washington has found his groove within offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner's scheme. He's picked up steam, registering 29 receptions for 533 yards and three touchdowns since Week 9. The 23-year-old leads the team in receiving yards (694).

    If Washington can beat defenses with an undrafted rookie under center, he should take another step when Roethlisberger returns in 2020.

San Francisco 49ers: RB Raheem Mostert Emerging as Lead Ball-Carrier

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    San Francisco 49ers running back Raheem Mostert
    San Francisco 49ers running back Raheem MostertBrett Duke/Associated Press

    The San Francisco 49ers signed running back Tevin Coleman, who's familiar with head coach Kyle Shanahan's offense from their days in Atlanta in 2015-16. Tailback Matt Breida led the team in rushing yards last year (814).

    Yet Raheem Mostert has emerged as the lead ball-carrier, pacing the 49ers in rushing yards (662) and ranking second in yards from scrimmage (826) to George Kittle (903). He's scored at least one touchdown in four consecutive contests, and Shanahan took note of his production, per Eric Branch of the San Francisco Chronicle.

    "We keep trying to balance it out, but what Raheem has done these last few weeks and has continued to do, we need to give him more opportunities," Shanahan said. "He's given us no choice. I'm happy for him, and it's been great. He's been extremely impressive."

    Mostert flashed in a few games in the middle of last term, but he came into this season third on the depth chart behind Breida and Coleman, who had injuries over the last few months. Now, the Purdue product is at the forefront of the 49ers' second-ranked ground attack.

Seattle Seahawks: The Pass Rush Misses DE Frank Clark

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    Seattle Seahawks defensive end Ziggy Ansah
    Seattle Seahawks defensive end Ziggy AnsahAssociated Press

    On the surface, it seems the Seahawks made a concerted effort to compensate for the loss of pass-rusher Frank Clark.

    Days after trading Clark, they selected versatile defensive lineman L.J. Collier in the first round of the draft. The front office signed end Ziggy Ansah and acquired Jadeveon Clowney in a trade with the Texans. 

    According to head coach Pete Carroll, Collier suffered a "rare" ankle sprain during the offseason. The rookie has suited up for nine games, providing little impact with just two tackles. Ansah has had shoulder, back, ankle and neck ailments, which have limited him to nine appearances. Clowney had some productive outings, but he's not a consistent pass-rusher. The three defenders have a combined 5.5 sacks.

    Last year, the Seahawks selected defensive end Rasheem Green in the third round. He's yet to make a major leap, logging 20 tackles, 15 quarterback pressures and four sacks this season.

    In 2018, defensive tackle Jarran Reed broke out with 10.5 sacks, but he's registered just 1.5 through eight games since coming back from a six-game suspension for violating the league's personal-conduct policy.

    The Seahawks' inability to rush the quarterback has affected their pass defense, which is ranked 29th. Opposing signal-callers can pick the defense apart with ample time in the pocket.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Run Defense Goes from Generous to Stingy

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    Tampa Bay Buccaneers defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh
    Tampa Bay Buccaneers defensive tackle Ndamukong SuhPhelan M. Ebenhack/Associated Press

    Last year, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers run defense ranked 24th, giving up 100-plus yards in 10 of the team's last 11 games. With a new coaching staff under lead skipper Bruce Arians, the club fields the No. 1 unit against ground attacks.

    Defensive coordinator Todd Bowles calls the plays, and he brought defensive line instructor Kacy Rodgers with him from his Jets staff. Arians also added assistant defensive line coach Lori Locust, who's one of the first women to hold a full-time coaching position in the league.

    As a whole, the staff has done a commendable job integrating and developing talent to transform a porous front line into a stout group. This unit has allowed 100-plus rushing yards in only three outings.

    Ndamukong Suh (6'4", 313 lbs) and Vita Vea (6'4", 347 lbs) have been big components to the run defense, combining for 63 tackles, including seven for loss. Edge-rusher Shaquil Barrett, who's the league's sack leader with 16.5, isn't just a pass-rusher. He's logged 50 takedowns, including 16 for loss.

    If the Buccaneers' young secondary develops into a formidable group, the defense could take a significant step forward in 2020. The front seven can force teams to become one-dimensional with its strong resistance on running downs.

Tennessee Titans: QB Ryan Tannehill's Career Rebirth

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    Tennessee Titans quarterback Ryan Tannehill
    Tennessee Titans quarterback Ryan TannehillJames Kenney/Associated Press

    We already knew about Ryan Tannehill's capability as a starting quarterback because of his six-year run in Miami. He's rebooted his career in Tennessee and been one of the hottest signal-callers in the second half of the season.

    In Week 7, head coach Mike Vrabel benched Marcus Mariota for Tannehill. The Titans have looked like a playoff-caliber squad since, winning six of eight games. Despite a loss to the Texans last week, Tennessee can still shake up the playoff picture with an upset over New Orleans and revenge against Houston in its season finale.

    Paired with a physical ground attack featuring Derrick Henry, Tannehill has reenergized the offense, throwing for 17 touchdowns against six interceptions. He ranks second in quarterback rating (114.6).

    Tannehill may solidify a future with the Titans. The front office has "internally" discussed a new deal for him, per ESPN's Dianna Russini.

Washington Redskins: Running Back Group Still Needs Lead Ball-Carrier

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    Washington Redskins running back Adrian Peterson
    Washington Redskins running back Adrian PetersonStacy Revere/Getty Images

    While it's fascinating to see running back Adrian Peterson carry the majority of the workload at 34 years old, the Redskins have to sign or draft another running back to balance the offense as rookie quarterback Dwayne Haskins finds his footing.

    The front office has a 2020 club option on Peterson's contract. Even if team brass retains him for $3 million, the Redskins can't depend on a tailback his age or an injury-prone group of backup ball-carriers. Chris Thompson, who's missed 17 contests over the last three terms because of various injuries, and Wendell Smallwood will become unrestricted free agents next year.

    Rookie fourth-rounder Bryce Love came into the league on the mend, recovering from a torn ACL. Washington shouldn't gamble on the running back's ability to recapture his 2017 form—when he logged 2,118 rushing yards and 19 touchdowns at Stanford.

    Derrius Guice has the potential to lead the backfield, but he's undergone surgery for a torn ACL and torn meniscus since coming into the league last year. The LSU product landed on injured reserve with an MCL sprain after Week 14. The 22-year-old has played five games in two years.

    The Redskins have too many question marks at running back to avoid addressing the position in the offseason. With an aging lead ball-carrier and injury concerns for the unit, the front office should look to add a durable asset to the group.

       

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