1 Under-the-Radar Problem Every NFL Team Must Fix in Training Camp

Sterling XieCorrespondent IIJuly 20, 2014

1 Under-the-Radar Problem Every NFL Team Must Fix in Training Camp

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    Will Nick Foles regress after a breakout 2013 season?
    Will Nick Foles regress after a breakout 2013 season?Tony Gutierrez/Associated Press

    With training camps set to begin this week, the 90-man NFL rosters are largely set in their personnel.  Though development, regression and injuries will alter perceptions during the season, we do have a preliminary read on each team's strengths and weaknesses.

    And while many want to focus on the former during this time of optimism, when every team is undefeated, the latter is ultimately what differentiates squads once the games count.  The nature of the large rosters means that every team has weaknesses, but the ability to compensate for deficiencies is nearly as important as highlighting strengths.

    Most teams have glaring holes that have been dissected endlessly throughout the offseason.  The majority of fans have a grasp on the quarterback competitions around the league, and various team-specific crises (wide receiver in Carolina, middle linebacker in Dallas, etc.) have worked their way into the mainstream consciousness as well.

    Instead, it might be more helpful to illuminate the more neglected soft spots.  These holes might not stand out as clearly to the casual observer, but unless teams rectify them quickly, they could develop into disastrous defects that derail the season.

Arizona Cardinals: Right Guard

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    Though the Arizona Cardinals have largely reconstructed one of 2013's worst offensive lines, right guard remains a weakness heading into camp.  Incumbent Paul Fanaika, who played all but five snaps last season, will need a better showing to hold off challenger Earl Watford, a second-year player who did not play a down his rookie campaign.

    Fanaika was one of the biggest liabilities on a unit full of them, contributing a minus-26.2 overall grade that ranked sixth-worst among all guards in 2013, per Pro Football Focus (subscription required).  Only Philadelphia's Todd Herremans allowed more pass pressures than the 46 that Fanaika conceded.  Not surprisingly, Pro Football Focus gave Fanaika the label of "poor starter" in its evaluation of the Arizona depth chart.

    The fourth-rounder Watford was a raw product coming out of FCS school James Madison.  As he told Dave Duhlberg of ArizonaSports.com, he believes the redshirt year was crucial for his acclimation into Bruce Arians' offense:

    For me, it was a process on the field. Not that I didn't know it, but it just kind of takes time and experience [to play]. You have to get repetitions and learn from all the guys around you.

    It sucked not playing last year, but at the same time I got to see and I got to learn more. I take it as a plus for myself.

    The right side of the Cardinals line could yield two green starters, as Bobby Massie could earn the starting right tackle role after playing sporadically last year.  But Massie at least had an encouraging sample size at the end of his rookie year in 2012.  Neither Watford nor Fanaika has shown as much, which leaves one sore spot on the rebuilt Arizona line.

Atlanta Falcons: Running Back

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    The Atlanta Falcons inked Steven Jackson to a three-year deal last offseason and drafted his potential successor in Devonta Freeman this year.  Nevertheless, the position could still yield below-average returns this season, placing more pressure on Matt Ryan and the passing game.

    Last year, the Falcons averaged just 3.9 yards per attempt on a league-low 321 carries.  Part of that stemmed from falling behind in games, but Jackson's 31.0 elusive rating (a metric that measures how hard a runner was to bring down) ranked 21st out of 32 qualified backs.  His 2.03 yards after contact per attempt ranked 25th, representing a steep decline from his 2.69 mark in 2012 and by far the lowest of his career.

    Freeman's all-around skill set could alleviate some of Jackson's decline, while Jacquizz Rodgers remains a deadly weapon in the passing game.  However, ESPN.com's Vaughn McClure believes that new offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter will still keep the offense a pass-centric unit:

    Offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter has acknowledged a renewed emphasis on the run game. But a crafty playcaller such as Koetter knows protecting quarterback Matt Ryan and allowing him to sling the ball to the likes of Julio Jones and Roddy White is what helped the Falcons get one step from the Super Bowl two years ago.

    "We're not going to be a run-first football team, by any means, with those two great receivers and that great quarterback," [offensive line coach Mike] Tice said bluntly.

    Despite Freeman's intriguing upside, it's not difficult to envision Jackson's decline placing the Falcons in a few too many 2nd-and-long situations.  Until the Falcons supply Ryan with an above-average ground game, Atlanta's franchise quarterback will continue to bear a huge burden.

Baltimore Ravens: Slot Cornerback

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    While most of the Baltimore Ravens defense received an infusion of youth during the draft, cornerback remains a tenuous area of concern heading into the season.  The top two of Lardarius Webb and Jimmy Smith form a rock-solid duo, but the depth behind the outside starters could prove troublesome.

    Former fifth-rounders Asa Jackson and Chykie Brown have essentially been special teams players throughout their two- and three-year careers, respectively.  The latter did receive meaningful snaps in 2012 but struggled en route to a minus-9.2 overall grade over 448 snaps, postseason included.

    Baltimore did gain some insurance in inking a pair of veterans, Aaron Ross and Dominique Franks.  Franks played sparingly last season for a wretched Atlanta defense, as his special teams experience holds more appeal than his defensive value.

    However, Ross could prove valuable if he can recapture the form that made him a fixture in the New York Giants secondary from 2007 to 2011.  After he had a disastrous 2012 campaign in Jacksonville, a back injury last season ended his year after just four games.

    Ross did show glimpses of being a capable corner again, highlighted by a plus-1.7 coverage grade in Week 3 against Carolina.  At the very least, the 31-year-old has a meaningful track record of experience and success, which is more than any of his competitors can claim.

Buffalo Bills: Left Guard

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    Tom Gannam/Associated Press

    Left guard was a catastrophe for the Buffalo Bills last season.  The duo of Colin Brown and Doug Legursky combined to post an excruciatingly poor minus-41.1 overall grade at the position last season.  If combined into one horrifying turnstile, that would have ranked as the third-worst individual lineman in the league at any position.

    Unfortunately, it appears the Bills did not receive a meaningful upgrade at the position despite signing Chris Williams to a four-year, $13.5 million deal in free agency.  A former first-rounder, Williams graded at minus-20.3 overall, despite playing all 16 games for the St. Louis Rams.  SI.com's Doug Farrar gave the deal a "D" grade at the time, citing how Williams' performance has never matched his raw tools:

    Williams has never lived up to his athletic potential, though that's partially due to the sub-par coaching he received in Chicago. He gets pushed around too easily at any line position, and he's not consistent when asked to stop pass-rushers at the point of attack...If the Bills are serious about competing in the AFC East sooner than later, they'll need to develop Williams in ways other coaches have not been able to.

    Farrar is far from alone in his assessment.  A trio of ESPN reporters, all of whom cover teams that Williams has played for, gave lukewarm reviews to the signing.  Pro Football Focus also rated the deal as the worst of free agency.

    It's virtually impossible to downgrade from last year's disaster at the position, and Williams does possess the physical potential to emerge as a late-blooming starter.  Still, his track record suggests only a minor upgrade, leaving left guard as a major liability on the Buffalo offense.

Carolina Panthers: Secondary

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    Evaluating the Carolina Panthers secondary is difficult, as plenty of unknown variables create a wide range of potential performance.  However, while the unit possesses enough talent to deliver above-average results in 2014, it also deserves a healthy amount of skepticism until such results arrive.

    At corner, free-agent signing Antoine Cason and second-year incumbent Melvin White have the inside track on outside positions.  Both have plenty to prove, but they also have shown enough promise that the Panthers figure to receive at least passable production from them.

    The slot could prove more worrisome after Captain Munnerlyn's departure.  Converted safety Charles Godfrey, coming off a torn Achilles, will likely compete with fifth-round rookie Bene Benwikere for the role.  The rookie did stand out in minicamp, per Joe Person of The Charlotte Observer, taking the majority of the first-team nickel reps.

    At safety, two free-agent signings, Roman Harper and Thomas DeCoud, look like the Week 1 starters.  However, both graded out as below-average safeties last year, combining for a minus-17.9 overall grade.  Carolina generally played conservative coverage schemes with their inexperienced safeties last year but will certainly miss Mike Mitchell's versatility to play both in the box and in the deep center field.

    Until preseason supplies a look at game situations, it's hard to say how so many disparate and still-developing cogs will mesh together.  You would be forgiven for feeling as though this slide focuses too heavily on the individuals rather than how they may function together as a cohesive unit.

    And yet, Carolina faces the same problem.  Playing behind arguably the league's best front seven will help, but it is still fair to question how the Panthers will hold up when they face prolific passing games like New Orleans, Atlanta and Chicago.

Chicago Bears: Linebacker

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    After fielding one of 2013's worst defenses, the Chicago Bears overhauled their defensive line and secondary, adding depth and potential starters through both the draft and free agency.  However, at linebacker, Chicago could be largely reliant on the same personnel that faltered last season.

    "Will" linebacker Lance Briggs was still an asset when healthy last season.  But after missing just four games through his first 10 seasons, he missed seven last year with a shoulder injury.  Briggs, who will turn 34 during the season, is still a meaningful asset, albeit one approaching the finish line.

    Fellow veteran D.J. Williams figures to start in the middle.  However, his status as an asset is far more questionable.  He has played just 13 games over the past two years, grading out at minus-2.2 on 213 snaps before a torn pectoral ended his 2013 campaign.  Williams has not had a healthy and positively graded season since 2010, so relying on his availability and production could prove to be a mistake.

    The "Sam" position presents the greatest area of concern.  Converted defensive lineman Shea McClellin and Jon Bostic will compete for the starting role.  Bostic's athleticism makes him more of an asset in sub-packages than on early downs, but as he did in 2013, he may have to take on a greater role if the position change does not boost McClellin's disappointing career.

    Make no mistake—the Bears defense made plenty of positive strides this offseason.  Coupled with its prolific offense, Chicago does have a legitimate opportunity to loosen Green Bay's stranglehold on the NFC North.  Still, it is easy to envision injuries and underachievement sabotaging the linebackers, thus placing a firm ceiling on Chicago's defense potential.

Cincinnati Bengals: Coordinator Changes

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    Despite flaming out in the Wild Card Round, the Cincinnati Bengals appeared to possess one of the league's deepest and most promising rosters in 2013.  Football Outsiders ranked them ninth overall in DVOA (Defense-adjusted Value Over Average, a widely cited opponent-adjusted measure of efficiency), while Advanced Football Analytics had the Bengals fourth in their final team efficiency rankings.

    Though Cincy's 2014 roster remains largely intact, the coordinator flux has given some cause for concern.  Jay Gruden and Mike Zimmer left for head coaching opportunities in the offseason, creating change in an organization that has quietly been among the most stable over the past five years.

    Gruden's pass-happy play-calling may have garnered scorn at times from Bengals fans, but upheaval is not what quarterback Andy Dalton needs as he enters his contract year.  Although his numbers have steadily climbed throughout his three-year career, a survey from ESPN's Mike Sando (subscription required) revealed that coaches and front office personnel see Dalton as just the 19th-best quarterback in the league.

    Defensively, Marvin Lewis' background and the internal promotion of Paul Guenther should retain the status quo.  The Bengals defense ranked fifth in FO's DVOA, as linked above, and possesses plenty of premier talent in Geno Atkins, Vontaze Burfict and Leon Hall.  Even with Zimmer's departure, it would be surprising to see this unit take a significant step back.

    The new voices should not play a huge role during the season, as most of the pressure will lie on Dalton to perform more consistently.  However, in training camp, when scheme reinforcement and technique are paramount, it is crucial that the new coaches fortify the strong foundation that has led to four playoff appearances in the past five seasons.

Cleveland Browns: Edge-Rusher

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    With the recognizable trio of Paul Kruger, Jabaal Sheard and Barkevious Mingo, the casual fan might not see the Cleveland Browns' pass rush as a significant problem.

    However, the numbers belie a team that failed to generate consistent pressure despite the obvious existing talent.  The Browns generated sacks on just 6.2 percent of dropbacks, a mark that tied for 19th in the league, per TeamRankings.com.

    Among 3-4 outside linebackers, none of the three ranked in the top half in terms of pass-rushing productivity (a formula that combines pressures with number of pass-rushing snaps).  That's not to say there were no standout performances—Sheard against the Minnesota Vikings and Kruger against the New England Patriots spring to mind—but the production was not there consistently enough.

    Fortunately, new head coach Mike Pettine should be able to maximize Cleveland's pass-rushing potential.  As Buffalo's defensive coordinator, he extracted 23 sacks from the bookend duo of Mario Williams and Jerry Hughes.  Both ranked in the top 10 in the aforementioned pass-productivity rankings and anchored one of the league's most underrated front sevens.

    Cleveland has no shortage of run-stuffers along the defensive line. Phil Taylor and Ahtyba Rubin both excelled on early downs, stifling opponents to only 3.9 yards per carry last year.  With a promising secondary led by lockdown corner Joe Haden, the pieces are in place for a defensive breakthrough.

    But that cannot arrive if the Browns' primary pass-rushers falter again.  Pettine's hybrid scheme and defensive background are promising auspices for success, so there are no excuses for Kruger, Sheard and Mingo.

Dallas Cowboys: Safety

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    The Dallas Cowboys front seven appears in shambles after the debilitating loss of Sean Lee.  But while everyone is focused on the defensive liabilities near the line of scrimmage, a lack of safety depth could potentially submerge a promising starting secondary.

    Barry Church and J.J. Wilcox represent the likely Week 1 starters at the position.  The former was one of the few beacons of stability on the Dallas defense in 2013, playing 89.4 percent of the snaps and accruing an average grade.  After Church led the team with 147 tackles last year, head coach Jason Garrett is counting on the 26-year-old to emerge as a leader in Lee's absence, per ESPN Dallas' Todd Archer:

    In regards to the absence of Sean, he absolutely needs to step up as a leader. Your best players need to do that. When you play a position like safety, you’re a big communicator back there with everybody else in the secondary. So being strong with his [voice] and being strong with his mannerisms and getting everybody squared away, I think that’s a big part of what his job is.

    While Church may be a rock-solid presence, far greater questions surround Wilcox and the depth behind him.  Though the third-rounder held his own during his rookie year, recurring knee issues limited his effectiveness in the second half of the year.  Though he peaked in the first quarter of the year, Wilcox at least showed enough promise to gain the inside track on the starting free safety spot.

    Jeff Heath might serve as the top backup, which should make Cowboys fans uneasy.  In fairness, no one expected the undrafted rookie to play as many snaps as he did.  Nonetheless, Heath conceded 23 receptions for 353 yards and four touchdowns in just 330 coverage snaps, making him one of the worst cover safeties in the league.

    Injuries have already created catastrophe on the Cowboys defense.  For the unit to stay afloat, the same cannot occur at safety.

Denver Broncos: Right Cornerback

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    The defending AFC champs have fewer weaknesses than nearly any roster in the NFL.  However, even the Denver Broncos are not immune to question marks, most notably at the right cornerback spot.

    Though free-agent acquisition Aqib Talib figures to lock down the left side, Denver will likely rely on first-rounder Bradley Roby to start opposite the ex-Patriot.  Though Walter Football's Charlie Campbell praised Roby's physical traits, he noted that the Ohio State product enters the NFL as a relatively raw product:

    For the NFL, Roby is a work in progress...[he] needs to improve his game. He gets burned by double moves too often. His eye discipline also must get better. Roby has a lot of the same issues as Amerson. An elite route-runner like Abbrederis destroyed Roby, and that is going to be an issue for him until he can improve his fundamentals and technique.

    The Broncos do have another excellent corner in Chris Harris Jr., but he excels primarily in the slot.  Harris' plus-12.2 overall grade ranked eighth among all cornerbacks in 2013.  However, having played roughly 62 percent of his coverage snaps from the slot, it seems likely that the Broncos would rather keep him at a position where he impressed.

    If Roby falters, the duo of Kayvon Webster and Tony Carter saw pockets of playing time in 2013, though the latter is primarily a special teams contributor (outside of an impressive 2012).  Those are far from fail-safe insurance policies, however, which could leave the Broncos scrambling for replacement level performance.

    In general, cornerback depth could be an issue given Talib's checkered injury history and Harris' recovery from a torn ACL.  The Broncos are banking mostly on veterans this season, but Roby serves as an important exception.

Detroit Lions: Slot Receiver

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    The Detroit Lions have one of the league's most lethal offenses, particularly through the air.  After Detroit inked Golden Tate in free agency and drafted tight end Eric Ebron at 10th overall, Matthew Stafford's weapons are among the most enviable corps in the league.

    However, one deficiency could prove detrimental.  The Lions lost veteran slot receiver Nate Burleson in the offseason and have no contingency plan in place.  In fact, the returning receivers combined for just 32 receptions from the slot last year, 16 of which were from Calvin Johnson.

    At first, Lions fans may shrug off this issue.  Per NFL.com's Chris Wesseling, Ebron suggested that new offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi would implement an "awful lot" of two-tight end sets.  With Ebron in the fold to complement Brandon Pettigrew and Joseph Fauria, that strategy would seem to make sense.

    However, Pettigrew has never distinguished himself as a receiver, and relying on the inexperienced Ebron-Fauria duo would be a dicey proposition.  More importantly, Stafford was significantly more successful targeting slot receivers (8.6 yards per attempt, 50 percent success rate) than tight ends (6.6 yards per attempt, 41.2 percent success rate) in 2013. 

    Perhaps Ebron blossoms immediately and transforms the Lions passing game into a more multifaceted attack that assails all areas of the field.  But betting on a rookie rarely yields fruitful results, especially when considering the numerous responsibilities that tight ends face. 

    Thus, unless someone like Ryan Broyles, Jeremy Ross or Kris Durham elevates his performance, an important hole could still exist in the seemingly deadly Detroit passing game.

Green Bay Packers: Inside Linebacker

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    The Green Bay Packers defense has struggled to perform at an above-average level since their Super Bowl-winning season of 2010.  However, highlighted by the likes of Casey Hayward, Datone Jones and Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, Green Bay's plethora of tantalizing young talent could finally produce a decisive breakthrough.

    Still, if defenses are built up the middle, the Packers may have some cause for concern.  The middle linebacker duo of A.J. Hawk and Brad Jones return as starters, but based on their respective limitations, continuity may not be in Green Bay's best interest.

    Though Hawk has been a mainstay since being drafted in 2006, the 30-year-old has been a crippling liability against the run.  Hawk's minus-15.1 run-defense grade was the fourth-worst among all middle linebackers, and his 5.2 percent run-stop percentage was third-worst.  While he remains an asset in coverage, the former fifth overall pick is no longer a viable three-down player.

    Meanwhile, Jones took a step back from his breakout 2012 season, as hamstring and ankle injuries dogged him throughout the year.  Still, it was jarring to see such a stark decline in both run defense and pass coverage.  Among inside linebackers, Jones ranked in the top 10 in both categories two seasons ago but fell into the bottom half in both last season.

    In fairness, Jones did start the season well before injuries hampered his performance by season's end.  Nonetheless, Jamari Lattimore, who impressed during his first significant exposure to defense, stands as a legitimate threat to both for playing time.

Houston Texans: Wide Receiver Depth

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    The Andre Johnson saga is the dark cloud currently hanging over the Houston Texans, one that may not see a resolution until the beginning of the regular season.  However, regardless of what Houston does with its all-time leading receiver in 2014, Johnson's $16.1 million cap hit in 2015 could necessitate his release and leave the future of the position murky.

    First-rounder DeAndre Hopkins was impressive in his debut season, posting 52 catches for 802 yards despite a shaky quarterback situation. More importantly, the rookie displayed precocious route-running comprehension while running a full route tree and showing the ability to defeat jams with his size.  Whenever the 33-year-old Johnson moves on, the No. 1 receiver position is in good hands with Hopkins.

    However, the crew behind the Clemson product is much less inspiring.  2012 draftees Keshawn Martin and DeVier Posey have flashed at times, but neither has carved out a significant role.  The Texans gave Martin and Posey roughly one-third of the snaps that Johnson and Hopkins received, illustrating their reluctance to shift to the three-receiver sets that most teams have embraced as a primary personnel set.

    The tight ends do not provide much receiving help either.  Garrett Graham ranked 28th in yards per route run among tight ends, demonstrating his inefficiency as a receiver.  In Graham, Ryan Griffin and third-rounder C.J. Fiedorowicz, Houston has compiled plenty of big-bodied in-line "Y" tight ends.  Expect plenty of seam, Smash-7, Flat-7 and other red-zone passing concepts but little else in terms of route diversity.

    Assuming the Texans resolve the Johnson affair, Houston should have a nice top two at receiver.  But the cupboard beyond Johnson and Hopkins looks fairly barren, something that could prove problematic whenever Tom Savage ascends to the starting role.

Indianapolis Colts: Guard

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    Many Indianapolis Colts fans bemoaned the disintegration of Andrew Luck's supporting cast last year, pointing to numerous injuries at the receiver and tight end positions.  However, attrition on the interior offensive line may have been just as damaging, and the guard position remains a big question mark heading into 2014.

    Most of the current attention is focused on new starting center Khaled Holmes, who played just 13 offensive snaps his rookie season.  But considering Holmes' inexperience, having a pair of cerebral and reliable guards to aid the new center with line calls could be vital. 

    Donald Thomas figures to have the inside track on one starting spot.  A free-agent signing from New England, Thomas played only two games last year before a torn quad and torn biceps forced him onto injured reserve.  However, in 2012, he was a versatile super-sub for the Patriots, accruing a plus-9.9 overall grade while playing 616 snaps at both right and left guard.

    The Colts would love to see rookie second-rounder Jack Mewhort win the other spot.  ESPN.com's Mike Wells labeled Mewhort the favorite to win the starting left guard spot after the Ohio State product took first-team reps during OTAs and minicamp.

    Mewhort may have to develop quickly considering the veteran alternatives behind him.  Hugh Thornton may have played more than 1,000 snaps at right guard last year, but he also conceded 39 pressures and ranked 51st out of 59 guards in pass-blocking efficiency.  Meanwhile, Lance Louis has not played since 2012 and was largely an underwhelming performer at guard and tackle for the Chicago Bears.

    In Thomas and Mewhort, the Colts do have a couple of potential solutions.  But neither has sustained starting experience, something that could have a domino effect on Holmes and the offensive line as a whole.

Jacksonville Jaguars: Right Side of Offensive Line

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    Gus Bradley inherited the league's least talented roster when he took the Jacksonville Jaguars head coaching position last season.  While he has done well to infuse the team with direction and promising young talent, there remain a few glaring holes in the starting 22.

    Most of the offensive line falls into that category of the unknown.  Longtime center Brad Meester retired this offseason, leaving third-year player Mike Brewster to inherit the job.  Brewster's career has consisted of largely disastrous stints at guard, so while a position change may help, the former undrafted rookie has done little to inspire confidence.

    At right guard, third-rounder Brandon Linder is competing with Jacques McClendon for the starting role.  The Florida Times-Union's Ryan O'Halloran believes the rookie has the inside track, noting that the Jags drafted Linder to "start right away."  McClendon has played just 194 offensive snaps in his four-year career, so it's not as if Linder is competing against a seasoned veteran.

    The player with the most immediate promise may be right tackle Austin Pasztor.  Following the trade of Eugene Monroe, Pasztor shuffled into the starting lineup and started the final 12 games of the season.  Though he struggled at times in his first significant NFL exposure, there were enough positive glimpses (Week 11 vs. Arizona, Week 15 vs. Buffalo) to suggest a capable starter with further development.

    While Bradley is known as a defensive guru, he has done well to establish a new offensive foundation in drafting Blake Bortles, Luke Joeckel and Marqise Lee.  Still, if offenses are built from the inside out, Jacksonville's numerous young starters face enormous pressure to develop into steady contributors.

Kansas City Chiefs: Free Safety

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    Kansas City Chiefs defensive coordinator Bob Sutton uses one of the most unorthodox systems in the NFL, relying on byzantine blitz schemes and eschewing traditional positional roles. 

    Consequently, Pro Bowl safety Eric Berry almost seemed like a linebacker at times (and not simply because of his imposing 6'0", 211-pound frame).  Indeed, he played 69.7 percent of his run snaps within eight yards of the line of scrimmage while blitzing on 10.8 percent of passing snaps.  Both those numbers ranked third in the league among safeties.

    But if Berry plays near the line in a downhill havoc-wreaking role, someone needs to tend to the rest of the shop on the back end.  Husain Abdullah has been a quality No. 3 safety throughout his career but has not held a regular starting role since 2010.  After the Chiefs let Kendrick Lewis leave in free agency, however, Abdullah might have to take on a much larger role.

    Abdullah's primary competition figures to arise from second-year defensive back Sanders Commings, who played just three defensive snaps his rookie season.  Commings could also compete for the nickelback spot after Brandon Flowers' release, as free-agent signing Chris Owens figures to represent his primary competition.

    Commings may ultimately be a versatile super-sub, which could be more tenable than throwing him into the fire of regular snaps.  However, according to Terez Paylor of The Kansas City Star, Kansas City general manager John Dorsey pinpointed Commings as a potential starter (competing with Abdullah) at free safety.

    Regardless, the Chiefs will need someone to provide a reliable security blanket after conceding 7.3 yards per pass play in the second half of the season, the fourth-worst mark in the league, per Pro-Football-Reference.  Playing with an excellent pass rush will help, but only so much.

Miami Dolphins: Linebacker

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    After splurging in free agency two years ago, the Miami Dolphins did not expect their linebacking corps to represent one of the shakiest units on the roster.  While most of the media attention zoomed in on the offensive line fiasco, the linebackers may have been equally disappointing considering the expectations.

    This season, Miami has decided to shake up the starting trio of Koa Misi, Dannell Ellerbe and Philip Wheeler.  Misi and Ellerbe are effectively switching positions, with the former moving to middle linebacker and the latter to "Sam" outside linebacker position. 

    It's a risky move for Misi, who has not only spent his entire career at outside linebacker but was the only one of the trio to play relatively well.  Despite playing the fewest snaps of the three as mostly an early-down presence, the former second-rounder finished with a plus-9.2 run defense grade, ninth-best among 4-3 outside linebackers.

    Moving Misi inside could mean more overall snaps for him and fewer for Ellerbe, who struggled with the increased responsibilities.  His decline in run defense was startling—after accruing a plus-8.7 grade in the department during his final Ravens season, Ellerbe fell all the way to minus-15.4 last year.  Considering his limitations in coverage, perhaps limiting him to a two-down role would help those numbers rebound.

    Wheeler will remain at the "Will," but after showing signs of becoming a solid all-around linebacker during his time in Oakland and Indianapolis, the 29-year-old cratered last season.  Much like Ellerbe, Wheeler could benefit from a more limited role—despite notching just one sack, his 27 pressures in just 121 blitzes was third-most among 4-3 outside linebackers last year.

    There is talent here, and at least on paper, the Misi-Ellerbe-Wheeler trio should complement one another well.  Still, they also have much to prove before anyone anoints them a strength of the team, an assumption that burned Miami in 2013.

Minnesota Vikings: Coverage Linebacker

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    Despite floundering in the basement of most defensive statistics, new Minnesota Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer does have a solid base of talent.  Led by the likes of Everson Griffen, Harrison Smith and Xavier Rhodes, the Vikes have a solid young nucleus for the former defensive coordinator to mold.

    However, the second level of the defense has glaring holes.  Zimmer is likely to employ more man principles than Minnesota played under Leslie Frazier, with linebackers required to both blitz and cover tight ends and running backs regularly.

    Unfortunately, there are few candidates to fulfill that sub-package role.  Veteran mainstay Chad Greenway has turned into a huge coverage liability, as his minus-14.1 pass-coverage grade was the worst among inside linebackers last year (though he did play through a broken wrist).  Though Greenway provides early-down and leadership value, Minnesota would be well-served to start phasing in his successors.

    At the moment, though, there are few candidates to take the middle linebacker role from Greenway.  Jasper Brinkley is more of an early-down presence, while the likes of Gerald Hodges, Audie Cole and Michael Mauti are not battle-tested.  Cole did show some promise in coverage last year (Week 13 vs. Bears), so perhaps he'll receive an extended look on passing downs.

    The wild card, of course, is first-rounder Anthony Barr.  As SBNation.com's Stephen White illustrated in a highly informative scouting report, the UCLA product looked natural moving in space, something one would expect given his athleticism.  However, White and many others have noted Barr's rawness as a prospect, so asking him to immediately bear a significant multifaceted role could be asking for trouble.

    Barr offers hope as an uber-athletic linebacker who could turn into a prototypical "Will" or "Sam," making plays behind the line of scrimmage and in coverage.  Until then, though, the Vikings are left with sub-replacement-level talent playing significant snaps at the position.

New England Patriots: Depth in the Back Seven

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    An annual contender, the New England Patriots have always emphasized building depth in the middle class of their roster to guard against inevitable in-season injuries.  While the Pats remain a bona fide Super Bowl contender, there are a couple of vulnerable spots on defense where the depth is thinner than desired.

    Though the starting linebacker trio of Jerod Mayo, Dont'a Hightower and Jamie Collins is set in stone, the Patriots do not have much in the way of proven talent behind them.  Veteran free-agent acquisition James Anderson played well in pass coverage last year, with a plus-6.9 grade that ranked sixth among 4-3 outside linebackers.  But the undersized Anderson was engulfed in the run game, making him strictly a sub-package presence.

    Steve Beauharnais and Chris White were purely special teams presences last year, but both could be in line for early-down snaps should an injury arise.  ESPNBoston.com's Mike Reiss noted that Beauharnais led the huddle at times during spring practices, so the Rutgers product could elevate into a more prominent role after essentially taking a redshirt rookie year.

    Safety could also be a concern beyond the starting duo of Devin McCourty and Duron Harmon.  Ex-Patriot Patrick Chung returned to Foxboro after a year in Philadelphia, but only five safeties fared worse than Chung's minus-8.6 coverage grade.  The likes of Nate Ebner, Tavon Wilson and Jemea Thomas are likely special teams presences at best, though the rookie Thomas holds some intrigue for his versatility.

    The Patriots went through this exercise last year, when they went into the regular season perilously thin at defensive tackle behind Vince Wilfork and Tommy Kelly.  Both Wilfork and Kelly suffered season-ending injuries by Week 5, forcing the Patriots to cobble together street free agents and undrafted rookies.

    New England learned its lesson at that position and restocked on talent this offseason.  However, it appears the Pats could be facing a similar quandary if the injury bug bites the back end of the defense this year.

New Orleans Saints: Middle Linebacker

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    Long reliant on the right arm of Drew Brees, the New Orleans Saints have retooled their roster and boast one of the most talented defenses in the league.  With edge-rushers Cameron Jordan and Junior Galette as well as a star-studded secondary, the Saints are well-equipped to combat the spread-offense attacks around the league.

    However, if there is one Achilles' heel on the unit, it is the middle linebackers.  Curtis Lofton and David Hawthorne may have experience on their side, but both had subpar seasons in 2013. 

    Lofton and Hawthorne aren't necessarily poor starters.  However, both are below-average coverage linebackers, as each ranked as one of the league's 10 worst pass coverage inside linebackers based on how frequently they conceded receptions.  Combined, Lofton and Hawthorne conceded 85 completions on 111 targets (77 percent) for 777 yards and three touchdowns.

    Tackling has proved to be problematic for the pair as well.  Lofton and Hawthorne ranked 31st and 33rd, respectively, out of 40 qualified inside linebackers in tackling efficiency.  The two combined for 33 missed tackles on the season, including 20 in the running game.

    The Saints continue to play both in sub-packages, where they are passable but not spectacular contributors.  New Orleans did draft Khairi Fortt in the fourth round to potentially succeed one of them, though both are in the early stages of five-year contracts.

    Neither is a crippling weakness for the Saints, and Rob Ryan is creative enough to design schemes to accentuate his stronger personnel (perhaps we'll see more "Big Nickel" packages with three safeties).  Nonetheless, inside linebacker is one of the areas where the Saints have clearly received poor value.

New York Giants: Left Tackle

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    Despite a disastrous 2013 season from Eli Manning, optimism surrounds Gotham after the New York Giants overhauled their coaching staff and hired new offensive coordinator Ben McAdoo.  McAdoo, who was previously Green Bay's quarterbacks coach, will bring a more uptempo West Coast playbook that stands in stark contrast to Kevin Gilbride's complicated vertical-heavy system.

    However, Manning's blind side could be vulnerable this season depending on the health of Will Beatty.  Though Beatty excelled in the first year of his five-year extension, he struggled last season en route to allowing 59 pressures in the passing game, fourth-most of any tackle in the league.  Worst of all, he broke his leg in the final game of the season, forcing him to spend the entire offseason rehabbing.

    Beatty's struggles were puzzling, as he gave up just 25 pressures the year before.  Per Conor Orr of The Star-Ledger, Giants offensive line coach Pat Flaherty believes that missed time in training camp led to Beatty's poor season:

    There was a combination of things. It probably started with him being in training camp and not being able to execute the drills on a daily basis. He wasn't able to because he was nicked up here or there and it just snowballs...the only way to work an offensive line is to put pads on and go block. If you don't do that, your skills aren't going to be sharp and that is what happens on game day.

    New York Daily News' Ebenezer Samuel reported that Beatty felt he was ready to return for training camp after missing OTAs and minicamp.  The Giants brought in ex-Saint Charles Brown as insurance, and he ended up taking most of the first-team left tackle reps while Beatty sat on the sidelines.

    Brown did not seize his first extended opportunity at left tackle in 2013, grading out at minus-15.3 overall and ceding the job to then-rookie Terron Armstead.  The Giants will give Beatty the first shot at earning his job back, but unlike last season, they have brought in competition.

New York Jets: Running Back

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    After the success they experienced with Thomas Jones and LaDainian Tomlinson, the New York Jets took another chance on a castoff veteran running back when they inked Chris Johnson this offseason.  However, while Johnson was the flashiest signing of free agency's second wave, he is a long shot to turn out as the most productive.

    If you've read about Johnson, you've likely seen someone cite Pro Football Focus' elusive rating metric, which measures how running backs perform independent of their blocking.  Johnson ranked second-to-last among 32 qualified backs in 2013, as the typically slippery back broke just 27 tackles in either the rushing or passing game.

    While some expect big things from the former 2,000-yard rusher, it seems highly unlikely that the 28-year-old will suddenly recapture his All-Pro form.  The Jets have wisely stated their intention to use Johnson as part of a committee, per Dom Cosentino of NJ.com, thus making him essentially a glorified third-down back.

    Incumbents Bilal Powell and Chris Ivory do have some promising qualities.  The bruising Ivory led the league with 3.01 yards after contact per attempt, while Powell had a career-high 36 receptions.  The latter in particular could see his passing down role affected by Johnson, who happened to finish last in yards per route run among running backs (a measure of receiving efficiency).

    Jets fans may have been intrigued after acquiring a player who was once one of the game's premier talents.  In truth, though, taking reps away from their young duo would be a mistake.  Ultimately, Johnson could represent a case of subtraction by addition.

Oakland Raiders: Tight End

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    The Oakland Raiders have seemingly lacked big-time playmakers in the passing game since the departures of Jerry Rice and Tim Brown.  Even Randy Moss' irrepressible talents dissipated in the "Black Hole."  Once again, Oakland's interminable rebuilding process has left the cupboard dry, particularly at tight end.

    The position does not necessarily lack promise but rather proven results.  Rookie Mychal Rivera won the starting job by default yet still posted a fairly respectable debut with 38 receptions for 407 yards and four touchdowns. Though the sample size is small, he did catch five of seven deep balls (passes that traveled 20 or more yards in the air), a 71.4 percent catch rate that was tops in the league.

    Unfortunately, the rest of his rookie year was marred by expected struggles.  Rivera floundered when asked to split out into the slot, as his 60 percent catch rate ranked 21st out of 25 qualified tight ends.  Additionally, with five drops on 43 passes deemed "catchable," his 11.63 percent drop rate ranked 38 out of 41 tight ends.

    Consequently, fourth-year pro David Ausberry could actually have the inside track on the No. 1 job.  He missed all of last season with a shoulder injury, but ESPN.com's Paul Gutierrez reported that the USC product was taking first-team reps in the spring.  Ausberry will be in a battle, as he has just nine career receptions, but the Raiders appear enamored with his athleticism and 6'4", 250-pound frame.

    A breakthrough from either Ausberry or Rivera would be a godsend for a Raiders team that also employs an uninspiring wide receiver corps.  Until the Raiders forge a truly threatening supporting cast, it may be wise to sit second-round quarterback Derek Carr and allow veteran Matt Schaub to take his lumps.

Philadelphia Eagles: Quarterback

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    Statistically, there is no doubt that Nick Foles was a top-five quarterback in 2014.  He demonstrated a masterful grasp of the multiple reads of Chip Kelly's offense, saving the Philadelphia Eagles when Michael Vick's injury woes resurfaced.

    Foles is likely a capable starter, so don't imagine this as a "#HotSportsTakes" type of argument.  However, advanced metrics like Pro Football Focus' adjusted quarterback rating and Pro-Football-Reference's adjusted net yards per attempt portrayed Foles as the best quarterback in the league despite Peyton Manning's record-breaking campaign.

    The underlying numbers suggest inevitable regression from those lofty heights.  For instance, according to PFR, Foles' interception rate was 35 percent above league average, the third-best single-season mark of any quarterback with at least 10 starts since the merger!  Though some quarterbacks are obviously better than others at avoiding picks, interception rate is a historically fluky stat, a notion supported by the fact that the names at the top include the likes of Steve Bartkowski (your single-season leader), David Garrard and Brian Griese.

    Foles also received a tremendous amount of help from his receiving corps last year.  He only lost 79 yards in the air to dropped passes in 2013, by far the lowest total in the league.  For reference, Matthew Stafford led the league with 513 yards in the air lost to drops.

    That receiving corps has undergone significant turnover this offseason.  Foles lost his most targeted receiver in DeSean Jackson and will need to integrate Jeremy Maclin, Darren Sproles and Jordan Matthews into the fold this year.

    Foles has plenty of strengths and should not transform into some sort of sub-replacement-level pumpkin.  But his likely regression into merely an above-average quarterback could cost the Eagles a couple of wins, thus placing more pressure on the rest of the roster to defend their NFC East title.

Pittsburgh Steelers: Pass-Rusher

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    Dick LeBeau's Pittsburgh Steelers defenses have traditionally been among the most feared units in the league.  However, the core that catalyzed three Super Bowl appearances in six seasons is largely gone, and the Steelers are in the unfamiliar position of relying on youngsters to turn around their recent mediocrity.

    While most focused on Pittsburgh's secondary woes last year, a revitalized pass rush would boost the defense as a whole.  With just 34 sacks, the Steelers' 6.1 percent adjusted sack rate was the sixth-worst mark in the league last year, per Football Outsiders.  Based on the 2014 roster, it appears Pittsburgh could be relying on plenty of unknown quantities to reverse that mark.

    The Steelers lost Brett Keisel, Lamarr Woodley and Ziggy Hood this offseason, who combined for 57 pressures.  To compensate, it appears the newly signed and drafted trio of Cam Thomas, Stephon Tuitt and Ryan Shazier will play significant roles in 2014.

    Thomas had a shaky final season in San Diego, compiling just 13 pressures over 284 pass-rushing snaps.  However, he was actually one of the league's better interior rushers the previous two years, finishing 10th among defensive tackles in pass-rushing productivity in both 2012 and 2011.  If he rediscovers that form, Thomas could excel as a 3-technique in Pittsburgh's sub-packages.

    As rookies, Shazier and Tuitt are inherently unknown commodities.  The former figures to emerge as a three-down linebacker right away, while the latter may end up pushing Thomas for playing time (though both figure to receive sub-package snaps).  Pittsburgh typically redshirts rookies while integrating them slowly, but the team may not have that same luxury this year.

    Cameron Heyward and Jason Worilds are still around, and second-year linebacker Jarvis Jones could make a critical leap.  Even still, Pittsburgh has much to replace from a pass-rushing corps that wasn't particularly good to start.

San Diego Chargers: Defensive End

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    Lenny Ignelzi/Associated Press

    Despite a surprise Divisional Round playoff appearance, the San Diego Chargers defense appeared in need of major reconstruction this offseason.  However, the Chargers brass largely retained the same defense that finished last in Football Outsiders' DVOA (a widely cited metric that measures opponent-adjusted efficiency).

    Chargers fans can point to the drafting of Jason Verrett and signing of Brandon Flowers in the secondary, as well as the healthier seasons from Dwight Freeney and Jarrett Johnson at linebacker.  On the defense line, however, San Diego will need a pair of disappointing draftees to take an important step forward.

    Defensive ends Kendall Reyes and Corey Liuget have been brutal on early downs.  The two combined for a minus-31.8 run-defense rating in 2013, as Reyes and Liuget finished as the fifth- and sixth-worst 3-4 defensive ends in terms of run-stop percentage.

    Liuget does have some redeeming qualities as an interior pass-rusher.  With 12.5 sacks over the past two seasons, the former first-rounder has carved out a niche as a viable 3-technique.  While teams would hope for their first-rounders to become three-down contributors, Liuget does add a sorely needed dimension to the Chargers defense, even if he stands as a major liability on early downs.

    Reyes, on the other hand, took a significant step back after a promising rookie season.  After ranking fourth among 3-4 defensive ends in pass-rushing productivity two years ago, he fell all the way to 27th last year.  Despite rushing the passer more than 100 more times last year, Reyes managed to see his pressures decline from 33 to 32.

    Between Reyes and Liuget on the line, the Chargers are willfully hemorrhaging yards on the ground.  Unless someone like Lawrence Guy emerges to take the pressure off on early downs, large improvements in pass-rushing consistency are needed to justify their heavy snaps. 

San Francisco 49ers: Right Guard

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    As one of the few remnants of smashmouth football's halcyon days, the San Francisco 49ers are more reliant on strength in the trenches than nearly any other team in the league.  So with top-notch right guard Alex Boone unwilling to report to training camp without a new contract, per CSNBayArea.com's Matt Maiocco, the Niners could be without a player who has been an unheralded yet vital part of their success.

    Boone was a bit inconsistent last year as he struggled through a nagging shoulder injury.  However, two years ago, his plus-24.6 overall grade was third-best among all guards, including a plus-21.9 run grade.  Even with Boone ailing in 2013, he still managed to post a plus-6.3 run-blocking grade.

    With Boone seemingly likely to drag his holdout into the regular season, though, the Niners could be left with some undesirable alternatives.  ESPN.com's Bill Williamson noted that third-year pro Joe Looney is likely to get the nod to start.  Looney has played just 71 snaps since being drafted in 2012; considering that the center competition also involves two unknown commodities in rookie Marcus Martin and Daniel Kilgore, the Niners could be breaking in two inexperienced starters along the interior of their line.

    Veteran Adam Snyder could reclaim his old job, but considering his past subpar play, San Francisco would likely prefer to keep him in the super-utility role he played last season.  There's also the much-beleaguered Jonathan Martin, who has talked about moving inside, though he has never played guard in the NFL.

    Moving forward, left guard Mike Iupati is a free agent next year.  Colin Kaepernick's extension has eaten into much of the 49ers' cap room, and with Michael Crabtree also set for free agency next offseason, San Francisco's vaunted interior line could be in tenuous shape relatively soon.

Seattle Seahawks: Perimeter Receiver

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    Despite his reputation as a game manager, Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson is one of the league's most brilliant improvisers.  No quarterback had a higher accuracy percentage on deep throws (passes traveling 20 or more yards in the air), and he excelled when pressured and forced to break the pocket.

    Part of his success also stemmed from having a reliable outside-the-numbers target in Golden Tate.  Wilson compiled a 108.6 quarterback rating when targeting Tate, who led the team with 93 targets.  Of Seattle receivers who ran at least 50 routes, Tate was the only one who ran less than one-third of his routes from the slot.

    Of course, he is now in Detroit, which means Wilson and the Seahawks need a new "X" split endPercy Harvin and Doug Baldwin do their best work in the slot.  Second-rounder Paul Richardson may be a burner, but at 6'0", size limitations could limit him to slot duty as well, at least in the short term. 

    Sidney Rice and Jermaine Kearse are relatively uninspiring veteran options.  Rice's breakout 2009 season seems like eons ago, and he's missed 15 regular-season games during his three Seattle campaigns due to various maladies.  Kearse took a step forward during his second season, highlighted by his spectacular touchdown in the Super Bowl, but replicating Tate's production would be a big step.

    The wild card might be fourth-rounder Kevin Norwood.  The Alabama product had a laudable spring, impressing observers with his steady hands and consistency.  Norwood may not replicate Tate's yards-per-catch average, but he could eventually develop into a steady possession receiver.

    The Seahawks will still be a ground-centric offense supplemented by play-action concepts.  Without a field-stretching presence, however, Wilson could struggle to take a significant step forward in his third season.

St. Louis Rams: Offensive Play-Calling

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    Years of rebuilding have left the St. Louis Rams with a lethal defense, a workhorse running back in Zac Stacy and a plethora of young wide receivers.  Consequently, a breakthrough from Sam Bradford seems like the final ingredient that could push the Rams into the playoffs, even in the brutal NFC West.

    However, with offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer back at the helm, it's fair to wonder if a glass ceiling exists on Bradford's potential.  Plenty of writers such as SportsonEarth.com's Mike Tanier have criticized Schottenheimer's play-calling, while Pro Football Talk's Mike Florio reported that Rams players were unhappy with the coordinator last year.  Tanier's evisceration was particularly severe, highlighting Schottenheimer's ultra-conservative and predictable core concepts:

    To hammer home the predictability of the Rams offense: Bradford attempted just six "deep" passes in seven first quarters last year. Five of those passes were thrown 20-23 yards downfield, so they were hardly deep at all: the Rams rarely bothered to throw basic downfield passes in their first few drives of the game. Defenses knew they could expect a steady diet of shallow crosses, play-action weirdness in the flat, tunnel screens to Austin, hitch routes and other highly-engineered five-yard nonsense.

    The numbers support the criticism.  Bradford and Kellen Clemens combined to throw just 47 passes over 20 yards all year long.  Among quarterbacks who started 16 games, that mark would have bested only Matt Ryan.

    Bradford is not faultless, as the former first overall pick has not taken a noticeable step forward after a solid rookie season.  But saddled with Schottenheimer, Bradford alone is not responsible for the Rams' offensive stagnancy.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Cornerback Depth

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    The Tampa Bay Buccaneers are among the hottest sleeper picks in the NFL following major offseason renovations.  With new head coach Lovie Smith importing his experience and Tampa 2 principles, a young defense led by All-Pros Gerald McCoy and Lavonte David could shortly become one of the league's elite units.

    In order to reach that level, however, Tampa must find the right corner to play opposite Alterraun Verner.  Second-year pro Johnthan Banks and free-agent signing Mike Jenkins stand as the two likeliest options, with ESPN.com's Pat Yasinskas expecting a "strong competition" between the duo.

    Considering his high snap total, Banks fared reasonably well his rookie season.  While there were several instances (Week 11 vs. Atlanta, Week 6 vs. Philadelphia, etc.) where Banks gave up too many big plays, he generally demonstrated solid zone awareness and the ball skills that made him a first-round pick.

    Jenkins is more of a mystery.  After an unceremonious end to his Cowboys career, he received plenty of reps in Oakland but was dogged by the same inconsistencies.  The instances when he looked dominant (Week 8 vs. Pittsburgh) were matched by the times when he appeared severely overmatched (Week 11 vs. Houston).

    Tampa would likely prefer to see Banks win the outside job.  Neither has much experience in the slot—Jenkins played a total of 28 snaps there last year, while Banks played 13—so incumbent slot corner Leonard Johnson or free-agent signing D.J. Moore figures to fulfill that role.

    Essentially, it appears the Bucs are married to Banks and his development.  That's not necessarily a bad thing for a second-round pick who did not appear too overmatched in his rookie season.  But if Tampa is to fulfill the playoff hype that many have heaped upon the team, Banks must take a decisive leap forward.

Tennessee Titans: Edge-Rusher

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    Long mired in mediocrity, the Tennessee Titans overhauled their coaching staff this offseason by hiring new head coach Ken Whisenhunt.  The offensive-minded Whisenhunt brought in ex-Cardinals and Browns coordinator Ray Horton to run the defense.  For Horton's hybrid 3-4 system to succeed, however, he must find pass-rushers apart from Jurrell Casey whom he can trust.

    Even with the underrated Casey, the Tennessee pass rush was uninspiring last year, ranking 20th in adjusted sack rate with just 36 sacks overall, per Football Outsiders. As NFL.com's Bucky Brooks elucidates, Horton's multiple defense often lines up in a 2-4-5 nickel that essentially functions as a 4-3 under, relying on pre-snap disguise and blitzes to create pressure and protect relatively vanilla coverages.

    While Casey figures to provide a relatively strong interior push, the edge looks like a case of quantity over quality.  Kamerion Wimbley has disappointed with just nine sacks in two Titans seasons.  Shaun Phillips appeared reinvigorated in Denver, accruing 10 sacks last season, but wore down and had only three in the final nine contests (playoffs included).  Former second-rounder Akeem Ayers has disappointed thus far with just nine career sacks in three seasons.

    If you squint hard enough, it is possible to put a positive spin on this.  Wimbley could benefit from switching back to outside linebacker, where he excelled as a Raider.  Phillips could benefit from a more situational role, as he played heavy snaps in 2013 due to Von Miller's unavailability.  And Ayers could be more explosive after offseason surgery on both of his knees.

    But that's a fairly heavy reliance on conjecture.  More likely, one or two of those positive scenarios will not occur, leaving the Titans fairly thin in terms of edge-rushers.  Without consistent pressure, Horton's defense could look much less impressive than it has in recent seasons.

Washington: Guard

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    On paper, Washington looks primed to boast one of the league's best passing attacks.  The hiring of new head coach Jay Gruden, the signings of DeSean Jackson and Andre Roberts and healthy returns from Robert Griffin III make for an enticing combination on paper.

    However, the guard positions could emerge as significant weaknesses and disrupt the timing of Washington's passing game.  Veteran incumbent Chris Chester looks like the starter at right guard, while free-agent signing Shawn Lauvao inked a four-year deal to start at left guard. 

    Based on last season, though, neither Chester nor Lauvao should inspire much confidence.  Among guards last year, both ranked in the bottom half in terms of pass-blocking efficiency.  The pair combined for a minus-18.5 cumulative grade, with Lauvao's minus-11.0 run-blocking grade making him one of the worst all-around starting guards in the league.  Indeed, Lauvao's signing was generally panned at the time.

    Chester offers a little more promise.  The 31-year-old has seen a bizarre mid-career trend in which he has alternated between excellence and incompetence on an annual basis.  For instance, he was the 15th-highest rated guard in 2012 at plus-13.4 overall, but the seventh-lowest the year before at minus-12.4.

    Third-rounder Spencer Long might yet offer Chester a challenge on the right side, while disappointing third-year pro Josh LeRibeus has gotten in shape and could push Lauvao on the left.  Still, Lauvao's signing likely guarantees Washington one below-average starter at guard, and Chester's hit-or-miss trend could have Griffin scrambling for his life in 2014.

     

    Unless otherwise cited, all stats via Pro Football Focus (subscription required).