Every NFL Team's Biggest Position of Concern at Start of Training Camps
Though some are more complete than others, none of the NFL's 32 teams are impervious to flaws in their position groups. Some deficiencies, like a complete lack of a starting-caliber quarterback, are more troublesome than others, like no real depth behind one standout receiver.
Remember that these are not each team's worst position group, but rather the ones that currently have the most cause for concern heading into training camp. Some teams have talented players at these positions of concern, but camp battles or injuries cast a question mark over them.
Thus, each position was chosen because either the unit performed poorly in 2013 and was not adequately improved this offseason, or the unit will be so different in 2014 that it's a complete wild card.
Many of these concerns will be ironed out by the conclusion of training camp as players win starting jobs. However, some position-group problems will continue to plague teams well into the 2014 season.
New England Patriots: Wide Receiver
As Tom Brady demonstrated in 2013, he can elevate the most average group of receivers, and that's exactly what he did. The New England Patriots didn't have a single receiver finish in the top 30 in Pro Football Focus grades (subscription required) last season for the first time since 2008, which shows how much the team misses Deion Branch and Wes Welker.
Julian Edelman was the only New England receiver to finish with more than 1,000 yards and the only one with more than four touchdowns. His performance earned him a contract extension, but truth be told, the Patriots needed to bring him back, as they didn't substantially address the position this offseason.
Danny Amendola was supposed to step into the role vacated last offseason by Welker, who averaged 1,243 yards and six touchdowns per season with the Patriots. But injuries plagued Amendola in St. Louis and continue to in New England, when a groin injury and concussion caused him to miss four games in 2013.
If the floor for the Patriots receiver group is making the AFC Championship Game like the team did in 2013, clearly it's not that big a concern. And with Brady at the helm, the situation is by no means dire. But if Bill Belichick and the Patriots brass are determined to win one more championship before Brady retires, he'll need offensive weapons on hand.
If second-year players Aaron Dobson, Kenbrell Thompkins and Josh Boyce can step up, if Amendola stays healthy and if Edelman can continue at last year's level, this group will be fine. But those are a lot of ifs for a team that wants to win now.
Miami Dolphins: Offensive Line
The Miami Dolphins' concerns on the offensive line, specifically at the center position, grew Thursday when Armando Salguero of the Miami Herald reported that, per a source, Mike Pouncey could miss eight weeks of the season recovering from hip surgery.
Miami could slot Sam Brenner or Nate Garner in at center to replace Pouncey. It could move guard Shelley Smith to center and fill his starting guard position with free-agent acquisition Daryn Colledge. But Pouncey's situation could reverberate on the line for half a season.
The Dolphins offensive line allowed 58 sacks in 2013, the most in the league. In run blocking, Miami running backs averaged a middling 4.1 yards per attempt. The organization has certainly attempted to improve this offseason; the line will feature four new starters in 2014. Branden Albert will be protecting Ryan Tannehill's blind side, while rookie Ja'Wuan James will slide in at right tackle.
Tannehill has flashed in his first two seasons; he's displayed arm strength, mobility and an ability to run through his reads quickly. He now has legitimate weapons in Mike Wallace, Jarvis Landry and Brian Hartline. But if the offensive line can't keep him off the ground or open up holes for the run game, Tannehill's developing skills won't save this offense.
Miami needs to find the right combination on the line and get immediate production out of its new position grouping.
New York Jets: Quarterback
The New York Jets may have a quarterback competition this training camp in name only, as everyone on the team seems to believe the job is Geno Smith's to lose. But coach Rex Ryan won't say as much yet.
According to ESPN.com's Rich Cimini, wide receiver David Nelson said in practice Thursday that Smith knows "it's his team." When asked if he agreed with that assessment, Ryan responded, "I consider it our team. Do I consider it Geno's team? Yep. I also consider it Michael Vick's team. And my team. Everybody's team."
The quarterback position has plagued the Jets in recent years, and Smith didn't definitively prove he can be the franchise quarterback the team is looking for in 2013. His 21 interceptions were fourth-most among all NFL quarterbacks, and his passer rating of 66.5 was the lowest in the league.
He looked wild-eyed at times and unprepared for game action. Remember that Smith performed well in training camp last year, per Cimini, only to struggle in the regular season.
But a rookie season does not a career make, and it's far too early to write Smith off. By all accounts, the starting job is his to lose, and he has some go-to weapons in place with the newly acquired Eric Decker and rookie tight end Jace Amaro.
But if he doesn't start his second year on a major upswing, even with Vick behind him, this offense may not finish much higher in 2014 than its No. 25 mark last season.
Buffalo Bills: Linebacker
The Buffalo Bills aren't hurting for depth at linebacker, but with breakout star Kiko Alonso likely to miss the entire 2014 season with a torn left ACL, can anyone match his production and skill level at weak-side linebacker?
Alonso played 1,176 snaps in 2013, the second-most of all inside linebackers by Pro Football Focus' count. He proved to be by far not only the Bills' best coverage linebacker, but also the best coverage linebacker in the league, per PFF, allowing just 36 receptions into his coverage all season and coming away with four interceptions.
He also had four passes defended and two sacks.
Buffalo did fortify the middle when it acquired free agent Brandon Spikes, but he's in the middle of learning a new scheme and is almost exclusively a run-stopper. The Bills could slot Nigel Bradham in Alonso's place on passing downs. He's been taking first-team reps with the defense, per ESPN.com's Mike Rodak. Whether Bradham can be effective against the run would be a question to be determined this season.
The Bills also have third-round rookie Preston Brown for depth. But the defense will be adjusting to new coordinator Jim Schwartz's new scheme, and it has Jay Cutler, Tom Brady (twice), Peyton Manning and Aaron Rodgers on the docket. The team can't afford blown coverages by its linebacking corps.
Cincinnati Bengals: Center
The Cincinnati Bengals have put together one of the deepest and most complete rosters in the league; there's not a lot here keeping Marvin Lewis and Mike Brown up at night.
Center is not a gaping hole, as either Trevor Robinson or rookie Russell Bodine should be capable, but it's one of the only positions that's truly wide open heading into training camp. Even at right defensive end, Wallace Gilberry is presumed to take over for the departed Michael Johnson.
Free-agent offensive lineman Mike Pollak has never started an NFL game at center, though he was expected to compete with Bodine. But Bodine was snapping the ball to Andy Dalton on Thursday's training camp opener, and Pollak took snaps at left guard at Friday's practice, per ESPN.com's Coley Harvey. So it's unclear if he's still being considered for that competition.
At this point, the center battle is less of a concern and more of an intriguing position battle. But Bodine has struggled with unclean snaps in practices, per Harvey, and Pollak is still rehabbing a knee issue, so the trouble factor could increase during camp if those issues linger.
Baltimore Ravens: Offensive Line
The Baltimore Ravens offensive line was one of the biggest blots on the team's 2013 season. The 48 sacks Joe Flacco took were the most of his career, and unlike some quarterbacks who can still be effective under pressure, Flacco needs solid protection to produce. He threw 10 interceptions under pressure, the second-most in the league, per Pro Football Focus, and just three touchdowns.
After letting right tackle Michael Oher walk in free agency this offseason, it looks like Rick Wagner and Jah Reid will compete for the starting job, per ESPN.com's Jamison Henley. Free agent Jeremy Zuttah will be another new starting face on the line as the entire offense adjusts to a new look under coordinator Gary Kubiak.
Baltimore will face some of the league's top-ranked defenses from last season, including its three division rivals, right off the bat in Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, Cleveland and Carolina. It will also be missing running back Ray Rice for the Cincinnati and Pittsburgh matchups, as the NFL announced news of his two-game suspension Thursday.
Baltimore's offensive line will need to jell with its two new starters and under Kubiak's new offense by Week 1 and demonstrate an ability to block for backup RB Bernard Pierce and keep Flacco upright.
Cleveland Browns: Wide Receiver
The Cleveland Browns do not yet know if star wideout Josh Gordon will miss the entire season. The receiver is set to meet with NFL officials on August 1 concerning his one-year suspension, ESPN's Adam Schefter learned from a league source Thursday.
But whether the Browns get Gordon for half a season or none of the season, the receiver group is looking disjointed at the start of training camp, and that's worrisome.
"There's some talented guys," coach Mike Pettine said Monday, per ESPN.com's Pat McManamon. "But there's not much cohesion there as far as guys playing together."
Behind Gordon are serviceable players such as Miles Austin, Nate Burleson and Andrew Hawkins, each of whom has value as part of a receiving corps, but none of which is a No. 1 receiver in his own right.
Hawkins is best in the slot, but Gordon's injury might force him into a role on the outside. Burleson's productivity has been inconsistent, but he's been a good downfield threat over his 11-year career.
In addition to learning a new offense, the Browns receivers won't know which quarterback they will be receiving passes from come September. Brian Hoyer enters camp as the starter, but Johnny Manziel will take advantage of every opportunity to prove to Pettine that he gives the Browns the best chance to win.
Pittsburgh Steelers: Cornerback
The Pittsburgh Steelers return starters Ike Taylor and Cortez Allen in 2014, but given their performances last season, having established starters heading into training camp isn't necessarily reassuring.
Pittsburgh tied for the third-fewest interceptions in the league in 2013, producing just 10. Taylor has never had massive interception production in his career, with just 14 in almost as many years in the league, so it's not fair to judge his poor performance last season solely in the context of picks.
However, Taylor's play slipped noticeably in other areas, which eventually caused the Steelers to stop pairing him against top receivers and move him around the field toward the end of the season.
For that reason, expect Allen to take over No. 1 duties in 2014, matching up against the likes of A.J Green, Eric Decker, Steve Smith, Reggie Wayne and Julio Jones. Allen allowed five touchdowns into his coverage in 2013, per Pro Football Focus, which was high for the league average. But he only allowed a catch rate of 55.6 percent, which is promising heading into this season.
The seven touchdowns Taylor allowed into his coverage in 2013 were near the top of the league, per Pro Football Focus, and that's troublesome. Taylor may not shadow top opponents, but he's still going to be the second starter opposite Allen, and his play must improve from last season.
William Gay also needs to step up as the Steelers' nickel corner, because the frequency with which the Steelers run sub-packages means he'll be seeing a lot of snaps.
Depth isn't great at the position, which is why it landed on this list over the offensive line. Brice McCain didn't perform much better than Taylor in Houston last season, and fifth-rounder Shaquille Richardson was the only corner Pittsburgh selected in the draft.
Indianapolis Colts: Linebacker
Yes, Robert Mathis' suspension is only for four games...but in the first four games of the 2013 season, he amassed 7.5 of his 19.5 total sacks on the year. Can this Colts linebackers group step up in his absence? And on the inside, do the Colts have the run-stuffing personnel they need with Pat Angerer and Kavell Conner departing in free agency?
Second-year player Bjoern Werner is "going to get the lion's share of snaps" with the starters in training camp, coach Chuck Pagano said, per ESPN.com's Mike Wells. Werner had 18 tackles, 2.5 sacks and three passes defended last season as a rookie. But the Colts face Denver in Week 1, the team that through the strength of its offensive line and its quarterback allowed the fewest sacks in the league last season.
On the inside, free-agent acquisition D'Qwell Jackson will be called upon to shore up a run defense that allowed a whopping 376.5 rushing yards over two games in the postseason and six rushing touchdowns.
The 4.5 yards per rushing attempt the Colts allowed during the 2013 regular season was among the league's worst. And Jackson didn't do much for Cleveland's run defense in 2013, allowing 9.7 yards per attempt on average and grading out at Pro Football Focus as the seventh-worst inside linebacker against the run.
The Colts have to be concerned about their linebackers' ability to produce sacks in Mathis' absence and shore up the run against opponents such as LeSean McCoy, Arian Foster, Giovani Bernard, Alfred Morris and DeMarco Murray, all of whom they have on the docket.
Houston Texans: Quarterback
Taking a quarterback with the No. 1 overall pick was not the correct way for the Houston Texans to address their issue at the position—the value simply wasn't there. Knowing they had Ryan Fitzpatrick on the roster allowed Houston to both trade Matt Schaub to the Raiders and then wait to draft Tom Savage in Round 4.
That may have been the right move for the organization, but there's still reason for concern at quarterback.
Head coach Bill O'Brien named Fitzpatrick the starter in June; according to ESPN.com's Tania Ganguli, he felt it was important for the team to know who its starter would be heading into mandatory minicamp and training camp.
But everyone saw how the rotating quarterback carousel of Schaub and Case Keenum affected the team's overall performance last season, even with standout offensive weapons and a strong defense. This team needs consistency and production out of the quarterback position to succeed.
Fitzpatrick doesn't spell doom for the Texans. His completion percentage of 62 percent in 2013, stepping in for an injured Jake Locker for the Titans, was better than half the league's quarterbacks and tied his career best. And he'll have better weapons in Houston than he had in Tennessee or in his years with the Bills.
But the issues Fitzpatrick has demonstrated over his career—a lack of arm strength, high turnover rate—are unlikely to be cured in his 10th season in the league.
O'Brien is a fantastic developer of quarterback talent, and for that reason, Savage will likely sit for a year behind Fitzpatrick's veteran experience and learn the system. And considering that Fitzgerald has never helmed a team that's finished with a winning record, Houston has to have concerns heading into 2014.
Tennessee Titans: Quarterback
Quarterback is the biggest question mark heading into training camp for a Tennessee Titans team that otherwise looks relatively complete. Though Jake Locker got the starting nod in 2012 over veteran Matt Hasselbeck, he only played 11 games that year and seven in 2013 due to injuries to his foot, hip and shoulder.
With a new playbook and offense to learn, Locker will have to go to work immediately in training camp, but his injury history is a concern that looms over this offense, which is otherwise set up to have a strong year.
The depth behind Locker doesn't assuage any concerns about the position. Charlie Whitehurst is an uninspired career backup who has started four games and won just one, per Pro-Football-Reference.com's records. And the Titans didn't draft Zach Mettenberger in Round 6 with the idea he'd be starting games this season. Tyler Wilson, meanwhile, may have a future on the practice squad.
The time for Locker to prove he can be the Titans' future is now, the final year of his rookie contract. Locker led the team to a 3-1 start in 2013, and he posted a 60.7 percent completion rate over the course of the season, a career high. But until he plays a full 16 games, his durability will always be a concern for Tennessee.
Jacksonville Jaguars: Free Safety
Former Seahawks defensive coordinator Gus Bradley has quietly been remaking the Jacksonville Jaguars defense in Seattle's image during his tenure as head coach, but the problem is that he hasn't yet found his new Earl Thomas.
Free safety is an incredibly important position in this new-look Jaguars defense that will likely use one high safety in the backfield. They inserted sixth-round 2013 draft pick Josh Evans into the lineup last season after Dwight Lowery sustained a concussion, and Bradley liked what he saw so much out of Evans that he cut Lowery last November.
Evans was certainly not Thomas-esque in his 11 starts in 2013, though he did have 47 total tackles. But he missed OTAs as he recovered from a foot surgery and has been limited so far in early training camp practices, with Winston Guy taking snaps with the first-team defense in his place, per Michael DiRocco of ESPN.com.
Even if Evans recovers in time to fully participate in the preseason, Bradley's concerns for this position shouldn't be alleviated. In his rookie season, Evans allowed the highest quarterback passer rating into his coverage (156.9) of any safety in the league, per Pro Football Focus. He also allowed opposing receivers a catch rate of 85 percent, the second-highest among all safeties.
The strength of this Jaguars defense will come down to its pass rush and its safety play in terms of creating opportunities and shutting down opposing quarterbacks. The team has made moves to improve its pass rush, but the free safety position is still a concern.
Kansas City Chiefs: Cornerback
Many were surprised when the Kansas City Chiefs released star corner Brandon Flowers in June, especially Flowers himself, who said he joined the Chargers so he could play the Chiefs again and "let them know how I felt about it," per NFL.com's Dan Hanzus.
Flowers had a career-high 63 total tackles in 2013, but a career-low one interception and eight passes defended. Still, he was the Chiefs' top cover corner, getting the most targets on receivers on whom he had primary coverage in 2013, per Pro Football Focus.
Most expected Sean Smith to move into the No. 1 slot after Flowers' departure, but Kansas City demoted him to the second-team defense after he was cited for driving under the influence in June.
Marcus Cooper and Ron Parker are the Chiefs' cornerback starters heading into training camp, though it remains to be seen if Smith's team-inflicted discipline will be lifted before the season and, as the most experienced corner on the roster, if he'll return to a starting job.
A seventh-round pick in 2013, Cooper's rookie season got off to a good start but went south quickly over a three-game stretch against the Broncos and the Chargers, when Peyton Manning proved that Cooper wasn't No. 1 material against quarterbacks of his caliber. Manning found Eric Decker for four touchdowns while he was primarily under Cooper's coverage in Week 13.
Parker played 89 snaps last season and had two interceptions, but the former undrafted free agent has only started one game in his three-year career.
Denver Broncos: Running Back
Denver Broncos fans won't forget that Knowshon Moreno began the 2013 season third on the depth chart, behind Ronnie Hillman and Montee Ball. He worked his way back up during the season as Ball struggled with three fumbles early on, but his departure in free agency isn't as dire as some in the NFL world have made it out to be.
Still, the reason running back is Denver's position of most concern heading into training camp is that its No. 1, Ball, is still largely untested, while Hillman, who has 548 career yards over two seasons, fell down the depth chart when he struggled last season.
But the Broncos want to take advantage of the fact that, last season, they saw six or fewer defenders in the box on 80 percent of running plays because opponents feared the Peyton Manning-led passing attack so much. Ball averaged 4.7 yards on 120 attempts last season, and clearly the Broncos feel he can help them exploit the favorable fronts they tend to see.
Ball struggled catching the ball out of the backfield in 2013, probably the weakest part of his overall game. He'll have to improve there as a No. 1 back. The Broncos will also pay close attention to C.J. Anderson in training camp; Hillman has had two fumbles in each of his two seasons with the team and isn't a skilled blocker, so Anderson's development will be important for depth.
San Diego Chargers: Nose Tackle
The drop-off in depth at defensive tackle after Corey Liuget and Kendall Reyes is generally steep, but nose tackle specifically is one of the bigger question marks on this team. That doesn't mean it's a looming concern, but rather a position of great uncertainty heading into camp.
Veteran Sean Lissemore is being challenged for the starting spot by rookie Ryan Carrethers, who has better anchor size (337 lbs) than Lissemore (303 lbs), who gradually supplanted Cam Thomas on the depth chart. But Lissemore only played a total of 46 snaps at the nose in 2013, per Pro Football Focus.
Carrethers started all Arkansas State's games at nose tackle in 2013 and blocked two field-goal attempts.
Kwame Geathers, who went undrafted in 2013, could also compete with Lissemore for the starting spot.
Oakland Raiders: Quarterback
The Oakland Raiders made huge strides at multiple positions this offseason, nabbing receiver James Jones and defensive linemen Justin Tuck and LaMarr Woodley in free agency and drafting guard Gabe Jackson and linebacker Khalil Mack. But they're relying on the struggling Matt Schaub to be their quarterback as second-round pick Derek Carr develops in the system, and that's cause for concern.
Schaub's meltdown last season in Houston was unprecedented, when he threw for just 2,310 yards in 10 games and averaged a career-low (as a starter) 6.45 yards per attempt. He also threw 14 interceptions and just 10 touchdowns, which would be enough to shake anyone's confidence.
But coach Dennis Allen has professed unwavering faith in Schaub, stating that he "doesn't have any problems with Matt Schaub's confidence" and that he's been "very focused and very driven this offseason," per ESPN.com's Paul Gutierrez.
Yet the pressure to perform in Oakland is perhaps higher than it was in Houston last season, with a hungry second-round pick biting at Schaub's heels and a front office that could be put on notice if it makes yet another poor quarterback decision.
The question of which Matt Schaub will show up in 2014—the one who threw 29 touchdowns and 4,770 yards and completed 68 percent of his passes in 2009 or the one who imploded in 2013—has to be cause for concern for a team that's looking for its first winning record since 2002.
Philadelphia Eagles: Cornerback
In order to mitigate their extremely limited depth at cornerback in 2013, the Philadelphia Eagles signed Nolan Carroll in free agency, who will sit behind Bradley Fletcher but could also fill in for Cary Williams if need be. They also drafted Jaylen Watkins in Round 4 of this year's NFL draft.
Fletcher and Williams return after the Eagles finished with the league's worst pass defense in 2013. They had five interceptions between the two of them. Williams missed 13 tackles, which was the sixth-most of any cornerback, per Pro Football Focus.
Returning their two starters from 2013 could mean the Eagles secondary performs similarly to its 2013 showing, and that wouldn't be ideal. Thankfully, the Eagles have a bright spot in slot corner Brandon Boykin, who had more interceptions (six) than Williams and Fletcher combined.
Williams and Fletcher are underwhelming and below-average starters, yet the Eagles will rely on them to ensure their pass defense doesn't allow 290 yards per game again. While neither is outright problematic, they are certainly cause for concern for Philadelphia heading into 2014.
Dallas Cowboys: Middle Linebacker
The torn ACL Sean Lee suffered during the first day of OTAs was a huge blow to the Dallas Cowboys' inside linebackers group, which relies on Lee's experience and leadership. Justin Durant will receive the opportunity to start in his place, as executive vice president Stephen Jones announced Friday morning, per Brandon George of The Dallas Morning News.
He'll be pushed by second-year player DeVonte Holloman, who had 14 total tackles and two sacks in 2013. But Durant is entering his eighth year in the league and his second with Dallas, and though he hasn't been a flashy player, his experience could land him the starting job in Lee's absence.
Neither Durant nor Holloman will be able to match Lee's production and leadership, however. He is a disruptive force who had six passes defended in 2013 and four interceptions, grading out as the No. 7 overall inside linebacker in 2013 by Pro Football Focus.
The Cowboys have other positions to be concerned about in 2014 in addition to middle linebacker, but the absence of Lee will reverberate throughout this season.
Washington Redskins: Offensive Line
Left tackle Trent Williams is the Washington Redskins' best offensive lineman, and the outside of the line is generally solid, but the interior is a big question mark heading into 2014.
The shifts on the inside Washington has made include moving guard Kory Lichtensteiger to center and signing free-agent guard Shawn Lauvao for the left guard spot. But Lauvao struggled in Cleveland, grading out as the 12th-worst guard in the league last season at Pro Football Focus. He allowed four sacks, four hits and 18 hurries.
It's still unclear whether Lichtensteiger can handle the center position. His play at guard was never overly impressive. Protection in this unit has to improve in 2014.
Without knowing how either Lichtensteiger or Lauvao will do as a new positional starter in 2014, the interior line is cause for some concern prior to the season.
New York Giants: Defensive Line
If we were looking at worst position groups, we would have gone tight end here, but we have all seen Jerry Reese reject out of hand the notion that the New York Giants need a prominent tight end to be competitive. It's hard to label a position a concern when a team doesn't heavily feature it.
The defensive line is a far more important area on this New York squad, and there are more than a few question marks for this unit heading into camp.
Jason Pierre-Paul's struggles in 2013 were alarming, and the Giants have to be concerned about whether the back surgery he had in spring 2013 will continue to affect his play the way it so clearly did last season. After racking up a whopping 16.5 sacks in the Giants' 2011 Super Bowl campaign, he had just 6.5 when the back problems began in 2012 and only two last season after the surgery and a shoulder injury.
Justin Tuck, who led the Giants pass rush while Pierre-Paul struggled through injury, left in free agency this offseason, putting even more pressure on Pierre-Paul to return to form.
The potential options to replace Tuck include free-agent acquisition Robert Ayers, Mathias Kiwanuka and Damontre Moore. But the Giants have real cause for concern if Pierre-Paul continues to struggle and none of Tuck's potential replacements can improve this pass rush.
Detroit Lions: Cornerback
The Detroit Lions' two likely starters at cornerback heading into training camp appear to be veteran Rashean Mathis and second-year player Darius Slay. Behind them, a whole host of players will compete for an additional three or four spots, including Bill Bentley (the likely slot corner), Cassius Vaughn, Chris Greenwood, Nevin Lawson, Jonte Green, Aaron Hester and Mohammed Seisay.
The group as a whole, which plays in arguably the most receiver-loaded division in the league, is not particularly impressive.
Mathis, who has the most experience of any player on the team, replaced Slay as the team's top cover corner early last season. He did a decent job, allowing opposing receivers one of the league's lowest catch rates of just 48.7 percent, per Pro Football Focus, but he didn't create a lot of plays for his team.
After Detroit benched Slay in Week 3 in favor of Mathis for his rookie growing pains, he made little impact in the secondary last season, which finished near the bottom of the league. His best game of the season came against the Packers on Thanksgiving Day, in which he allowed zero touchdowns into his coverage, per Pro Football Focus, and defended two passes.
If Slay can play more physical football against the league's bigger receivers, and especially against his NFC North opponents, he could develop into a solid No. 2 starter. But to begin 2014, Slay and Mathis will be in the starting roles because of necessity, not because they've earned them.
Green Bay Packers: Middle Linebacker
Inside linebacker was a position many expected the Green Bay Packers to address with one of their nine picks in the 2014 NFL draft, bringing in someone who could compete with the underwhelming Brad Jones at "Mike" linebacker. The Packers did not draft an inside linebacker (Carl Bradford will start off on the outside) but did sign some undrafted free agents, including Korey Jones most recently.
For now, it appears Brad Jones' starting spot is safe, deserved or not. "Brad's our starter until I'm told otherwise," linebackers coach Winston Moss said in late June, per ESPN.com's Rob Demovsky.
A hamstring injury hampered Jones for a period of four games midseason in 2013. Although he notched three sacks and 60 tackles, like fellow inside 'backer A.J. Hawk, he was slow in coverage over the middle, and Pro Football Focus graded him in the bottom third in 2013 against the run.
Jones also allowed an above-average number of yards after the catch in his coverage with 230. Runners often broke through the middle and left him behind as they reached the second level of the defense.
Jamari Lattimore got a chance to prove what he can do last season when he made four starts in place of the injured Jones, and that could lead to more opportunities for playing time for him in 2014. Though the Packers have taken the stance heading into camp that Jones' starting job is safe, getting better play out of the middle linebacker position would also likely improve Hawk's play and thus the entire interior.
Chicago Bears: Safety
Perhaps realizing that even after free agency and the NFL draft their safety position was still cause for concern, the Chicago Bears signed veteran safety Adrian Wilson in June.
Per ESPN.com's Michael C. Wright, Wilson is "very much in contention" for one of Chicago's two starting safety jobs. He will compete with fellow free agent Ryan Mundy and fourth-rounder Brock Vereen. Major Wright departed in free agency and signed with the Buccaneers.
Chris Conte and Craig Steltz could also vie for a starting job, but injuries in the offseason have slowed their progress.
According to ESPN Chicago, Wilson is one of just 13 NFL players to record 20-plus sacks and 20-plus interceptions since sacks became a statistic in 1982. But the worry is whether he'll be able to meaningfully produce heading into his 14th season in the league.
Coach Marc Trestman has reinforced that the strong safety and free safety positions in Chicago's defense are essentially interchangeable, so the team is looking for the two best players regardless of position. Mundy took the majority of first-team reps at strong safety during OTAs and minicamp, per Wright.
Vereen and Wilson would seem to have the best chance of landing the free safety spot, at least until Conte is medically cleared. The Bears have a lot of bodies at the position, but whether these players can significantly improve the secondary remains a question.
Minnesota Vikings: Quarterback
Like Chicago, strong safety is a position of concern for Minnesota, one low on experience. But the Vikings are yet another NFL team with a looming question mark over a quarterback position helmed by a middling veteran with an eager rookie hoping for a chance to take over.
Matt Cassel looks to be the one to beat for the starting job, but he'll still have to compete with Teddy Bridgewater and Christian Ponder. As the team reported for training camp Thursday, coach Mike Zimmer said, "In my mind I have Cassel as the No. 1 quarterback going into camp. I don't have a starter in mind yet," per Derek Wetmore of ESPN Twin Cities.
Cassel's win-loss record as a starter is 32-37, per Pro-Football-Reference.com. His average completion percentage over his career is a worrisome 59.0 percent, which raises concerns about his accuracy. Of course, Ponder doesn't give the team much of a better chance to win. And Bridgewater, pro-ready as he is, could still make a legitimate push for the starting job.
Unless Bridgewater breaks out, the Vikings' quarterback play may not be much improved over 2013, and that's cause for concern.
New Orleans Saints: Inside Linebacker
If having Curtis Lofton and David Hawthorne as one's inside linebackers is a problem, it's a problem many teams wish they had. Still, the New Orleans Saints are relatively strong at other position groups compared to inside linebacker. Predictions of struggles at halfback are overstated with Pierre Thomas and Mark Ingram on the roster, and the outside linebacker spots are in better shape than the inside.
In its analysis of New Orleans' depth chart, Pro Football Focus notes that inside linebacker is the only position on the roster where both starters earned a below-average grade. It's not that they are poor inside linebackers when compared to their peers, but rather the position isn't one of the strongest on New Orleans' depth chart.
Lofton's run defense and coverage weren't spectacular in 2013; he missed a whopping 17 tackles—tied for the third-most among all inside linebackers, per Pro Football Focus—and allowed opposing quarterbacks a rating of 108.7 into his coverage.
Hawthorne, who the Saints initially brought in to start but who was hindered by injuries, also missed a high number of tackles with 11. New Orleans' run defense was middling in 2013, and it allowed opponents 4.6 yards per attempt, tied for the fourth-most in the league.
The organization likely isn't overly concerned about Lofton and Hawthorne, but the inside 'backers could certainly shore up their tackling and improve their coverage.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Guard
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers announced Friday that the team had "mutually agreed" to part ways with left guard Carl Nicks, who had missed the beginning of training camp. Cue big concerns about the Bucs' interior line, which, apart from veteran center Evan Dietrich-Smith, suddenly looks to be one of the league's most untested.
Tampa Bay made headlines when it signed Nicks away from the Saints two years ago, but in that time, the veteran guard only played in nine games.
The Bucs signed Oniel Cousins to a one-year deal for depth, but now he'll be competing for one of two open roster spots alongside fifth-round rookie Kadeem Edwards, Patrick Omameh and Jamon Meredith. Per ESPN.com's Pat Yasinskas, Omameh received the majority of first-team reps at right guard during minicamp practices, while Edwards slotted in at Nicks' spot on the left.
Heading into training camp, the Bucs are suddenly facing the prospect of having a rookie and a second-year player holding down their two starting guard positions.
Carolina Panthers: Wide Receiver
Offensive line is a potential issue for the Carolina Panthers, but with a mobile quarterback such as Cam Newton, it can come together if Byron Bell's transition from right to left tackle is successful, or if Nate Chandler steps in.
At wide receiver, the talent simply may not be there. After losing Steve Smith and Brandon LaFell in free agency, Carolina drafted Kelvin Benjamin in Round 1, and in this depth chart, he'll have to become a No. 1 quickly.
That may not be too tall an order. Benjamin has impressed so far in offseason practices and training camp. Per ESPN.com's Panthers beat writer, David Newton, Benjamin made back-to-back 30-plus-yard catches from Newton in Friday's practice.
But can Jerricho Cotchery, Jason Avant, Tiquan Underwood and Tavarres King, if all make the roster, comprise a dynamic receiving corps behind Benjamin? The Panthers certainly put themselves in a great position vis-a-vis their cap health; per David Newton, Smith would have counted $7 million against the 2014 cap, and the 12 receivers currently on the roster count a combined $9.1 million.
But Carolina may have sacrificed playmaking ability for cap security. Moreover, two of its projected big contributors, Cotchery and Avant, have played an average of nine years in the league. They won't be future weapons to develop with Newton.
Cotchery has only had one 1,000-yard season in his career, in 2007. However, he did score 10 touchdowns for Pittsburgh in 2013. Avant has never had a 1,000-yard season and has not scored more than three touchdowns in a season.
Atlanta Falcons: Tight End
Tony Gonzalez had 83 receptions for 859 yards and eight touchdowns in 2013. To say he was a huge part of the Falcons passing game and that he often helped draw wideouts Julio Jones and Roddy White out of double-coverage situations is an understatement.
So while the Falcons' outside pass rush is also a concern, there are at least talented players in that group who should contribute. At tight end, Atlanta has to hope 2013 fourth-round selection Levine Toilolo develops into, if not the next Gonzalez, a legitimate option in the receiving game.
Toilolo only had 11 receptions in 2013 but scored two touchdowns. Meanwhile, fellow tight end Bear Pascoe only has one career touchdown to date and will likely be kept on the roster for his blocking. So if the Falcons want to get a tight end involved in the passing game, it's going to be Toilolo.
Offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter has indicated that in the post-Gonzalez years, he expects Atlanta's tight ends to play more of a jack-of-all-trades role, "part blockers, part receivers, part offensive linemen, part running back, part pass-protectors," per Fox Sports South's John Manasso.
Atlanta may not be too concerned about making sure Toilolo gets 50-plus receptions, but there are big questions about whether the three guys it has on the roster, including Mickey Shuler, are going to be competent in those areas.
Especially given the recent injury history of both Jones and White, the Falcons have gone from a tight end with better production than most of the league's receivers to a tight end corps of largely untested players. It's one of the biggest question marks on the roster.
St. Louis Rams: Wide Receiver
In Pro Football Focus' analysis of the St. Louis Rams' depth chart, every wide receiver (and tight end, for that matter) is graded either average or below-average, which is problematic for a team trying to help Sam Bradford reach the potential he displayed in his Heisman-winning college career.
The safety position is far from settled as well, but the concern in St. Louis has to be not whether the right receivers are on the roster, but whether they'll break out in 2014.
The Rams have amassed plenty of depth at receiver, with a nice mix of outside talent and slot receivers. But the big issue here is that there's not a go-to target for Bradford, let alone a true No. 1. Chris Givens played the most snaps of any Rams wideout in 2013 with 798. He was targeted 77 times but brought in just 34 receptions for a catch rate of 44.2, the team's lowest, per Pro Football Focus.
Kenny Britt, newly acquired from Tennessee, could be a reboot for both this Rams receiving corps and Britt's career, which has been marred by injuries and character issues...or his arrival could be yet another area of concern for this unit. Still, he's demonstrated playmaking ability this offseason.
Second-year player Tavon Austin began his rookie year playing almost primarily in the slot, but it was when Brian Schottenheimer finally began to move him around the field to take advantage of his skill set that he started to flash.
But the first-round pick, for whom the Rams traded up in last year's draft, didn't consistently deliver on his potential last season, due in part to that early misuse by Schottenheimer. He had a catch rate of 61.5 percent and more drops (five) than touchdowns (four), per Pro Football Focus. St. Louis needs him to break out in his second year, along with Stedman Bailey.
Austin Pettis received the second-most snaps last season with 598 and tied Austin for the lead in touchdowns with four. The Rams also return Brian Quick, who has intriguing potential but has yet to deliver.
St. Louis has plenty of depth at the position, and on paper it should finally be the strong unit Bradford has needed throughout his career with the Rams. But delayed breakouts by first-rounders and troubled veterans are two of a handful of concerns about this unit.
San Francisco 49ers: Cornerback
There aren't many positions to cause concern for the San Francisco 49ers; their 2014 draft was largely about getting deeper at positions that were already relatively set to begin with. So while Tramaine Brock isn't a below-average corner, losing both starters in Tarell Brown (free agency) and Carlos Rogers (cut) means the 49ers will enter the season with a hint of uncertainty at the position.
Brock nabbed five interceptions in 2013 and had 13 passes defended. Joining him as a starter is Chris Culliver, another backup thrust into a starting position for the first time in his career. Culliver missed the 2013 season with a torn ACL but had three interceptions over his first two seasons with San Francisco.
The 49ers also drafted Jimmie Ward in Round 1 to fill a need at slot corner necessitated by Rogers' departure.
Ideally, San Francisco wouldn't have two players who have rarely started an NFL game entering the season as its No. 1 and No. 2 corners, but the position could be in much worse shape.
Arizona Cardinals: Inside Linebacker
The Arizona Cardinals already had some cause for concern at inside linebacker after losing Karlos Dansby to Cleveland in free agency, so when the league announced it was suspending Daryl Washington for a year for violating the substance-abuse policy, those concerns grew exponentially.
While Arizona's offensive line is also troublesome, it should be improved by the addition of Jared Veldheer and Jonathan Cooper's return. Dansby and Washington were the vocal leaders of a defense that propped up the team in 2013.
Second-year player Kevin Minter looks to be Dansby's replacement, while veteran Larry Foote and Lorenzo Alexander could stage a contest for the other open spot.
Seattle Seahawks: Offensive Line
Clearly, center Max Unger and left tackle Russell Okung aren't cause for concern, and the good news for the Seattle Seahawks is that the two most important positions on the offensive line look to be locked down for 2014 and hopefully without the injuries that impacted them last season.
Left guard and right tackle are the two biggest positions of uncertainty heading into training camp. Former first-rounder James Carpenter looks like the most likely candidate to take over the left guard position, but his NFL career has not lived up to his draft status, to say the least.
He's struggled with heavy footwork, but head coach Pete Carroll says he's looking lighter and more mobile than ever, per Bob Condotta of The Seattle Times.
This is a make-or-break season for Carpenter.
The right tackle spot could be secured by either former seventh-round pick Michael Bowie, who has started at guard for Seattle, or second-rounder Justin Britt.
If Carpenter and either Bowie or Britt step up, the offensive line won't look as questionable. But it also hinges on Unger and Okung staying healthy. Seattle doesn't have many positions of concern heading into 2014, but there are more questions on the line than elsewhere on the roster.
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