Ten Team Needs Unfulfilled
The draft and all major free agent signings are done. So what holes remain on NFL rosters? Here’s a look at the 10 most glaring.
10. 49ers at Quarterback
Quarterback is the one position that absolutely can’t be a hole on your roster. Understand, when we’re talking about 49ers quarterback, we’re really talking about Blaine Gabbert. It’s hard to imagine Colin Kaepernick winning this job. Yes, he’s a better runner than Gabbert, which fits Chip Kelly’s scheme. But Gabbert is markedly more sound as a thrower and decision-maker. Plus, the Niners have every incentive to sit Kaepernick this year so as not to run the risk of a major injury, which would make his contract guaranteed next year (the same thing Washington did with Robert Griffin III in 2015). The Niners already bit this bullet once this spring when Kaepernick’s recovery from shoulder and knee surgeries made it impossible to release him.
Remember, in 2013 everyone thought the mobile Michael Vick would be an ideal fit in Chip Kelly’s system. Vick started the season but got hurt and ultimately lost the job to Nick Foles, under whom the offense flowed smoother. It’s a similar situation here.
The question now becomes whether Gabbert can perform. His body of work suggests he can’t—and so the Niners must be included on this list of glaring holes. But for the sake of discussion, let’s look only at his raw passing skill, which says he can succeed here. Gabbert is essentially Foles but with a better arm and much quicker release. When afforded a clean pocket, he can be as good as almost any passer in the league. The problem is it must be a really clean pocket, otherwise Gabbert’s footwork goes awry and his decision-making sputters. Really clean pockets are uncommon in pro football. But, in theory, they’re more common in Kelly’s scheme, where the up-tempo approach can wear down pass rushers and the play designs often have the ball coming out promptly and on fairly defined reads. No one in San Francisco questions Gabbert’s work ethic; he’ll have little trouble learning Kelly’s user-friendly scheme. But for Gabbert to flourish, he’ll likely need near-perfect conditions around him. The Niners are far from having that.
9. Browns at Inside Linebacker
The team that ranked 30th and 32nd in run defense over the last two years is now weaker at inside linebacker. Or, at least it appears that way. Veteran utility man Karlos Dansby was released and ex-Jet Demario Davis was brought in to fill the void. Davis is not as flexible or alert in coverage as Dansby was, and the Jets were so displeased with his lack of playmaking against the run last season that they gave away some of his snaps down the stretch. Next to Davis will likely be Christian Kirksey, who is best suited for nickel (where he’s still up and down). Fifth-year backup Tank Carder also figures to rotate in. The previous coaching staff took a unique approach to run D that, in part, called for the D-line to ignore gap responsibilities and just focus on penetration and demolition. That worked well for that staff when it had a talented front with the New York Jets, but it was much too risky for this roster. New defensive coordinator Ray Horton is a little more conservative with his fronts, favoring traditional two-gap structures on early downs. Hopefully that can be enough to offset the downgrade of what was already a mediocre linebacking unit.
8. Eagles at Wide Receiver
Since the dismissals of DeSean Jackson and Jeremy Maclin, the Eagles have become collectively slow at wide receiver. Jordan Matthews and Nelson Agholor are both methodical movers who must rely on body positioning. A lack of speed and quickness is not a crippling handicap in new head coach Doug Pederson’s West Coast style scheme, which relies more on shrewd route combinations and play design. But even in that system, the X-iso receiver (the receiver aligned alone on the weak side) often has the “man-beater” route, making him the primary read if the QB gets to the line of scrimmage and identifies man coverage. The less dynamic a runner you are, the harder it is to beat man coverage. Plus, the less likely you are to draw a safety over the top, which makes life harder for receivers on the other side.
Philly did add a burner this offseason in Chris Givens, but for various reasons he hasn’t carved out a niche at previous stops. Same with T.J. Graham. It’s likely that Rueben Randle will share the No. 3 duties with Josh Huff. Randle, with his history of knee trouble, is about as methodical as they come. Huff can dart around but only when aligned inside and aided by the play design.
7. Giants at Linebacker
The Giants have been, at best, average at this position since Antonio Pierce departed after the 2009 season. That’s not necessarily an accident. Clearly GM Jerry Reese does not prioritize linebacker. He’s only drafted one higher than the fourth round in his 10-year career (Clint Sintim, second round in 2009), and the most he has ever paid for one in free agency is $11 million guaranteed (Michael Boley, also in 2009).
There’s a logic behind this. Most likely, Reese believes that a dominant defensive front can make a linebacker, sort of like how a great offensive line can make a running back. Whether others share this belief is irrelevant; the point is, it’s how Reese feels. He’s had success building heavily at D-line. And next in his defensive pecking order is cornerback. D-line and corner are key areas in today’s pass-happy NFL.
That said, when the Giants have been average along the front four, their linebacking corps has been exposed. Recall that three years ago, things got bad enough that Reese made a midseason trade for damaged Panthers star Jon Beason (results were mixed). The Giants have two decent athletes in Devon Kennard and JT Thomas, which will allow them to stay afloat in nickel. But the team’s run defense has ranked 32nd and 24th in yards per attempt the last two years with these guys.
6. Jets at Tight End
One reason the Jets played significantly more four-wideout packages than any team in pro football last year is they didn’t have a tight end—almost literally. Their most productive one was Jeff Cumberland, who had five receptions for 77 yards on the season. In theory, Jace Amaro can be a good fit for the spread approach that offensive coordinator Chan Gailey prefers. Coming out of Texas Tech Amaro was admired for his flexibility and finesse receiving prowess. However, that was two years ago. Since then he has put together a disappointing rookie campaign and missed an entire sophomore season with a shoulder injury.
5. Bears in the Secondary
When John Fox and defensive coordinator Vic Fangio took over last year, they realized their defense needed 10 new starters (only cornerback Kyle Fuller was satisfactory). After two offseasons of transacting, that D now has 10 different starters. That doesn’t mean everything’s set. Some of the new guys aren’t any more intriguing than the men they replaced. Slot corner Bryce Callahan did not enter the lineup in a substantial role until Week 8 last year and left it for three and a half games due to injury in Week 13. When in action, he was up-and-down, at times playing well to his help coverage in both man and zone, but at other times struggling in one-on-one matchups. At best, Callahan remains a mystery. The Bears are fairly reliant on this mystery, as their other slot options are career-long backup Sherrick McManis and fourth-round rookie Deiondre’ Hall, who played deep and on the perimeter at Northern Iowa and would likely face a tough transition inside.
Hall is more likely to compete for snaps at safety. Adrian Amos was a somewhat pleasant surprise as a fifth-round rookie last year and will have every opportunity to keep his starting job. But opposite him, Chris Prosinski is a little-known backup who’s facing competition only from former Broncos backup Omar Bolden and fourth-round rookie Deon Bush.
4. Cowboys at Defensive End
Greg Hardy The Player wasn’t productive enough to make people overlook Greg Hardy The Person, and so Greg Hardy is no more in Dallas (and perhaps everywhere else too, if Hardy remains unsigned, he’ll become arguably the most talented player to ever wash out of the league in his 20s due to something other than injury). The Hardy absence alone is enough to make defensive end an area of need for the Cowboys, who prefer a straightforward four-man rush. Factor in the four-game suspensions of Randy Gregory and Demarcus Lawrence and you have a real paucity of resources. The contenders for Opening Day starter are 2015 fifth-rounder Ryan Russell (inactive for 10 games and out injured for another five last year); David Irving, who consistently flashed but in a limited role off the bench; Benson Mayowa, a high-energy career-long backup for the Seahawks and Raiders; and fourth-round rookie Charles Tapper. Remember, the Cowboys must pick two from this crop.
3. Rams at Free Safety
Fans and media didn’t say much about Rodney McLeod leaving the Rams for Philadelphia, but people within the NFL did. McLeod is one of the game’s rangiest centerfielders. Some believe he’s second only to Earl Thomas. He’s also a willing and able tackler. Range and tackling are all it takes to be an elite safety, which means the Rams this season are minus an elite player. Exacerbating matters: They found no replacement for McLeod. Undrafted fourth-year pro Cody Davis will compete with undrafted rookie Brian Randolph for the job. Defensive coordinator Gregg Williams loves to disguise and bring pressure. Will he be as comfortable doing that with question marks in the deep middle of his D?
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2. Saints at Guard
For the longest time, the Saints prioritized the guard position. For many years, their starter on the left and right side were two of the league’s seven highest-paid guards. That was because with Drew Brees being only 6-feet, the pocket’s interior integrity was particularly important. So important that the Saints were the only team in the NFL that clearly prioritized guard ahead of tackle.
Now Brees is older but not taller. At guard? Instead of Pro Bowl calibers like Jahri Evans, Carl Nicks and Ben Grubbs in their primes, it’s Tim Lelito and, well, maybe whichever other undrafted man Sean Payton and O-line coach Dan Roushar choose. The Saints’ roster has one guard who was drafted: journeyman Senio Kelemete (Cardinals fifth round in 2012). To assuage matters, don’t be surprised if last year’s first-round rookie tackle Andrus Peat lines up inside like he did a few times last season.
1. Falcons at Pass Rusher
Atlanta’s pass rush last season was as anemic as its league-low 19 sacks suggests. That’s a problem in any scheme, but especially in Dan Quinn’s, where the 4-3 zone coverages are contingent on quarterbacks being forced to throw too early. The Falcons are fully aware of their mediocrity here, which means the reason they didn’t take an edge rusher or pass rushing three-technique was they felt it wasn’t a rich talent pool to choose from in this draft. Or, more specifically, not rich enough to let the defense’s other areas of need (strong safety; outside linebacker) go unaddressed.
The bottom line: Entering 2016 this is essentially the same group of pass rushers who didn’t produce in 2015. And so the weight drops on Vic Beasley’s shoulders. As a rookie he teased with the explosive first step that made him a top-10 pick, but this was negated by his inconsistency and lack of refinement. Beasley has few moves in his repertoire and hasn’t proven he can win late in the down. He’s not yet 24, and he did get better in the final weeks of the season, so there’s still plenty of hope. But we’re talking about high expectations for a developing player.