Big Shoes to Fill
12. Carolina’s Cornerback
Void left by: Josh Norman (FA, signed with Washington)
Projected replacement: Robert McClain (7th-year pro, 17 career starts with three different teams) or second-round rookie James Bradberry or third-round rookie Daryl Worley
It’s no surprise Panthers GM Dave Gettleman let Norman walk. The salary cap means you can’t spend big money at every position; you must pick and choose. The Panthers choose defensive line and linebacker. Their thinking: in Ron Rivera’s zone-based scheme, if their D-line can get pressure (especially up the middle) and their linebackers are heady and rangy enough to play with greater depth in coverage and can rally to the ball. This naturally shrinks the amount of time and space that the corners must cover. You don’t need an A+ corner for this; a C+ corner will do. If you have an A+ corner, great. You’ll be that much more dangerous and probably get a few more big plays over a season. But this luxury is not worth the extra tens of millions that it costs. The Panthers make this list because they lost a top-tier playmaker in Norman. But they won’t stay on the list for long because, odds are, one of the two rookies—or even both—will suffice by meeting the job’s C+ demands.
11. Denver’s Quarterback
Void left by: Peyton Manning (retired)
Projected replacement: Mark Sanchez (FA signing from Philadelphia, 8th year pro, 72 career starts for two different teams)
The fashionable narrative is that Manning was an average, maybe even below average quarterback last year who fought to overcome his declining arm strength and simply managed the Broncos offense. That’s not unfair, but it’s a little skewed. What can’t be measured is Manning’s command at the line of scrimmage. For the most part, it kept the Broncos out of negative plays and often propelled their ground game. There’s an assumption that game managers can be replaced by other game managers. After all, you’re just substituting one checkdown artist for another. But the traits that made Manning a successful game manager (mainly his football IQ) are not the traits that will define Mark Sanchez. Sanchez himself will need to be managed, by the scheme. This can be done through ploys like moving pockets, play-action passes and downfield deep shots designed to beat very specific coverages. It could make for a more productive Broncos offense. Gary Kubiak, after all, is a sharp offensive mind. But it’s an offense that will be less reliant on its quarterback and more reliant on 11-man execution and continuity.
10. Seattle’s Offensive Tackle
Void left by: Russell Okung (FA, signed with Denver)
Projected replacement: Garry Gilliam (3rd year pro, 17 career starts)
Gilliam is moving from right tackle to left tackle. That’s a change that’s always tougher in actuality than in theory. All of the mechanics Gilliam honed in order to become an important cog down the stretch last season must now be flip-flopped. And what he learned during his earlier time at guard often won’t even apply. The good news is the Seahawks’ passing game is set up in a way that’s less dependent on the almighty blindside protector. (This is likely why they were willing to let someone else—the Broncos—pay Okung.) Russell Wilson’s in- and out-of-pocket movement diminishes his reliance on the left tackle. The moving pockets Seattle calls to accentuate Wilson’s style also do this. And when Wilson does play from the pocket—which he did much, much better late last year after Gilliam took over at right tackle, in fact—the play design often has the ball coming out in 2.5 seconds or less. All that being said, there will still be a handful of third-and-long situations each game. Can Gilliam hold up then? And what about J’Marcus Webb, Gilliam’s replacement at right tackle? Webb has always been a liability in obvious passing situations, which is why the Raiders played him at guard last year. What’s more, the Seahawks are a zone running team. You can get by with plodding offensive tackles on inside zone runs, which go north and south and feature double teams along the front. But outside zone, where blockers must move east and west with fluidity and quickness? That’s a different story.
9. Cincinnati’s Safety
Void left by: Reggie Nelson (FA signed with Oakland)
Projected replacement: Shawn Williams (4th year pro, 4 career starts)
The Bengals had to choose between re-signing the 32-year-old Nelson or re-signing the more expensive but younger, bigger and springier George Iloka. They correctly chose Iloka (five years, $30 million). That doesn’t mean Nelson won’t be missed. A few years ago, like so many defensive backs, he blossomed in defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer’s double-A-gap zone blitzing scheme. And he was steady when Zimmer’s replacement, Paul Guenther, swapped some of the blitz calls with more basic two-deep coverages. Guenther only played that way because his unit often had more talent than the opponent; he didn’t have to roll the dice blitzing. The question is whether Guenther will continue to feel comfortable playing safer two-deep coverages with Shawn Williams in a fulltime role for the first time.
8. Seattle’s Strongside Linebacker
Void left by: Bruce Irvin (FA signed with Oakland)
Projected replacement: Mike Morgan (6th year pro, 3 career starts) or Cassius Marsh (3rd year pro, 0 career starts)
Between veteran Chris Clemons and second-year man Frank Clark, the Seahawks can replace Irvin’s edge rushing on passing downs. It’s on running downs where you find the void. Irvin, an edge-rushing specialist, developed into a sturdy second-level player in the base 4-3. He was reliable in what was already a good run defense and he answered the biggest question people had about him when moving to linebacker: Can he cover in space? Now that question is being asked about Seattle’s new strongside ’backer contenders, neither of whom is as athletic as Irvin.
7. Cleveland’s Safety
Void left by: Tashaun Gipson (FA signed with Jacksonville)
Projected replacement: Rahim Moore (6th year pro, 54 career starts) or fourth-round rookie Derrick Kindred
Gipson’s unique nose for the ball gave Cleveland’s secondary some teeth and, every few games, would create a favorable field position swing. In fact, Gipson led the NFL in interception return yardage since becoming a fulltime starter in 2013. You can’t count on this sort of playmaking with a fourth-round rookie. The other option, Moore, is a veteran, but he couldn’t hold his job last year in Houston. He was released after six starts and several gameday deactivations.
6. Cleveland’s Right Tackle
Void left by: Mitchell Schwartz (FA signed with Kansas City)
Projected replacement: Austin Pasztor (5th year pro, 27 career starts) or third-round rookie Shon Coleman
Many think the third-round rookie Coleman needs time to develop. If that’s the case, the Browns will start Pasztor and pray he can overcome the heavy feet he’s fought throughout his career. Pasztor isn’t awful, just athletically limited. Many teams have that issue at right tackle. The Browns over the last few years, however, were fortunate to not be one of them. Schwartz has improved exponentially since entering the league as a high second-rounder in 2012. But because of the Browns’ instability, he couldn’t wait to leave. (Not ironically, he signed with the resoundingly stable franchise that his older brother Geoff once played for: Kansas City.) Essentially, the Browns did what every team fears most: They developed a quality young player for someone else.
5. Cleveland’s Center
Void left by: Alex Mack (FA signed with Atlanta)
Projected replacement: Cameron Erving (2nd year pro, 4 career starts)
Mack was a stalwart along the only Browns position group that’s been reliable from year to year: offensive line. Now in his stead is a second-year pro who, on most of his 472 rookie snaps, was the antithesis of reliable. This isn’t to say Erving is bad; he entered the NFL with enough raw talent to get selected 19th overall. That raw talent just needs to be cooked. Or, in the very least, defrosted. Besides a callow player’s general lack of awareness, Erving’s problem is his inconsistency against bull-rushers. It’s an issue with technique more than lower-body strength. If that isn’t fixed, the middle of Cleveland’s O-line will be vulnerable.
4. Detroit’s Wide Receiver
Void left by: Calvin Johnson (retired)
Projected replacement: Marvin Jones, 4th year pro, 21 career starts (FA signing from Cincinnati)
QB Matthew Stafford recently said on Sirius XM radio: “Obviously we used to feature Calvin and everybody kinda got theirs after that. It’s gonna, I think, be tougher for defenses in a certain way that they don’t know who we’re going to. There’s no guy to key in on.” Stafford is right, but in the same way that a freshly dumped single man who says he’s glad he can now really find himself, is right. Marvin Jones is swift and acrobatic downfield, particularly near the sideline. But he’s not Calvin Johnson, and defenses won’t treat him as such. In certain ways, yes, that could be a positive for Stafford. It might force him to play with discipline—something he’s done better in recent years but will never do naturally. Plus, sometimes opponents would pay such special attention to Johnson that they’d employ coverage concepts they’d never shown on film. Whenever Johnson was out of the lineup and those convoluted double teams stopped, Stafford at least saw the defense in a clearer picture. But while the picture was clearer, it was still harder to beat. Dedicated doubles against one particular receiver can bind the rest of a coverage. There can be a preponderance of one-on-one matchups elsewhere to exploit. With Johnson gone, a defense’s hands become untied and those one-on-one matchups will be harder to find.
3. Baltimore’s Left Guard
Void left by: Kelechi Osemele (FA signed with Oakland)
Projected replacement: John Urschel (3rd year pro, 10 career starts)
Osemele had just the right combination of power and mobility for Baltimore’s predominant outside zone running scheme. His ability to displace defenders while on the move was crucial. Urschel has been respectable as the line’s de facto sixth man. But now, that sixth man is being asked to start, and alongside a rookie left tackle (Ronnie Stanley) no less.
2. San Diego’s Safety
Void left by: Eric Weddle (FA signed with Baltimore)
Projected replacement: Dwight Lowery (9th year pro, 72 career starts with 4 different teams)
Lowery played for Chargers defensive coordinator John Pagano’s brother Chuck in Indianapolis, but the Paganos do not run the same scheme. In Indy, Lowery was part of more two-high safety coverages. In San Diego, he’ll be in more one-high safety structures. It’s a notable difference, especially for a free safety, who in a single-high scheme must cover more ground. John Pagano has said Weddle was like an extension of him on the field. Weddle had mastered the system and, consequently, was one of the best in the league at individual coverage disguises. Such deception is central in Pagano’s approach. Lowery can’t offer it in the same way.
1. Los Angeles’s Free Safety
Void left by: Rodney McLeod (FA signed with Philadelphia)
Projected replacement: Cody Davis (4th year pro, 0 career starts)
Rams defensive coordinator Gregg Williams is as aggressive as anyone when it comes to disguising and rotating coverage. Often, these are staple elements in his blitz packages. The better your deep centerfield defender, the more comfortable you are making these calls. In McLeod, Williams had a centerfielder with range second only to Seattle’s Earl Thomas. Now in this place is an undrafted fourth-year pro who has never even seen significant snaps off the bench. If the Rams want to go with experience here, they could slide rising young strong safety T.J. McDonald to centerfield and insert Mo Alexander in McDonald’s old place. Still, however it shakes out, the Rams are looking at less security on the back end. Besides leaving them vulnerable in coverage, it could cause Williams to scale back his scheme.