Panic mode: Cowboys, Bills among teams with huge roster holes to fill
The main wave of free agency has come and gone. The 2015 draft is in the books. While general managers will continue to tweak their roster well into the regular season, most of the critical moves have been made. Where does that leave the teams that failed (or chose not to) address apparent trouble spots, and how worried should those teams be?
Dallas Cowboys: Running back
After letting DeMarco Murray walk this offseason, the Cowboys did nothing to replace him outside of signing the ever-disappointing Darren McFadden. Which means they must feel pretty good about their current RB crop of McFadden, Joseph Randle, Ryan Williams and Lance Dunbar? Well ...
"We would have liked to have drafted a running back," owner Jerry Jones said, via The Dallas Morning News. Added his son and executive VP Stephen Jones: "Just because this is our current group of running backs doesn’t mean it will stay that way."
Let's chalk up this running-back situation as TBD for the moment. Of course, the Dallas offensive line could be dominant enough (hello, La'el Collins) to help turn any starting RB into a viable producer. The Cowboys might not have any choice but to bank on that possibility.
Panic level: 9 of 10. One of the running backs could emerge—Williams drew a little hype recently. There's still no underselling how critical Murray was to the Cowboys' postseason run in 2014. Replicating even a large chunk of his numbers, whether mix-and-matching in the lineup or committing to one of the remaining backs, will be impossible.
Buffalo Bills: Quarterback
Take your pick between which AFC East rival—Buffalo or New York—should be more concerned about its QB. It says here that the Bills are in worse shape ahead of the 2015 season because a) Ryan Fitzpatrick is better than Matt Cassel and b) Geno Smith has flashed more upside than EJ Manuel thus far in their respective careers.
The Bills' options were hamstrung this off-season by a weak free-agent QB class and the lack of a first-round pick. By the time they went on the clock at No. 50, Jameis Winston and Marcus Mariota had been off the board for about 24 hours. Buffalo opted not to add Bryce Petty, Garrett Grayson, Brett Hundley or any other rookie, opting to trudge forward with Cassel and Manuel.
The real solution to this conundrum may not come until 2016, at the earliest.
Panic level: 10 of 10. This is a potential playoff team, if one of the quarterbacks plays well. Which is like saying "This is a winning lottery ticket, if all the numbers hit". Rex Ryan also will head into the 2015 season with the potential for serious issues at guard, which could exacerbate any shortcomings under center.
Indianapolis Colts: Right tackle
Quantity is not an issue—the Colts have no fewer than 12 guys, including Ben Heeney, a sleeper out of the CFL, to fill five starting spots. The question is health, in particular that of right tackle Gosder Cherilus. GM Ryan Grigson said during his pre-draft press conference that the team is targeting June for Cherilus' return from a knee injury. But things could get a little hairy if that timetable must be pushed back or if Cherilus falls again.
Indianapolis passed on drafting an offensive lineman until Round 7, when it made the surprising selection of Mars Hill (N.C.) project Denzelle Good. "I definitely wasn’t expecting to get drafted," Hill told WDNE radio in Indianapolis. "I was hoping for a free-agent deal."
Cherilus is not alone in coming back from injury, either—free-agent pickup Todd Herremans (who should start at right guard), Donald Thomas, Hugh Thornton and John Ulrick all ended 2015 on injured reserve.
So, what happens if Cherilus is limited? Indianapolis could slide Jack Mewhort or Herremans out to RT, but that would force them to reconfigure their interior line. Joe Reitz would be another option, having played there in the playoffs. The Colts are banking a great deal, though, on Cherilus being ready.
Panic level: 3 of 10. Between the expectation that Cherilus will be a full-go by Week 1 and the numerous options elsewhere, the Colts are far from any Doomsday scenario at right tackle. It still would have behooved them to pick up some useful depth, especially since they have their sights set so high this year. Being undone by a banged-up line would leave Grigson second guessing himself.
Cleveland Browns: Wide receiver
What is Dwayne Bowe at this point in his career? The Chiefs paid the soon-to-be 31-year-old as if he were a No. 1 receiver, cut him when he failed to produce as such, then Cleveland signed him (for less money, at least) to fill a similar role.
The evidence of late points away from Bowe handling such responsibility. He has not topped 60 receptions in any of the past three seasons and he failed to find the end zone last year. Granted, some of his issues have been caused by Kansas City's quarterback situation—and here's your token reminder that no Chiefs WR scored in 2014. Unfortunately, he may be downgrading in that regard, moving from Alex Smith to Josh McCown or Johnny Manziel.
There are some intriguing players flanking Bowe in Cleveland: emerging weapon Andrew Hawkins, Taylor Gabriel (17.3 yards per catch last season), veteran Brian Hartline. It still does not add up to enough firepower, on paper, particularly with dynamic TE Jordan Cameron now in Miami.
Panic level: 7 of 10. The Browns will lean on their run game and defense to stay competitive, but the passing attack has to add something to the cause. Bowe has been—and apparently will continue to be—miscast as a No. 1 receiver. Consider Round 1 a missed opportunity for Cleveland to fix its situation.
Detroit Lions: Defensive end
The Lions traded for Haloti Ngata after losing Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley to free agency, thus most discussions about their offseason focused on defensive tackle. Rather quietly, however, Detroit may have more of a headache at DE.
Ziggy Ansah, now headed into his third NFL season, has taken on the look of a star—his 7.5 sacks in 2014 finished behind only Suh for Detroit's team lead. The player who gets the nod opposite him is anyone's guess at the moment. George Johnson would have been penciled in for a starting gig, off a breakthrough 6.0-sack campaign. But oddly, the Lions left the door open for him to leave as a restricted free agent, and he did just that by signing with (and then being traded to) Tampa Bay.
Now, pairing with Ansah will be a combination of Jason Jones, Devin Taylor, Larry Webster, Daryl Tapp and whichever scraps they can find in the coming couple months. (OLB Kyle Van Noy also should help.) Despite Ngata's presence some drop-off will occur from the tackle spots. The Lions can ill-afford to go through the motions at end, too.
Panic level: 5 of 10. Getting an Ansah-like leap may be asking a lot from Taylor or Webster, but don't discount the latter. "At some point in time, you're going to see that young man take the field for us and perform extremely well," Jim Caldwell said last year, according to the Detroit Free Press. Until then, Detroit has to wonder from where its pass rush will come.
St. Louis Rams: WR
Debate amongst yourselves Nick Foles' potential at quarterback. St. Louis provided him some help in Round 1 of the draft, only not at the position people may have been expecting.
By drafting RB Todd Gurley at No. 10, the Rams swung for the fences on perhaps the most talented player in the 2015 class (knee injury or not). Would Parker have pushed them closer to the playoffs in the immediate future? What the front office stood on at wide receiver is more or less what failed to get the job last season—Kenny Britt, Tavon Austin, Stedman Bailey, Brian Quick, etc. The Rams' shoddy quarterback play last season, and perhaps even shoddier play calling, did that group no favors. But a No. 1 option has to emerge.
Panic level: 6 of 10. St. Louis' offense has nowhere near the unique creativity of Philadelphia's Chip Kelly-guided attack. For Foles to thrive in his new home, he'll need Gurley and Tre Mason to be outstanding on the ground, his offensive line to win most battles and several receivers to up their game.
San Francisco 49ers: ILB
Patrick Willis and Chris Borland stunned the 49ers by announcing their retirements this offseason, leaving the team's linebacker corps in flux. The return of NaVorro Bowman from his horrific knee injury two seasons back would count as a major step in the right direction. Michael Wilhoite is the best bet to start next to him (assuming Bowman is close to 100% for the regular season), but GM Trent Baalke obviously and understandably has kept open his options. Already, Baalke has signed veterans Phillip Wheeler and Desmond Bishop, and Lance Briggs could be next.
San Francisco had multiple chances to address its linebacker spots head-on during the draft, yet focused elsewhere—at least a couple of times in surprising fashion, like the fifth-round choice of punter Bradley Pinion.
Panic level: 5 of 10. It's a five with the potential to rise much higher, depending on Bowman's status come the regular season. He was one of the league's top defenders prior to his injury, so adding him back into the fold would offset one of the Bowman-Borland losses.
Miami Dolphins: G/T
Let's start by saying this: DeVante Parker fell into Miami's laps in Round 1 of the draft and Jordan Phillips was a steal in Round 2, even if this team had more pressing needs elsewhere. But by making those picks, Miami missed out on any sure-fire line help for 2015; fourth-round guard Jamil Douglas is more depth than potential starter at the moment.
In front of Douglas are 2014 third-rounder Billy Turner (right guard) and 2013 third-rounder Dallas Thomas (left guard)—the latter graded out as Miami's worst offensive player last season on Pro Football Focus, while the former saw 17 snaps.
There's also the cross-your-fingers issue of Branden Albert's return from a knee injury. Miami expects him to retake his spot at left tackle in time for Week 1, but there are no absolutes when it comes to ACL and MCL setbacks.
Panic level: 7 of 10. Is Miami the team most likely to take advantage of Tom Brady's four-game suspension by challenging the Patriots' AFC East supremacy? In a lot of ways, the answer is yes. An overmatched offensive line would change the tune.
New England Patriots: CB
Speaking of the Patriots ... what an offseason, eh? Brady and football inflation aside, the defending champs have undergone a rather significant face lift, at least when it comes to its secondary.
Not only did Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner sign elsewhere, but the Patriots also cut Alfonzo Dennard and Kyle Arrington. Their two DB draft choices were Marshall CB Darryl Roberts, at No. 247, and Stanford safety Jordan Richards, a shocking pick in Round 2. Bill Belichick does have several players capable of handling various roles in his secondary, so he will have to lean on that versatility. Still, the talent level has dropped.
Panic level: 4 of 10. On another team the meter would be pushing near the top. Here, Belichick has pulled tricks like this in the past. The Patriots' front seven has to be as good, or better, than the coaching staff expects it to be or else those cornerback departures will be felt all season long.
New Orleans Saints: WR
The Saints trading away promising, 23-year-old receiver Kenny Stills was a stunner—even more so on the heels of the Jimmy Graham-to-Seattle swap from earlier in the offseason. Both moves were made in hopes of restocking other spots, like the offensive line and defensive depth chart. To whom is Drew Brees throwing the ball, though?
Marques Colston and Brandin Cooks are the obvious candidates. Perhaps Nick Toon or Brandon Coleman or Jalen Saunders. Brees has a lot more maybes at his disposal that he's used to, which is why many thought New Orleans would spend one of its two Round 1 picks on a pass-catcher. Instead, the Saints drafted neither a receiver nor tight end.
Panic level: 6 of 10. If the concerns over Brees' career regression are legit, we'll find out in a hurry this season. He has helped make his receivers better in the past, but rarely has he had this little obvious help surrounding him.
Pittsburgh Steelers: S
Troy Polamalu had not been at his peak for multiple seasons, so the Steelers had to know his retirement was nigh. They find themselves facing some uncertainty at the safety spots nonetheless headed into 2015.
The anticipated starters, at least as of mid-May, are Mike Mitchell and Shamarko Thomas. The 24-year-old Thomas, in particular, must take a substantial step forward to hold onto his projected starting job ... and to keep the Steelers' defense from sliding too badly in Polamalu's absence.
Panic level: 5 of 10. The Mitchell-Thomas pairing might work. If it does not, then what?
San Diego Chargers: G
Had San Diego come up with one more piece to its O-line puzzle, be it via free agency or the draft or by chasing down La'el Collins, few fronts in football would have had more upside. As it stands, the Chargers still have to feel great about a lineup featuring King Dunlap, Orlando Franklin, D.J. Fluker and Chris Watt.
And yet, that fifth spot—right guard, assuming Fluker stays at tackle—could be a headache.
Panic level: 2 of 10. Nailing down 80% of a dominant offensive line is accomplishment enough in itself. If San Diego can just squeeze an average showing from its for-the-taking guard spot, the offense should cook.