NFL roster holes that need to be filled before Week 1
- These 11 teams probably won't find easy answers to their biggest roster issues for a few months, but they should already be thinking about how to address the weakest part of their depth chart.
NFL general managers have a little more than three months to get their rosters primed for the regular season, but most of the heavy lifting should have been done by now.
Despite that, there is not a team in the league settled on its eventual 53-man roster right now, and a few GMs face bigger problems than others. A quick rundown of teams with significant issues still to settle before Week 1.
Baltimore Ravens: Right tackle
Or, possibly, left guard—it depends on what the Ravens decide to do with Alex Lewis. The 2016 fourth-round draft pick is penciled into the starting lineup, but the question is whether he’ll be there as a guard or tackle. Either way, the Ravens are looking at an issue they’ll have to solve in the coming months. As things stand now, assuming Lewis sticks at left guard, here’s the list of names up for the RT spot: rookie Jermaine Eluemunor, Stephane Nembot, James Hurst and De’Ondre Wesley. The only one with any NFL starting experience is Hurst, and he hardly has shown any indication that he can be a full-time answer.
The best in-house solution might be if Eluemunor or fellow rookie Nico Siragusa emerges at guard, thus allowing Lewis to shift outside. Saving that, the Ravens could dip their toe into the remaining veteran free-agent pool, where the likes of Ryan Clady or Orlando Franklin would provide an experienced option. The decision-making process figures to drag on into training camp.
Detroit Lions: Defensive end
As things stand right now, the Lions are banking on an awful lot going right in order for them to generate a consistent pass rush. They need A) Ziggy Ansah to return to star status, a year after he struggled with injuries and didn’t record a sack until mid-December; B) Kerry Hyder to recreate the form that led him to a surprising 5.0 sacks in the first four weeks of 2016 (and 8.0 sacks for the season) and C) at least one or two of their remaining depth DEs (Cornelius Washington, Anthony Zettel, Armonty Bryant, rookie Pat O’Connor) to step up as reliable rotational pieces.
GM Bob Quinn still could make a move—swinging an unexpected trade or somehow talking a veteran pass rusher like Dwight Freeney to sign in Detroit. He also could find a spare part as other teams tweak their rosters. It would appear, though, that he has passed on any chances to upgrade off the edge. Ansah and Hyder will be first up, but the battle to back them up will stretch deep into the summer.
Atlanta Falcons: Right guard
Chris Chester’s retirement may not hit the Falcons as hard as, say, offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan’s departure, but Chester did start every single game for Atlanta in both 2015 and '16. The onus to replace him will fall first on 2016 sixth-rounder Wes Schweitzer, who has yet to see action in an NFL game. The versatile Ben Garland and 2017 fourth-rounder Sean Harlow will be in the mix, as well. So while the cupboard is not exactly bare, the Falcons are going from Chester and his 153 career starts to three players with zero starts between them.
Could this be a landing spot for ex-Jets center Nick Mangold? If he’s willing to shift over to guard, he might be willing to do so for a Super Bowl shot. Given the Falcons’ contender status, they also have to consider any trade options if that Schweitzer-Harlow-Garland group appears overwhelmed early. This should be Schweitzer’s job for now, but we’ll see if OTAs change the outlook at all.
Kansas City Chiefs: Inside linebacker
The pieces are there, in theory—specifically veteran anchor Derrick Johnson and Ramik Wilson, who wound up starting 11 games last season, his second as a pro. How stout the Chiefs can be up the middle depends mostly on Johnson, 34, getting back to 100% after an Achilles tear. While he’s on track for training camp, recovering from that injury is no gimme. There still is not a ton of depth behind that duo, with safety Daniel Sorensen again a possibility to kick down in a nickel-LB role. The Chiefs won’t push the panic button until they see Johnson’s progress, but this is a potential trouble spot.
New York Jets: Quarterback
“Repeat anything often enough and it will start to become you.” — Tom Hopkins
Pittsburgh Steelers: Tight end
Jesse James is a solid player and should keep improving, but his skill set would look even better paired alongside a tight end capable of forcing mismatches. The Steelers thought they had found that last off-season in Ladarius Green, who was just released as he continues to deal with concussion issues. David Johnson doesn’t offer much as a receiver. Could Xavier Grimble emerge as a more dangerous threat? Rookie Scott Orndorf? Neither really fits that downfield profile. The Steelers’ answer here may not be in another personnel addition (at least not this summer), but rather a game plan that leans on three- and four-receiver sets.
Dallas Cowboys: Left guard
Essentially, the same quandary the Ravens are facing with Alex Lewis: Do the Cowboys want to use La’el Collins as their starting left guard or their right tackle? The more accurate question may be: Do the Cowboys trust Jonathan Cooper or Chaz Green more as a potential starter? Right now, it looks like they’re leaning toward Cooper slotting inside with Collins at tackle, rather than starting Green outside and letting Collins stay at guard. That’s the same Cooper who was traded away by the Cardinals and then cut by both the Browns and Patriots last year.
Dallas finds itself in this predicament because former right tackle Doug Free retired and guard Ronald Leary signed with the Broncos. Shy of taking a flier on one of the OL free agents like King Dunlap, who could handle the right side for either Dallas or Baltimore, this is what the Cowboys have. They can let Collins settle in at right tackle over the next several months while hoping Cooper isn’t overwhelmed again.
San Francisco 49ers: Cornerback
One of the realities facing new GM John Lynch when he inherited this roster was that he wouldn’t be able to fix everything at once. So, while he did make headway at several positions on the field, the secondary is still in need of repairs. And it’s tough to make many substantial ones at this time of year.
Lynch did use a third-round pick on Colorado corner Ahkello Witherspoon, a tall, athletic, finesse DB. He has upside, but he also probably would be in for a rude welcome if he has to start Week 1. Rashard Robinson, Keith Reaser, K’Waun Williams and Dontae Johnson all entered the league in 2014 or later and have a combined 20 starts between them. The 49ers should be able to find a few extra bodies in the coming months. Otherwise, they should afford Witherspoon every opportunity to crack the lineup by September.
New York Giants: Offensive line
Yes, this again. The Giants’ moves to address their maligned front this off-season were highlighted by the signing of D.J. Fluker (released by the Chargers) and the selection of Adam Bisnowaty (sixth round). Is that, plus the health of Justin Pugh, enough to bolster what was this team’s weakest position group a year ago? A group consisting of Pugh, Weston Richburg and Fluker could be decent, but there’s really no one to compete with Ereck Flowers on the left side. Expect the Giants to use OTAs and the early days of camp to figure out exactly how to line up everyone next to Flowers.
Chicago Bears: Wide receiver
Chicago signed Kendall Wright, Rueben Randle and Markus Wheaton this spring after losing Alshon Jeffery to the Eagles, then added Victor Cruz on a one-year deal Thursday. Quantity over quality? There definitely is not a Jeffery-esque No. 1 receiver in that group, nor does Cameron Meredith fit that role despite an impressive 888 yards in 2016. The player who could be an alpha dog among the receivers is 2015 first-rounder Kevin White, but he cannot stay on the field.
Those earlier additions probably are going to be it, with or without White. Meredith showed that he at least can handle a healthy number of targets, while Wright has a 94-catch season on his resume (way back in 2013) and Wheaton offers a little giddy-up from the slot. The ceiling hinges on White’s health.
Indianapolis Colts: Linebacker
From Johnathan Hankins to Jabaal Sheard to draft picks Malik Hooker and Quincy Wilson, the Colts checked off a lot of boxes on defense this off-season. It remains to be seen if they did enough at the ILB spots, by adding free agents Sean Spence and Jon Bostic, plus fifth-rounder Anthony Walker. Were the season to start today, Spence and Antonio Morrison likely would be on the field first, but it’s a position hardly set in stone. Free agency still holds a handful of fallback options—Perry Riley, Daryl Smith, etc.