Every NFL season, potential contenders are made and broken by individual positional weaknesses. Porous lines can negate otherwise potent offenses, Swiss cheese fronts can hamper suffocating pass coverage. Today, we are looking at five teams with playoff aspirations and their position groups that may ultimately decide the fate of the 2019 season.
Houston Offensive Line
It is never a good sign when a quarterback is physically unable to fly due to getting beaten up on game days. Deshaun Watson’s strong second year was hampered a bit by a porous offensive line (ranked second-to-last by Pro Football Focus with over 200 pressures allowed). And this group has been a significant issue since before Watson ever donned a Texans uniform. Outside of this major weakness, Houston is one of the supremely talented teams in the AFC; they won a surprisingly decent AFC South last year, after all. But come playoff time, Watson had nowhere to look other than directly in front of him.
To their credit, Houston has acknowledged the issue to an extent this offseason. They acquired veteran Matt Kalil and drafted tackles Tytus Howard and Max Scharping to get some competition on the edges. Those moves are a start to addressing the issue long-term, but for 2019, there are still going to be plenty of question marks. Chief among those is the fact that Kalil has failed, at times catastrophically, to live up to his high draft status in 2012. Furthermore, while Howard is undeniable gifted physically, one has to wonder about his adjustment time. He was a first-round pick, but Howard comes from FCS Alabama State, and my need time before assuming a full-time role. Houston is essentially depending on rapid development to keep Watson upright. As they vie for Super Bowl contention, that may not be the best course of action.
While the Eagles certainly took a step back last year, the latter half of the season and the subsequent modest playoff run proved they still rank among the elite of the elite in the NFC. There was one issue holding them back, however: depth in the secondary. Philadelphia was ravaged by injury troubles in the defensive backfield, and that left them vulnerable down the stretch.
In theory, the chances of them suffering similar injury issues are slim. But the secondary remains the weakest part of their defense, even when fully healthy. And with the star power up front and the friendly cap situation they have with Carson Wentz for one more year, the Eagles need to squeeze every ounce of success they can out of this roster. If the Eagles secondary returns to a level of consistency, they are again a Super Bowl favorite. If not, they could be clawing for a playoff spot for the second year in a row.
Minnesota Offensive Line
Rick Spielman put a placeholder on this position for years. He filled in gaps with low draft picks and free agents, all the while his quarterbacks struggled to mitigate poor pass protection. And then he paid a more statuesque quarterback a gaudy contract. Predictably, Kirk Cousins struggled in the face of interior pressure and the Vikings, who were 13-3 and in the NFC Championship Game the year before with Case Keenum at quarterback, missed the postseason. Blame fell in many different laps, but ultimately, the offensive line took the buck.
So the Vikings got a bit more busy this offseason. They added several veterans, most notably Josh Kline, to join the mix at guard. Then they did something they had not done in seven years and drafted an offensive lineman in the first round. Garrett Bradbury is already taking reps at first team center in OTAs while previous starting center Pat Elflein has slid over to guard. At the very least, you cannot say the Vikings have not recognized and addressed their issue. The assumption is that shoring up the space in front of Cousins will maximize his productivity. There were enough glimpses of explosive offense last year to think that could be true. However, with a rookie up the middle, there will always be some level of uncertainty until week one arrives.
Pittsburgh Pass Catchers
No need to mince words: the Steelers are the third-most talented team in the AFC North right now. Without Antonio Brown, their offensive cupboard looks a bit on the bare side, and Ben Roethlisberger is inching ever closer to the 40 mark. At any time, this offense could fall off a cliff. Frankly, the latter part of last year seemed to be a step in that direction, even with Brown and JuJu Smith-Schuster putting up lucrative numbers.
Now, Roethlisberger has one proven pass catcher and a handful of potential ones. Granted, Vance McDonald is a solid tight end and James Conner can make some plays out of the backfield. But at the moment, it seems Pittsburgh’s number two will be Donte Moncrief, unless James Washington or Ryan Switzer take big leaps in development this season. Moncrief is a decent option to have, but he has yet to exceed 750 yards receiving in a season.
Overall, this will be a significant test of Roethlisberger’s ability to elevate. Washington has enormous talent, but little experience, so Pittsburgh will likely need major development from him in year two. Baltimore and Cleveland have loaded up, both for the 2019 sprint and the marathon of the long-term. The Steelers may be a step behind unless they get the most out of their offensive weapons.
The NFC North has turned into somewhat of a revolving door of elite teams. Each of the last three seasons has seen a different team take the top spot, and all four members seem capable of taking the leap to the top at any time. Last year, Chicago’s defense made them one of the top teams in all of football. Their athletic front, their play-makers in the secondary, it all came together to form a rare breed of takeaway- and touchdown-heavy defense. Chicago’s greatest asset of all, however, was their versatile and explosive linebacker corps.
With Roquan Smith in year two and Khalil Mack with a full offseason, there is plenty of reason to believe this unit could be even better than last year. But there are a handful of issues that could cast doubt onto the viability of the Bears’ makeup. For one, Vic Fangio has a track record of getting a lot out of linebackers, but he is now in Denver. Second, the Bears’ takeaway numbers are probably going to be tough to replicate, given that they were the highest of any team since the 2015 Panthers. Third, Danny Trevathan played 16 games last year for the first time since 2013, so there have to be some questions about injury liability.
Lastly, and probably most importantly, it is still unclear who Leonard Floyd is. We know he is a long and athletic pass rusher who can do a lot of things well. But there simply has not been the production to mirror Mack on the other side. As a result, teams can at times shift their focus away from Floyd without much consequence. His further development, along with the development of Smith and the health of Trevathan could be the difference between Chicago finishing near the top of the conference or on the outside looking in.
–Sam Smith is the Managing Editor for Full Press Coverage Vikings and Deputy Editor for Full Press NFL. Like and Follow @samc_smith.
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