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Biggest strength for each NFL team heading into the season

Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

Every team in the NFL has a strength. It doesn’t matter if we’re talking about the two-time defending AFC champion New England Patriots or a Cleveland Browns squad that went winless last season. Front offices have honed in on specific positions to make that a strength for their teams in 2018.

From a secondary in Arizona that promises to excel this coming season to an offensive line that’s tasked with protecting Alex Smith in the nation’s capital, teams are in a good spot in certain areas.

For other squads, that includes future Hall of Fame quarterbacks. Without these elite signal callers under center, said teams would be irrelevant. It’s in this that we look at the biggest strength for each NFL team heading into the 2018 season.

Arizona Cardinals: Secondary

Arizona returns Pro Bowlers Patrick Peterson and Budda Baker from a pass defense that yielded an 83.9 quarterback rating a season ago. Sure losing Tyrann Mathieu this offseason hurt some. But Baker is more than ready to take on a larger role after an exceptional rookie season for the Cardinals. Arizona is also expecting third-year player Brandon Williams to become a full-time starter at cornerback opposite Peterson. With the Cards likely struggling this season, this is going to be one major area of strength.

Atlanta Falcons: Running backs

Despite a down overall season from Atlanta’s offense, the Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman duo continued to do their thing. The Falcons put up 115.4 rushing yards per game and averaged a robust 4.3 yards per attempt. For their part, this tandem gained a combined 2,109 total yards and 16 touchdowns. If Atlanta is able to improve through the air under second-year coordinator Steve Sarkisian and former NFL MVP Matt Ryan, it will open things up more for the rushing attack. That’s what the Falcons are banking on heading into the 2018 season.

Baltimore Ravens: Secondary

Tony Jefferson and Eric Weddle might very well represent the best safety tandem in the NFL after the Seahawks’ Legion of Doom broke up during the offseason. They counter one another at a great clip, with Weddle continuing to prove himself to be among the best cover safeties in the game. The return of Jimmy Smith from a torn Achilles is also going help a Ravens pass defense that ranked in the top 10 last season and yielded a 72.4 passer rating. Add in the presence of youngster Marlon Humphrey at corner, and this might be the best secondary in the AFC outside of Jacksonville.

Buffalo Bills: Defensive line

We’re not talking as much about the pass rush here as we are other areas. After all, Jerry Hughes and Shaq Lawson tied for a team high four sacks last season. Buffalo also ranked in the bottom four of the NFL against the run. So why can we call this a strength? Two reasons. Star Lotulelei and Harrison Phillips. Buffalo signed Lotulelei away from Carolina on a five-year, $50 million contact back in March. He’s among the best run-stuffing defensive tackles in the game. Meanwhile, Buffalo added the 307-pound Phillips in the third round of the 2018 NFL Draft. The two will team up with franchise stalwart Kyle Williams to form what should be a much better defensive line this coming season.

Carolina Panthers: Defensive line

Carolina was able to replace the above-mentioned Lotulelei with an even better interior defensive lineman in that of Dontari Poe to team up with Pro Bowler Kawann Short at defensive tackle. This pairing has an opportunity to be the best in the game in 2018. Adding to the wealth of talent along the defensive line, EDGE rushers Julius Peppers and Mario Addison return after having combined for 22 sacks last season. This quartet will create nightmares for opposing AFC South squads.

Chicago Bears: Running backs

It’s going to be a whole lot of fun to see how first-year head coach Matt Nagy employs the two-headed running back monster that is Jordan Howard and Tarik Cohen. Despite disastrous coaching under then head coach John Fox last season, the two were still able to lead a rushing attack that finished in the middle of the pack. Given what Nagy did with Kareem Hunt as a rookie in Kansas City last season, expectations are sky high here. Acting as the three-down back, Howard put up 1,247 total yards and nine touchdowns as a sophomore last season. Meanwhile, Cohen’s rookie campaign was filled with highlight-reel plays. He ultimately tallied 53 receptions and north of 700 total yards.

Cincinnati Bengals: Pass rush

One of the strengths of this team throughout the Marvin Lewis era has been its pass rush. That didn’t change last season with the likes of Carlos Dunlap, Geno Atkins and Carl Lawson combining for 25 sacks during what was an otherwise disappointing campaign for the Bengals. Now that Lawson is primed to step into a larger role after being a specialist last season, there’s no reason to believe this trio will let Lewis and Co. down in 2018.

Cleveland Browns: Running backs

This group will certainly help alleviate the pressure either Tyrod Taylor and/or Baker Mayfield feel in 2018. The only real holdover here is a back in Duke Johnson who caught 73 of 94 targets while posting 1,000-plus total yards last season. He’ll continue to be Cleveland’s third-down and receiving back. But it’s the additions of rookie second-round pick Nick Chubb and free agent signing Carlos Hyde that should have fans in Cleveland excited. Chubb was selected 35th overall after putting up 1,345 rushing yards and averaging 6.0 yards per attempt against elite SEC competition at Georgia last season. All Hyde did in San Francisco was put up 1,288 total yards last season. This trio is about as legit as it gets.

Dallas Cowboys: Offensive line

This unit was nowhere near as dominating last season as we’ve seen in the past. Left tackle Tyron Smith dealt with injuries throughout the entire campaign, missing three games and forcing the Cowboys to go with a makeshift unit throughout the regular year. In no way does this mean the Cowboys’ offensive line still isn’t one of the best in the game. With Ezekiel Elliott suspended six games, Dallas still found a way to average 4.5 yards per rush and rank second on the ground. Center Travis Frederick and guard Zack Martin remain the two best players at their respective positions. Smith is still an All-Pro caliber tackle. Expect a rebound performance from this group in 2018.

Denver Broncos: Pass rush

Shockingly, Denver finished last season in the bottom 11 in sacks. With former Super Bowl MVP Von Miller in the mix and a youngster in Shane Ray prepared to take the next step, it was a lack of consistency that did this pass rush in. Ray dealt with injuries throughout the whole season, recording a grand total of one sack in the process. Miller put up a five-year low 10 sacks. We’re anticipating a much different production level in 2018 now that Denver picked up all-everything pass rusher Bradley Chubb with the fifth pick in April’s draft. He’ll force opposing teams to avoid sending help to Miller’s side, freeing up the future Hall of Famer in a big way. And for his part, Chubb would be out there recording 10-plus sacks himself as a rookie.

Detroit Lions: Offensive line

Here’s an interesting stat. Matthew Stafford was sacked more than any other quarterback not named Jacoby Brissett last season. So how can we possibly have Detroit’s offensive line as the strength of the team? It’s rather simple. Starting tackles Taylor Decker and Ricky Wagner missed a combined 11 games. This forced former first-round bust Greg Robinson into the lineup more than anyone would want. The addition of rookie first-round pick Frank Ragnow also helps big time here. He’ll start at left guard next to Decker out of the gate. Look for this unit to improve leaps and bounds in 2018.

Green Bay Packers: Quarterback

Could we have possibly gone in any other direction here? Aaron Rodgers is the Packers. He’s the face of the Packers. And he’s the primary reason this team heads into the 2018 season as legitimate conference title contenders. The numbers are downright staggering. Rodgers has thrown for nearly 26,000 total yards with 226 touchdowns and just 46 interceptions over the past seven seasons. Green Bay boasts a 67-28 record in his starts during that span. It’s just 6-10 when he doesn’t start. Should Rodgers prove to be 100 percent after an injury-plagued 2017 campaign, he’ll be an MVP candidate once again.

Houston Texans: Pass rush

There’s a reason Houston yielded the most points in the NFL last season. It was without two elite-level pass rushers in J.J. Watt and Whitney Mercilus, who combined to miss all but 10 games to injury. With them back in the mix and now that Jadeveon Clowney has finally broke out big time, this is going to be a major strength for the Texans heading into the 2018 season. All three boast 12-plus sack potential and could create havoc for opposing AFC South quarterbacks. It should be fun to watch.

Indianapolis Colts: Secondary

It’s hard to find a real strength on this team without knowing 100 percent if Andrew Luck will be healthy after missing all of last season to injury. Outside of that, second-year general manager Chris Ballard had to pretty much build this roster from the ground up. Last year, it included adding safety Malik Hooker and cornerback Quincy Wilson with the first two picks in the draft. While Hooker went down with a season-ending knee injury seven games in, he’s going to be among the best pure cover safeties in the NFL moving forward. For his part, Wilson was able to get some time in as a starter last season, recording 22 tackles, six passes defended and an interception in the process.

Jacksonville Jaguars: Secondary

There’s a number of different ways we could have gone here. Certainly, the league’s best pass rush had something to do with the dominance of this secondary last season. Even then, it’s hard to ignore what cornerbacks Jalen Ramsey and A.J. Bouye did last season. Each yielded a sub 60 passer rating when targeted in 2017, helping elevate this unit to elite-level status. When all was said and done, Jacksonville ranked No. 1 against the pass at less than 170 yards per game while giving up 17 touchdowns compared to 21 interceptions for a league-low 68.5 passer rating. That’s just crazy.

Kansas City Chiefs: Wide receivers

Second-year quarterback Patrick Mahomes is going to have a whole boat load of weapons as his disposal in his first season as Kansas City’s starting quarterback. It starts with a young receiver in Tyreek Hill who showed himself to be a true No. 1 option as a sophomore last season. When all was said and done, Hill caught 71.4 percent of his targets for nearly 1,200 yards and eight scores. Did we mention that came with dink-and-dunk artist Alex Smith tossing him the rock? Mahomes won’t be that type of signal caller. Joining Hill in Kansas City, Sammy Watkins will look to break out big time after struggles with the Rams last season. He looked great during the offseason and should be a legit No. 2 option.

Los Angeles Chargers: Pass rush

We’re going to hear fans in Denver conclude that Bradley Chubb and Von Miller represent the best pas-rushing tandem in the NFL. But until Chubb actually plays a regular season game, this distinction must to go another AFC West duo. Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram are just on a completely different level. They complement one another at a tremendous clip, as evidenced by the 23 sacks the two combined for last season. Even with a lack of experience behind these two, this pass-rush unit is a major strength for Los Angeles. It’s one of the primary reasons the team yielded an insanely low 78.1 passer rating last season.

Los Angeles Rams: Defensive line

Just imagine Ndamukong Suh teaming up with reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year Aaron Donald. Unless Donald holds out throughout the season, we won’t have to imagine this. It’s going to become a reality, and that’s just plain scary for opposing NFC West teams. Suh might not have lived up to his contract with Miami, but he’s still a Pro Bowl caliber player. For his part, Donald might very well be the best defensive player in the entire game after having recorded 39 sacks in his first four NFL seasons. Losing Robert Quinn during the offseason might hurt some, but Michael Brockers will more than make up for that as a better fit in Wade Phillips scheme.

Miami Dolphins: Wide receivers

Returning from a torn ACL, Ryan Tannehill couldn’t ask for more when it comes to his receiver group. Miami did well to add to it with veteran Danny Amendola in free agency. Having caught north of 72 percent of his targets in New England over the past three seasons, Amendola is the perfect slot guy to team up with DeVante Parker and Kenny Stills, who combined for 115 receptions for 1,517 yards playing second fiddle to the recently departed Jarvis Landry last season. This trio has a legitimate shot to lift up Tannehill’s performance in 2018 and should be the team’s biggest strength.

Minnesota Vikings: Defensive line

Minnesota Vikings defensive end Danielle Hunter in NFL Week 11

The modern version of the Purple People Eaters, this Vikings defensive line was taken to a whole new level when the team signed former Pro Bowler Sheldon Richardson in free agency. Richardson will now team up with Linval Joseph to form a dynamic defensive tackle tandem. But that’s not even close to the story here. Consisting of Danielle Hunter, Everson Griffen and Brian Robison, Minnesota’s edge rushers are just dynamite. While Robison does his thing against the run, the other two combined 20 sacks last season. This is going to be a whole lot of fun.

New England Patriots: Quarterback

Really, this should go without saying. Now that the Patriots lost multiple proven veterans this offseason, Brady’s importance to the team is magnified even further. For the better part of the past two decades, he’s legitimately been the biggest strength in the NFL. That span has seen Brady post a 196-55 regular season record with a whopping 488 passing touchdowns. He’s led New England to 14 playoffs appearances, eight conference titles and five Super Bowl wins. Need we say more?

New Orleans Saints: Quarterback

Statistically, Drew Brees might have Brady topped. He holds four of the top-six single-season passing marks and is averaging 4,841 yards to go with 34 touchdowns throughout his Saints career. Brees and his offense heads into the 2018 season like a well-oiled machine. It starts with the future Hall of Fame quarterback under center and expands to reigning NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year Alvin Kamara at running back and Michael Thomas on the outside at wide receiver. Moving forward, Brees will only continue to prove himself as the biggest strength on the team.

New York Giants: Wide receivers

Giants star WR Odell Beckham Jr.

Assuming Odell Beckham Jr. is 100 percent and not whining about a lack of a long-term contract, this unit is going to act like a boon for the regressing Eli Manning under center. Prior to missing all but four games to injury last season, OBJ had averaged 96 receptions for 1,374 yards in his first three seasons. His on-field talents are already well known. What makes this unit strong is the presence of depth and talent behind him. Sterling Shepard put up 731 yards and caught north of 70 percent of his targets as a sophomore last season. Meanwhile, offensive weapon Evan Engram will line up at both tight end and wide receiver after putting up 64 receptions for 722 yards as a rookie last season.

New York Jets: Safety

Excitement is building for this budding young Jets team. It obviously starts with rookie top-five pick Sam Darnold, who could be thrust into a starting role early in his career. That’s fine. He plays quarterback. He’ll get most of the press. But the second-year safety duo of Jamal Adams and Marcus Maye should get recognition. Adams recorded 82 tackles, six passes defended and two sacks as a rookie. Meanwhile, Maye excelled at free safety with 78 tackles and two interceptions. We really want to see this tandem grow big time in 2018. And the Jets will need it with substandard corner play. Remember, they gave up an astounding 30 passing touchdowns a season ago.

Oakland Raiders: Offensive line

Despite team-wide struggles last season, this unit continued to prove itself to be among the game’s best. Derek Carr was sacked just 20 times on 535 drop backs, proving once again that left tackle Donald Penn is the most underrated offensive line in the league. Having invested heavily on guards Gabe Jackson and Kelechi Osemele as well as center Rodney Hudson, the interior of Oakland’s offensive line is set for years. The only real question here is at right tackle where rookie first-round pick Kolton Miller might be tasked with starting out of the gate.

Philadelphia Eagles: Quarterback

Now that reigning Super Bowl MVP Nick Foles is returning, the Eagles’ quarterback room could be the best in the game. Not too often can a team say it boasts a former MVP as a backup. But with Carson Wentz seemingly ready to return at 100 percent, that’s the case with the defending champs. For his part, Wentz was on an MVP pace himself prior to going down with a torn ACL, having tossed for 3,296 yards with 33 touchdowns en route to posting an 11-2 record in 13 starts.

Pittsburgh Steelers: Wide receivers

Having traded Martavis Bryant, it’s clear that the Steelers are committing to second-year receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster to be the complementary piece to all-everything wide receiver Antonio Brown. Ben Roethlisberger couldn’t ask for a better pairing. The two combined for 159 receptions, 2,450 yards and 16 touchdowns last season. It’s also pretty astounding that Pittsburgh continues to throw out talented options further down on the depth chart. It replaced Bryant with rookie second-round pick James Washington, who recorded 1,549 yards at Oklahoma State last season. Joining him on the depth chart is third-year pass catcher Eli Rogers, a player that flashed big time as a rookie back in 2016.

San Francisco 49ers: Secondary

The addition of All-Pro cornerback Richard Sherman brings this whole unit together. If he’s able to rebound from last year’s Achilles injury, San Francisco’s pass defense could surprisingly rank within the top 10. This secondary includes youngsters at ever other position, including a second-year corner in Ahkello Witherspoon who yielded a sub 75 passer rating once he earned the starting job last season. Jaquiski Tartt is already among the game’s best safeties and was just extended this past offseason. Meanwhile, 2017 seventh-round pick Adrian Colbert showed flashes of brilliance as a rookie last season. If this unit comes together in 2018, it could be the next Legion of Boom in the NFC West.

Seattle Seahawks: Linebackers

Seattle might be in store for some major struggles this coming season. But at the very least, it’s linebacker situation remains one of the game’s biggest strength. Bobby Wagner is legitimately the best inside linebacker in the NFL. He’s earned three All-Pro nods and four Pro Bowl appearances in the past four seasons. Teaming up with him, K.J. Wright has been as consistent as you can ask. He’s coming off potentially his best season, having recorded 108 tackles and six passes defended in 2017. The only question here is the other outside linebacker position where Barkevious Mingo will likely start.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Defensive line

Having added defensive ends Jason Pierre-Paul and Vinny Curry to the mix, Tampa Bay might throw out one of the best defensive lines in the NFL. The two combined for 11.5 sacks last season and lift up what was a downtrodden pass-rush group in Tampa Bay in 2017. They’ll team up with All-Pro defensive tackle Gerald McCoy and rookie Vita Vea to form a splendid unit. It’s certainly going to be needed with the Buccaneers’ secondary still a major question mark.

Tennessee Titans: Offensive line

Taylor Lewan Marcus Mariota Titans

Marcus Mariota has no more excuses. He legit boasts a potentially dominating running game and a tremendous group of pass catchers. In front of the struggling quarterback, this offensive line grew leaps and bounds a season ago. Despite his tendency to hold on to the ball too long, Mariota was sacked just 27 times in 2017. Last year’s first-round pick Jack Conklin fit in extremely well opposite left tackle Taylor Lewan. Meanwhile, Ben Jones proved himself to be among the top centers in the game. There’s some questions at guard, but that should be resolved before Week 1. In all, this unit is a major strength for Tennessee heading into the 2018 campaign.

Washington Redskins: Offensive line

Alex Smith is going to have a franchise left tackle for the first time since Joe Staley in San Francisco. Trent Williams is already a borderline hall of Famer and someone that will hold down the fort for the foreseeable future at left tackle. Morgan Moses has done a tremendous job at right tackle, while tackle-turned-guard Brandon Scherff has earned a Pro Bowl nod in each of the past two seasons. There might be issues elsewhere along the offense, but this unit is stacked.