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Biggest weakness for each NFL team heading into the season

Vincent Frank
Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

The New England Patriots are going for their third consecutive AFC title and ninth Super Bowl appearance of the Tom Brady era. Does this mean that the NFL’s most-recent dynasty doesn’t have a major weakness heading into the 2018 season? Of course not.

Whether we’re talking about a Cleveland Browns team that has not won on a Sunday since December of 2015 or the defending champion Philadelphia Eagles, every single NFL team has a weakness.

Here, we check in on the most-glaring issue for each squad heading into the season.

Arizona Cardinals: Offensive line

This could get ugly really quickly for the injury-prone and immobile Sam Bradford should he be the team’s Week 1 starter. An unproven D.J. Humphries will hold down the fort at left tackle with former Cincinnati Bengals first-round pick Andre Smith likely earning the right tackle job. From there, it doesn’t get much better. Mike Iupati has been a free agent bust since joining the team three seasons ago and is coming off an injury-plagued 2017 campaign. Maybe the addition of Justin Pugh will help some, but this unit is a disaster. After seeing its quarterbacks sacked 52 times last season, this Cardinals’ offensive line is going to be a major issue in 2018.

Atlanta Falcons: Play-calling

It’s squarely on offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian to improve off what was a disastrous rookie campaign as the Falcons’ play caller. This unit went from No. 1 in scoring under Kyle Shanahan at nearly 34 points per game in 2016 to averaging about two touchdowns less per game last season. Running backs Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman had down seasons. Matt Ryan failed to live up to the expectations that made him league MVP the year prior. Meanwhile, questionable play-calling in the red zone led to Julio Jones scoring just three touchdowns. Yes, that Julio Jones. A major weakness heading into 2018, Sark just needs to do better.

Baltimore Ravens: Quarterback

All of those out there demanding that Lamar Jackson overtake Joe Flacco as Baltimore’s starter must realize one thing. Rookie quarterbacks performing at a high clip are an exception to the rule. For every one Deshaun Watson, there are 10 Mitch Trubisky’s. It’s the unfortunate reality in today’s NFL. Even then, Jackson offers much more excitement and upside than his veteran counterpart. At 33 years old, Flacco isn’t even a top-25 quarterback in today’s NFL. Last season alone, he tossed for an obscenely low 3,141 yards with 18 touchdowns and 13 interceptions en route to leading the NFL’s fourth-worst passing offense.

Buffalo Bills: Quarterback

, Allen couldn’t hit the back side of this scribe’s wide beam. So yeah, have fun with this one, Bills fans.

Carolina Panthers: Offensive line

Failing to address the offensive line in front of former MVP while thinking it’s going to fix itself probably isn’t the best plan in today’s NFL. Unfortunately for Cam Newton, that’s been the case with his Panthers over the years. This spring alone, Carolina did not select a single offensive lineman in the draft. It returns a struggling Matt Kalil at left tackle with an average Daryl Williams expected to take on elite-level NFC South pass rushers on the right side. Ryan Kalil at center and Trai Turner at right guard are two brights spots. But this unit as a whole is a complete train wreck after yielding 35 sacks of Newton and the fourth-highest pressure rate last season.

Chicago Bears: Pass rush

The Bears are banking on former first-round pick Leonard Floyd taking the next step after putting up 11.5 sacks in his first two NFL seasons. They also took a chance on former 49ers EDGE guy Aaron Lynch after he recorded just 2.5 sacks in his final two seasons in San Francisco. The unproven quality of these two starting pass rushers is going to make for some major struggles under defensive coordinator Vic Fangio. Akiem Hicks returns after leading the charge with 8.5 sacks last season. Outside of that, there’s not a single returning member of the Bears’ defense that recorded more than four quarterback take downs last season. Ouch.

Cincinnati Bengals: Coaching

Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis

Marvin Lewis must have something on the Bengals’ brass. That’s the only explanation for the team retaining the long-time head coach after two disastrous seasons. Last year alone, Lewis seemed to lose his locker room at every turn. It led to speculation that he was going to move on. That’s why we were all thrown for a loop when an extension was announced for the embattled head man. There’s no other way to put it. Lewis is among the most overrated head coaches in professional sports. Seven playoff appearances without a single win. Two consecutive non-playoff campaigns. And a reliance on a quarterback in Andy Dalton who will never prove himself to be starter caliber. With a talented roster elsewhere, these two components will doom Cincinnati once again in 2018.

Cleveland Browns: Safety play

There’s certainly talent at safety in Cleveland. How said talent meshes and responds to different roles will tell us the story moving forward. Last year’s first-round pick, Jabrill Peppers, played so much out of position that we were left wondering what defensive coordinator Gregg Williams was doing. If the Michigan product remains in the same role this coming season, it will be a waste of his otherworldly athleticism. Meanwhile, former Green Bay Packers first-round pick Damarious Randall moves from cornerback to safety after being acquired in the DeShone Kizer trade this past spring. He might be a more natural talent at safety, but the learning curve isn’t going to be small for a youngster that played out on the boundary during his time in Green Bay.

Dallas Cowboys: Pass rush

Getting Randy Gregory back after he missed pretty much the past two seasons to suspension helps. But let’s not pretend that he’s somehow going to turn around a weak pass-rush group after having recorded one sack in 14 career NFL games. The strength of this unit is certainly DeMarcus Lawrence, who recorded 14.5 sacks last season. Outside of that, it’s whole lot of nothing. First-round pick Taco Charlton struggled to the tune of three sacks as a rookie. Meanwhile, David Irving is suspended for the first four games of the 2018 season.

Denver Broncos: Running game

Denver may be holding out hope that former mid-round pick Devontae Booker can turn it around after putting up an average of 3.6 yards per attempt in his first two seasons. That’s a foolish hope. At some point, especially when talking running back, a player either has it or he doesn’t. Period. This should give rookie Royce Freeman an opportunity to earn more touches during camp and the preseason. Unfortunately, it seems that Denver is bullish on Booker. If so, any thought given to the idea of the Broncos turning around a rushing attack that averaged just north of four yards and scored eight total touchdowns last season can be thrown out the window.

Detroit Lions: Safety play

When we look at the Lions’ secondary, it’s pretty astonishing to realize this team boasted a cornerback in Darius Slay who tied for the NFL lead in interceptions with eight last season. Despite his excellence, Detroit yielded the sixth-most passing yards in the NFL. Glover Quin has in the past proven himself to be a solid safety. But since a Pro Bowl campaign back in 2014, he’s been nothing special. On the other hand, Tavon Wilson is seemingly nothing more than a special teams player being tasked to play strong safety. That’s led to some major issues on the back end of Detroit’s defense. Having not really addressed these problems in the offseason, we expect more struggles in 2018.

Green Bay Packers: Pass rush

Rightfully so, Green Bay attempted to address glaring issues in the secondary when the 2018 NFL Draft came calling. That included picking up cornerbacks Jaire Alexander and Josh Jackson with its first two selections. Unfortunately, it also included the Packers pretty much ignoring a pass-rush unit that saw no player record more than 7.5 sacks last season. Clay Matthews is on the back end of his career, Nick Perry can’t be relied on consistently. And after that, there’s not a whole lot to look at here. Sure the addition of Mo Wilkerson should help, but there’s a lack of depth and talent at the edge positions in Green Bay.

Houston Texans: offensive line

Attempting to return from the torn ACL he suffered as a rookie last season, Deshaun Watson has not been put in the best position by his organization. The trade of former Pro Bowl left tackle Duane Brown last season certainly doesn’t help matters here. Instead of having that franchise stalwart as Watson’s blindside protector, the second-year quarterback will do work behind a combination of unproven tackles, Julie’n Davenport, Seantrel Henderson and Martinas Rankin. What is it with NFL teams not equipping their young franchise quarterbacks with better offensive lines? Watson has noted that he’s not going to change the way he plays because of the ACL injury. But it might not matter if Houston can’t find a way to upgrade the offensive line in front of him.

Indianapolis Colts: Running game

Moving on from one of the most consistent backs in NFL history, Frank Gore, has these Colts in a questionable situation behind Andrew Luck. Having put up 358 yards last season, Marlon Mack is Indianapolis’ leading returning rusher. He’ll be joined in the backfield by a rookie in Nyheim Hines who offers ability in both the running game and as a receiver out of the backfield. Even then, the lack of proven experience could haunt Indy in 2018. After all, this rushing attack averaged just 3.7 yards per attempt last season. Without balance, it could prove difficult for Luck to remain healthy throughout the season.

Jacksonville Jaguars: Quarterback

By extending Blake Bortles this past spring, Jacksonville is giving the former first-round pick one final opportunity to prove his worth as a franchise quarterback. Unlike previous seasons, Jacksonville isn’t banking on Bortles while being void of high expectations. In reality, these Jaguars are one of the top Super Bowl contenders heading into Week 1. The problem here is Bortles. After turning in a solid first 14 starts last season, Bortles threw five interceptions in his final two regular season outings. He then proceeded to throw for 87 yards in a wildcard win over Buffalo. Simply put, Bortles needs to up his game in order for these Jags to be taken seriously as a top-end title contender.

Kansas City Chiefs: Pass defense

The trade of Marcus Peters certainly changes the entire dynamics in Kansas City’s secondary. He’ll be replaced by Kendall Fuller, who was acquired in the Alex Smith trade. Though, Fuller is more of a slot guy. That should lead to issues on the outside, with David Amerson, Steve Nelson, Keith Reaser and Will Redmond competing for the starting spots. That’s whole lot of mediocrity right there. For a Chiefs team that yielded the fourth-most passing yards with Peters in the mix last season, this could very well be a fatal flaw in 2018.

Los Angeles Chargers: Linebackers

The only area on Los Angeles’ entire roster that’s a major question mark is the linebacker position. Denzel Perryman returns after missing all but seven games to injury last season. He’s the play-caller, and he must prove that said injuries are behind him. More than that, the other linebacker positions are major question marks. Is Hayes Pullard a starter-caliber inside backer? Having been less-than-average over his first three NFL seasons, is Kyle Emanuel ready to take the next step? Meanwhile, the Chargers will be relying a lot on rookie second-round pick Uchenna Nwosu. How he performs could make a major difference here.

Los Angels Rams: Pass rush

Wade Phillips

The trade of Robert Quinn was low-key big for the Rams. Sure he didn’t fit Wade Phillips’ defensive scheme, but where are the Rams going to get an outside pass rush from in 2018? They’re set with Ndamukong Suh and Aaron Donald (assuming he reports) at defensive tackle. That will make it easier for edge rushers. Even then, we’re talking about a defense that doesn’t return a single edge player it saw record more than four sacks last season. That has to be a pretty major concern.

Miami Dolphins: Linebackers

Miami is certainly hoping that 2017 second-round pick Raekwon McMillan is ready to step up after missing his entire rookie season. The team also has a promising youngster in that of rookie Jerome Baker and a proven veteran in Kiko Alonso. But this is the very same linebacker group that yielded an 80 percent completion mark to tight ends last season. It also didn’t help a defense that finished last season having given up north of 110 rushing yards per game. It could come together in 2018, but we’re not holding our breath.

Minnesota Vikings: Offensive line

Having committed to top-end quarterback money for Kirk Cousins in free agency and on the heels of extending multiple key defensive players, it stands to reason that one area on an otherwise elite-level Vikings roster would be impacted. That’s the offensive line in front of Captain Kirk himself. Vikings quarterbacks might have gone down only 27 times last season, but a quick-strike offense was more the culprit there. Minnesota’s rushing attack also averaged just 3.9 yards per attempt, which has to be a concern given that Jerick McKinnon’s on-field splits were indicative of more success. Is this unit ready to step up in front of the all-new backfield of Kirk Cousins and second-year back Dalvin Cook? We’re not too sure.

New England Patriots: Secondary

Some say that the loss of Malcolm Butler won’t hurt too much given his struggles last season. That’s fine. But who is New England prepared to replace him with? Acquiring veteran Jason McCourty in a trade with Cleveland certainly isn’t the answer. After that, there’s a whole lot of question marks behind No. 1 corner Stephon Gilmore. Is rookie Duke Dawson ready to hold down the starting slot job? If not, who among a group of unproven corners will step up? For a Patriots defense that gave up the third-most passing yards in the NFL last season, there just seems to be way too many questions to expect a solid performance from this group in 2018.

New Orleans Saints: Pass rush

Cameron Jordan is the one outlier here. The veteran put up a career-best 13 sacks last season en route to earning All-Pro honors. He’s also averaging 10-plus sacks over the past five seasons, proving to be consistent in the process. Outside of that, there’s not a whole lot of help here. Vonn Bell finished second on the team with 4.5 sacks. He plays safety. That’s certainly not a good sign. The hope in New Orleans is that first-round pick Marcus Davenport can shine as a rookie. After all, the team gave up a huge bounty to trade up for him in the draft. Though, he’s a small-school product and remains about as raw as they come. Short of him making an immediate impact, New Orleans’ pass rush is going to be a major question mark.

New York Giants: Linebackers

We certainly hope that the Giants aren’t hanging their hats on the recently acquired Alec Ogletree turning this unit around. Pro Football Focus graded him out No. 830 out of 856 defensive players in the NFL last season. There’s a reason why Los Angeles sold him for pennies on the dollar. He’s just not good. Switching to a 3-4, the likes of Olivier Vernon and rookie Lorenzo Carter will be trying out new positions for the first time. Meanwhile, B.J. Goodson is in no way a starter-caliber linebacker in the NFL. This is all going to lead to some major struggles in 2018.

New York Jets: Wide receivers

Robby Anderson

If Robby Anderson plays the entire season after a drama-filled break and Quincy Enunwa returns to health following a lost 2017 campaign, this unit might actually be respectable. The issue here is that there’s just too many questions. Jermaine Kearse remains the most consistent option, but he’s nothing more than a No. 3 at this point in his career. Second-year receiver ArDarius Stewart is facing a two-game ban to start the season. After that, we’re talking about veterans in Andre Roberts and Terrelle Pryor who are seemingly nothing more than depth options. That’s a less-than-ideal scenario for the threesome slated to compete for the starting quarterback job during camp.

Oakland Raiders: Secondary

This could continue to be a near fatal flaw for the Raiders under first-year head coach Jon Gruden. Relying on unproven youngsters and tapped out veterans last season, Oakland yielded a 101.8 passer rating and recorded just five interceptions. Rookies Gareon Conley and Obi Melifonwu dealt with injuries throughout the 2017 campaign, failing to live up to expectations in the process. Adding veteran corner Rashaan Melvin to the mix will help here. But’s it’s not going to be anywhere near enough for the Raiders to overcome their pass defense issues.

Philadelphia Eagles: Cornerbacks

It was somewhat shocking to see Philadelphia let Patrick Robinson walk in free agency after he put up a stellar initial season with the defending champs, recording 18 passes defended and four interceptions. This is now going to force the Eagles to rely on 2017 draft pick Sidney Jones to play a larger role after he missed his entire rookie season to injury. Ronald Darby and Jalen Mills are strong on the outside. But it’s the lack of unproven depth that could lead to struggles for an Eagles pass defense that finished in the middle of the past last season.

Pittsburgh Steelers: Pass rush

Steelers' T.J. Watt earnes rookie's top Week 1 honor.

Having employed the non-traditional 3-4 defense longer than pretty much any team in the NFL, it’s somewhat surprising to see how much Pittsburgh has struggled in this category in recent seasons. More than anything, it’s been bad draft picks that have haunted this vaunted franchise. Back in 2013, it was Jarvis Jones. He ultimately recorded six sacks in four seasons. Pittsburgh then selected Bud Dupree in the first round of the 2015 draft. He’s averaging less than five sacks in three seasons. The good news? Pittsburgh’s selection of T.J Watt to open its drafting last year will certainly pay off. He’s an up-and-coming pass-rush force. Unfortunately, there’s not much behind him on the depth chart.

San Francisco 49ers: Pass rush

In what has otherwise been a solid offseason in San Francisco, General manager John Lynch and Co. failed to address a major pass-rush need. In fact, the team released its leading sack-getter from last season, Elvis Dumervil. It now doesn’t employ a pass-rush threat that recorded more than three sacks in 2017. Even with the 49ers’ secondary likely being a strength this coming season, there’s no telling where the pass rush is coming from. Unfortunately, San Francisco decided to rely more on projection regarding its young players rather than adding a proven pass-rush talent. That could very well come back to bite the team in the back end this season.

Seattle Seahawks: Offensive line

The acquisition of Duane Brown didn’t do a whole lot to help a previously anemic offensive line in front of Russell Wilson last season. Despite being among the most mobile quarterbacks in the NFL, Wilson was sacked a whopping 43 times in 2017. All said, he’s gone down an league-high 248 times since entering the league back in 2012. Opposite Brown, Seattle will be relying on one of the worst offensive tackles in the NFL last season in the form of Germain Ifedi. The team will also be forced to employ former San Diego Chargers first-round bust D.J. Fluker at guard. Watch out, Russ, you’re going to be running for your life again in 2018.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Pass defense

Tampa sought to fix these issues in the 2018 NFL Draft, adding cornerbacks M.J. Stewart and Carlton Davis in the second round. But relying on rookie cornerbacks not named Marshon Lattimore has proven to be an issue in the NFL recently. There’s no reason to believe these two youngsters will be able to immediately turn around a pass defense that ranked dead last in the NFL last season and yielded a 67.6 completion percentage. Brent Grimes is on the back end of his career, and former first-round pick Vernon Hargreaves has failed to live up to expectations. That will lead to continued struggles in 2018.

Tennessee Titans: Quarterback

Geno Atkins sacks Marcus Mariota

At some point, we’re going to have to question whether Mariota is going to be that true franchise quarterback. He took a major step back as a third-year quarterback last season, throwing for just 3,232 yards with 13 touchdowns and 15 interceptions. Given the talent Mariota had to work with on offense last season, that’s just not acceptable. Now entering a 2018 campaign with division title aspirations, it’s time for Mariota to prove his worth. If not, questions will come up regarding his future in Nashville.

Washington Redskins: Wide receivers

In large part due to a dominating skill-position group in Kansas City, Alex Smith exceeded everyone’s wildest expectations in five seasons with the team. In order for Smith to succeed in the nation’s capital, he’s must work without anywhere near the same level of talent. Jamison Crowder is Washington’s leading returning receiver, having put up 789 yards last season. After that, not a single member of the Skins’ receiving group put up more than 502 yards. That came from a former first-round pick in Josh Doctson who has been injury plagued throughout his short two-year NFL career.