Trades and preseason cutdowns could still shake NFL rosters up a bit, but with free agency and the draft now both in the rear-view, we finally have a (pretty) clear picture of what teams will look like going into the 2018 season. As depth charts come into focus, it’s easy to see where each squad is strongest and most vulnerable—or simply most unpredictable.
Over the past few months, a handful of franchises spent big in free agency to fill their biggest holes, while others looked to the draft to turn weaknesses into potential strengths. But for a few clubs, the offseason has provided little clarity at major positions of need. Here are five teams that head into 2018 with the biggest question marks at key spots.
Seahawks: Offensive Line
Seattle’s biggest problem last year was its disastrously porous offensive line. The Seahawks’ run game was just about irrelevant (the team’s running backs found the end zone just once all year) and quarterback Russell Wilson had to operate behind a line that gave up 43 sacks (tied for 10th most), 124 quarterback hits (tied for fourth most) and a pressure rate of 36.9 percent (tied for second worst). The mid-season trade for left tackle Duane Brown wasn’t enough to fix a unit that struggled at both guard spots and right tackle: Rookie guard Ethan Pocic ranked 77th out of 80 in Pro Football Focus’s pass-blocking grade, surrendering 29 hurries (tied for third worst among guards) in just 11 starts; veteran Luke Joeckel was nearly as bad, ranked 60th on that list after giving up five sacks in 11 games (tied for fifth-most); and right tackle Germain Ifedi was a liability, allowing 45 hurries (fourth-most among tackles), four sacks, and three quarterback hits while leading the NFL in accepted penalties (16).
Yet, the Seahawks did very little—at least on the personnel side—to fix the problems they’ve had protecting their franchise player. D.J. Fluker replaces Joeckel this year as the team’s token former-first-round-pick free-agent signee, but he’s a run-blocking specialist who’s been among the worst pass-blockers in the NFL over the past two seasons (in 2016, he ranked 59th among 77 eligible guards last year in PFF’s pass blocking grade; and in 2017, he ranked 69th among 80 eligible guards). Seattle also took a flier on Ohio State tackle Jamarco Jones in the draft’s fifth round, but that’s likely just a depth move in the short term, and the lack of athleticism Jones displayed at the combine calls into question his ability to play at the NFL level.
Seattle’s front office seems to be pinning its hopes on the idea that new offensive line coach Mike Solari—who replaces the recently fired Tom Cable—can squeeze more production out of this unit. It’s certainly possible Solari is a miracle worker, but no one should be shocked if Wilson’s forced to run for his life again in 2018.
Packers: Pass Rush
Green Bay gave its sieve-like pass defense a nice boost last week by grabbing a pair of starting-caliber cornerbacks (Louisville’s Jaire Alexander and Iowa’s Josh Jackson) with its first two draft picks, but there’s still the question of how the team plans on getting more consistent pressure on the quarterback. Last year, the Packers registered 37 sacks (tied for 17th) and 83 QB hits (21st), getting pressure on just 29 percent of pass plays, per Football Outsiders (26th).
The team’s decision to sign former Jets defensive lineman Muhammad Wilkerson to a one-year deal is a boom-or-bust prospect; he’s got some upside, sure, but has produced just eight sacks total over the past two seasons and should play most frequently inside flanked by one of the team’s outside linebackers. That means the Packers will likely once again rely heavily on the combination of Clay Matthews and Nick Perry to bring heat off the edge.
Matthews, 31, is no longer the explosive threat he once was and has gone three straight seasons with sack totals in the single digits (7.5 last year). Meanwhile, Perry—who missed four games in 2017—has just one double-digit sack season on his résumé (he notched 11.0 sacks in 2016) and has yet to play a full season in his six-year career. Behind that duo, Green Bay’s hoping Vince Biegel, Kyler Fackrell, and Reggie Gilbert can make big jumps as contributors.
Last year, the Bills’ top three pass catchers by production were, in order: a running back (LeSean McCoy, who caught 59 passes for 448 yards and two TDs), a tight end (Charles Clay, who caught 49 balls for 558 yards and two TDs), and a receiver who is now a Dallas Cowboy (Deonte Thompson, who reeled in 27 balls for 430 yards and a score). Fourth on that list we see Zay Jones (27 catches, 316 yards, two TD), who struggled with drops as a rookie and had offseason surgery to repair a torn labrum. Fifth? That’d be Jordan Matthews, who is now a New England Patriot.
The Bills’ receivers group is as shallow as any in the league. Kelvin Benjamin returns from last year’s nagging knee injury to assume his role as the presumptive no. 1, and he’s joined by two mid-level offseason additions in free agents Kaelin Clay and Jeremy Kerley, plus Andre Holmes and Rod Streater. After waiting until the sixth round to start throwing picks at the receiver position, GM Brandon Beane even felt compelled to apologize to new offensive coordinator Brian Daboll. So, whether it’s A.J. McCarron or Josh Allen (or hell, maybe Nathan Peterman) who lines up under center in Buffalo this season, the Bills’ starting quarterback is going to find himself in a very tough situation.
Ryan Shazier won’t play in 2018, and the Steelers will head into next season with next to zero depth at linebacker. Incumbent starter Vince Williams returns, and Pittsburgh did sign veteran journeyman Jon Bostic in free agency. But that duo isn’t good enough to solve the team’s issues in the middle of the field—and the draft board didn’t fall quite right for the team to grab an immediate impact starter there, either. Roquan Smith went eighth overall to the Bears, Tremaine Edmunds went 16th overall pick to the Bills, and Leighton Vander Esch went 19th to the Cowboys, and then the Titans traded up to the 22nd spot to nab Alabama’s Rashaan Evans—Pittsburgh’s reported intended target. Instead, the Steelers came out of the draft with a surplus of depth at safety (grabbing Terrell Edmunds in the first and Marcus Allen in the fifth), so Pittsburgh may be forced to improvise with the personnel they’ve got, running big-nickel looks with Edmunds, Allen, or free-agent acquisition Morgan Burnett playing the role of a de facto linebacker.
Cowboys: Pass Catchers
It’s not that Dallas has done nothing to address the lack of playmaking talent in the passing game after releasing Dez Bryant and losing Jason Witten to retirement. They signed receivers Allen Hurns and Deonte Thompson in free agency, traded a sixth-round pick for Rams pass catcher/gadget running back Tavon Austin, and drafted Colorado State receiver Michael Gallup in the third round and Stanford tight end Dalton Schultz in the fourth. The question is, though: How is all this going to shake out? And more importantly: Will it work?
At tight end, we’re about to see a depth-chart battle between Geoff Swaim (nine career receptions), Rico Gathers (zero), Blake Jarwin (zero), and Schultz (a rookie). And at receiver, it’s anybody’s guess as to how snaps and roles will be doled out. Hurns should be the de facto no. 1, I guess, Cole Beasley projects as the team’s primary slot receiver, and Terrance Williams should remain a speed threat on the outside. Past that, only time will tell.
Early in the year, that unpredictability could be a slight advantage. As Tony Romo put it, “Initially there will be some success because it’ll be hard for [defenses] to determine who to double team and what they’re going to do defensively. It’s going to be a little more random.”
But at some point, some combination of pass-catchers is going to need to emerge as the team’s go-to-guys. “When the tape gets out there throughout the season,” said Romo, “it gets a little more difficult offensively—because now you have tendencies.”
Once [teams] get tape on you, that’s when your big-time players need to step up and create plays.”
Quarterback Dak Prescott heads into 2018 looking to bounce back from a tough second-half passing performance. The problem is, he’ll be throwing to a whole new stable of pass catchers, and there’s plenty of uncertainty around how each of these players will fit in.