As Michael Crabtree learned the hard way the last two seasons, the chain always breaks at the weakest link. There are plenty of Super Bowl contenders this season with stacked rosters, but the underbellies of their depth charts can be exposed over the course of the season and doom them in the playoffs. Here are the units that could undo some of this year’s top contenders.
New England Patriots: Wide Receivers
Super Bowl Odds (per Vegas Insider): 7-1 (highest)
Division Title Odds: 1-6
The Patriots have never developed outside receivers (RIP, Brandon Tate, Taylor Price, Aaron Dobson, Kenbrell Thompkins, and Malcolm Mitchell), but even by Bill Belichick’s standards, this Patriots receiving corps is unusually thin. This offseason New England traded Brandin Cooks, let Danny Amendola leave in free agency, and released Jordan Matthews and Mitchell. Eric Decker retired earlier this week, and Julian Edelman is returning from an ACL tear and will be suspended for the first four games for violating the league’s PED policy. The Pats’ receiver meetings are just Chris Hogan wandering around the Gillette complex asking, “Where is everybody?”
Hogan will be the top option, and behind him are bunch of wait, really? guys that include Cordarrelle Patterson, who was considered a special-teams acquisition when he arrived in Foxborough in March, and Phillip Dorsett, who caught only 12 passes last season and hasn’t had more than five catches in a game since … ever. The Pats also have some lesser options, like sixth-round pick Braxton Berrios, and could dive into the waiver pool after cut day, but unless the team conjures a gem, New England fans will still be learning their receivers’ names by Halloween.
Of course, this is New England, and Belichick has earned the benefit of the doubt. After Tom Brady ranked 21st, 20th, and 23rd in average pass length from 2014 to 2016 per NFL GSIS, he jumped to fifth in 2017 by making far more throws beyond 20 yards. Without last year’s receivers, it’s likely that we’ll see Brady lean on pass-catching backs Rex Burkhead and James White, both out of the backfield and as wideouts, as the offense returns to the dink-and-dunk strategy it employed for years. Every time Rob Gronkowski is triple-teamed on third-and-long, Pats fans may wonder what Cooks is up to.
Los Angeles Rams: Linebackers
Super Bowl Odds: 10-1 (tied for second-highest)
Division Title Odds: 4-7
Even by Los Angeles’s lofty standards, the Rams imported a star-studded guest list this offseason with Brandin Cooks, Ndamukong Suh, Marcus Peters, Aqib Talib, and Sam Shields. Those names make it easy to gloss over their exports. Between trades and free agency, the Rams lost three of their four starting linebackers, including inside linebacker Alec Ogletree and pass rushers Robert Quinn and Connor Barwin, who combined for a $20 million cap hit in 2017.
“When you transition from 4-3 to 3-4 (system), it helps to live a year, as you put guys in positions that they’re not necessarily used to,” general manager Les Snead said after the moves. “So I think last year helped, to figure out who were the best fits and who weren’t. It’s nothing against individuals. It’s just the scheme.”
The Rams’ linebackers are now much cheaper, but it’s a mystery how they’ll work in Wade Phillips’s scheme. At inside linebacker, the team brought back starter Mark Barron, an athletic defender rehabbing from heel and shoulder surgeries. He began practicing last week and will rely on 2016 undrafted free agent Cory Littleton to replace Alec Ogletree as the quarterback and chief communicator of the defense.
The outside pass rush is an even bigger unknown. Phillips rightfully gets a lot of credit for the Super Bowl defense he constructed in Denver, but that was with Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware rushing the passer. Now the Rams will depend on getting pressure off the edge from outside linebackers Matt Longacre, a fourth-year undrafted free agent who logged 5.5 sacks before injuring his back in Week 15 last season, and Samson Ebukam, a fourth-round pick in 2017 out of Eastern Washington. Both are far more cost efficient than Quinn and Barwin, but they may also be less effective, especially since their snap counts are about to double. That could allow opposing coordinators to spend even more time focusing on Defensive Player of the Year Aaron Donald.
Houston Texans: Offensive Line
Super Bowl Odds: 20-1 (tied for ninth)
Division Title Odds: 2-1
If the lasting memories of Deshaun Watson are the Houdini escape acts he turned into long touchdowns, it’s because he was always on the run. Watson was the most pressured quarterback in football last season, Houston’s line was fourth in blown blocks per the Football Outsiders Almanac, and the team sent left tackle Duane Brown, its only quality lineman, to Seattle at the trade deadline. Watson was spectacular anyway, but there’s basically no chance that he’ll replicate that small-sample success over a full season. As Evan Silva at Rotoworld pointed out, Watson threw a touchdown on 10 percent of his passes in games he started last year, while the active career leader in touchdown rate is Aaron Rodgers at 6.4 percent. Watson will regress even if the line plays well, but it’s unlikely it will. The team failed to significantly upgrade that group in the offseason, and Pro Football Focus projects it to be the worst offensive line in football in 2018.
There are ways coach Bill O’Brien can mitigate poor offensive line play. While Watson’s rookie stint will be remembered for the deep throws, he was excellent on short throws as well. For Watson’s health and his long-term development, it would be prudent for the Texans to focus on a quicker passing game that maximizes the signal-caller’s strengths while minimizing the time the team’s linemen need to hold up pass rushers.
Still, the Texans’ dearth of offensive line talent can be schemed around only so much, especially when it comes to running the football. The squad will likely struggle to improve on the 3.8 yards per carry it got from everyone not named Deshaun last season. Plus, the AFC South makes things tough. Playing from behind against division rivals Jacksonville and Tennessee––second and tied for fifth in sacks last year––will be a big challenge.
Minnesota Vikings: Offensive Line
Super Bowl Odds: 10-1 (tied for second-highest)
Division Title Odds: 5-4
After a disastrous 2016 campaign when the Vikings’ offensive line was decimated by injuries, the unit was solid in 2017. This season, though, has already involved a lot of shuffling. Right guard Joe Berger retired, which prompted right tackle Mike Remmers to move inside, but he’s barely practiced after suffering an ankle injury early in training camp. That leaves the right tackle spot to either second-round pick Brian O’Neill or 2016 undrafted free agent Rashod Hill. Hill is the favorite to win the job, but he has also been limited this preseason with an ankle injury.
Riley Reiff remains at left tackle, but starting left guard Nick Easton is out for the season with a neck injury, and center Pat Elflein is on the PUP list after surgery on his shoulder and a fractured ankle following his excellent rookie season. There’s a real chance Elflein will miss the beginning of the year, even if he is taken off the PUP in time, and it’s unrealistic to think he’ll be at 100 percent when he does get on the field. The Vikings traded for former Giants center Brett Jones on Sunday, perhaps to compensate for Elflein potentially missing time, shore up depth, or create a competition with journeyman Tom Compton for the left guard spot. Elflein, Easton, and Berger on the interior were critical to Minnesota’s rejuvenated line last year, and now a hobbled Elflein is all that remains.
Vikings fans have seen the worst case for their offensive line: 2016. This season can’t be as bad, but new free-agent signing Kirk Cousins loves staying on schedule with his throws and isn’t known for improving or extending plays. A banged-up offensive line could throw a serious wrench into Minnesota’s passing attack.
Jacksonville Jaguars: You Know Who It Is
Super Bowl Odds: 16-1 (tied for sixth-highest)
Division Title Odds: 7-4
“I think in crunch time moments, like last year’s playoff game—not as a team, because we would have trusted him—but I think as an organization, we should have trusted him more to keep throwing it,” Ramsey told GQ earlier this month. “We kinda got complacent and conservative. And I think that’s why we lost. We started running it on first and second down, throwing it on third down, every single time we were out there. [The Patriots] caught on to that.”
Perhaps the team will give Bortles a longer leash this season after signing him to a three-year extension with $26.5 million guaranteed—worth up to $54 million—in February, despite the branding of its offensive identity last year as limiting his ability to screw things up.
The Jaguars defense figures to once again be among the best in football, and the Leonard Fournette–led run game will only get better now that the Jags added All-Pro guard Andrew Norwell in free agency, but the team might need Bortles more than ever. As Andrew Potter pointed out in the 2018 Football Outsiders Almanac, the Jaguars were first in offensive DVOA in the first quarter last year and 21st after the first quarter, which shows that a major part of the team’s dominance was getting an early lead and allowing its pass rush to attack opponents that needed to score. Odds are the Jaguars will regress some in that area this year, and they’ll need Bortles to help them capture leads in the second half more often. Perhaps with the aid of crafty offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett, Bortles will be better in 2018, but I’ll believe it when I see it (and maybe not even then).
An earlier version of this piece incorrectly stated that Phillip Dorsett didn’t catch a pass last season; he caught 12.