With the draft in the books, we’ve officially reached the home stretch of the NFL’s silly season. Teams can now sign free agents without having to give up compensatory draft picks, rookie minicamps start in a few days, and we’re just a week away from getting the 2022 schedule. It’s time to start looking ahead.
While teams’ rosters are pretty much set, the league’s expected contenders all still have some holes. And though we’re past the draft and the primary wave of free agency, avenues to fill those remain. The Saints, for instance, plugged a gap at safety by signing Tyrann Mathieu to a three-year, $33 million deal on Monday, the first day that free agents could sign without impacting their new team’s compensatory draft pick haul. And there are plenty of other big-name players who are still available, either on the open market or via trade.
Teams that expect to be in the mix next season should remain active this spring and summer in an effort to shore up their weaknesses. So here are the biggest holes the top Super Bowl contenders will look to fill, and solutions for how they can do it. We’ll be looking at the 12 teams with the best current odds to win the Super Bowl, so if your team didn’t make the list, send your complaints to the oddsmakers in Vegas.
Buffalo Bills: Running Back
One would think drafting Georgia’s James Cook in the second round would take Buffalo out of the market for a running back. But after GM Brandon Beane referred to Cook as a “sub back” in a post-draft presser and compared him to NFL journeyman J.D. McKissic, I’m not sure that’s the case.
Brandon Beane on James Cook: "We see his best skillset as a sub back. But, I think he can handle carries too if we give him some more carries" pic.twitter.com/hJZMlDbwDS— Kevin Cole (@KevinColePFF) May 3, 2022
Cook is a skinnier guy who didn’t fill the every-down archetype at Georgia, so there still appears to be a vacancy at the top of the depth chart. And while the Bills will be just fine if they don’t add another running back—which isn’t a valuable position—it’s a testament to the roster that this is its biggest hole.
Solution: Trade for Saquon Barkley
The Bills would have to move some money around to fit Barkley’s $7.2 million salary under the cap, perhaps by restructuring Tre White’s deal. But why shouldn’t they? Barkley has been disappointing the last couple seasons, but he has yet to play in a good offense. Putting him in the same backfield as Josh Allen could unlock all that ability we saw at Penn State—ability that has been suppressed by the Giants’ general shittiness.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Pass Rushing Depth
The Bucs are slated to go into camp with Aaron Stinnie and second-round rookie Luke Goedeke competing for the starting job at left guard, so that might actually be the biggest weakness of this team. But offensive line is never too big of an issue when Tom Brady is under center and getting the ball out in a hurry. He’ll make it work; he always does.
Like last season, though, depth is a major concern for this team, and the Bucs were hit hard in 2021 because of their weak bench. The thinnest spot on the roster appears to be edge rusher, where Tampa Bay will lean on Shaq Barrett and second-year pro Joe Tryon-Shoyinka, who flashed plenty of ability but didn’t get to the quarterback nearly enough during his rookie season. Even if Tryon-Shoyinka turns the corner, the Bucs could use some additional help, as Cam Gill and Anthony Nelson—and their combined 7.5 career sacks—lurk next up on the depth chart.
Solution: Sign Melvin Ingram
A one-year, $4 million deal was enough to get Ingram to sign in Pittsburgh last offseason. The price may have gone up since then, but not enough to deter Tampa Bay, which has about $13 million in available cap space. Ingram is a versatile pass rusher who can line up anywhere and has plenty of experience dropping into coverage, which is required for edge rushers in Todd Bowles’s defense.
Kansas City Chiefs: Cornerback
The Chiefs landed on every list of draft winners over the weekend after making 10 picks in total. They added to their secondary by using a first-round pick on Trent McDuffie, an undersized but talented corner from Washington. But you need three good corners to survive against the NFL’s best offenses, and even if the rookie contributes right away, Kansas City has only two. (Plus, because of size concerns, McDuffie might be better suited for the slot, leaving a hole on the outside.)
Lonnie Johnson Jr., a 2019 second-round pick whom Kansas City traded for this week, could help fill the void. But Johnson wasn’t very good in Houston, and his college tape was underwhelming, so there’s little hope for a turnaround. And the team’s top corner, L’Jarius Sneed, is solid but not a true no. 1. It’s usually hard to find one of those guys this late into the offseason, but some bad cap management in New York could make one available at a reduced price.
Solution: Trade for James Bradberry
The Giants are in the red cap-wise and still need to sign their draft picks. Trading Bradberry could save New York just over $12 million—and if the Chiefs don’t want to give up a Day 3 pick to get him, they could just wait for the Giants to release Bradberry, which will probably happen if they can’t find a trade partner. Bradberry would slot in as Kansas City’s top corner and give defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo someone he can trust to hold up in man coverage against more physical receivers. That was an issue last season, and the 5-foot-11,194-pound McDuffie likely won’t solve it.
Green Bay Packers: Wide Receiver
Second-round pick Christian Watson averaged just two catches per game in his four seasons at North Dakota State, so it’s probably unfair to expect him to be a significant contributor right away. In all likelihood, Watson will play a minor role this season as he learns the offense—and works to gain Aaron Rodgers’s trust—and that’s fine for a receiver who was seen by scouts as a bit of a project.
That means there’s still a Davante Adams–sized hole on the receiver depth chart. A trade for Deebo Samuel might help fill that, but the Packers don’t have a lot of money to give him a new deal, and I can’t imagine the 49ers helping out a fellow NFC contender. If Green Bay wants a shot at replacing Adams, there is one potentially elite receiver in need of a new job.
Solution: Sign Julio Jones
Jones missed 15 games last season and has dealt with injuries throughout his career. This signing would be a risky bet, for sure, but it’d be the kind of bet the Packers need to make if they’re going to cash in on the end of Rodgers’s career. Even if Jones can no longer handle a full 17-game slate, Green Bay has more than enough talent to make the playoffs without him. And if he can just get on the field for the playoffs, the Packers will have a shot at a championship. We can’t say that for the roster as currently constructed.
Los Angeles Rams: Edge rusher
The “Eff Them Picks” approach served the Rams well in 2021, but it left the 2022 roster short on useful players. They’re one receiver injury away from starting Ben Skowronek or J.J. Koski. Those sound more like characters in a Wes Anderson film than NFL receivers. And the interior offensive line remains a weakness after the team was unable to make any significant upgrades during the offseason. Still, I’m not overly concerned about the offense with Sean McVay calling the plays, so defense it is.
If you close your eyes and point to a random spot on the defensive depth chart, you’ll probably land on an area of need. But we’ll go with defensive end. Von Miller left for Buffalo this offseason after playing an integral role during L.A.’s championship run, and the cash-strapped Rams were unable to replace him. Leonard Floyd is now the only edge rusher on the roster who has more than six career sacks. And while Aaron Donald is a one-man pass rush, he’s far easier to block when the offense can throw extra men at him. The Rams need someone else to help protect their star in the middle.
Solution: Sign Jadeveon Clowney
This would certainly be on-brand for the Rams. Money could be an issue with the front office sitting on just $6.4 million in cap space, but the allure of playing for the reigning champs could convince Clowney to take a cheaper deal. Signing him would give defensive coordinator Raheem Morris another pass-rushing chess piece—which the blitz-happy coach would undoubtedly appreciate—and help solidify the run defense, which is a must when competing with a Kyle Shanahan–coached team for the top spot in the NFC West.
Denver Broncos: Interior Defensive Line
Rookie defensive coordinator Ejiro Evero has a diverse schematic background, so we’re forced to guess how his group will operate in Denver. Several Broncos players have said Evero’s approach is similar to what the team was running under Vic Fangio, and that makes sense, considering Evero has experience with that system. If that’s the case, though, the rookie play-caller will need more talent on a defensive interior that was pushed around throughout the 2021 season and finished 21st in run DVOA. Signing D.J. Jones away from the 49ers was a good start, but he won’t solve the problem on his own.
Solution: Sign Akiem Hicks
The former Bears star has had talks with the Dolphins, so the Broncos might have to act fast to add him. It would be worth the effort, though, as Hicks not only fills a need but also has experience in the system, having starred for Fangio in Chicago. Hicks hasn’t played more than 900 snaps in five seasons, so a reduced role might be in order. But that’s just fine if the Broncos are looking only for an early-down run defender.
San Francisco 49ers: Cornerback
The Niners brought Jason Verrett back Monday, but you can’t bank on a guy who’s played more than six games just twice in an seven-year career. If Verrett does manage to stay healthy and repeat his 2020 campaign, this cornerback group might be good enough to scrape by. Defensive coordinator Demeco Ryans had no problem scheming around a weak group last season, and his front seven could be even better than it was then. But if Verrett can’t stay on the field, which is the most likely outcome, a combo of Emmanuel Moseley and Charvarius Ward isn’t good enough for a team with legitimate Super Bowl aspirations.
Solution: Bring in Another Veteran Cornerback
Because cornerback performance is so volatile year-to-year, making a bunch of small bets on veterans isn’t the worst strategy. With Kyle Fuller, Trae Waynes, Joe Haden, and Kevin King still available in free agency, the 49ers have plenty of options. And trading Jimmy Garoppolo would free up the requisite cap space to sign one or two of those guys.
Los Angeles Chargers: Right Tackle
Justin Herbert was able to have a big year in 2021, but that happened in spite of an offensive line that was terrible along the right side. The Chargers right guards and tackles combined for 58 blown blocks on the season, ranking second in the league behind Buffalo, per Sports Info Solutions.
The front office addressed one of those spots by drafting Zion Johnson with a first-round pick. The Boston College product is a plug-and-play guard who should be a good player from day one. But the Chargers waited until the sixth round to draft a tackle (Jamaree Salyer out of Georgia), and he could end up playing guard at the next level. So for now, Storm Norton remains penciled into the starting lineup. That’s the same Storm Norton who gave up nine sacks last season and graded out as the 80th-ranked pass blocker at the tackle position, per Pro Football Focus. If that’s still the case come September, I’m organizing a rescue mission to get Herbert out of there. We must protect him.
Solution: Sign Duane Brown
Brown has been a left tackle throughout his NFL career, but he was an all-conference right tackle at Virginia Tech before switching over to the blindside in his senior season. Who knows whether Brown is willing to switch back at this point in his career, but the Chargers have plenty of cap space and could offer enough money to convince him. Pairing Brown with Rashawn Slater, who starred at left tackle as a rookie in 2021, would give the Chargers one of the more formidable tackle pairs in the league. It could also turn last season’s biggest weakness into a strength.
Dallas Cowboys: Offensive Tackle
The Cowboys did, of course, draft a tackle during the draft. But Tyler Smith is a project pick who will likely slot in at left guard until he’s ready for the big boy position and/or Tyron Smith calls it a career. That means there’s still a massive hole at right tackle, the spot that was once manned by new Bengals signee La’El Collins.
Collins’s replacement, Terence Steele, acquitted himself admirably in that spot while Collins served a five-game suspension and even kicked over to the left when Smith went down later in the season. But with Steele now slated to start, the Cowboys sure could use some depth. Maybe Tyler Smith can slide over to tackle in a pinch, but keeping him at one position for the duration of his rookie season would probably be best for his development. As things stand, the backup tackles would be Josh Ball and fourth-round rookie Matt Waletzko. That’s not good enough for a team with (unrealistic) Super Bowl aspirations.
Solution: Sign Daryl Williams
Williams was never as good as the media made him out to be when he was named to the All-Pro team in 2017, but you don’t earn that honor without having some talent. He’s also plenty versatile, having started games on both the right and left sides of the line during his time in Carolina and playing a little guard as well. Williams could push the improving Steele for the job and fill in when the aging Tyron Smith inevitably misses time. Buffalo was able to sign Williams for just over $2 million a season back in 2020, so money shouldn’t be an issue.
Cleveland Browns: Defensive Line
When the Browns were at their best in 2021, the defensive line was straight-up dominant. Remember that game in Chicago? I’m sure Justin Fields does. Given how Cleveland wants to play defense—with an effective four-man rush serving as the foundation—getting the line back to that level is more of a necessity than a luxury. And while having Myles Garrett is a good start, there’s an obvious lack of proven pass-rush talent behind him now that Clowney is a free agent. There’s still a decent chance that Clowney will return, but the Browns need a backup plan in case he takes another team’s money.
Solution: Sign Jerry Hughes
Entering his age-34 season, Hughes is no longer the three-down player he was at his peak in Buffalo. And that’s OK—the Browns just need a reliable pass rusher who can play in obvious passing situations. Even last season, when it was clear that Hughes was on the decline, he managed to do that for the Bills, finishing the season with 48 pressures on only 314 pass-rush snaps, per Sports Info Solutions. If Hughes proves to be more than just a situational pass rusher, that’s a bonus.
Cincinnati Bengals: Left Guard
Anyone who watched the Super Bowl knows how much of a problem the right side of the Bengals offensive line was last season. Cincinnati wisely threw money at the issue this spring, giving Collins $21 million over three years and Alex Cappa, the former Buccaneers’ right guard, $35 million over four seasons. So the Bengals line is totally fixed and Joe Burrow can sleep soundly at night knowing he’ll be protected, right?
The right side looks a lot stronger, but there’s still the matter of left guard. Gone is Quinton Spain, who wasn’t very good to begin with, and Cincinnati is looking to replace him with an in-house candidate. Jackson Carman, last year’s second-round pick who had a dreadful rookie campaign, is the odds-on favorite to win the job. But there are other concerns with Carman: Defector recently reported that in 2020, a woman told Clemson University police that Carman had raped her in 2018, when he was a member of the Clemson football team and she was just 15 years old. Police ultimately declined to file charges, and it’s unclear whether the Bengals were aware of the situation before drafting him—but at least four other NFL teams were. Either way, Cincinnati may soon be looking elsewhere.
Solution: Sign Ereck Flowers
Flowers has mostly been a disappointment after being taken by the Giants in the first round of the 2015 NFL draft. He was never cut out to play tackle in the NFL but has carved out a decent career as a left guard and remains available after the Commanders surprisingly cut him back in March. Flowers isn’t a game-changing player by any means, but he finished the 2021 season as PFF’s sixth-best pass blocking guard, making him a far better option than anyone currently on the Bengals roster.
Baltimore Ravens: Wide Receiver
The Ravens decided to address their need at receiver by trading away Lamar Jackson’s favorite target. After dealing Marquise Brown to the Cardinals during the draft, Baltimore has Rashod Bateman, Devin Duvernay, and James Proche II at the top of its receiver depth chart. That’s no way to support your 25-year-old franchise quarterback. And Jackson didn’t seem to be a fan of the Ravens’ wheeling and dealing over the weekend.
Lamar Jackson isn’t too happy about the Hollywood Brown trade pic.twitter.com/qcy1UE9bIe— PFF (@PFF) April 29, 2022
Wtf— Lamar Jackson (@Lj_era8) April 29, 2022
April 29, 2022
There was already too much pressure on Lamar to create in Greg Roman’s claustrophobic offense. With Brown and his field-stretching speed off to Arizona, the 2019 MVP will have even less room to operate. Baltimore needs to add another play-maker—no matter the cost.
Solution: Trade for Deebo Samuel
Trading away draft picks isn’t Baltimore’s MO, but an exception can be made for a player of Samuel’s ability and age. The Ravens just made 11 draft picks—none of which were spent on wide receivers—so it’s not like they’re hurting for an injection of young talent, anyway. They can afford to give up some picks.
A receiving trio of Samuel (26), Mark Andrews (26), and Bateman (22), last year’s first-round pick, would give Jackson a young, talented group of receivers to grow with as he continues to develop as a pocket passer. And adding another dangerous ball carrier to the offense could reduce Jackson’s workload in the run game and limit the hits he takes.