No matter how wonderfully last season might have gone for your NFL team, no matter how perfect its draft was and no matter how many helpful free agents it signed, there’s still at least one glaring hole — or at least one major question still to be answered.

This is true even for the league’s best teams. The teams that come out on top in the end are the ones that best repair and/or overcome those holes.

The NFL’s regular season is approaching with the controlled speed of a runaway cable car, and soon it will be time to find out which of the contenders’ flaws will do them in and which will get fixed in time.

With that in mind, let’s take a look at the top eight teams in each conference — according to the ESPN Football Power Index‘s odds to make the playoffs — and try to figure out what their biggest remaining hole is with three weeks left before the season starts:


Chances to make the playoffs: 86.7%
Chances to win the AFC East: 81.1%

Biggest hole: Pass-catcher

Especially tight end, right? Rob Gronkowski‘s retirement represents arguably the most significant personnel loss any team suffered this offseason. (Argue Odell Beckham Jr. or Antonio Brown all you want, but at least their teams got something in return.) Potential replacement Benjamin Watson is suspended for the first four games, so the Patriots need to get something out of the likes of Matt LaCosse, Lance Kendricks and Andrew Beck.

At wide receiver, they obviously still have Julian Edelman but a lot to sort out otherwise. Look, the Patriots always figure it out, so we’re not sitting here saying they won’t. But from here, this looks like the biggest problem they need to fix.


Chances to make the playoffs: 81.9%
Chances to win the AFC West: 66.3%

Biggest hole: Cornerback

It’s tough to find a hole on this roster — which is probably why FPI ranks Kansas City as the league’s best team overall — but there are still some key questions to be answered on defense. The Chiefs made a lot of changes there and brought in high-profile studs such as Frank Clark and Tyrann Mathieu.

New coordinator Steve Spagnuolo, however, has presided over some of the absolute worst defenses in the league since his early-career star turn with the 2007 New York Giants, and players often find Spagnuolo’s schemes tricky to master right away. Players like Bashaud Breeland and Charvarius Ward are in line for major roles alongside Kendall Fuller, and they’ll need to get up to speed in a hurry.

play

1:13

Dan Graziano breaks down some of the best value contracts in the NFL, including Patrick Mahomes’ deal with the Chiefs.

FPI chances to make the playoffs: 78%
Chances to win the NFC South: 62.3%

Biggest hole: Wide receiver depth

Picking a hole for New Orleans might have been even tougher than it was for the Chiefs, as the Saints’ roster looks absolutely stacked once again. They might have a question to answer at cornerback behind Marshon Lattimore, but let’s look at the other side of the ball, where the situation at wideout behind Michael Thomas is uncertain.

Thomas’ new contract reflects his status as one of the best wideouts in the game, and it’s possible Drew Brees simply throws it to Thomas 150 times. But it wouldn’t hurt to see productive signs from the Ted Ginn Jr./Tre’Quan Smith/Keith Kirkwood group, even if the addition of tight end Jared Cook turns out to be the offseason “answer” at wide receiver.


Chances to make the playoffs: 76.5%
Chances to win the NFC West: 63.2%

Biggest hole: Offensive line

The Rams have been preparing for this, and a couple of the offensive linemen they took in the 2018 draft could be in line for starting roles. But there are questions to be answered in this unit, where center John Sullivan was let go and left tackle Andrew Whitworth is 37 years old.

Sean McVay’s offense is a wonder, especially if Todd Gurley II and Cooper Kupp are both back to full health. But cracks on the line could potentially keep it from clearing the very high bar it has set for itself the past two years.


Chances to make the playoffs: 66.7%
Chances to win the NFC East: 56.4%

Biggest hole: Cornerback

Ronald Darby and Jalen Mills are coming off injuries. Sidney Jones is in the mix as a replacement for one of them. But there isn’t a ton of depth, and the recent acquisition of Orlando Scandrick shows that the Eagles know that.

We’re nitpicking here, because all of these rosters so far look very strong top to bottom. But if there’s a crack in Philly, it could show up on the back end of the defense.


Chances to make the playoffs: 57.9%
Chances to win the AFC South: 39.6%

Biggest hole: Safety

Former first-round pick Malik Hooker is the starting free safety, but the Colts are looking for reliable production at strong safety and might be in the market late in camp if Clayton Geathers or someone else on their roster isn’t the answer. Can fourth-round rookie Khari Willis develop quickly enough to help?


Chances to make the playoffs: 56.5%
Chances to win the NFC North: 38.3%

Biggest hole: Kicker

This is not to make a joke, or to imply that the other potential trouble spots on the Bears’ roster are less significant than those on the Colts, Eagles or any other team we’ve addressed thus far. It’s just that, having visiting the Bears’ training camp, I can assure you that kicker is the thing they’re talking about the most.

Eddy Pineiro and Elliott Fry continue to battle it out amid the ever-looming possibility that the Bears import a kicker from outside the organization before camp is said and done. The scars from the way last season ended linger, and whoever the kicker is, he will be watched quite closely by Bears fans all year long.


Chances to make the playoffs: 51.3%
Chances to win the AFC North: 35.3%

Biggest hole: Offensive line

This doesn’t apply to the whole line, but there are a couple of spots that need to be figured out here. The Browns traded guard Kevin Zeitler to the Giants for Olivier Vernon, and while we’re not here to argue against trading a guard for a similarly priced pass-rusher, one of the reasons the Browns felt they could make that trade was because they felt second-year guard Austin Corbett was ready to replace Zeitler.

But Corbett is still behind veteran Eric Kush on the depth chart, which needs to be sorted out. And are we 100 percent sure they’re set at left tackle? Greg Robinson, the No. 2 overall pick in 2014, played well enough last season to get re-signed, but he hasn’t exactly been the model of consistency throughout his career.

play

1:47

Ryan Clark contends that the Browns will live up to the hype this season and Baker Mayfield will enter the conversation about the top 10 QBs in the NFL.

Chances to make the playoffs: 49.5%
Chances to win the AFC West: 23.9%

Biggest hole: Offensive tackle

With starting left tackle Russell Okung recovering from a pulmonary embolism and out indefinitely, the Chargers’ current projected starting tackles are Sam Tevi and Trent Scott. Can third-round rookie Trey Pipkins play his way into the mix? Is this a team to watch if Washington ends up deciding to trade Trent Williams?

Hopes are sky-high for the Chargers this season, and they can’t afford to spend a season figuring out who their tackles are.


Chances to make the playoffs: 46.5%
Chances to win the AFC South: 28.4%

Biggest hole: Offensive line

Speaking of teams that should be trying to trade for Williams, Houston is at the very top of the list. Yeah, the Texans drafted a couple of tackles and like the long-term prospects of Tytus Howard and Max Scharping. But is tackle a place where you can really start two rookies?

Veterans Matt Kalil and Seantrel Henderson are there, as is 2017 fourth-round pick Julie’n Davenport. So there are enough bodies for the Texans to believe they can find solutions in-house. If they don’t, perhaps they’ll get aggressive in trade talks and try to fix the problem that way.


Chances to make the playoffs: 45.9%
Chances to win the AFC North: 30.5%

Biggest hole: Edge rusher

The offseason departures of Terrell Suggs and Za’Darius Smith in free agency left the Ravens thin on the edge opposite Matthew Judon. They ended up signing veteran Pernell McPhee to try to help, but what they really need is for 2017 draft picks Tim Williams and Tyus Bowser — and maybe rookie third-rounder Jaylon Ferguson — to emerge as more reliable helpers in the pass rush.

We could have said wide receiver here, too, but I still expect the Ravens to run the ball enough to cover their deficiencies at that spot.


Chances to make the playoffs: 45.5%
Chances to win the AFC North: 30.1%

Biggest hole: Secondary

There are plenty of options for the Steelers in the secondary, but it’s hard to know which of them will become reliable answers. They signed cornerback Steven Nelson in free agency, and if he performs the way they want him to opposite veteran Joe Haden, that would help lock down a position that has bedeviled the Steelers for a while now.

Former first-rounder Artie Burns is on his last chance to prove himself a reliable starter. Third-round rookie Justin Layne could get himself into the mix at some point. And they think they have a pair of starting safeties in Sean Davis and Terrell Edmunds. So the Steelers believe they have the makings of a strong secondary but have to find a way to put it all together.


Chances to make the playoffs: 45.3%
Chances to win the NFC North: 26.7%

Biggest hole: Wide receiver depth

Davante Adams is a true No. 1 wide receiver, but the Packers have a lot of questions beyond him. They hope second-year guys such as Marquez Valdes-Scantling and Equanimeous St. Brown can take big steps forward, and if Geronimo Allison comes back healthy from last season’s injury, he has enough history with Aaron Rodgers that they might be able to build on it.

Coach Matt LaFleur is high on tight end Jimmy Graham and says he’s looked great so far in camp, but the Packers have to figure out who their reliable pass-catchers are besides Adams.

play

1:28

Field Yates and Matthew Berry know the Vikings want to run the ball more, which should tell fantasy managers to hold off on drafting QB Kirk Cousins.

Chances to make the playoffs: 45.2%
Chances to win the NFC North: 26.8%

Biggest hole: Offensive line

The Vikings did some work to fix the offensive line this offseason, drafting center Garrett Bradbury in the first round, moving Pat Elflein to guard and signing guard Josh Kline. They like right tackle Brian O’Neill, who was their second-round pick in 2018, and think the way the interior of their line is constructed will help the kind of offense they want to run.

The sense I got from talking to Vikings coaches while at their camp was that, if they can commit to the run the way they want to, they can make their current line work. But, as one person there said to me, “If we have to drop back 40 times a game, it’s probably not going to be in our best interest.”


Chances to make the playoffs: 43.9%
Chances to win the NFC East: 31.5%

Biggest hole: Edge rusher

All of this assumes, of course, that they get their contract situations worked out with their big stars and don’t create unfillable holes at running back, quarterback or wide receiver. But because we think those deals will get taken care of, let’s look at the defense.

The Cowboys believe DeMarcus Lawrence is on track to return from his offseason surgery in time for Week 1. But if that doesn’t happen, they’ll be awfully thin on the edge. Offseason free-agent pickup Robert Quinn is suspended for the first two games of the season. It would be a good season for 2017 first-rounder Taco Charlton to make a big leap forward and play like a starter.


Chances to make the playoffs: 42%
Chances to win the NFC South: 21.2%

Biggest hole: Defensive line

Getting star defensive tackle Grady Jarrett under contract and into camp was big, but the Falcons still need to find solutions in the pass rush. Former first-rounders Takkarist McKinley and Vic Beasley Jr. combined for 12 sacks last season and need to show more.

Adding veterans Allen Bailey and Adrian Clayborn in free agency helps with depth, but they need the starters to be more consistent at getting to the quarterback.

Source link

Leave a Reply