The biggest remaining need for each NFC team
With the NFL draft past us and free agency essentially dried up, teams are looking towards OTAs, mini-camps, and installing playbooks. While each team did what they felt was necessary to fill holes and needs of the team, no team is perfect and they will have weaknesses. We’re taking a look at every team to determine what each team’s biggest need is heading into the summer. (The NFC is below; click here for the AFC.)
Dallas Cowboys – Defensive interior
The Cowboys had one of the best drafts this year as they seemingly took the best player available and filled a need at the same time. After losing several secondary players via free agency, Dallas drafted three CBs and one safety while also doubling up on the defensive interior in the seventh round. That said, the one weakness on the team a year ago was having quality players on the defensive line and Dallas did little to add top-tier talent to the interior of the D-line. Stephen Paea does a solid job rushing the passer and David Irving has talent but has yet to realize it. Maliek Collins struggled in all facets as a rookie and Cedric Thornton took a big step back in a part time role after being a reliable run defender in the previous three years. While the Cowboys have depth, they lack a playmaker inside and that might hurt them this year.
New York Giants – Offensive tackle
Ereck Flowers has allowed 10 sacks and 26 hits in his first two seasons in the NFL, while Bobby Hart allowed 2 sacks, 9 hits, and 35 hurries for a pass-blocking efficiency of just 93.4. Despite those appalling numbers, the New York Giants addressed the offensive tackle position with just one offseason move – drafting Adam Bisnowaty from Pittsburgh in the sixth round. While Bisnowaty very well could step in and be an improvement over either Flowers or Hart, relying on that and massive improvement from Flowers is risking a lot on arguably the most important position on the offensive line. With offensive weapons galore, shoring up the offensive line to push to get Eli Manning one more Super Bowl ring is needed.
Philadelphia Eagles – Cornerback
The Eagles double-dipped into the cornerback class in the draft, but did so with one of the picks going to a player whose status in 2017 is still uncertain in Sidney Jones. Rasul Douglas led the nation in interceptions with 8 while adding on an additional 10 pass defenses, and should compete immediately for a starting spot. That said, relying on two rookies — one coming off Achilles surgery — to transform a secondary is a stretch. The Eagles signed Dwayne Gratz in December and Patrick Robinson this offseason but Gratz played just 87 snaps in 2016 and Robinson is coming off his worst season since 2012. The Eagles boast a front-seven that has potential to be the best in the NFL but the defense could very well be undone by poor play by their cornerbacks. A lot is riding on an underperforming veteran group and two rookies.
Washington Redskins – Nose tackle
As is the case with the Titans, having your biggest need at nose tackle isn’t the worst thing in the world. While Bashaud Breeland struggled last year at CB and Shaun Lauvao at LG is a concern, rolling into 2017 with Ziggy Hood as your starting NT isn’t the wisest move. Outside two seemingly fluke seasons in 2009 and 2014 that saw him grade at a slightly below-average level with 73.2 and 74.1 grades, respectively, Hood has averaged a season grade of 39.0 in those six NFL seasons. While the Redskins should be fortunate to only have Hood on the field for about 40 percent of the defensive snaps, he’s still a liability on those snaps.
Chicago Bears – Offensive tackle
With the Bears trading up for Mitchell Trubisky in the draft, the Bears gave up a lot of picks in the process and the ability to draft more complementary pieces around their franchise QB. Chicago is rolling into 2017 with Charles Leno and Bobby Massie as its offensive tackles – two players combining to allow 9 sacks, 14 hits, and 50 hurries in 2016. While those are terrible numbers, they aren’t good as they both graded below-average in pass protection but even worse as run-blockers. While the team has several holes to fill on the roster, have two suspect players protecting the edge is not a good sign for the season outlook and for whoever wins the starting QB job.
Detroit Lions – Defensive interior
The Lions have had a rather large need at defensive tackle since allowing Ndamukong Suh go in free agency in 2015. They tried to address it by signing Haloti Ngata but Father Time caught up with him. He’s a shell of his former self, albeit still a solid piece for the team. With free agency and the draft come and gone, the only significant piece the Lions added was Cornelius Washington from Chicago whose 63.3 2016 grade doesn’t inspire confidence. Dan Williams could be had for a relatively cheap contract, but it still leaves the team needing to address the position with youth next offseason.
Green Bay Packers – Inside linebacker
The Packers still have plenty of question marks on defense, but they at least addressed the nickel safety and cornerback positions in the draft and free agency. Inside linebacker still remains the team’s biggest need, as Ted Thompson just doesn’t seem to value the position very highly despite the lack of production from the players getting thrown out there to do the job. Instead, Green Bay added three HBs and two WRs to an offense that will need depth once Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb start declining. For now, Packers fans will hope for improvement from Jake Ryan and Blake Martinez.
Minnesota Vikings – Safety
As good as Harrison Smith is, he can’t do it all and play two positions at once, and the coverage ability of Andrew Sendejo hurt the Vikings last year, especially down the stretch when the injuries started piling up for Minnesota. GM Rick Spielman did a good job addressing a lot of the holes and weak spots on the roster this offseason, adding several offensive linemen, but he avoided adding to the safety room. While Sendejo grades well on special teams and as a run defender, his struggles in coverage really limit the versatility of Harrison Smith, and Sendejo doesn’t allow Smith to be utilized to his fullest abilities.
Atlanta Falcons – Right guard
Atlanta has a loaded and deep roster that should compete for the NFC crown and another Super Bowl in 2017, so nitpicking the team’s needs was a chore. We eventually settled on their right guard position as more of a question mark rather than a need. While the Falcons do lose ace special-teamer and returner Eric Weems, filling that hole is easier than an offensive line position. Currently the RG spot will have a competition between Ben Garland, Wes Schweitzer, and Hugh Thornton. Garland played well in 2016, albeit in just 42 snaps and Schweitzer pushed Chris Chester for the starting position while Thornton missed all of 2016 on injured reserve. While the roster looks to naturally progress and get better, the only major question mark left on the defending NFC Champions is the right guard position that was weakest on the team a year ago.
Carolina Panthers – Left tackle
The Panthers signed Matt Kalil to a five-year, $55 million deal this offseason, though it’s been several years since he’s played at a Pro Bowl level. While there is an opt-out clause after two years, banking on Kalil to turn things around and protect Cam Newton’s blindside is not without risk. In his last two full seasons (he played just 121 snaps in 2016), Kalil surrendered 18 sacks and 15 hits. While the Panthers drafted Taylor Moton in the second round, he’s projected as a guard in the NFL – though they may be best to use him at LT if Kalil continues to struggle.
New Orleans Saints – Inside linebacker
With a projected starting group of Craig Robertson (51.2), Dannell Ellerbe (68.0), and rookie third-rounder Alex Anzalone at linebacker, the Saints are risking a lot on a pivotal position in a 4-3 defense. Robertson got his first taste of starting, full-time action in 2016 and struggled in coverage in a division with the likes of Matt Ryan, Cam Newton, and Jameis Winston. Ellerbe fared better, but his track record of poor play doesn’t project him to build off that limited success in coverage. The addition of Anzalone might boost the group in coverage as he graded well in that aspect in college but on a limited basis and relying on him to play the whole season is a stretch, considering he was unable to do so in college.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers – Left tackle
Donovan Smith continued to struggle as he showed very little improvement from 2015 to 2016, grading at 37.1 and 42.0, respectively. While he flashed more potential as a run-blocker, Smith was still very inconsistent game to game and allowed more total pressures in his second season. With Jameis Winston looking to cash in on a year-three leap with more weapons in addition to WR Mike Evans, he’ll need solid protection from his offensive line and especially his left tackle. If Smith is unable to make dramatic improvements, Winston and the Buccaneers could very well miss the playoffs once again.
Arizona Cardinals – Cornerback
This clearly is the cornerback opposite Patrick Peterson, as the Cardinals failed to address a hole that they’ve been trying to fill for years. Special-teams ace Justin Bethel finished the season strong but has been an unreliable option there for the team previously. Brandon Williams struggled as a rookie, and the main starter in 2016, Marcus Cooper, departed in free agency. The Cardinals have managed to keep the poor play at the position at bay with talent on the rest of the defense but after losing Calais Campbell, D.J. Swearinger, and Tony Jefferson via free agency, that luxury might not exist in 2017.
Los Angeles Rams – Right tackle
Pick a position and it’s arguably a need for the Los Angeles Rams. Aaron Donald does it all for the defense and makes everyone around him better. Robert Quinn has struggled since hitting a massive peak in 2013 and they are rolling out Connor Barwin opposite. E.J. Gaines is currently slotted at cornerback opposite Trumaine Johnson and the wide receiver position is a concern after allowing Kenny Britt to leave via free agency. The Rams added pieces in the draft to address all their needs except at RT. Greg Robinson has been a bust as the No. 2 overall pick and graded positively in just one game in 2016. His best season was his rookie year at 41.3, so having him be a piece to protect your franchise QB is risky.
San Francisco 49ers – Edge defender
Despite drafting Thomas with the No. 3 overall pick, edge rusher remains a major need for the 49ers. A roster with several holes, having a pass-rushing specialist will help ease a lot of poor play elsewhere. Thomas is more of a “tweener,” as he’ll play base DE and kick inside on sub-packages. Ahmad Brooks has played poorly the last three seasons and Aaron Lynch reportedly showed up to OTAs 20 pounds overweight. If Lynch can get back to his 2015 form, the position is less of an issue but his struggles in 2016 and reporting to camp overweight are not good signs. The 49ers are in a long-term rebuilding mode and filling all their holes will take time.
Seattle Seahawks – Offensive tackle
Until Seattle puts out an offensive line that doesn’t give up pressure essentially before the snap happens, any position on the O-line should be considered a need. They at least drafted two players in C Ethan Pocic in the second round and OT Justin Senior in the sixth to begin addressing the issue. Luke Joeckel was signed in free agency but he has even been close to living up to his No. 2 overall status. When you decide to roll into 2017 with George Fant – 27.6 season grade, allowing a whopping 8 sacks and a league worst 90.8 PBE – the position will be the biggest need on the team.