NFL training camps are scheduled to begin later this month. While there are several starter-caliber free agents waiting in the wings to round out certain depth charts, most position groups are set. Here are the best and the worst going into the 2020 season.
While this is probably not a two-Hall of Famer QB room like the 49ers' Joe Montana-Steve Young duo, the Saints have one of this century's deepest passer corps and among the most versatile ever. Jameis Winston has shown a higher ceiling than Teddy Bridgewater; he gives New Orleans an overqualified QB2. Taysom Hill's 13 pass attempts do not scream " Drew Brees heir apparent," but the Saints have prioritized him. His six receiving TDs are more than any quarterback since the merger, and Brees fantasy owners can expect more vulturing this season. Rounding out this group is the NFL's all-time passing kingpin. Pretty good.
The ceiling may be higher for Washington's QB group than perhaps Jacksonville's, but Dwayne Haskins and Kyle Allen finished last season with the bottom two QBR numbers. Alex Smith's heroic recovery aside, he is unlikely to play again. This leaves Washington with a first-round pick its current regime did not draft (Haskins) and an undrafted free agent who cratered in Carolina with far better weapons than Washington employs (Allen). Due to his down rookie year and new leadership in place, Haskins may already be in a make-or-break season.
The Nick Chubb-Kareem Hunt backfield is not a strong complementary duo. This is not Jim Brown and Bobby Mitchell or Q-Tip and Phife Dawg. Both are run-first backs, though Hunt — with 1,118 receiving yards — has shown more on the receiving end. However, this tandem is too talented to share a backfield. Hunt won the rushing title as a rookie and was having an even better season before the ugly video showing him kicking a woman led to his Chiefs exit. Chubb finished second in rushing last season despite Hunt eating into his second-half workload. Because of Cleveland's 2019 letdown, this pair is not receiving enough attention.
Illustrating why Devonta Freeman and LeSean McCoy do not have jobs, NFL backfields are mostly filled. The Buccaneers, however, are counting on Ronald Jones. This might not be an ill-fated strategy. The 2018 first-round pick showed promise last season, totaling 1,033 scrimmage yards despite Peyton Barber's presence. But Jones had one of the most nondescript rookie seasons in modern running back history (44 rushing yards in nine games), and third-round pick Ke'Shawn Vaughn is entering the league at a bad time for rookie assimilation. There's a reason the Bucs have openly expressed Freeman interest.
Going against the Chiefs is difficult, and were Travis Kelce factored in, this would be an open-and-shut case. But CeeDee Lamb joining an Amari Cooper- Michael Gallup tandem on the heels of each surpassing 1,100 yards gives the Cowboys the best pure receiver group. Combining a wide catch radius with lethal after-the-catch skills, Lamb dominated at Oklahoma (3,292 yards, 32 TDs). A Cowboys team not exactly receiver-deficient refused to pass on him. Lamb will team with one of the league's best route-runners in Cooper and one of the most overlooked WR2s in Gallup.
This is in no way an indictment of Terry McLaurin. He came within 7 yards of Gary Clark's 34-year-old franchise rookie receiving record. But Washington has not done well to ensure Dwayne Haskins has weapons, assembling a middling-at-best backfield, a bizarrely understaffed tight end room and a McLaurin-reliant receiving corps. While the 2019 third-round pick amassed 919 yards, no other Washington pass-catcher topped 400. The team did not draft a pure wideout until Round 4 this year, and in a nixed offseason that will stunt young players' development, Haskins is not in a position to succeed.
The Bucs' tight end cadre — as presently constructed — is historically deep. A rare multidimensional tight end to enter the league in recent years, O.J. Howard was on his way to a breakout season in 2018 (565 yards in 10 games) before suffering an injury. He has yet to fit in Bruce Arians' offense, but the talent is there. Tampa's overqualified TE3, Cameron Brate has 24 TDs since 2016 and has twice topped 590 yards in a season. Rob Gronkowski is not what he once was, but even 75 percent of Apex Gronk is better than most NFL tight ends. The four-time All-Pro was the game's biggest receiving mismatch for many years.
If there is a team that makes sense as a trade partner for Howard or Brate, it's Washington. Last year's edition saw its top two tight ends, Jordan Reed and Vernon Davis, miss all or most of the season. Both are now gone. New Washington brass responded with little urgency. After Greg Olsen turned down a Ron Rivera reunion, Washington signed Richard Rodgers. Yes, this happened , but in the four years since, the ex-Packer and Eagle has 438 combined yards. Randy Moss' son Thaddeus, a UDFA, has an excellent chance to make the team, because this is a ghastly looking contingent.
The main reason not to sleep on Philip Rivers: the colossal offensive line upgrade he will receive. The Colts return all five starters — quality left tackle Anthony Castonzo, all-world left guard Quenton Nelson, Pro Bowl center Ryan Kelly, steady right guard Mark Glowinski and improving 2018 second-round right tackle Braden Smith. Pro Football Focus rated this group third last year, and with the COVID-19 pandemic placing a premium on continuity, Rivers has a much better O-line than he enjoyed over the past several years with the Chargers.
The Bengals are on track to have 2019 first-round left tackle Jonah Williams debut after his missed rookie season, but issues remain here. Cincinnati's 2018 first-round pick, center Billy Price, was quickly demoted. Low-end center Trey Hopkins remains in his place. The Bengals left guard, Michael Jordan, was rated as PFF's fourth-worst guard last season. Projected right-side starters, Bobby Hart and Xavier Su'a-Filo, are replacement-level veterans. Perhaps the franchise's rare free agency binge should have seen more resources allocated here, given the Joe Burrow investment.
Had the 49ers not shipped DeForest Buckner to the Colts, they would still be the kings here. But Chase Young heading to the nation's capital gives an off-the-radar (football-wise) team a stacked D-line. Washington has five first-round picks here, along with upper-echelon defensive tackle Matt Ioannidis. Young and 2019 first-rounder Montez Sweat (seven sacks as a rookie) may make longtime Washington edge anchor Ryan Kerrigan a backup, and one of the Jonathan Allen-Daron Payne duo will not start on the inside. Washington enjoyed depth up front before drafting one of the best D-line prospects in many years.
This only applies to Arizona's base defense, which places sack machine Chandler Jones at linebacker. Jones registered 19 sacks last season. No one returning from last season's Cardinals defense managed three. While Arizona signed Jordan Phillips after his surprising 9.5-sack contract year, the ex-Bills and Dolphins defensive tackle had never previously posted more than two sacks or six QB hits in a season. A lot of buyer-beware exists here. The Cards did not draft a D-lineman before Round 4, and 2019 third-rounder Zach Allen graded as one of PFF's worst inside defenders last year. Jones still needs more help.
Although Khalil Mack lines up at defensive end in sub-packages, his base-set linebacker role qualifies him here. The Bears have a Hall of Fame-caliber edge rusher and this offseason signed Robert Quinn to team with him. Quinn has never matched his dominant 2013 slate but reemerged last season with 11.5 sacks and 22 QB hits with Dallas. Chicago returns 2018 top-10 pick Roquan Smith from injury and re-signed Danny Trevathan, a dependable veteran who has played for two No. 1-ranked defenses in his career. The Bears will again rely on this group to keep their QB-limited squad afloat.
The Browns have three draftees from 2019 and '20 here, but this is a bad offseason for developmental talent. Cleveland gradually dismantled its once-acclaimed LB corps, cutting Jamie Collins and injury-prone Christian Kirksey and letting 2019 tackle leader Joe Schobert leave for Jacksonville. In their places, the Browns have 2019 mid-round picks Mack Wilson and Sione Takitaki. Third-round rookie Jacob Phillips joins the fray, which also includes journeyman B.J. Goodson. This is not the strength of Cleveland's defense.
Four Pro Bowlers reside in the Chargers' secondary. If second-team All-Pros are included, these Bolts boast seven combined All-Pro distinctions. A group housing burgeoning star safety Derwin James, veteran stalwart cornerback Casey Hayward and All-Pro slot corner Desmond King now features Chris Harris, who has submitted the best claim to being the all-time slot kingpin while holding his own on the boundary. Talk has surfaced of King moving to safety or outside corner to accommodate Harris. This crew may not be able to overcome the Chargers' QB situation, but they should be fun to watch.
The Panthers lost their No. 1 cornerback of the past four years, James Bradberry, in free agency from a group that already ranked last in pass-defense DVOA in 2019. Carolina has 2018 second-round pick Donte Jackson, who struggled last season, and veteran safety Tre Boston anchoring its secondary. The rebuilding team added ex-top-10 pick Eli Apple as well. Matt Rhule's first Panther team, which features first-time NFL defensive coordinator Phil Snow, is not expected to contend for the playoffs. Its secondary does not appear likely to interfere with that prognostication.
The gap between Justin Tucker and the NFL's second-best kicker is sizable. If he keeps up this pace, the Ravens' ninth-year kicker will be a Hall of Famer. After his most efficient season — headlined by a 28-for-29 field goal accuracy rate — Tucker earned his fourth All-Pro distinction. Despite being just 30, he is the only pure kicker in NFL history with four first-team All-Pro honors. Sam Koch has been Baltimore's punter since 2006, and although Tucker overshadows him, the older Raven specialist is one of the game's best punters.
The Bucs have repeatedly tried to fix this problem — one that plagued them for most of the 2010s. They have used eight kickers since the 2015 season, and llthough Tampa Bay's most notable misfire came when 2016 second-rounder Roberto Aguayo was an NFL one-and-done, they have used a different kicker in each year since. Matt Gay remains on the roster, but the Bucs brought in Elliott Fry (no NFL kicks) as competition after Gay missed eight field goals and five PATs last year. Ex-49er punter Bradley Pinion enters his second Bucs season. No full-time punter over the past three years has a worse yards-per-punt average (43.4).
If the Chiefs were to deploy Tyreek Hill as a full-time punt returner, their Hill-Mecole Hardman tandem would be the easy choice. But Hill no longer returns punts. The Bears, however, have an All-Pro punt returner in the uniquely elusive Tarik Cohen and the 2010s' All-Decade kick returner in Cordarrelle Patterson. The latter booked his third All-Pro honor last season and helped the Bears climb from last in kick returns in 2018 to first last season. Cohen was the 2018 All-Pro punt returner. This will be another way the Bears can try to get around their quarterback issue.
Easily the strangest category on this list, because teams generally change up after a stretch of bad return-game production. Last season, the Buccaneers were the only team to rank in the bottom five in both kick and punt returns. They did not have a player average 21 yards per kick return, and on 15 punt returns, ex-"Hard Knocks" character actor Bobo Wilson managed just 2.8 yards. It seems some new cast members will be manning Tampa Bay's special teams this season.
The Bill Belichick-Josh McDaniels duo's second stint together enters Year 9. It will easily be the longtime coworkers' most interesting assignment yet. McDaniels will work without Tom Brady for the first time since 2011, when his Rams offense ranked last. But the polarizing offensive coordinator will run the Cam Newton comeback tour. McDaniels' 2005 promotion to Pats OC once transformed Brady from good-looking game manager to superstar, so seeing how he tailors his system to Newton will be intriguing. Belichick update: still good. He took back defensive play-calling reins last season; the Pats led the league in defensive DVOA.
Ex-Patriots North (as opposed to the Dolphins' Ex-Patriots South operation) is on the hot seat. Matt Patricia is 9-22-1 in his two Lions seasons. That is deceiving because of Matthew Stafford's midseason injury last year; the Lions went 0-8 without their starting QB in 2019. But Stafford played 16 games in 2018, and Detroit won six games — down from the 9-7 2017 slate that got Jim Caldwell fired. Patricia's two defenses have ranked 27th and 28th in DVOA. Both he and GM Bob Quinn will be under pressure this season. Belichick's coaching tree...not great.
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