As most NFL teams go through their final OTAs and minicamps this week, they will certainly focus on their main positions of weakness in order to figure what to do before training camps begin next month.
There are 28 teams working out this week, 24 in minicamps that are mandatory for veterans to attend and four in voluntary OTAs (Organized Team Activities). After this week, teams will not practice until training camps begin during the third week of July.
Meantime, teams can figure how they might best address those positions that are of most concern. According to a survey of Sports Xchange correspondents covering each team, the most popular positions of weakness across the league are defensive back, a worry for 10 teams, and the offensive line, which is a key problem for eight teams.
And then there is the big D in Dallas, where the inability to stop offenses is so complete that the whole defense is worrisome.
Here is a closer look at the weakest positions for each NFL team as analyzed by correspondents for The Sports Xchange:
–INSIDE LINEBACKER: Losing Karlos Dansby in free agency was hard enough. Now the Cardinals are without Daryl Washington for the whole season on suspension. Those two inside linebackers never came off the field a year ago and head coach Bruce Arians said they “led the National Football League in the linebacker coming free last year,” referring to the number of times they went unblocked on a play.
Although Arians attributed that to the coaching of Todd Bowles, somebody still needs to make the strategy work. Dansby had 135 tackles, four interceptions and 6.5 sacks and Washington added 81 tackles in 12 games, three sacks, two interceptions and one fumble recovery. That’s a lot of production.
Kevin Minter, one replacement, played one defensive snap a year ago as a rookie. Larry Foote, signed after being released by the Pittsburgh Steelers, is smart but it’s fair to wonder how much game he has left.
–OFFENSIVE LINE: The Falcons have a revamped offensive line and hope it will improve on last year’s horrid performance — 44 sacks allowed and only 77.9 yards rushing per game, worst in the league.
The new line features 2014 first-round draftee Jake Matthews at right tackle along with free-agent signee Jon Asamoah at right guard, Sam Baker back from knee surgery at left tackle and Justin Blaylock at left guard. At center there is a battle between Joe Hawley and Peter Konz.
Matthews has impressed quarterback Matt Ryan, who said, “When you watch him, when he knows what he’s doing, he’s incredibly athletic.”
–OFFENSIVE TACKLE: Right offensive tackle is an unproven spot where 2013 fifth-round draft pick Rick Wagner is currently the starter. He is competing with Ryan Jensen for the starting job.
Wagner struggled in limited action last season and allowed three sacks to Denver Broncos outside linebacker Shaun Phillips in his first NFL game. If Wagner proves he’s capable of holding down the position, the Ravens won’t have to seek a veteran blocker to upgrade the position or shift Kelechi Osemele from left guard.
–QUARTERBACK: Buffalo used the 16th pick of the first round in the 2013 draft to select EJ Manuel, and they made him the starter at the beginning of training camp. Once veteran Kevin Kolb was lost for the year due to a concussion, there was never a doubt who the starting quarterback would be on opening day.
But Manuel couldn’t stay healthy and he played only 10 games due to separate knee injuries. So nobody is sure whether he is truly the Bills’ quarterback of the future. And if he gets hurt again, the Bills have one of the worst backup situations in the league — journeyman Thad Lewis, who won two starts last season, is No. 2, and undrafted second-year man Jeff Tuel is battling another journeyman, Dennis Dixon, for third string.
–WIDE RECEIVER: Although there are issues on the offensive line and defensive backfield, despite quarterback Cam Newton’ optimistic pronouncements, the Panthers do not have a proven No. 1 or No. 2 receiver.
First-round pick Kelvin Benjamin clearly has the most talent, but he will likely have growing pains throughout his rookie season. Veterans Jerricho Cotchery, Jason Avant and Tiquan Underwood provide a solid presence, but it is hard to see them as more than a trio of No. 3 receivers. More names include Tavarres King, Marvin McNutt and Brenton Bersin, but no one knows if any will emerge as legit options.
–SAFETY: The Bears are hurting at both safety spots. Former Giant Ryan Mundy has been steady enough that coaches are keeping him on the field the longest. The team is playing a regular rotation of safeties with the first team now and last week gave rookie Brock Vereen a chance with the first unit. The fourth-round pick from Minnesota is lining up at free safety, while Mundy was at strong safety.
With Chris Conte (shoulder) and Craig Steltz (torn pectoral tendon) still recovering after surgeries and unable to practice, Mundy, Vereen and M.D. Jennings get the first-team reps.
–TIGHT END: At this point last year, tight end was supposed to be the game-changing strength of the team with Jermaine Gresham coming off his second straight Pro Bowl and a first-round pick dedicated to Tyler Eifert.
The two-tight end set was expected to power the offense to the next level. Both played well and combined for 85 receptions, but two injuries forced them out of the offseason program. Expectations are both will be healthy for training camp, but lingering injuries cause concern.
–WIDE RECEIVER: Josh Gordon continues to practice with the Browns, but it is only a matter of time until he hears from the league about an expected indefinite suspension for reportedly testing positive for marijuana. Gordon caught 87 passes last year and led the NFL with 1,646 receiving yards last year.
Davone Bess (42 catches) and Greg Little (41) were cut in the offseason. They were the top three pass-catchers among Browns wide receivers in 2013. What is left are these candidates: Miles Austin, Nate Burleson, Andrew Hawkins and Anthony Armstrong. The problem is those four players caught a combined 75 passes last year; Armstrong, 31 years old, was out of football. Austin caught 24 passes and Hawkins only 12.
–DEFENSE: The Cowboys had the worst defense in the league last year, giving up more yards than any in team history. Yet, there is a chance the unit could be even worse in 2014, considering they lost proven stars in defensive end DeMarcus Ware and defensive tackle Jason Hatcher and then lost their best remaining defensive player and team leader in middle linebacker Sean Lee to a torn ACL.
The team is now devoid of proven playmakers and proven leaders. And the Cowboys still have no answers in the secondary at safety, which was an Achilles heel in 2013 as well. No defensive lineman on the roster has more than seven sacks in a season. The remaining members of the linebacker corps have 7.5 career sacks and two career interceptions combined. The safeties on the roster have one career interception combined.
–RUNNING BACK: It’s not that starter Montee Ball is not capable; after overcoming fumbling issues in 2013, he had a higher per-carry average than then-first teamer Knowshon Moreno for the last five games of the regular season and through the playoffs. But the Broncos will platoon at least two runners a game this year, and nothing behind Ball is proven.
Third-year running back Ronnie Hillman has the draft pedigree, as a third-round pick in 2012, but has been a disappointment and was inactive throughout the Broncos’ playoff run in January. C.J. Anderson, an undrafted rookie last year, passed Hillman on the depth chart; he is short but strong, and has potential. Three undrafted rookies and former Vikings camp hand Jerodis Williams round out the group. If the Broncos lose Ball, they’re left with inexperience, and perhaps will have to seek a veteran still on the market out of necessity.
–CORNERBACK: This remains a sore spot, as it has been for a decade and it is the biggest concern despite worries at kicker, defensive end and right tackle.
In an NFC North filled with dangerous receivers, cornerbacks are crucial. Reason for optimism is the improvement 2013 second-round pick Darius Slay has shown this offseason. But behind him, there are veterans with questionable upside. Chris Houston, a starter the past four years, struggled last season, and after undergoing toe surgery in May, was released in early June.
Rashean Mathis started 13 games and is running with the first-team defense, but he turns 34 in August. Free agent Cassius Vaughn will compete, but he started four games in the Indianapolis Colts’ subpar secondary in 2013. Third-year cornerback Bill Bentley and fourth-rounder Nevin Lawson will compete for nickel duties, but both are undersized.
GREEN BAY PACKERS
–TIGHT END: Green Bay still hasn’t completely shut the door on bringing back Jermichael Finley, as evidenced by keeping the nameplate above the free agent’s locker this offseason. However, the chances of Finley playing football again — and doing so with the Packers — after he sustained a career-threatening bruised spinal cord on a helmet-to-helmet hit last fall dwindle by the day.
Minus Finley, the Packers don’t have a formidable over-the-middle tight end on the roster. A serviceable Andrew Quarless is penciled in as the starter, but he has been relegated to bystander wearing a cap during the open spring workouts thus far. That merely increases the urgency for Green Bay to get second-year prospect Brandon Bostick and athletic rookie Richard Rodgers, a third-round draft pick out of Cal, ready as Finley’s potential successors.
–DEFENSIVE BACK: The Texans’ defense ranked third worst out of 32 teams last season in average passing yards allowed per game (195.2). They went from bad to worse with the mid-season departure of veteran Ed Reed and rarely played as one. The offseason loss of veteran Danieal Manning doesn’t help and leaves the Texans relying on a list of little-known names to tighten an erratic secondary in defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel’s first year with the team.
Veteran safeties Kendrick Lewis and Chris Clemons were added via free agency, while Shiloh Keo and D.J. Swearinger will again compete for starting spots. At cornerback, returning players Johnathan Joseph and Kareem Jackson will lead a young, inexperienced group.
–CENTER: A dozen plays. That’s all the game experience second-year center Khaled Holmes had last season as a rookie with Indianapolis. Now with the decision to release two-year starter Samson Satele and not re-sign center/guard Mike McGlynn, Holmes will go into the 2014 season as the team’s top option at the center position.
The depth includes a pair of undrafted rookies — former Florida center Jonathan Harrison and a local product in ex-Indiana State center FN Lutz III. Guard Hugh Thornton could move in to play the position if needed and another guard, Donald Thomas (who is recovering from injuries suffered early last season), has limited experience at center.
–INTERIOR OFFENSIVE LINE: The current starters at center and right guard were backup players a year ago with a combined five starts at different positions. Center Mike Brewster started three games at left guard, while current right guard starter Jacques McClendon was a two-game starter at left guard. So neither has started a game at his current position.
The backup players are a pair of mid-to-late-round draft picks last month. Brandon Linder was taken in the third round (No. 93 overall) to challenge McClendon at the right guard spot while Luke Bowanko was a sixth-round selection (No. 205 overall) who was the starting center at the University of Virginia. They may be starters in the future, but neither look ready to make a legitimate run at a starting job in 2014.
KANSAS CITY CHIEFS
–WIDE RECEIVER: The Chiefs have 12 wide receivers on the 90-man roster. Six have played at least one NFL game, but only two have more than 50 league appearances — Dwayne Bowe (103) and Donnie Avery (71). Last season, the wide receivers accounted for 52 percent of the team’s passing offense, with Bowe and Avery producing ordinary performances with just seven touchdown catches total and averaged only 13.1 yards per catch (91 receptions, 1,269 yards).
The Chiefs needed to be active adding receivers in free agency and the draft. Slot receiver Dexter McCluster signed with Tennessee in free agency. But the closest Kansas City came was selecting University of Oregon running back De’Anthony Thomas in the fifth-round and he will play everywhere in head coach Andy Reid’s offense, including wide receiver.
They added other bodies without NFL experience: 5-foot-7, 180-pound Weston Dressler from the Canadian Football League (98 games, 442 catches, 6,536 yards, 43 touchdowns) and Jerrell Jackson, who played 19 games in Arena Football. Apparently, the Chiefs could not afford NFL free-agent receivers.
–OFFENSIVE LINE: If rookie right tackle Ja’Wuan James proves he is worth a first-round draft pick, then the Dolphins still have concerns at guard. The Dolphins gave up a NFL-worst 58 sacks last season. James, from Tennessee, has been decent during OTAs, but he’s still a rookie playing a pivotal position.
Meanwhile, right guard Dallas Thomas and left guard Shelley Smith have never been full-time starters.
–LINEBACKER: If not the weakest position, it will be at least suspect unless or until first-round draft pick Anthony Barr proves himself. Even if Barr does contribute immediately, the unit is thin and so far there are more questions than obvious answers.
Nine-year veteran Chad Greenway is steady and healthy, but can he keep pace and do all of the things head coach Mike Zimmer will ask of him as a three-down player at age 31? Will Barr be able to transform freakish physical tools into a productive NFL linebacker? Can Jasper Brinkley play well enough to fill the gaping hole at middle linebacker? And who among the several intriguing but unproven prospects — Audie Cole, Michael Mauti and Gerald Hodges, among others — will step forward to provide reliable depth and/or push Brinkley and Barr?
NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS
–STRONG SAFETY: While the Patriots have lacked a true strong safety since the departure of Rodney Harrison, there are questions as to whether New England has two starting caliber safeties of any style for 2014. Devin McCourty returns at free safety, while second-year former third-round pick Duron Harmon is penciled in at the other spot.
Harmon started three games as a rookie a year ago filling in for Steve Gregory, who started 23 games in his two years in New England before being cut this spring. Harmon impressed head coach Bill Belichick with his communication skills and football IQ last fall, but if he’s not ready to be a full-time, productive starter there will be a hole in the back end. Patrick Chung returns for depth and special teams and second-year cornerback Logan Ryan may get reps at safety.
NEW ORLEANS SAINTS
–RUNNING BACK: Until they prove there is nothing to worry about, the Saints will be looked at as a poor running team. They finished 25th in the league in yards per game for the second year in a row in 2013; averaging only 3.8 yards per rush, which ranked 26th, and then traded away one of their weapons in Darren Sproles.
That leaves the Saints with Mark Ingram, who came on at the end of last season, and steady veteran Pierre Thomas as well as a pair of undrafted free agents who earned roster spots the past two seasons — Travaris Cadet and Khiry Robinson — for head coach Sean Payton to use in his backfield-by-committee approach.
NEW YORK GIANTS
–TIGHT END: The Giants made a curious decision to not address the tight-end position in the draft. Instead, they apparently have hung their hats on the continued development of Adrien Robinson and Larry Donnell, both third-year players.
Both Robinson and Donnell say coordinator Ben McAdoo’s new offense requires a lot more thinking and movement from the tight-end position. So far, neither has committed any blatant errors that might cause concern. Robinson, who appears to be the front-runner, has yet to record his first NFL reception. The good news is that he has looked good this spring catching the ball in the seam, using his 6-foot-4, 264-pound frame to pluck high passes out of the air.
NEW YORK JETS
–GUARD: The Jets barely managed last season with workmanlike efforts from rookie left guard Brian Winters and veteran right guard Willie Colon, which was a good thing, since their backups were annual tease Vladimir Ducasse and journeyman Caleb Schlauderaff.
But Colon has been absent this spring due to a torn biceps suffered in the season finale and a knee injury during workouts. This magnifies the Jets’ lack of depth at the position. Will Campbell and Oday Aboushi, a pair of 2013 draftees who were inactive for every game last season, are getting extended reps along with fourth-round pick Dakota Dozier.
Winters is also getting time at right guard this spring, which might be an indication of a lack of faith in alternatives and concern about Colon’s ability to be full strength in September.
–TIGHT END: The only area the Raiders failed to address in the offseason was tight end. Second-year pro Mychal Rivera has the inside track to start based on 38 receptions for 407 yards and four touchdowns as a rookie. At 6-foot-3, 245 pounds, Rivera is more of a receiver than a blocker and is often split wide and goes in motion.
David Ausberry, who spent most of last season on injured reserve with a shoulder injury, has a similar skill set. Nick Kasa, in his second year out of Colorado, is in his third year at the position after being moved from the defensive line and is a project as an in-line tight end. Brian Leonhardt, on the practice squad last year, and undrafted free agents Jake Murphy and Scott Simonson round out the group.
–DEFENSIVE BACKS: The Eagles finished last in the league in pass defense, yielding 289.8 yards per game. Starting corners Bradley Fletcher and Cary Williams are adequate, but neither is a shutdown corner. The addition of ex-Dolphin Nolan Carroll gives Philadelphia better corner depth than a year ago.
The Eagles probably improved at safety with the free-agent signing of versatile Malcolm Jenkins, but they passed on Jairus Byrd, the top safety in free agency. Neither Jenkins nor the Eagles’ other projected starting safety, Nate Allen, are very good tacklers.
–CORNERBACK: The Steelers’ issues at cornerback were hidden for years because of a strong pass rush. The lack of a pass rush the past few years has exposed their corners.
Ike Taylor had his worst season in 2013 and he is not likely to improve at age 34. Cortez Allen did just OK as the other starter. William Gay, the nickel back who returned after a brief stay with Arizona, probably played the best of the group last season.
Pittsburgh did little to help the position, signing 5-foot-9 Brice McCain after he was cut by the Texans and drafting Shaquille Richardson in the fifth round.
ST. LOUIS RAMS
–SAFETY: New defensive coordinator Gregg Williams will be challenged to play the way he wants with the current safeties. The Rams did not add veteran help to a group that is short on experience, if not talent.
T.J. McDonald, a third-round pick in 2013, is versatile and the best of the group. He started 10 games last season, missing the other six because of a leg injury. The other starter in 2013, Rodney McLeod, is a try-hard guy who was third on the team with 87 tackles in 16 starts. But those two combined for only three interceptions and eight passes defensed.
The Rams added three draft choices, but Maurice Alexander (round four) and Christian Bryant (round seven) have missed valuable time in spring workouts while recovering from injuries. Second-rounder Lamarcus Joyner, is ticketed for nickel-back duty, but may also play safety.
Matt Daniels remains an unfulfilled promise, spending both seasons on the injured reserve list after making the club as an undrafted free agent in 2012.
SAN DIEGO CHARGERS
–CORNERBACK: It’s no mystery why the Chargers spent their top pick on cornerback Jason Verrett, even if he does stand a mere 5-foot-9. The Chargers were last in the AFC defending the pass. Consider this: the Chargers’ cornerbacks combined for three interceptions last year. Two of the players collecting them, Derek Cox and Johnny Patrick, are no longer with the club.
So it’s up to Verrett — who is still mending from shoulder surgery — and returnees Shareece Wright and Richard Marshall, to shore up the soft belly of the Chargers’ defense.
SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS
–DEFENSIVE BACKFIELD: The 49ers’ secondary took a number of big hits this offseason. Last season’s starters — safety Donte Whitner and corners Carlos Rogers and Tarell Brown — went elsewhere as free agents.
San Francisco addressed safety by bringing in veteran Antoine Bethea of the Colts to pair with standout second-year player Eric Reid. But the team didn’t add proven corners.
Only Tramaine Brock, who emerged as the team’s No. 1 corner after coming on as a reserve early in the season, remains from last year’s defense. His team-leading five interceptions earned him a new four-year, $16 million deal, making him the team’s highest-paid corner.
Returning as a presumed starter is Chris Culliver, a former nickel back who was out injured last year. After that there is a list of maybes: Chris Cook, a second-round Vikings pick in 2010; young veterans Eric Wright and Perrish Cox; and rookie draftees Dontae Johnson (North Carolina State, fourth round), Keith Reaser (Florida Atlantic, fifth round) and Kenneth Acker (Southern Methodist, sixth round).
–OFFENSIVE LINE: Seattle won the Super Bowl last year despite allowing 44 sacks on one of the most elusive quarterbacks in the NFL in Russell Wilson. One key to possible improvement is a return to health of center Max Unger and left tackle Russell Okung, each former Pro Bowlers who played hurt much of last year.
Seattle also has high hopes for this year’s second-round pick Justin Britt (Missouri), who is battling second-year pro Michael Bowie to replace the departed Breno Giacomini as the starting right tackle. How well they can do that job will also go a long way toward improving the line this year.
TAMPA BAY BUCANNEERS
–GUARD: Davin Joseph was released after a poor performance in 2013, the result of his failure to completely recover from knee surgery. Carl Nicks played in only nine games the past two seasons due to surgeries for nerve damage on his left foot. Center Jeremy Zuttah, who could play guard, was traded to the Ravens.
Nicks may not be ready in time for training camp. The Bucs drafted Tennessee State guard Kadeem Edwards in the fifth round and he may enter training camp first on the depth chart at left guard. The right guard position still is up for grabs.
–WIDE RECEIVER: There is talent at the top of the depth chart with shifty Kendall Wright in the slot, and steady Nate Washington on the outside. Justin Hunter also has big-play potential. But after that, there are just unproven names.
Michael Preston, a former practice-squad player, has 10 career catches. Marc Mariani, a former Pro Bowl pick as a return man, has just five catches and has spent the past two seasons on injured reserve. The Titans added Brian Robiskie, who failed to produce elsewhere. So quarterback Jake Locker hopes to find a couple more reliable receivers to help him in Ken Whisenhunt’s new offensive system.
–SAFETY: The Redskins signed veteran Ryan Clark, which should help at free safety. And Brandon Meriweather can still play, especially at strong safety, when he’s not costing his team 15 yards or getting suspended.
But it’s slim pickings after that. Bacarri Rambo struggled as a rookie and has a lot to prove. Phillip Thomas sustained a Lisfranc injury to his left foot during training camp and that cost him a valuable development season. The Redskins did not draft a safety, but cornerback Bashaud Breeland, a fourth-round selection, is versatile enough to move to safety.
–Frank Cooney, founder and publisher of The Sports Xchange and NFLDraftScout.com, covered the NFL and the draft since the 1960s and is a selector for the Pro Football Hall of Fame.