In honor of the past Fourth of July holiday weekend, The Sports Xchange will celebrate something positive — The No. 1 Strength of every NFL team.
Sports Xchange reporters who cover each team were asked to select the best aspect of that team, something not often done by media convinced that fans would rather discuss the dark side of any issue.
In the interest of full disclosure, this assignment was apparently so unusual that two correspondents, who shall remain anonymous and their teams unnamed, responded with odd suggestions — one naming youth as the team’s strength and the other saying the coaching staff was the key, despite the fact that particular team probably has the most talented roster in the league and isn’t hoisting a Lombardi Trophy.
In those cases, TSX asserted executive privilege, and experience, to change the strengths of those teams to something more appropriate.
So with that in order, cue the fireworks, and here is TSX’s list of strengths for each team in the NFL (listed alphabetically):
–TEAM STRENGTH: Wide receiver. Larry Fitzgerald is still an elite player. Michael Floyd has shown great improvement. The additions of Ted Ginn Jr. and rookie John Brown improved the group’s speed. Quarterback Carson Palmer has several options now in the passing game.
–TEAM STRENGTH: Quarterback Matt Ryan. Ryan has shown that if protected and surrounded with weapons, the Falcons can win in the NFL regular season. After going 4-12, Ryan believes he can improve in order to help offset the retirement of legendary tight end Tony Gonzalez.
“I’ve tried to be as detailed as I can possibly be both in the weight room, film room and out on the practice field,” Ryan said. “I think it’s overall consistency. I think as I mature and I keep playing in this league, it’s about tightening things up and becoming more consistent.”
Despite moving up in seniority – only running back Steven Jackson (11 years), wide receiver Roddy White (10), wide receiver/kick returner Devin Hester (nine) and guard Justin Blalock (eight) have more experience — Ryan still feels young.
“I still feel really good,” Ryan said. “My body feels great. I feel like I’m in better shape than I’ve ever been. I still love getting out and practicing. (Six) years went by fast, but I feel really good.”
–TEAM STRENGTH: Outside linebacker. With bookend Pro Bowl outside linebackers in Terrell Suggs and Elvis Dumervil, this is obviously a strong part of the team. They combined for 19.5 sacks last season. Healthy this season, both Suggs and Dumervil appear ready for bigger things this season.
–TEAM STRENGTH: Defensive line. The Bills have three Pro Bowl players up front — tackles Marcell Dareus and Kyle Williams, and end Mario Williams, plus end Jerry Hughes. While setting a team record with 57 sacks in 2013, those four players combined for 41 sacks, including a team-high 13 by Mario Williams.
The Bills can also bring in players such as veterans Alan Branch and Manny Lawson, and they also like young players Stefan Charles and Corbin Bryant, both of whom saw playing time at the end of last season. Under new coordinator Jim Schwartz, the Bills might not blitz as much as they did when Mike Pettine was scheming the defense, but if the front four can continue to generate pressure without help, Schwartz won’t have to send linebackers or safeties.
–TEAM STRENGTH: Linebacker Luke Kuechly. If the Panthers are going to make another playoff run, they will do it on the back of their defense, and Kuechly is the backbone of that defense. The reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year has taken on a bigger leadership role heading into his third season, which some around the team believe could be his best yet.
–TEAM STRENGTH: Starting wide receivers. Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery combined for 2,716 receiving yards last year during Jeffery’s breakout year, and unlike last year both enter training camp 100 percent healthy. Marshall last year was coming off hip surgery and took until at least a month into the season before he felt at or approaching 100 percent. Jeffery now has two years experience.
Few teams have one receiver with the combination speed and athletic ability of one of these two, and with two the Bears always seem to have an open option. With tight end Martellus Bennett and with Marquess Wilson starting to assert himself, it’s possible one or both could have fewer catches. However, if this happens, it’s possible the big-play threat will increase and their yards-per-catch average will go up. If Jay Cutler is able to go the entire season, their touchdown totals could increase, as well.
–TEAM STRENGTH: Coordinator Hue Jackson and the offense. The players have responded to the new energy in the offensive room as Jackson replaced Jay Gruden, now the head coach in Washington.
Players are energized and the numbers of Jackson’s success running the offense in Oakland (top 10 both years he was on staff) back up his attitude.
The offense needed an identity and mentality to stand behind and the physicality of the running game has the linemen smiling and Giovani Bernard featured. Both of those are great for the hopes of the Bengals.
TEAM STRENGTH: Defense. Coach Mike Pettine, as a former defensive coordinator, is trying to model his team after the Seahawks and 49ers. He is expecting the defense to carry the load this season, particularly the pass rushing linebackers — Paul Kruger, Barkevious Mingo and Jabaal Sheard, who at times will line up as an end.
Sheard led the Browns in sacks each of his first three years in the league. He is excited about the season ahead because he is playing the role of Mario Williams of the Buffalo Bills. Pettine was the Bills defensive coordinator last year.
–TEAM STRENGTH: Offensive line. The Cowboys will be led by their offensive line. The team has invested three first-round picks up front so it should be the strength of the team. Left tackle Tyron Smith, a 2011 first-round pick and a Pro Bowler last year, is the anchor. He joins center Travis Frederick and left guard Zack Martin to form a nucleus that the Cowboys hope will be the foundation for success in 2014 and for years to come.
–TEAM STRENGTH: Quarterback Peyton Manning. As long as he is upright, the Broncos are a championship threat. In spite of being without six defensive starters and their starting left tackle by the AFC Championship Game, Manning was still able to lead the Broncos past the Patriots with a 400-yard day.
The Broncos showed last year that they had enough depth to get by, even without All-Pros Von Miller and Ryan Clady, who combined to miss 27 games in the regular season and playoffs. That was because Manning could
–TEAM STRENGTH: Wide receiver Calvin Johnson. All-Pro receiver Calvin Johnson remains the Lions’ best and most impactful player. The Lions’ best positional groups are the lines on both sides, but when it comes to affecting the game, nobody on this team comes close to Johnson.
With three straight seasons of at least 1,492 receiving yards, Johnson has proven capable of carrying an offense with an otherwise lackluster receiving corps, but his presence combined with the other additions the Lions made this offseason should give this team hope to contend for the NFC North in 2014.
The Lions signed free-agent receiver Golden Tate and drafted tight end Eric Ebron in the first round, and they will automatically be the No. 2 and No. 3 targets in the receiving game, not including running backs Joique Bell and Reggie Bush. And with Johnson commanding double teams, all of quarterback Matthew Stafford’s other weapons should have no problem getting open.
GREEN BAY PACKERS
–TEAM STRENGTH: Quarterback Aaron Rodgers. Just what the rest of the NFL needed to hear when Packers head coach Mike McCarthy uttered these words in the final week of the team’s offseason program: “I think Aaron’s had probably his best spring (since McCarthy’s first season in 2006). … He’s in great shape.”
As he religiously worked out doing yoga the last few months, Rodgers not only limbered up but lost more than 10 pounds. The 30-year-old star should head into training camp in late July at less than 220 pounds, the lightest he’s been in his 10-year career. An extremely fit Rodgers also is fully healed in the upper body after he missed seven games because of a broken collarbone on his non-throwing left side before returning in triumphant fashion the final regular-season game to get the Packers back in the playoffs.
Arguably the league’s best quarterback at full strength is a scary proposition for opposing defenses, which also now has to contend with the explosive running by Eddie Lacy, the reigning NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year.
–TEAM STRENGTH: The front seven with four former first-round picks — end J.J. Watt, inside linebacker Brian Cushing, outside linebacker Jadeveon Clowney and outside linebacker Whitney Mercilus — and a former second-round pick, inside linebacker Brooks Reed.
–TEAM STRENGTH: Quarterback Andrew Luck. The Colts will only go as far as the team’s third-year signal caller will take them. Luck has guided Indy to consecutive post-season appearances and a memorable come-from-behind win over Kansas City in a wild-card game last year.
–TEAM STRENGTH: Defensive line. The last two years, the Jaguars have been at or near the bottom of the league in sacks or putting any pressure on opposing quarterbacks. That doesn’t appear to be the case any more. The free-agent signing of players like Chris Clemons, Ziggy Hood and Red Bryant brings instant credibility to this unit.
Andre Branch had a banner second-half season a year ago and if that continues, he could produce double-digit sack totals. For the Jaguars to be able to cut veteran defensive end Jason Babin shows that they have confidence in the remaining group of players along the line.
KANSAS CITY CHIEFS
–TEAM STRENGTH: Linebacker. The power of the Chiefs roster can be seen in their three Pro Bowl linebackers — Tamba Hali, Derrick Johnson and Justin Houston. The team added to this group 2014 first-round draft choice Dee Ford.
If Houston and the Chiefs workout a contract extension and the linebacker does not miss a lot of training camp time in a holdout, it will be hard for Ford to get a lot of snaps in the K.C. defense.
But the Auburn rookie — a productive college defensive end-turned linebacker — was so impressive in the team’s offseason practices the coaching staff may not be able to keep him on the sidelines.
Defensive coordinator Bob Sutton will spend the pre-camp break brainstorming on schemes where Hali, Houston and Ford are rushing the passer together.
–TEAM STRENGTH: Wide receiver. The Dolphins might not send a wide receiver to the Pro Bowl, but they have quality and they’re deep. Among starters Mike Wallace, Brian Hartline and Brandon Gibson they have proven veterans. Behind them are rookie Jarvis Landry and youngsters Rishard Matthews and Armon Binns.
A lot of the wide receivers’ success will depend on quarterback Ryan Tannehill and the offensive line’s ability to protect Tannehill. But the as a group, the wide receivers are grown men.
–TEAM STRENGTH: Running back. Adrian Peterson is the best running back in the league. He is healthy after offseason groin surgery. And he has that same me-versus-the-world mentality going now that people are starting to question his age (29) following what was a down season by his lofty standards.
The last time everyone assumed the worst for Peterson, he ran for 2,097 yards eight months after ACL surgery. The fact he ran for 1,266 yards in 14 games last season – six of them with the groin injury – should be a sign of his greatness, rather than a red flag that he’s on the downside of the traditional career path for a running back.
Peterson also should benefit from his first season under offensive coordinator Norv Turner, who obviously is a significant upgrade over Bill Musgrave. Look for Peterson to have more room to run because of a better conceived attack as well as Peterson’s increased role in the passing game.
Toby Gerhart, Peterson’s dependable backup the past four seasons is gone. But rookie third-round draft pick Jerick McKinnon is the change-of-pace back that Gerhart wasn’t and Turner covets for his passing attack. McKinnon isn’t big, but he’s very strong and shifty, which will help him in pass protection and on passes out of the backfield.
NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS
–TEAM STRENGTH: Quarterback Tom Brady and head coach Bill Belichick. While it may be overly simplistic and obvious, New England continues to be driven to success by its quarterback and coach. Those are the two most important aspects for an NFL team, and New England still ranks among the elite teams in the league despite the duo’s 14-year run together.
There will be questions and fan hopes that New England can be a top-5 unit on both offense and defense, buoyed by Rob Gronkowski in the passing attack and Darrelle Revis on defense. But almost regardless of those details on both sides of the ball, Belichick and Brady have proven together they can lead the way to an AFC East title (five years in a row) or spot in the AFC title game (three years running). The foundation for where the Patriots will go this season remains with the man wearing No. 12 and the man in the gray hoodie directing it all.
NEW ORLEANS SAINTS
–TEAM STRENGTH: Quarterback Drew Brees. In the eight seasons he has played with the Saints, receivers of all shapes and sizes have come and gone (with the exception of Marques Colston), yet Brees continues to play at a very high level.
Brees, who will turn 36 in January, is the catalyst for an offense that has led the NFL in passing yards four times and has finished no lower than fourth since he joined forces with Sean Payton. Brees has topped the 5,000-yard mark in each of the past three seasons and has 46, 43 and 39 touchdowns in those three years. He has posted four of the eight 5,000-yard passing seasons in NFL history
NEW YORK GIANTS
TEAM STRENGTH: Defensive secondary. The Giants revamped their secondary, placing a premium on top cornerbacks such as Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and Walter Thurmond during free agency.
Head coach Tom Coughlin already advised Rodgers-Cromartie that he will be assigned to cover the opponents’ No. 1 receiver. Thurmond, one of the top slot cornerbacks in the NFL, will take over that role from Terrell Thomas. The Giants also added cornerback Zack Bowman via free agency to complete a unit that also has Prince Amukamara and Trumaine McBride.
At safety, despite the circumstances that led to the team’s release of Will Hill, their signing of free agent Quintin Demps to go along with the return of Stevie Brown and Antrel Rolle should allow defensive coordinator Perry Fewell to run his three-safety set.
NEW YORK JETS
–TEAM STRENGTH: Defensive line. Few teams in the league have a 1-2 punch like Muhammad Wilkerson and Sheldon Richardson, who can wreak havoc with opposing running backs and quarterbacks. Their dominance creates a trickle down effect for the rest of an otherwise average defense.
–TEAM STRENGTH: A refurbished front seven. The Raiders let their best defensive lineman get away in free agency and needed 15 different players to record 38 sacks, but rebuilt their front seven to the point where it is the strongest part of their team.
–TEAM STRENGTH: Run game. LeSean McCoy led the league in rushing last season and is poised for yet another big year. He is an elusive runner who runs behind one of the league’s most athletic offensive lines. While the Eagles acquired Darren Sproles primarily as a receiver out of the backfield, Kelly thinks the 5-foot-6, 190-pound running back also will prosper in their running attack.
–TEAM STRENGTH: Quarterback. Ben Roethlisberger is coming off one of his best seasons. He passed for 4,261 yards and 28 touchdowns, and was most productive down the stretch when the coaches committed to the no-huddle offense. Expect similar or better production this season if the no-huddle is implemented from the start.
The Steelers have leaned on Roethlisberger and the passing game for the last few years because the running game stalled. New line coach Mike Munchak was hired to fix the problems in the running game. If he does, Roethlisberger can have an even better 2014 because the play-action threat would return.
ST. LOUIS RAMS
–TEAM STRENGTH: Defensive line. From top to bottom, not only is this group easily the strength of the team, but it ranks among the best in the entire NFL. Led by right end Robert Quinn, who had 19 sacks last season, the line can get pressure on the quarterback as well as defend the run. Left end Chris Long had 8.5 sacks in 2013, and the depth at end includes William Hayes and Eugene Sims.
Both Hayes and Sims often move inside on passing downs, after Michael Brockers and Kendall Langford have done their jobs. There is also depth inside with free-agent addition Alex Carrington and first-round draft pick Aaron Donald. Competing for roster spots will be tackle Matt Conrath and seventh-round end Michael Sam.
SAN DIEGO CHARGERS
–TEAM STRENGTH: Quarterback Philip Rivers and the passing game. With Mike McCoy being a head coach with an offensive bent, and Philips being one of the NFL’s most accurate quarterbacks, it is obvious the Chargers will again lean on their passing game.
Rivers will have another year in McCoy’s quick-strike, up-tempo system and he’s got a favorite receiver, Malcom Floyd, back from injury.
The Chargers will preach offensive balance, but this squad will only go as far as its passing game takes it.
SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS
–TEAM STRENGTH: Offensive line, by default. Despite a slight drop-off in performance from 2012 to 2013, the Niners’ front wall gets the call as the best unit on the team, but only because San Francisco’s outrageously talented linebacker group was rocked by injuries (NaVorro Bowman) and likely suspension (Aldon Smith), and yet still may be among the best around with Patrick Willis on the inside, Ahmad Brooks on the outside and talented rookie Chris Borland looking exceptional in spring workouts.
But the safe pick here is the offensive line. Left tackle Joe Staley, the enforcer of this tough group, is one of the elite edge blockers in the league and in combination with Anthony Davis on the right side gives San Francisco perhaps the best set of tackles in football. Left guard Mike Iupati should play up to his significant ability in the last year of his rookie contract and right guard Alex Boone, for one, believes he is good enough to taunt the no-nonsense 49ers front office by not attending spring workouts.
At center, Jonathan Goodwin ran off to New Orleans when it was clear the team didn’t want to re-sign him. That left the Niners with a capable short-term replacement in fourth-year veteran Daniel Kilgore, but the eventual starter probably will be Marcus Martin. The former USC star at guard and center was rated as the best center in the draft by NFLDraftscout.com, which projected him as a second-round prospect. Although he was the second center selected in the draft, the 49ers believe they stole the 6-3 1/4, 320-pound lineman in the third round with the 70th overall pick.
– TEAM STRENGTH: Secondary. Everything Seattle does on a defense that last year ranked as the best in the NFL starts with its Legion of Boom secondary. Cornerback Richard Sherman, free safety Earl Thomas and strong safety Kam Chancellor are each among the best at their position in the NFL. That is particularly so in the case of Thomas — whose ability to cover so much ground in the back end keys everything — and Sherman. Byron Maxwell — who emerged as the other starter at cornerback opposite Sherman late in the season — was a revelation who also may soon get a big payday.
TAMPA BAY BUCANNEERS
–TEAM STRENGTH: Defensive tackle Gerald McCoy. McCoy sets the tone for the defensive line – the whole defense for that matter. For the first time in his career, he has an edge rusher in Bengals free agent Michael Johnson to divert the double teams.
Inside, there is an even bigger impact in defensive tackle Clinton McDonald, who brings the Seahawks mentality with him. Adrian Clayborn should thrive at left defensive end, especially with his hand in the dirt. Clayborn’s motor is well known. The Bucs are hoping to resurrect the career of Da’Quan Bowers and new defensive line coach Joe Cullen should help.
–TEAM STRENGTH: Offensive Line. The Titans have gone to great lengths to rebuild an offensive line eroded over the past several years, and this unit — on paper at least — would appear to be the strength of the team.
The Titans signed left guard Andy Levitre last year as a free agent and drafted right guard Chance Warmack and center Brian Schwenkie. This year they added free agent right tackle Michael Oher and took future left tackle Taylor Lewan in the first round as an eventual successor to stalwart Michael Roos, who is entering the final year of his contract.
–TEAM STRENGTH: Wide receivers. When the Redskins won the NFC East in 2012, they didn’t have a single player with more than 48 catches or 633 receiving yards.
This year, their 27-year-old starting receivers are 2013 Pro Bowl pick DeSean Jackson (career highs of 82 catches and 1,332 yards for Philadelphia) and Pierre Garcon, who produced 1,346 yards in 2014 while topping Hall of Famer Art Monk’s franchise record with 113 catches. Washington’s third receiver in 2014 figures to be 26-year-old Andre Roberts, a newcomer like Jackson, who caught 64 passes for 759 yards for Arizona in 2012, his last season as a starter.
–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 Fam