The adage that you’re only as strong as your weakest link doesn’t quite apply to the NFL, where one or more strong positional groups can mask another one’s deficiencies. Nevertheless, an extremely weak link can torpedo the entire operation. As training camps begin to open across the league and positional battles get underway, let’s take a look at each team’s most obvious glaring weakness.
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Dallas Cowboys: Suspensions on D
Talented linebacker Rolando McClain proved a nice reclamation project in 2014 and 2015, but regressed thanks to a 10 game suspension due to a substance abuse violation. Meanwhile two more defensive starters will serve four game suspensions to start the season for substance abuse violations: defensive ends Demarcus Lawrence and Randy Gregory. The suspensions will really test the “next man up” mantra in September as the Cowboys will have to find creative ways to pressure the quarterback that don’t involve bringing back Greg Hardy. Another big weakness -- literally -- is Tony Romo’s collarbone, which has fractured three times since 2010. Last season illustrated the difference between Romo and his backup and it was stark and terrifying. (This year it's Kellen Moore and rookie Dak Prescott versus Matt Cassel and Brandon Weeden).
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New York Giants: Offensive line
It’s borderline absurd to not list a defensive group after last season’s impotent defensive performance, and the linebacker position remains an area of concern, but a $200 million free agent spending spree should help vastly improve Big Blue’s D (defensive end Olivier Vernon, tackle Damon “Snacks” Harrison, cornerback Janoris Jenkins, Jason Pierre-Paul re-signed). But specifically the right side of the Giants’ offensive line could be a trouble spot. The left side is solid (Ereck Flowers, Justin Pugh) and Weston Richburg has emerged as one of the league’s best centers, but the guard-tackle combo of John Jerry and Marshall Newhouse leaves much to be desired. Second-year man Bobby Hart may challenge for one of those positions.
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Philadelphia Eagles: Wide receiver
It won’t matter whether Sam Bradford or Carson Wentz (or Chase Daniel) is under center if the Eagles wideouts don’t pick it up under the new coaching regime. The top pick in 2015, Nelson Agholor, was expected to jump into a starting role last year but vastly underperformed, reeling in barely half (23) of his 44 targets for 283 yards. Agholor is also entering camp in the wake of sexual assault allegations, which did not result in any charges. Jordan Matthews remains the top dog, Josh Huff showed some flashes last season and maybe former Giant Rueben Randle can realize his potential in Philly, but overall this group has a lot to prove.
Getty ImagesRich Schultz
Washington Redskins: Running back
As far as a main weakness goes in the modern NFL, running back is pretty good place to have it. Last year’s leading rusher Alfred Morris (751 yards, 3.7 ypc) took his ball and his economical 1991 Mazda 626 to Dallas in free agency. That leaves second-year back Matt Jones as the prohibitive favorite to get the bulk of the carries. Jones struggled with some fumble-itis last year (five fumbles, four lost) and averaged just 3.4 ypc on 144 carries. Behind him there’s a load of inexperience in backups Chris Thompson (38 career carries), Mack Brown (zero carries) and rookie Keith Marshall. The good news for Washington is an improving offensive line anchored by four-time Pro Bowler Trent Williams.
Getty ImagesMatt Hazlett
Chicago Bears: Running back
The offensive line is a work in progress but the bigger question is in the backfield. The Bears have to replace Matt Forte, who signed with the New York Jets in free agency after eight solid seasons. Jeremy Langford produced some highlights during his rookie campaign but he’s a far cry from prime Forte. Langford averaged just 3.6 yards-per-carry in 2015, he isn’t a great pass blocker (ranked 128th of 134 per ProFootballFocus) and also dropped eight passes last year on 40 targets. Fifth-round pick Jordan Howard and Ka'Deem Carey will vie with Langford for carries.
Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY SportsReinhold Matay
Detroit Lions: Cornerback
Welcome to the post-Calvin Johnson era. He’ll be impossible to replace but Golden Tate and Marvin Jones make a pretty solid pair, and the offensive line got some depth on Draft Day (Taylor Decker, Graham Glasgow), which will benefit the entire offense. There’s trouble brewing for the Lions in the secondary for a defense that allowed a 100.9 passer rating to opposing quarterbacks last season (fifth worst in the league) and 59 completions of 20-plus yards last season (sixth most). The team lost cornerback Rashean Mathis to retirement (past his prime but serviceable) and lacks experience after Darius Slay and second-year man Quandre Diggs. Third-year corner Nevin Lawson has potential and will probably start opposite Slay, but overall it’s an inexperienced, thin group.
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Green Bay Packers: Inside linebacker
The Packers’ offense became completely unrecognizable last season due to the loss of Jordy Nelson, Eddie Lacy’s weight struggle, a slew of offensive line injuries and a resulting lack of cohesion. But time and P90X has probably healed most of that. With Clay Matthews on the edge, the potential weakest link lies in the the middle of the defense at linebacker where Sam Barrington returns from a season-ending foot injury. He’ll battle for a starting job and playing time with Carl Bradford, Jake Ryan, Joe Thomas and rookie Blake Martinez out of Stanford. This is certainly a much better problem than what last year eventually brought.
Getty ImagesJohn Konstantaras
Minnesota Vikings: The offense
The defense is very clearly the strength of Mike Zimmer’s team but it’s difficult to pinpoint the offense’s weakness heading into the 2016 season. Last year the offense ranked 16th in points per game (22.8) and 16th in DVOA. Perfectly average. The Vikes upgraded their offensive line by signing free agent guard Alex Boone plus Andre Smith to play right tackle. They spent a first-round pick on wideout Laquon Treadwell out of Ole Miss, perhaps the most talented WR in the draft, to give Teddy Bridgewater a number one to go along with Stefon Diggs, Jarius Wright and Charles Johnson. Of course there’s still Adrian Peterson, who continues to challenge what we know about running backs aged 30 or older. This year we should find out whether Bridgewater, entering his third season, is merely a quintessential “game manager” or something else.
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Carolina Panthers: The Super Bowl hangover
The curse is real. The Buffalo Bills were the last Super Bowl loser to win their conference the following season (1993). Many teams have had a losing season after a Super Bowl loss and the majority (39 of the past 43) don’t make it back to the conference championship. A big loss like that takes an emotional toll, players get paid elsewhere, the team’s draft picks are lower and the schedule gets harder. The loss of top cornerback Josh Norman to Washington or any positional group won’t matter nearly as much as the team’s collective ability to lick their wounds and recover from post-traumatic Von Miller disorder. (Panthers visit the Broncos in the season opener on September 8).
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Atlanta Falcons: Pass rush
Doesn’t matter where they get the pressure from, the Falcons just need a lot more of it. Last season the Falcons recorded a league-low 19 total sacks. Defensive end Vic Beasley managed to play through a torn labrum in his right shoulder, so we’ll see what the 2015 first-round draft pick can do when he’s healthy. The other bookend will be free agent acquisition Derrick Shelby, who played his first four seasons in Miami. To quote the late, great coach Buddy Ryan: “A quarterback has never completed a pass when he was flat on his back.”
Kyle Terada-USA TODAY SportsKyle Terada
New Orleans Saints: Linebacker
The Saints finished dead last in defensive DVOA last season and points allowed (29.8) and made “Saints opposing quarterback” a strong fantasy football start every week based solely on that criteria. The defense allowed a 68.4 completion percentage and 116.2 passer rating, which is six points better (!!!) than Russell Wilson’s league-leading passer rating last season. One group that stands out most after the draft is the linebacker corps, where New Orleans is hoping that ho-hum free agent signees James Laurinaitis, Craig Robertson and Nate Stupar can combine with second-year man Stephone Anthony and Dannell Ellerbe to form a steadier trio. The Saints had only five draft picks and used them to address other needs. For this defense to get out of the cellar, the linebackers must improve in pass coverage.
Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY SportDerick E. Hingle
Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Safety
Having addressed the defensive end void in free agency (Robert Ayers) and the draft (Noah Spence), attention shifts to safety. The team added fourth-round pick Ryan Smith (who played safety and corner in college) to compete with incumbent starters Bradley McDougald and Chris Conte, who is average at best. It will certainly help the matter if Ayers and Spence can help generate more pressure.
Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY SportDerick E. Hingle
Arizona Cardinals: Punt coverage
We had to discuss special teams somewhere. The Cardinals have a fairly loaded roster so we turn to special teams, where the Cards ranked 29th in DVOA last season, owing largely to poor coverage on the punt unit. Arizona allowed an average punt return of 11.8 yards (including a 66-yarder by the Seahawks’ Tyler Lockett), which was fourth-worst in the league. They also have to replace long snapper Mike Leach (retired), probably with one of their rookie free agents Kameron Canady or Daniel Dillon.
Getty ImagesNorm Hall
Los Angeles Rams: Offensive line
The defense suffered some serious losses including the departures of safety Rodney McLeod, cornerback Janoris Jenkins and defensive end Chris Long. Pretty tough shoes to fill but the greater concern for now is keeping Jared Goff’s jersey clean. For that the Rams will rely on some pretty unproven and inexperienced players. The wide receiver corps (Kenny Britt, Tavon Austin, Brian Quick) also leaves a bit for Goff to desire.
San Francisco 49ers: Quarterback
There’s so much uncertainty and moving parts plus a new head coach -- same as the Eagles old head coach -- but it makes sense to go QB here. As of now it’s going to be Blaine Gabbert but Colin Kaepernick (shoulder surgery) is still on the roster. Gabbert exceeded (some fairly low) expectations last season but now will face the league’s toughest schedule in a new offense. Good luck. At least they have a still-solid left tackle in Joe Staley.
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Seattle Seahawks: Offensive line
This has been a problem for Seattle made much worse when they traded two-time Pro Bowl center Max Unger to the Saints for Jimmy Graham. Last season’s top lineman Russell Okung left for the Broncos in March, leaving behind a lot of question marks and inexperience. Per ProFootballFocus, each of the projected starting five is slated to play a different position than he played last year. That includes first-round pick Germain Ifedi, a 6-foot-5, 325-pounder who played tackle the past two seasons at Texas A&M and is likely to start out at guard. He’s one of the three offensive linemen the Seahawks drafted in the spring.