In the salary-cap era, no NFL team can head into a season with above-average starters at every position. Some teams have come close -- and others have been able to mask their issues with dominant players at other positions -- but every team's weakness gets exposed.
The New England Patriots, who have won six Super Bowls and lost three more over the past two decades, provide two great examples of how weaknesses on both sides of the ball did them in during that span. The 2007 Patriots went 16-0, but when the Giants lined up excellent pass-rushers against New England's interior linemen (and Randy Moss wasn't healthy), the offense shut down. The 2019 Patriots were dominant on defense, but the Titans forced them to defend power football, ran at undersized linemen like Deatrich Wise Jr. and controlled the clock in a 20-13 victory.
Let's run through the Achilles' heels for the NFL teams who will expect to make it to the postseason in 2020. I've defined that group as the 20 teams with the best chances of making it into January per ESPN's Football Power Index. Some of these concerns are driven by injuries suffered during the preseason or COVID-19 opt-outs; others are a product of roster construction or ill-advised commitments. In each case, I'll be focusing on one position as a possible weak link.
I'll sort through these in relative order of how likely they are to be a serious problem this season, starting with the team that is most likely to overcome the weakest spot in the starting lineup:
Expected starter: Janoris Jenkins
Even as the Saints' defense has blossomed over the past few years, cornerback has been an issue they've struggled to solve. On one side, coordinator Dennis Allen can call on superstar Marshon Lattimore. On the other? There has been no consistent answer. In 2017, the Saints headed into the season with P.J. Williams as the starter, only to flourish after handing things over to Ken Crawley. He began 2018 as the starter but lost his job after six weeks to trade acquisition Eli Apple. Apple then spent most of 2019 in the lineup, but after struggling to avoid pass interference penalties, he missed the final week of the season and the Saints' playoff loss to the Vikings with an ankle injury.
Jenkins, who was cut by the Giants after tweeting a slur toward a fan, joined the Saints last December and took over for Apple as their new starting cornerback. The 31-year-old held his own; when the Vikings hit two big pass plays to Adam Thielen in their wild-card win, the standout wide receiver was matched up against Lattimore and Patrick Robinson, who was filling in for Lattimore in overtime.
Jenkins' final season in New York was more topsy-turvy; the dismal play of the Giants' other cornerbacks led him to wonder why he wasn't shadowing the opposing team's top receiver, but he was outclassed by Mike Evans in a three-touchdown game in September. If the Saints let Lattimore travel around the field with No. 1 wideouts, Jenkins should still be effective enough to handle the opposing team's second-best option. A successful year from Jenkins would allow the Saints to play more man coverage and perhaps blitz more frequently.
Achilles' heel: wide receiver
What looked like a deep, talented 49ers depth chartafter April's draft has quickly gone sour. Deebo Samuel, who broke out as a rookie last season, suffered a Jones fracture in his left foot. Draft classmate Jalen Hurd, who missed all of 2019 with a back injury, tore his ACL in training camp. Richie James underwent wrist surgery, andTravis Benjamin opted out. Aiyuk, San Francisco's first-round pick, impressed in August, but the Arizona State product tweaked his hamstring last week. Even fullbackKyle Juszczyk and tight endGeorge Kittle are dealing with soft-tissue injuries. Jimmy Garoppolo's weapons have been hit hard.
Even having mentioned all those names, there are still some healthy pieces left in the cupboard if coach Kyle Shanahan wants to use them. Bourne's role diminished in 2019, but he seems likely to start in the slot ahead of the returning Trent Taylor, who missed all of last season. Bourne was an every-down regular compared to Dante Pettis, who seemed to be in Shanahan's doghouse before the 2019 season and played only nine offensive snaps after Week 9. Pettis seemed like trade fodder heading into the offseason, but now the 49ers might need him for meaningful action.
Former first-rounders Tavon Austin and Kevin Whitejoined the team in camp, but the most likely scenario is more 22 personnel from a team that thrives off play-action. Aiyuk will likely beat Samuel back to the field, though both players are at risk of aggravating their injuries. Shanahan loves his weapons, but the threat of speed and the ability to break away after the catch is more important to this offense than any individual wideout.
Achilles' heel:running back
Expected starter: Ronald Jones
Super Bowl winners don't need a running back to take command of the position until they get to January. Look at the last few champs. A year ago, the Chiefs'Damien Williams had 309 rushing yards amid injuries and inconsistent play before Week 16 and then took over as the feature back during their title run. In 2018, injuries slowed the Patriots'Sony Michel early, and he was splitting time in December before racking up 71 carries across three postseason wins. The 2017 Eagles traded for Jay Ajayi at midseason and didn't give him double-digit carries in a game until Week 14, during/after which point he averaged nearly 14 per game.
Of course, to get to the Super Bowl, teams need to keep their quarterback on the field in one piece. More than anything, the Buccaneers seem to find themselves trying to find the running back who won't blow a block and cost Tom Brady his debut season in red and pewter. Tampa has four running backs competing for possible playing time, and none is a lock to end up as the starter deep into the season.
Jones is the early leader; while the 2018 second-round pick is likely the team's best pure runner and finally seemed to wrest the job away from Peyton Barber during the second half of 2019, he's also not a natural pass-catcher and has had ugly moments in pass protection. Jones' drops in camp have not endeared him to coach Bruce Arians. Arians doesn't typically give rookies huge roles on offense, which also would also seem to limit third-round pick Ke'Shawn Vaughn's chances of carving out a big role on offense.
The default might end up being LeSean McCoy, who was a healthy scratch down the stretch for the Chiefs last season and appeared to be on his last legs after more than 3,000 career NFL touches. McCoy might not have much left, but he can still catch and knows how to pass protect. The moves to sign McCoy and draft Vaughn seemed to cap Dare Ogunbowale's role in the offense, but anything is on board for the Bucs in a must-win season.
Achilles' heel:left tackle
Expected starter: Jason Peters
This would have been Andre Dillard last week, but the 2019 first-round pick tore his biceps Thursday and will miss the rest of the season. Philly had already brought back longtime left tackleJason Petersto fill in at right guard for Brandon Brooks, who is also out for the year, but the Dillard injury seemed to open up left tackle for the future Hall of Famer. Alas, Peters -- who signed aone-year, $3 million deal this offseason -- reportedly wants more money if the team wants him to play the more valuable position.
Eagles fans will rightfully point out that Dillard didn't look good last season and wasn't wowing anybody in camp, but that ignores the bigger picture. Peters wasn't his old self at left tackle in 2019 and has spent the last month preparing to play a new position. There's little chance he will be better than he was in 2019, while it was extremely likely Dillard would have improved as he got more reps at left tackle. Now, Philadelphia will have gotten justthree full starts out of Dillard before he enters his third season, one in which it would have expected him to be entrenched as a solution as opposed to a question mark.
Peters is still an adequate left tackle, although it's scary to think about how thin the Eagles would be if the 38-year-old went down with an injury. Matt Pryor will have the inside track to the starting job at right guard or could take over at left tackle if Peters stays on the interior. Either way, a team that hasn't been able to keep its line together on the field for long stretches of time over the past few years will be without two starters for all of 2020.
16. Dallas Cowboys
Expected starter: Jourdan Lewis
Where the Eagles go, the Cowboys typically follow close behind. Dallas was able to retain wide receiverAmari Cooper and upgrade its defensive line this offseason, but it took a step back at cornerback after losing Byron Jones to the Dolphins in free agency. The Cowboys re-signed Anthony Brown, who should start in the slot, and Chidobe Awuzie will likely return as a starter on one side, but they're hoping to replace Jones by having someone emerge from a committee.
Lewis is the favorite on paper to emerge as the starter, but minor injuries to Lewis and Awuzie have created an opportunity for second-round pick Trevon Diggs. Veteran Daryl Worley and fourth-round pick Reggie Robinson could also figure in the mix, although both have seen some snaps at safety in camp. Diggs still needs some refinement and might give up a big play or two early in the year if forced into the lineup, but he has the most upside of the bunch and figures to be a regular by the end of the season.
Expected starter (eventually): Bashaud Breeland
I'm throwing that "eventually" tag in there because the Chiefs will get back their Super Bowl star after a four-game suspension to start the season. They should then be set at cornerback with Breeland and Charvarius Ward on the outside, but that makes the often-inaccurate assumption that everything that went right for a Super Bowl winner will go right the following year.
Both Breeland and Ward were low-cost pickups for Kansas City and played well last season, but the 2017 Eagles are a recent example of a team that thrived during their Super Bowl season with cheap cornerbacks who played well and then failed to live up to those expectations over the ensuing seasons. The Chiefs are also going to be vulnerable for the first four weeks of the year and in the case that one of those two starters gets injured, with the likes of Rashad Fenton, rookie L'Jarius Sneedand special-teamer Antonio Hamilton as the next men up at cornerback. The good news is that they have a guy who can win a shootout with anybody on the other side of the field in Patrick Mahomes.
14. Buffalo Bills
Expected starter: Josh Allen
I could have also gone for cornerback here after Josh Norman injured his hamstring, but let's be realistic. The Bills have a Super Bowl-caliber roster if you ignore the quarterback position, owing to both star-level talent such asTre'Davious White and Stefon Diggs and staggering depth along the line of scrimmage. They might be preseason favorites to win the whole thing if they had drafted Lamar Jackson in the first round in 2018.
Sean McDermott & Co. instead drafted Allen, and while he made progress in his first full season as a starter, he's still not yet the sort of passer the Bills need to compete with the Ravens and Chiefs. The Bills were at their best last season when Allen was mostly staying out of the way and focusing on protecting the football at the expense of taking shots downfield.
Allen has still started only 27 career games, so while this is a critical year, it's hardly out of the question that he'll continue to improve. If he takes a step forward as a passer and continues to be one of the league's most effective rushing quarterbacks, the Bills should be able to win the AFC East and host a playoff game for the first time since 1996. If he drags an excellent defense down, he could become the next Mitchell Trubisky.
13. Tennessee Titans
Expected starter: Greg Joseph
The Titans would have been on this list with backup quarterback woes when they had onlyLogan Woodside and Cole McDonald behind the oft-injured Ryan Tannehill, but they upgraded last week by cutting McDonald and replacing him with former Broncos starter Trevor Siemian. Instead, I have to look toward special teams and Joseph, who is favored to win a battle with undrafted free agent Tucker McCann.
Joseph was on the Tennessee roster last season, although you would be forgiven if you don't recall the former Browns kicker lining up for this team. He attempted just one field goal in his five games with the Titans, thanks to Derrick Henry& Co. converting 11 of their 12 red zone trips into touchdowns over that time frame. Even Henry can't expect to be that effective in the red zone next year, which would mean more field goal attempts for a kicker with just 20 career attempts.
Tennessee could opt for somebody more familiar at the position after they chose to work out longtime Patriots kicker Stephen Gostkowski over the weekend, but even that would be a question mark. The 36-year-old missed four of his first 15 extra point attempts last season before undergoing season-ending hip surgery.
12. Seattle Seahawks
Achilles' heel:right tackle
Expected starter: Brandon Shell
This could be one of a number of spots along the offensive line, given that new center B.J. Finney hasn't impressed coaches during camp, while rookie third-rounder Damien Lewis is expected to start at right guard in Week 1. I'll go with tackle, where Seahawks fans would likely regard just about anybody as an upgrade on the oft-penalized Germain Ifedi. Shell won't be penalized as frequently, but he's not as effective of a run blocker as Ifedi and has allowed 16 sacks over the past three seasons, right in line with Ifedi's total of 19.
The Seahawks also have major concerns on the edge, but they at least have players with pedigrees there in former first-rounders Bruce Irvin and L.J. Collier. Shell was a below-average starter at right tackle for the Jets, and while Pete Carroll has raved about what Shell has done at camp, this is the same organization that once touted Luke Joeckel as a star guard. I'm skeptical Shell will be a plus tackle, but the good news for Seattle is that Russell Wilson can outrun a lot of mistakes.
Achilles' heel:right tackle
Expected starter: Zach Banner
The Steelers have been blessed with a mostly static line over the past decade, only occasionally having to swap out one starter at a time. By their standards, 2020 qualifies as chaos. With Ramon Foster retiring, the Steelers decided to move right tackle Matt Feiler to left guard, meaning they'll have new starters in two spots. Feiler was a competent tackle last season, but he's probably best served as a guard. Stefen Wisniewski, who some expected to start at guard, is expected to serve as a utility lineman.
What's left is a battle at right tackle between Banner and 2018 third-round pick Chukwuma "Chuks" Okorafor. Banner was the swing tackle a year ago, but he has never played even half of the offensive snaps in a single NFL game. Okorafor underwent labrum surgery in the spring of 2019 and never got back on track; the third-rounder was scratched for 15 of Pittsburgh's 16 games a year ago. Banner is the favorite, but this competition might not be settled for good by the end of camp.
While the Steelers have brought through players such asAlejandro Villanueva in the past, those moves came under the stewardship of offensive line coach Mike Munchak, who left for Denver before the 2019 season. Whoever wins the competition won't have it easy: over the first seven weeks of the season, the winner will go up against the likes of Von Miller, J.J. Wattand Myles Garrett while protecting a returning Ben Roethlisberger. No pressure.
Achilles' heel:inside linebacker
As loud as the clamor was for the Packers to add weapons for Aaron Rodgers this offseason, it wasn't a lack of receiving threats that kept Green Bay from making it to the Super Bowl a year ago. The defense lagged behind the offense all season, and the 49ers embarrassed Mike Pettine's group by running for 285 yards and four touchdowns in the NFC Championship Game.
General manager Brian Gutekunst might not have addressed receiver much this offseason, but he did try to solve his run defense woes. Out goes tackle machine Blake Martinez, whose average run takedown came 4.4 yards past the line of scrimmage, ranking 66th among linebackers per Football Outsiders. (After signing with the Giants, Martinez suggested his role with the Packers against the run was to make whatever the rest of the front did right with his fits, which seems a little haphazard for an NFL run defense.)
In comes oft-injured Browns linebacker Kirksey, who started his career under Pettine in Cleveland before missing 23 games over the past two years with injuries. A healthy Kirksey had the ability to attack the line of scrimmage and make tackles before running backs get downfield, but Martinez hasn't missed a game since 2016. Burks figures in as an early-down option when the Packers are in their base defense, but this is really on Kirksey to prove that his two-year, $16 million contract wouldn't have been better spent on a receiver.
Projected starter: Cameron Dantzler
The Vikings solved one of their problems Sunday by sending two draft picks to the Jaguars for edge rusher Yannick Ngakoue. The move gives Minnesota one of the best young edge-rushing combinations in football in Ngakoue and Danielle Hunter, although it might be for just one season. The trade also likely ends the Dalvin Cook contract negotiations, given that the Vikings no longer have the cap space to give a raise to their starting running back.
Adding pass-rushing help should alleviate some of the pressure on a rebuilding secondary. The Vikings let veterans Xavier Rhodes, Trae Waynesand Mackensie Alexander leave for other teams over the offseason, both to alleviate a strained cap and to move on from players who hadn't been impressive in 2018 or 2019. According toPro Football Reference, both Rhodes and Waynes allowed a passer rating north of 100 in coverage last season.
Minnesota will now start over with younger corners. Mike Hughes, a first-round pick in 2018, impressed as a rookie before tearing his ACL. Holton Hill was competent after missing eight games via suspension last year, while fellow undrafted free agent Kris Boyd should be in the mix as a reserve corner and special-teamer.
The other starting job is the one we're concerned about, because it involves a pair of rookies. First-rounder Jeff Gladney is coming off a meniscus tear and might not be 100% to start the season. Rookie cornerbacks typically struggle when they're healthy, let alone when they're dealing with an injury. Third-rounder Cameron Dantzler could begin the season as a starter. Coach Mike Zimmer has encouraged both the Vikings and Bengals (when he was there as a defensive coordinator) to load up on cornerbacks in the top two rounds and has a great track record of bringing them along, but he typically doesn't play them much as rookies. In 2020, he likely has no choice.
Speaking of the longtime Vikings starter, Rhodes signed a one-year, $3 million contract with Indy after being cut by Minnesota. The 30-year-old isn't the only change Indy has made in the secondary. Of the five defensive back starters who helped push Indianapolis into the postseason in 2018, only Malik Hooker and Kenny Moore are left, and the Colts declined Hooker's fifth-year option over the offseason.
Moore, who is recovering from a groin injury, will start in the slot. That leaves three starters for two outside spots in T.J. Carrie, Rhodes and Ya-Sin. Indy would obviously love for Ya-Sin, who it took with the 34th pick in the 2019 draft, to emerge as a starter and should give him every opportunity to do so. Carrie, who was solid in 2018 before struggling as Cleveland's slot corner in 2019, can play both inside and outside. He would make sense as a dime cornerback.
The bet the Colts are making on Rhodes comes down to scheme. When he was younger and a little more athletic, he was often used as a man-to-man corner, going up against the opposing team's No. 1 option. According to ESPN's automated coverage analysis, the Vikings used man coverage 59.6% of the time from 2016-18, which was tied for the fifth-highest rate in the league.
In 2019, with Rhodes and the rest of Minnesota's corners struggling, the Vikings dialed up zone coverage at a league-average rate. He realistically can't be an every-down man corner anymore, but he might still have the smarts and the athleticism to play in Indy's zone-heavy scheme. Over the past two years with coordinator Matt Eberflus, only the Chargers have used zone coverages more frequently than the Colts. If they're right, they might have found a starting-caliber cornerback on the cheap. If not, you can ask Vikings fans how many times they saw the back of Rhodes' jersey last season.
Projected starter: Andrew Sendejo
Safety already looked like a question mark for the Browns when they were planning on starting free-agent addition Karl Joseph and rookie second-round pick Grant Delpit. Now, with Delpit out for the year after rupturing his Achilles, it's a problem. Sendejo and Sheldrick Redwine, who played 373 snaps as a rookie fourth-rounder last season, are the first guys in line to take Delpit's spot.
New Browns coach Kevin Stefanski is familiar with Sendejo from their shared tenure in Minnesota together, but Sendejo is about to turn 33 and coming off a strange season. After joining the Eagles, he was cut in midseason to help lock up a fourth-round compensatory pick for the team. The Rice product then made his way back to the Vikings, where he saw snaps at slot cornerback in Week 17 and the postseason. (Corner was really a mess for the Vikings.)
This seems like a position the Browns might try to fill before the season begins. Earl Thomas could be a solution, but in thinking about Sendejo's role in Minnesota last year, one guy who comes to mind is Logan Ryan. He has traditionally been a slot cornerback, but amid a cold market this offseason, the former Patriots and Titans starter has talked about moving to safety. I'm not sure the time to make that move is two weeks before the season begins, but the Browns could be desperate.
Projected starter: DeShon Elliott
Earl Thomas' former team, of course, suddenly has a hole at free safety. The Ravens would have let things slide and wouldn't have cut Thomas if they thought his production was irreplaceable, but on a team that blitzes as frequently as they do, having a reliable last link of defense is absolutely critical. Baltimore is arguably the league's deepest team at cornerback, and there was some talk of movingJimmy Smith to safety, but you're not going to take a cornerback and turn him into even a lesser version of a Hall of Fame safety.
Few teams are as confident in their ability to draft and develop talent as the Ravens, so maybe it shouldn't be a surprise that their plan would be to find a solution from within. Elliott is a 2018 sixth-round pick who has played just 40 defensive snaps over two seasons, owing to a fractured forearm and a knee injury. Baltimore has seen more of Elliott in practice than we have, but he didn't have a significant pedigree coming out of college, doesn't have much pro experience and has two season-ending injuries in as many seasons. Keeping Thomas was a risk, but relying on the unheralded Elliott is one, too.
Achilles' heel:middle linebacker
Projected starter: Micah Kiser
Over the past four years, the Rams helped mold Cory Littleton from an undrafted free agent into one of the best inside linebackers in football. Now, with Littleton leaving for Las Vegas in free agency, they're starting over at linebacker. The Rams essentially let him go without signing a meaningful replacement, perhaps hoping to get by in the middle by relying on a stout defensive line and a young, talented secondary.
Somebody has to line up and make tackles, though, and Kiser is likely first in line for the job. The 2018 fifth-rounder missed all of last season with a torn pectoral muscle and still hasn't played a single defensive snap as a pro. Travin Howard is also in the discussion, although he's missing time with a knee injury. The Rams could also call upon Kenny Young, who might be better known as the player they received while being swindled for Marcus Petersin the trade with the Ravens last year. If this doesn't sound ideal in a division with the run-heavy attacks of the 49ers and Seahawks, well, it isn't.
Projected starter: Gareon Conley
After re-signing Bradley Roby to a three-year deal, we know the Texans will line up the former Broncos standout at one cornerback spot. Everything else is up in the air and might change from week to week, if not series to series. The organization would likely hope that 2019 second-rounder Lonnie Johnson Jr., last seen chasing Travis Kelce up and down the field in the AFC divisional round, does enough to start in his sophomore season.
The other job at corner should belong to Conley, who was acquired for a third-round pick after a disastrous game against the Packers sealed his fate with Jon Gruden and the Raiders. He improved after joining the Texans, although it wasn't enough for Bill O'Brien to pick up the corner's fifth-year option. Conley underwent offseason ankle surgery, but with players such asVernon Hargreaves and Keion Crossen behind him, the Texans badly need him to step up and impress in a contract year. Hargreaves has been barely playable for most of his pro career, so if he's forced into action, O'Brien might again find himself looking to the trade market for help.
Projected starter: Buster Skrine
In 2018, the Bears had the most fearsome secondary in football. In 2019? Not so much. Adrian Amos and Bryce Callahan left town, but even the stars of 2018 took a step backward. Eddie Jackson's tackling was inconsistent, and the ball hawk intercepted only two passes after taking away six the prior year. Kyle Fuller went from seven picks to three, and his passer rating allowed jumped from 63.7 in 2018 to 102.0 in 2019. No cornerback last season allowed more than Fuller's 942 yards.
I would expect Fuller to allow fewer yards in 2020, in part because teams won't throw at him as frequently. The Bears cut Prince Amukamarathis offseason and tried to replace him with former Steelers first-rounder Artie Burns, only for the corner to tear his ACL in August. The Bears used a second-round pick on Utah product Jaylon Johnson, but he has been limited after returning from shoulder surgery. The likely Week 1 starter is Skrine, who was the slot corner a year ago and might be stretched on the boundary. Little-used LSU product Kevin Toliver would be next up. The Bears will need Johnson to play like a veteran when he does get on the field to avoid a barrage of targets to the left side.
Achilles' heel:right tackle
Projected starter: Jermaine Eluemunor
No team was hit harder by opt-outs than the Patriots. In addition to losing veterans Dont'a Hightower and Patrick Chung on defense, they will be without another longtime contributor in right tackle Marcus Cannon this season. Bill Belichick also lost legendary offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia, who retired for the second time in seven years.
With little depth at tackle and a pair of stout guards in Joe Thuney and Shaq Mason, it appears New England could hand the right tackle job to an interior lineman. Belichick traded last year a fourth-round pick to the Ravens for Eluemunor and a sixth-round selection, but the Texas A&M product played only 29 offensive snaps. Belichick doubled down by tendering the restricted free agent a one-year, $2.1-million deal. Korey Cunningham and Yodny Cajuste would figure as the replacements if Eluemunor struggles. This is a major situation to watch, especially given the fragility of new Patriots quarterback Cam Newton.
Achilles' heel:left tackle
Projected starter: Sam Tevi
We finish up with another offensive lineman. The Chargers traded awayRussell Okungfor Trai Turner, which got them a better, younger player while opening up a hole at a more important position. They then signed Bryan Bulaga, but the former Packers tackle is expected to stay on the right side. By default, the Chargers seem set to move Tevi, last year's right tackle, to the blind side.
According to ESPN's pass-block win rate analysis, Tevi succeeded on 82% of his pass-blocking attempts last season, which ranked 158th out of 171 linemen. Football Outsiders assigned him blame for seven sacks. Now, he's moving to what is regarded as a tougher spot on the line (although I would argue the difference between left and right tackle means less than it has before). In addition to blocking for Tyrod Taylor as the Chargers try to ride a Ravens-esque formula to the playoffs, it means Tevi will be the first line of defense once sixth overall pick Justin Herbert takes over as the starter. Los Angeles drafted Herbert and then sent two picks to the Patriots to move up to draft linebacker Kenneth Murray. My suspicion is their first task in next year's draft will be finding Herbert a left tackle.