Six months from now, all but one of the NFL teams listed below will be watching one lucky franchise hoist the Lombardi Trophy, wishing that their fatal flaw had not come back to bite them when it mattered most.
For some teams, it’s obvious. For others, it’s mere speculation. That’s why I’m here to identify exactly what that flaw will be for each NFL team.
JUMP TO A TEAM:
ARIZONA CARDINALS: Outside Cornerbacks
After the Cardinals let Patrick Peterson walk in free agency, they’ve pinned their hopes at the outside corner position on a guy who hasn’t played since 2018 and a 31-year-old who only garnered a one-year, $3.25 million deal on the open market. Obviously, the organization can mask some of that with an improved pass-rush thanks to the addition of J.J. Watt, but it will be for naught if Chandler Jones sticks to his trade request.
ATLANTA FALCONS: Defensive Holes
The Falcons have so many middling veteran starters on defense that it’s difficult to see a massive turnaround on that side of the ball any time soon. The biggest worry comes in the secondary, where AJ Terrell and Fabian Moreau are listed as starting corners while Erik Harris and Duron Harmon are starters at safety. The Falcons front office can expect some improvement from former first-rounder Terrell in Year 2, the rest of those guys have been in the league long enough for Terry Fontenot & Co. to know they aren’t high-impact starters.
BALTIMORE RAVENS: Same Passing Attack
Lay blame wherever you see fit, but there’s no denying that the Ravens' passing attack has come up woefully short in the playoffs the past three seasons. Lamar Jackson earned a 58.2 passing grade in those four games and averaged 209.75 passing yards per game. The Ravens, as a team, have averaged only 13 points per contest.
Now they’re running it back with offensive coordinator Greg Roman once again in the hope that rookie receiver Rashod Bateman — who is out six to eight weeks after straining a core muscle — will emerge as the savior.
BUFFALO BILLS: No Answer for Tyreek Hill
The Bills' complete inability to account for Hill proved to be the nail in the coffin for the Bills' Super Bowl hopes last year. The Chiefs receiver went for 172 yards on nine catches as he flipped the field multiple times. While I’m not one to overreact to one game, the second cornerback spot in Buffalo had been an issue for a while. Now, they are heading into 2021 with the status quo at corner, hoping the results will be different.
CAROLINA PANTHERS: Sam Darnold behind a familiar line
The Panthers desperately needed former second-rounder Greg Little to take the next step in Year 3, but that never came to fruition, as he was recently shipped off to the Dolphins for a seventh-round pick. That means Darnold has Cam Erving and Pat Elflein protecting his blindside. Forget about seeing ghosts — Darnold has to hope he won’t be seeing stars.
CHICAGO BEARS: Offensive line Woes
The Bears parted ways with both of their 2020 starting tackles this offseason and are now left scrambling after second-rounder Teven Jenkins’ reported back surgery — so much so that they signed 39-year-old Jason Peters, who is coming off the lowest-graded season of his career at 67.6. So, maybe it is actually best to let Justin Fields sit a while.
CINCINNATI BENGALS: Unproven Staff
In an offseason that featured a good deal of coaching turnover, the Bengals stayed status quo at their head coach and coordinator positions. Quite frankly, there’s not much from their first two years to suggest Zac Taylor, Brian Callahan and Lou Anorumo will turn things around. In the past two years, neither the offense nor the defense has finished above 26th in expected points added (EPA) per play.
CLEVELAND BROWNS: Which Baker are you getting?
Baker Mayfield’s career defies the natural order of progression we’ve come to expect. While we often think of a player’s skill level as a Madden rating that slowly builds over time, Mayfield’s “grade” progression is closer to a yo-yo. With one of the best rosters in the NFL, the Browns can’t afford the Mayfield who earned a 72.4 passing grade in 2019 or the one that put up a 57.4 passing grade through six games last year.
DALLAS COWBOYS: Unproven Defense
Outside of Demarcus Lawrence, who is currently on the PUP list, there’s not a single Cowboys defender you can point to and say with any level of certainty that they will be a quality starter in 2021. That’s a scary proposition. While they’re very likely to improve from a season ago, that’s a low bar. They’ll need to improve by leaps and bounds to field a Super Bowl-caliber defense.
DENVER BRONCOS: QB Competition
While we’ve seen seven years of Teddy Bridgewater in the league to know what he is, Drew Lock heading into Year 3 is still an unknown. The problem is just how far Lock has to go to realistically challenge for a Super Bowl in the AFC. After earning a 63.4 passing grade in 2020, it would take an unprecedented leap to get them into serious contender status.
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DETROIT LIONS: Who is Goff throwing to?
On paper, the Lions have the worst group of wide receivers in the NFL. Hockenson better have a big year because Breshad Perriman, Tyrell Williams, Quintez Cephus and Amon-Ra St. Brown aren’t striking a ton of fear into defensive coordinators.
GREEN BAY PACKERS: The Depleted offensive line
Lost in Green Bay’s success last season was the fact that their offensive line was a top-five unit in the NFL. They put up the second-highest pass-blocking grade behind only the Browns. Now, they look like they’ll start 2021 without their starting left tackle, center and right tackle from last season.
HOUSTON TEXANS: Where to Start
There is no need to kick Texans fans while they’re down. Let’s move on.
INDIANAPOLIS COLTS: Wentz’s health
This one is self-explanatory. Carson Wentz is already expected to miss the early part of the season after foot surgery. Add that to the list of injuries that have built up throughout his career and made many wonder whether he’ll ever be the same guy who was competing for an MVP back in 2017. Wentz was a shell of his former self last season, earning a 60.0 passing grade before being relegated to the bench.
JACKSONVILLE JAGUARS: Rookies
The Jaguars are not only starting a rookie at the most important position on the football field, but they also have one at head coach. There are a lot of reasons to be excited on both sides of the ball but expect some growing pains.
KANSAS CITY CHIEFS: Edge Rush
The Chiefs fielded the lowest-graded edge unit of any team in the NFL last season. In the Super Bowl, Kansas City pressured Tom Brady on only four of his 30 dropbacks. The only addition over the offseason was fourth-rounder Joshua Kaindoh.
Knowing it’s an issue, they’ve used Chris Jones more on the outside early in camp, and it remains to be seen whether he can stay effective there.
LAS VEGAS RAIDERS: Defensive Playmakers
Ever since the Khalil Mack trade, the Raiders have decidedly been missing “that guy” on the defensive side of the ball. Since then, they haven’t had a defender — even in a part-time role — earn higher than a 77.9 overall grade. That has to change to compete in the AFC West.
LOS ANGELES CHARGERS: Health
This one might be a cop-out, but every Chargers fan knows the pain — injuries have routinely decimated the franchise over the past decade.
While their offensive line looks fixed on paper, they have rarely been able to stay healthy throughout a season. Blue-chip-type defensive talents in Jason Verrett and Derwin James got the early parts of their careers sidetracked with injuries, as well. Expectations should admittedly be high for this roster, but that’s become a yearly ritual for the Chargers at this point.
LOS ANGELES RAMS: The Top-Heavy Defense
The Rams, arguably more so than any other roster in the NFL, rely on their blue-chip talent to carry them on the defensive side of the ball. The Rams owned the league’s top-scoring defense in 2020, but it’s not because they were a particularly deep unit. Instead, Aaron Donald was a pass-rush on his own while Jalen Ramsey shut down his side of the field play after play. That leaves them susceptible to the dreaded “I-word” in a way more complete defenses simply aren’t.
MIAMI DOLPHINS: Unproven offensive line
Four of the Dolphins' five starting offensive linemen are within three years of entering the league. None of the starting five have earned a grade higher than 65.8 overall for a season. That’s a lot of question marks to have blocking for your second-year quarterback.
MINNESOTA VIKINGS: Big-Game Kirk
While the piling on can get a little unfair at times, the fact remains that Kirk Cousins is 7-35 against teams that have finished with a winning record in his career. He’s earned a 59.9 passing grade on 133 postseason dropbacks. He simply has not been the guy to rise to the occasion. With a questionable offensive line still in front of him, will that change in 2021?
NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS: Explosive Plays
The Patriots' offense struggled to find any kind of explosive element in 2020. While they added a ton of new faces offensively, only Nelson Agholor ran faster than a 4.6-second 40 coming out of college. While they’ll likely be zigging with two tight end sets as their base offense while the rest of the league zags with spread attacks, it remains to be seen how that will generate big plays.
NEW ORLEANS SAINTS: If you have two quarterbacks…
The Saints have a choice on their hands between one of the most turnover-prone quarterbacks in the NFL or one of the league's least accurate downfield passers. While the rest of the roster remains largely intact, and I trust Sean Payton to get the most out of each quarterback, there doesn’t seem to be a right answer between the two.
NEW YORK GIANTS: Turnovers
This one is not only Daniel Jones but also the offensive line. Jones has thrown 22 picks in 27 career games and led the NFL in fumbles each of the past two seasons (29 total). Of course, it didn’t help Jones’ cause that he was playing behind the lowest-graded pass protection in the NFL last year. With Nate Solder‘s return being the only true offensive line addition, the Giants' youngsters up front better figure it out quickly, or turnovers are likely to be an issue once again.
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NEW YORK JETS: Youth
The Jets are not only one of the youngest teams in the NFL, but that youth also comes at key positions. Their passing game and pass defense are almost entirely reliant on players within their first few years, with Zach Wilson being a rookie and third-year Blessuan Austin being their most experienced starting cornerback. That’s a tough combination to compete for a Super Bowl with.
PHILADELPHIA EAGLES: Hurts Too Far Away
While Jalen Hurts did some nice things as a runner in his first action as a starter last year, he was not close to NFL-ready as a passer. He had more turnover-worthy plays (nine) than big-time throws (seven) and finished dead last in adjusted completion percentage (65.1%). He’ll have to make an unprecedented leap in Year 2 for the Eagles to compete for a Super Bowl.
PITTSBURGH STEELERS: Offensive line Reshuffle
Big Ben was already in survival mode to a degree last year, recording the quickest time to throw of any starter in the NFL (2.14 seconds). Now, he’s lost his starting left tackle, center and right guard from a season ago and replaced them with Chukwuma Okorafor switching sides, a third-rounder in Kendrick Green and the second-lowest graded guard last year in Trai Turner. That doesn’t inspire too much confidence.
SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS: Injuries
There’s no sugar coating it, the 49ers are relying on multiple key starters who have earned the “injury-prone” label in their careers. Whether it’s Jimmy Garoppolo, Nick Bosa, Jason Verrett or Trent Williams — the 49ers can’t afford to lose those guys and still compete for a championship.
SEATTLE SEAHAWKS: Replacing Shaquill Griffin with…
Seattle’s pass defense ranked 20th in EPA allowed per play last year with Shaquill Griffin. Now that they’ve lost their highest-graded cornerback and replaced him with Ahkello Witherspoon, things could get even worse in Seattle.
TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS: Tom vs. Time
The truth is that Tampa owns the league’s most complete starting lineup. There’s not a “fatal flaw” on paper. But what could truly derail this team from repeating is 44-year-old Tom Brady not recovering from an injury the way a younger player would.
If you think back, Peyton Manning was still putting up numbers until he tore his quad. Brett Favre was on the brink of a Super Bowl before he separated his shoulder the next year. Brady has avoided those to stay on top of his game, but the body in the 40s doesn’t heal like the body in the 20s.
TENNESSEE TITANS: Can Tannehill rise to the occasion?
Ryan Tannehill has been a revelation for the Titans over the past two seasons. He’s been just what the doctor ordered in the team's run- and play-action-heavy attack. He’s also still struggled when forced to create on his own. In the Titans' four playoff games the past two years, Tannehill has averaged only 133.5 passing yards a game and earned a 63.8 passing grade. While they have the horses on the outside to get it done with A.J. Brown and Julio Jones, Tannehill has to show he can go toe-to-toe with the elite quarterbacks in the AFC first.
WASHINGTON FOOTBALL TEAM: Fitzmagic
While I love to watch Ryan Fitzpatrick play the game of football, the fact of the matter is that he’s never made the playoffs in his career and has only had two winning seasons. In a quarterback-driven league, he’s not close to the upper echelon in the NFC.