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Projecting all 32 starting lineups for the 2020 NFL season

My first attempt at this exercise came back in May, but a lot has happened since then. With the deadline for players opting out in the rearview mirror and information trickling in from training camps across the NFL, it’s time to give it another shot now that the 2020 season opener just a few weeks away. 

One important thing to point out before I get started — base defenses are not “base” anymore. The average NFL team ran just 27% of their defensive plays in base personnel last season, with nickel and dime packages quickly becoming the prevalent look. With that in mind, I’m listing 12 defenders in each of these starting lineups to include five — or six in some cases — defensive backs who figure to see significant playing time next season. 

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AFC East

New England Patriots

Offense

QB: Cam Newton

RB: Damien Harris

WR: Mohamed Sanu

WR: N’Keal Harry

Slot: Julian Edelman

TE: Devin Asiasi

LT: Isaiah Wynn

LG: Joe Thuney

C: David Andrews

RG: Shaq Mason

RT: Yodny Cajuste

Defense

DI: Lawrence Guy

DI: Adam Butler

EDGE: John Simon

EDGE: Chase Winovich

LB: Ja’Whaun Bentley

LB: Josh Uche

CB: Stephon Gilmore

CB: Jason McCourty

CB: J.C. Jackson

CB: Jonathan Jones

S: Kyle Dugger

S: Devin McCourty

Starting spot up in the air: S Kyle Dugger

The trade of Duron Harmon and Patrick Chung’s decision to opt out have left the Patriots injected uncertainty into what is otherwise a loaded secondary. The starting safety position opposite Devin McCourty will come down to a competition for snaps between the Lenoir-Rhyne rookie Dugger, former Los Angeles Chargers’ safety Adrian Phillips and the only returning Patriot of the group — Terrence Brooks

Per CLNS Media’s Evan Lazar, Dugger has had an impressive start to camp, putting his versatility and athleticism to use well in Bill Belichick’s defense early. As PFF’s Eric Eager wrote prior to the NFL Draft, Dugger brought uncertainty as a fifth-year senior out of a Division II school but had measurables that were worth taking a chance on. The Patriots did just that in the second round, and now, they may opt to let him play through any growing pains while taking the splash plays an aggressive freak-of-nature athlete like himself can provide in the middle of the field. He was listed as the best box safety in the class by PFF’s lead draft analyst Mike Renner in our 2020 NFL Draft Guide

Phillips is easily the most experienced of the group and should push Dugger at the very least, as should Brooks. It’s a position to monitor as the season nears, and given some of New England's turnover this offseason, it’s not the only one. 

Buffalo Bills

Offense

QB: Josh Allen

RB: Devin Singletary

WR: Stefon Diggs

WR: John Brown

Slot: Cole Beasley

TE: Dawson Knox

LT: Dion Dawkins

LG: Quinton Spain

C: Mitch Morse

RG: Cody Ford

RT: Daryl Williams

Defense

DI: Ed Oliver

DI: Vernon Butler

EDGE: Jerry Hughes

EDGE: Mario Addison

LB: Matt Milano

LB: Tremaine Edmunds

LB: A.J. Klein

CB: Tre’Davious White

CB: Josh Norman

CB: Taron Johnson

S: Jordan Poyer

S: Micah Hyde

Starting spot up in the air: CB Josh Norman

Norman may be penciled in as the starter at the moment, but Levi Wallace isn’t going quietly into the night. According to Joe Buscaglia and Matthew Fairburn of The Athletic, “Wallace returned from injury on Tuesday and immediately showed off his competitiveness, instincts and new physique.” The piece notes that the competition with Norman is far from over — and for good reason. Wallace has played well in his first two NFL seasons as an undrafted free agent out of Alabama. His 78.0 PFF coverage grade over those two seasons ranks tied for 17th among the 102 cornerbacks with 500 or more coverage snaps since 2018. 

Norman, on the other hand, is coming off a disastrous 2019 season in which he produced just a 43.4 coverage grade and allowed a league-worst 133.3 passer rating on 46 targets into his coverage. Optimistic projections for Norman in 2020 center on the fact that he reunites with Sean McDermott, who he had a lot of success with in Carolina. If he doesn’t bounce back from what we saw in 2019, though, the leash may be short with a player such as Wallace waiting in the wings.  

New York Jets

Offense

QB: Sam Darnold

RB: Le’Veon Bell

WR: Breshad Perriman

WR: Denzel Mims

Slot: Jamison Crowder

TE: Chris Herndon

LT: Mekhi Becton

LG: Alex Lewis

C: Connor McGovern

RG: Greg Van Roten

RT: George Fant

Defense

DI: Quinnen Williams

DI: Steve McLendon

DI: Henry Anderson

EDGE: Jordan Jenkins

EDGE: Tarell Basham

LB: Avery Williamson

LB: Neville Hewitt

CB: Pierre Desir

CB: Blessuan Austin

CB: Brian Poole

S: Bradley McDougald

S: Marcus Maye

Starting spot up in the air: LB Avery Williamson

This really comes down to health for Williamson. He is comfortably the team’s best off-ball linebacker when healthy, coming off PFF grades of 80.2 in 2017 with the Tennessee Titans and 72.8 in his first season with the Jets in 2018. The issue is that Williamson is still on the PUP list after missing the entire 2019 season with a torn ACL he suffered in the preseason. With C.J. Mosley opting out, the Jets would surely like to have Williamson ready to go by Week 1. 

If he isn’t on the field to start the season, though, Charles McDonald of the New York Daily News wrote last week that Neville Hewitt and Blake Cashman have the inside track to claim the team’s two starting inside linebacker spots. Connor Hughes of The Athletic recently noted that Williamson would be the team’s starting Mike linebacker if healthy, but the Jets could use a rotation next to him at Will linebacker. It's clear there is a lot of uncertainty at the position right now. 

Once Williamson returns, Hewitt, Cashman, James Burgess and Patrick Onwuasor all figure to be competing for reps at the Will spot. I picked Hewitt given the likelihood he plays more snaps next season with his additional experience at Mike in 2019, but Cashman is a name to watch, as well. He earned just a 49.1 PFF grade on 424 snaps as a fifth-round rookie out of Minnesota last season, but the Jets’ staff seems high on him. He has one of the more impressive athletic profiles at the position.

Miami Dolphins

Offense

QB: Ryan Fitzpatrick

RB: Jordan Howard

WR: DeVante Parker

WR: Preston Williams

Slot: Jakeem Grant

TE: Mike Gesicki

LT: Austin Jackson

LG: Ereck Flowers

C: Ted Karras

RG: Robert Hunt

RT: Jesse Davis

Defense

DI: Christian Wilkins

DI: Davon Godchaux

EDGE: Shaq Lawson

EDGE: Emmanuel Ogbah

LB/EDGE: Kyle Van Noy

LB: Jerome Baker

LB: Raekwon McMillan

CB: Xavien Howard

CB: Byron Jones

CB: Noah Igbinoghene

S: Bobby McCain

S: Eric Rowe

Starting spot up in the air: WR Jakeem Grant

The decisions to opt-out of the 2020 NFL season by Albert Wilson and Allen Hurns cracked open the battle for Miami’s starting slot wide receiver. Tight end Mike Gesicki figures to spend plenty of time there himself after running a position-high 461 routes from the slot in 2019, but when Miami goes with three wide receivers, there are still questions as to who will see the most time in that third spot. 

Currently, Grant is the favorite to slot in as one of the team’s top three wide receivers with DeVante Parker and Preston Williams, per Charles Trainor Jr. of the Miami Herald. He has been primarily a return man for the Dolphins to this point in his career, but Grant's speed can cause defenses problems inside.

Isaiah Ford will likely push Grant hardest for that job. Ford saw significant action over the final four weeks of this past season and caught 21 passes for 235 yards in those four contests — earning a respectable 68.9 PFF grade in the process. He has also reportedly shown some nice rapport with Ryan Fitzpatrick early in training camp.  

NFC East

Oct 27, 2019; Orchard Park, NY, USA; Philadelphia Eagles linebacker T.J. Edwards (57) warms up prior to a game against the Buffalo Bills at New Era Field. Credit: Mark Konezny-USA TODAY Sports

Philadelphia Eagles

Offense

QB: Carson Wentz

RB: Miles Sanders

WR: Jalen Reagor

WR: DeSean Jackson

TE: Zach Ertz

TE: Dallas Goedert

LT: Andre Dillard

LG: Isaac Seumalo

C: Jason Kelce

RG: Jason Peters

RT: Lane Johnson

Defense

DI: Fletcher Cox

DI: Javon Hargrave

EDGE: Brandon Graham

EDGE: Derek Barnett

LB: Nate Gerry

LB: T.J. Edwards

CB: Darius Slay

CB: Avonte Maddox

CB: Nickell Robey-Coleman

S: Will Parks

S: Jalen Mills

S: Rodney McLeod

STARTING SPOT UP IN THE AIR: LB T.J. EDWARDS

Not many would argue with the assessment that the linebacker position is the Eagle's thinnest group. Even though Will Parks is the third safety on the depth chart, his versatility and experience should put him on the field a fair amount. Nate Gerry figures to be atop the linebacker depth chart after playing 669 defensive snaps in 2019 (second on the team to Nigel Bradham) and earning a 62.2 PFF grade. That one year isn’t exactly a wealth of experience, but it does lead the way at the position. 

Edwards is the presumed starter next to Gerry, and his grading profile — both in the collegiate ranks and in limited action as a rookie last season — suggests that it’s worth seeing what he can do as a starter. Edwards put up a 90.0-plus overall grade in each of his final two seasons with the Wisconsin Badgers, but poor testing at the NFL scouting combine resulted in a slip into undrafted territory. He worked past some of those athletic limitations as a rookie with an 83.4 PFF grade on just over 100 defensive snaps. 

Duke Riley should be Edwards’ primary challenger for snaps next to Gerry when the Eagles are in a nickel (or “base”) defense. It’s Riley’s second year in Philadelphia after spending the first two seasons of his NFL career with the Atlanta Falcons. Most of his action came on special teams, but he did play 200-plus snaps at linebacker in each of 2017 and 2018, earning PFF grades of 54.5 and 41.4 respectively. Don’t count out Temple rookie Shaun Bradley in the competition, either. The Athletic’s Zach Berman reported that he would expect Bradley to get playing time over third-round rookie Davion Taylor

Dallas Cowboys

Offense

QB: Dak Prescott

RB: Ezekiel Elliott

WR: Amari Cooper

WR: Michael Gallup

WR: CeeDee Lamb

TE: Blake Jarwin

LT: Tyron Smith

LG: Connor McGovern

C: Joe Looney

RG: Zack Martin

RT: La’el Collins

Defense

DI: Tyrone Crawford

DI: Dontari Poe

EDGE: Demarcus Lawrence

EDGE: Everson Griffen

LB: Jaylon Smith

LB: Leighton Vander Esch

LB: Sean Lee

CB: Chidobe Awuzie

CB: Trevon Diggs

CB: Jourdan Lewis

S: Xavier Woods

S: Ha Ha Clinton-Dix

Starting spot up in the air: LG Connor McGovern

With the retirement of Travis Frederick — one of the league’s best centers — two of the three spots on the Cowboys’ interior offensive line are in flux. Zack Martin is one of the best interior offensive linemen in all of football at right guard, but there will be battles at left guard and center for Dallas throughout training camp in the lead up to the 2020 NFL season. 

Connor Williams has manned the left guard spot in Dallas for much of the past two seasons, but ESPN’s Todd Archer reported that Dallas’ 2019 third-round pick (McGovern) worked exclusively at left guard through the first four practices. After McGovern missed his rookie season due to injury, many expected him to compete for Frederick’s former spot at center, so the fact that he has played at only left guard and seen some first-team reps seems noteworthy. Williams has been a weak link in the Cowboys’ offensive line over the past two years, earning PFF grades of 59.1 and 60.9, but he still brings experience. In a shortened offseason, that serves as a significant threat to McGovern’s aspirations of starting the season at left guard. 

New York Giants

Offense

QB: Daniel Jones

RB: Saquon Barkley

WR: Sterling Shepard

WR: Darius Slayton

Slot: Golden Tate

TE: Evan Engram

LT: Andrew Thomas

LG: Will Hernandez

C: Nick Gates

RG: Kevin Zeitler

RT: Cameron Fleming

Defense

DI: Leonard Williams

DI: Dalvin Tomlinson

DI: Dexter Lawrence

EDGE: Kyler Fackrell

EDGE: Markus Golden

LB: Blake Martinez

LB: David Mayo

CB: James Bradberry

CB: Corey Ballentine

CB/S: Julian Love

S: Jabrill Peppers

S: Xavier McKinney

Starting spot up in the air: RT Cameron Fleming

Nate Solder may be at the receiving end of his fair share of criticism from Giants’ fans for his play and the compensation he’s receiving for it, but it’s hard to argue that New York's offensive line gets better with him opting out of the 2020 season. Now, what was once a question as to whether Andrew Thomas plays left tackle becomes a given, and there will be a battle to fill the second starting spot at right tackle. 

The three main competitors figure to be Nick Gates, rookie Matt Peart and Fleming. Gates manned that right tackle spot for portions of last season and is a player who Giants’ fans are excited about. It appears he may be the front-runner for the center position at this point, however. Per The Athletic’s Dan Duggan, “Nick Gates has looked comfortable in his transition to center. The center competition remains open, but the 24-year old Gates has higher upside.”

That leaves Peart and Fleming to compete at right tackle. I gave the nod to Fleming primarily because of the experience he brings to the table, having spent time with the Dallas Cowboys and New England Patriots. Peart was strong in pass protection across multiple seasons as a starter in college, earning PFF pass-blocking grades of 75.0 or higher in four consecutive years. There’s a lot of things to like for him developmentally, but until he adds to his play strength, things could get ugly if he's forced into early action. He should still factor into the competition, though. Fleming has turned in PFF grades below 60.0 in limited action with Dallas each of the past two seasons. 

Washington Football Team

Offense

QB: Dwayne Haskins

RB: Adrian Peterson

WR: Terry McLaurin

WR: Dontrelle Inman

Slot: Steven Sims

TE: Logan Thomas

LT: Cornelius Lucas

LG: Wes Schweitzer

C: Chase Roullier

RG: Brandon Scherff

RT: Morgan Moses

Defense

DI: Jonathan Allen

DI: Daron Payne

EDGE: Chase Young

EDGE: Montez Sweat

LB: Reuben Foster

LB: Cole Holcomb

LB: Thomas Davis Sr.

CB: Ronald Darby

CB: Fabian Moreau

CB: Kendall Fuller

S: Landon Collins

S: Sean Davis

Starting spot up in the air: All of the linebackers

There may be no linebacking corps in the NFL less settled at this moment than that of Washington’s. Thomas Davis, Cole Holcomb, Reuben Foster, Jon Bostic, Ryan Anderson, Shaun Dion Hamilton, Kevin Pierre-Louis — it wouldn’t be all that surprising to see any of these players get significant playing time as it currently stands.

If Foster is truly healthy and looks anything like he did as a rookie in 2017 — a season in which he earned an 81.2 PFF grade — then he should be one of the team’s three starters in the transition to a 4-3 base defense under head coach Ron Rivera and defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio. Foster has been removed from the PUP list, and all indications are that he’s looking more and more comfortable on the field, per The Athletic’s Rhiannon Walker. Bostic is the incumbent middle linebacker or “Mike” on this team, but I think that it’s ultimately Foster’s job if he shows he can take it.  

Holcomb should also factor heavily into the battle for snaps after playing more than 700 defensive snaps at linebacker on Washington’s defense last season as a fifth-round rookie. His instincts weren’t always there, putting himself in compromising positions at times, but Holcomb has the athleticism that you want and produced a respectable 71.3 run-defense grade in his first season.

Lastly, Davis has a lot of familiarity with Rivera from his time spent with the Carolina Panthers next to Luke Kuechly, and it’s hard to imagine he doesn’t play a role in this defense in 2020. He may not quite be the same player he once was now at 37 years old, but he still turned in a 61.7 PFF grade on more than 800 snaps last season with the Los Angeles Chargers (41st out of 91 qualifying linebackers). 

Shaun Dion Hamilton is one player to watch who I didn't list as a starter. He looked great in coverage this past season (89.7 coverage grade) and has continued that excellence in training camp. He could make some noise this season.  

AFC South

Jan 12, 2020; Kansas City, Missouri, USA; Houston Texans tight end Darren Fells (87) is congratulated by tackle Max Scharping (74) after scoring a touchdown against the Kansas City Chiefs during the first half in a AFC Divisional Round playoff football game at Arrowhead Stadium. Credit: Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

Houston Texans

Offense

QB: Deshaun Watson

RB: David Johnson

WR: Brandin Cooks

WR: Will Fuller V

Slot: Randall Cobb

TE: Darren Fells

LT: Laremy Tunsil

LG: Max Scharping

C: Nick Martin

RG: Zach Fulton

RT: Tytus Howard

Defense

DI: Ross Blacklock

DI: Brandon Dunn

DI: Charles Omenihu

EDGE: J.J. Watt

EDGE: Whitney Mercilus

LB: Zach Cunningham

LB: Benardrick McKinney

CB: Bradley Roby

CB: Gareon Conley

CB: John Reid

S: Justin Reid

S: Eric Murray

Starting spot up in the air: TE Darren Fells

Fells is coming off a career year with 34 receptions for 341 yards and seven touchdowns while splitting receiving duties with Jordan Akins, so he gets the nod as the incumbent starter here. It wasn’t exactly a dominant showing, though, and the Texans do have several younger players who should push Fells for playing time early on. 

Along with Akins, Jordan Thomas and Kahale Warring are back from injury. Both profile as players who can produce more as receivers than either Fells or Akins has to this point. As a rookie in 2018, Thomas earned a 72.5 receiving grade on limited opportunities (23 targets), and he has some speed for a bigger guy. Realistically, he has the best chance to push Fells and Akins for playing time.  

Warring profiles even better than Thomas does athletically, but there are just a lot of unknowns with the San Diego State product after he missed his entire rookie season on injured reserve. Per The Athletic’s Aaron Reiss, head coach Bill O’Brien has indicated that Warring still faces a steep learning curve. The oft-used “potential” tag applies to Warring, but it comes down to whether he can show enough on the field in the coming weeks to warrant regular-season opportunities. 

Tennessee Titans

Offense

QB: Ryan Tannehill

RB: Derrick Henry

WR: A.J. Brown

WR: Corey Davis

Slot: Adam Humphries

TE: Jonnu Smith

LT: Taylor Lewan

LG: Rodger Saffold

C: Ben Jones

RG: Nate Davis

RT: Dennis Kelly

Defense

DI: Jeffery Simmons

DI: DaQuan Jones

DI: Larrell Murchison

EDGE: Harold Landry III

EDGE: Vic Beasley Jr.

LB: Rashaan Evans

LB: Jayon Brown

CB: Adoree’ Jackson

CB: Malcolm Butler

CB: Kristian Fulton

S: Kevin Byard

S: Kenny Vaccaro

Starting spot up in the air: DI Larrell Murchison

Long-time defensive stalwart Jurrell Casey is out in Tennessee, making second-year player Jeffery Simmons the centerpiece of the Titans’ defensive line. Casey’s departure also opens up opportunities for several younger players to start alongside Simmons and DaQuan Jones in Tennessee’s base defense. 

There aren’t any sure things with filling that spot. Jack Crawford comes over to Tennessee after eight years combined with the Raiders, Cowboys and Falcons, but he’s coming off just a 49.6 PFF grade on 431 snaps with Atlanta in 2019. He was recently activated from the reserve/COVID-19 list. Beyond him, though, players such as Isaiah Mack (undrafted in 2019) and Murchison (fifth-round draft pick in 2020 NFL Draft) will push for playing time. 

In my opinion, Murchison will ultimately take on that role. As PFF’s Mike Renner put it in the 2020 NFL Draft Guide, “There’s not much flash to Murchison’s game, but there’s not much bad, either. He was one of the most reliable run defenders in the country and can hold his own anywhere on the line of scrimmage. Listed at under 300 pounds, that’s pretty impressive.” Without much in the way of competition, he should get the opportunity to show what he can do early. 

Indianapolis Colts

Offense

QB: Philip Rivers

RB: Jonathan Taylor

WR: T.Y. Hilton

WR: Michael Pittman Jr.

Slot: Parris Campbell

TE: Jack Doyle

LT: Anthony Castonzo

LG: Quenton Nelson

C: Ryan Kelly

RG: Mark Glowinski

RT: Braden Smith

Defense

DI: DeForest Buckner

DI: Grover Stewart

EDGE: Justin Houston

EDGE: Denico Autry

LB: Darius Leonard

LB: Anthony Walker

LB: Bobby Okereke

CB: Rock Ya-Sin

CB: Xavier Rhodes

CB: Kenny Moore

S: Khari Willis

S: Malik Hooker

Starting spot up in the air: EDGE Denico Autry

It’s going to be tough for opposing teams to beat Indianapolis in the trenches whether it be along the offensive line or defensive line, especially after the addition of DeForest Buckner this offseason. The one weak spot along the defensive line comes at the edge defender position opposite Justin Houston

Returning players like Kemoko Turay and Al-Quadin Muhammad figure to be firmly in the competition for that job. The Colts used Turay almost exclusively as a situational pass rusher before his injury this past season, and he was thriving in that role with a 91.0 pass-rushing grade in just a four-game sample. If I have to guess, I’d say he’ll end up in a similar role in 2020. Muhammad, meanwhile, has the most experience at defensive end in the Colts’ defense, but he hasn’t done anything over the past two seasons that has you really excited about his presence there, with PFF pass-rushing grades in the 50s each of the past two seasons. 

Ultimately, I think Buckner’s arrival takes Autry from the 3-technique and kicks him outside to edge. The Athletic’s Stephen Holder wrote this about Autry: “Here’s what I see as the best-case scenario for Autry: He becomes a Jabaal Sheard-like presence at left defensive end, creating disruption and applying pressure from the strong side.” He played relatively well in 2019, with a PFF grade of 71.0 and 30 total pressures. He could end up being the Colts’ best option at that defensive end spot in base.

Jacksonville Jaguars

Offense

QB: Gardner Minshew

RB: Leonard Fournette

WR: DJ Chark

WR: Laviska Shenault Jr.

Slot: Dede Westbrook

TE: Tyler Eifert

LT: Cam Robinson

LG: Andrew Norwell

C: Brandon Linder

RG: A.J. Cann

RT: Jawaan Taylor

Defense

DI: Taven Bryan

DI: Davon Hamilton

EDGE: Josh Allen

EDGE: K’Lavon Chaisson

LB: Myles Jack

LB: Joe Schobert

CB: CJ Henderson

CB: Tre Herndon

CB: D.J. Hayden

CB: Josiah Scott

S: Jarrod Wilson

S: Ronnie Harrison

Starting spot up in the air: RG A.J. Cann

Cann is one of those guys who may be tough to beat out just because he’s been the starter at that right guard position for five years now in Jacksonville, but his recent play suggests that there should at least be some competition this offseason. After earning PFF grades of 69.0 or higher in his first two seasons in the NFL, Cann’s overall grade of 60.3 over the last three seasons ranks 31st among 40 qualifying right guards across the league. The Jaguars have room to upgrade if someone pushes him for the job. 

You would think the Jaguars are hoping that the rookie out of St. John’s, Ben Bartch, can be that guy. He played tackle at St. John’s — and that may be where his future is — but his quickest path to meaningful playing time will be at guard. Bartch impressed against stiffer competition at the Senior Bowl, and by all accounts he’s doing so again to start the Jaguars' training camp across multiple positions. He has reportedly been holding his own against both Taven Bryan and Davon Hamilton (two of the Jaguars’ more talented interior defensive linemen). Cann’s job is far from secure if Bartch continues to impress. 

NFC South

Dec 8, 2019; New Orleans, LA, USA; New Orleans Saints wide receiver Tre'Quan Smith (10) escapes a tackle attempt of San Francisco 49ers middle linebacker Fred Warner (54) on a touchdown during the fourth quarter at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. Credit: Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

New Orleans Saints

Offense

QB: Drew Brees

RB: Alvin Kamara

WR: Michael Thomas

WR: Emmanuel Sanders

WR: Tre’Quan Smith

TE: Jared Cook

LT: Terron Armstead

LG: Andrus Peat

C: Erik McCoy

RG: Cesar Ruiz

RT: Ryan Ramczyk

Defense

DI: David Onyemata

DI: Malcom Brown

EDGE: Cameron Jordan

EDGE: Marcus Davenport

LB: Demario Davis

LB: Alex Anzalone

LB: Zack Baun

CB: Marshon Lattimore

CB: Janoris Jenkins

CB/S: Chauncey Gardner-Johnson

S: Malcolm Jenkins

S: Marcus Williams

Starting spot up in the air: WR Tre’Quan Smith

Now returning for his third year with New Orleans, Smith has experience in this offense. His 647 routes run are second on the team at wide receiver since 2018, making him the favorite to retain a starting job in three wide-receiver sets along with Emmanuel Sanders complementing Michael Thomas. It’s far from a secure job given Smith’s lack of high-level impact in those two seasons, though. His 64.6 receiving grade ranks 68th out of the 92 receivers to run 500 or more routes over the last two years. There aren’t any clear options as of right now to push him on the depth chart, however. 

A returner such as Austin Carr may see more time in the slot where he ran 67% of his limited routes during the 2019 season. They could also opt to give the electric return specialist Deonte Harris more time on offense at wide receiver after he ran just 37 routes this past season. Per The Athletic’s Curtis Holder, Saints’ offensive assistant Curtis Johnson recently said of Harris, “I love working with Deonte Harris. We’ve got to steal him from the special teams a little bit. We think he can be dynamic.” Beyond those options, you have young, unproven guys like Emmanuel Butler, Marquez Callaway, Lil’Jordan Humphrey and Juwan Johnson along with a recently signed veteran such as Bennie Fowler. With Sanders in town, the Saints’ receiver depth is in a better place than it was last season, but they will still be hoping that either Smith elevates his game or one of the players below him makes it an easy decision to give them more snaps.

Atlanta Falcons

Offense

QB: Matt Ryan

RB: Todd Gurley

WR: Julio Jones

WR: Calvin Ridley

Slot: Russell Gage

TE: Hayden Hurst

LT: Jake Matthews

LG: James Carpenter

C: Alex Mack

RG: Chris Lindstrom

RT: Kaleb McGary

Defense

DI: Grady Jarrett

DI: Tyeler Davison

EDGE: Dante Fowler Jr.

EDGE: Takkarist McKinley

LB: Deion Jones

LB: Foyesade Oluokun

CB: A.J. Terrell

CB: Isaiah Oliver

CB: Darqueze Dennard

S: Keanu Neal

S: Damontae Kazee

S: Ricardo Allen

Starting spot up in the air: Starting cornerbacks

It remains to be seen how the Falcons’ secondary will look in 2020, but it’s a group that isn’t short on competition. At safety, I opted to list each of Keanu Neal, Ricardo Allen and Damontae Kazee as starters because all three should see significant action in at least a rotational capacity. Cornerback brings even more uncertainty heading into Week 1. There are four players — A.J. Terrell, Isaiah Oliver, Kendall Sheffield and the recently signed Darqueze Dennard — battling for three starting jobs, and the Falcons appear to be high on all four. 

Oliver and Sheffield both took their lumps this past season in Atlanta, each with PFF coverage grades below 55.0 on the year, but both are young guys who the Falcons want to be key parts of the secondary in the coming years. Terrell — the 16th overall pick in the 2020 NFL Draft — was listed in the PFF Draft Guide as having “the length NFL teams covet and the fluidity to continue to play any scheme.” Atlanta needs him to step up outside early after losing longtime cornerback Desmond Trufant to the Detroit Lions in free agency this offseason. By most accounts, he has been impressing early on. That leaves Dennard — the most proven player of the quartet. His 78.5 PFF grade in the slot over the last three seasons ranks 14th out of 55 defenders with at least 500 snaps at the position. 

I imagine the biggest competition will come down to Sheffield and Oliver outside given that Dennard is the best option in the slot and Terrell is a first-round pick who has shown a lot to like early in camp. Per ESPN’s Vaughn McClure, the starting rotation early has Terrell and Oliver outside with Dennard in the slot, but Atlanta still views Sheffield as a starter as he works back from a foot injury. It will be interesting to see who ends up seeing the majority of snaps come Week 1 and once the season progresses. 

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Offense

QB: Tom Brady

RB: Ronald Jones

WR: Chris Godwin

WR: Mike Evans

TE: Rob Gronkowski

TE: O.J. Howard

LT: Donovan Smith

LG: Ali Marpet

C: Ryan Jensen

RG: Alex Cappa

RT: Tristan Wirfs

Defense

DI: Ndamukong Suh

DI: Vita Vea

DI: William Gholston

EDGE: Shaquil Barrett

EDGE: Jason Pierre-Paul

LB: Devin White

LB: Lavonte David

CB: Carlton Davis

CB: Jamel Dean

CB: Sean Murphy-Bunting

S: Mike Edwards

S: Jordan Whitehead

Starting spot up in the air: S Mike Edwards

The Buccaneers’ defense was much improved over the tail end of last season, and continued progression from Tampa Bay’s young safeties will be key in making sure it’s a group that doesn’t regress in 2020. Right now, there is still work to be done by players such as Edwards, Jordan Whitehead and rookie Antoine Winfield Jr. to show that they deserve to be on the field in two-safety groupings. That means beating out each other and a steady veteran presence like Andrew Adams

According to Scott Smith of the Buccaneers’ team website, this is what Bruce Arians had to say recently  about the three young safeties: 

“Jordan looks good — he's playing the pass better, he's a little bit stronger to a point. You know he's going to throw his face in the fan — no question about that — so the weight should help him there. I like Mike's progress. He's getting his hands on balls, breaking on balls, getting out to center field [and] covering a lot of ground, and he's doing a better job tackling when we're tackling.

[Winfield] is a player that could be dime, nickel, back end safety — his versatility allows him to be with any group of guys we want out there, whether it's three corners, three safeties, whatever package we want to put in, he could be in there.”

I do think there is a good chance that Winfield earns a larger role at some point in the season. His bottom line in the PFF Draft Guide stated that no safety in the class had better instincts. Those instincts could make a difference in a deep role in Tampa Bay, and his insertion into the starting lineup would most likely come at Edwards’ expense. Edwards earned a 58.2 PFF grade as a rookie in 2019 in primarily a free safety role. It’s likely that all three players see their fair share of the field in 2020. 

Carolina Panthers

Offense

QB: Teddy Bridgewater

RB: Christian McCaffrey

WR: D.J. Moore

WR: Robby Anderson

WR: Curtis Samuel

TE: Ian Thomas

LT: Russell Okung

LG: Dennis Daley

C: Matt Paradis

RG: John Miller

RT: Taylor Moton

Defense

DI: Kawann Short

DI: Derrick Brown

EDGE: Brian Burns

EDGE: Stephen Weatherly

LB: Shaq Thompson

LB: Tahir Whitehead

LB/S: Jeremy Chinn

CB: Donte Jackson

CB: Eli Apple

CB: Troy Pride Jr.

S: Juston Burris

S: Tre Boston

Starting spot up in the air: CB Troy Pride Jr.

It’s hard to imagine that Donte Jackson and Eli Apple aren’t the team’s starting outside cornerbacks for Week 1 given their experience compared to the rest of the cornerback depth chart in Carolina. It’s assumed that Pride is the team’s third cornerback, likely fitting into the slot early in his NFL career. 

It makes sense that the Panthers would want to incorporate Pride early on. He was the 61st-ranked player on the PFF Big Board because he has legitimate man coverage skills — something that certainly can’t be said for every cornerback coming out of the college ranks. Pride does still have some question marks, though. As PFF’s lead draft analyst Mike Renner put it, “Pride’s inability to play both the quarterback and the wide receiver is maddening to watch.” That lack of ball skills may open the door for a few other guys on the roster to make an impact. 

Panthers’ fans may not want to hear it after a certain 2018 game against Seattle, but one of those players is Corn Elder. According to The Athletic’s Joseph Person, “Elder has had his struggles in coverage in the past, but he’s got a clean slate with the new coaching staff.” His name is one that has shown up several times over the last several days as a guy making plays in coverage. He has played just 63 defensive snaps in three NFL seasons to this point. 

T.J. Green is another name to watch. After being selected in the second round of the 2016 NFL Draft, Green has bounced around a bit from the Colts to the Saints and now to the Panthers, but he has an opportunity to turn his career around despite playing just 10 defensive snaps across the last two seasons. Green brings some versatility to the table and has even been getting some first-team reps outside, per Jeff Siner of the Charlotte Observer. Pride is the favorite in that third cornerback role, but he has some competition. 

AFC West

Feb 2, 2020; Miami Gardens, Florida, USA; Kansas City Chiefs safety Tyrann Mathieu (32) against the San Francisco 49ers in Super Bowl LIV at Hard Rock Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Kansas City Chiefs

Offense

QB: Patrick Mahomes

RB: Clyde Edwards-Helaire

WR: Tyreek Hill

WR: Sammy Watkins

WR: Mecole Hardman

TE: Travis Kelce

LT: Eric Fisher

LG: Kelechi Osemele

C: Austin Reiter

RG: Andrew Wylie

RT: Mitchell Schwartz

Defense

DI: Chris Jones

DI: Derrick Nnadi

EDGE: Frank Clark

EDGE: Alex Okafor

LB: Anthony Hitchens

LB: Damien Wilson

LB: Willie Gay Jr.

CB: Charvarius Ward

CB: Bashaud Breeland

CB: Rashad Fenton

S: Tyrann Mathieu

S: Juan Thornhill

Starting spot up in the air: CB Bashaud Breeland (four-game suspension)

Breeland’s starting job should be secure once he returns from his four-game suspension this upcoming season, but I wanted to include him here to talk about what the Chiefs are going to do to replace him outside in those four games that he’ll be sidelined because they’re not very deep at the cornerback position. 

Charvarius Ward stands out as the lone remaining player with extensive starting experience and is locked into one of the starting jobs. Rashad Fenton is the next player on the depth chart, but even he is coming off just 244 defensive snaps as a rookie in 2019, most of which came in the slot. Beyond Ward and Fenton, you quickly get to options that have played just 200 snaps across four NFL seasons (Antonio Hamilton) or mid-to-late round rookies like L’Jarius Sneed and Thakarius Keyes

One outcome that I think was going to happen regardless of Breeland’s suspension is that Tyrann Mathieu is going to get significant playing time in the slot. It’s a role he took on more as the season progressed in 2019, and it’s one in which he has thrived throughout his career. His 13 interceptions from the slot since 2013 leads the NFL, and his PFF coverage grade ranks fourth among 36 defenders to see at least 1,000 coverage snaps inside over those seven seasons. A continued large role in the slot for Mathieu means more playing time for Daniel Sorensen at safety. His PFF grade of 59.4 last season ranked 67th among 82 qualifying safeties. He figures to remain one of the Chiefs’ five top defensive backs with Breeland sidelined, joining Ward, Fenton, Mathieu and Juan Thornhill

Denver Broncos

Offense

QB: Drew Lock

RB: Melvin Gordon

WR: Courtland Sutton

WR: Jerry Jeudy

Slot: KJ Hamler

TE: Noah Fant

LT: Garrett Bolles

LG: Dalton Risner

C: Lloyd Cushenberry

RG: Graham Glasgow

RT: Elijah Wilkinson

Defense

DI: Jurrell Casey

DI: Mike Purcell

DI: Shelby Harris

EDGE: Von Miller

EDGE: Bradley Chubb

LB: Alexander Johnson

LB: Todd Davis

CB: AJ Bouye

CB: Bryce Callahan

CB: De’Vante Bausby

S: Kareem Jackson

S: Justin Simmons

Starting spot up in the air: RT Elijah Wilkinson

The Broncos’ offensive line expected to get a boost from tackle Ja’Wuan James returning from an injury that sidelined for all but 63 snaps during the 2019 season. That boost won’t be coming, though, after James was one of the players who decided to opt out of the 2020 NFL season. The returning options on the Broncos’ roster to fill that hole are Wilkinson and Jake Rodgers, neither of which are overly exciting. Wilkinson started at right tackle for much of last season in relief of James, and he managed just a 59.6 overall grade on the year. He was one of just four tackles who was charged by PFF as responsible for 10 or more sacks during the regular season. Rodgers, meanwhile, graded pretty well in his final two games with the Broncos late last season — particularly as a run blocker — but those were the only two regular season NFL games that he’s seen offensive snaps in his five-year career.

The player who should push for the starting job at right tackle is Demar Dotson. He brings easily the most experience to the group, with five-plus years of starting experience in Tampa Bay, and while he’s not a dominant force by any means, he is a solid starter. Out of the 92 tackles to play at least 2,000 snaps since 2013, Dotson’s 79.0 PFF grade ranks 28th and his 81.2 pass-blocking grade ranks even better at 26th. He comes into Denver a step behind Wilkinson and Rodgers in experience with the team, but if the Broncos are looking to get their best offensive linemen on the field for Drew Lock next season, he’s the guy at right tackle.

Las Vegas Raiders

Offense

QB: Derek Carr

RB: Josh Jacobs

WR: Henry Ruggs III

WR: Tyrell Williams

Slot: Hunter Renfrow

TE: Darren Waller

LT: Kolton Miller

LG: Richie Incognito

C: Rodney Hudson

RG: Gabe Jackson

RT: Trent Brown

Defense

DI: Maurice Hurst

DI: Jonathan Hankins

EDGE: Maxx Crosby

EDGE: Clelin Ferrell

LB: Cory Littleton

LB: Nick Kwiatkoski

LB: Nicholas Morrow

CB: Trayvon Mullen

CB: Prince Amukamara

CB: Lamarcus Joyner

S: Johnathan Abram

S: Damarious Randall

Starting spot up in the air: CB Prince Amukamara 

Prior to the start of training camp, I thought that Amukamara was going to be one of the Raiders’ starting cornerbacks outside come Week 1. He’s been a consistent starting option throughout his career, never dipping below a 66.3 overall grade during his eight years in the NFL, and he brings a veteran presence to what is otherwise a young secondary with recent high draft picks like Trayvon Mullen, Johnathan Abram and Damon Arnette

It doesn’t appear as if Arnette is simply going to hand Amukamara that job opposite Mullen — a promising development for the Raiders after many thought they overdrafted Arnette midway through the first round. There is even a feeling starting to build now that it’s Arnette’s job to lose. The Athletic’s Tashan Reed said in a recent piece, “Damon Arnette is positioning himself to be a Day 1 starter. He’ll continue to compete with veteran Prince Amukamara throughout camp, but Arnette seems to have the edge right now.” Arnette earned 70.0-plus PFF coverage grades in each of the past three seasons with Ohio State. 

Los Angeles Chargers

Offense

QB: Tyrod Taylor

RB: Austin Ekeler

WR: Keenan Allen

WR: Mike Williams

Slot: K.J. Hill

TE: Hunter Henry

LT: Sam Tevi

LG: Dan Feeney

C: Mike Pouncey

RG: Trai Turner

RT: Bryan Bulaga

Defense

DI: Linval Joseph

DI: Justin Jones

EDGE: Joey Bosa

EDGE: Melvin Ingram III

LB: Denzel Perryman

LB: Drue Tranquill

LB: Kenneth Murray

CB: Casey Hayward Jr.

CB: Michael Davis

CB: Chris Harris Jr.

S: Derwin James

S: Rayshawn Jenkins

Starting spot up in the air: WR K.J. Hill

The Chargers’ third receiver was an afterthought during the 2019 season. Andre Patton occupied the role for much of the season, but he averaged just 0.18 receiving yards per route run — easily the worst mark in the NFL. The Chargers didn’t invest much in improving on what Patton provided them there this offseason, though. 

The Chargers did draft a pair of wide receivers late in the 2020 NFL Draft — Joe Reed and Hill. Heading into training camp, I thought there was a good chance that Hill would be the favorite to man the slot heading into the season when Keenan Allen wasn’t lined up inside. His route-running ability allowed him to consistently separate in the short and intermediate range from the slot at Ohio State. He brings an NFL-ready skill set despite his slide to the seventh round. Additionally, he has reportedly looked good early in training camp. Gilbert Manzano of the Orange Country Register recently wrote, “Rookie wide receiver K.J. Hill had the best Week 1 of training camp among wide receivers not named Allen or Williams.”

That fits with the idea that Hill is their third-best receiver, but he isn’t at the top of that battle right now. The Chargers are looking for speed to complement Allen and Williams — something Hill doesn’t really have. Jalen Guyton, on the other hand, does bring that speed and appears to be the leader in the clubhouse for that reason, but it wouldn’t surprise me to see Hill’s skill set eventually earn him that starting job, though. 

NFC West

January 19, 2020; Santa Clara, California, USA; San Francisco 49ers quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo (10) during the first quarter in the NFC Championship Game against the Green Bay Packers at Levi's Stadium. Credit: Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

San Francisco 49ers

Offense

QB: Jimmy Garoppolo

RB: Raheem Mostert

FB: Kyle Juszczyk

WR: Deebo Samuel

WR: Brandon Aiyuk

TE: George Kittle

LT: Trent Williams

LG: Laken Tomlinson

C: Ben Garland

RG: Daniel Brunskill

RT: Mike McGlinchey

Defense

DI: Javon Kinlaw

DI/EDGE: Arik Armstead

EDGE: Dee Ford

EDGE: Nick Bosa

LB: Fred Warner

LB: Kwon Alexander

LB: Dre Greenlaw

CB: Richard Sherman

CB: Emmanuel Moseley

CB: K’Waun Williams

S: Jaquiski Tartt

S: Jimmie Ward

Starting spot up in the air: CB Emmanuel Moseley

There is currently a three-way battle for the starting cornerback job across from Richard Sherman in San Francisco’s defense. Moseley is the presumed favorite to win the job after taking it from Ahkello Witherspoon late last season. Moseley played well in his opportunity, too, earning a 70.4 PFF grade across just over 700 defensive snaps. Witherspoon really struggled down the stretch this past season — picking up coverage grades below 50.0 in each of his final four games — but has made some plays thus far in camp and is still a factor in the battle for that spot. 

The guy who could really shake things up, though, is Jason Verrett. Via a recent piece by The Athletic’s Matt Barrows, Sherman spoke to how good Verrett looked in camp this year: “He’s way further along this year. His feet look incredible … He’s so sound, and he’s so hard on himself and tough on himself.” 

We’ve seen this story play out before only for Verrett to get hurt yet again. Because of that, it’s hard to be anything other than skeptical that he’ll be a real difference-maker in 2020. If he truly does look like the player that turned in a 90.9 coverage grade back in 2015, and if he’s able to stay healthy, there’s a good chance it’s his job to lose. 

Seattle Seahawks

Offense

QB: Russell Wilson

RB: Chris Carson

WR: Tyler Lockett

WR: DK Metcalf

TE: Will Dissly

TE: Greg Olsen

LT: Duane Brown

LG: Mike Iupati

C: B.J. Finney

RG: Damien Lewis

RT: Brandon Shell

Defense

DI: Poona Ford

DI: Jarran Reed

EDGE: Benson Mayowa

EDGE: Rasheem Green

LB: Bobby Wagner

LB: KJ Wright

LB: Jordyn Brooks

CB: Shaquill Griffin

CB: Quinton Dunbar

S: Marquise Blair

S: Jamal Adams

S: Quandre Diggs

Starting spot up in the air: C B.J. Finney

The center position appears to be fielding one of the more open competitions on the Seahawks’ roster. Ethan Pocic has been on the Seahawks’ roster for three seasons now after they selected him in the second round out of LSU, but he’s seen his playing time take a hit in each of the past two seasons, largely due to injury. In all, he’s played just over 1,000 career snaps on offense and has a PFF grade of 45.7 to show for it. Nearly all of those snaps have come at guard, but now, the Seahawks want to see him at center, and he appears to be firmly in the mix for that job. 

Via John Boyle of Seahawks.com, Pete Carroll said of the competition, “It's just a battle. They're competing like crazy … The competition will just keep going. We've had enough opportunities so far to see that B.J. can handle it, and Ethan Pocic can handle it, so it's a good healthy competition … It's a good comp, and we'll call it before too long. No deadline is set yet.”

Finney served as a swing interior offensive lineman for the Steelers over the last several seasons, drawing spot starts at each of the guard spots and center. He hasn’t dominated in the run game, but he has been very impressive over the course of his career in pass protection. Since 2016, he has recorded a PFF pass-blocking grade of 87.7. That kind of reliability as a pass-blocker is why he gets the edge over Pocic as the projected starter, but Seattle could certainly opt to stick with the player they already know as they head into Week 1. 

Los Angeles Rams

Offense

QB: Jared Goff

RB: Cam Akers

WR: Robert Woods

WR: Cooper Kupp

WR: Van Jefferson

TE: Tyler Higbee

LT: Andrew Whitworth

LG: Joseph Noteboom

C: Austin Blythe

RG: Austin Corbett

RT: Rob Havenstein

Defense

DI: Aaron Donald

DI: A’Shawn Robinson

DI: Michael Brockers

EDGE: Leonard Floyd

EDGE: Samson Ebukam

LB: Micah Kiser

LB: Travin Howard

CB: Jalen Ramsey

CB: Troy Hill

CB: Darious Williams

S: Taylor Rapp

S: John Johnson

Starting spot up in the air: LG Joseph Noteboom

Noteboom started the 2019 season as the Rams’ starting left guard, sliding into the spot Rodger Saffold had manned for years on the Rams’ offensive line. It’s safe to say things didn’t get off to a great start in his first season at the position. Noteboom earned just a 37.0 PFF grade in the first five games of the season — 33rd out of 34 qualifying left guards — before tearing both his ACL and MCL in Week 6 against the Seattle Seahawks. It appears as if he is the favorite to reclaim that left guard job heading into the 2020 season, though. 

Per The Athletic’s Jordan Rodrigue, that is where he lined up when the Rams took the field for their first scrimmage at SoFi stadium, and he’s been getting first-team reps there for several practices now. Noteboom also recently said in an interview that he feels “more comfortable” at guard this season than he did last year after moving from tackle. 

It’s going to be tough to keep him in the starting rotation if he comes out playing as he did early in 2019, and David Edwards is waiting in the wings if Noteboom gets an early hook. Given the landscape of the rest of the Rams’ offensive line last season, the play of the fifth-round rookie out of Wisconsin was a bright spot. His 64.1 overall grade at right guard after taking over the starting job in Week 10 ranked 12th among 38 qualifiers at the position. If Noteboom — or Austin Corbett, for that matter — don’t pan out early, it probably won’t be long until Edwards gets put back into the starting lineup.  

Arizona Cardinals

Offense

QB: Kyler Murray

RB: Kenyan Drake

WR: Deandre Hopkins

WR: Christian Kirk

Slot: Larry Fitzgerald

TE: Maxx Williams

LT: D.J. Humphries

LG: Justin Pugh

C: Mason Cole

RG: J.R. Sweezy

RT: Justin Murray

Defense

DI: Corey Peters 

DI: Jordan Phillips

EDGE: Chandler Jones

EDGE: Devon Kennard

LB: Jordan Hicks

LB: Isaiah Simmons

LB: De’Vondre Campbell

CB: Patrick Peterson

CB: Byron Murphy

CB: Dre Kirkpatrick

S: Budda Baker

S: Jalen Thompson

Starting spot up in the air: RT Justin Murray

Many expected Marcus Gilbert to return from injury and take over the starting right tackle job in Arizona, but Gilbert's decision to opt-out of the 2020 NFL season opened the door for competition. 

Justin Murray manned the position in Gilbert’s stead this past season, something that probably gives him a leg up on the competition heading into the upcoming campaign. It is still a competition, however, because Murray didn’t close the door with his play last year. His 62.9 PFF grade across 841 snaps at right tackle ranked 25th among 39 qualifiers at the position. It was the first time Murray had gotten the chance to start in his four-year NFL career. Still, his return as a starter would bring back four of last year’s five starters — the fifth being Mason Cole stepping back into the starting center job that he manned as a rookie in 2018. Continuity matters along the offensive line.

The Cardinals do have two players pushing Murray for that spot, though. Veteran tackle Kelvin Beachum was signed after three seasons as the New York Jets’ starting left tackle, but he’s been practicing at right tackle for Arizona. Training partner and new teammate D.J. Humphries said of Beachum’s transition to right tackle, “It’s definitely a challenge. It’s like writing with your left hand. If anybody can make that transition, it’s Beachum. He’s a pro’s pro. He’s one of those guys; he does everything right.” The last time Beachum saw significant playing time at right tackle was as a rookie with the Steelers in 2012 — another factor that may push him behind Murray despite a stronger track record.  

The last option is the rookie Josh Jones, who we viewed as one of the steals of the draft here at PFF. Jones comes into the NFL with four years of starting experience at Houston and three straight seasons with pass-blocking grades of 80.0 or higher. He is also making the move from left tackle to right tackle, lengthening what is already one of the steepest learning curves of any position in the NFL. For now, he probably comes in behind Murray and Beachum in the competition for the starting job, but the Cardinals are hoping he becomes the future bookend opposite D.J. Humphries

AFC North

November 25, 2019; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Baltimore Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson (8) passes the ball off to running back Mark Ingram II (21) during the second half against the Los Angeles Rams at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. Credit: Kelvin Kuo-USA TODAY Sports

Baltimore Ravens

Offense

QB: Lamar Jackson

RB: Mark Ingram

WR: Marquise Brown

WR: Miles Boykin

TE: Mark Andrews

TE: Nick Boyle

LT: Ronnie Stanley

LG: Bradley Bozeman

C: Matt Skura

RG: D.J. Fluker

RT: Orlando Brown

Defense

DI: Derek Wolfe 

DI: Brandon Williams

DI: Calais Campbell

EDGE: Matthew Judon

EDGE: Jaylon Ferguson

LB: Patrick Queen

LB: L.J. Fort

CB: Marcus Peters

CB: Marlon Humphrey

CB: Tavon Young

S: Chuck Clark

S: Deshon Elliott

Starting spot up in the air: S DeShon Elliott

The Ravens’ decision to release Earl Thomas is clearly something that leadership in the organization wanted in order to maintain the dynamics of what is widely considered one of the better-run organizations in the NFL, but from an on-field perspective, the options remaining to replace Thomas at free safety are few and far between.

In-house options will come down to young, inexperienced players such as Geno Stone or Elliott. Elliott is heading into his third NFL season out of Texas, but injuries have limited him to just 40 defensive snaps across his first two seasons. As things stand right now, though, Elliott has a real opportunity to be the team’s starting free safety in 2020. Beyond Elliott, Stone also has an opportunity to see some free safety snaps as a seventh-round rookie out of Iowa. Stone was a favorite of PFF’s lead draft analyst Mike Renner, and as my colleague Eric Eager wrote, he had some of the best college-to-pro projections of any safety in the 2020 NFL Draft. Theoretically, the playmaking ability that he showcased in college is a terrific fit at free safety in Baltimore’s defense if he can get up to speed by Week 1. 

There’s also a very good chance that the Ravens could target a potential starter in free agency given the inexperience currently at the position. Brandon Carr is someone they could look to bring back after he made the switch to safety over the second half of last season with Baltimore. 

Pittsburgh Steelers

Offense

QB: Ben Roethlisberger

RB: James Conner

WR: Diontae Johnson

WR: James Washington

Slot: JuJu Smith-Schuster

TE: Eric Ebron

LT: Alejandro Villanueva

LG: Matt Feiler

C: Maurkice Pouncey

RG: David DeCastro

RT: Zach Banner

Defense

DI: Cam Heyward

DI: Tyson Alualu

DI: Stephon Tuitt

EDGE: T.J. Watt

EDGE: Bud Dupree

LB: Devin Bush

LB: Vince Williams

CB: Joe Haden

CB: Steven Nelson

CB: Mike Hilton

S: Terrell Edmunds

S: Minkah Fitzpatrick

Starting spot up in the air: RT Zach Banner

After signing Stefen Wisniewski — who manned the left guard position well for the Kansas City Chiefs as they made their Super Bowl run last season — the natural assumption would be that Wisniewski would fill the void left by Ramon Foster, and Matt Feiler would remain the team’s starting right tackle. He was an under-the-radar, strong contributor there in what was a down season for the Steelers’ offense. 

Feiler appears to be in line to take over that left guard job, however. Offensive line coach Shaun Sarrett spoke to the reasoning for that move recently. Via Steelers.com’s Teresa Varley, Sarrett said of the situation, “We were in a pandemic in the spring. We lost our whole spring,” said Sarrett. “The evaluation period gets cut in half. I had seen Anchor [Feiler] go in there and play guard last year. I have seen Chuks play tackle. I have seen Banner play tackle. We had to evaluate fast. We are going to start there and make our evaluation from there.”

He’s referencing Feiler’s start at left guard against the Los Angeles Rams — a game in which he posted easily his lowest single-game grade of the season (46.9) and understandably so with the position change and a matchup with Aaron Donald

His move opens a right-tackle competition between Chukwuma Okorafor and Banner. By all accounts, there is no clear front runner in the competition. Both players are limited on the experience front. Banner played 216 snaps in 2019 and graded well (78.3 overall grade), but it’s not a grade that translates given that nearly all of his snaps came as a sixth offensive lineman and run-blocker. Okorafor was a third-round pick in the 2018 NFL Draft out of Western Michigan, and he did start that Rams’ game last season at right tackle, allowing four pressures in 41 pass-blocking snaps

I ultimately gave Banner the nod, as reports indicate that he’s having a strong camp, but it is truly an open competition that still has a long way to go. My feeling is that the Steelers may be more comfortable with Okorafor’s ability to play left tackle, as well, which could lead to keeping him as a swing tackle with Banner as the starting right tackle. 

Cleveland Browns

Offense

QB: Baker Mayfield

RB: Nick Chubb

WR: Odell Beckham Jr.

WR: Jarvis Landry

TE: Austin Hooper

TE: David Njoku

LT: Jedrick Wills

LG: Joel Bitonio

C: JC Tretter

RG: Wyatt Teller

RT: Jack Conklin

Defense

DI: Sheldon Richardson

DI: Larry Ogunjobi

EDGE: Myles Garrett

EDGE: Olivier Vernon

LB: B.J. Goodson

LB: Sione Takitaki

LB: Jacob Phillips

CB: Denzel Ward

CB: Greedy Williams

CB: Kevin Johnson

S: Karl Joseph

S: Grant Delpit

Starting spot up in the air: LB Jacob Phillips

A Cleveland linebacking corps that was already thin was dealt a blow when Mack Wilson went down with a hyperextended knee. Cleveland is optimistic that he can avoid surgery and return to the field this season, but it doesn’t look like he’s going to be playing early on. 

B.J. Goodson and Sione Takitaki should be the top two linebackers on the depth chart. Goodson isn’t going to bring much to the table in the way of coverage — he's notched three consecutive coverage grades below 60.0 — but he has played 300-plus snaps in each of the past three seasons with Green Bay and New York. Takitaki, meanwhile, saw just over 100 defensive snaps in his rookie season with Cleveland last year and earned an overall grade of 64.4 in his time on the field. Per The Athletic’s Zac Jackson, those are the two linebackers handling first-team duties in nickel packages, with Phillips and Tae Davis splitting reps as the third linebacker in base packages.  

Phillips — the third-round selection out of LSU in the 2020 NFL Draft — has some tools to work with, but he still has a decent way to go at this stage. His bottom line in the PFF Draft Guide read, “Phillips has the ideal build and burst for the linebacker position in the NFL, but he’s far from a difference-maker in coverage. You have to like the room he has for development though late in the draft.” 

That could mean Davis or even the recently signed Malcolm Smith ends up getting the nod until Wilson returns from injury. Davis didn’t see any time on defense last season with Cleveland after his release from the Giants, but he did play 344 snaps as a rookie in 2018 and picked up a PFF grade of 40.6. There aren’t many strong options for the Browns to turn to at this point. They just have to hope one of their young guys really steps forward.

Cincinnati Bengals

Offense

QB: Joe Burrow

RB: Joe Mixon

WR: A.J. Green

WR: John Ross

Slot: Tyler Boyd

TE: C.J. Uzomah

LT: Jonah Williams

LG: Michael Jordan

C: Trey Hopkins

RG: Xavier Su’a-Filo

RT: Bobby Hart

Defense

DI: Geno Atkins

DI: DJ Reader

EDGE: Carlos Dunlap

EDGE: Sam Hubbard

LB: Josh Bynes

LB: Logan Wilson

LB: Germaine Pratt

CB: William Jackson III

CB: Darius Phillips

CB: Mackensie Alexander

S: Jessie Bates III

S: Vonn Bell

Starting spot up in the air: CB Darius Phillips

This wasn’t supposed to be a competition at all. The Bengals gave Trae Waynes a three-year, $42 million contract so that it wouldn’t be a competition, but surgery on a torn pec is expected to sideline Waynes for a sizable portion of the 2020 season.

Phillips is the clear favorite to join William Jackson III as the team’s second outside cornerback after a 2019 season where he didn’t see many defensive snaps but showed a knack for the big play. Phillips was targeted just 15 times on the season but intercepted four passes and broke up another three. He did get beat several times in a Week 17 contest against the Cleveland Browns, but in all, Phillips showed enough to get excited about heading into 2020, and now he should have an opportunity to show what he can do in a larger role. 

Phillips does have some competition for the job, however. Via Sports Illustrated’s James Rapien, Bengals defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo said of the depth in the Bengals’ cornerback room: “Don’t sleep on Leshaun Sims. Don’t sleep on Winston Rose. Those guys are guys that have been successful. Winston up in Canada, having all those interceptions the last couple of years. Leshaun Sims has played meaningful football in big games. They’re all big guys. They all have length to them. It’s exciting.”

Sims has played 200-plus snaps in each of the past four seasons with Tennessee, but he’s coming off a career-low 46.3 coverage grade this past season. Rose is coming from the CFL ranks. Both have been getting some opportunity with the first-team defense and could push the favorite, Phillips, for the job. 

NFC North

December 23, 2018; East Rutherford, NJ, USA; Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers (12) and wide receiver Davante Adams (17) celebrate their victory over the New York Jets in overtime at MetLife Stadium. Credit: Ed Mulholland-USA TODAY Sports

Green Bay Packers

Offense

QB: Aaron Rodgers

RB: Aaron Jones

WR: Davante Adams

WR: Allen Lazard

WR: Marquez Valdes-Scantling

TE: Jace Sternberger

LT: David Bakhtiari

LG: Elgton Jenkins

C: Corey Linsley

RG: Billy Turner

RT: Rick Wagner

Defense

DI: Dean Lowry

DI: Kenny Clark

EDGE: Rashan Gary

EDGE: Za’Darius Smith

EDGE: Preston Smith

LB: Christian Kirksey

LB: Oren Burks

CB: Jaire Alexander

CB: Kevin King

CB: Chandon Sullivan

S: Darnell Savage Jr.

S: Adrian Amos

Starting spot up in the air: TE Jace Sternberger

Much of the talk with Green Bay this offseason was that they didn’t really address what many thought to be the team’s biggest need heading into this offseason — additional threats in the passing game to pair with Davante Adams. A healthy Jace Sternberger in his second season is, in some ways, one of the biggest “additions” to this offense after the 2019 third-round pick missed much of his rookie season with injury and was a non-factor in the passing game upon his return.  Sternberger did not catch a pass until the postseason despite drawing his first snaps in Week 10. Still, it was assumed that he would become the team’s primary tight end upon the departure of Jimmy Graham

It’s been Sternberger’s teammate, Robert Tonyan, who has generated much of the buzz, however. With just 14 receptions in two seasons with the Packers, Tonyan is far from a proven option for Rodgers to work with, but he’s reportedly — wait for it — in the best shape of his life and having an impressive start to training camp. His friendship and offseason training sessions with George Kittle have also fueled the hype. It’s not unsubstantiated hype, though. 

Per ESPN’s Rob Demovsky, when asked about whether Tonyan was in the conversation for TE1 on Green Bay, Lafleur responded “absolutely” without hesitation. When all is said and done, he may end up being the guy who sees the most snaps at the position. 

Minnesota Vikings

Offense

QB: Kirk Cousins

RB: Dalvin Cook

WR: Adam Thielen

WR: Olabisi Johnson

TE: Kyle Rudolph

TE: Irv Smith Jr.

LT: Riley Reiff

LG: Dakota Dozier

C: Garrett Bradbury

RG: Pat Elflein

RT: Brian O’Neill

Defense

DI: Shamar Stephens

DI: Armon Watts

EDGE: Danielle Hunter

EDGE: Ifeadi Odenigbo

LB: Eric Kendricks

LB: Anthony Barr

LB: Eric Wilson

CB: Holton Hill

CB: Cameron Dantzler

CB: Mike Hughes

S: Harrison Smith

S: Anthony Harris

Starting spot up in the air: WR Olabisi Johnson

A player like Stefon Diggs is never easy to replace. The Vikings made an effort to mitigate his loss by selecting LSU’s Justin Jefferson in the first round of the 2020 NFL Draft, but early reports out of Vikings training camp indicate that Jefferson may not be the second wide receiver on the depth chart to start the season. 

The Athletic’s Chad Graff recently wrote of the battle for WR2, “The expectation was (and still may be) that Jefferson is the Vikings’ No. 2 receiver when the Green Bay Packers visit for the season-opener. And while that may happen, it’s notable that Jefferson is the clear No. 3 option right now behind Thielen and Bisi Johnson.” That can’t be what the Vikings were hoping for early on. 

Jefferson may very well still show he is the man for that WR2 role when the Vikings go with 12 or 21 personnel (which should be often compared to most NFL teams). He flashed strong hands and after-the-catch ability with the Tigers this past season, and from a production standpoint, it’s hard to get better than Jefferson’s 2019 season. Johnson, meanwhile, played better than expected as a seventh-round rookie for the Vikings in 2019, but his 62.0 receiving grade still ranked just 90th among 122 qualifying wide receivers this past season. Jefferson should be able to move past him on the depth chart. He just hasn’t yet.

Chicago Bears

Offense

QB: Nick Foles

RB: David Montgomery

WR: Allen Robinson

WR: Anthony Miller

WR: Darnell Mooney

TE: Jimmy Graham

LT: Charles Leno Jr.

LG: James Daniels

C: Cody Whitehair

RG: Germain Ifedi

RT: Bobby Massie

Defense

DI: Akiem Hicks

DI: Bilal Nichols

DI: Roy Robertson-Harris

EDGE: Khalil Mack

EDGE: Robert Quinn

LB: Roquan Smith

LB: Danny Trevathan

CB: Kyle Fuller

CB: Jaylon Johnson

CB: Buster Skrine

S: Tashaun Gipson

S: Eddie Jackson

Starting spot up in the air: WR Darnell Mooney

PFF’s lead draft analyst Mike Renner listed Mooney as an ideal later-round option for teams that were looking for explosiveness out of the slot. Anthony Miller may already have the slot job locked down for Chicago, but it appears that the Bears want to get Mooney’s speed on the field early. The Athletic’s Adam Jahns recently listed his top five players from Bears camp, and Mooney was one of the five players to make the cut. 

Jahns wrote, “The Bears are definitely in the process of sketching out a role for Mooney this season. He’s playing with the starters and against the Bears’ best defenders. His speed and quick-twitch elusiveness definitely stand out. He’s also different than the rest of the Bears’ offensive threats. He’s Taylor Gabriel, but with better moves after he has the ball.” 

Any time you see a rookie getting first-team reps early in an offseason like this, it’s noteworthy. Coaches usually tend to slot them behind veterans by default. Mooney produced plenty of big plays at Tulane, averaging over 15 yards per reception in each of the last three seasons. That big-play threat may get him on the field sooner than many think.

The Bears also signed veteran Ted Ginn Jr. this offseason, and he is coming off the worst PFF receiving grade in nearly a decade (56.7). Even at 35 years old, defenses still have to respect Ginn’s speed, though. He will factor into the WR3 competition, as will 2019 fourth-round pick Riley Ridley and 2018 seventh-round pick Javon Wims.

Detroit Lions

Offense

QB: Matthew Stafford

RB: Kerryon Johnson

WR: Kenny Golladay

WR: Marvin Jones Jr.

Slot: Danny Amendola

TE: T.J. Hockenson

LT: Taylor Decker

LG: Joe Dahl

C: Frank Ragnow

RG: Jonah Jackson

RT: Halapoulivaati Vaitai

Defense

DI: Danny Shelton

DI: Da’Shawn Hand

DI: Nick Williams

EDGE: Trey Flowers

EDGE: Julian Okwara

LB: Jamie Collins Sr.

LB: Jarrad Davis

CB: Desmond Trufant

CB: Jeffrey Okudah

CB: Justin Coleman

S: Tracy Walker

S: Duron Harman

Starting spot up in the air: WR Danny Amendola

It’s hard to read up on the start to training camp for the Detroit Lions and not come across the name Quintez Cephus. The Athletic’s Nick Baumgardner recently wrote this about Cephus’ early success: “He looked like a receiver who belonged in the NFL when the week started and has yet to fade away. Seven days into camp, the former Wisconsin receiver continues to score wins in just about every drill, rep or workout format. Against starters or backups. With the first team or the second team.” 

Cephus was identified in the PFF Draft Guide as a player who “could step on an NFL field tomorrow and not look out of place” thanks to his ability to handle press coverage, strong hands and the ability to play through contact. It’s what allowed him to put up consecutive overall grades of 82.0 or higher in 2018 and 2019 without elite athleticism. 

Given that he’s likely limited to a slot role early, Cephus will be pushing Amendola for that role in Detroit’s offense. Even at nearly 35 years old, Amendola is still an effective weapon out of the slot. This past season, he earned a 71.5 PFF grade (47th out of 122 qualifying wide receivers) on the year. If Cephus does end up getting the majority of the work inside, it will have most likely been a case of him impressing rather than Amendola’s performance not being up to par.

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