Stars are great, but depth drives championships, especially in football, where a string of bad injury luck can quickly reduce an apparent roster strength to a liability. With the 2018 season on the horizon, Chris Wesseling rounds up the seven thinnest position groups in the NFL below:
1) Buffalo Bills offense: Which position is the headliner here? If LeSean McCoy ends up missing extended time due to a recent home invasion that involved an alleged assault against his ex-girlfriend, the Bills will be in the running for thinnest backfield, quarterback room, wide receiver corps and offensive line.
Career backup AJ McCarron was unable to separate from 2017 fifth-round pick Nathan Peterman and raw rookie Josh Allen in offseason practices. After falling out of the running-back rotation in Jacksonville late last season, injury-prone Chris Ivory is the favorite for carries if McCoy is unavailable. No wide receiver on the roster caught more passes last season than McCoy or tight end Charles Clay, leaving undrafted rookie Robert Foster to steal reps with the "starters" in OTAs. The offensive line lost its best tackle (Cordy Glenn), guard (Richie Incognito) and center (Eric Wood) from last year’s unit. Don’t let the Bills‘ miraculous entry into the 2017 playoff field mislead you. As general manager Brandon Beane acknowledged entering draft weekend, this organization remains squarely in rebuilding mode — especially on offense.
2) Indianapolis Colts defense: Similar to Buffalo’s offense, the Colts lack established depth at every level of a defense switching from Chuck Pagano’s 3-4 scheme to new coordinator Matt Eberflus’ 4-3 base. Veteran pass rushers Jabaal Sheard and John Simon can bring the occasional heat off the edge, but nobody is going confuse that tandem with Houston’s J.J. Watt and Jadeveon Clowney or Jacksonville’s Calais Campbell and Yannick Ngakoue. If the defensive line has a chance to exceed expectations due to the experience level, the linebacker corps and secondary look downright sparse.
Outside of speed-challenged thumper Antonio Morrison, the linebackers feature a grab-bag of backups, special teamers and rookies. If second-round pick Darius Leonard struggles in his initiation period, this group might rival Indy’s secondary as the most suspect position unit in the league. While second-year safety Malik Hooker offers plenty of promise as the linchpin of the defensive backfield, he’s also coming off an ACL injury sustained in mid-October. Beyond Hooker and late-bloomer Matthias Farley, the Colts are wishcasting a collection of unproven misfits into prominent roles.
3) Dallas Cowboys receiving corps: A case can be made that quarterback Dak Prescott might actually benefit from the losses of future Hall of Famer Jason Witten and former All-Pro receiver Dez Bryant. Witten moved like a glacier and Bryant lost his playmaking ability last season. The problem is Dallas did little to upgrade what was left behind. Even teams with chain-moving ground attacks have to throw the ball to win in today’s NFL, particularly in come-from-behind situations.
When Prescott drops back to pass, his top receiving threats will be Jaguars castoff Allen Hurns, perennial tease Terrance Williams, 2017 disappearing act Cole Beasley, Rams draft bust Tavon Austin, third-round rookie Michael Gallup and undrafted tight end Blake Jarwin. I can’t identify a single name in that group with the talent to start for another NFC East club.
4) Houston Texans offensive line: The depth chart is also worrisome at quarterback and tight end, but it’s the offensive line that will keep coach Bill O’Brien up at night. The blocking unit has been a revolving door since Pro Bowl tackle Duane Brown was traded to Seattle last October. A healthy Deshaun Watson offers the instincts and escapability to mitigate major pass-protection concerns, but he may be forced to alter his playing style in his first year back from ACL surgery.
Although Houston did throw money at the problem in free agency, the dwindling supply of available starters left O’Brien with a trio of linemen (Zach Fulton, Senio Kelemete and Seantrel Henderson) who were in and out of the lineup with their former teams. The recent release of versatile veteran Jeff Allen on top of rookie Martinas Rankin‘s offseason foot surgery means 2017 fourth-round pick Julie’n Davenport will likely be tasked with protecting Watson’s blind side — whether he’s ready or not. O’Brien’s outfit boasts the high-end star power capable of catapulting the franchise back into the AFC South’s driver seat, as long as injuries and offensive-line play don’t expose the shallow nature of the roster.
5) Los Angeles Chargers tight ends: The Bolts began last season with three consecutive losses, only to finish on a torrid 9-4 run after Hunter Henry displaced a declining Antonio Gates in the starting lineup. By the end of December, Henry had emerged as one of the league’s most effective all-around tight ends, excelling as a blocker, chain-moving receiver and red-zone weapon.
When Henry suffered an ACL tear on the first day of OTAs, it was a crushing blow for a suddenly stacked team harboring Super Bowl aspirations. The Chargers are fortunate to boast plenty of receiving talent to compensate for Henry’s season-long absence, but there’s little relief in sight at tight end. Yet to surpass 250 yards in any of his seven NFL seasons, former Broncos role player Virgil Green was signed to complement Henry — not to carry the position.
6) Philadelphia Eagles linebackers: The Super Bowl champions stake a strong claim to the league’s deepest defensive line, but questions arise at the second level. On the same day that Henry went down on the Chargers‘ practice field, the Eagles lost veteran linebacker Paul Worrilow to an ACL injury of his own. Hours later, they released Mychal Kendricks, coming off a strong campaign as a 13-game starter.
With so many question marks at the position, much will be expected of Nigel Bradham and Jordan Hicks. When training camp opens later this month, Hicks will have to be eased back in while recovering from Achilles surgery. When the season opens in September, Bradham will be unavailable while serving a one-game suspension. Defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz will have to lean on the likes of former Broncos backup Corey Nelson, special teamer Kamu Grugier-Hill, 2016 seventh-round pick Joe Walker and 2017 fifth-round pick Nate Gerry for the NFL Kickoff Game versus the Falcons.
7) *Seattle Seahawks secondary: At its peak, the famed Legion of Boom secondary resembled a superhero cast. Richard Sherman was the dominant playmaking cornerback of the past half-decade. Kam Chancellor was the bone-jarring alpha dog daring receivers to cross the middle of the field. Earl Thomas was the heady centerfielder with rare closing speed, tying the defense together.
The same cast of characters that once boasted the greatest pass defense of the 21st century was decidedly average in 2017. Now Sherman is in San Francisco and Chancellor believes he’s played his last NFL game. If Thomas’ recent trade wish is granted, the transition from Legion of Boom to legion of whom will be complete.
Pete Carroll can cobble together a competitive pass defense if Thomas stays to patrol the back end. If Thomas leaves, however, Carroll may be in over his head with a collection of unproven draft picks and past-prime journeymen. Hence the asterisk.
Follow Chris Wesseling on Twitter @ChrisWesseling.