5 NFL Units That Still Need an Upgrade at This Point in the Offseason
We’re somewhere around the halfway point between the start of free agency and the NFL Draft. Since free agency opened, there have been a ton of roster moves made around the league. In three weeks, teams will prepare to add around seven -- or in the case of the Cleveland Browns, half a team’s worth -- of rookies in the draft.
Typically teams use the draft to improve foundations of a team. Rarely does a team have a glaring hole on a roster and get exactly what they need in the draft. Of course, that doesn’t stop teams from entering the draft with such holes in places anyway. This offseason is no different, so let’s take a look at a few units that could still use a massive upgrade at this point in the offseason.
Denver Broncos Interior Defensive Line
The defense of the Denver Broncos was great last season. It was, for the second season in a row, the top defense in the league by our Adjusted Net Expected Points per play. They were the first team to do that since the 2003 and 2004 Baltimore Ravens.
But that play was anchored by the team’s secondary and pass defense overall as the Broncos were first in Adjusted Defensive Passing NEP per play in 2016. Defending the run, however, did not come as easy. Denver was 28th in Adjusted Defensive Rushing NEP per play, a clear weakness on the defense highlighted by a Week 9 loss against the Oakland Raiders when the Raiders ran the same rushing play 10 times in a row and couldn’t be stopped.
Denver identified this problem and went hard after Calais Campbell in free agency before he decided to sign with the Jacksonville Jaguars. The Broncos eventually signed Domata Peko, but that doesn’t come close to filling the need at nose tackle in this defense.
Arizona Cardinals Offensive Line
There’s arguably no quarterback who was undone more by offensive line play in 2016 than Carson Palmer. The line of the Arizona Cardinals didn’t look to be a weakness heading into the 2016 season, but a quick string of injuries derailed the best laid plans.
Left tackle Jared Veldheer played just eight games before a season-ending triceps injury, and left guard Evan Mathis made it just four games before heading to injured reserve with an ankle injury in mid-October. The replacements on the offensive line sent Palmer into more pressure than he deserved.
Among 27 quarterbacks with at least 400 attempts, no passer had a bigger gap between his average time to throw (per NFL’s Next Gen Stats) and Pressure Rate (per Sports Info Solutions charting from Football Outsiders) than Palmer and the Cardinals. Of those quarterbacks, Palmer took the seventh-lowest average time to throw, but he faced the ninth-most pressure on his drop backs.
In an offense like Arizona’s, one that relies on vertical routes and timing, it’s not hard to see how added pressure can play a significant role in taking Palmer from MVP-worthy in 2015 -- second among quarterbacks in Passing NEP per drop back -- to a disappointing 21st in Passing NEP per drop back in 2016.
New York Jets Quarterback
The New York Jets aren’t alone in being a quarterback-needy team heading into the 2017 season, but they’ve done the least to address it.
The San Francisco 49ers signed Brian Hoyer and Matt Barkley, and while neither is ideal, they could be passable for a year in Kyle Shanahan’s offense. The Chicago Bears paid a lot for the upside of Mike Glennon -- they probably paid too much, but hey it’s something. The Houston Texans made an addition-by-subtraction move by using a second-round pick to unload Brock Osweiler.
Meanwhile, the Jets signed Josh McCown.
Only the Texans and Los Angeles Rams had a worse Adjusted Passing NEP per play than the Jets last season. Houston dumped their disaster, and the Rams at least brought in an offensive minded head coach to work with Jared Goff.
New York’s depth chart currently includes McCown, Bryce Petty -- who ranked 38th of 39 quarterbacks with at least 100 drop backs in Passing NEP per drop back last season -- and Christian Hackenberg. Despite being a second-round pick and the Jets getting very little from the position during the regular season, Hackenberg played zero snaps during his rookie year.
With the sixth overall pick in the draft, the Jets could go with a quarterback, but it’s also possible they roll into the season as is.
New York Giants Tight End
Last season the New York Giants ran the second-most plays in the league with just one tight end on the field, per Sharp Football Stats’ personnel groupings tool. No team had less plays with two or more tight ends on the field than the Giants.
While they relied on just one tight end on the field for almost all of their offensive plays, the position was not ignored in the passing game. Will Tye was the fourth-most targeted player on the team with 70 passes thrown his way.
The problem with using just one tight end so often and that tight end being Tye is that he wasn’t particularly good. Among 32 tight ends with at least 50 targets in 2016, Tye ranked 31st in Reception NEP per target. Only Houston’s Ryan Griffin was worse, and that was by just five-thousandths of a point -- 0.367 to 0.362. The league average was 0.616.
It won’t be a surprise to see the Giants use more tight ends in 2017, especially after the signing of blocking tight end Rhett Ellison, but there’s still a need in the passing game. Tye was re-signed earlier in the offseason, and there’s some promise in last year’s sixth-round pick Jerell Adams, but there’s still plenty of room to improve at the position.
Oakland Raiders Cornerbacks
Hopes of a deep 2016 playoff run from the Oakland Raiders were dashed with the injury to quarterback Derek Carr, but they were going to be slim regardless due to the play of the Oakland secondary. Cornerback was part of Oakland’s offseason spending spree last season, but the $15 million guaranteed to Sean Smith didn’t do much to upgrade the defense.
Oakland ranked 25th in Adjusted Defensive Passing NEP per play last season and tied for the second-highest yards per attempt allowed through the air. After throwing money around last offseason, the Raiders stayed pretty quiet in free agency this year and currently have two of last year’s starters -- Smith and David Amerson -- set to return as the starting cornerbacks. Those two will also have the second- and third-highest cap hits on the team in 2017.