Matt Williamson is a former scout for the Cleveland Browns and spent the last 10 years at ESPN as a scout and co-host of “The Football Today Podcast.”
The time between the end of the draft and the start of training camp is one for eternal optimism among NFL fans. Their favorite team is going to be so much better in the coming season. That club fixed its problems through free agency and the draft. Its incoming crop of rookies will all work out wonderfully. Injured players from the year before will return better than ever. No one will get hurt in 2017. You get the idea.
Unfortunately, this is most likely the best your favorite team’s roster will look all season. Much will happen between now and the Super Bowl, and much of it will be negative. With that in mind, this is a divisional series highlighting the biggest area of concern for each team right now. Here is the AFC North.
Ravens – Wide Receiver
When the Ravens’ passing game has been at its best in the Joe Flacco era, Flacco has had a deep threat and a safety valve – two very different types of receivers. Mike Wallace and Breshad Perriman are currently in place for the Torrey Smith deep threat role, and Perriman very well could be on the verge of a breakout season. But Flacco desperately needs his Derrick Mason, Anquan Boldin, or Todd Heap, whether it comes in the form of a wide receiver or tight end. That is really lacking right now in Baltimore.
Maxx Williams has been quite disappointing. Benjamin Watson is 36 years old and coming off a major injury. Dennis Pitta has an extensive injury history. Who knows, maybe one of these tight ends becomes a reliable move-the-chains option for Flacco, but that isn’t a real safe bet. At wide receiver, Chris Moore and Keenan Reynolds are entering their second years. Maybe they step up, but the better alternative is talking trade with the Jets for Eric Decker. Signing Victor Cruz is an option, though he isn’t guaranteed to make an impact.
Bengals – Offensive line
This one is blatantly obvious. Cincinnati’s offensive line regressed from 2015 to 2016, then the team allowed its best two players from that unit, Andrew Whitworth and Kevin Zeitler, to depart in free agency. The center and right tackle positions have been problem areas for some time now.
Sure, the Bengals did plan for this day by selecting Cedric Ogbuehi and Jake Fisher back-to-back to open the 2015 draft. But 2016 fifth-rounder Christian Westerman is the earliest draft pick they have used on the offensive line since then. Not to mention, Ogbuehi and Fisher were liabilities when they saw the field last year. The Bengals have surrounded Andy Dalton with an embarrassment of riches at receiver and running back, but will it matter if Cincinnati can’t block anyone?
Browns – Secondary
Of course we could mention quarterback here, but let’s at least see what DeShone Kizer is capable of. Talent is not a problem for that young man. It is rather amazing that a 1-15 team last year with one of the worst rosters in recent memory no longer has huge areas of need as we enter the 2017 season. But despite using a first-round pick on Jabrill Peppers and still having 28-year-old Joe Haden in the mix, Cleveland’s secondary needs an awful lot of work.
Peppers’ role isn’t entirely clear, but new defensive coordinator Gregg Williams probably sees some Mark Barron in the Michigan product. He’ll surely be aligned all over the defense. Haden’s name value is greater than what he has brought to the field of late. Though cornerback is a concern, free safety stands out as the weakest position right now. This is a defense that was beaten deep far too often in 2016. Quarterback aside, look for the Browns to attack their defensive back situation with a massive amount of resources after the 2017 season.
Steelers – Inside linebacker
Cornerback could be considered Pittsburgh’s biggest area of concern, but the Steelers have used a first- or second-day draft choice on a corner in each of the last three years. The situation at inside linebacker is a bit more tenuous. Ryan Shazier has superstar-like traits and shows flashes of brilliance, but he has a long injury history. The Steelers absolutely need Shazier to stay on the field in 2017, especially with Lawrence Timmons now in Miami.
Vince Williams is a solid player and shouldn’t be a liability as a starter, but he also isn’t a difference maker. Williams is fine as Shazier’s complement, but not if he has to be the top player on the second level. L.J. Fort and second-year man Tyler Matakevich are best suited to being core special teams players that only see spot duty on defense. The Steelers should be scanning the waiver wire before the start of the season for veteran inside linebacker help.
Biggest Weakness Remaining
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