The modern NFL is routinely explained through one widespread cliche: This is a quarterback league. Furthermore, fantasy has only increased the overall emphasis on the individual. But football, as another bit of prevailing wisdom goes, is the ultimate team sport. And nowhere is the collaborative process more critical than among the subgroups of players who spend the most time together, on the gridiron and in the film room. With that in mind, Chris Wesseling spotlights the NFL’s seven deepest position groups in 2019:
1) Baltimore Ravens secondary
CBS broadcast prodigy Tony Romo cited Don Martindale’s defense as the league’s premier combination of scheme and talent, specializing in blitzing, disguising coverages and shutting down outside receivers. The cornerback corps was deep enough not only to survive but to thrive during the early-season absence of Jimmy Smith, Baltimore’s stingiest cover corner. Sidestepping Eric Weddle‘s decline phase, the Ravens upgraded the back end, swooping in to sign replacement Earl Thomas, the gold standard for safety play in the modern NFL. As star-studded as Thomas’ legendary Legion of Boom defenses were in Seattle, they never boasted the extraordinary depth that Martindale will carry into the 2019 season. Beyond the four starting-caliber cornerbacks, the Ravens have stashed a bevy of young draft picks in Anthony Averett, Iman Lewis-Marshall, Chuck Clark and DeShon Elliott to go with jack-of-all-trades Anthony Levine.
2) Chicago Bears front seven
Led by perennial Defensive Player of the Year candidate Khalil Mack, the latest iteration of the Monsters of the Midway finished first in Football Outsiders’ defensive efficiency metrics and opponents’ passer rating, while falling just two sacks shy of the NFL lead. The entire front-seven cast returns intact, with Pro Bowl behemoth Akiem Hicks stonewalling the ground attack and nose tackle Eddie Goldman emerging as a disruptive force in his own right. Not to be overlooked, veteran Danny Trevathan and up-and-comer Roquan Smith comprise one of the league’s most productive inside linebacker tandems, with the latter improving throughout last season. Headlining the second unit, edge rusher Aaron Lynch and second-year interior lineman Bilal Nichols flashed big-play potential in limited playing time. If this unit stays healthy, the only question is whether former Colts head coach Chuck Pagano can fill the sizable shoes of Vic Fangio, a master button-pusher in recent years.
3) Dallas Cowboys linebackers
Jason Garrett’s on-again, off-again record as the lone-star commander might shine a bit brighter had he the luxury of snakebitten Sean Lee as a component part rather than the backbone of his defense over the past decade. Now that Jaylon Smith and Leighton Vander Esch have emerged as sideline-to-sideline marauders reminiscent of Carolina’s Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis in recent years, Garrett can afford to choose his spots with Lee, now a premium insurance policy alongside the dynamic, young duo. At their best, Smith and Vander Esch shrink the field to the 10 yards between the line of scrimmage and the first-down marker, smothering opposing playmakers. We could include QB nightmare DeMarcus Lawrence and the restocked defensive line here, but the linebackers deserve the limelight after putting the clamps on high-flying offenses late last season.
4) Dallas Cowboys offensive line
It’s hard to blame the naysayers, considering Dallas’ tendency to follow playoff campaigns with lost seasons, but this team is simply too talented in the trenches to fall apart, barring a plague of injuries. Just as the Bill Polian-era Colts doubled down on weapons for Peyton Manning each draft, the Cowboys pour resources into their vaunted offensive line — the team’s identity since Tony Romo and DeMarco Murray gave way to Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott as the future. Former All-Pro center Travis Frederick remains on track to return from last year’s grueling battle with Guillain-Barre Syndrome, pushing veteran stand-in Joe Looney into a reserve role. After watching second-round rookie Connor Williams struggle as one of the league’s youngest starters last year, the team’s brain trust pulled the trigger in the third round on Penn State’s Connor McGovern, one of the draft’s top guard prospects, as a fallback option. If left tackle Tyron Smith returns to the same level of dominance that right guard Zack Martin displays year-in and year-out, this group might just live up to the hype as the NFL’s showpiece among position groups.
5) Cleveland Browns defensive line
Myles Garrett graduated from first overall pick with potential to the terror coming off the edge to occupy the mind of the opposing coaching staff and fanbase each time the quarterback steps back to throw in crunch time. The total package at defensive end, Garrett is NFL Network analyst Daniel Jeremiah’s bold pick for 2019 Defensive Player of the Year. A bit of a lone wolf last year, Garrett will now have the luxury of lining up opposite Olivier Vernon, often the single bright spot on the Giants‘ defense, once his nagging ankle injury healed in November and December. Similarly, unheralded run-stuffer Larry Ogunjobi has help in the form of rent-a-tackle Sheldon Richardson, who got his career back on track with a strong season in Minnesota. Along with Cleveland’s remodeling, the Jaguars, Panthers, Chargers and Colts deserve mention for their own overhauls up front.
6) San Francisco 49ers backfield
Last offseason, the Niners shelled out $30 million over four years for Jerick McKinnon, only to see the former Vikings pass-catching back go down with an ACL tear just before the season’s start. Now McKinnon is in jeopardy of falling out of the rotation, with free-agent acquisition Tevin Coleman, tackle-breaking Matt Breida, Pro Bowl fullback Kyle Juszczyk and special teams dynamo Raheem Mostert in the mix. Among runners with at least 150 carries, Broncos rookie sensation Phillip Lindsay was the only one to top Breida’s 5.3 yards per carry in 2018. The last time Kyle Shanahan dialed up plays for the speedy Coleman, Atlanta’s unstoppable backfield was the envy of the league, threatening records en route to Super Bowl LI. No matter where Shanahan takes his boot-action attack, his offenses feature chain-moving ground games buoyed by big plays out of the backfield.
7) New Orleans Saints secondary
As the league grows ever more reliant upon $30 million quarterbacks and creative play designers to light up the 100-yard skies, defenses are placing increased emphasis on speed, quickness and versatility in the back end. This space could be just as easily devoted to the Patriots, Chargers or Colts, three more Super Bowl contenders embracing the trend toward crowded secondaries flush with extra starters and specialists to match up with spread offenses insistent on stretching the gridiron’s four corners to the limit. Formerly a punching bag, the Saints‘ defense joined the Cowboys‘ unit as one of the few shutdown groups from Thanksgiving through the New Year. This year’s D might just be the deepest and most talented of the Sean Payton era, headlined by No. 1 corner Marshon Lattimore and the rangy young safety tandem of Vonn Bell and Marcus Williams. The depth comes in the form of potential draft steal Chauncey Gardner-Johnson and slot corner Patrick Robinson, who missed most of last season with a broken ankle.
Follow Chris Wesseling on Twitter @ChrisWesseling.