At this stage of the NFL calendar year, you can make the case for many teams to be in the hunt for the next Super Bowl. However, each team has a fatal flaw that could be their undoing this season. This article identifies one fatal flaw for each contending team this season and discusses the ramifications of that major weakness.
Arizona Cardinals – Poorly Constructed Roster
I debated not including the Cardinals on this list, as I don’t see them as a genuine contender, but they were a playoff team last year that has Kyler Murray at quarterback, so I’ll give them their due. Unfortunately, general manager Steve Keim has failed to build a strong roster around Murray. Recent first-round picks at linebacker Isaiah Simmons and Zaven Collins have yet to pay dividends. The offensive line is in bad shape, and the pass-rush is severely limited after the loss of Chandler Jones. With a secondary that played over its head last season, that worsened pass-rush should be highly concerning. Steve Keim is the fatal flaw of this roster, and until he’s replaced, it’s difficult to envision the Cardinals ascending into the realm of Super Bowl competition.
Baltimore Ravens – Pass-Catching Depth
I’d argue the Ravens were winners of their Marquise Brown trade earlier this offseason, particularly with the first-round pick being used on Tyler Linderbaum, a center who could become a perennial Pro Bowler. However, their pass-catching depth is severely limited right now. Rashod Bateman will be heavily relied upon to break through in his second season after just 46 catches for 515 yards and a touchdown last year. Devin Duvernay, James Proche, and Tylan Wallace are all recent draft picks who have yet to prove capable. Of course, First-Team All-Pro tight end Mark Andrews will carry a significant burden here, but if the Ravens find themselves in passing game scripts, it’s difficult to bank on high-end production out of this group as a whole.
Buffalo Bills – Tre’Davious White’s Injury
The Bills have arguably the best roster in football, and as such, they are the current Super Bowl favorites. However, if there’s one area of concern for Buffalo, it would be the return to health of Tre’Davious White following his season-ending ACL injury. A former First-Team All-Pro cornerback in 2019, White’s absence hurt the Bills down the stretch, particularly in the playoffs, where the Buffalo defense gave up 378 passing yards to Patrick Mahomes and 42 points to the Chiefs in a loss. The Bills drafted Kaiir Elam in the first round this year, but banking on him producing at a high level right away is likely a mistake, and the loss of Levi Wallace shouldn’t be overlooked. Still, the Bills should have the best secondary in the NFL with their elite safety tandem so long as White can get healthy soon.
Cincinnati Bengals – Crushing Weight of Expectations
The Super Bowl hangover appears to be a real thing in the NFL, as only eight teams in the history of the league have returned to the Super Bowl the year after losing. The crushing defeat on the biggest stage can derail teams. Last year, Joe Burrow and the Bengals were a plucky, young, up-and-coming squad that went from worst to first in their division. This year, they’re expected to be one of the few true title contenders in the league. With their overhauled offensive line and reinforcements in the secondary, Cincinnati’s roster is arguably even better than last year. However, they won’t be sneaking up on their opponents, and they won’t have the benefit of a last-place schedule. The onus will be on Burrow to lead this team back to the promised land despite increased expectations and added pressure.
Cleveland Browns – Deshaun Watson
This one is pretty obvious, and it’s up in the air at the moment, but the Browns’ Super Bowl chances are tethered to Deshaun Watson’s availability for this season. Watson’s legal hearings are ongoing, and the verdict will likely be coming within the next few weeks. If he’s suspended for the entire year, I’d be hard-pressed to expect Jacoby Brissett to lead Cleveland to the playoffs in a loaded AFC. However, if Watson is available this season, the Browns have the pieces to make a deep playoff run. Amari Cooper helps reinforce the team’s pass-catching, and the offensive line remains one of the league’s best in front of a dynamic backfield. Myles Garrett is perhaps the best edge defender in the league, and the secondary is filled with talent. However, the Browns’ Super Bowl aspirations will disappear if Watson is suspended.
Dallas Cowboys – Only Having One Micah Parsons
The Cowboys lost Randy Gregory this offseason after a breakthrough year coming off the edge, and they did little to replace him. Micah Parsons had an otherworldly rookie season as he finished second in Defensive Player of the Year voting as a rookie. He was also a First-Team All-Pro linebacker in his debut season, and he led Dallas in sacks (13), forced fumbles (3), and tackles for loss (20). However, Parsons can’t be in two places at once. When he’s asked to rush off the edge, he’s up there with the best true edge defenders in the league in creating pressure. He’s also an adept run defender and solid in coverage. Despite DeMarcus Lawrence’s hopeful return to health after just seven games played last season, the Cowboys’ front seven lacks depth and could struggle in whichever spots on the field Parsons isn’t able to cover.
Denver Broncos – A Lot of Newness
The Broncos have added quarterback Russell Wilson, head coach Nathaniel Hackett, and owner Rob Walton this offseason to the fold. Last offseason, they hired general manager George Paton. By all accounts, these new additions will pay dividends, and on paper, this roster looks poised to end Denver’s seven-year playoff drought. However, the Broncos find themselves in the toughest division in football with the Chiefs and Chargers, both Super Bowl contenders, and the Raiders no slouches. Denver will need to acclimate quickly to a new offensive and defensive scheme while building chemistry between Wilson and his skill position players. Make no mistake about it – this team is headed in the right direction. However, they have an uphill battle that their biggest rivals don’t face in integrating new pieces.
Green Bay Packers – Life After Davante Adams
The Packers traded away Davante Adams this offseason for a significant draft haul from the Raiders, but they’re left to pick up the pieces in a receiving corps lacking proven options. Adams was a First-Team All-Pro wideout each of the last two seasons, with almost 3,000 yards and 29 touchdowns over that span. Aaron Rodgers isn’t traditionally a quarterback who trusts rookies, so it’s difficult to expect Christian Watson or Romeo Doubs to immediately make a big impact. The most significant free agency addition to the wide receiver room was Sammy Watkins, who hasn’t topped 1,000 yards since 2015. Rodgers publicly spoke to Allen Lazard being ready to take the mantle as the team’s WR1 after a career-high eight touchdowns last season. Still, the lack of proven pass-catchers could derail Green Bay’s offense after two of the best seasons of Rodgers’ career.
Indianapolis Colts – Matt Ryan Hitting a Wall
Last season, Matt Ryan posted his lowest touchdown rate since 2015, lowest yards per attempt since 2010, and the lowest QBR of his career. The 36-year-old quarterback hit a wall, and while expectations are high for him in a new location with a better supporting cast, those results from last season should be concerning. The Colts will be a run-first team so long as Jonathan Taylor is healthy, and the offensive line should be back as one of the league’s best with some better injury luck. However, Indianapolis’s ability to elevate to true Super Bowl contention rests on the right arm of Matt Ryan. His leadership and poise will be welcomed, but his ability to bounce back from arguably the worst season of his career will be the true test for the Colts.
Kansas City Chiefs – Life After Tyreek Hill
In a similar vein to the Packers after losing Davante Adams, the Chiefs’ overall identity has been significantly altered following the trade of Tyreek Hill. Hill has been among the best receiving weapons in the NFL since entering the league, and his chemistry with Patrick Mahomes has been virtually unmatched across the NFL. Since 2018, Mahomes’ first season as a starter, Hill has averaged over 1,200 yards and 11 touchdowns per season, and that’s with an injury-shortened 2019 campaign. The Chiefs added JuJu Smith-Schuster and Marquez Valdes-Scantling in free agency and drafted Skyy Moore. Still, that compilation of talent likely isn’t enough to replicate how Hill fundamentally changed the way opponents game-planned against this team. Mahomes will be tested as he hopes to prove his worth as the quarterback who many see as the best in the NFL.
Las Vegas Raiders – Keeping Derek Carr Upright
The Raiders’ addition of Davante Adams gives them one of the best receiving corps in football alongside Hunter Renfrow and Darren Waller. Still, their offensive line remains a massive question mark. Las Vegas allowed 40 sacks last year, tied for the 11th-most in the league, and ranked just 22nd in PFF’s team pass-blocking grades. Kolton Miller was elite last season, but the rest of the line is broken. Alex Leatherwood had a brutal rookie season, Brandon Parker is one of the worst starting tackles in the NFL, and Denzelle Good has been far from good in his last few seasons. If the Raiders can’t give Carr enough time to push the ball downfield, their improved pass-catching corps won’t matter much. That’s especially true in a division that features Chris Jones, Joey Bosa, Khalil Mack, Randy Gregory, and Bradley Chubb.
Los Angeles Chargers – Being the Chargers
I almost put the right tackle position here for the Chargers, but Trey Pipkins has reportedly had an excellent offseason and played very well in limited snaps last year. There are worse situations in the league at that spot. Instead, the Chargers are saddled with the overwhelming expectations of a franchise that has seemed to let analysts down yearly. On paper, Justin Herbert, one of the best ascending quarterbacks in the league, should be able to lead this highly talented roster to the playoffs. The defense should be much-improved with J.C. Jackson and Khalil Mack, and the second year in Brandon Staley’s system should pay dividends for everyone. However, this team never quite seems to live up to expectations, whether it’s because of injuries, coaching, or bad luck late in games. Will this be the year?
Los Angeles Rams – Lack of Depth Behind Stars
The Rams are loaded with star talent, and this offseason, in particular, brought tons of commentary from fans wondering how they can make so many high-profile signings. Bobby Wagner and Allen Robinson were big-name additions, and the Rams also signed extensions for Matthew Stafford, Cooper Kupp, Jalen Ramsey, and Aaron Donald this offseason. The downside to those big-money extensions and free agency signings is the lack of depth on the rest of the roster, and if there is an injury to any of their top players, the roster could be in trouble. For now, though, we should expect them to be back in the running as a top contender for the Super Bowl.
Miami Dolphins – Does Tua Have It?
The Dolphins had a tremendous offseason, adding wide receiver Tyreek Hill, offensive tackle Terron Armstead, and offensive-minded head coach Mike McDaniel. All of them should transform the team’s offensive viability. Tua Tagovailoa hasn’t impressed so far in his career, but the added protection, improved scheme, and top pass-catcher in Hill should massively boost his success. This is a make-or-break year for Tagovailoa as he’s running out of excuses, and his ability to produce will decide how good this offense can be. Tagovailoa has thrown for just 27 touchdowns to 15 interceptions in 21 starts through two seasons, and his overall volume should increase significantly this year. With a loaded defense featuring an elite secondary and talented pass-rushers, this is a playoff-caliber roster if Tagovailoa can get them there.
Minnesota Vikings – Run Defense
The Vikings made some excellent offseason additions, with Za’Darius Smith joining a revamped edge-rushing group and Danielle Hunter’s return to health. The secondary should be much-improved with rookies Andrew Booth Jr. and Lewis Cine joining the ascending Cameron Dantzler. However, the Vikings struggled in defending the run last season as they ranked just 25th in run defense DVOA. This is an ongoing issue as the Vikings ranked 30th in that category in 2020. In 2019, they ranked fifth in run defense DVOA as Eric Kendricks was PFF’s fourth-highest graded run-defending linebacker, but he hasn’t made the same impact since then. New defensive coordinator Ed Donatell will rely on Kendricks to hold down the fort in run defense with his base nickel defense. Minnesota’s success in run defense could dictate their overall defensive viability.
New England Patriots – Lack of Star Talent
The Patriots have an intriguing roster led by rookie Mac Jones who had a solid debut season, the best of any quarterback in his class. However, the pass-catching group is surprisingly limited for a team with the most expensive receiving corps in the NFL. New England has several WR2s and WR3s but no true WR1 to rely on in the offense. The same can be said on defense, where Matthew Judon and Christian Barmore are excellent auxiliary pieces but not the types of defenders you would consider franchise building blocks. J.C. Jackson’s loss also looms as he was PFF’s fifth-highest graded cornerback in coverage last year. The Patriots will be in the playoff conversation thanks to a collectively solid group of talent and Bill Belichick’s strong coaching. Still, there isn’t enough star talent to elevate this team into the Super Bowl conversation.
New Orleans Saints – Trevor Penning ≠ Terron Armstead
Terron Armstead signed with the Dolphins in free agency on a big contract, and the Saints could struggle to replace his elite pass protection. The Saints drafted Trevor Penning in the first round, but I have serious concerns about his immediate transition to the NFL. Penning is an elite athlete with a 6’7”, 325 lb frame built for the offensive tackle position. However, his pass-blocking is incredibly unrefined, and he drew an absurd 16 penalties in 2021 against poor FCS competition that he should have been dominating. Penning will likely be a high-level run blocker right away, but his blindside protection likely won’t be enough to keep the pocket consistently clean for Jameis Winston.
Philadelphia Eagles – Can Jalen Hurts Elevate the Offense?
The Eagles made a massive trade for A.J. Brown over the offseason, and he joins a formidable receiving corps with Devonta Smith and Dallas Goedert. However, Jalen Hurts hasn’t been a great passer of the football thus far, and he ranked just 28th in completion percentage last season. Hurts is an elite runner – Next Gen Stats named him the most explosive runner in the NFL based on plays with 10+ yards and runs of 15 miles per hour or more. However, his inconsistent decision-making and lack of accuracy, particularly over the middle, has limited the offense’s viability. This is a make-or-break year for Hurts, and if he can’t elevate the team to true contention, they will likely draft his replacement next year.
San Francisco 49ers – Trey Lance’s Growing Pains
The 49ers are set to open the season with Trey Lance as their new franchise quarterback, and the early returns were impressive last year as he flashed big-play arm talent and elite running ability. However, we should expect there to be real growing pains for a quarterback who started just one full season at North Dakota State before being drafted. Not only does Trey Lance have the obstacles any inexperienced quarterback faces, but he also has the pressures of starting for a team that expects to be in the Super Bowl conversation. I expect Lance to elevate this team to new heights with his impressive upside in the long term. His transition should also be aided by Kyle Shanahan being one of the best offensive minds in the NFL. Still, the growing pains could be real this year, and 49ers fans should brace for some waves of production from the young passer.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers – Is Tom Brady Still Bought In?
There frankly aren’t many holes to discuss with the Tampa Bay roster, and the main reason they fell short in the playoffs last year was health, as they suffered several injuries down the stretch. However, one question I have is Tom Brady’s mindset entering this season. Brady will turn 45 years old before the season starts, and he already has an insane seven Super Bowl wins – he has nothing left to prove. He already retired this offseason before deciding to come back, and he accepted a massive ten-year, $375 million contract from Fox after he retires. Will Brady be motivated to win yet another Super Bowl? If he is, this team should have every expectation to be back in the NFC Championship at the very least this season.
Tennessee Titans – Treylon Burks ≠ A.J. Brown
The trade away of A.J. Brown had to happen as the Titans found themselves in a position where they couldn’t pay his long-term salary. Still, Brown is one of the best wide receivers in the NFL – he has the third-most yards per route run since 2019, behind only Davante Adams and Justin Jefferson, per PFF. Tennessee drafted Treylon Burks in the first round with the pick they got in the Brown trade, but expecting him to produce at Brown’s level immediately is a mistake. Burks has an intriguing blend of size and speed, but he’s an unpolished route-runner who is inexperienced in getting off the line of scrimmage against press defense. His transition to the NFL could take some time, and it will hurt the overall viability of the offense.