After looking at the most improved position groups in the NFL heading into next season, it begs the question: Which teams did those improvements come at the cost of? New free agent and trade additions for one team naturally detracts from the personnel of another, and here we look at some position groups that face an uphill climb to match the proficiencies of last year’s due to losses via free agency, trades, retirements, injuries, etc.
Broncos Offensive Line- Losses: G Orlando Franklin, C Will Montgomery, G/C Manny Ramirez, T Ryan Clady
Last season, the Broncos’ offensive line performance ranged from sublime to meritorious with left tackle Ryan Clady staying healthy for 16 games, Louis Vasquez acting as a shape shifter manning down whatever spot he was needed at and Manny Ramirez toggling between guard and center with much success. The hulking Orlando Franklin discovered a niche on the interior at guard, and veteran Will Montgomery offered a new ceiling for the group when he became the starting center. The cohesiveness showed as the Broncos line ranked first in pass DVOA and 12th in run DVOA, while allowing just 17 sacks all year, a valued component when considering the age and immobility of Peyton Manning.
However, in the offseason, Franklin left for San Diego and a massive contract, Ramirez was traded on draft night, Montgomery also departed and Ryan Clady suffered a torn ACL, losing yet another full season to injury. In total the Broncos lost 56 starts along the line from a year ago, a frightening proposition for Manning. The team replaced their losses with lesser players, based on last year’s performances. Gino Gradkowski was acquired via trade after losing his starting center job to Jeremy Zuttah in Baltimore. Shelley Smith rejoined head coach Gary Kubiak, but endured a frustrating season in Miami in 2014. The organization selected the rugged Ty Sambrailo of Colorado State in the second round of the draft, and, finally, signed former Bronco Ryan Harris as emergency tackle insurance following Clady’s injury.
Player movement and positional shifting is rarely healthy for an offensive line, a group that relies heavily on intuitive communication and comfort. The offensive scheme was speculated to be more run-centric in 2015 after C.J. Anderson’s promising end to last season and Kubiak’s hiring as coach, but when trying circumstances arise, placing faith in Manning is often the best route to stabilization. Protecting Manning could be an issue as well, but due to his split-second release and preference to work short and fast in the route tree in the dusk of his career, it may not be as much of a factor as people think. There is a lot of pressure lurking in training camp and the preseason on the coaching staff to find the right combination and promote acclimation within this group.
Cowboys Running Backs- Losses: RB DeMarco Murray
Not a team does one man make, but boy, this one man was a bevy of production for Big D last season. Murray set franchise records for rushing and scrimmage yards for a single season in 2014 with 1,845 and 2,261, respectively, which accounted for a whopping 36.8 percent of the team’s total offensive output.
The dominant offensive line in Dallas deserves their share of undue credit, but it’s not as if any slouch of a running back can rack up those totals. Murray consistently displayed toughness between the tackles and elusiveness in the open field, particularly in the passing game. And although, health has been an issue throughout his football career, he managed to stay healthy despite a bruising workload, touting 449 total touches.
Dallas made an efficient cost-cutting move by paving the red carpet to the exit door for Murray in free agency, eventually leading him to divisional-rival Philadelphia. Jerry Jones and company decided all running backs were ineligible for the draft, thus forgoing the prospect of selecting one if only for depth purposes and nothing else. The organization’s activity on the free agent market also waned as Darren McFadden (Arkansas alum…ah Jerry) was the team’s only addition.
Despite McFadden’s past injury-filled failures in Oakland, his bursting upright running style projects well in Dallas as he can quickly hit the hole and get to the second level behind the Titanic-sized gaps Dallas’ line provides. Joining him in the backfield is Joseph Randle who showed explosiveness in limited action last season, averaging 6.7 yards per carry. Randle had a bumpy offseason and the kid needs to mature on and off the field. Ryan Williams and the slippery Lance Dunbar are also roster incumbents. The Cowboys have options, but all are severely lacking, as if the task of replacing a player of Murray’s caliber weren’t already challenging enough.
Saints Receiving Core- Losses: TE Jimmy Graham, WR Kenny Stills, WR Robert Meachem, RB Pierre Thomas, RB Travis Cadet
Drew Brees and Sean Payton have constructed a throne of offensive elitism since coming to New Orleans in 2006. Throughout their time in New Orleans, the Saints have resembled a cornucopia of yardage and points, and along the way have enjoyed a plentiful toy box of offensive receiving talents.
While one could chalk a portion of these talents’ development and production to Payton and Brees, mismatch creators such as Darren Sproles and Jimmy Graham can’t be found at the local department store. However, the Saints were fine last year without Sproles and have seen a bundle of players depart through the years without hampering their offensive status, but never have such departures left the cupboard so barren. Gone are Graham, deep threat Kenny Stills, Robert Meachem and backfield threats Pierre Thomas and Travis Cadet, resulting in Brees losing four of his six most productive targets from 2014.
Brees’ longest-tenured partner, Marques Colston, is still in town, but his age has sapped a bit of his productivity the past few seasons, however, he is still a reliable contributor, capable of making difficult catches over the middle and in traffic. Second-year man Brandin Cooks, flashed potential as a successor to Sproles and Graham as a devastating matchup for defenses before a thumb injury. C.J. Spiller was signed in free agency to act as the new receiving back, and the third receiver spot looks to be Nick Toon’s to lose. It’s just not possible to replace Graham who was surprisingly traded to Seattle for impactful center Max Unger and a first-round pick. The Saints didn’t make an effort to achieve the impossible and find an equal-level talent to Graham, opting to hand the starting tight end responsibilities to third-year player Josh Hill instead.
The Saints appear content to compensate for lost options through the air with a greater devotion to the ground game after former first-rounder, Mark Ingram, finally broke through last season. The Saints return a steady core line unit of Terron Armstead, Jahri Evans and Zac Strief, and added the best run-blocking, and arguably overall, center in football in Unger as well as rookie tackle Andrus Peat at 13 overall. The offense doesn’t have an embarrassment of riches when it comes to playmakers like in years past, but betting on Brees and a more physical rushing attack might be a breath of fresh air for an organization that has stagnated the last few seasons.
Patriots Cornerbacks- Losses: CB Darrelle Revis, CB Brandon Browner, CB Kyle Arrington
Entering the Super Bowl, Malcolm Butler was buried on the depth chart as the team’s fifth corner, but Chris Matthews’ torching of the smaller Kyle Arrington and Logan Ryan propelled Butler into the moment in which he became the game’s ultimate unsung hero on the sport’s biggest stage.
Entering 2015, Butler may be the most glorified corner on the roster, and if that wasn’t already daunting enough, the combination of a broken alarm clock and Bill Belichick’s no-nonsense regime has left his starting spot in jeopardy as training camp looms.
With Darrelle Revis opting for a reunion in New York, Brandon Browner relocating his work address to southern Louisiana and Kyle Arrington being unexpectedly released in the offseason before signing with Baltimore, the Patriots cornerback situation is a riddle that has yet to be solved. Ryan figures to man down one corner spot after starting 13 games in his first two seasons, while Butler may still retain the starting nod, pending the purchase of a new alarm clock, once Belichick analyzes the depressing alternative options. Former Eagle, Bradley Fletcher, will likely be the team’s third corner, and for the sake of his own well-being will only faceoff against Dez Bryant once in 2015. Beyond that the team signed Robert McClain from Atlanta and drafted Marshall’s Daryl Roberts in the sixth round.
Losing Browner and the league’s top man-to-man corner in Revis will likely cause Belichick to revert back to more zone coverage with such underwhelming personnel. With Revis in the fold, New England finished 12th in pass defense DVOA in 2014, compared to 14th in 2013, and 23rd, 28th and 17th in 2012, 2011 and 2010, respectively. The Pats acquired Aqib Talib late in 2012, meaning they haven’t been this depleted at corner in some time. Belichick will have his plate full this season trying to coach up a handful of unproven guys, while also adjusting his defensive schematics to compensate for weaknesses and get the most out of this wretched position group.