Every Team's Biggest Remaining Roster Hole: AFC
The holes that could sink contenders -- and turn a tough season into a rough one
Last week, I took a look at the biggest hole left on each NFC roster. This week, we’re onto the AFC.
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Baltimore Ravens: Edge
We’re heading into year three of wondering whether the Ravens have enough juice on the edge. Mike Macdonald, the team’s defensive coordinator, wants to get after opposing offenses with pressures and blitzes. Macdonald has the most robust, creative, pressure scheme anywhere this side of Vance Joseph.
That’s great! Having a variety of skill sets and body types allows a coach to build an innumerable number of pressure paths and looks. That stuff can work – damn effectively. But as Macdonald discovered during his time as Michigan’s DC, at the top of the pyramid, there is still third-and-medium, you are still in man-coverage, and you still need to win a handful of times a game where a four-man, get-off-and-go pass-rush crashes home. You can game and pressure your way (zone-pressure packages still typically feature four ‘rushers’) only so far. Once the postseason rolls around — and the Ravens are operating in a championship window — you need one or two stars who can create pressure and negative plays all by themselves.
Odafe Oweh has yet to prove that he can consistently be that guy. He finished last season with 43 total pressures, including five sacks and six hits. That’s a good return, but there is noise in those figures: Macdonald’s blitz and pressure looks consistently freed up clear paths for Oweh. Against true pass sets, he finished with a 10% pass-rush win rate, a figure that puts him closer to the likes of John Cominsky and Efe Obada than the game’s elite.
As a rotational runner, that’s good stuff. It’s valuable. If the Ravens can find a second such rusher, they could be in business even without a 70-pressure-a-year type flyer off the edge.
Can David Ojabao be that guy? Ojabo all-but redshirted last year after sustaining an Achilles injury in college. He was a top-15 talent in the 2022 draft class who slipped to day two because of his injury. The Ravens will hope their long-term investment in Ojabo comes good right away. In the teeniest sample size last year, Ojabo looked every bit the player he was at Michigan, full of speed, bend, and power.
Ojabo was Aidan Hutchinson’s running mate at Michigan, and plenty of scouts around the league preferred Ojabo’s combination of hops and flexibility to Hutchinson’s power-based style. The one knock on Ojabo: He hadn’t played a lot of football. Baltimore’s defense is defense. Giving Ojabo a year to sit and learn from the sidelines will have helped. And in the short term, there are ways of manipulating his role within the defense to always make him a rusher rather than dropping as a decoy as he continues to understand the scheme. He’s worked with Macdonald before, too. And while the DC’s defense in Baltimore is different from the one he ran in Michigan, there are crossovers in terminology that should allow Ojabo to hit the ground running.
Betting on Ojabo to be an impact piece is a wise gamble. But relying on a player returning from an Achilles tear is also an awful lot of pressure to put on a team’s pass rush and its postseason prospects. If Ojabo is not a 45-50 pressure edge-rusher from the off, the Ravens will need to find production from elsewhere.
Getting beat to the punch on a Za’Darius Smith by the Browns stings. Smith fits the kind of malleable, speed-to-power rusher that the Ravens covet.
Still: There are plenty of options left on the board if the Ravens want to add a pass-rush-only specialist prior to the start of the season. Yannick Ngakoue, Jadeveon Clowney, Leonard Floyd, Melvin Ingram, Frank Clark, and Justin Houston are all available. Of that group, Ingram makes the most sense.
One other option: Using rookie linebacker Trenton Simpson as a pass-rusher as much as an off-ball defender.
Simpson was touted as a fringe first-rounder early in the draft process before winding up as a fourth-round pick. Of all the top linebackers in the 2023 class, Simpson had the prototypical height-length combo that all teams crave in off-ball ‘backers these days. He profiles as a guy who can toggle between positions. At Clemson, he lined up as an overhang defender, as an off-ball guy, and stood on the edge. But Simpson was always better rocking downhill than he was as a see-then-find linebacker. When off the ball, Simpson always felt like he was a tick late to everything; he waited for things to unfold before pressing the trigger and driving. Off the ball, he’s a long, long way from being good enough to operate in the middle of an NFL defense. But as a sub-package piece, he’s ideal. Simpson is a zoomer. As a blitzer, both from depth and as an overloaded edge defender, he showed real promise in college: he’s a bundle of energy and length; he plays with frenzied hands, even if it often looks like he has no idea what he’s doing.
In a Mike Macdonald defense that prioritizes disguises and different pressure paths, that will be valuable. Having a downfield speedster who can mug then drop from the interior or slip to the edge or bring heat from depth will add value to get-off-the-field looks on third downs.
Simpson will never be a true edge. It will take time for him to develop as a true off-ball linebacker. But if the Ravens are looking to squeeze some extra juice out of their pressure groups without a true stud on the perimeter, moving Simpson all around the formation on pressure and blitz looks for 15-odd snaps a game would be a canny use of resources.
Buffalo Bills: Cornerback
I mean, seriously. This is hard. The Bills don’t really have a clear ‘hole’ on their roster. Are there elements that could be upgraded? Sure. But to do so you run into concerns like… the salary cap.
The four key contenders: Cornerback, off-ball linebacker, wide receiver, right tackle.
The Bills internally feel more comfortable with a couple of those slots than outsiders. There are issues at the second or third receiver spots behind Stephon Diggs, though the Bills will point to Dalton Kincaid, who will effectively function as a power slot. There’s also Dawson Knox, who’s more of a receiver than tight end, and there’s a chance we see more of James Cook in his sophomore year, he’s a better receiving back than a thumper between the tackles.
Still: those things alone should not rule out the Bills hunting for an upgrade on the trade market. Expecting the Knox-Kincaid partnership to be a legitimate 12 personnel grouping that can form the basis of the passing game is likely to be folly.
Linebacker stands out as a key concern, too. With Tremaine Edmunds leaving in free agency the Bills look thin next to Matt Milano. But you’re reading somewhere here who believes in the almighty power of Dorian Williams, who the Bills snagged in the third-round of the draft.
Williams can be an impact player from week one given the specifics of what the Bills will ask him to do.
Bills GM Brandon Beane spoke post-draft about wanting to rejig the off-ball room alongside Matt Milano. They don’t need an early down run plugger — they have Milano for that. They don’t need someone to sidle from the off position onto the line of scrimmage against certain formations. They have Milano for that. They don’t even really need a weapon as a blister, even though Williams can add a ton of value there. They have Milano for that. What they need is a coverage-first linebacker with the speed and instincts to cover a ton of ground in zones.
In effect, they subbed out Tremaine Edmunds and his meaty contract for a different form of linebacker. Edmunds is long and rangy. He clogs passing lanes. He can match up with tight ends down the field. But Beane wanted a different profile. Williams is shorter and quicker. He plays in sudden bursts. He's a better sink, find and attack ‘backer off the ball than Edmunds, whose value comes in greasing up throwing lanes for opposing QBs. Williams will arrive at all the landmarks at all the right times. Putting that next to the do-everything Milano is an ideal fit. If they want to get funky with their blitz packages, Williams doesn’t bring as much pop as Edmunds – who by virtue of his length advantage is able to do some things Williams cannot – but he will bring a turbo-charged motor and a freneticism that can help in short bursts.
At right tackle, the Bills will give Spencer Brown a chance to make the third-year-leap that has become commonplace for young tackles. It’s a long shot, but it’s the main area where a lack of cap flexibility and options on the open market boxed the team in this offseason.
That leaves corner, which is probably the most likely concern to knee-cap a potential title run. Tre’Devious White was not the same player when he returned from injury last season. Behind him, the team is counting on Dane Jackson, Christian Benford, and Ja’Marcus Ingram. The Bills will expect a big leap forward from second-year corner Kaiir Elam, who showed intermittent promise as a rookie and who stands alone as the only piece in the defensive backfield who really fits with where meta defensive football is at: He’s a big, long corner who’s as comfortable locking on and playing inside as he is lining up outside. The Bills can get more out of Elam if they loosen the coverage reigns and get a tick more creative in dictating matchups.
Keeping the team’s (declining) safety tandem together was a win one of the crucial wins of the offseason. But there’s only so much the Poyer-Hyde duo can do to plug holes in the defensive backfield.
It’s yet to be seen if the Bills will embrace a stylistic refresh. Leslie Frazer did an admirable job fixing issues on the back end of a beat-up defense last year while still adhering to Sean McDermott’s defensive philosophy. The Bills played as much open-field coverage (two deep shells) as any defense in the league; they ran man-free coverage on just 20% of snaps, the lowest mark in the league. Once Vonn Miller went down and the team’s pass-rush fell from championship-worthy to middling, that style came unstuck.
Frazier was rewarded by being let go in a bizarre fashion: The Bills continue to maintain that Frazier is just taking a year-long sabbatical… but when that sabbatical is over they don’t expect him to return to Buffalo. That means that Frazier either walked away from the Bills altogether or he was pushed. Frazier has yet to comment publicly but he spoke with those at the NFL’s Accelerator Program about his wish to coach in 2023. Odd.
The whole situation is strange and worthy of further investigation. How it impacts the Bills on the field remains to be seen. Frazier ran more split safety coverage in 2022 than McDermott ever did during his time running the Panthers' defense. Was that due to league-wide trends, the roster, the injury concerns, or because of Frazier? And will McDermott adjust back this season?
If the team is unable to rediscover its early pass-rushing form of 2022, they’ll have issues in coverage unless McDermott is willing to adjust the team’s coverage profile. Running a wider coverage palette — including more man-coverage — is a must if the team is to maximize its current defensive backfield, although that doesn’t quite jive with McDermott’s past.
McDermott has yet to name a successor to Frazier. Either he will be more hands-on with the defense or the Bills will announce an internal promotion during training camp. Regardless, whoever takes up the reigns will need to be more pliable in coverage, particularly with the deployment of Elam.
Cincinnati Bengals: Tight End
There are more obvious holes on the Bengals' roster. Obviously, losing their two starting safeties, the foundation of so much of Loudini’s goodness, is a tough blow, no matter the fact that the team drafted Dax Hill a year ago as a ready-to-go replacement. Replacing Vonn Bell and Jessie Bates as both individual players and chess pieces on this specific defense was always going to be close to impossible.
Bringing in rookies Jordan Battle (safety) and DJ Turner (slot/corner) will add some fizz to the secondary — Cincy might be able to offset losses in the secondary with an improved pass-rush. By the second half of the season, as the Bengals approach the playoffs, both Battle and Turner should be fully embedded pieces of the defense.
The Bengals' defense might be a slow burn this season, peaking in time for January. And under Lou Anarumo they’ve always been more gameplan specific than a week-to-week juggernaut. That will likely continue for a third year.
The question remains whether Joe Burrow can drag anything more out of the Bengals’ offense. Nobody is playing the quarterback position better than Burrow 3.0. And while the Bengals' passing game has remained stylistically pedestrian and predictable, they revamped things in the run-game last season that in turn opened up a different world of RPOs and play-action shots.
That fresh element allowed Burrow to obliterate all before him — and allowed the Bengals to run rampant over the Bills in the playoffs. Maintaining that and expanding the passing game will be the two key tracking points for the Bengals throughout the season. Building on and improving the altered offense will come down to what the team can get out of its tight end room.
Here’s how the Bengals' tight end depth chart currently looks:
Irv Smith Jr.
Betting on Smith Jr.’s athletic upside is a savvy play. His career thus far has been short-circuited by injuries, but the talent and the athletic traits that made him a second-round pick — and a valuable player in 2020 — are still there. Smith Jr. is still just 24 years old. He has the feel of a pesky rotation wing that you can picture as the fourth or fifth most important piece on an NBA title team who looks rudderless during a rebuild.
The Bengals' offense should play to Smith’s strengths: He’s a quality move blocker, which should encourage the Bengals to persist with a more creative, diverse run scheme; he can get vertical in a hurry and is loose enough as a route runner to create separation downfield one-on-one. In the Bengals' iso-based offense, any tight end will be relied upon to create their own space in the middle of the field, and then to generate offense after the catch.
Even last season, a year in which Smith Jr. struggled and the Vikings traded for TJ Hockensen, he averaged 1.02 yards per route run, sandwiching him between Dawson Knox and Mike Gesicki. If you isolate that to routes from the slot, however, Smith Jr. vanishes. He was targeted just once in the slot last season. He missed the 2021 season with a meniscus injury. In 2020, he finished with 40 targets from the slot with middling production. He has consistently done his best work when attached to the line of scrimmage before releasing out into space.
Moving to Cincinnati will push Smith Jr. into new territory. The Bengals like to play out of four-open looks with the tight end detached from the formation — that fell ever so slightly as the team changed some of its run-game mechanics at the mid-point of last season; they preferred to keep an extra hat in the box from their 11 personnel groupings on early downs. Burrow wants as clear a picture as possible at the snap so that he can go and play matchup ball once the ball is in play; he relies on the fourth option, the tight end, to operate as an easy out in the middle of the field.
In 2021, CJ Uzomah saw 80 targets in the slot for the Bengals. In 2022, Hayden Hurst finished with 82 targets, the 12th fattest mark in the league, with a beefy 7.9 average depth of target.
Bumping Smith Jr. to the slot requires some projection, which might make the Bengals’ staff (and Burrow) a little nervous. Moving out isn’t brand new to Smith – he moved around Alabama’s formation in college – but it’s a different profile to the kind of offense and role that Smith Jr. has operated in in the NFL. Smith Jr. has played in more ‘play design heavy’ systems before, offenses that spring him into open space by the craft of the routes rather than relying on him to win one-on-one, isolated against a defender.
It will be an adjustment. But if Smith Jr. can stay healthy, he has all the skills to be a valuable fourth option from those four-open groupings, and his experience and skill on the line of scrimmage will allow Bryan Callahan to continue to indulge the cocktail that made the Bengals so lethal down the stretch last season.
There will be a ton of opportunities for Smith Jr. to feast in the Bengals offense. Close your eyes and you can picture it: Tee Higgins or Ja’Marr Chase pressing back the defensive shell; Tyler Boyd offering the quick-breaking option to the intermediate level; Smith Jr. sitting over the ball, ready to speed away once the ball is in his hands.
As low-cost, high-upside shots go, it’s pretty, pretty good. Behind Smith, though, there are a lack of viable options. Drew Sample struggled in his first season in the league: He doesn’t have the power to drive the front off the ball in line; he looked uncoordinated when out in the pattern. Devin Asiai is a blocking-first tight end who will function more as a fullback than as a traditional tight end. As a running mate in 12 personnel groupings, he can have some use, but he will offer little beyond blurring the lines between 21/12 personnel.
Adding another tight end before the season would be a smart move, unless the team sees development from Sample during preseason. They could look to the veteran free-agent market. Right now, two names stand out: Geoff Swaim and Anthony Frisker. Swaim remains a solid enough two-option who can thump in line and walk out away from the formation; Frisker was Swaim’s partner in Tennessee and did most of his damage away from the formation.
One other possibility: Trading for Seattle’s Noah Fant.
Fant’s usage dipped in Seattle following his trade from Denver last offseason. The Seahawks ran the most creative, tight end friendly offense in the league last year, using 13 personnel, in every iteration imaginable, at a league-high rate. Colby Parkinson, Will Dissly, and Fant were all core components of Shane Waldron’s creative approach. With Jaxon Smith-Njigba now on the roster, it’s likely that the Seahawks will revert back to a more 12/11 personnel-based approach with smatterings of the old 13 personnel stuff here and there.
In that world, Fant could be the odd man out. Colby Parkinson and Will Dissly fit neatly as a typical 12 personnel tandem, and Parkinson out-snapped and out-produced Fant when Dissly missed the final three games of the season – though Fant was dealing with a knee injury.
Fant is due to play under his fifth-year option this year, worth $7 million. If the Seahawks have no interest in extending his deal, they could cash in now for some extra assets without losing much depth, snaps, or neutering any part of their offense.
Fant would match up nicely with what Cincinnati wants to do on offense. In 2021, his best year in Denver, he was targeted in the slot 88 times. He was one of the league’s best mismatch threats vs. man-coverage out of the slot, averaging 1.28 yards per route run. He offers just enough as a move blocker — one of those get-in-the-way kinds — that the Bengals would be able to maintain a number of their fresher designs. And with a healthy Smith Jr. and Fant, they’d be able to embrace heavier personnel groupings while maintaining a legitimate receiving threat in the slot.
If the Seahawks are intent on keeping Fant, who is still only 25 years old, then it’s a non-starter. But Fant would be more valuable in Cincinnati right now than he is in Seattle. He could have a compound effect on the entire offense, raising the current base offense and adding a fresh dimension that could push the group to yet another level.
From Week Seven onwards last season, the Bengals finished 3rd in EPA per play. To maintain that, or, rather, to encroach on the Chiefs’ monopoly on the top spot, they need a tight end who is comfortable running out of the slot and slicing across the formation as the move blocker. Perhaps Smith winds up being that guy, but offering a decent package to the Seahawks for Fant would give them some certainty.