Stars are great, but depth drives championships, especially in football, where a string of bad injury luck can quickly reduce an apparent roster strength to a liability. With the 2018 season on the horizon, Chris Wesseling rounds up the seven deepest position groups in the NFL below:
1) Philadelphia Eagles defensive line: Should we throw in the offensive line, as well? The Eagles dominated in the trenches en route to the Super Bowl LII title, pushing teams around on offense and sending waves of pass rushers on defense. While reigning Defensive Player of the Year Aaron Donald of the Rams is the cream of the crop, Philadelphia’s earth-moving Fletcher Cox isn’t far behind among interior linemen.
Cox has plenty of help in the form of Super Bowl hero Brandon Graham, run-stuffer Tim Jernigan, veteran Chris Long and second-year edge rusher Derek Barnett. To that impressive quartet, Philadelphia has added three-time Pro Bowler Michael Bennett and former All-Pro Haloti Ngata to go with athletic fourth-round pick Josh Sweat. Considering the success of coordinator Jim Schwartz’s defense, it’s no surprise that other teams have begun copying Philadelphia’s blueprint up front. That brings us to the next-deepest group …
2) Minnesota Vikings front seven: Head coach Mike Zimmer’s front seven may be even deeper than Schwartz’s. It starts on the line, where Everson Griffen and Danielle Hunter form one of the most explosive and relentless bookend tandems in the league, terrorizing overmatched tackles to put the heat on opposing quarterbacks. Already one of the league’s most reliable run-pluggers, nose tackle Linval Joseph has help on the interior with the arrival of enigmatic former Defensive Rookie of the Year Sheldon Richardson. A pair of recent fourth-round picks, Jalyn Holmes and Jaleel Johnson, team with grizzled veteran Brian Robison to provide depth.
Where the Vikings have an advantage over the Eagles, though, is at linebacker, with leading tackler Eric Kendricks and three-time Pro Bowl selection Anthony Barr. At a time when offensive-line quality is down across the league, Minnesota is far from alone in boasting a stout defensive front. The overhauled Buccaneers join the Jaguars, Panthers and Rams as organizations that also deserve recognition for assembling deep front sevens.
3) Dallas Cowboys offensive line: The Cowboys have what most teams want: an identity. Even in a disappointing, suspension-marred season, running back Ezekiel Elliott led the league with an average of 98.3 rushing yards per game, moving the chains via a methodical ground attack paved by Dallas’ daunting front five. In any given year, this unit has a chance to boast the NFL’s premier tackle (Tyron Smith), guard (Zack Martin) and center (Travis Frederick).
Beyond that superlative trio, questions arose not only at the other guard spot but also at backup tackle. Falcons journeyman Adrian Clayborn (who has since signed with the Patriots) racked up a whopping six sacks at the expense of emergency stand-ins Chaz Green and Byron Bell in a mid-November meltdown that Smith missed due to injury. Those issues have been addressed this offseason with the drafting of second-round left guard Connor Williams and the signing of former Patriots swing tackle Cameron Fleming, who held his own in the AFC Championship Game and Super Bowl LII last season. Even casual football fans understand this is a deep, star-studded collection of talent.
4) New Orleans Saints secondary: It was just a couple of years ago that head coach Sean Payton’s pass defense was flirting with records for futility. After drafting shutdown cornerback Marshon Lattimore and the safety tandem of Vonn Bell and Marcus Williams in 2016 and 2017, however, this unit is emerging as the envy of the NFC South. Lattimore’s success has overshadowed the emergence of Ken Crawley, who was a stingy cover corner in his own right last season.
To bolster that impressive collection of young talent, Payton has imported former Eagles nickelback Patrick Robinson (a first-round pick by the Saints in 2010 who spent the first five years of his career in New Orleans) and steady veteran Kurt Coleman, a playmaking safety with the Panthers the past few years. To be fair, it’s hard to single out the Saints when the Jaguars, Vikings, Rams, Chargers and even the division-rival Falcons are also loaded in the defensive backfield.
5) Denver Broncos pass rushers: The Broncos captured the Super Bowl 50 crown on the strength of a pass rush that relentlessly battered opposing quarterbacks. While future Hall of Famer DeMarcus Ware has since retired, the trio of Von Miller, Shaquil Barrett and Shane Ray now have reinforcement with the arrival of Bradley Chubb, viewed by many scouts as the best defensive player in the draft. Already inspiring comparisons to Miller and Raiders superstar Khalil Mack, Chubb arrives with so much potential that defensive coordinator Joe Woods “nearly passed out” when Chubb slipped to Denver at No. 5 overall.
With Ware holding down the strong side, the Broncos’ sack totals ranked ninth in the league in 2014 (41), first in 2015 (52) and third in 2016 (42) before dropping to 22nd in 2017 (33). Now that Ware is working as a pass-rush consultant with the team, he envisions a return to glory for Denver’s vaunted sack attack: “They have that tag team again.”
6) Atlanta Falcons wide receivers: Speaking of the Falcons and Chargers, they are both in the running for the NFL’s deepest collection of wideouts. Atlanta’s 2016 Super Bowl squad tilted the field with then-offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan dialing up plays for All-Pro Julio Jones, reliable chain-mover Mohamed Sanu and big-play threat Taylor Gabriel. The latter of that trio is now in Chicago, replaced by first-round pick Calvin Ridley. The former Alabama star should represent an upgrade as a bigger, more well-rounded receiver capable of playing inside and out while threatening defenses downfield. Throw in speedy tight end Austin Hooper and fourth receiver Justin Hardy, and Matt Ryan is poised for another run at the MVP trophy in 2018.
7) Cleveland Browns linebackers: Surprised to see the Browns on this list? Me too. Run defense tends to be a tad overrated in today’s pass-happy NFL, but Cleveland deserves kudos for finishing behind only the Broncos in opponents’ yards per carry (3.4) last season. While former Patriots star Jamie Collins headlines the linebacking corps, he was outshone by tackling machine Joe Schobert, who mans the middle of coordinator Gregg Williams’ defense. That duo is complemented by two-down dynamo Christian Kirksey, who offers sideline-to-sideline range as a run defender. To that mix, the Browns have added speedy former Eagle Mychal Kendricks, coming off one of his finest seasons with the reigning Super Bowl champions. It will be interesting to see how Williams manages to incorporate four run-and-chase linebackers into three starting spots.
Follow Chris Wesseling on Twitter @ChrisWesseling.