(Image credit: Dean Rutz / The Seattle Times)
Written by: Joseph Yun
The month-long “offseason” is coming to an end and training camps are right around the corner. What are some of the biggest questions for each team heading into camp? How can they address lingering issues? Will these questions on each side of the ball doom them come regular-season time?
After taking a look at the questions for each team on offense, we take a look at the defensive questions that each team will likely ask of themselves.
Can the aging but still great frontline still hold it together for one more run?
- The Ravens are transitioning into a more youthful defense with long-time stalwarts either aging or leaving for other teams like Matt Judon. Can the old heads like Brandon Willams, Calais Campbell, and Pernell McPhee continue to lead the defense as the younger guys come into their own? Wink Martindale returns to coordinate one of the league’s best defenses so continuity isn’t an issue. Decisions will have to be made next offseason as Lamar Jackson will eat up a bigger portion of the cap going forward so it may be one last go with familiar faces.
What’s in store for an elite defense that ran it back including the DC?
- Buffalo ran almost the entirety of their all-world defense including DC Leslie Frazier back for 2021. What can they do for an encore with new pieces like Gregory Rousseau and Boogie Basham? The Bills may have one of the most talented front lines in the league within their two-deep. The trend of being an elite defense should continue in 2021, elevating the Bills into true Super Bowl contenders.
Can Trey Hendrickson live up to the expensive deal the team gave him to pry him away from a reserve role in New Orleans?
- The Bengals paid a guy with all of 20 career sacks to his name a whopping $60 million over four years. Hendrickson never was a true starter during his time in New Orleans and 2020 might have been an aberration after posting 13.5 sacks, which more than doubled his output up to that time. The Bengals as a team managed a paltry 17 themselves. Cincinnati’s two most talented pass rushers ply their trade on other teams. Sam Hubbard is the top returning pass rusher with a meager two. I’m not sure what the Bengals were thinking by signing a reserve guy who hasn’t done much to a monster contract like this.
Will the former LSU defensive backs step up and recover some lost stock?
- The Browns have built a formidable defense but have some issues in the secondary minus star cornerback Denzel Ward. Both Greedy Williams and Grant Delpit suffered injuries in 2020 before truly getting going, Delpit was a significant blow to the Browns as he was slated to start at free safety. Cleveland drafted some insurance in 2021 with Greg Newsome II and Richard LeCounte just in case the two former Bayou Bengals don’t live up to their lofty billing. The pair really need to step up so they can see their time in Cleveland extended to a second contract.
How long can the ageless Von Miller keep up his Hall of Fame worthy performance?
- Miller missed all of last season due to injury and the Broncos' defense was a bit defeated as a result. The former Super Bowl MVP has been the engine that drives the stop unit for years on end now but he’s slowly approaching the back nine of a stellar career at 31 years old. Is it time for Denver to look for an heir apparent while they still have the living legend to tutor such an individual? I’m not saying Miller’s time is done just yet but the production has dipped ever so slightly from his heyday. He’s back leading a fierce defense and could be comeback player of the year and defensive player of the year in the same season as a result.
What can Charles Omenihu do in an expanded role without JJ Watt?
- Omenihu returns as the co-leader in sacks for a team that lost franchise icon, JJ Watt. He played relatively well in spurts for a moribund franchise that is undergoing yet another rebuild. He will see the lion’s share of snaps at defensive end due to a severe lack of capable bodies at the position. What can he do in a bigger role? Whitney Mercilus returns to help him alongside Shaq Lawson (trade) and DeMarcus Walker (FA) to find their footing for a disastrous franchise. It’s shaping to be an interesting year for the former Longhorn EDGE rusher.
Will the Colts prove astute in letting Denico Autry go to the rival Titans?
- Autry was an underrated key asset for the Colts defense over the years and they let him waltz to Nashville. Will it be a smart move by the franchise or one they could regret for years to come? Autry’s departure leaves the defensive tackle depth perilously thin behind DeForest Buckner and Grover Stewart. If injuries or ineffectiveness occur, they will be forced to move some pieces like unproven talents like Tyquan Lewis, Robert Windsor, and Antwaun Woods around. Their defensive line depth was so internally highly thought of that Dayo Odeyingbo was drafted in the second round despite likely having to redshirt his rookie year due to injury.
Will Josh Allen return to Pro Bowl form after an injury-marred 2020?
- He needs to as the Jaguars' pass rush is downright Titans-like without his production in it. Jihad Ward and Dawuane Smoot have a career total of 19.5 sacks between them as career backups. This is also a pivotal year for Allen as he’s up for a new deal or a fifth-year option before next season. Promising rising sophomore K’Lavon Chaisson is his primary backup. So Allen is the main guy on the line.
Kansas City Chiefs
How will the Frank Clark situation affect the team?
- Clark has been arrested twice in the span of three months for weapons charges in Los Angeles. He was charged with felony possession of an assault weapon for the first incident while the second incident is still pending investigation. The NFL has suspended players for lesser “allegations” than that so it remains to be seen if the league places him on the Commissioner’s Exempt list while both cases play out in the legal system. California gun laws are some of the most serious in the country so it will be a big issue. He’s a key cog on the Chiefs' defense so any missing time will be a big detriment. While it is premature, the Chiefs can release him in 2022 with a dead cap hit of $12,900,000, according to Spotrac. Of course, his contract may contain language that can allow the Chiefs to recoup money based on conduct.
Las Vegas Raiders
Can rookie safety Trevon Moehrig help stabilize a questionable secondary?
- Let’s just say that the Raiders secondary is a bit of a question mark. Moehrig was a steal at his draft position as one of the better safeties in the past couple of years. Can he help elevate a youthful secondary that’s still finding its way?
Los Angeles Chargers
Will rookie corner Asante Samuel, Jr hit the ground running in a loaded defense with a rookie defensive head coach?
- The former Seminole corner will have a chance to rapidly ascend the depth chart and cement himself as CB1. He’ll definitely get reps as a nickel at the very least. The return of Derwin James will only help along veteran corner Chris Harris, Jr to guide Samuel. Not to mention, his father was a decent NFL corner for a number of years.
How much longer will star cornerback Xavien Howard be a Miami Dolphin?
- There have been rumblings all offseason long about Howard’s discontent about his contract. Michael Silver of NFL Network gave more concrete evidence of it on Wednesday. Miami losing Howard at this juncture would be somewhat devastating as he’s the best corner on the roster. However, they have invested heavily in the secondary with Noah Igbinoghene drafted in the first round last season and paying big money to Byron Jones. It’s not like they are barren at the position. They also have rookie Jevon Holland who can play a big nickel role as well. Depending on the timing of the trade per Over the Cap, the Dolphins stand to accrue $1.4 million in dead money but gain $12.1 million in cap space as a post-June 1 trade designation. However, if he is traded after camp (as a Pre June 1), the dead money rises to $4.2 million and gains very little relative space with $9.3 million.
New England Patriots
How long will Stephon Gilmore remain a Patriot?
- Speaking of AFC East star corners disgruntled with their contracts, Gilmore has been the subject of trade speculation for at least a year now due to his contract being so heavily team-friendly. He has more than ably outworked the contract that he signed a couple of years ago. The star corner is one of the best in the entire league and wants to be properly compensated as such. Will he continue to be a Patriot or will he follow the legend, Tom Brady, out the door to greener pastures? Bill Belichick is loath to deal with potential distractions from the Patriot Way so he might be inspired to trade Gilmore for the right deal if a new contract can’t be hammered out.
New York Jets
How will the new front seven pieces mesh with the old ones under a new staff?
- The Jets overhauled the front seven of their defense with a lot of free-agent signings for new head coach Robert Saleh. Acquisitions that include DT Sheldon Rankins, EDGE Carl Lawson, and LB Jarrad Davis. How will these new pieces fit around burgeoning star DL Quinnen Williams and "failed" big money LB CJ Mosley? The defense is undergoing a scheme change as well to a 4-3 from the 3-4 so the personnel usage will be interesting.
Is Quincy Roche the latest breakout young gun defensive star in the long and storied Steeler tradition?
- Stephon Tuitt, T.J Watt, Vince Williams. Cameron Heyward. What do these names have in common besides being Steelers? They have been longtime consistent producers after learning on the job as youngsters. Can rookie Quincy Roche join their ranks as Pittsburgh stalwarts like rising sophomore Alex Highsmith did last season? He's certainly in the right environment for it. The pressure won't be on him to produce right away and he can learn the system at his own pace.
It can’t possibly get worse, right, RIGHT??
- The defense was among the worst in the history of the league last season. Many in the Titans fanbase wondered why opposing offenses bothered to play first and second down knowing that the third-down defense was so atrocious. A poor defense that had 0 sacks between big-ticket signings Vic Beasley and Jadaveon Clowney was repeatedly exposed. The offense, bless its hearts, couldn’t keep up at times. Thus was the Titans’ 2020 season. The team brought in a slew of free agents like big-money signing Bud Dupree, Denico Autry, and Janoris Jenkins to help the rebuild. There’s talent on this defense so it may be the coaches’ fault if they don’t improve in 2021.
Will Chandler Jones be on the roster come Opening Day?
- Jones also has been the subject of mounting trade speculation as he has skipped all offseason activities due to his deal. He has been one of the best edge rushers in the league with a whopping 61 of his 97 career sacks coming in five seasons with Arizona. While Jones would be a huge loss to the overall talent of the defense, the Cardinals have prepared for this eventuality by drafting two ready-made replacements in Isaiah Simmons and Zaven Collins in the past two classes. His age (31) and being a free agent after the coming season with a huge salary may be factors as to why he hasn’t been extended just yet.
Can new DC Dean Pees help Deion Jones and Grady Jarrett anchor a listless defense from a year ago in 2021?
- Pees led an incredible turnaround during his time in Tennessee before retiring in 2020. He will be expected to do the same for a moribund Falcons defense that has some underrated pieces like Foye Oluokun, AJ Terrell, and Mykal Walker. Star defensive tackle Grady Jarrett returns after an offseason filled with will he or won’t he get cut/traded storylines. Deion Jones has emerged as one of the premier linebackers when healthy. Dante Fowler will have to lead a front line full of question marks behind him.
Will Denzel Perryman and Haason Reddick help alleviate the pressure on Shaq Thompson?
- Shaq Thompson has had to carry the burden for the Panthers ever since Luke Keuchly retired. In comes Perryman and Reddick from the Western edges to help relieve him from that burden. Both guys are on cheap short-term deals so they will be motivated to earn longer and more expensive contracts. Perryman hasn’t played a full season yet in his career and Reddick will be out to prove that his 2020 wasn’t a fluke. The Panthers on defense have a ton of talent, particularly young guns up front and looking to cash in, in the very near future, so it will be now or never for this bunch.
Who’s that guy opposite emergent sophomore cornerback Jaylon Johnson?
- Johnson proved that he was very well prepared at Utah during his rookie season. Who’s going to be that dude opposite him? Desmond Trufant and newly signed Artie Burns likely have the first crack at the gig before sixth-round rookie Thomas Graham gets a shot. The Bears defense has talent across all three levels, including a stellar safety group plus a potentially dominant front seven. Can Johnson live up to his lofty rookie campaign as a sophomore? Chicago may look to the free-agent market for more help.
Dallas has a talented defense on paper, can new DC Dan Quinn coach it to produce in reality?
- Dan Quinn is back in a more comfortable environment as a defensive coordinator after failing as a head coach. He has some really talented pieces to work with such as Demarcus Lawrence, LVE, Jaylon Smith, and Trevon Diggs across all three levels. Former safety Keanu Neal also came over from Atlanta to help the transition process. Sean Lee’s retirement will be felt however with Smith being inconsistent and LVE an injury risk. Can Quinn put the talent together and form a defense that’s on par with its elite offensive talents?
Will talent-laden defense (in theory) take to the teachings of new DC Aaron Glenn?
- The Lions have some talent on defense, such as Jamie Collins, Trey Flowers, the Okwara brothers, and Jeff Okudah to name a few. Aaron Glenn comes highly recommended from his New Orleans days as the secondary coach. He’s been interviewed for a number of DC jobs before landing in Detroit. He has played for numerous great and system-diverse coaching minds like Wade Phillips, Vic Fangio, Bill Parcells, Mike Zimmer, and Todd Bowles. It remains to be seen what scheme he will run after being influenced by so many different minds and the defensive roster built for the 3-4. He’s been a steady riser in the coaching ranks.
Green Bay Packers
Is there a rebound for Kevin King after the horrific ending in the playoffs much like Marcus Williams for the Saints?
- King was incessantly picked on during the playoff loss against the reigning Super Bowl champion Buccaneers and had to endure an offseason reliving it on repeat. Williams gave up the Minneapolis Miracle in 2019 before recovering in 2020 to have a great year. Can King bounce back to have a good 2021? He certainly faces the pressure to do so after the Packers drafted Eric Stokes in the first round. Playoff failures are a fickle business. Some players like Williams can get past it while players like Rahim Moore never recover and find themselves on the football outskirts. Which type of player will King be?
Los Angeles Rams
Can Leonard Floyd continue to belatedly blossom with a new DC in Raheem Morris?
- Floyd broke out with the Rams for 10.5 sacks after four middling years with the Bears to start his career. Can he continue his success in Los Angeles with a new DC after the old one left for a head coaching job? Morris is a highly accomplished defensive mind so the potential for a repeat is there. With superstar Aaron Donald occupying so much attention from the offense, the other guys will get theirs in spades. He’s in a good place for 2021 with a nice pay raise and being that guy for the pass rusher group.
How much gas is left in the tank of aging warhorse Patrick Peterson?
- The longtime Cardinals corner and future Hall of Famer Peterson left Arizona this offseason for the land of 10,000 lakes. He’s well on his way to Canton and has several good years left as a veteran mentor to the young Vikings' corner room. He’ll be a boon to youngsters like Jeff Gladney and Cam Dantzler who played well during their rookie years. Peterson joins a really talent-laden defense as well so the pressure isn’t solely on him to deliver. The feeling is that he will age gracefully as an eventual second option as the younger generation develops.
New Orleans Saints
Is this the year that surprise 2018 first-round pick Marcus Davenport breaks out into stardom?
- He will have to in order to see a second contract in New Orleans. 2020 was a down year for him as he failed to build on a six-sack campaign in 2019. He only played 36% of the available defensive snaps, posting just 1.5 sacks in 2020. The fourth-year man no longer has any more excuses as dependable backup Trey Hendrickson isn’t in the Crescent City. Can he live up to the hype that got him drafted in the first round?
New York Giants
How quickly can rookie Azeez Ojulari get up to speed for a relatively questionable front seven?
- It’s not great when 38% of your sacks from last season came from the interior. Even doubly worse is when two of the top four sackers are no longer on the team. Ojulari will have to fit in quickly as Leonard Williams is the only one of note returning to a revamped defensive front. This is a situation where the secondary will have to carry the water for the front line until they can get up to par. He will have to turn in an outstanding rookie season for the G-men to compete for an NFC East crown.
Who’s the guy opposite of star cornerback Darius Slay and is he on the current roster?
- Well, the cornerback group outside of Slay is, to put it mildly, less than inspiring. As it stands, Avonte Maddox and Lavert Hill are slated to start alongside Slay. Perhaps the organization explores the free-agent market that has names such as Richard Sherman (if he’s past his issues), Steven Nelson, Gareon Conley, and Brian Poole among others. The front seven has to protect their cornerbacks, that’s for sure.
San Francisco 49ers
How will the defense fare under rising star DC DeMeco Ryans after Robert Saleh left for New York?
- The former linebacker has been a fast riser up the coaching ranks since his playing career ended not too long ago. In just five short years, he has been promoted from a QC assistant to a full-time DC. Ryans has learned from some of the best defensive football minds such as Wade Phillips, Todd Bowles, Jim Washburn, and Saleh so he knows the inner workings of both the 4-3 and 3-4 defenses. He had ties to the Shanahan family and even ran across his predecessor Saleh in Houston as a player over the years before working for them in SF. He inherits one heck of a stop unit, including star pupil Fred Warner, who is due for a massive extension.
Will Carlos Dunlap fit in better with a full offseason in Seattle under his belt?
- Dunlap played well last season given the circumstances that he was in a new system and had to acclimate to a new team midseason. He posted five sacks in just six starts across eight games, good for fourth on the team and second-best among EDGE rushers. What’s in store for him with a full offseason in the same system? The contract is relatively easy to get out of for Seattle so it might behoove Dunlap to keep on producing. Is the long-time veteran set to cash in on one last big deal?
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
How quickly can rookie first-round selection Joe Tryon assimilate within the defense?
- How fast can he pick up the playbook and get live reps in a defense that returns every starter? Tryon is a first-rounder so he will play a fair amount. He doesn’t have the pressure to deliver the goods from the start as he can slide in and learn the system at his own pace backing up veteran JPP and ascending superstar Shaq Barrett. This was a futures bet as JPP and William Gholston are slated to be free agents next offseason and given their age, they might not be brought back. Tryon certainly has the tools, veteran mentors, and coaches to get him on the right path. Not to mention, going up against a talented offensive line every day in practice will only help his development.
Washington Football Team
What can rising sophomores Chase Young and Kamren Curl do for an encore? How will the rookies fit in?
- Young delivered on the much-anticipated hype and then some on the way to winning the defensive rookie of the year award. Much to everyone’s surprise, 2020 seventh-round selection Curl broke out when he stepped in for an injured Landon Collins. He posted a monstrous season of 88 tackles, two sacks, three interceptions, and four passes defended. WFT added some intriguing rookies like Jamin Davis, Shaka Toney, Benjamin St. Juste, and William Bradley-King to a stacked defense. Toney and WBK will have to really wow the staff to make the roster as seventh-round selections, much less get live reps during the season. Davis has a shot to take Young’s crown as DROY next to veteran Jon Bostic. BSJ is in line to start.