The Brandt Report

2021 NFL season: Eight biggest remaining roster concerns

At this point in the offseason, the bulk of roster construction is done for most teams. But still, holes and question marks remain -- and some loom larger than others.

Which roster question marks stand out as the most potentially troublesome? Below, I've ranked the eight biggest roster concerns across the NFL, presented in reverse order:

Rank
8
Cincinnati Bengals
Cincinnati Bengals
Offensive line

There is no question the Bengals took steps to better protect Joe Burrow, who was hit more than 70 times and sacked 32 times behind Cincinnati's line last year before going down with a torn ACL in Week 11. Whether they did enough is another story altogether. Frank Pollack, who coached the unit in 2018, was rehired. Riley Reiff was signed as a veteran free agent to play right tackle across from former first-round pick Jonah Williams, who can be pretty good -- if he stays healthy. But there is a concerning lack of proven depth at either tackle spot. And I'm not sold on the interior of the line, either.


Passing on Penei Sewell to take receiver Ja'Marr Chase fifth overall was one thing. But the Bengals also missed on a chance to snag one of the top remaining tackle prospects in the second round after trading down eight spots, from No. 38 to No. 46 --Teven Jenkins (No. 39), Liam Eichenberg (No. 42) and Walker Little (No. 45) were all scooped up before Cincinnati could pick again. The player they chose at 46, Jackson Carman, is moving to guard because his arms aren't long enough for blocking on the edge at the NFL level. Fourth-round pick D'Ante Smith does have the optimal size and length to play tackle, but he'll need time to develop. Whatever happens, here's hoping the Bengals are at least able to keep Burrow from becoming the latest promising young passer derailed by excessive pressure.

Rank
7
Pittsburgh Steelers
Pittsburgh Steelers
Offensive line

Sure, the Bengals have question marks up front -- but they're still in better shape than their AFC North rivals in Pittsburgh. Center Maurkice Pouncey retired, left tackle Alejandro Villanueva signed with the Ravens and left guard Matt Feiler signed with the Chargers, and there's only one position (David DeCastro's spot at right guard) that will not see any turnover in 2021. Can Chukwuma Okorafor successfully shift from right tackle, where he started last season, to left tackle? Zach Banner, who missed 15 games in 2020 with a torn ACL, is in line to play right tackle, while 2020 fourth-rounder Kevin Dotson is set to be elevated to full-time starter at left guard and third-round pick Kendrick Green will compete with veterans B.J. Finney and J.C. Hassenaeur at center. How this unit performs under newly promoted O-line coach Adrian Klemm is critical to keeping 39-year-old QB Ben Roethlisberger upright -- and to improving a run game that averaged an NFL-worst 3.6 yards per carry last season.

Rank
6
Seattle Seahawks
Seattle Seahawks
Cornerback

Could Richard Sherman return to Seattle? If he does, he'll find a cornerback group that has fallen considerably since the secondary's Legion of Boom heyday. Thanks to Shaquill Griffin's departure for Jacksonville and Quinton Dunbar's signing with Detroit, the roster is currently without a bona fide No. 1 corner. In the mix to try to pick up the slack is veteran signee Ahkello Witherspoon, who was inconsistent in his first four years in San Francisco, along with D.J. Reed, Tre Flowers, Pierre Desir, Damarious Randall (shifting back to cornerback after spending several seasons at safety) and fourth-round pick Tre Brown. The good news for the Seahawks is that the pass rush improved as last season went on, and if that momentum could be carried over, it would do a lot to alleviate the pressure on the corners. The bad news is, they're still in the NFC West, where they'll face receivers like Arizona's DeAndre Hopkins and A.J. Green, the Rams' Cooper Kupp, Robert Woods and DeSean Jackson and the Niners' Deebo Samuel and Brandon Aiyuk.

Rank
5
Houston Texans
Houston Texans
Quarterback

We're going to set Deshaun Watson aside for now, given that his status is obscured by both the lawsuits filed against him alleging sexual assault and misconduct and his request to be traded. If Watson does not take another snap under center for Houston, the Texans will become the front-runners to pick first overall in next year's draft, when they'll presumably have to again address the quarterback position. In the meantime, Houston will have to cobble together a season with the quarterbacks on hand. And that currently includes Tyrod Taylor, serving as a placeholding veteran for a third straight team, Jeff Driskel, who is 1-8 as an NFL starter over five seasons, and Davis Mills, who only started 11 times at Stanford and is probably a ways away from competing with Driskel for backup duty.

Rank
4
Atlanta Falcons
Atlanta Falcons
Running back

Arthur Smith's path to the head coaching job was paved by the monster rushing performance of Derrick Henry in Tennessee. With Smith as his offensive coordinator in 2019 and '20, Henry became the first back-to-back rushing leader in the NFL since LaDainian Tomlinson did it in 2006 and '07. I think Smith's future as a head coach is incredibly bright, but he and QB Matt Ryan won't have the luxury of working with a dominant bell-cow like Henry in Atlanta. The current front-runner to start is journeyman Mike Davis, who cooled off after a strong start last season replacing injured Panthers back Christian McCaffrey. Fellow newcomer Cordarrelle Patterson will likely help more in the return game than he will out of the backfield. Atlanta, meanwhile, did not draft a back to push Davis or Qadree Ollison for snaps, though Louisville's Javian Hawkins and Ball State's Caleb Huntley were signed as undrafted free agents. The demise of Atlanta's ground attack over the past few seasons contributed heavily to the team's slide from Super Bowl contention, and the need for more run production is even more pressing now that receiver Julio Jones has been traded.

Rank
3
Detroit Lions
Detroit Lions
Wide receiver

The Lions made progress on their rebuild in the draft (namely on defense), but it would have been unrealistic to expect the new leadership in Detroit to effectively patch all of the team's roster holes in one offseason. And wide receiver looks especially unsettled following the departures of Kenny Golladay (to the Giants) and Marvin Jones (to the Jaguars) in free agency. Detroit's two biggest acquisitions at the spot come loaded with question marks: Breshad Perriman logged double-digit starts last season for the first time in his six-year career, and he's topped 35 catches and 500 receiving yards only once, while Tyrell Williams missed all of 2020 with a torn labrum and hasn't cracked 1,000 yards since 2016.


Detroit eschewed taking a receiver in Round 1 of this year's draft, instead jumping at the chance to grab tackle Penei Sewell seventh overall. Fourth-round pick Amon-Ra St. Brown will be in the mix, along with Kalif Raymond (who produced 18 catches over the past two seasons combined) and 2020 fifth-rounder Quintez Cephus. But between this group and a shaky running game, the task facing Jared Goff -- proving he can be a bona fide franchise QB after being traded from the more talented Rams to the Motor City -- looks tough.

Rank
2
Baltimore Ravens
Baltimore Ravens
Pass rusher

At 45.3 percent, no team had a higher blitz rate than the Ravens in 2020 (per Next Gen Stats), and that won't change in 2021 under coordinator Wink Martindale. But the cast of edge rushers will shift, with Matt Judon (six sacks in 2020) and Yannick Ngakoue (three sacks in nine games with the Ravens last season) signing with the Patriots and Raiders, respectively. Jaylon Ferguson and Tyus Bowser return, but neither player currently scares opposing offensive coordinators. The ideal scenario would be for first-round pick Odafe Oweh and fifth-rounder Daelin Hayes to prove quick learners. It would not surprise me to see Baltimore add a veteran (someone like Justin Houston) at some point.

Rank
1
Minnesota Vikings
Minnesota Vikings
Kicker

Gary Anderson's missed field-goal try in the 1998 NFC title game and Blair Walsh's shanked attempt in the 2015 playoffs continue to haunt this franchise. After a rough season by Dan Bailey -- in addition to posting the league's worst field-goal rate (68.2%), he essentially extinguished the team's playoff hopes by missing three field-goal tries and an extra-point attempt against the Bucs last season -- the veteran was released, and the Vikings are starting over at kicker. Greg Joseph (who's spent time with five teams since 2018) and undrafted rookie Riley Patterson are currently slated to battle for the spot. And the person doing the kicking won't be the only change; recently promoted special teams coordinator Ryan Ficken is tasked with improving one of the league's worst overall units.

Follow Gil Brandt on Twitter.

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