Finding quality depth at key positions is critical for success in today’s National Football League. Therefore, having a buffer to prevent the loss of a single player from derailing an entire season provides both security and peace to a team. You don’t have to look far to see an example of a single injury ruining a great team – the 2016 Oakland Raiders. After quarterback Derek Carr‘s late-season injury, the Raiders were forced to start rookie Connor Cook in their AFC Wild Card game against Houston. Cook completed only 29 percent of his passes to accompany three interceptions in the team’s loss.
Many teams would be dismantled after the loss a their starting quarterback, but would the Patriots? If the Saints were to lose Mark Ingram for an extended period of time, would they we able to easily fill his void? The answer to both is that these teams would likely be OK. Would there be a drop-off? Maybe, but it wouldn’t be the end to their seasons. These are the teams with the most depth in the NFL at each position:
Deepest Position Groups in the NFL
Quarterback: New England Patriots (Tom Brady, Jimmy Garoppolo)
New England is taking a gamble by keeping Jimmy Garoppolo on the roster, but at the same time, they’re not taking a gamble at all. While they would’ve likely been able to move the 25 year-old quarterback for a mid first-round pick, they decided to hang on to him. Keeping Garoppolo around will provide insurance for an aging Tom Brady. In limited regular season action, Garoppolo has shown promise of a potential NFL starter. During his two starts in 2016, he completed 68 percent of his passes for 502 yards and threw four touchdowns to no interceptions. This roster is good enough that even if, god forbid, Brady were to go down during this season, they would likely still compete for a Super Bowl with Garoppolo.
Running Back: New Orleans Saints (Mark Ingram, Adrian Peterson, Alvin Kamara)
The Big Easy is not only the NFL’s deepest backfield – it’s also by far the most interesting. Two days before the start of the draft, New Orleans signed 32 year-old Adrian Peterson to a two-year contract. Meanwhile, three days later they used a third round draft pick on Alvin Kamara out of Tennessee. Peterson is coming off a season in which a torn meniscus limited him to only three games. Even in those three games, Peterson had the worst start in his career, averaging a putrid 1.9 yards per carry. Kamara will likely be slowly integrated into the offense, giving him time to adjust to the speed of the NFL. Even after the massive shakeup, I would still expect incumbent starter Mark Ingram to get the heaviest workload of the backs, regardless who the starter is. Ingram is coming off his best season as a pro; he recorded career highs in rushing yards (1,043), yards per attempt (5.1) and total touchdowns (10). The versatility and of this backfield will give Sean Payton and Drew Brees quite a weapon in the talented NFC South.
Wide Receiver: New York Giants (Odell Beckham Jr., Brandon Marshall, Sterling Shepard)
Eli Manning can have no excuses this season. Not only do the Giants have one of the best defenses in the league, their pool of talent at the pass catcher position is the best in the business. OBJ is arguably the most talented wideout in the NFL. Sterling Shepard is one of the best, young slot receivers in the game. Brandon Marshall brings the presence of a productive, savvy veteran to the receiving corps. Marshall is the X-factor here. Two years ago, he had arguably his best season as a pro – totaling over 1,500 yards and reeling in 14 touchdowns. However, last year he went for only 788 yards and 13 touchdowns. That falloff was likely due to a severe drought at quarterback for the Jets. However, age could be catching up to the veteran.
Tight End: New England Patriots (Rob Gronkowski, Dwayne Allen, Matt Lengel)
Due to the rise in three-wide sets, many teams in today’s NFL don’t carry much tight end depth on the 53-man roster. The second tight end on most teams are traditional “Y” tight ends. They may slip out and catch a pass or two in the red zone, but they are primarily used for blocking. However, New England does it differently. Last year with Gronk and Martellus Bennett they employed two “move” tight ends. Move tight ends are certainly asked to block at times, but their primary job is to create mismatches in the passing game. After losing Bennett to free agency, the Patriots have brought in Dwayne Allen from Indianapolis to fill the same position in 2017. Gronkowski’s greatest enemy is himself. If he can stay on the field, this offense will be equally as formidable as the 2007 team that went 16-0.
Offensive Line: Pittsburgh Steelers (Alejandro Villanueva, Ramon Foster, Maurkice Pouncey, David DeCastro, Marcus Gilbert, B.J. Finley, Christopher Hubbard)
While Oakland and Dallas are the most talked about offensive lines, they both have holes. Notably, both right tackle situations are far from perfect. Meanwhile, the Steelers boast seven players along the line rated average or better by Pro Football Focus. All five of their starters were rated as either ‘high quality’ or ‘above average.’ This stable continuity along the line is critical, especially for a team with an aging quarterback who has debated retirement. Add an elite running back to the mix in Le’veon Bell, and you’re looking at one hell of an offense.
Interior Defensive Line: L.A. Rams (Aaron Donald, Michael Brockers, Dominique Easley)
Making a case against Aaron Donald as the best defensive tackle in football would be a challenge. He’s a menace at creating interior pressure, elite at collapsing pockets, and plays the run extremely well. However, the interior of this line is hardly top-heavy. In his third year as a pro (his first with L.A.), Easley appeared in all 16 games for the first time in his career, forcing two fumbles and recording 3.5 sacks. Easley may take some starts from Brockers this season, but having three above average defensive tackles is a huge advantage for a football team that will need to play well in the trenches to compete. There’s a reason the Rams were the best team by DVOA against the run in 2016, and a big reason is these three men in the middle.
Edge Rusher: Pittsburgh Steelers (James Harrison, Bud Dupree, TJ Watt, Arthur Moats)
The Steelers have four players at the edge that could be legitimate starters on any NFL team. In James Harrison, Bud Dupree and rookie T.J. Watt have the perfect, seemingly ageless veteran to learn the position behind. Dupree has made limited starts both due to youth and injury. After returning in week 11 this season, he made a serious impact for the Steelers, looking like he could mold into a legitimate force. T.J. Watt was the Steelers first round pick this season, and could make an impact off the bench even in his first year. Often forgotten veteran Arthur Moats will also see significant playing time, as he has been incredibly productive in limited starts with Pittsburgh. This is one of the deepest units in all of football.
Linebacker: Carolina Panthers (Luke Kuechly, Thomas Davis, Shaq Thompson, David Mayo)
Recent reports out of Panthers camp are that third-year hybrid linebacker Shaq Thompson will be seeing an increased role in the Panthers defense. These minutes will likely be coming at the expense of Thomas Davis. However, the move could be beneficial for both players. While Davis is still one of the most productive players in the NFL at the position, he turned 34 in March and has had three ACL repairs in the past. The Panthers limiting his snaps, presumably when they go nickel in third down sets, would allow him to be more active and energetic when he is on the field, and lowers his risk of injury. Thompson, who played both safety and linebacker in college, will fill in perfectly next to Kuechly in passing sets. Having depth behind Kuechly, likely the best linebacker in football, is never a bad thing, as his concussion history is well documented. This Carolina crew reads and reacts better than anyone in the NFL.
Cornerback: Denver Broncos (Chris Harris, Aqib Talib, Bradley Roby)
Under Wade Philips, the Denver passing defense rated first for two straight seasons by DVOA. However, defending the pass relies on a symbiotic relationship relationship between the pass rush and secondary. Having Von Miller rushing the passer certainly helps these three corners, but it doesn’t take away from who they are individually. Chris Harris and Aqib Talib are very different corners, but they are both elite in their own right. Harris is a smaller (5-foot-10 and 200lbs), finesse corner. He plays the slot extensively. Talib is known as one of the most physical corners in the league. The two play off of each other perfectly. Roby comes in on the outside when Harris ventures in to the slot. He struggled in 2016, but had two very good seasons before, and is entering a contract year.
Safety: Arizona Cardinals (Tyrann Mathieu, Budda Baker, Antoine Bethea)
In a world where the versatile swingmen is capturing the NBA, Arizona is seemingly applying a similar concept in their secondary. They seem entrenched in the idea of building the secondary around a series of jack-knife players – tweeners that may have no set position, but are versatile enough to play a few. This ideology was behind the movement of Deone Bucannon to linebacker and the drafting of Tyrann Mathieu. Drafting Budda Baker continues this trend. When describing Baker, one NFC area scout said teams could “leave him as a centerfielder and then roll him down over the slot if you needed too.” NFL.com’s Lance Zierlein described him as an “undersized free safety with the heart of a linebacker.” Regardless of how Arizona decides to deploy their weapons, they sure have plenty of them.