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STATS’ Biggest AFC Questions: Can The Raiders Get Help In The Trenches?

By: Stats Perform

No NFL team is perfect heading into the draft. Each team is looking to fill needs, whether through free agency or the draft. With that in mind, STATS takes a look at the biggest question for each AFC team heading into the 2019 season.

Additionally, STATS has created pre-draft power rankings for each team in the NFL. Those rankings are listed at the beginning of each team’s section, and are in terms of the entire league, not just the AFC.

The NFC Biggest Questions post will come next week.

AFC East

Buffalo Bills (Pre-draft power ranking: 13)

Biggest Question: Quarterback

At the start of free agency, this would have hands down been the offensive line. Josh Allen had a tough time finding any time in the pocket last season, but with the additions of Mitch Morse, Quinton Spain, Ty Nsekhe, and Spencer Long, the OL is no longer in a dire state. All-in-all, the team is now pretty well-rounded. They have an exciting unit of pass-catchers and an above-average pass rush and pass defense. However, the Bills were consistently killed by poor QB play last year, and given the other roster upgrades, it is easily the biggest remaining question mark heading into 2019. Allen can stretch the field with both his arm and legs, but accuracy and decision-making remain massive concerns. Using STATS’ expected completion percentage metric, which removes screens and shovel passes and looks at both accuracy of the throw and how open the targeted receiver is, only Jeff Driskel (47.2 percent) was worse than Allen (51.1 percent) in 2018. If he can take even a small step forward in 2019 with the improved talent around him, the Bills could be a surprise playoff team.

Sitting at pick No. 9 and a well-balanced roster, the Bills have the luxury of being able to take the best player available, whether it’s continuing to upgrade the offensive line, adding another offensive weapon for Allen, or getting a defensive playmaker.

Miami Dolphins (29)

Biggest Question: Offensive Line and Defensive End

This team has all sorts of holes, but none more glaring than the offensive line. They have just two returning linemen who played in more than six games in 2018, LT Laremy Tunsil and RG Jesse Davis, and their current projected starters at the other three positions are all either aging vets (Daniel Kilgore) or unproven young guys (Isaac Asiata and Zach Sterup). At the moment we project the Dolphins to have the second-worst pass blocking line (Texans) and the worst run blocking line.

The Dolphins projected edge rushers are Jonathan Woodard (two pressures on just 28 opportunities) and Charles Harris (14 on 101). Production aside, that’s just not much returning playing time. With Cameron Wake and Robert Quinn gone, new head coach Brian Flores will have to rely far more on scheme pressures than letting his unproven edge rushers win 1-on-1 battles. We expect some sort of trench pick for the Dolphins at pick 13.

New England Patriots (12)

Biggest Question: Pass Catchers and Left Tackle

With the retirement of Gronk and the re-suspension of Josh Gordon, the Patriots are once again thin at the receiver position. Julian Edelman and James White will get their share, but things get pretty thin after that. They picked up some bargains in TE Matt LaCosse and WRs Bruce Ellington and Maurice Harris, but that group isn’t going to instill fear in any defense.

Left tackle is another area in question. The Patriots have their guy in 2018 first-rounder Isaiah Wynn, who STATS had as the third-most efficient pass blocker in college in 2017, but anytime you’re throwing a rookie coming off a big injury into the key spot on offensive line, there are going to be questions. Looks for the Pats to add to their offensive skill positions in the draft or upgrade a defensive front that won’t be quite as good without Trey Flowers.

New York Jets (31)

Biggest Question: Everything

It’s not that anything is particularly bad for the Jets, it’s more that nothing is particularly good. Their biggest strength is their skill positions, where they have a decent trio of pass catchers in Robby Anderson, Quincy Enunwa, and Jamison Crowder as well as one of the best running backs in the game in Le’veon Bell. We’ll see how Bell adjusts going from an elite offensive line blocking for him in Pittsburgh (second in STATS’ run blocking metrics in 2018), to a line that had some trouble run blocking in 2018 (25th by STATS metrics). Darnold got better as the season went on, but he’s still pretty erratic, and will need to take a big step forward in 2019 to prevent the turnovers.

The Jets don’t have much of a pass rush and their cornerback depth is extremely thin. With a top-5 pick in the draft, it would make sense to grab another defensive difference maker to help mitigate some of the turnover issues the offense is likely to have.

AFC North

Baltimore Ravens (30)

Biggest Question: Pass Rush

The Ravens’ pass rush was already a weakness, and that was before losing Terrell Suggs and Za’Darius Smith. They have a stout interior with Michael Pierce and Brandon Williams, and STATS projects them to have the third-best run defense in the NFL heading into the year, but none of their interior space-eaters contribute a whole lot to the pass rush. They don’t pick until No. 22, so it’ll be tough to find a game-changing pass rusher in the draft.

Cincinnati Bengals (28)

Biggest Question: Offensive Line

It seems like an issue every year. They currently have one above-average lineman on their unit, and that’s left guard Clint Boling. Center Billy Price is likely to continue improving, but the rest of the line is average at best, projecting to be the 29th-ranked pass blocking line and 28th-ranked run blocking line. The Bengals have the skill players to be able to manufacture points, but it remains to be seen whether or not the line can create holes for Joe Mixon and keep Andy Dalton off his back. Cincinnati picks at No. 11, which is right where a lot of offensive linemen are projected to be. They could use the help.

Cleveland Browns (19)

Biggest Question: Right Guard

“Power ranking of 19?!?” you might be saying. A lot of that hinges on Austin Corbett, who is expected to take over as the starting right guard in 2019. The Browns showed a lot of improvement in 2018, but their tackles are still only projected to be in the middle of the pack, and Baker Mayfield was able to frequently create space in the pocket because of an elite interior line in Joel Bitonio, JC Tretter, and Kevin Zeitler, who all ranked top-10 at their position by STATS’ offensive line metrics. With Zeitler gone, a lot hinges on the play of Corbett. Much like the Patriots note above, a rookie offensive lineman could mean the difference between one of the best offenses in the league, and one of the most frustrating offenses in the league.

However, there are no gaping holes on the roster, and since the Browns don’t pick until 49, they will probably use their picks to fill in some weak spots and establish more depth, especially along the offensive and defensive lines.

Pittsburgh Steelers (14)

Biggest Question: Receiver and Safety

With Antonio Brown gone, everyone moves up the depth chart one spot, and the Steelers’ lack of depth at receiver comes to the forefront. JuJu Smith-Schuster and Vance McDonald are great, but their supporting cast of Donte Moncrief, Ryan Switzer,Eli Rogers, and James Washington are all pretty hit-or-miss from game to game. Their offensive line remains elite, so Ben Roethlisberger should still have all day to throw, but they could use another high quality receiving option to make use of that time.

Safety is another major concern, and in a division with field-stretchers lik Odell Beckham Jr., Jarvis Landry, A.J. Green, and Tyler Boyd, giving up chunk yardage in the passing game could lose them a lot of games. They took safety Terrell Edmunds in the first round in 2018, and while he could continue to improve, They pick at No. 20, which is right in the range of where this year’s crop of DBs are likely to start coming off the board.

AFC South

Houston Texans (26)

Biggest Question: Offensive Line

This offensive line is brutal. Their center, Nick Martin, is the only one who had an above-average season in 2018, while the rest of the line was a nightmare. The tackles are young, but they’ve shown no ability to block anyone, which often led to Deshaun Watson running for his life last season. The rest of the roster looks pretty good, but having a line that is projected to rank last in pass protection and second-to-last in run blocking can be hugely detrimental to a team’s consistent success. They pick at No. 23, and you have to imagine they’ll go with an offensive lineman.

Indianapolis Colts (16)

Biggest Question: Pass Defense

It’s exciting that offensive line isn’t an issue for the first time in a decade. The Colts invested heavily in their line last year, and they should do the same with their defensive secondary this year. They run a zone-heavy scheme that relies on allowing catches, but keeping everything in front of them and funneling it towards the middle of the field. As a result, by STATS metrics, they have the highest projected completion percentage against, but the second-lowest yards per completion against. While death by papercuts may be slow, it’s still death. The Colts could use a little more shutdown from their secondary. Their pass defense is projected to be the third-worst in the NFL, so an upgrade is necessary.

Jacksonville Jaguars (20)

Biggest Question: Pass Catchers and Right Tackle

Right tackle is effectively empty at the moment. After the surprise cut of Jeremy Parnell, the Jags have a huge hole to fill on the right side to help Nick Foles stay upright. The rest of the line was decimated by injuries in 2018, but is pretty good when healthy. If they just get league-average play from the right tackle spot this season, their line goes from 16th in our projected rankings to eighth.

Pass catchers are another sore spot for the Jaguars. Dede Westbrook can play, and getting Marqise Lee back should help a little, but next on the projected depth chart are Keelan Cole, D.J. Chark, and Geoff Swaim. It’s not an exciting group.

The defense is great, and STATS data likes their new QB. In fact, by STATS’ playing styles metric, Foles and Tom Brady have been almost identical over the last two seasons. Reminder, that is style, not quality. The Jaguars pick seventh, so they could either reach a bit for the top tackle, continue to pad their great defense with a stud defender, or trade down, acquire more draft capital, and start giving Foles more weapons to work with.

Tennessee Titans (4)

Biggest Question: Outside Linebacker and Right Guard

Fourth in the power rankings! The Titans were 9-7 last year with their QB missing six games and their offensive line having injury issues. STATS thinks they are a really good team. They should be able to pass block with the best of them, open huge holes for human monster truck Derrick Henry, and make big plays with Corey Davis, who STATS sees as a top-10 receiver in the league. Right guard is a question, but we have tentatively penciled in Dennis Kelly at that spot, who played admirably while filling in at both tackle spots because of injuries in 2018. It’s possible they go another way and keep Kelly as a swing tackle, but that’s why right guard is a question mark.

Pass rush is another area in question. Brian Orakpo and Cameron Wake are not getting any younger. Harold Landry showed some flashes of what he’s capable of, and Jurrell Casey is a high-quality defensive tackle, but all together that pass rush is not an above-average unit. It’s not the worst unit in the league, and the Titans are another team that doesn’t really have a huge weakness, so their pick at No. 19 could go in just about any direction.

AFC West

Denver Broncos (10)

Biggest Question: Right Guard

STATS loves the Broncos defense and has them as the third-ranked unit heading into 2019. Joe Flacco is what he is, which is better than Case Keenum, and they have a passable group of skill players. The offensive line put the Broncos in holes offensively last season, starting with the losses of LG Ronald Leary and C Matt Paradis which put a big burden on replacement guards Billy Turner and Elijah Wilkinson. Turner and Paradis are now gone, but Leary should be back healthy, and they added an underrated RT in Ja’Wuan James during free agency. Perhaps the most important move they made was hiring offensive line genius Mike Munchak away from the Steelers, but the right guard spot is still a big question mark.

Wilkinson is currently slated to start at right guard, and while he played well statistically as a run blocker, his pass blocking was atrocious. There are a lot of high-quality pass rushers in the AFC West, and Flacco is even less mobile than Case Keenum, so ironing out Wilkinson’s issues as a pass protector is absolutely essential heading into 2019. Munchak can do it, but they still lack depth on the line and could grab a top-flight OL with their pick at No. 10.

Kansas City Chiefs (9)

Biggest Question: Cornerback

This seems like it is an issue every year. The Chiefs have an exciting young quarterback, a good-not-great offensive line, and a bevy of talented skill players. Their offense should not be an issue, but their defense has some holes to patch up. Losing Dee Ford hurts the pass rush, but the Chiefs still have Chris Jones, who STATS had as the second-most productive DT in the NFL in 2018. Their run defense was much maligned last year. However, a full season of Derrick Nnadi should help that issue in 2019.

The real hole is pass defense, particularly cornerback. Kendall Fuller is locked in at nickelback, but the outside cornerback positions are in flux. The Chiefs signed Bashaud Breeland and retained Charvarius Ward, who they used as a starter late in the 2018 season, but those two combined for just 59 targets in 2018. For comparison, former Chiefs starting corner Steven Nelson had over 100 in 2018. At pick No. 29, the Chiefs could be in the right spot to grab one of the top corners.

Los Angeles Chargers (5)

Biggest Question: Right Tackle

The Chargers have a huge red flag at right tackle on an otherwise extremely well-rounded roster. Sam Tevi, the starting RT last season, was an average run blocker in 2018, but an astoundingly-bad pass blocker. He allowed 64 pressures in 361 pass pro opportunities, almost double what was expected by STATS’ expected pressure metric. The rest of the line was average (Dan Feeney and Michael Schofield) or good (Russell Okung and Mike Pouncey), but right tackle was so bad that they ranked 25th in the NFL in pressure allowed in 2018. They pick at No. 28, which is a little late to get one of the blue-chip offensive linemen. Still, there should be plenty of second-tier tackles on the board for them who could turn into quality NFL starters.

Oakland Raiders (22)

Biggest Question: Offensive and Defensive Lines

Yeah, that is a lot for “one big question,” so I will start by saying that STATS data likes C Rodney Hudson and RG Gabe Jackson, each ranking eighth in the NFL at their respective positions. The rest of the line, however, is filled with uncertainty. Kolton Miller was horrid in his first season of professional football. Trent Brown should thrive in a quick-release offense, but we have seen Patriots tackles move to other teams and be incapable of repeating past success. Left guard is effectively a blank spot on the roster page. Derek Carr has his flaws, but he’s an incredibly accurate thrower, second only to Kirk Cousins in expected completion percentage. He now has a fantastic group of receivers to throw to, he just needs some time in the pocket.

On the defensive side, we also think the young defensive linemen Arden Key, Maurice Hurst, and P.J. Hall could blossom into quality players, but none of them are game-changers, and depth beyond that group is thin. The Raiders have three first round picks, and we expect at least one of them to go toward upgrading the defensive line. They could even use some of that draft capital to grab a blue-chip defender at No. 4 and then to move up for one of the top offensive linemen somewhere in the 10-15 range, rather than waiting to see who falls to them at No. 24 and No. 27.