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The 1 position each NFL team should feel great about before the 2018 season

The Packers and Patriots are set at quarterback, but for some teams, their biggest strength is less obvious.

Green Bay Packers v Carolina Panthers Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

The free agency market has been picked down to scraps, and the 2018 NFL Draft is in the books. All that’s left is a wait through the summer months for the next NFL season to begin.

Some teams still have holes in their rosters that could be problems in 2018. At the very least, every team has a weakness somewhere.

But here we’ll be a little more positive. This is the one position group that every team can feel good about heading into the 2018 season:

Arizona Cardinals: defensive end

The big question for the Cardinals is how smooth the transition to a 4-3 defense will be under new head coach Steve Wilks. It will move outside linebacker Chandler Jones and Markus Golden to the line of scrimmage to play defensive end. Jones shouldn’t have an issue, having played there at the beginning of his career with the Patriots. He had 12.5 sacks in his final season in New England and broke out for a career-best and franchise-record 17 sacks in 2017 with the Cardinals. Golden hasn’t been an end since his college days, but is a similar player to Mario Addison, a Panthers pass rusher who had 20.5 sacks in the last two seasons under Wilks. If Golden returns to form after an ACL tear and Jones continues to be effective, they could make the scheme change easy.

Atlanta Falcons: wide receiver

There’s a lot of strong positional groups for the Falcons, but the combination of Julio Jones and Mohamed Sanu now that Calvin Ridley has been added to the fold? Fire emoji, fire emoji, fire emoji. Jones — who is, for now, the all-time leader in receiving yards per game — joined Marvin Harrison as the only other receiver to top 1,400 yards in four consecutive seasons. Sanu is a reliable No. 2 who often plays in the slot and could be used inside and out now that Ridley is there too. There’s a drop-off after the top three with Justin Hardy and sixth-round rookie Russell Gage rounding out the depth chart, but the top three is going to be a nightmare for defenses to stop.

Baltimore Ravens: secondary

It’s broad, but it wouldn’t feel fair to single out safeties or cornerbacks after the Ravens led the NFL with 22 interceptions in 2017. The whole secondary deserves a nod. Baltimore is one of five teams allocating more than 10 percent of its salary cap to the safety position after spending big on Eric Weddle and Tony Jefferson in consecutive offseasons. The price tag may be high — particularly in the case of Jefferson — but both players have performed well. It has helped the cornerback group, led by Jimmy Smith, Brandon Carr, and Marlon Humphrey, to excel. The concern for the Ravens has been injuries, especially with Smith. The 2011 first-round pick has played just two 16-game seasons and is recovering from a torn Achilles in 2017. But when he’s healthy, Smith is one of the best in the game.

Buffalo Bills: safety

After the 2016 season, the Bills started over at safety. Out were Corey Graham and Aaron Williams; in were Jordan Poyer and Micah Hyde. The result was a significant upgrade for Buffalo with Hyde earning a spot in the Pro Bowl and Poyer way outplaying his bargain contract of $13 million over four years. The Bills were the only team in the NFL with two safeties who had top-five coverage grades on Pro Football Focus, and were one of only two teams that allowed 14 or fewer passing touchdowns. There isn’t much depth behind the excellent starting duo, but Buffalo added fifth-round pick Siran Neal and former Saints safety Rafael Bush on a cheap two-year deal.

Carolina Panthers: defensive tackle

Led by Kawann Short in the middle of the defense, the Panthers had one of the best run defenses in the NFL in 2017. Short has been a disruptive force for years, but Star Lotulelei wasn’t always as consistent. So even though Carolina lost its 2013 first-round pick in free agency to the Bills, the replacement for Lotulelei may be an upgrade. The three-year, $28 million deal for Dontari Poe gives Short a 346-pound run stuffing counterpart who could make an already strong run defense even better. The wild card is 2016 first-round pick Vernon Butler, who hasn’t done much of anything so far in his career. He could be primed for a breakout and if he gets there, the Panthers will have a truly scary rotation.

Chicago Bears: running back

Strong drafting by the Bears landed them Jordan Howard in the fifth round of the 2016 NFL Draft and Tarik Cohen in the fourth round in 2017. Howard already has a Pro Bowl under his belt after finishing his rookie year with 1,313 rushing yards and 298 receiving yards, then followed it with 1,122 rushing yards and nine rushing touchdowns in 2017. Cohen is the lightning to Howard’s thunder and finished his rookie year with 1,578 all-purpose yards, contributing as a rusher, receiver, and returner. The duo had to carry a Bears’ offense that was the NFL’s worst at passing the ball, but the additions of receivers Allen Robinson and Taylor Gabriel, and tight end Trey Burton should lighten that burden and free up more space for Howard and Cohen in 2018.

Cincinnati Bengals: edge rusher

Carlos Dunlap didn’t make the Pro Bowl in 2017 after back-to-back trips in the two years prior, but he’s still one of the best defensive ends in the NFL. On the opposite side for the majority of the last decade has been Michael Johnson. But what makes the Bengals’ crop of pass rushers really exciting is the young talent the team has continued to add in the NFL Draft. In 2017 it was Jordan Willis and Carl Lawson in Rounds 3 and 4, respectively, and in 2018 it was Ohio State’s Sam Hubbard in Round 3. Lawson had 8.5 sacks as a rookie and could easily crack double digits in year two.

Cleveland Browns: interior offensive line

The retirement of Joe Thomas leaves questions at offensive tackle, but the middle of the Browns offensive line is set. Joel Bitonio has proven to be one of Cleveland’s best draft picks of the last five years and the Browns gave former Bengals guard Kevin Zeitler a five-year, $60 million deal to hold down the other guard spot. In between them is former Packers center J.C. Tretter, who was also signed as a free agent in 2017. While the offense was awful last year, the team managed 4.5 yards per rush — the sixth-best mark in the NFL — thanks largely to its push up front. Second-round pick Austin Corbett may slot in as a tackle for the Browns, but the rookie is capable of stepping in as an interior lineman, if needed.

Dallas Cowboys: offensive line

Yeah, the whole damn thing. It’s a wealth of riches up front for the Cowboys. Tyron Smith, Travis Frederick, and Zack Martin are all among the best offensive linemen in the NFL. Now the group adds second-round pick Connor Williams, who will likely slot in as the team’s starting left guard. The last starter is La’el Collins, who didn’t have the best year in his first season at right tackle, but wasn’t a disaster either. If he grows into his potential and Williams lives up to his draft hype, it’ll be really hard to find any weak link along the Cowboys’ line — unless someone forgets how to pour ketchup correctly.

Denver Broncos: pass rusher

The best player on the team is Von Miller. He’s one of the few players in NFL history who can be counted on for double-digit sacks year in and year out. Only 23 players have ever had at least six double-digit sack seasons in their career, and Miller reached that mark in his first seven years in the league. This offseason, Denver added the consensus best pass rusher of the draft class by picking Bradley Chubb with the No. 5 pick — the team’s first top-10 selection since taking Miller. Shaquil Barrett and 2017 second-round pick DeMarcus Walker offer rotational depth even if 2015 first-round pick Shane Ray has disappointed.

Detroit Lions: wide receiver

The Lions were the only team last year that had two wide receivers each top 1,000 yards. What’s even better is that neither Golden Tate nor Marvin Jones is due to count more than $10 million against Detroit’s salary cap in 2018, making them a bargain tandem. There isn’t much depth behind Tate and Jones, but 2017 third-round pick Kenny Golladay showed real promise as a deep threat during his rookie season despite the fact that he dealt with a hamstring problem. Following the release of tight end Eric Ebron, there will be even more targets to spread around for the receiving corps in Detroit.

Green Bay Packers: quarterback

The Packers are good, but not great at several positions including defensive line and running back. The team’s true strength comes behind center. Aaron Rodgers is a perennial MVP candidate when healthy. If he’s not, Green Bay has a legitimate developmental prospect behind him in DeShone Kizer, who should be able to beat out Brett Hundley at backup after an offseason trade. The Kizer experience was a grim one last season (11 touchdowns and 22 interceptions in 15 starts), but a) he was a rookie and b) it was with the Browns. He could be an upgrade from Hundley, who only beat the Bears, Buccaneers, and Browns as a starter and failed to throw a touchdown pass at Lambeau Field in 2017.

Houston Texans: wide receiver

The return of J.J. Watt and Whitney Mercilus could make edge rusher the right choice. But Watt is now three years removed from being a healthy player, while Mercilus had only 8.5 sacks in the 20 games prior to his pectoral tear in 2017. On the other hand, wide receiver is only getting better for the Texans. DeAndre Hopkins continues to be one of the best in the league and his production should only improve now that he has an actual quarterback. After Hopkins, there’s 2016 first-round pick Will Fuller and third-round pick Braxton Miller — a pair of raw players who are slowly improving. Bruce Ellington was useful at times last season, too. And now there’s also fourth-round rookie Keke Coutee added to the fold. Even better for the Texans: Deshaun Watson will be back throwing them the ball.

Indianapolis Colts: guard

It’s a little presumptive considering first-round pick Quenton Nelson and second-round pick Braden Smith haven’t seen the field yet. But on a roster that needed help damn near everywhere, guard is where Colts general manager Chris Ballard chose to use two of the team’s three selections in first 40 picks. They’ll join a roster that added former Jets, Bears, and Chargers starter Matt Slauson in free agency and re-signed Jack Mewhort, who had a strong start to his career before back-to-back season-ending knee injuries in 2016 and 2017.

Jacksonville Jaguars: defensive line

Cornerback sets a high bar with Jalen Ramsey and A.J. Bouye each earning Pro Bowl nods in 2017. But the depth along the defensive line makes it the best positional group for the Jaguars. It was already a devastating group with Calais Campbell, Malik Jackson, and Yannick Ngakoue setting the tone up front for an elite defense. Then Jacksonville traded for Marcell Dareus and spent a first-round pick to add Taven Bryan to the mix. Abry Jones is an unheralded member of the group and even 2016 first-round pick Dante Fowler has been a solid contributor, even if he hasn’t lived up to his draft billing.

Kansas City Chiefs: wide receiver

Patrick Mahomes won’t be lacking options when it comes to his first season as the Chiefs’ starting quarterback. Tyreek Hill and the newly signed Sammy Watkins give him two explosive game-breaking threats perfectly suited to test the arm strength that made Mahomes such a tantalizing prospect. Chris Conley makes for an effective third receiver when healthy. And if that wasn’t enough, Kansas City also has upper-tier targets at running back (Kareem Hunt) and tight end (Travis Kelce).

Los Angeles Chargers: cornerback

Casey Hayward has proven to be one of the best bargains in the NFL after providing two years of All-Pro performance at corner for just over $5 million per year for the club. He’ll be around for the next four seasons after signing a $33 million extension this offseason, and he won’t be the only coverage monster in Los Angeles’ secondary. Former first-round pick and 2015 Pro Bowler Jason Verrett will finally be healthy this fall. Even if he can’t go, Trevor Williams has proven himself a capable starter in his stead. Desmond King, a 2017 fifth-round pick was a versatile and useful player as a rookie who can cover as both a corner and a safety. Sure, the Chargers have the pass-rushing beastly duo of Melvin Ingram and Joey Bosa. But that’s four starting-caliber cornerbacks in one defensive backfield, making this their deepest position.

Los Angeles Rams: defensive tackle

The strength of the Rams’ defense comes from the trenches, where 2017 NFL Defensive Player of the Year Aaron Donald terrorizes quarterbacks. He’ll have a new running mate next to him in the middle — Los Angeles added even more bulk up front by signing Ndamukong Suh this offseason. Suh may not be the game-changer he once was, but his production could spike now that he’s surrounded by teammates who command double teams. Behind them is former first-round pick Dominique Easley, who is just 25 years old and still capable of growing into the potential that made him the Patriots’ first-round draft pick back in 2014.

Miami Dolphins: defensive end

Cameron Wake is 36 now, but he’s shown no signs of slowing down. The former CFL star has 22 sacks over his past two seasons to stand out on an otherwise forgettable defense. He’ll have some help this fall, as former Ram Robert Quinn will man the opposite defensive end slot after being acquired via trade. That means 2017 starter Andre Branch is now a valuable rotational piece along with 11-year veteran William Hayes.

Minnesota Vikings: safety

Minnesota boasts an intimidating secondary; a group that held opposing quarterbacks to a 77.6 rating, third-best in the league. The linchpin behind that group is the Harrison Smith-Andrew Sendejo combination in center field. That pairing combined for seven interceptions and 19 passes defensed last season, but was similarly effective against the run.

New England Patriots: quarterback

Yes, Tom Brady will be 41 years old this season. But he’s also the reigning NFL MVP who threw for a Super Bowl record 505 yards in his last game. That’s ... pretty strong, even if the Brian Hoyer-Danny Etling situation behind him fails to inspire confidence. The Patriots also have extremely deep receiving and running back corps, but Brady’s star power and ability to single-handedly swing games makes quarterback the highlight of the New England roster for the 18th straight season.

New Orleans Saints: defensive end

Cameron Jordan is coming off his best season after racking up 13 sacks and earning first-team All-Pro honors. He’ll be bolstered by two recent first-round picks — 2016 draftee Sheldon Richardson and 2018 selection Marcus Davenport. If those two fail to reach their potential, Alex Ofafor, who had 4.5 sacks in 10 games last season, is another steady option who will reinforce the Saints’ pass rush from the defensive line.

New York Giants: safety

The Giants’ once-fearsome pass rush has regressed in recent years and ranked just 31st in the league in sack rate last fall. That’s put more pressure on the New York secondary — and rising star Landon Collins has stepped up. Collins was a first-team All-Pro in 2016, his second season, and looks like a true foundational piece for the franchise’s rebuild. Darian Thompson is growing into his starting role alongside him, and the pair could be the backbone of the team’s aerial defense. Safety isn’t solid all the way through, but it’s a position of strength for a depleted roster.

New York Jets: defensive tackle

It mostly speaks to the underwhelming status of the entire roster that defensive line is still the strength of the Jets after losing Sheldon Richardson and Muhammad Wilkerson in the last year. Even with those high-profile departures, the contributions of Leonard Williams, Steve McLendon, Xavier Cooper, and Mike Pennel make the interior of the defensive line an imposing force. Third-round rookie Nathan Shepherd has the raw talent to turn into another good tackle in the middle of the Jets’ defense.

Oakland Raiders: offensive line

The Raiders disappointed in 2017 and even stretched to spend their 2018 first-round pick on a tackle, but the team’s offensive line was a position of strength. Oakland allowed sacks on just 4.12 percent of dropbacks last season — the fourth-lowest rate in the league. While losing Marshall Newhouse in free agency leaves the team down a right tackle, the Donald Penn-Kelechi Osemele-Rodney Hudson trio gives the Raiders three Pro Bowlers to make the left side of the line a a fortress. If Kolton Miller can contribute as a rookie and Penn continues to play well at age 35, this group could be even better than last year.

Philadelphia Eagles: defensive line

Philadelphia got more veteran help to its front line by trading for Michael Bennett this offseason. He’ll bring a wealth of postseason experience to a Super Bowl champion line that already features Fletcher Cox, Brandon Graham, Chris Long, Haloti Ngata, Timmy Jernigan, and Derek Barnett. They also picked defensive end Josh Sweat in the fourth round, a talented player who could prove to be a steal. That’s a wealth of talent that should be able to improve on last year’s relatively low sack rate while remaining a top-10 unit against the run.

Pittsburgh Steelers: wide receiver

Pittsburgh fields arguably the best wideout in the league at the top of its depth chart: Antonio Brown. His No. 2 is 2017 offensive rookie of the year candidate JuJu Smith-Schuster, who had 917 receiving yards in his first season with the club and showed a penchant for big plays. While Martavis Bryant has been traded away to the Raiders, his spot will be filled by prolific Oklahoma State product James Washington, who had more than 1,500 receiving yards last fall and averaged a ridiculous 20.9 yards per catch. Factor in Le’Veon Bell taking some of the defensive pressure away in the passing game, and you’ve got a trio that should shred defenses.

San Francisco 49ers: fullback

There’s plenty of young talent on the 49ers’ roster John Lynch assembled, but a prospect-filled roster will have questions to answer in 2018. There’s one position that’s rock-solid, however: fullback. Kyle Juszczyk is an expensive luxury for San Francisco thanks to a market-setting four-year, $21 million deal he signed to jump-start the franchise’s rebuild, but year one of that contract has paid off. While he’s a valuable receiver out of the backfield (33 catches, 315 yards, and a 78 percent catch rate), his ability to add an extra layer of protection for Jimmy Garoppolo may be his biggest asset.

Seattle Seahawks: linebacker

The once revered and dominant defense of the Seahawks was pruned in 2018. Richard Sherman was released and joined the 49ers, Michael Bennett was traded to the Eagles, Sheldon Richardson signed with the Vikings in free agency, and Cliff Avril was released. The “Legion of Boom” era is over, but the Seahawks still have arguably the best linebacker in the NFL in Bobby Wagner in the middle of the defense. Beside him is K.J. Wright, who was a Pro Bowler in 2016. The question is the other outside linebacker position where free agent acquisition Barkevious Mingo will likely slot in, and everyone’s favorite fifth-round pick Shaquem Griffin could see snaps.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers: defensive tackle

The Buccaneers have been in decent shape at defensive tackle ever since they took Gerald McCoy in the 2010 NFL Draft. He’s been a Pro Bowler for the last six seasons, but it wasn’t until this offseason that Tampa Bay turned the entire position group into the biggest strength on the roster. In free agency, the Buccaneers signed Mitch Unrein and Beau Allen, then picked the top defensive tackle of the draft class by taking Vita Vea at No. 12 overall. All eyes will be on the pairing of McCoy and Vea, but Unrein may be one of the most underrated free agent signings of the offseason. Expect Tampa Bay to be much better at stopping the run in 2018.

Tennessee Titans: outside linebacker

Since signing Brian Orakpo in 2015, the Titans have consistently been one of the best teams in the NFL at rushing the passer. Led by the tandem of Orakpo and 2010 first-round pick Derrick Morgan, Tennessee landed in the top six in the NFL in sacks in each of the last two seasons. Now the Titans will begin to work second-round pick Harold Landry into the mix too. There’s also 2016 second-round pick Kevin Dodd, although the former Clemson pass rusher has just one sack in two NFL seasons so far.

Washington: linebacker

Ryan Kerrigan may not get the hype he deserves, but the former first-round pick has been an absolute machine in his seven years as a pro, racking up an average of more than 10 sacks per season. Preston Smith hasn’t been as productive, but he’s a valuable counterbalance to Kerrigan as a pass rushing OLB. They combined for 21 sacks last season. On the inside, Washington will have to hope Mason Foster returns to his 2016 form — but if he can’t, the uber-productive Zach Brown has proven he can shoulder the load against the run. They also drafted potential steal Shaun Dion Hamilton.