Ell’s NFL Preseason Ranking Part 4 #20-17
Strength: Front 7. The Vikings are a strong defensive team led by their front 4 and a strong front 7 consisting of pass rushers DEs Danielle Hunter and Everson Griffen, unstoppable DT Linval Joseph, and young playmaking LBs Anthony Barr and Eric Kendricks. These young guys are continuing to gel nicely and form a physical unit that will keep this team in games led by HC Mike Zimmer’s leadership.
Weakness: Offensive Line. The Vikings offensive line is improved from how horrible it was last year, but it will still be a concern with a lack of depth and top talent. LT Riley Reiff replaces Matt Kahlil which is an upgrade, but he was always expected to move to RT or Guard to improve his play even more. RT Mike Reemers takes over another problem position while he is a solid run blocker, can he hold up in pass protection? Veteran RG Joe Berger should hold down his spot and the hope is that rookie C Pat Elflein takes the center spot or that could be a problem as well, but after the release of G Alex Boone, LG is now a problem.
*Honorable Mention* Wide Receiver. Stefon Diggs proved that he could hold his own as the #1 target and go to guy, but he needs help out there, as he not the biggest wide and you don’t want to burn him out. Adam Thielen was a nice discovery in the slot and the hope is that he will continue to improve. After that it is still a mystery, as last year’s 1st round pick Laquan Treadwell has yet to make his mark, but they hope that he will this season, Jarius Wright has been inconsistent, and Michael Floyd is hoping to recapture his form after some off the field trouble; hopefully he can prove to be a solid #2 WR again.
Impact Rookie: Dalvin Cook. Cook surprisingly dropped in the draft and despite picking up free agent Latavius Murray, the Vikings added help, in Cook; however it looks more likely that Cook will be the starter. He has proved to be more than capable of running between the tackles and continued to show his game changing speed and ability to make plays out of the backfield; expect Cook to get touches early and often.
Strength: Defensive Line. The Panthers’ D-line remains one of the best in the league even after trading pass rushing DE Kony Ealy, thanks to the return of veteran DE Julius Peppers to end his career where he started. The line is led by huge run stopping NT Star Lotulelei and pass-rushing DT Kawann Short, due for a big deal. DE Charles Johnson still does a good job rushing the passer and Mario Addison should be even better learning from Peppers. Last year’s 1st round pick DT Victor Butler is another huge body waiting in the wings.
*Honorable Mention*Linebacker. The LB trio of Luke Kuechly, Thomas Davis, and Shaq Thompson should be one of the best in the league as Kuechly is one of the best sideline to sideline MLB’s, Davis continues to play at a high speed with good coverage while fighting injuries, and Thompson is a tough converted safety who will be expected to take on more of Davis’ duties.
Weakness: Offensive Line. The Panthers haven’t had a great line in years, but most of the concern comes at Tackle where they loss RT Mike Remmers to the Vikings and LT Michael Oher to concussions, while they picked up LT Matt Kahlil from the Vikings, who has struggled with injury and average play. This team is built on the power run, so winning the battle at the line will be the key.
Impact Rookie: Christian McCaffrey. McCaffrey rose up draft boards after showing good speed and athleticism while being very productive as a dual threat back. He is expected to be too talented to keep off the field and will find ways to contribute whether running, in the passing attack, or return game.
Strength: Front 7. The Bucs’ front 7 consists of star DT Gerald McCoy, who has solidified the middle for the past few seasons while the pieces around him continue to change, developing DE William Gholston, free agent DE Robert Ayers who has been a solid pass rusher, free agent DT/DE Chris Baker coming off a career season late in his career, and young developing pass rusher DE Noah Spence on the D-line. The LB core has MLB Kwon Alexander who has been a sideline to sideline tackler and playmaker next to OLB Lavonte David, one of the best coverage linebackers in the league and a true playmaker. This unit should make this team competitive in every game and the improved offense should help, as well.
*Honorable Mention* Tight End. TE Cameron Brate was a solid discovery last season, as a big target who took over the TE job and never looked back, as the 2nd option on the offense; he continued to produce despite teams knowing he would get the ball. Now, he has help in O.J. Howard, who was considered a top 5 talent in the draft, but fell to the Bucs giving them another big receiving target and the option for a lot of two TE sets.
Weakness: CB/O-line. It was tough to find a true weak point, Safety could have made the list, but the late signing of Pro Bowl S T.J. Ward has changed that. However, CB could be a concern as Brent Grimes is a year older, but 2nd year player Vernon Hargreaves is growing, but there is not much depth behind them, as Robert McClain is a decent nickel who you would only want starting in spurts and not much experience after that. Offensive line is similar as Ali Marpet moves to Center where he should be even better, but his LG spot is left to Kevin Pamphile who should be at least a good run blocker. The team wants to see another year of improvement from LT Donovan Smith and they hope to get another solid year out of RT Demar Dotson. RG J.R. Sweezy struggled last season, but the hope is that he can put it together this season.
Impact Rookie: O.J. Howard. Howard is a huge receiving target with good athleticism, who most scouts believed improving his blocking was his only weakness and they also had him valued as a top 5 talent. Howard should bring a different dynamic to an offense suddenly full of weapons; he could be the benefit of a lot of attention on Evans, Brate, and Jackson.
Strength: Linebacker. The Cardinals have one of the top LB cores in the league with pass-rushing OLB Chandler Jones, in his prime, young and improving pass-rusher Marcus Golden, who has also improved in coverage, veteran tackling machine Karlos Dansby and rookie 1st round pick Haason Reddick. Athletic Safety Deone Bucannon also has the versatility to play LB, as well, and has really excelled in that role. This unit will be the key to the defense, allowing the athletes in the secondary to roam free and make plays; if the QB doesn’t get hit 1st.
Weakness: Defensive Line. The Cardinals have had a strong D-line in past years thanks to mainstays Calais Campbell and Darnell Dockett, but they no longer have that luxury. The team drafted DE/DT Robert Nkemdiche, who has shown flashes of his rare athleticism and talent, but he has not been similar to Dockett as advertised and the team needs him to step up, as a star up front. Frostee Rucker is the best and most consistent of the bunch, an underrated run stopper with a good motor to rush the passer. Corey Peters is a decent run stopper and space eater and ditto with Rodney Gunter. Josh Mauro may be a starter and has worked his way up the ladder with good size and a good motor. The team hopes that Nkemdiche plays to his potential and this unit excels collectively.
*Honorable Mention* Wide Receiver. Larry Fitzgerald is the only WR in the group who can be relied on and the only receiver on the team who plays with any consistency, which should be expected as he is one of the best in the game, but this could be his last season. The team hopes that John Brown can regain his rookie season form and be the speedy playmaker out of the slot again. Jaron Brown has worked his way into the #2 spot and the team hopes he can keep the job. J.J. Nelson is a small, speedy WR who has also shown flashes and contributes on special teams.
Impact Rookie: Haason Reddick. Reddick rose up draft boards after a solid combine and Pro Day showcasing his speed and athleticism for a player that was already versatile enough to play both DE and OLB. It was believed that his best fit for the NFL would be in the middle due to instincts, playmaking ability, and height. Surrounded by talent, Reddick should be ready to make an immediate impact and he should be able to learn a lot from Dansby, who has played inside and outside in both 4-3 and 3-4 schemes.