The 10 most underperforming units of the 2017 NFL season


Even in the football universe, life finds a way to achieve some form of balance. While some teams attain historic heights of greatness in their efforts on either side of the ball and breakout players emerge, so must a handful of units underperform. Throughout the NFL this season, there were several positional groups that proved far too disastrous to ignore.

Here we'll hand out "awards" for the top 10 most underperforming units in the 2017 campaign. Whether their teams managed to overcome them with strengths elsewhere or their issues proved too great a burden to bear, these units couldn't escape the spotlight of despair. Unless otherwise noted, the metrics used in this piece were gleaned from the objective Next Gen Stats data tracked by the chips in the players' pads.

1) Denver Broncos' quarterbacks

Perhaps no unit sank its team's overall chances more than the Broncos' quarterback room in 2017. An offense with two pedigreed veteran receivers and a first-time 1,000-yard rusher in C.J. Anderson fell victim to an ineffective three-headed monster behind center. Trevor Siemian and Brock Osweiler were particularly poor on plays outside of structure. Siemian and Osweiler each threw outside the tackle box at a rate above the NFL average (11.1 percent), finishing with respective passer ratings of 11.3 (44th) and 47.9 (39th). Former first-round pick Paxton Lynch started just two games, both Denver losses, and was never rushed into the lineup when he returned from a preseason injury. Chris Wesseling made a compelling case for John Elway and Co. to give chase to Kirk Cousins, should he get free from Washington.

2) Seattle Seahawks' run-blocking

Seattle ranked 23rd as a rushing offense, but it takes a mere cursory glance to discover that Russell Wilson boosted that figure by running for 586 yards. The backs scored just one touchdown this year. Chris Carson went on injured reserve after Week 4, but he was still the leading rusher among backs (208 yards) until Week 17, when he was finally passed by Mike Davis, who joined the active roster on Nov. 14. No matter the quality of backs in Seattle's stable, they were doomed by porous run-blocking. Seahawks RBs gained an average of -0.11 yards before defenders closed within 1 yard this season, ranking dead last in the NFL. The league average there is 0.29 yards gained; Seattle was one of just two teams to finish with a figure below zero. The 'Hawks relieved offensive line coach Tom Cable of his duties last week. (Cable has since landed in Oakland.)

3) Arizona Cardinals' running backs

Transformative offensive centerpiece David Johnson went down with a season-ending injury in the Cardinals' opening contest of 2017. The cast of characters Arizona rolled out to replace him proved incapable of keeping the backfield ship afloat. Arizona's group of backs collectively gained an average of 3.13 rushing yards after defenders closed within 1 yard, finishing 32nd on the year (NFL average: 3.7 yards). Veteran Adrian Peterson looked like a possible solution with an explosive Cardinals debut following a trade from New Orleans. He quickly faded and totaled fewer than 30 yards in three of his next five outings before landing on IR. At least the team has an All-Pro solution returning in 2018.

4) Detroit Lions' running backs

The 2017 season was meant to be the breakout campaign for third-year pro Ameer Abdullah. Yet, it was anything but a season of ascension. The Lions were the 32nd-ranked rushing offense and didn't have a back clear 600 yards or average even 4 yards per carry. Abdullah earned a reputation as an explosive runner after a 45-yard ankle-breaking run in his first preseason game back in August of 2015. In 2017, few players at the position were easier to bring down than Abdullah. The former second-round pick gained an average of 3.17 rushing yards after defenders closed within 1 yard, ranking 45th out of 47 backs with at least 100 carries. Abdullah likely has a place in this league as a change-of-pace back, but hopefully the fabled dreams of him being a feature back have come and gone as Detroit searches for a real solution to an annual problem.

5) Indianapolis Colts' offensive line

For years, the football world at large bemoaned the Colts' willingness to roll out franchise quarterback Andrew Luck to the defensive wolves behind insufficient pass protection. The chickens seemingly came home to roost with Luck missing the entire regular season due to a lingering shoulder injury. While Luck was gone, poor line play remained a theme for Indianapolis. The Colts' quarterbacks were under pressure on 36.1 percent of their dropbacks this season, the second-highest rate in the league. The line was no better at run-blocking, either. Their running backs averaged -0.05 yards gained before defenders closed within 1 yard of them, trailing only the Seahawks. The Colts will be crossing their fingers that Luck returns to lead the offense in 2018 -- and they had better make sure it's in finer condition than when he left it.

6) New York Giants' pass rush

When it came to their pass rush, the Giants paid department store prices for yard sale-quality clothing. New York sank 36.4 percent of its 2017 cap dollars into defensive ends Olivier Vernon and Jason Pierre-Paul but registered the second-fewest pressures (122) and just 27 sacks on the year. Depth is a huge issue for the G-Men, as their starting defensive ends have simply been on the field for far too many snaps over the last two seasons. None of Big Blue's backup defensive ends checked in with a pressure rate north of 4.0 percent. With noted trench-play enthusiast Dave Gettleman now in place as general manager, we can expect the team to restock what was a deep and diverse stable of pass rushers during the Giants' Super Bowl glory years.

7) Tampa Bay Buccaneers' secondary

The Buccaneers' defense ranked 32nd in Football Outsiders DVOA. The unit's inability to cover on the back end was a primary culprit for the ignominious mark. Former first-round pick Vernon Hargreaves and his primary injury replacement at right corner, Ryan Smith, ranked inside the bottom 11 at the position in terms of yards per coverage snap allowed, per Pro Football Focus. The team struggled with several types of receivers. The Bucs allowed 1,046 yards and eight touchdowns to slot receivers and gave up the fifth-highest passer rating (100.4) to left wide receivers. None of their defenders seemed to win over opposing players at the catch point this season, allowing a 43.4 percent catch rate on tight-window passes, ahead of only the 49ers.

8) Buffalo Bills' wide receivers

The Bills never seemed comfortable with their passing-game personnel this season. The team took Zay Jones in the second round of the draft, jettisoned Sammy Watkins in the preseason, acquired Jordan Matthews from the Eagles on the same day and dealt for former Panther Kelvin Benjamin at the trade deadline. Despite all the shifts, Buffalo fielded one of the worst wide receiver groups in the NFL in 2017. Bills wide receivers averaged 2.47 yards of separation when their quarterback released the ball, ranking dead last, with the second-to-last team averaging 2.61. Quarterback Tyrod Taylor seems destined to move on from the team following a peculiar midseason benching. The Bills will have to settle matters in their receiver group while they start over under center.

9) Cleveland Browns' middle-of-the-field defenders

Cleveland offered no shortage of nominees for the underperforming awards. While there were more obvious candidates, the team was constantly beaten up over the middle of the field in pass coverage. Defensive coordinator Gregg Williams utilized a confusing scheme in 2017, blitzing at a top-five rate in the league while deploying rookie safety Jabrill Peppers WAY down the field to prevent deep passes. His plan resulted in cavernous holes left open in the heart of the defense. The Browns gave up the third-highest passer rating (109.9) and an 8:0 touchdown-to-interception ration when a linebacker was the nearest targeted defender. Tight ends ripped through Cleveland all year, to the tune of 89 catches and 10 touchdowns. If Williams retains his post as the Browns' defensive coordinator, he cannot hope to succeed with this outdated strategy in a league focused on quick passes.

10) New England Patriots' front seven

You don't often find the New England Patriots on any disparaging list. However, the efforts of their defensive front seven in 2017 warrant their placement here. The Patriots ranked 31st in the regular season with a 37.3 percent disruption rate -- i.e., the percentage of plays with a pressure or run stuff -- ahead of only Kansas City. New England's pass rush was the primary cause of the defense's ghastly start to the season and struggled throughout the year to deal with running backs on the ground or through the air. New England lost strong players like Dont'a Hightower to injury, but the Pats simply need to restock the cupboard with difference-makers this offseason. Trey Flowers led the team with just 40 pressures during the regular season.

With all that said, as per usual, New England appears to be ratcheting up their efforts for another run to the Super Bowl. The Patriots front seven turned it on in the Divisional Round, sacking Marcus Mariota eight times and completely bottling up Derrick Henry just one week after he rushed for 156 yards against the Chiefs.

Follow Matt Harmon on Twitter @MattHarmon_BYB.



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