Whenever an NFL coach begins to prepare for a future opponent, he surveys the talent at every position group to see which areas might present the most problems. While you can't necessarily avoid those players for the entire game, they are talented enough to give you pause before attempting to attack them on either side of the ball.
With that in mind, I wanted to survey the league heading into the 2017 campaign and figure out which position groups would create the most fear in the minds of opposing coaches. Here's my top-10 list:
10) New England Patriots' running backs
The Patriots have long taken a committee approach in the backfield, but their current collection of talent might be the most difficult to defend. Dion Lewis, James White and Rex Burkhead are interchangeable playmakers capable of doing damage as pass catchers and change-of-pace runners. Meanwhile, Mike Gillislee is a hard-hitting runner with the combination of size, strength and power to pick up the tough yards on short-yardage and goal-line situations.
Considering how well Josh McDaniels deploys New England's running backs to take advantage of mismatches, the team's diverse collection of backfield weapons could make the mighty Pats nearly impossible to defend in 2017.
9) Carolina Panthers' linebackers
Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis completely control the game as destructive defenders with exceptional instincts, awareness and athleticism. Each linebacker is capable of flowing to the ball with reckless abandon, yet also displays the coverage skills and diagnostic ability to create splash plays in the passing game.
8) Atlanta Falcons' running backs
The Falcons' ultra-explosive RB tandem sparked the team on what could be the first of a series of Super Bowl runs. Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman are electric playmakers with similar games. Both guys can take it the distance from anywhere on the field as a runner or receiver, but they are also capable of grinding it out on inside runs in the team's zone-based scheme.
7) Seattle Seahawks' safeties
The "Legion of Boom" secondary as a whole might be nearing the end of a historic run, but that doesn't stop quarterbacks from shaking in their boots at the prospect of facing Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor. The Seahawks' veteran tandem remains a feared combination of talent due to collective instincts, awareness, ball skills and physicality.
Thomas is a natural center fielder with extraordinary range and a nasty demeanor. He is one of the few safeties in the league capable of snagging an interception or knocking the taste out of pass catcher's mouths -- depending on his mood. Chancellor is the ultimate enforcer between the hashes as a big, athletic safety with a linebacker mentality.
6) Los Angeles Chargers' pass rushers
Get used to seeing Melvin Ingram and Joey Bosa dotting this list as one of the most terrifying pass-rushing combinations in the league. This Chargers duo features a mix of speed (Ingram) and power (Bosa) that will overwhelm offenses with suspect athletes positioned as edge blockers. Ingram has a unique ability to turn the corner on a speed rush -- while also flashing enough agility and wiggle to win on an inside move. This makes him nearly impossible to slow down on the weak side, particularly when he has a clear runway (no tight end) to attack. Not to be outdone, Bosa is a savvy Kung Fu fighter with a non-stop motor, quick hands and savage combat skills. He routinely outworks blockers at the point of attack and his relentless spirit results in a number of sacks on second and third efforts.
As the designated playmakers on a defense designed to wreak havoc off the edges under new coordinator Gus Bradley, Ingram and Bosa could each post double-digit sack numbers this season.
5) Tampa Bay Buccaneers' receiving corps
When the Buccaneers paired one of the best young WR1s in the game with one of the most prolific big-play threats in NFL history, they guaranteed defensive coordinators around the league will hear plenty of frustrating cannon fire when they stand on the sidelines of Raymond James Stadium. The combination of Mike Evans and DeSean Jackson is arguably the best 1-2 punch in the league, with each pass catcher capable of flipping the field with a big play against one-on-one coverage. If opponents attempt to double-team the tandem with Cover 2 or an exotic bracket-coverage combination, the Bucs have a pair of playmaking tight ends (Cameron Brate and first-round pick O.J. Howard) with the athleticism and movement skills to terrorize opponents between the hashes and in the red zone.
4) Denver Broncos' cornerbacks
Despite the loss of coordinator Wade Phillips (now with the Rams), the Broncos' D will continue to ground high-flying aerial attacks with Aqib Talib, Chris Harris Jr. and Bradley Roby comprising the "No Fly Zone" on the perimeter. These three cover corners are explosive athletes with high football IQs and versatile games. Each defender is not only capable of neutralizing opponents using a variety of techniques (off, bail or bump-and-run), but can play inside or outside based on matchups and assignments heading into the game.
Considering the Broncos' success snuffing out opponents due to their cornerbacks' ability to create headaches with their athleticism, versatility, ball skills and chatter, this group definitely deserves a lofty spot on this list.
3) New York Giants' receiving corps
It was already quite a challenge to slow down the Giants' passing game last season with Odell Beckham Jr. and Sterling Shepard, but it might be impossible to stop Big Blue with Brandon Marshall joining the fold. The big-bodied pass catcher is the "stretch" receiver that Eli Manning needs in the red zone to win 50-50 balls on back-shoulder fades against overmatched defenders on the island. With the ultra-explosive Beckham continuing to evolve as the team's No. 1 and Shepard settling into his role as an inside-outside weapon, New York's aerial attack suddenly has the potential to punish defenses with a variety of catch-and-run throws between the hashes and bombs along the boundary.
2) Houston Texans' pass rushers
How do you block a front line that features a three-time Defensive Player of the Year, a former No. 1 overall pick with explosive strength and power and a high-energy pass rusher with a versatile game? That's the challenge the Texans' pass rush presents to opponents with J.J. Watt, Jadeveon Clowney and Whitney Mercilus harassing quarterbacks from every conceivable angle along the line. Whether it's Watt freelancing from his traditional 5-technique position, Clowney crashing from the edges or Mercilus spinning past helpless blockers on the interior, Houston's talented pass-rush trio creates headaches for coaches tasked with neutralizing the disruptive defenders at the point of attack.
If Watt can return to form following his back surgery and Clowney avoids the injury bug, there isn't an offensive line in football that can contain the Texans' three-headed monster on passing downs.
1) Dallas Cowboys' offensive line
Say what you want about the immediate impact of Ezekiel Elliott and Dak Prescott on the Cowboys' return to prominence -- the team's recent success has been fueled by dominance from the offensive line. The Cowboys' quintet demolishes defenders at the point of attack in the run game, resulting in huge lanes for the NFL's reigning rushing king, while also providing a cocoon of protection for the 2016 Offensive Rookie of the Year on passing plays. Tyron Smith, Travis Frederick and Zack Martin are all former first-round picks -- and all three were named first-team All-Pro in 2016. La'el Collins was a first-round talent in 2015, but he went undrafted after his name cropped up in a murder investigation (although he was never considered a suspect and was never charged with any crime). The Cowboys scooped him up as an undrafted free agent, and now he's in line to be a full-time starter in 2017.
Defensive lines loaded with Pro Bowl personnel routinely submit at the hands of this Cowboys offensive line. It's quite a thing to see. Considering how the sight of those submissions on film can leave a lasting impression on future opponents, the sheer dominance from Dallas' front line makes the unit worthy of the top spot on this list.