Whenever an NFL coach builds a game plan, he pinpoints the strongest areas of the opposing team and attempts to avoid the most dangerous players on the field. After surveying every position group in the NFL, here are the 10 most-feared units in the NFL:
10) Buffalo Bills' running backs: Rex Ryan's "ground and pound" attack features an electric veteran (LeSean McCoy) with explosive shake-and-bake skills and a big-bodied youngster (Karlos Williams) with big-play potential. In addition, the Bills have an emerging runner in Mike Gillislee with outstanding balance, body control and burst. I predict that, in an offense committed to pounding the ball between the tackles, the Bills' talented stable of runners will anchor the NFL's top-ranked rush attack for the second straight season.
9) Los Angeles Rams' defensive line: The Rams have been a popular sleeper pick for the past few seasons, largely due to the presence of a dynamic defensive front that features an intriguing cast of playmakers. Led by 2014 Defensive Rookie of the Year Aaron Donald and two-time Pro Bowler Robert Quinn, the Rams have a formidable front line that terrorizes opponents at the point of attack. With Michael Brockers flexing his muscles as the team's designated run stopper, the Rams have constructed a defensive line that features three first-round picks living up to their potential as blue-chip talents.
8) Oakland Raiders' pass rushers: Opponents venturing into the Black Hole could have a tough time staying upright in the pocket with Khalil Mack, Bruce Irvin, Mario Edwards Jr. and Aldon Smith (once he returns from suspension around mid-November) attacking from every angle. While opponents undoubtedly will focus on slowing down Mack after his stellar 2015 campaign (15 sacks), the rest of the Raiders' front should feast on one-on-one matchups on passing downs. Considering how much sacks and turnovers impact the outcome of games, Oakland's pass rush could help the team make a run at the AFC West title.
7) New York Jets' wide receivers: The Jets' receiving corps resembles an NBA basketball team on the turf with Brandon Marshall and Eric Decker towering over defensive backs on the perimeter. The big-bodied pass catchers shine in the red zone, as evidenced by their 26 combined touchdown receptions in 2015. The Jets' quarterback situation is a huge question mark at the moment, but whoever ends up under center will have a pair of dominant pass catchers on the perimeter -- quite the luxury in today's NFL.
6) Denver Broncos' pass rushers: The pass-rushing combination of Von Miller, DeMarcus Ware and Shane Ray is a lethal weapon for an ultra-aggressive play caller like Wade Phillips. The threesome features a dynamic DPR (designated pass rusher) in Miller and a pair of explosive situational rushers (Ware and Ray) with exceptional first-step quickness and acceleration. In a simplified defense that allows pass rushers to freely hunt quarterbacks off the edges, the Broncos' trio could surpass their remarkable output from a season ago, when Denver led the NFL with 52 sacks.
5) New England Patriots' tight ends: The Patriots' offense could produce fireworks in 2016 with a pair of interchangeable tight ends capable of creating mismatches all over the field. Rob Gronkowski and Martellus Bennett are not only big-bodied pass catchers with remarkable athleticism and hands, but each player is a strong blocker capable of moving defenders off the ball on running plays. With both capable of lining up on the outside as wide receivers in spread formations, the Patriots can toy with opponents, using their "12" personnel package (one running back, two tight ends and two wide receivers) to exploit base or nickel defenses.
4) Seattle Seahawks' safeties: These core members of the "Legion of Boom" discourage opponents from working the middle of the field with their hard-hitting ways and superb ball skills. Earl Thomas is a playmaking center fielder with outstanding instincts, awareness and anticipation. He scares quarterbacks with his ability to jump routes and snag interceptions on tips or overthrows in his area. Kam Chancellor is the designated enforcer with a knack for delivering teeth-rattling shots to runners in the hole and receivers venturing between the hashes.
3) Carolina Panthers' linebackers:Thomas Davis and Luke Kuechly are the central figures on a defense that bullies opponents between the tackles. Both All-Pro 'backers display exceptional instincts and tackling skills, yet they also boast outstanding awareness and ball skills in coverage. Behind a monstrous set of defensive tackles (Star Lotulelei and Kawann Short), the Panthers' linebackers wreak havoc on opponents around the NFL.
2) Denver Broncos' cornerbacks: It is easy for Wade Phillips to craft an aggressive game plan when he has three premier cover corners at his disposal. Aqib Talib and Chris Harris Jr. are household names as Pro Bowl playmakers, but it is possible that Bradley Roby could emerge as the team's top cover corner based on his rapid development on the perimeter. In an aggressive blitz-heavy scheme that places a premium on corners winning their one-on-one matchups, the Broncos' talented trio makes life difficult for pass catchers attempting to post big numbers on the perimeter.
1) Dallas Cowboys' offensive line: The offensive men in the trenches frequently get overlooked, but the Cowboys' front line deserves attention due to its consistent dominance at the point of attack. The unit features three former first-round picks (Tyron Smith, Zack Martin and Travis Frederick) and a gifted interior blocker (La'el Collins) who was rated as a first-round talent before a pre-draft ordeal -- one that saw him mentioned in conjunction with (but never seen as a suspect in) a shooting death -- made him go undrafted. With the team expected to show a renewed commitment to the running game, given Ezekiel Elliott's addition to the backfield, the football world will fully appreciate the Cowboys' O-line in 2016.