The off-season has come to its climax. The NFL draft is complete, with AFC and NFC grades in. The top free agents have found their new teams. Veterans around the league know where their teams. Coaching staffs have been finalized and they have already begun to run OTAs and rookies training camps. And the schedule is set.
We finally have a great feel for how each team will look in the regular season. We also now have strong opinions for which teams are the most improved.
Top 10 Most Improved Teams in Off-Season
1. Carolina Panthers
Every year we get that wonderful rags to riches story of that bottom team that turned it around and gave their fans and franchise second life. This year, that will be the Panthers. I can easily see this team going from the bottom third of the league into a playoff spot, if not contention for the division. Here’s why.
Some hold to Sam Darnold only being a mild upgrade at QB, if even an upgrade at all. I, however, still believe in his talent and feel that with the proper coaching he can still develop into a star NFL QB. I also believe that the Panthers can cultivate that talent and that already having CMC makes that process easier. This is my foundation for picking the Panthers number for this off-season, but it definitely does not begin and end there.
In addition to adding Darnold, they added many pieces to the offense to set him up for success. He has a strong blindside tackle in rookie Brady Christensen and a savage blocking TE in Tommy Tremble. They added WR David Moore in free agency and picked up another weapon in rookie Terrace Marshall. These pieces join an offense that already features CMC, Robby Anderson, and DJ Moore.
As much as the offense improved the defense was able to keep pace if not exceed. The addition of Haason Reddick to that defensive line will make both him and Brian Burns practically unblockable. There are a lot of great pass rusher combos in the NFL, but Reddick and Burns might just be the best. They are easily two of the top ten ER in the league.
That thing that makes that combo even scarier is what the secondary added in behind them. In free agency, they added CBs AJ Bouye and Rashan Melvin. Adding them to rookie Jaycee Horn gives them and suddenly their secondary not only buys them time, but it also helps to create plays. Throw in free agent LB Denzel Perryman and you have one of the stronger defenses in the league.
2. Cleveland Browns
I originally ranked the Browns number one but ultimately switched it because it’s hard to contend with a rags-to-riches story. Cleveland made the playoffs last year and almost played in the AFC title game. The fact that I ranked them this high means only one thing: I believe they are in Super Bowl contention. Here’s why.
Not much was added to the offense outside of rookie WR Anthony Swartz. He joins an already high-powered offense, giving them a strong deep threat. With Chubb, Hunt, OBJ, Landry, and Higgins all returning, this offense will be fine without a significant upgrade.
The upgrades here are the real reason that the Browns have championship hopes. Free Agents Jadeveon Clowney and Takk McKinnley join Myles Garrett of the DL, giving them an incredibly nasty pass rush. This alone is enough to believe that the Browns will have a top ten defense and Garrett will be in DPotY consideration, but this is only the tip of the iceberg.
Moving on back to the LBs, the Browns were able to add free agent Anthony Walker, but even more impressively, rookie Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah. This pair should be able to tackle sideline to sideline, cover TEs and shadow the QB and RBs. They can also blow up the plays that somehow make it past the DL.
Oddly enough, neither of those defensive levels was the most improved. I saved the best for last. The Browns stole half of last year’s best secondary in the league from the Rams when they added free agents John Johnson III and Troy Hill. And they didn’t even stop there. Come draft time, they added rookie CB Greg Newsome who should come in and make an immediate impact. This defense will surely make it difficult to pass against the Browns.
3. New York Jets
Can easily be argued as the most improved team in football, I couldn’t quite give them the top stop, however, because they are still a year or two away from a playoff spot. The Jets are in a serious rebuild right now, but they are doing it right. They are not rushing and making hasty decisions, but rather are laying the groundwork for long-term success. Here’s how.
In rookie Zach Wilson the New York Jets found their franchise QB. I get it, he hasn’t played an NFL snap, but when you know you know. And they not only got him but they improved the whole offense around him to maximize growth in his first season.
Rookie lineman Alijah Vera-Tucker helps to solidify a line that will keep Wilson upright and safe. Free Agent Tevin Coleman and rookie Michael Carter give him other players in the backfield on whom he can rely. The Jets also picked up WRs Corey Davis and Keenan Cole in free agency and WR Elijah Moore in the draft. Wilson has more than enough weapons to help him develop.
Wilson’s most important asset and advocate, however, is an off-the-field improvement to the Jets. They underwent a full culture change in replacing their coaching staff. Mike LaFleur joins the team as the offensive coordinator. LaFleur comes from the Kyle Shanahan system, one of the best offensive family trees. Wilson couldn’t have asked for a better head start.
The Jets’ biggest addition on defense was also part of the culture change. Head coach Robert Saleh brings instant credibility to their team, especially their defense. Both his schemes and his energy will give the defense and team many of the advantages they need.
On the field, Carl Lawson gives the Jets their best pass rusher they’ve had in a long time. Putting him on that line with Quinnen Williams will put pressure on opposing QBs that haven’t felt it from the Jets in a while.
The improvements did not stop there, however, as they added free agent LB Jared Davis to back up the line. Throw in CJ Mosely coming back from COVID-reserve and this defense will look much different than it did a year ago. Don’t be surprised if they slip into a top ten defense.
4. Washington Football Team
One of the best defenses in the league somehow drastically improved. Meanwhile one of the league’s worst offenses managed to make themselves both respectable and entertaining. Fresh off a shakey division title, they are ready to come out and win it for real this year. Here are the additions that make it possible.
Fitzmagic in the house! For better or for worse, Ryan Fitzpatrick is an exciting QB to watch and this year he brings his services to Washington. Don’t get me wrong, Fitzmagic isn’t a franchise QB by any stretch, but he is a great mentor for Taylor Heinicke. He will also straight up win you some games with 400 yards, 5 touchdown performances, albeit he will lose some with 6 interceptions. Either way, they are both exciting and relevant now.
As for the rest of that offense, the weapons are drastically improved. Free-agent WRs Adam Humphrey and Curtis Samuel join the team, but the most exciting addition is probably rookie speedster Dyami Brown. Fitzmagic loves to chuck the ball downfield and Brown certainly fits the bill, he had to be giddy when they drafted him.
It’s really hard to believe that this defense could improve with that wrecking crew upfront, but somehow they did. William Jackson and Benjamin St-Juste added some great coverage skills to that secondary, joining a great pair of shutdown safeties in Landon Collins and Kameron Curl.
In addition to this, the Football Team added rookie LB Jamin Davis who should clean up anything over the center of the field. If something manages to slip past that DL they will surely get their clock cleaned by Davis.
Look for historic numbers from Chase Young, Daron Payne, Jonathan Allen, and Montez Sweat as they have both been bought time and can afford to be a little more reckless as a result of the moves made by Washington.
5. New England Patriots
One losing season was more than enough for Bill Belichick to endure. Therefore, he went out and hit free agency and hit it hard. After that, he picked his quarterback of the future in the draft. Now, he and the Pats seek revenge after learning what losing felt like. Here are some of their bigger moves.
One of the things that the offense has been lacking for the past few years has been weapons to through the ball to. The Pats aggressively went to work on improving that. Free agents Hunter Henry and Jonnu Smith gave New England a great one-two-punch at TE. Meanwhile, WRs Kendrick Bourne and Nelson Agholor gave that offense a huge boost in free agency.
As mentioned before, they also picked up rookie QB Mac Jones in the first round of the draft. Newton now has a year with some weapons to prove his case while mentoring Jones.
The Patriots overhauled the defense to return to their elite form of just a year ago. First off, they are getting several key members back from the COVID-reserve, including S Patrick Chung. Jalen Mills also joins the defensive backs, coming over from the Eagles. With these players added and the foundation of Gilmore and the McQuarty’s already there, the secondary should go back to where they were.
The DL is what saw the most significant additions. The Pats welcome Kyle Van Noy back after a brief stint with the Dolphins and also brought in free agent ER Matthew Judon. Add to their giant, rookie DT in Christian Barmore and they have a line that should apply pressure on both the run and the pass.
6. Los Angeles Chargers
After a record-breaking rookie season from Justin Herbert, one can only wonder how great the Chargers were going to be in his second year. They just had to continue to build the team around Herbert and let him shine. They did exactly that, here’s how.
The biggest concern for any young, stud QB should be keeping him healthy, yet Herbert was hit around far too much last year. The Chargers answered the call. In free agency, they added C Corey Linsley and G Matt Feiler. In the draft, they added monster, rookie Rashawn Slater. They proved they cared about their QB and that will surely keep him both healthy and happy, a great formula for success.
In addition to that, they added to his weapon pool by signing free-agent TE Jared Cook and drafting WR Josh Palmer.
Derwin James comes back from injury which will be a boost in and of itself, but that secondary has improved another way too. Asante Samuel Jr looks to make an immediate impact in his rookie season. Samuel brings lockdown potential and an NFL pedigree to a team that is shy at the CB position.
7. Miami Dolphins
The Dolphins ended the 2020 season as a Cinderella story that didn’t quite make it to the ball. They enter the 2021 season as a team that needs to take the next step. Tua showed a few flashes that indicate he might be the answer for them at QB. Now’s the time to man up and take the next step. Here’s how they did that.
Tua needed weapons, so they got him a few great weapons. First off, they added rookie Jaylen Waddle, one of his favorite targets from his days in Alabama. They continued to bolster the receiving core with free agent WR Will Fuller, who proved his value without D-Hop last year. Rookie Hunter Long looks to compliment Mike Gesicki at TE, creating what could be a dynamic one-two-punch at TE. To cap it off they added another cog for their run game in Malcolm Brown.
On the defensive side, they needed pass-rushing help after losing both of their guys in free agency last year. Rookie Jaelen Phillips fits that bill completely. Many believe he was the best ER in the draft, and I believe they won’t miss Van Noy or Lawson after seeing what he can do. They also made a sneaky good pickup at LB by adding Duke Riley. Watch for him to do well in that system next year.
8. Jacksonville Jaguars
I know that the Jaguars are higher up on many people’s list, but I’m not as sold as most. With that said, the Jaguars could easily be the NFL’s most improved team this year, especially since they’re starting from 1-15. They should match their previous year win total by week 1 and double it by week 4. Their rebuild is off to a great start and this is why.
Trevor Lawrence. That’s it. Not really, but that is a great way to start. The Jaguars secured their franchise QB when they draft T-Law with the first overall pick in the draft. Many believe he’ll be a generational talent, but even if he’s not he is still most definitely a pro-bowl caliber playmaker.
The Lawrence move is only as good as the cast they surround him with. Fortunately, they did a good job with that. Free-agent WR Marvin Jones Jr provides leadership and guidance for the rookie signal-caller. They also added Travis Etienne, one of his favorite weapons from college. With James Robinson and DJ Chark already there, T-Law is set up for success.
The Jaguars also added a little help for their defensive backs. Free agents Shaq Griffin and Jamal Agnew add depth at QB, giving that secondary a chance to be competitive with some of the mid-powered passing attacks in the AFC. They aren’t stopping the Chiefs or the Bills, but a full rebuild doesn’t happen overnight.
9. Denver Broncos
The team had a lot of directions they could have gone this off-season and they chose a direction that most didn’t expect them to take. They focused really hard on making their defense one of the elite units of the game but didn’t add as much offensive improvement as several people hoped for. All the same, they will be a better team and this is why.
The Teddy Bridgewater trade isn’t nearly as exciting as drafting Justin Fields or trading for Matthew Stafford would have been. It’s also not nearly as impactful as trading for Aaron Rodgers would be. With that said, Teddy is an improvement on the uncertainty of what they had with Drew Lock. Many may say that you can’t win a Super Bowl with a QB like him, however, the Broncos would not be in the Super Bowl discussion with Stafford or Fields anyway. They decided to focus on other positions more this year. No big deal.
One upgrade they did have on offense was the addition of RB Javonte Williams. He will come in and give Melvin Gordon competition right from the start. I would not be surprised to find out that he took over that starting role before the end of the season.
On the defensive side of the ball, they made this team shutdown elite. I know that I am going to sound crazy for saying this, but I believe this defense will not only be limiting, but they will also be shutting down elite offenses in the second half of the season. I’ve already circled their week 13 game on my calendar because that’s their second showdown with the Chiefs.
Ronald Darby and Kyle Fuller are strong defensive backs who fit the Fangio mold perfectly, we can anticipate a great season from both of them. Oddly enough, they are not even the greatest additions to that secondary. With their first pick, the Broncos chose Patrick Surtain II, much to the criticism of many. I, however, applaud the move. Surtain will be a shutdown corner from day one of a future hall-of-fame career. I know that’s a bold prediction, but it doesn’t seem crazy when you really analyze the talent and picture him in a Fangio system.
The Broncos also added a sneaky good draft selection in LB Baron Browning. Look for him to make an impact by mid-season, starting next to Alexander Johnson. This defense will have multiple stud players on each level.
10. New York Giants
By adding the Giants in the tenth spot I am by no means saying I liked all or even most of their additions. However, it does mean that I believe they are a much better team as a result of a few key acquisitions that they made.
Since the departure of OBJ a few seasons ago I feel like the Giants have played with a bunch of WR2s and no WR1s. That changed when they signed Kenny Golladay. He joins the team and gives their opponents someone to double cover. His presence alone will greatly improve guys like Slayton, Shephard, Tomey, Engram, and newly signed Kyle Rudolph.
On the other side of the ball, Azeez Ojulari will make his impact felt immediately. He gives that strong defensive line an elite pass rusher for the first time in a little while. There will be an adjusting period for Ojulari, however, he will surely develop into one of the game’s best once he hits his stride.
The Giants also gave that secondary and return game a boost by adding speedy CB Adoree Jackson. He joins a secondary that should be able to slow down many strong passing attacks.
A Few More Rookies and Free Agents
The Los Angeles Rams and the Chicago Bears did themselves a huge favor this off-season by adding a franchise QB to their rosters. The Rams found their solution in free agent Matthew Stafford, while the Bears found it in rookie Justin Fields. The 49ers may also fall into this category as they selected rookie QB Trey Lance third overall in the draft. If he can stay healthy, Carson Wentz also fits the bill for the Colts.
Indianapolis also helped to improve their offensive line by signing free-agent tackle Eric Fischer from the Chiefs. Speaking of the Chiefs, they rehauled their offensive line to protect Patrick (my Momma said my name’s not Pat) Mahomes. Joe Thuney and Kyle Long were the free-agent additions to the line while rookie C Creed Humphrey came through the draft.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers had an amazing off-season, but not because of who they signed. The Bucs accomplished this by retaining every key player from their Super Bowl championship team. They also added a few fun pieces like free agent RB Giovanni Bernard and rookie ER Joe Tryon.
Like it does in every off-season, the landscape of the NFL has changed yet again. Teams around the league improved both their offense and defense in order to cover their weaknesses and oppose their opponents’ strengths. The playoff picture will be shaken up as many new teams like the Panthers and Chargers lay their claim. Teams like the Jets and Jaguars have paved a strong foundation for the future of their franchises. Others like the Bucs, Chiefs, and Browns are all eying the Super Bowl as a result of this off-season.
Time will tell as we approach September, but those teams who were proactive in March and April help to pave the landscape for the new NFL season. Now we wait for the games to begin.
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