Which NFL Teams Have Improved the Most so Far This Offseason?
The vast majority of NFL teams have now reported to training camp, bringing the league's short unofficial summer vacation to an end. And as we regroup for another season of football, let's take an opportunity to see which teams have improved the most over the last six months.
Based on criteria such as new signings, draft picks, coaching staff changes, players returning from injury and the potential for breakout campaigns from rising stars, here's a look at 12 teams that are better off now than they were when the 2013 season came to an end.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Greg Schiano was toxic; Lovie Smith can cure the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. He's the right fit for a young Bucs team, and he has the defensive mind to make a tremendous impact on a squad that is loaded with talent on that side of the ball.
That's still the case despite the loss of All-Universe cornerback Darrelle Revis. He'll be replaced by the solid Alterraun Verner, who is a nice fit within the system. Up front on D, Tampa Bay also added Michael Johnson while bolstering the trenches on offense with the addition of Evan Dietrich-Smith and Anthony Collins.
Last but not least, they've added a reliable veteran quarterback in Josh McCown and given him a potential Offensive Rookie of the Year weapon in first-round pick Mike Evans.
Look at those upgrades, that coaching staff and the roster in general. This is not a four-win team. The Bucs will surprise many in 2014.
New York Giants
The New York Giants were stuck in the stone age offensively, which is why replacing offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride with the younger, more progressive Ben McAdoo could be a game changer for a unit that led the NFL in turnovers last season.
Head coach Tom Coughlin recently told ESPN (per Pro Football Talk) that the offense has a chance to be rejuvenated under McAdoo, which is promising considering how stubborn the Giants organization can sometimes be regarding change.
But that's not the only way in which the Giants have improved. Sure, they'll miss veteran starters Justin Tuck, Linval Joseph and Chris Snee, but they had an uncharacteristically active run on the free-agent market, signing 15 outside free agents—including likely starters Rashad Jennings, Geoff Schwartz, J.D. Walton and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie—in order to bolster the running game, the offensive line and the secondary.
Assuming that helps quarterback Eli Manning get back on track, the Giants should be a hell of a lot better in 2014.
In three consecutive seasons, the Miami Dolphins have increased their win total from six to seven to eight. Expect that number to keep climbing in 2014, even if it's just by another W or two. Because not only is quarterback Ryan Tannehill primed to break out in his third season, with Mike Wallace and Brian Hartline at his disposal, but the entire offense should benefit greatly from the arrival of new offensive coordinator Bill Lazor.
Lazor comes to town from Philadelphia, and thus he's expected to bring Chip Kelly's radical and hard-to-stop offensive approach with him. Wallace has already called the new offense "so much better" than what they were running under Mike Sherman, per the Palm Beach Post, and cornerback Cortland Finnegan remarked to the South Florida Sun Sentinel that he's "never seen anything this fast."
The offensive line has caused problems in recent seasons, but the Dolphins also addressed that weak spot by signing Pro Bowl left tackle Branden Albert before using a first-round pick on potential stud right tackle Ja'Wuan James.
Their only real significant loss was safety Chris Clemons, so Miami is looking a lot better right about now.
The Washington Redskins were in turmoil for the majority of the 2013 season, but Mike Shanahan and his son are gone and there's a refreshing feel in D.C. now that first-time head coach Jay Gruden has arrived.
The presence of Gruden, who is a quarterback guru of sorts, should help third-year franchise quarterback Robert Griffin III in a major way. But it also helps that Griffin himself should be much more comfortable now that he's more than a year removed from surgery to repair a torn ACL and LCL.
Additionally, Griffin now has the weapons to dominate. DeSean Jackson and Andre Roberts join an arsenal that was already looking pretty jacked with 2013 NFL receptions leader Pierre Garcon, rising tight end Jordan Reed and Pro Bowl running back Alfred Morris.
Sure, the defense is still vulnerable, but the addition of Pro Bowler Jason Hatcher and the decision to retain Brian Orakpo via the franchise tag should help make the front seven formidable, which could be enough to mask potential problems in the secondary.
The Redskins may have been a three-win mess last year, but expect them to be drastically better in 2014.
A team that had oodles of salary cap space should never have let talented left tackle Jared Veldheer and defensive end Lamarr Houston leave in free agency, but the Oakland Raiders did a hell of a job making up for those errors in judgement.
No. 5 overall pick Khalil Mack has to be a top Defensive Rookie of the Year candidate. Throw him in there with rising star Sio Moore and veteran front-seven additions Justin Tuck and Antonio Smith and this defense has a chance to be a lot better.
But the best thing this Raiders team did in the offseason was creating a legitimate competition for the starting quarterback job. You simply can't win in this league without a solid signal-caller, and Oakland has finally grasped that.
Veteran Matt Schaub has the resume, and the Raiders seem to believe in him. If he can revive his career, Oakland could have another Rich Gannon on its hands. But he'll be pushed by rookie second-round pick Derek Carr, who drew very positive reviews during organized team activities.
For the first time in years, things are pointing up in Oakland.
If the Minnesota Vikings can't get more out of their quarterbacks, improvements elsewhere will be moot. But we'll give them credit right now for the addition of Teddy Bridgewater via the draft. And it was a bonus that they were able to get Bridgewater so late in Round 1 while adding NFL-ready front-seven defenders Anthony Barr and Scott Crichton in Rounds 1 and 3.
And while they didn't make a huge splash in free agency, new starters Captain Munnerlyn and Linval Joseph are underrated pickups who should serve as valued starters.
Finally, don't forget that the Vikes should also benefit from their new energizing head coach, Mike Zimmer, while the offense could be rejuvenated under new coordinator Norv Turner.
It might not happen overnight, but you can see things coming together for this franchise.
St. Louis Rams
Aaron Donald and Greg Robinson in Round 1 of the draft? The St. Louis Rams know exactly how you bolster the trenches, and that's the right mentality.
That's especially the case if you believe in your quarterback, and it appears the Rams are confident in Sam Bradford, who was having his best-ever season before tearing his ACL last October. If Bradford is indeed back on track, look for youngsters like Robinson, Tavon Austin and Zac Stacy to help him have a big 2014 campaign.
This defense is already loaded with talent, but recent high picks Janoris Jenkins and Alec Ogletree should only get better, and Donald is a Defensive Rookie of the Year-type player.
It's hard to imagine St. Louis not getting back to .500 in 2014.
New Orleans Saints
The New Orleans Saints didn't have a lot of money to work with and have had to part ways with some longtime contributors, yet they still managed to get a little better this offseason. Not only should second-year safety Kenny Vaccaro take a big step forward, but he'll be working alongside Pro Bowl-caliber defensive back Jairus Byrd.
Those two could make up a hell of a duo on defense, while the offense gets Jimmy Graham back after a contract-related scare and speedster Brandin Cooks via the draft.
They may miss Jabari Greer, Roman Harper, Will Smith, Malcolm Jenkins and Darren Sproles to varying degrees, but sometimes you have to know when to cut bait. New Orleans has the talent to replace those guys while taking steps forward elsewhere.
The Arizona Cardinals might not have a sexy young quarterback, but Carson Palmer can hold it down and they're sure charging up elsewhere. Palmer himself is fired up about young Michael Floyd, who he believes "is going to shock some people" in 2014, but don't forget about the equally young Andre Ellington, who led the NFL with 5.5 yards per carry on limited touches in 2013.
Both of those guys should play major roles next year, especially with veteran addition Jared Veldheer taking over at left tackle and rookie tight end Troy Niklas also added to the fray.
Throw in first-round corner Deone Bucannon on defense and this roster is in much better shape now than it was seven months ago.
Jim Caldwell isn't necessarily a Hall of Fame head coach, but Jim Schwartz wasn't getting much out of a talented team, so that coaching change itself should boost a Detroit Lions squad that has the personnel to win 10-plus games.
That's especially the case now that Detroit has added free-agent receiver Golden Tate and rookie tight end Eric Ebron to complement All-Planet wideout Calvin Johnson in the passing game.
With those weapons in place, and with new offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi coming over from New Orleans to coach up Matthew Stafford and Co., the 26-year-old quarterback should be in for his best season yet. And that offense should be ready to win some track meets.
It's scary to think about, but the defending AFC champion Denver Broncos should be even better in 2014. For starters, they're getting Von Miller and Ryan Clady back from injury. Those two were key All-Pro-caliber cogs before going down last season, and simply getting them back should give Denver a boost.
But the Broncos also added two new Pro Bowl-caliber defensive backs in T.J. Ward and Aqib Talib while signing four-time first-team All-Pro DeMarcus Ware. Their only major losses were cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and wide receiver Eric Decker, but they upgraded on DRC with Talib, and they're loaded with weapons in the receiving corps, so Emmanuel Sanders should be able to replace Decker anyway.
And if there was any concern regarding those two units based on the loss of Rodgers-Cromartie or Decker, consider that Denver also used its top two draft picks on Bradley Roby and Cody Latimer, both of whom should be able to make immediate impacts at defensive back and wide receiver, respectively, if need be.
Honestly, it's hard for the Jacksonville Jaguars to get any worse, so eventually they'll begin to get better. And they're on the right track, taking their guy, Blake Bortles, early in the draft. You have to keep swinging the bat at potential franchise quarterbacks.
And they've given Bortles two exceptionally talented young weapons in Marqise Lee and Allen Robinson, who were taken in the next two rounds, along with Toby Gerhart, who may prove to be a great free-agent signing.
They didn't go nuts in free agency, but they didn't lose anyone of consequence while smartly adding Zane Beadles, Red Bryant and Chris Clemons from 2013 Super Bowl teams Denver and Seattle. Not a bad way to invest your money.
The Jags aren't good, but they're young, and they appear to be getting better.