The NFL's Most Improved Passing Offenses

Chris MaddenAnalyst IIMay 25, 2012

The NFL's Most Improved Passing Offenses

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    An obvious shift has taken place in the NFL over a relatively short period of time. Offenses have moved away from a run-first game plan in favor of a more high flying version. This fact was never more clear than in 2011. Teams threw the football more than ever and records were shattered.

    Three quarterbacks threw for over 5,000 yards and a tight end led the league with 17 receiving touchdowns.

    To quote Bob Dylan, "The times they are a-changin."

    There's no sign that the league is going to revert back to its run-dominated former self any time soon, so if teams don't upgrade their offenses, they'll get left behind.

    That's why some teams are scrambling to find players that can transform their outdated offenses to shiny new versions. Tight ends that run like wide receivers (Rob Gronkowski) and wide receivers that are built like tight ends (Calvin Johnson) are highly coveted.

    Power running attacks aren't featured much anymore so Christian Okoye-type backs have all but disappeared. Running backs that are speedy and can catch the ball (Darren Sproles) are the new norm.

    Some teams have already made adjustments and are leading the way, while others are lagging behind and are struggling to compete in this new era.

    The gap might be narrowing, though. Several of these teams took measures to upgrade their offenses that could pay huge dividends.

    Here are eight teams that improved their passing offenses the most this offseason.

8. New England Patriots

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    Is it possible for the Patriots' passing offense to get better? Unfortunately for the rest of the NFL, the answer is yes.

    Even though they didn't upgrade their offense in the draft—unless you count WR Jeremy Ebert in the seventh round—they did bring in a few free agents. Brandon Lloyd was the most notable and should be able to give them what Chad Ochocinco could not.

    This isn't the reason I included the Patriots on this list, though. They're included because they brought back their former offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels. Love him or hate him, one thing is certain: He's a great offensive mind.

    He also put together arguably the most potent passing offense the NFL has ever seen: the 2007 Patriots.

    During that year, McDaniels helped Tom Brady, who was already a great quarterback,establish himself as legendary. Brady finished the year with a 117 passer rating and 50 passing touchdowns and the NFL single-season records for winning the most games in a row (16) and scoring the most points (589).

    Who knows, if McDaniels can work his mojo in New England again, there's no reason history can't repeat itself.

7. Detroit Lions

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    In 2011, Matthew Stafford passed for over 5,000 yards and 41 touchdowns, and Calvin Johnson proved he is the most dominant receiver in the NFL today.

    Like the Patriots, how much can the Lions improve, though?

    It's a fair question, but Stafford and Johnson alone didn't get the Lions on this list. It's the presence of two young receivers that will improve the Lions' passing attack the most in 2012.

    Titus Young had a productive rookie year, but there is much room for improvement. With another year under his belt, there's no reason to believe he can't become the deep-ball threat the Lions envisioned when they drafted him. He showed flashes of filling that role last season, and he could have a huge year if he improves his consistency.

    Ryan Broyles is the second player. The Lions surprised everyone when they drafted him in the second round of this year's draft. They feel like they got the steal of the draft. He was a sure-fire top-five receiver and first-round pick before an ACL injury put an end to his senior year at Oklahoma. 

    Pending a clean bill of health, Broyles will be used early and often by the Lions in the slot. He's speedy and has great hands. He might even be an upgrade over veteran Nate Burleson.

    The Lions feel great about his progress with rehab, too. According to MLive.com's Anwar Richardson, he took part in all individual drills during this week's OTAs and was observed running routes and cutting with no pain.

    With Young and a healthy Broyles added to the mix, look for Detroit to improve significantly upon an already great passing attack.

6. Jacksonville Jaguars

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    When the Jaguars drafted Blaine Gabbert in 2011, they thought they had their franchise quarterback. After his first season, they might be reconsidering that notion.

    Their passing game was absolutely pitiful—ranked dead last in the NFL. Gabbert only threw for 2,214 yards and 12 touchdowns while opponents picked him off 11 times. Not surprisingly, the Jags only won five games.

    Blaming Gabbert exclusively for the passing woes isn't fair, though. The Jaguars should have had the foresight to put some talent around him before letting him loose in the NFL. They should've also hired some blockers. He was sacked 40 times.

    It took them a year, but the Jaguars are finally coming around. They hired offensive wiz Mike Mularkey to guide Gabbert through his sophomore season. The offensive-minded coach should help the young QB fix his mechanics and flourish in this new scheme.

    They also brought in some exciting weapons for Gabbert to throw to: Laurent Robinson via free agency and Justin Blackmon via the draft. Robinson scored 11 touchdowns and was a breakout star for the Dallas Cowboys.

    Blackmon was the top-rated receiver in the draft and will be a reliable red-zone target for Gabbert.

    If they can get an improved effort from the offensive line, Gabbert and the Jaguars should see those passing numbers inch up towards respectability.

5. Chicago Bears

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    Despite a subpar offensive line and without an elite receiver, the Chicago Bears' passing offense was rolling early in 2011.

    They weren't elite by any means, but it was working. The Bears were 7-3 before disaster struck. Jay Cutler went down with an injury, and they only won one more game the rest of the way.

    Their passing game was dreadful without Cutler taking snaps, and the offense was unbalanced to say the least. The Bears were a dismal 26th in the NFL in passing yardage and ninth in rushing.

    Luckily for them, Cutler will return at full strength and the offense will improve dramatically because of it. 

    The Bears also did well to finally give Cutler a legitimate number one receiver to throw the football to: Brandon Marshall. They played together in Denver and were both drafted by the Broncos in 2006.

    Marshall will click with Cutler immediately and give him what he's missed in Chicago: A Pro Bowl receiver who can catch 100 passes and score double-digit touchdowns.

    The Bears will mix in speedy Devin Hester, tight end Kellen Davis and rookie wideout Alshon Jeffery to complete a formidable passing attack.

    With Cutler healthy and an upgraded receiving corps, the Bears should improve greatly upon their passing game and overall offensive production. 

4. Tampa Bay Buccaneers

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    The Bucs had a disappointing year to say the least in 2011. They only won four games but that certainly wasn't because of their passing offense. It was due to their defense not being able to stop anyone from scoring.

    Their passing game might be considered the lone highlight of last season. Even though Josh Freeman did not develop as hoped, they were ranked 16th in the NFL in passing yardage. That's not too shabby.

    Freeman will be given a second chance to prove that his performance in 2010 was no fluke. Lucky for him, the Bucs upgraded the offense around him so he has a few more weapons to target.

    Most attention will be paid to Pro Bowl receiver Vincent Jackson, who signed as a free agent from the Chargers. They also added Dallas Clark, who when healthy can still be a very effective tight end. Those two should impact the passing game significantly.

    If second-year receiver Mike Williams returns to the 2010 version of himself, then the Bucs could really be something special. Freeman might be an early candidate for NFL Comeback Player of the Year, and the Bucs could soar in 2012.

3. Indianapolis Colts

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    Given the Colts ineptitude on offense last season, it wouldn't take much to improve their 27th-ranked passing offense. Simply tossing the playbook into the nearest trash receptacle would count as an improvement.

    The Colts actually did better than that, they drafted a franchise quarterback: Andrew Luck.

    Draft experts compared him to Peyton Manning and John Elway. Even if that's not true, Luck will be better than the guy he's replacing and he will improve the passing game immediately.

    The Colts were even nice enough to give him a few weapons to target. Reggie Wayne re-signed and Colby Fleener, Luck's tight end at Stanford, was drafted in the second round. If Austin Collie can remain healthy, Luck might even have a pretty talented slot receiver to dump the ball off to.

    They might not be playoff bound, but the Colts will throw the football around a lot more and should win a lot more games because of that.

2. San Francisco 49ers

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    The 49ers' passing game last season was anemic. Not as bad as Jacksonville's, but bad nonetheless. 

    The main culprit was because Alex Smith was held back. Short quick passes were the norm and it showed. He had a great passer rating but his total yardage and touchdowns were on par with Rex Grossman and Tavaris Jackson.

    For a team with Super Bowl aspirations, they had to reconsider this strategy.

    They don't need to become the New Orleans Saints to win, though. In fact, they beat New Orleans at their own game during the playoffs.

    The 49ers will continue to pound it out on the ground with Frank Gore, and their defense is one of the best in the NFL. They don't need to score a lot of points to win games.

    With that said, it makes sense that they addressed the passing game this offseason. They brought in Randy Moss and Mario Manningham via free agency and drafted A.J. Jenkins in the first round of the draft. The newcomers join Vernon Davis, who is one of the best pass-catching tight ends in the league, and Michael Crabtree, who certainly has the talent to be a dominant receiver.

    Moss is obviously the wild card. What version are the 49ers going to get: the Oakland Raiders' lazy malcontent or the New England Patriots' touchdown machine? If it's the latter, then they could be in for a special season and Alex Smith could become a household name.

    If Moss crashes and burns, then the team could implode.

    Reports out of training camp are that he looks rejuvenated, and he's been a model teammate so far. With a refocused Moss opening up the field for Smith, the 49ers' passing attack could definitely rise to new heights, and they could be one of the most dangerous offenses in the league.

1. Denver Broncos

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    Two words: Peyton Manning. Do I really need to say more than that?

    Okay, how about this: The Broncos were next to last in the NFL in passing yardage last season with Tim Tebow. With Manning at the helm, their passing game will vault into the top 10 in the league in 2012.

    Granted, Manning could probably throw for over 4,000 yards with a receiving corps of fifth graders. In Denver, he won't have that problem, though. He'll be throwing to talented players that were significantly underutilized with Tebow as their quarterback.

    Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker could have career years and Brandon Stokley could resurrect his. There are also a handful of other receivers that could make names for themselves, simply because Manning is throwing them the ball.

    The Manning factor cannot be underestimated. If the Broncos were able to make the playoffs with Tebow, the sky's the limit for them this season.