NFL's 5 Most Improved Teams from 2011 to 2012

James Dudko@@JamesDudkoFeatured ColumnistJuly 19, 2012

NFL's 5 Most Improved Teams from 2011 to 2012

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    Included within the five most improved NFL teams is a franchise that may have finally solved possibly the league's longest-standing issue at quarterback.

    There is also a pair of last-place teams who have made key moves to get better on both sides of the ball. An AFC East resident made a lot of headlines in free agency, but their fine efforts could be undermined by a Super Bowl participant that, ominously, looks even stronger.

    Here are the five teams that improved the most from 2011 to 2012.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

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    Even in the ultra-competitive NFC South, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers have all but made certain they will be better than 2011's 4-12 mark.

    With former Rutgers head coach Greg Schiano now in charge, the Buccaneers wasted no time in adding marquee talent to an inexperienced and discontented roster. Perhaps the best of those additions is free-agent wide receiver Vincent Jackson.

    When on form, Jackson is still one of the NFL's premier deep threats. His big-play capability will stretch defenses and open space for a running game featuring incumbent LeGarrette Blount and exciting rookie Doug Martin.

    Landing outstanding guard Carl Nicks was a true coup. He will join a fine offensive line already featuring Donald Penn and Davin Joseph. If quarterback Josh Freeman can't thrive now, then he never will.

    Defensively, Schiano will implement a more attacking, college-style version of the 4-3. That's good news for young pass-rusher Adrian Clayborn. Amobi Okoye and Wallace Gilberry were also smart, under-the-radar additions who can help form an exciting line rotation.

    Schiano's schemes will be aided by the presence of top draft pick Mark Barron. The ex-Alabama star should excel as a playmaking safety in the pros.

    With so many new faces, a return to the playoffs may be too much to ask in Year 1, but a team that was blown out more than once in 2011 won't be giving anyone an easy game in 2012.

Buffalo Bills

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    The Buffalo Bills simply had to get better on defense, and they have certainly managed that. Securing the signature of top defensive end Mario Williams was arguably the best move by any team during free agency.

    Pairing Williams with Mark Anderson, who registered 10 sacks with the New England Patriots in 2011, takes care of a pass-rush problem that has plagued the Bills for some time. They used the draft to add an opportunistic ball hawk to the secondary in the form of cornerback Stephon Gilmore.

    However, perhaps the best move was to promote Dave Wannstedt to defensive coordinator and switch the unit back to a 4-3 front. Wannstedt has his critics as a head coach, but his coordinator credentials are first-rate.

    He will welcome back stud defensive tackle Kyle Williams to a defense that could be among the league's best in 2012. Yet not every positive offseason move in Buffalo has been limited to the defense.

    Signing star wideout Steve Johnson to a new deal was a smart move by the front office. Johnson's presence is a huge boost to quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick and an offense loaded with scoring potential.

    The AFC East is tough, but the Bills have all of the pieces in place to finally be a force again in the division.

Cleveland Browns

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    OK, so they play in the always-tough AFC North, they missed out on Robert Griffin III and nothing much is ever expected from the Cleveland Browns. However, Mike Holmgren and Pat Shurmur have made some smart moves this offseason, and the Browns could surprise many in 2012.

    Running back Trent Richardson was no mere consolation prize with the draft's third overall pick. He gives the Browns a dynamic all-arounder who will quickly become the focal point of the offense.

    Quarterback Brandon Weeden was a controversial pick, but the strong-armed passer could help a Browns passing game that simply couldn't stretch the field in 2011. Once they get him signed, Weeden can help expand the playbook.

    As much as their ailing offense needed help, the Browns' strength is defense. Holmgren and Shurmur's offseason work on that side of the ball has been outstanding.

    Free-agent defensive linemen Frostee Rucker and Juqua Parker were both smart pickups. Rucker is an upgrade from 2011 starter Jayme Mitchell, and Parker can be a useful situational pass-rusher.

    The Browns needed to improve depth across the front seven, and they succeeded in doing so in the draft. Tackles John Hughes and Billy Winn will work in rotation with the underrated Ahtyba Rubin and help offset the injury loss of 2011 first-rounder Phil Taylor.

    Linebackers James-Michael Johnson and Emmanuel Acho have starter's potential and improve a unit that was wafer-thin behind 2011 trio D'Qwell Jackson, Scott Fujita and Chris Gocong.

    Yes, the Browns are dependant on Richardson and Weeden making quick transitions to the NFL. However, an already stout defense looks stronger than last season. A slight improvement from the offense could see the Browns claw their way back to respectability in 2012.

Washington Redskins

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    The blockbuster trade to land Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Robert Griffin III highlights a successful offseason for the Washington Redskins.

    They paid a high price to get Griffin, but at the very least, he gives the franchise a stronger hope of being better at quarterback than at any time in arguably the last decade. Head coach Mike Shanahan will hope Griffin's strong arm and ability to make plays outside the pocket can energise a pitiful offense that derailed the Redskins in 2011.

    Shanahan and general manager Bruce Allen have worked hard to make their prized asset's job easier. Despite a league-imposed salary cap penalty, the Redskins still managed to address vital team needs in free agency.

    They moved quickly to snare pass-catchers Pierre Garcon and Josh Morgan. They will join veteran Santana Moss to give Griffin the weapons necessary to be an early success in the NFL.

    Retaining playmaking tight end Fred Davis and the return from injury of running back Tim Hightower will also help an offense that is ready to confound the critics in 2011.

    Defensively, the secondary looks weak, but the Redskins have certainly added plenty of options at the position. Having promising young tackle Jarvis Jenkins back healthy will boost an already imposing front seven.

    The Redskins have more talent than many care to admit, but now is the time to prove it. Despite a rookie quarterback, 8-8 should be the absolute minimum requirement for Shanahan in 2012.

New England Patriots

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    It's a scary thought for the rest of the NFL, but the New England Patriots are even better than the 13-3 version that advanced to the Super Bowl in 2011.

    The Patriots were good last season, but they also benefited from the fear generated by their name's reputation and playing in an AFC that's weaker than advertised.

    However, a strong offseason will ensure the defending conference champions are right in the Super Bowl mix again in 2012. The improvements start at wide receiver, where Tom Brady suddenly finds himself spoilt for choice.

    The one thing the Patriots lacked on offense in 2011 was a legitimate deep threat. That has now been answered by Brandon Lloyd. The addition of the underrated Jabar Gaffney will prove no less significant, as defenses will no longer be able to zero in on Rob Gronkowski and Wes Welker.

    New England's defense needed the biggest boost, and head coach Bill Belichick has worked hard to raise the talent level to match his hybrid schemes. He sensibly used two first-round picks to add a couple of potential playmakers to a powerfully-built front seven.

    Chandler Jones could finally give Belichick the type of dynamic and versatile young pass-rusher he has been without for too long. Linebacker Dont'a Hightower has multiple skills and the intelligence to cause havoc in the Patriots' mix-and-match fronts.

    Adding linemen Jonathan Fanene and Trevor Scott in free agency gives Belichick enough options to make his complex system work. His schemes are not outdated; Belichick has just lacked the talent to properly execute them.

    With a defense certain to improve and an offense that will be even more explosive, the Patriots are still the team to beat in the AFC in 2012.