When looking at who might be the most improved and least improved teams around the National Football League, there are a few different areas you have to check in on.
First off, it's necessary to take into account players that teams were able to retain in free agency. This is a huge part of the evaluation process because it brings continuity into the conversation.
Secondly, you have to look at how each team performed in the draft. Did the Dallas Cowboys completely drop the ball by selecting Travis Frederick in the first round this past April? What about the value that the San Francisco 49ers received in the mid rounds? As you already know, acquiring talent throughout the entire draft is a huge part of the building process.
Finally, you have to look at free agency. Even though the Miami Dolphins might have overspent on the open market, they improved the talent on their 53-man roster. What about New England's loss of wide receiver Wes Welker to the Denver Broncos?
Today's article is going to look at four of the most improved and four of the least improved teams around the NFL as training camp gets going in full force.
All contract information provided by Spotrac.
Alex Smith looks to bring consistency to Chiefs quarterback situation.
Kansas City locked up some of its core during the offseason. It signed wide receiver Dwayne Bowe to a shiny new five-year, $56 million contract. The veteran is averaging 69 receptions for nearly 1,000 yards during his six-year career in Kansas City.
The Chiefs also held on to defensive end Tyson Jackson after it seemed they would have to part ways with the former top-10 pick due to his lofty 2013 salary. Jackson lowered his cap figure from $14.7 million to $4.2 million in order to remain Kansas City's starting left defensive end.
While nothing more than a short-term fix, the ability to get left tackle Branden Albert back in the fold under the franchise tag was huge. Realistically, selecting offensive tackle Eric Fisher with the No. 1 overall pick wouldn't have made a whole lot of sense if he was going to have to protect Alex Smith's blindside as a rookie. Retaining Albert means that Fisher can acquire some seasoning before being tasked with playing left tackle.
Kansas City did hit both the free-agent and trade markets hard this offseason, but it didn't necessarily overspend on key players. Cornerback Sean Smith came in on a three-year, $16.5 million contract, while Dunta Robinson settled for $13.8 million over three years. These two veterans will compete for the No. 2 cornerback job behind Brandon Flowers. The loser of that competition will make a mighty fine nickel guy.
The biggest move Kansas City made during the offseason was acquiring quarterback Alex Smith from the San Francisco 49ers. While giving up a second-round pick in 2013 and possible second-round pick in 2014 was a mighty high price to pay as Peter King of Sports Illustrated states, Smith gives Kansas City some sense of consistency under center. He is also only due $15 million over the next two seasons.
The veteran quarterback has put up two consecutive seasons of solid play after pretty much bombing out early in his career. Dating back to October of 2011, Smith has thrown 33 touchdowns compared to nine interceptions and has won 23 of his 32 starts during that span.
Veteran additions such as wide receiver Donnie Avery and defensive end Mike DeVito offer stopgap options for a Chiefs team that isn't low on young talent. While neither fit into their long-term plans, they'll be solid contributors this upcoming season.
The trade for Alex Smith handcuffed Kansas City to an extent this past April. After selecting Fisher, it looked to fill voids at skill positions with its next two picks.
Rookie third-round pick Travis Kelce was among the most talented tight ends in the draft. He fell to the mid rounds due to issues relating to him being suspended for an entire season in Cincinnati a couple years prior, per CBS Sports.
Running back Knile Davis provides a nice change of pace to starter Jamaal Charles and should be able to make an immediate impact as a rookie. Despite injury concerns at Arkansas, Davis racked up nearly 1,500 total yards and 14 touchdowns in his only full collegiate season back in 2010. If healthy, he could prove to be a steal in the third.
Kansas City had to be one of the most talented teams to ever secure the worst record in football and the No. 1 overall pick in the ensuing draft. Issues relating to quarterback play and the coaching staff really forced this team into the struggle we saw last year.
With new head coach Andy Reid and a viable starting quarterback in the mix, Kansas City promises to be vastly improved this year. While it won't be enough to challenge Denver for the division crown, there is no reason to believe that the Chiefs can't finish in second place in the relatively weak AFC West.
New England didn't want to pony up the extra cash for Wes Welker.
The loss of wide receiver Wes Welker hurts here. It seems that the New England Patriots didn't want to pony up the extra cash that Denver gave the veteran receiver, and it's not going to be smooth sailing finding someone to replace his production.
Welker averaged 112 receptions per season during a six-year career in New England. The two-year, $12 million deal that he ended up signing with Denver didn't necessarily seem like it was too much for the Patriots to match in order to retain a veteran who has produced at extremely high levels.
New England also sent wide receiver Brandon Lloyd, who caught 74 passes for nearly 1,000 yards, packing in the offseason. That's a total of 192 catches now gone from New England's receiving group.
Adding free-agent wide receiver Danny Amendola from the St. Louis Rams should help soften the blow of losing Welker, but there is still concern over his injury history. The veteran has missed 20 games over the past two years, including five this past season. If healthy, Amendola should be able to pick up at least some of the slack.
Outside of that, New England didn't do a whole lot to find immediate production at wide receiver. Michael Jenkins, who comes over from the Minnesota Vikings, hasn't caught more than 53 passes in any of his nine NFL seasons.
Aaron Dobson and Josh Boyce, who were selected this past April, will be counted on to make immediate impacts. While Tom Brady could do wonders for their production as rookies, expecting inexperienced players to make an impact on the outside is a hard sell.
This doesn't even consider another set of surgeries for the often-injured Rob Gronkowski, who is questionable to start the regular season, per Ed Werder of ESPN.
That's quite a lot of production for New England to replace to be ready for the fall.
With that said, the Patriots will be a contender in the AFC as long as Brady is under center. The expectation here is that it will go to more of a rushing attack on offense while relying on what promises to be a vastly improved defense from what we saw during the first half of last season.
At the very least, it should be enough to capture yet another AFC East crown.
Seattle's defensive line is now as deep as any in the NFL with addition of Cliff Avril.
The good news for Seattle this offseason is that it really didn't have to focus on locking up key players from its playoff run a season ago.
Running back Marshawn Lynch is already locked into a four-year, $31 million extension that he signed in April of 2012, left tackle Russell Okung signed a six-year contract back in 2010 and center Max Unger inked a five-year deal last July.
This team's young core is also not set to hit the open market for some time now.
Safety Earl Thomas, cornerback Richard Sherman and linebacker K.J. Wright won't become free agents until after the 2014 season. Quarterback Russell Wilson and linebacker Bobby Wagner are signed through the 2015 season.
While these contracts might cause issues down the road, they aren't going to impact Seattle's salary cap sustainability in the short term.
General manager John Schneider and company hit the free-agent market with intent this year. They added defensive ends Michael Bennett and Cliff Avril to the mix on cap-friendly contracts while bringing in Antoine Winfield to play the slot behind Sherman and Brandon Browner.
Talk about adding more talent to what has to be considered one of the best defenses in the entire league.
Seattle's biggest acquisition, Percy Harvin, is a major question mark here. As Adam Schefter of ESPN has reported, the talented receiver injured his hip last week and might be facing a relatively lengthy rehab.
Harvin is stated to gather a second opinion on the injury on Tuesday, at which point we will have more information.
According to The Seattle Times, Schneider is preparing for every possibility:
it’s really a huge, huge spectrum, quite honestly. It could be something where he is out practicing within the next weekish or it could be something like coach Carroll was talking about where they do advise surgery and then depending on how they evaluate the situation that determines how much time he would miss.
Even if Harvin misses extended time, Seattle is still in a good position, offensively. It did not part with any of its primary receivers after acquiring Harvin, which means that its rotation from last season is still in place.
With its young core growing right in front of our eyes, Seattle is in prime position to challenge the San Francisco 49ers in the NFC West. The growth of their youngsters, including Russell Wilson, will go a long way in determining whether they can overtake the defending conference champions.
Reggie McKenzie had to cut the fat in Oakland, but lost a lot of talent in the process.
Oakland needed to cut the fat off an expensive and lackluster roster. That's exactly what general manager Reggie McKenzie did in his second offseason with the franchise.
The Raiders have let numerous veterans go since the end of the 2012 season. Gone are Tommy Kelly, Michael Huff, Darrius Heyward-Bey, Rolando McClain and Carson Palmer, among others.
Despite making some solid under-the-radar signings in free agency, the level of talent in Oakland just isn't where it needs to be in order to come close to contending in the AFC West.
Tracy Porter, Charles Woodson and Mike Jenkins may provide some sense of veteran leadership in the secondary, but none of them are what you would call game-changers. Linebackers Nick Roach and Kevin Burnett are marginal starters at this point in their careers. Neither of them will fill the large hole along this unit.
Where Oakland did succeed was the draft. It traded down for former Houston cornerback D.J. Hayden in the first round. The talented defender should start out of the gate and represents tremendous upside in the secondary. It also acquired a second-round pick in that deal, which it used on offensive tackle Menelik Watson, per Pro Football Talk.
While the Raiders appear headed in the right direction, their quarterback situation leaves a lot to be desired. Matt Flynn is competing with youngsters Terrelle Pryor and Tyler Wilson for the starting gig. Without a true franchise guy under center, they are already behind in the rebuilding process. Unless one of these three quarterbacks step up, this question might have to be answered next May when the 2014 draft rolls round.
As it is, the Raiders are much closer to the basement than they are to first place in the AFC West. That's what happens when you have to rid yourself of the mistakes of the past.
Dion Jordan is one of many additions to Miami's revamped defense.
General manager Jeff Ireland has been chastised for some questionable decisions since he took over in Miami. However, what he did this offseason was pretty darn solid.
Despite losing some key contributors on both sides of the ball and overspending a tad on free agents, Miami upgraded its talent level a great deal.
Veteran cornerback Brent Grimes joins rookies Jamar Taylor and Will Davis to form a high-upside trio in the defensive backfield. They replace Sean Smith as well as Vontae Davis, the latter of who was traded prior to last season. If healthy, Grimes can be one of the better cover corners in the entire league.
According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), Grimes ranked third among all NFL cornerbacks in pass coverage back in 2011. He did miss all but one game due to a torn Achilles in 2012. That's a primary reason why Miami was able to sign him to a one-year, $5.5 million contract.
Linebacker Dannell Ellerbe had a breakout campaign for the defending champion Baltimore Ravens last year. He recorded 69 tackles and 4.5 sacks. After signing a relatively lofty five-year, $34.7 million deal, Ellerbe joins fellow newcomer Philip Wheeler and holdover Koa Misi to form a vastly improved starting linebacker group.
With the back seven upgraded, Miami focused on the front four in the 2013 NFL draft. It traded up for the services of ultra-athletic defensive end Dion Jordan to team up with Cameron Wake.
Bleacher Report's Ryan Lownes had the following to say about Jordan back in April:
The sky is the limit in terms of potential. Jordan is already a very solid football player, but he has plenty of room to grow and improve his craft. He is a perfect fit for hybrid schemes that stress versatility and the right defensive coordinator could work wonders with his rare skill set.
Scheme versatility is huge here. With Jordan and Wake entrenched in as bookends, opposing blockers are going to have a heck of a time holding off the edge. This should also help the production we see from defensive tackles Randy Starks and Paul Soliai.
Offensively, it was all about replacing franchise left tackle Jake Long and finding receiving options for young quarterback Ryan Tannehill.
While right tackle Tyson Clabo won't necessarily fill Long's shoes in the starting lineup, he creates some sense of stability along the unit.
According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), Clabo ranked seventh among right tackles in pass protection this past season. At the very least, this should help make Jonathan Martin's transition to the blindside a little easier to swallow.
Wide receiver Mike Wallace gives Tannehill the deep threat on the outside that he lacked last season. Despite being a solid possession guy, Brian Hartline just wasn't going to stretch the defense by himself. Wallace, who is coming off a down year, has that capability.
In addition to signing Wallace, the Dolphins were able to nab tight end Dustin Keller from the division rival New York Jets. The veteran suffered through an injury-riddled 2012 campaign, but did put up over 800 receiving yards the previous season.
Miami's success in 2012 will ultimately depend on Tannehill's progression at quarterback and the ability of Lamar Miller to shoulder the load at running back.
According to Barry Jackson of The Miami Herald, Miller is ready to take on that lead-back role:
(Daniel) Thomas isn’t conceding anything, but Lamar Miller has done nothing to lose his firm grasp on the starter’s job. He had two impressive runs of 20-plus yards on Saturday – including one where he turned the corner – and also caught a wheel route from Tannehill for a 15-yard gain.
If those two are able to up their games from 2012, Miami could be in a position to challenge for a wild-card spot. Depending on what happens in New England, it could even make the Patriots sweat it out a little bit in the AFC East.
Salary cap issues finally forced Mike Tomlin and the Steelers' hands.
It might be hard to believe, but Pittsburgh will enter the 2013 season on the outside looking in among AFC playoff teams.
Due to a bad salary-cap situation, the Steelers were forced to part with a ton of key veterans, only to replace them with inexperienced players or rookies.
Losing wide receiver Mike Wallace will hurt Ben Roethlisberger a great deal. He was one of the best deep threats in the NFL prior to struggling a tad last season and helped open up Pittsburgh's passing game.
According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), Wallace has dropped just seven of the 122 passes thrown in his direction that traveled 20 yards or more in his career. Pittsburgh simply doesn't have anyone that's able to duplicate that production.
Wide receivers Emmanuel Sanders and Antonio Brown combined for 1,400 yards last season, but recorded a total of just six touchdowns. One of them will have to step up and fill the void if the Steelers are going to improve on offense.
That being said, the biggest issue here is along the offensive line.
For the fourth time in as many years, Roethlisberger missed some time due to injury. Despite being one of the toughest quarterbacks in the entire league, it's unreasonable to expect him to stay healthy for an entire season if Pittsburgh's pass-protection woes continue.
He has been sacked nearly three times per game since the start of the 2006 season. Those numbers just aren't sustainable.
Due to its salary cap situation, Pittsburgh was unable to hit the open market to find upgrades at tackle or guard.
According to Ourlads.com, second-year player Mike Adams is slated to start at left tackle, with Marcus Gilbert getting the nod at right tackle. Adams started just six games as a rookie and will be learning on the fly. That's not a solid situation in front of Roethlisberger.
The interior of Pittsburgh's offensive line might be improved by guard David DeCastro's return to health. He missed all but four games during an injury-plagued rookie season.
With all this said, Mike Tomlin and Co. should remain competitive because of one of the best all-around defenses in the entire league. Losing linebacker James Harrison doesn't seem like a big deal, especially with rookie first-round pick Jarvis Jones in the mix.
Even with safety Troy Polamalu missing nine games due to injury last year, Pittsburgh ranked sixth in the NFL in scoring defense and first in overall defense.
This is still not where we expect a franchise like Pittsburgh, which is just a few years removed from the Super Bowl, to be.
Barkevious Mingo is one of three key defensive players Cleveland brought on.
Is Cleveland anywhere near ready to contend for a division crown? While stranger things have happened, one has to believe it is at least a year away from making the postseason. For a franchise that has struggled for so long, it's all about baby steps.
The new regime took those initial baby steps this offseason. One of the first things it did was hit the free-agent market in order to find upgrades on a talented defense.
Linebacker Paul Kruger comes over from the division-rival Baltimore Ravens on a five-year, $40.8 million contract. Kruger recorded nine sacks as a pass-rush specialist in Baltimore last year, but stepped up big time late in the season and in the playoffs. The 27-year-old defender racked up 4.5 sacks during the Ravens playoff run, including two against San Francisco in the Super Bowl.
The veteran will now team up with youngsters Jabaal Sheard and Barkevious Mingo to form a high-upside outside linebacker trio.
Sheard, a second-round pick in the 2011 draft, recorded a team-high seven sacks last year and has 15.5 in his first two seasons in the NFL.
Meanwhile, Mingo was one of the most talented pure pass-rushers from the '13 draft class. His speed and athleticism caught the Browns' eyes when they picked him up with the sixth overall pick this past April.
Bleacher Report's Sigmund Bloom filed the following report on Mingo prior to the draft earlier this year:
Mingo has the length and frame to add the weight to be a defensive end in a 4-3 scheme, but he also is more than athletic enough to play OLB in a 3-4 defense. He should appeal to defensive coordinators that want to run a hybrid defense. Mingo can fit in either scheme, but he either needs to bulk up or learn the 3-4 OLB position.
This is the role Mingo will play as a rookie. Cleveland will utilize him in a bunch of different formations and might even have all three of these pass-rushers on the field at the same time.
An under-the-radar addition on defense has to be former Oakland Raiders defensive lineman Desmond Bryant, who signed a five-year, $34 million contract with the Browns.
According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), Bryant graded out as the sixth-best overall interior lineman in the NFL last year. He didn't get a lot of national recognition due to playing for a bad Raiders team.
That's only going to help an underrated secondary that is led by cornerback Joe Haden and safety T.J. Ward.
In short, Cleveland's defense could finish the season as one of the top-five units in the NFL.
If this is the case, second-year quarterback Brandon Weeden won't have to be much more than a game manager. In addition to boasting a solid defense, Cleveland possesses one of the best young running backs in the NFL in Trent Richardson.
The solution to years of struggle is right in front of our face. Combine a solid running game on offense with an elite defense and stay in contention throughout the course of a 16-game season.
After all, it must be noted that Cleveland lost five games by a total of 22 points last season. Even winning a majority of those tight games could mean a .500 season for the Browns in 2013.
Jerry Jones and the Cowboys are about as mediocre as it gets.
The Dallas Cowboys have gone down to the final week of the regular season with a chance to win the NFC East each of the last two years before falling flat on their faces on national television. They will be lucky to get back to that level this coming season.
In a reversal from previous seasons, mostly due to salary cap restraints, Dallas avoided the free-agent market.
It retained defensive end Anthony Spencer under the franchise tag, which seemed to be an ill-advised move at that time. Spencer did tally a career-high 11 sacks last season, but is set to earn $10.6 million under the tag this season.
As Calvin Watkins of ESPN Dallas tweeted, he also underwent knee surgery early in camp and is expected to be out until at least the final preseason game. There is no telling how Spencer will translate to defensive end in Monte Kiffin's new 4-3 defensive scheme this year.
For a team that was strapped against the cap, that $10 million could have come in handy elsewhere, mainly along the offensive line.
The only real "upgrade" Dallas made along the offensive line was with rookie-first round pick Travis Frederick, who Matt Miller had as the 100th-best prospect in the draft.
Despite performing better later in the draft, the decision to trade down in the first round with San Francisco to pick up Frederick leaves a lot to be desired. Dallas acquired a third-round pick, which it spent on wide receiver Terrance Williams, in that deal.
The issue here is that Jerry Jones and company left a lot on the table at need positions before trading down in the initial round. Even with taking Frederick at the 31st pick, the Cowboys still left safeties Matt Elam and Jonathan Cyprien on the board.
Outside of the rookie from Wisconsin, the Cowboys pretty much return the same offensive line that we saw fall apart in front of Tony Romo last year.
According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), right tackle Doug Free graded out as the 59th-best pass-protecting offensive tackle last year, with Tyron Smith coming in at 56. That's just not going to get it done.
In order for the newly extended Tony Romo to cut down on his mistakes at quarterback, he will need to have better pass protection upfront. Expecting different results with the same cast doesn't make a whole lot of sense.
Despite struggling under former coordinator Rob Ryan last year, the Cowboys should be fine on the defensive side of the ball.
Their success depends heavily on how DeMarcus Ware and Spencer translate to defensive end, as well as the health of Sean Lee at linebacker.
As it is, this team is nowhere near ready to make noise in a vastly improved NFC East. If certain players don't step up at key positions, Dallas could be looking at a last-place finish.
Vincent Frank is an NFL featured columnist at Bleacher Report.