Ranking Every NFL Division After First Wave of Free Agency
Free agency is one of the best ways to improve as a team, and many NFL franchises have taken advantage of this year's pool. While many teams made some positive changes, some have made some questionable moves.
The New England Patriots are an example of a good team that got better through signing Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner (via Isaac Moore, Patriots.com)—two of the league's best corners. They're the crown jewel of an overall underwhelming (although improving) AFC East but will be faced with more competition in 2014, as their rival teams have also improved.
The Patriots' divisional rivals, the New York Jets, have gained a lot of ground over the past couple of weeks. Gang Green has used this free-agency period to sign a No. 1 receiver in Eric Decker (via Seth Walder, NYDailyNews.com) and a starting quarterback/mentor for Geno Smith, instantly putting them in a better spot than they were all of last year.
The AFC East as a whole is clearly improving, but they're still one of the least impressive divisions in football.
If you move a bit west, you'll find where the best teams in the league are. The AFC West and NFC West are littered with talented teams, top-ranked offenses and dominant defenses, making them the best divisions in football. They sent five teams to the playoffs last season between the two of them and could very well do the same in 2014.
While the western divisions seem to be a hub for playoff teams, every division in the NFL is generally pretty competitive. Which ones rank where? Read on to find out.
8. NFC East
The NFC East quickly went from being one of the best divisions in the NFL to the laughingstock of the NFC. Aside from the Philadelphia Eagles, the East was littered with disappointment in 2013.
The Washington Redskins suffered a seven-game swing in their win-loss record from the year before, finishing 3-13 after a promising 10-6 season.
The New York Giants were mediocre at best for the greater part of last season, while Dallas was generally "eh" besides a few impressive games against the Denver Broncos and Green Bay Packers (both were losses, but Dallas played much better than expected).
Granted, the Cowboys did compete for the NFC East crown last year, but at this point they've lost so many players that it will be a surprise if they can maintain the relative consistency they had. Losing DeMarcus Ware and Jason Hatcher will greatly hurt their pass rush, which was one of the few bright spots on an overall weak defense last season.
The Giants, Eagles and Redskins have all made several moves this offseason—both smart and not-so-smart ones. Philly made their offense a heck of a lot scarier with the acquisition of Darren Sproles (via Josh Alper, Pro Football Talk) and bolstered their secondary with Malcolm Jenkins (via Chris Wesseling, NFL.com).
Washington also added more firepower to their offense with the signing of Andre Roberts (via Brian Tinsman, Redskins.com) but signed a bit of a head-scratcher in Shawn Lauvao (via Mike Jones, Washington Post). He's not necessarily bad, but he definitely doesn't solve their problems on the offensive line. Lauvao does provide some depth, but one could argue that the money Washington spent on him (while relatively minimal) could've been better spent elsewhere.
Regardless, the Redskins have made some needed improvements, along with New York and Philadelphia. The Cowboys have been relatively quiet outside of releasing Ware and Miles Austin (via Clarence E. Hill Jr., Star-Telegram.com), though they did sign the underwhelming Brandon Weeden (via Michael David Smith, Pro Football Talk) recently.
This is a division on the upswing, and it may regain the moniker of the league's best division before long.
7. AFC South
The AFC South boasts one of the best and youngest teams in the league in the Indianapolis Colts, but their ranking is dragged down by the Houston Texans and Jacksonville Jaguars.
The Texans and Jaguars hold two of the first three picks in the draft, and are inarguably two of the worst teams in the NFL at this point in time. That being said, they are taking the steps to change. Although last season's record doesn't reflect it, Gus Bradley has done a great job with beginning the Jaguars' turnaround.
They've had a couple of solid signings in free agency like Red Bryant and Chris Clemons (via Michael David Smith, Pro Football Talk), and are surely building a better team brick by brick.
Somewhere in the middle of the pack are the Tennessee Titans, who have had a hot-and-cold past couple of seasons. Now that they'll be under Ken Whisenhunt's watch, they should improve offensively, and Ray Horton will mend the defense—without a doubt.
As I mentioned above, the Colts are one of the brightest young teams in the NFL, and they're only getting better. They added another weapon for Andrew Luck in Hakeem Nicks (via Chris Wesseling, NFL.com), who is a talented receiver although his numbers last season may not paint the same picture. They also signed D'Qwell Jackson (via Dan Hanzus, NFL.com) who will serve as a run-stopping linebacker in the middle of their defense.
Overall, this is an improving division. It's Colts' to lose, and will likely remain that way for the next year or two, but Indy will soon be challenged by the rising teams around them.
6. AFC East
Outside of the New England Patriots, the AFC East is a pretty lackluster division. Granted, the Miami Dolphins are gradually improving, but it's unlikely they'll be able to unseat the Patriots while Tom Brady is still around.
The Fins bolstered their defense with the addition of Louis Delmas (via Michael David Smith, Pro Football Talk) and solidified their offensive line with Branden Albert (via Adam Beasley, Miami Herald). Delmas and Albert were smart signings, but outside of those two, Miami pretty much missed. They paid Cortland Finnegan an awful lot of money for someone coming off of a lackluster season and also downgraded from Paul Soliai to Earl Mitchell.
While the Dolphins have had a hot-and-cold class of free agents, New England has added talent on talent. The Patriots are widely regarded as an offensive team, but their defense made the leap last year and helped pick up the slack when their offense was lacking.
New England has a good defense that has gotten better through free agency and now has (arguably) the best cornerback tandem in the league. They brought in the physical Brandon Browner and coverage expert Darrelle Revis to hold down the sidelines after losing Aqib Talib—a huge upgrade by most people's standards.
Those two will now be tested by the New York Jets' newest receiver, Eric Decker. He's been a reliable receiver for Peyton Manning and the Broncos the past couple of seasons and will play a big role in the Jets' offense right away.
They also signed Michael Vick this past week (via Randy Lange, NewYorkJets.com), shoring up the quarterback position. They now have a dynamic (although aging) quarterback to run their offense and mentor Geno Smith in the interim.
Gang Green struggled through 2013 largely because of their lack of consistency on offense, but it looks like they will be much better off in 2014.
At the bottom of the East are the Buffalo Bills, who haven't made much progress since last season's close. They lost Jairus Byrd to New Orleans (via Mike Florio, Pro Football Talk) and have yet to do anything to mend the hole left by him. The Corey Graham signing will help the secondary a little, but it's certainly not enough to make up for the loss of Byrd.
Their best signing of the free-agency period is Brandon Spikes (via Gregg Rosenthal, NFL.com), who pulled away from the Patriots. Pairing him with second-year star Kiko Alonso, along with the newly-signed Keith Rivers (via Josh Alper, Pro Football Talk), will make for a nice set of linebackers.
There's a lot of potential between the Dolphins, Jets and Bills, but the Patriots are really the only consistently effective team out of the four.
5. AFC North
The Cincinnati Bengals have now taken control of the AFC North. For a long time, it was the Pittsburgh Steelers and Baltimore Ravens who dominated the division, but Cincy is movin' on up. They've drafted their way into having a very fluid offense behind Andy Dalton, A.J. Green and Giovanni Bernard but have also built a very intimidating defense.
The jungle cats may be on top of the division for now, but Pittsburgh is an improving team. They recently signed Lance Moore (via Chris Wesseling, NFL.com) and Mike Mitchell (via Darin Gantt, Pro Football Talk) in free agency, two players who will positively impact this team's production on both sides of the ball.
Moore proved himself as one of the better receivers in the league during his time with New Orleans, and Mitchell was an underrated part of the Carolina Panthers' vaunted defense in 2013. Aside from Cincinnati and Pitt, the AFC North is underwhelming.
The Ravens took a backseat last season following their championship year, and the Cleveland Browns are just a mess right now. Don't get me wrong, both teams have talent, but they won't be competing for a division title for a couple of years.
At this point in time, the AFC North isn't exactly the most competitive division. However, even though Pittsburgh, Baltimore and Cleveland aren't the best teams, they're a tough outing for most. Overall, the North is a gritty division that is getting better.
4. NFC North
The NFC North has the potential to be the best division in football. At the top, you have Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers, a team that has been one of the most dominant NFL franchises over the past few years. The Packers are a Super Bowl contender each year and can compete with any team in the NFL.
Move down a rung and you have the Chicago Bears and Detroit Lions, two teams who may lack a little on defense, but their offenses have a ton of firepower. The Lions signed Golden Tate (via Tim Twentyman, DetroitLions.com) in free agency, finally adding a solid receiver across from Calvin Johnson. One could even argue that Tate is a No. 1 receiver, and I believe he and Megatron could form one of the best receiver tandems in the NFL.
While the Bears didn't help their offense too much, they did certainly bolster their pass rush. Chicago recently inked Lamarr Houston (via Brad Biggs, Chicago Tribune) and Willie Young (via Mike Wilkening, Pro Football Talk) after letting go of Julius Peppers, who later signed with the division-rival Packers. Individually they don't make up for the loss of Peppers, but together they should be able to bridge the gap.
At the bottom of the division are the Minnesota Vikings, but they won't be for long. They've made some big changes this offseason, the biggest being their head coach. They finally fired Leslie Frazier and brought in Mike Zimmer, a defensive guru who will bring out the best in this team.
Minnesota wooed star corner Captain Munnerlyn (via Marc Sessler, NFL.com) away from his other suitors, bolstering their young secondary. They hold a top-10 pick in May's draft and will undoubtedly take a quarterback, although the mystery of "who?" remains.
Quarterback is still a big question mark, but they are an overall talented team. They have several weapons on offense along with the best running back in the league, and their defense is filled to the brim with young and improving talent.
They won't be winning the division anytime soon but are closer to being a competitive team than many think. They're a quarterback away from being a real contender in this division, and they may be drafting him this May.
3. NFC South
The NFC South is one of the most competitive divisions in football. While the Carolina Panthers and New Orleans Saints were tops in the South last year, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers held their own against most teams.
While their 4-12 record doesn't reflect that, five of their 12 losses were by seven points or fewer. If those games went slightly differently, the Bucs would've nabbed the sixth seed in the NFC, making the playoffs.
They've since improved their team in many ways, the biggest being at the head coaching position. Bringing in Lovie Smith gives them a seasoned and successful coach who can fix up the defense and steer this team in the right direction.
He's already been a huge help to them just by adding and subtracting pieces in free agency. The Bucs beefed up their offensive line with the additions of Anthony Collins (via Dan Hanzus, NFL.com) and Evan Dietrich-Smith (via Chris Wesseling, NFL.com) while also adding the athletic Michael Johnson to their defensive line.
Some may think that releasing Darrelle Revis was a mistake, but the move saved some cap room, and they've since signed the talented (and cheaper) Alterraun Verner as his replacement.
On the opposite end of the spectrum lie the Panthers, who've done some unraveling this offseason. They've lost or released a number of talented players like Steve Smith and Captain Munnerlyn but have signed some respectable players to help soften the blow.
Jerricho Cotchery (via Kevin Patra, NFL.com) and Tiquan Underwood (via Darin Gantt, Pro Football Talk) will serve as replacements for Smith until they can bring in another No. 1 receiver. Roman Harper, who they recently signed according to Michael David Smith of Pro Football Talk, should fit into their secondary nicely.
Antoine Cason will also help out the secondary of Carolina a bit, solidifying a unit that was left very weak by the departures of Munnerlyn and Mike Mitchell.
They'll need to maintain a solid pass defense to keep up with the pass-happy offenses of New Orleans and Atlanta. The Falcons stand to be much improved in 2014 after finally returning their key players to full health and will surely return to form as a prominent team in the NFC.
Atlanta added a couple of big bodies to its defensive line in free agency and also signed Jon Asamoah away from the Chiefs (via Josh Alper, Pro Football Talk), firming up their offensive line in the process.
While the Falcons claw their way back to the top, New Orleans is sittin' pretty with their shiny new toy on defense. The Saints are the most well-rounded team in the division and further strengthened their defense by adding Jairus Byrd in free agency. They had little cap room to work with but somehow managed to move some pieces around and squeeze Byrd in under the cap.
New Orleans was the only team in the NFL with a top-five offense and defense last season and will likely carry that success over into next season. This is an extremely potent division in terms of talent, and it might not be far away from having one of its teams bring home a Lombardi trophy.
2. NFC West
There aren't many divisions in the NFL as dominant as the NFC West. The San Francisco 49ers are perennial Super Bowl contenders as long as they can maintain their defense and Colin Kaepernick keeps improving. Even the once-fledgling Arizona Cardinals showed that they can hang with the big boys after an impressive 2013 campaign.
They've since bolstered their roster even further with the additions of Jared Veldheer (via Darren Urban, AZCardinals.com) and Ted Ginn Jr. (via Chris Burke, Sports Illustrated) in free agency, addressing two needs for an affordable price. Ginn Jr. won't hold a major role in the offense or anything, but his ability as a kick returner is an undeniable benefit.
Arizona won 10 games and was still third in the division, which speaks volumes about the talent that is in the NFC West—even the St. Louis Rams are an overall okay team that is getting better. Letting go of Cortland Finnegan and Chris Williams wasn't a bad decision, but they've yet to address those positions in free agency.
The Rams have a good amount of talent and are certainly under a mindful eye with Jeff Fisher in charge, but they need to make an impact soon. They hold the second overall pick in May's draft (courtesy of the Redskins), and you can expect them to trade it for players and picks or hold onto it and reel in a blue-chip prospect. Either way, good things are coming by way of the second overall pick.
The leaders and crown jewels of this division are (unsurprisingly) the Seattle Seahawks. They proved the old adage "defense wins championships" and completely manhandled the Broncos' record-breaking offense.
They have lost a couple of key defenders during the free agency period, but retaining Michael Bennett was a huge positive. Losing Golden Tate will set the offense back a little, but given Percy Harvin's emergence toward the end of last season, they should be fine. Of course, his impact hinges upon his health, but they will likely add some depth at receiver in the draft, finding someone who can rotate in and out of packages.
Even though the Rams aren't exactly on par with the rest of the division, the NFC West is far and away the strongest division in the NFC right now. It's not farfetched to think that three of the teams in this division could very well be in the playoffs next season.
1. AFC West
The AFC West is the best division in football. While the Denver Broncos did get embarrassed by the Seahawks in the Super Bowl, they still have Peyton Manning and will still compete for a championship as long as he's in a Broncos helmet.
Losing Eric Decker will hurt a little, but they still have Wes Welker and Demaryius Thomas, so they'll be just fine. They did sign Emmanuel Sanders as his replacement (via Gregg Rosenthal, NFL.com), and he should fit into their offense nicely.
The Broncos have also improved a ton offensively because of free agency. They completely revamped their secondary in free agency with the signings of Aqib Talib and T.J. Ward and also added one of the league's best edge-rushers in DeMarcus Ware (via Adam Schefter, ESPN).
Aside from Denver, the West boasts two other teams that could also make playoff runs in 2014. The San Diego Chargers took a big step forward during Mike McCoy's first year as their head coach and will surely improve even more in this coming season.
Due to a small amount of cap room, the Bolts haven't done anything big in free agency, but they did add Donald Brown (according to Chris Wesseling, NFL.com), who'll help out their backfield rotation.
As 2013's Cinderella team, much is expected of Kansas City next season. The Chiefs, while impressive in 2013, may be taking a step back already.
They lost a bunch of key players in free agency and haven't done much to replace them. Their defense will remain as one of the NFL's best, but losing guys like Dexter McCluster and Branden Albert will hurt their offensive output.
Even with their losses on offense, they should still be a tough team to beat because of their defense. We've seen how far a team can go because of a talented defense, so the Chiefs should still be okay as long as they can draft well.
The sleeper team in this division is the Oakland Raiders, who have made the most of free agency. They signed several talented defenders such as Justin Tuck (via Tom Rock, Newsday.com) and LaMarr Woodley (via Chris Wesseling, NFL.com) but also solidified their receiving corps by signing James Jones (via ESPN). Oakland also found their quarterback in Matt Schaub, who they recently traded for per Gregg Rosenthal of NFL.com.
At the end of the day, the AFC West is an all-around talented group. This division could easily send two, possibly three, teams to the playoffs next year, making it the best in football.