The NFL's Most Improved Units Early into Free Agency
The NFL draft is roughly one month away, but a number of teams have already made significant improvement in specific areas.
Be it via free agency or trade, the last two-plus weeks have proved fortuitous for eight clubs that, for the most part, had either some glaring issues and/or holes to fill. In some instances, a good unit became even better.
All of these moves figure to pay off in a big way come September.
Chicago Bears: Defense
Over the past three seasons, the defensive unit in the Windy City has simply been blown off the ball.
A year ago, under new head coach John Fox and new defensive coordinator Vic Fangio, the Chicago Bears looked a little more fearsome when it came to stopping opponents.
Year one of the 3-4 resulted in the team improving to 14th in the NFL in yards allowed per game. This followed consecutive seasons when Chicago ranked 30th in the league in total defense.
Now, the Bears have added Danny Trevathan (Denver Broncos) and Jerrell Freeman (Indianapolis Colts), the second and sixth-best inside linebackers in 2015, respectively, according to Pro Football Focus.
Chicago also signed defensive lineman Akiem Hicks away from the New England Patriots. The one-time New Orleans Saints performer finished strong in Foxborough after being acquired in a trade, per PFF.
These three pickups bolster a group that a year ago added promising rookie nose tackle Eddie Goldman and free-agent outside linebacker Pernell McPhee. Trevathan and Freeman immediately solve the Bears’ issues against the run (tied for 22nd in 2015), making this is a defense that bears watching.
Jacksonville Jaguars: Secondary
This past season, the Jacksonville Jaguars allowed 29 scores through the air. They also ranked 29th in the league in pass defense. Combine that with a group that totaled only nine interceptions in 16 games and it’s easy to see why this team allowed the second-most points in the NFL (448).
Adding Tashaun Gipson (Cleveland Browns) and Prince Amukamara (New York Giants) helps immeasurably. The latter has earned positive grades in pass coverage each of the past four seasons, although availability has certainly been a question mark for the 26-year-old defender.
In 2014, Gipson totaled six interceptions and earned a Pro Bowl invitation. In four seasons with the Browns, he picked off 14 passes and deflected 23 other throws.
Teaming them with promising cornerback Aaron Colvin, the Jaguars have added two more playmakers to a secondary that was screaming for help.
New England Patriots: Passing Game
Only four teams in the NFL gained more yards through the air in 2015 than the New England Patriots.
However, no player threw more touchdown passes this past season than quarterback Tom Brady (36).
And the feeling now is that things are about to get a lot better. Sean Wagner-McGough of CBS Sports breaks down the impact that the acquisition of former Pro Bowl tight end Martellus Bennett will have on the offense.
The Pats also added wide receivers Chris Hogan (Buffalo Bills) and Nate Washington (Houston Texans), a pair of experienced insurance policies. A year ago, both Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola had trouble staying healthy.
Offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels now has more options at wideout. And the trade for Bennett gives Brady quite a tight end tandem with All-Pro Rob Gronkowski.
New York Giants: Defense
There’s no truth to the notion that following this year’s spending spree that the New York Giants will now be referred to as “Big Green.”
General manager Jerry Reese opted to break the bank to improve a defense that had the team singing the blues in 2015.
When you allow the most total yards and passing yards in the league, finish 24th in run defense and surrender 31 scores through the air, it’s time for drastic action.
Hence, the organization signed defensive end Olivier Vernon (Miami Dolphins), nose tackle Damon Harrison (New York Jets) and cornerback Janoris Jenkins (Los Angeles Rams). It adds up to $193.8 million and will prove to be money well spent.
The Giants opened up their wallets, but they also closed a few gaping holes on the roster.
New York Jets: Running Back
Can you lose the leading rusher in the conference and actually improve your backfield?
The New York Jets have done just that, bringing in a couple of playmakers with different skills while retaining one of their own.
Veteran Matt Forte comes to the Green and White after eight seasons with the Chicago Bears. The two-time Pro Bowler brings five 1,000-yard rushing seasons to the club, but his 487 career receptions (19 for touchdowns) are even more significant.
Khiry Robinson ran for just 766 yards and eight touchdowns in three seasons with the New Orleans Saints. But he also showed enough flashes over that span to push Bilal Powell (second on the Jets with 313 yards rushing) for playing time in the fall. The team also added Dri Archer this offseason, but he’s more known for his work on special teams.
Chris Ivory and his AFC-high 1,070 rushing yards are now in Jacksonville. Despite his departure, the Jets are now a deeper and more versatile team at running back.
Oakland Raiders: Pass Defense
One season after allowing 29 touchdown passes and totaling only nine interceptions, the Oakland Raiders made some strides on defense in 2015.
This past year, the Silver and Black ranked 26th in the league in passing yards allowed and gave up 25 more scores through the air. While the team upped its pick total to 14, five of those thefts came from safety Charles Woodson.
He’ll now be spending Sundays talking about football on ESPN instead of playing it.
General manager Reggie McKenzie added a pair of performers who will make an immediate impact on the defense. Outside linebacker Bruce Irvin’s pass-rushing prowess gives opponents more to worry about than just All-Pro Khalil Mack. The 28-year-old former Seattle Seahawk is familiar with current Raiders defensive coordinator Ken Norton Jr.
Veteran Sean Smith comes over from the Kansas City Chiefs and brings seven years of experience to a club whose cornerbacks totaled only seven interceptions in 2015, with four by 24-year-old David Amerson.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Cornerback
The Miami Dolphins’ decision to part ways with cornerback Brent Grimes this offseason was the perfect tonic for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Pro Football Focus ranked seven Bucs cornerbacks in 2015, and only Sterling Moore (plus-1.4) earned a positive grade. The 26-year-old defender remains unsigned at the moment.
Tampa also added Josh Robinson, who barely saw the field this fall but picked off five passes in his first three seasons with the Minnesota Vikings.
Grimes totaled 13 interceptions and deflected 43 throws in his three seasons with the Dolphins—earning Pro Bowl honors each year.
The duo joins a club that has allowed 30 or more touchdown passes in four of the past five years.
Tennessee Titans: Running Game
It seems like ages ago that Titans running back Chris Johnson was terrorizing opposing defenses.
The past two seasons, Tennessee’s running game has barely made a dent. The club has been held to less than 100 yards on the ground in 22 out of 32 contests.
Trading for 2014 NFL Offensive Player of the Year DeMarco Murray was a brilliant move for first-year general manager Jon Robinson. And no one could be happier than Mike Mularkey.
“I am thrilled to have DeMarco (Murray) here in this offense, in this style of offense,’’ said the Titans head coach to Jim Wyatt of the team's official website shortly after the trade. “He fits it, exactly what we are looking for in the run and the pass game. And not just that, but the character and leadership he’s going to bring to this locker room it is not measurable.”
Murray comes off a troubling year with the Philadelphia Eagles just one season after totaling a league-best 1,845 yards rushing with the Dallas Cowboys. But his 702 yards on the ground in 2015 was significantly better than the 520 yards put up by Antonio Andrews—Tennessee’s leading rusher this past season.
Call this the best offseason addition of 2016 to date.
Unless otherwise noted, all player and team statistics come from Pro-Football-Reference.com and ESPN.com. All player ratings courtesy of Pro Football Focus. All 2016 free-agent and salary-cap information, contract terms and 2016 transactions are courtesy of Spotrac. Depth charts via Ourlads.