The Most Improved Team in Each NFL Division After Early Free Agency
Three weeks into the NFL’s new fiscal year, every organization has dabbled in free agency one way or another. There have also been a few interesting trades along the way.
Which franchises have helped themselves the most to date? Here’s a look at eight teams (one per division) that have aided their cause better than their direct competition. Included is a list of each club’s additions, while the focus will be on the biggest of pickups.
Offseason improvement isn’t measured by numbers. In numerous cases, less will prove to be more here.
AFC East: New England Patriots
- TE Martellus Bennett (trade/Bears)
- DE Chris Long (from Rams)
- WR Chris Hogan (from Bills)
- DE Frank Kearse (from Redskins)
- G Jonathan Cooper (trade/Cardinals)
- RB Donald Brown (from Chargers)
- ILB Shea McClellin (from Bears)
- WR Nate Washington (from Texans)
- CB E.J. Biggers (from Eagles)
- TE Clay Harbor (from Jaguars)
The New England Patriots have made plenty of history. They have six Super Bowl appearances, four resulting in victory, since 2001. An eighth straight division title in 2016 would be a new NFL record.
The club bolstered the league’s sixth-ranked offense with a number of weapons, most notably tight end Martellus Bennett. Rest assured, the team’s AFC East rivals have taken notice.
“I just think it’s unusual to have two guys that are like 6'7" and can run, catch, block,” Buffalo Bills head coach Rex Ryan told writers just over a week ago at the NFL Annual Meeting, per Doug Kyed of NESN. “So, yeah, it’s going to be a major challenge. There’s no doubt about that. It’s scary when you look at them. Those are two huge guys. How we’re going to defend them, I don’t know.”
On the other side of the ball, the headliner is defensive end Chris Long. He totaled 54.5 sacks in eight seasons with the Rams, but injuries have limited him to 18 games the past two years. But no one could be more pleased than his father Howie Long, who feels his son has landed in the right place.
“I’ve always felt like, in my mind, the way they play, prepare and go about their business on a day-in, day-out basis, that Chris is a Patriots-type player,” said the Hall of Fame defensive end in a recent interview with ESPN.com via Mike Reiss. “I think it’s a good marriage, I really do. It’s an exciting opportunity for Chris.”
The remainder of the division has made its share of moves. The Miami Dolphins have had another offseason of turnover, which has yet to benefit the organization. The Bills have done little to make themselves better. The New York Jets have bolstered their backfield but face an enormous issue at quarterback with Ryan Fitzpatrick currently unsigned.
And the rich continue to get richer in Foxborough.
AFC North: Pittsburgh Steelers
- TE Ladarius Green (from Chargers)
- T Ryan Harris (from Broncos)
- RB Daryl Richardson (did not play in 2015)
- ILB Steven Johnson (from Titans)
With the exception of the Cleveland Browns, the AFC North is traditionally fairly quiet when it comes to offseason business.
The Baltimore Ravens, Cincinnati Bengals and Pittsburgh Steelers are among the most stable organizations in the league. The trio doesn’t ordinarily make a lot of moves, unless it’s re-signing their own free agents or bringing back players who once left the franchise for what appeared to be greener pastures.
The Steelers' offseason garners the most attention among the four clubs, despite the fact that the Ravens signed the likes of free safety Eric Weddle and wide receiver Mike Wallace.
Ryan Harris gives the club a 31-year-old veteran who adds depth to both tackle spots and more.
“I see myself as a veteran offensive tackle with dozens of starts and a Super Bowl championship ring that can come in and provide both leadership and talent to an already talented and well-led organization,” said Harris, according to Ray Fittipaldo of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
And on the subject of unseating left tackle Alejandro Villanueva? “I’ll expect to achieve the goals that I set for myself,” added Harris when asked if he expected to be a starter. “In years past that’s always worked for me, and I’ll plan to do that again.”
There’s plenty of excitement surrounding the signing of tight end Ladarius Green, who teased the Chargers and their opponents with his potential the past four years. He has big cleats to fill with the retirement of Heath Miller, but the change of scenery will do wonders for a performer with only 77 receptions (seven touchdowns) in four seasons.
AFC South: Jacksonville Jaguars
- DE Malik Jackson (from Broncos)
- RB Chris Ivory (from Jets)
- FS Tashaun Gipson (from Browns)
- P Brad Nortman (from Panthers)
- G Mackenzy Bernadeau (from Cowboys)
- CB Prince Amukamara (from Giants)
- T Kelvin Beachum (from Steelers)
The Jacksonville Jaguars always seem to have money to spend. Not that it has added up to much in recent seasons.
The franchise began its third decade of play in 2015 and finished 5-11. Over the past five years, the club owns an NFL-worst 19-61 record. This past season, the Carolina Panthers (who also entered the league in 1995) won 17 games, including a pair of playoff tilts on the way to Super Bowl 50.
Perhaps this is the year the Jaguars return to the postseason, something the franchise hasn’t done since 2007. Their offense has taken flight with the emergence of 23-year-old quarterback Blake Bortles and wide receivers Allen Robinson and Allen Hurns. The signing of AFC rushing champion Chris Ivory adds balance and bolsters a ground attack that gained the sixth-fewest yards in the league in 2015.
Jacksonville’s biggest issues this past season came on defense, most notably in the secondary. Former Pro Bowl free safety Tashaun Gipson and 26-year-old cornerback Prince Amukamara will help. Defensive end Malik Jackson makes life easier for the rest of the front four, a group that should benefit from a healthy Dante Fowler Jr. (who missed his rookie season with a torn ACL).
It isn’t as if the rest of the teams in the division haven’t helped themselves in some way. But it’s the Jaguars who have raised their game this most this offseason.
AFC West: Oakland Raiders
- G Kelechi Osemele (from Ravens)
- CB Sean Smith (from Chiefs)
- DE/OLB Bruce Irvin (from Seahawks)
- ILB Daren Bates (from Rams)
- SS Brynden Trawick (from Ravens)
Be honest. You certainly weren’t expecting to see the Denver Broncos here. The defending Super Bowl champions have plenty to do if they are going to win another AFC West title.
The Raiders also have a lot of work ahead of them just to post the team’s first winning season since 2002. Running back Latavius Murray had to be smiling when general manager Reggie McKenzie opened the check book and added guard Kelechi Osemele via a five-year, $58.5 million contract.
But the happiest man in the Bay Area had to be Raiders defensive coordinator Ken Norton Jr. He’ll see a familiar face in Bruce Irvin, who played for him in Seattle when Norton was the team’s linebackers coach. The 28-year-old performer makes All-Pro defensive end/outside linebacker Khalil Mack (15 sacks in 2015) even more dangerous.
The addition of cornerback Sean Smith is also a coup for Oakland. The team gets an experienced defender and robbed the Kansas City Chiefs of a vital member of their secondary.
Given the San Diego Chargers look to be in rebuilding mode, the Raiders are the AFC West’s top team on the upswing.
NFC East: New York Giants
- CB Janoris Jenkins (from Rams)
- DE Olivier Vernon (from Dolphins)
- DT Damon Harrison (from Jets)
- ILB Keenan Robinson (from Redskins)
It’s not a coincidence that all of the additions for the New York Giants this offseason have come on defense.
In 2015, they scored 26.3 points per game (sixth in the NFL) and were eighth in the league in total offense.
The Giants also finished dead last in yards allowed and gave up the most passing yards in the league. Their sack total dropped from 47 in 2014 to just 23 this past year. The rushing defense has ranked 30th and 24th, respectively, the last two seasons. New York surrendered 46 offensive touchdowns, with 31 of those scores coming through the air.
Cornerback Janoris Jenkins, defensive end Olivier Vernon, nose tackle Damon Harrison and inside linebacker Keenan Robinson will help immediately. Add incumbents such as cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and defensive tackle Johnathan Hankins and look for a bounce-back season for this defense.
Have the Giants done enough to date to push the Washington Redskins and hold off the Philadelphia Eagles and Dallas Cowboys? It’s impossible to say at this point. But they were the NFC East’s most proactive club when it came to addressing their shortcomings this year. That will go a long way into ending the team’s playoff drought. New York hasn't made the postseason since 2011.
NFC North: Chicago Bears
- ILB Danny Trevathan (from Broncos)
- ILB Jerrell Freeman (from Colts)
- DE Akiem Hicks (from Patriots)
- T Bobby Massie (from Cardinals)
- G Manny Ramirez (from Lions)
- G Ted Larsen (from Cardinals)
Under head coach John Fox, the Chicago Bears were arguably the NFC North’s most improved team in 2015 despite winning only one more game than the previous year.
A 0-3 start turned into a 6-7 record the remainder of the season, with six of those setbacks by seven or fewer points.
A defense that made some strides under coordinator Vic Fangio will be much more formidable with the signings of defensive lineman Akiem Hicks and inside linebackers Danny Trevathan and Jerrell Freeman. Both linebackers finished second on their respective teams this past season in tackles.
On the other side of the football, the Bears signed tackle Bobby Massie. Jake Perper of ChicagoNow.com has the latest on recent additions such as Manny Ramirez and Ted Larsen.
The signings of guard Alex Boone and tackle Andre Smith help the Minnesota Vikings. However, quarterback Teddy Bridgewater still needs more weapons. The Green Bay Packers added tight end Jared Cook this week but will wait until the draft rolls around to bolster the roster.
You could make a case for the Detroit Lions. That is if you can easily dismiss the retirement of superstar wide receiver Calvin Johnson and that middle linebacker Stephen Tulloch isn’t in the team’s 2016 plans.
The combination of upgrades on defense and the additional depth added to the offensive line gives the Bears a lot to smile about this offseason.
NFC South: Tampa Bay Buccaneers
- G J.R. Sweezy (from Seahawks)
- CB Brent Grimes (from Dolphins)
- DE Robert Ayers (from Giants)
- CB Josh Robinson (from Vikings)
- ILB Daryl Smith (from Ravens)
- P Bryan Anger (from Jaguars)
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers concentrated their efforts this offseason into getting better in this regard. Adding a pass-rusher from the end spot in Robert Ayers and a four-time Pro Bowl cornerback Brent Grimes will help. The signings of inside linebacker Daryl Smith and cornerback Josh Robinson are positives as well.
The Bucs have nowhere to go but up after finishing in the NFC South basement five consecutive years. But compared to the rest of the division, they have made the most strides so far this offseason.
The rival New Orleans Saints are trying again to fix their defense, and the Atlanta Falcons are still in search of a respectable pass rush. On the other hand, it’s hard to be much better than the Carolina Panthers were in 2015. The defending NFC champions have spent the last three weeks adding depth to an already-strong defense.
You can expect the Buccaneers to finally put their pieces together under new defensive coordinator Mike Smith, the former Falcons head coach who certainly knows his way around the division.
NFC West: Arizona Cardinals
- S Tyvon Branch (from Chiefs)
- DE Chandler Jones (trade/Patriots)
- G Evan Mathis (from Broncos)
The defending division champions get the nod almost by default.
Both the Los Angeles Rams and San Francisco 49ers have been quiet this offseason. The Seattle Seahawks have also not been active in the month of March.
It’s not like the Arizona Cardinals have made a ton of news to date as well. The trade for defensive end Chandler Jones gives the defense a 26-year-old performer who set career highs in 2015 with 12.5 sacks and four forced fumbles. He improves a pass rush that totaled only 36 sacks this past season—one-quarter of those (nine) came in a Week 16 win over the Green Bay Packers.
Tyvon Branch is another addition who blends in perfectly with the versatile Cardinals defense that finished fifth in the league in yards allowed. Furthermore, adding Super Bowl 50 champion Evan Mathis to the offensive line is huge when having to deal with the talented defensive fronts of the Rams and Seahawks.
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.