The Most Improved Teams of the 2016 NFL Offseason
From player cuts to free-agent signings to selections in the recent NFL draft, all 32 franchises have done their best to bolster their rosters from a season ago. Some clubs have done better than most.
The Minnesota Vikings, Pittsburgh Steelers, Tennessee Titans and Washington Redskins all warranted consideration on this list of teams that have improved the most this year from a season ago.
However, the following five clubs (listed from better to best) made the biggest push this offseason. All hit home runs in both free agency and in April's three-day event in Chicago. In each instance, these teams addressed major areas of concern, resulting in a big-time overhaul on either the offensive or defensive side of the football.
It was these significant upgrades that made these five organizations stand out more than the rest of the league in 2016.
Now the wait is on to see if it all translates to more victories this season.
5. New York Giants
2015 Win-Loss Record: 6-10
There's a lot of reason for optimism when it comes to the New York Giants.
The legendary organization has missed the playoffs four straight years and six of the last seven seasons. In between there was 2011, a 9-7 finish that resulted in an unlikely Super Bowl XLVI victory over the New England Patriots.
The club's latest showing this past season was tainted by a horrendous defensive performance. The Giants allowed the most total yards and most passing yards in the league. The team totaled a paltry 23 sacks while opposing passers lit up the defense for 31 scores through the air.
It's safe to say general manager Jerry Reese was going to get defensive.
That was certainly the case in free agency with high-priced acquisitions such as pass-rusher Olivier Vernon, defensive tackle Damon Harrison and opportunistic cornerback Janoris Jenkins. Via Spotrac, this trio has three of the team's four biggest current contracts.
But the Giants executive also found himself playing a little defense with the club's selection of cornerback Eli Apple via the 10th pick in this year's draft. There were some who felt Reese had to settle for the former Ohio State standout after losing out on tackle Jack Conklin (Tennessee Titans) and linebacker Leonard Floyd (Chicago Bears).
Reese explained it all to Mike Francesa of WFAN on Monday afternoon:
We had our board stacked. We had went through this scenario many times, and we thought that was one of the possibilities that could happen, and our mind was clearly made up that we would be happy with Eli Apple as our pick as No. 10. ...
He was an easy pick, and it was a value pick, No. 1, because he's the highest player on our board and was a need pick because we have two corners, and like I said during the draft, if you only have two corners, you're one corner short in this league.
Of course, you also can't have enough Elis on one football team. A potent New York offense will now be complemented by a new-look, and much more talented, defense. There will not be a fourth consecutive losing season for this franchise.
4. Oakland Raiders
2015 Win-Loss Record: 7-9
It's safe to say followers of the Silver and Black have grown weary of being reminded of the team's shortcomings for more than a decade.
That figures to change in 2016 as the Oakland Raiders build on last season's encouraging showing, one that saw the club more than double its wins from the previous season (three).
The general consensus from those in the know is that general manager Reggie McKenzie and his staff did quite well in this year's draft, as documented by Eddie Paskal of Raiders.com.
First-round pick and strong safety Karl Joseph will add a physical presence to the secondary, one that will also include newcomers in cornerback Sean Smith (Kansas City Chiefs) and opportunistic free safety Reggie Nelson (Cincinnati Bengals), who led the NFL with 10 takeaways this past season.
The pass rush will be significantly better as well. The team added outside linebacker Bruce Irvin to complement two-time All-Pro (as in defensive end and linebacker) Khalil Mack. He earned both of those honors in 2015 off a year in which he finished second in the league with 15 sacks.
Former Baltimore Ravens guard Kelechi Osemele will now pair with left tackle Donald Penn. That's great news for an offense led by quarterback Derek Carr, wideouts Amari Cooper and Michael Crabtree and running back Latavius Murray. Oakland scored 359 points in 2015, quite the markup from their total (253) in 2014.
We haven't seen a winning campaign from this club since it won the AFC West in 2002 and made its way to Super Bowl XXXVII. But these Raiders are a significant threat to both the Denver Broncos and Kansas City Chiefs for the division's top spot.
3. Houston Texans
2015 Win-Loss Record: 9-7 (won AFC South)
Free agency was extremely kind to the Houston Texans.
In basically a 24-hour period, the defending AFC South champions inked promising 25-year-old signal-caller Brock Osweiler, running back Lamar Miller (who turned 25 on April 25) and blockers Jeff Allen and Tony Bergstrom to bolster the league's 19th-ranked offense from 2015.
Then general manager Rick Smith hit the jackpot in last month's draft. He took a shot (reminiscent of Texas' Jed Clampett) and struck gold—trading up one spot in the first round and grabbing speedy Notre Dame wideout Will Fuller.
The team's next three selections were also spent improving the offense. Center Nick Martin (another Golden Domer), Ohio State playmaker Braxton Miller and fourth-round running back Tyler Ervin were all significant pickups.
Forget the team's 30-0 playoff loss to the Kansas City Chiefs. Much of that fell on a very poor showing by quarterback Brian Hoyer (five turnovers), now with the Chicago Bears. This was a team that won seven of its final nine regular-season games after a 2-5 start. It managed a playoff appearance despite the fact that head coach Bill O'Brien utilized four different starting quarterbacks.
All of this new weaponry will make life much easier for J.J. Watt and the NFL's third-ranked defense from 2015. Once it comes together this fall, the Texans will go from a defending division champion to Super Bowl threat.
2. Chicago Bears
2015 Win-Loss Record: 6-10
A team that went into April's draft with a lot of momentum came out looking even more formidable.
It's been a rough few years for the Chicago Bears. The team has a combined record of 11-21 the past two seasons and hasn't made a postseason appearance since 2010.
Under new head coach John Fox, the Bears made strides this past season. Despite only six wins, the team overcame a dreadful 0-3 start (outscored a combined 105-46 in those losses) to post a 6-7 mark the rest of the way. All but one of those setbacks were by six points or less, and along the way the Bears knocked off the playoff-bound Green Bay Packers and Kansas City Chiefs.
Despite those positives, there was more work ahead—especially on defense. General manager Ryan Pace got busy and signed inside linebackers Danny Trevathan and Jerrell Freeman (two of the higher-rated players at their positions in 2015 via Pro Football Focus). The Bears also signed defensive lineman Akiem Hicks and safety Omar Bolden to aid a club that ranked 14th in the league in total yards allowed per game.
Armed with nine picks heading into the draft, Pace came out with just as many players. Six of those were on defense as he moved up two spots in the first round to select University of Georgia outside linebacker Leonard Floyd and used three other picks to bolster the secondary.
The Bears also used a second-round choice on Kansas State guard Cody Whitehair. The offensive line was a priority this offseason, and Pace added free agents such as tackle Bobby Massie and interior blockers Manny Ramirez and Ted Larsen.
Quarterback Jay Cutler will certainly miss weapons such as Matt Forte (New York Jets) and Martellus Bennett (New England), now members of the AFC East. But the upgrades on defense and the continued improvement of players like running back Jeremy Langford will pay dividends for a team overdue for success.
1. Jacksonville Jaguars
2015 Win-Loss Record: 5-11
This is the year the fruits of general manager Dave Caldwell's recent labors all come together.
In 2015, the team's offense emerged as a formidable factor. After finishing dead last in the league in scoring two consecutive seasons (2013-14), the club averaged 23.5 points per game (14th in the NFL). Quarterback Blake Bortles' 35 touchdown passes were a franchise record, and Pro Bowl wide receiver Allen Robinson tied for the league lead with 14 scoring receptions.
This season's ground attack is bolstered by the free-agent addition of Chris Ivory, who led the AFC in rushing in 2015. There could be a new left side to the offensive front with guard Mackenzy Bernadeau and tackle Kelvin Beachum. The latter figures to unseat incumbent Luke Joeckel, who has been a disappointment. Ryan O'Halloran of the Florida Times-Union reported that the club won't pick up the fifth-year option on the second overall pick in the 2013 draft.
You have to like what Caldwell did on defense this offseason. The team signed defensive end Malik Jackson (Denver Broncos), free safety Tashaun Gipson (Cleveland Browns) and cornerback Prince Amukamara (New York Giants).
And the Jaguars hit the jackpot in the draft with the first two selections in defensive back Jalen Ramsey and outside linebacker Myles Jack, two of the most talented players among this year's prospects. Not only has Ourlads already penciled both into the starting lineup, the rest of the league has been warned about their potential.
It's been nearly a decade since the Jacksonville Jaguars have reached the playoffs or posted a winning record. One or perhaps both are in the cards for 2016.
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.