The Most Improved Team in Each NFL Division After Early Free Agency
Nearly three weeks into the new league year, the NFL's free-agent pool is practically empty.
If you walk to the edge and peer over, you'll see Jay Cutler, Colin Kaepernick, Adrian Peterson and Johnathan Hankins flopping around in about 20 inches of water, but the pool's been drained enough that there's no swimming anymore.
Few have noticed because we've already moved on to the draft, but the gap between those two processes does give us a chance to re-evaluate the field. There are plenty of ways to attempt to do that, but in this case, let's go division by division with a half-full glass.
With the heart of free agency over with, here's a look at the most improved team in each division.
AFC East: New England Patriots
The rich got richer in the NFC East this month, with the Super Bowl champion New England Patriots pulling even further away from the Buffalo Bills, Miami Dolphins and New York Jets.
New England acquired two new starters in wide receiver Brandin Cooks (pictured) and cornerback Stephon Gilmore while replacing tight end Martellus Bennett with the talented Dwayne Allen and running back LeGarrette Blount with the younger Rex Burkhead.
With key front-seven defenders Dont'a Hightower and Alan Branch also returning and top corner Malcolm Butler still on the roster, it's hard to find a single spot where they've downgraded. Sure, Bennett has accomplished more than Allen, but keep in mind they'll be getting Rob Gronkowski back in the starting tight end role in 2017.
It's just scary.
All of that wheeling and dealing leaves the Patriots without a first- or second-round pick and with only two selections in the top 130, so they might wind up improving less than everyone else in this division in the draft. But with almost every important player back and several new potential stars in town, the Pats are destined to kick off 2017 as an even bigger favorite than they were at the start of the offseason.
With the Bills losing Gilmore and two of their top three receivers, Miami having a relatively quiet offseason and the Jets basically cleaning house, the AFC East is beginning to look like a dictatorship.
All hail Bill Belichick.
AFC North: Cleveland Browns
It's hard not to improve when you're coming off a 1-15 season and you have about a trillion dollars to spend, but the Cleveland Browns deserve credit for their prudent approach to free agency.
They didn't overpay an aging, overrated quarterback just because they're seeking a franchise signal-caller, choosing instead to bide their time ahead of a draft in which they hold five picks in the top 65 and two in the top 12.
That doesn't mean they didn't go on a shopping spree. They made life considerably easier for whoever that quarterback will be by revamping an offensive line that, according to Pro Football Focus, was responsible for a league-high 33 sacks last season.
The Browns signed arguably the top guard and center on the free-agent market, bringing in Kevin Zeitler (pictured) from the Cincinnati Bengals and JC Tretter from the Green Bay Packers respectively. Neither has turned 28, and both are coming off exceptional seasons.
To boot, they added a talented and experienced new No. 1 receiver in Kenny Britt—a 28-year-old former first-round pick coming off a breakout season in which he caught 61.3 percent of the passes thrown his way by the Los Angeles Rams' bad group of quarterbacks.
Britt merely replaces Terrelle Pryor, who also had a 1,000-yard campaign in 2016 before jetting to the Washington Redskins in free agency. But he's still young, and he's gone over 700 yards in five of his eight seasons. He's more of a known commodity.
Most importantly, the Browns did all of that without selling off any draft picks. In fact, they gained a 2018 second-round selection from the Houston Texans as compensation for absorbing bust quarterback Brock Osweiler's bloated salary with cap space they wouldn't have used anyway.
As a result, one of the league's most improved rosters is likely to continue to receive more upgrades in the near future.
With the Pittsburgh Steelers basically idle, the Bengals losing Zeitler and left tackle Andrew Whitworth and the Baltimore Ravens letting key offensive contributors Kyle Juszczyk and Ricky Wagner walk, there's no doubt the Browns are March winners of the AFC North.
AFC South: Jacksonville Jaguars (Again)
It feels as though the Jacksonville Jaguars have won about five consecutive offseasons, which is rather odd considering the Jags haven't won more than five games in a single season since 2010. That might make it arguable whether it is a blessing or a curse that the Jags were once again their division's most improved team in free agency.
The Jaguars entered the new league year with a ton of cash to spend on a young defense that still struggled despite dropping its points-per-game-allowed total from 28.0 in 2015 to 25.0 in 2016. They immediately went out and added top-tier free agents A.J. Bouye at cornerback and Calais Campbell at defensive end while replacing the departed Johnathan Cyprien with the experienced Barry Church.
Campbell and Bouye are the two highest-paid defensive players in this year's class, and Church is the second-highest paid safety. With those additions, it's hard to find a weak spot on a defense that is loaded with talent at all three levels.
Will it finally pay off for the Jags? Don't start making plans for a Super Bowl trip just yet.
Elsewhere in the division, the Tennessee Titans got a lot better on D by adding cornerback Logan Ryan and stealing Cyprien; the Indianapolis Colts spruced up their pass rush with Jabaal Sheard, John Simon and Margus Hunt; and the Houston Texans will undoubtedly become the cream of the AFC South crop if they wind up landing quarterback Tony Romo (don't forget, they're getting three-time Defensive Player of the Year J.J. Watt back too).
In other words, the AFC South might enter 2017 looking better than it did in 2016.
Still, the Jaguars can take solace in the fact they've done at least a little bit more than their divisional peers.
AFC West: Oakland Raiders
It's as though the four teams in the mighty AFC West made a pact that they'd all refrain from signing big-name free agents this year. Each team in the division signed just one player ranked in the top 50 at NFL.com, and they only signed a combined 12 outside free agents in total.
The best player among that dozen might have been tight end Jared Cook (pictured), who has a chance to become a huge weapon for Derek Carr and the Oakland Raiders offense. The 29-year-old was already a solid, starting-caliber tight end when healthy before breaking out late last year with the Green Bay Packers, and he earned himself a lot of money with 18 catches for 229 yards to go along with two touchdowns in three Green Bay playoff games.
Oakland also signed more outside free agents than two of its AFC West foes, the Kansas City Chiefs and Los Angeles Chargers, and just as many as the Denver Broncos (four).
But Denver lost offensive tackle Russell Okung and defensive tackle Sylvester Williams, downgrading to Oakland castoff Menelik Watson and the washed-up Domata Peko. The Chargers took Okung from the Broncos, but he hasn't been good in nearly half a decade. The Chiefs basically traded solid defensive tackle Dontari Poe for solid defensive tackle Bennie Logan.
At least Oakland added a potential difference-maker in Cook while upgrading on departed linebacker Malcolm Smith with former Miami starter Jelani Jenkins. The Raiders did lose running back Latavius Murray, but Murray averaged just 4.0 yards per carry while essentially being demoted to a platoon role over the past two years.
If the Broncos land Romo, everything changes. But for now, the Raiders—who are probably getting better with age anyway—take home the AFC West's most improved award.
NFC East: Philadelphia Eagles
Strapped for cash, the Dallas Cowboys lost four defensive backs—Brandon Carr, Morris Claiborne, Barry Church and J.J. Wilcox—who played a combined 2,645 snaps in 2016, according to Pro Football Focus.
With their front office in turmoil, the Washington Redskins lost their top two wide receivers in DeSean Jackson and Pierre Garcon while inexplicably spending more money on mediocre defensive linemen Stacy McGee and Terrell McClain than it would have cost them to bring back Chris Baker, a far superior player.
That leaves the Philadelphia Eagles, who might miss corner Nolan Carroll, defensive tackle Bennie Logan and former Pro Bowl pass-rusher Connor Barwin on defense but still arguably improved this offseason by accomplishing what had to be their chief objective.
They gave young quarterback Carson Wentz some new toys.
Philly brought in a new No. 1 receiver in former Pro Bowler Alshon Jeffery (pictured). With two 1,000-yard seasons under his belt, he was the best offensive skill-position player to hit the market. Amazingly, they got the 27-year-old at a discounted price (one year, $9.5 million) because it appears he's trying to leverage a big season into a lucrative long-term deal.
The Eagles also added 28-year-old former 1,000-yard receiver Torrey Smith on a cheap, prove-it deal. And just like that, they have one of the deepest receiving corps in the league, with few strings attached beyond the 2017 season.
That's how you win free agency, especially when your divisional rivals are MIA.
NFC North: Minnesota Vikings
Entering the offseason, it was easy to identify what ailed the Minnesota Vikings in 2016. The running game averaged a league-low 3.2 yards per carry and 75.3 rushing yards per game, while, according to Pro Football Focus, only two offensive lines were responsible for more sacks.
It didn't help that Minnesota spent most of the year without running back Adrian Peterson and offensive tackles Matt Kalil and Andre Smith. But Peterson—who's averaged just 2.9 yards per attempt in his past nine games—is beyond his prime coming off a major knee injury, and Kalil and Smith were abysmal when healthy in 2015.
It was time for the Vikings to move on from all three and replace them with players with higher ceilings, which is exactly what they did in free agency.
Taking over for Peterson is Latavius Murray (pictured), who is a year removed from a 1,000-yard season and is coming off a 12-touchdown campaign in Oakland. As noted earlier, Murray might only be a platoon back, but he's a better option than Peterson or anyone else the Vikings had on the roster in 2016. He might not single-handedly make that running game good, but he'll at least give it a boost.
Taking over for Kalil and Smith are Riley Reiff and Mike Remmers. Reiff is a 28-year-old former first-round pick who was a reliable starter for much of the past four years in Detroit. Remmers struggled as the league's most penalized player with the Carolina Panthers in 2016 but is at least a couple of years younger than Smith.
They aren't blockbuster moves, and they might not even make Minnesota a playoff team, but it's hard to imagine the offense not benefiting from those three signings.
Elsewhere in the division, the Green Bay Packers lost a handful of starters while signing only one high-profile free agent (tight end Martellus Bennett); the Detroit Lions upgraded only slightly by essentially trading two decent offensive linemen (Reiff and Larry Warford) for two others (Ricky Wagner and T.J. Lang); and the rebuilding Chicago Bears inexplicably spent money on aging defensive backs Prince Amukamara and Quintin Demps.
NFC South: Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Few free-agent signings made more sense than the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' bringing in veteran wide receiver DeSean Jackson (pictured). The deep threat is exactly what 23-year-old quarterback Jameis Winston needs as a complement to acrobatic young Pro Bowler Mike Evans.
For a team that is already improving rapidly—their win total has increased from two to six to nine the past three years—an addition like Jackson is gold: old enough to bring some experience and wisdom to the fray (the 30-year-old has 123 career starts under his belt) but young enough to still be effective (he averaged a tied-for-league-high 17.9 yards per catch in 2016).
Meanwhile, a Bucs defense that was rated 26th in football at PFF last season gained two new starters in defensive tackle Chris Baker (also a Washington expat) and safety J.J. Wilcox.
Baker registered 10.5 sacks as a starting 3-4 end with the Redskins the past two years. In 2016, PFF graded him as the sixth-best player in football at that position. Wilcox hasn't been able to recapture the magic that helped him record three picks and 69 tackles in a 16-start 2014 campaign with the Cowboys, but he's only 26 and posted the highest PFF grade of his career last season.
The Bucs were primed to win double-digit games in 2017 regardless of what they did in free agency, but that trio of signings could be worth an extra victory or two.
Elsewhere in the division, the Saints lost Cooks to the Patriots and didn't do enough to fix their wretched defense; the Atlanta Falcons made a couple of nice additions (Dontari Poe and Andre Roberts) but didn't have a lot of room to improve in the first place; and the Panthers didn't get significantly better by adding Kalil or old man Julius Peppers.
The Bucs did lose defensive tackle Akeem Spence, depth receiver Russell Shepard and backup quarterback Mike Glennon, but if they find themselves missing any of those guys in 2017, they'll have bigger problems on their hands.
It's been a good month in Tampa.
NFC West: Los Angeles Rams
The Los Angeles Rams didn't necessarily make huge waves in free agency, and they didn't sign as many outside free agents as the divisional-rival San Francisco 49ers. But a young L.A. team should be improving with time anyway, and the Rams at least gave some extra support to their young franchise quarterback, Jared Goff.
That's why the Rams get the nod here over San Francisco. While the Niners signed a lot of players, including two quarterbacks and potential offensive difference-makers Pierre Garcon and Kyle Juszczyk, it does look like San Fran took more of a quantity-over-quality approach. And those quarterbacks—Brian Hoyer and Matt Barkley—are not seen as long-term solutions.
The 49ers entered the offseason in desperate need of a potential franchise quarterback, but they still don't have one. Meanwhile, the Rams provided Goff with an experienced new left tackle in Andrew Whitworth (pictured), who's coming off back-to-back Pro Bowl seasons in Cincinnati. They also replaced top receiver Kenny Britt with the younger Robert Woods, who at least gives them more ceiling space at that position.
There wasn't a lot of room for the Seattle Seahawks to improve, and the Arizona Cardinals might have taken a step backward after losing defenders Calais Campbell, Tony Jefferson, D.J. Swearinger, Alex Okafor and Kevin Minter. San Francisco and Los Angeles undoubtedly got better, but the Rams can exit free agency with fewer concerns.