Each NFL Division's Biggest 2020 Offseason Winner

Alex Ballentine@Ballentine_AlexFeatured ColumnistMay 17, 2020

Each NFL Division's Biggest 2020 Offseason Winner

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    With the bulk of NFL free agency out of the way and the dust firmly settled on the draft, the full picture of what teams have done to improve has come into focus. 

    While it's easy to focus in on both things as singular events, the truth is teams use the two in tandem to improve the roster in both the short and long term. In essence, the strategy in one informs the other. 

    So while some teams struck out in free agency, they made up for it in the draft and vice versa. With a more complete picture, it's a good time to pick some "winners" of the offseason. 

    Some disclaimers are in order, though. "Winning" the offseason is not the same as hoisting the Lombardi Trophy. It's about acknowledging the teams who got better on paper. 

    Many "offseason winners" in the past have floundered. Some have cashed in on the success. So when we talk about offseason winners, we are purely talking about teams who should be improved from their former selves. In both the present and the future, these teams should have better footing in their respective divisions thanks to what they did in the offseason.

AFC North: Cincinnati Bengals

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    On the whole, the AFC North had a strong offseason. 

    The Baltimore Ravens will return as the prohibitive favorite, and even though they probably won't have a better record (14-2), they are a deeper, more complete team heading into 2020. The Cleveland Browns will ostensibly get a fresh start with Kevin Stefanski taking over a talented offense that upgraded the offensive line and added Austin Hooper. 

    The Bengals' biggest acquisition of the offseason was hope. And hope is a dangerous thing. 

    The cause of that hope is Joe Burrow. There has seldom been a quarterback prospect who is so unanimously revered, and the 2-14 Bengals were fortunate enough to have the No. 1 pick after his historic final season at LSU. 

    But the Bengals didn't just add a potential franchise-altering quarterback. They also made smart decisions to put a team around him that could see a quick turnaround. First, they ensured at least one more year of A.J. Green by giving him the franchise tag and then beefed up the defense by signing D.J. Reader.

    The draft haul could be impactful beyond Burrow as well. Tee Higgins has the physical tools to team up with Tyler Boyd to create a new 1-2 punch if Green is not long for Cincinnati. Then they addressed a defense that needed to be reconstructed with linebackers Logan Wilson and Akeem Davis-Gaither. There's still work to do—and to say they will contend for a playoff spot this season is banking a bit too much on Burrow playing like he did at LSU right away—but the Bengals are on the track to be plucky in 2020 and dangerous beyond that.

NFC North: Detroit Lions

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    The Lions won the offseason in the NFC North almost by default. That's not to say they didn't make good decisions, but it's hard to say the Bears, Packers or Vikings got better with the moves they made. 

    The Bears made peculiar choices in free agency, such as signing Jimmy Graham to a two-year, $16 million deal, choosing a 30-year-old Danny Trevathan coming off an elbow injury over 26-year-old Nick Kwiatkoski and trading for Nick Foles to compete with Mitchell Trubisky. The Packers' draft was filled with curious picks beyond the confounding decision to trade up for Jordan Love, and while the Vikings' draft went well, they lost a lot in free agency. It's hard to say any of them got appreciably better from 2019. 

    You can't say that about the Lions, though. They were active in free agency, upgrading a defense that was 28th in DVOA last season. They acquired former Patriots whom Matt Patricia should be familiar with in Danny Shelton, Jamie Collins Sr. and Duron Harmon. The most impressive thing they did this offseason was offload Darius Slay and still get better at cornerback on the whole. They signed Desmond Trufant and drafted Jeff Okudah. While neither may be as good as Slay individually, the pairing will bolster the pass defense overall next season. 

    The offense already had plenty of weapons, but the Lions used the draft to acquire D'Andre Swift, giving them a dynamic dual-threat running back.

    All of these moves aren't likely to make them contenders in 2020. But the gulf between the Lions and the upper echelon is shrinking. Oddsmakers seem to believe in the Lions' improvement as well. Their win total over/under is 6.5, per Caesars Palace. That's 3.5 more wins than their final win total in 2019.

AFC South: Indianapolis Colts

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    The Indianapolis Colts were the polar opposite of the divisional foe Tennessee Titans in 2019. After getting off to a 5-2 start with Jacoby Brissett throwing 10 touchdowns to two interceptions in September, they limped to a 2-7 finish with Brissett throwing just three touchdowns in five December games. 

    The Colts were bold in moving to replace Brissett with Philip Rivers. Though it's just a one-year deal, it gives them options. Finding a quarterback with the tools of Jacob Eason in the fourth round could wind up being a steal. 

    Their other moves worked to solidify the roster around the quarterback to give them a better chance regardless of who is under center. In the draft, they beefed up their skill personnel with Michael Pittman Jr. and Jonathan Taylor. Pittman Jr. gives them a big-bodied receiver to become what they hoped Devin Funchess would be, and Taylor's size and speed combination was the best among the rookies in the class. He should team with Marlon Mack to be one of the best one-two punches at running back in the league. 

    Defensively, the headliner is DeForest Buckner. While you never like giving up a first-round pick, the Niners ended up taking Javon Kinlaw after trading down one spot from Indy's original pick. In terms of on-field production, a team would take Buckner for the next two seasons over the rookie every time, so given that the Colts could afford him, they made a smart move. 

    Elsewhere in the division, the Titans put a lot of their faith and dollars into Ryan Tannehill being able to sustain his 2020 play while losing key veterans Jack Conklin and Jurrell Casey. The Texans were managed by Bill O'Brien, and the Jaguars are still in the middle of a rebuild. Both could easily be worse in 2020 than they were in 2019. 

    The Colts put themselves in a good position to look more like they did in September than December last season.

NFC South: Tampa Bay Buccaneers

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    In case you haven't heard, Tom Brady is now a Tampa Bay Buccaneer. The team was the biggest winner in the NFC South for more reasons than that, though. 

    At 43 years old, Brady entering the fray doesn't make the Bucs a contender in and of itself. They also did a great job of giving him more weapons to work with. They traded for Rob Gronkowski, who is coming out of retirement, and drafted Ke'Shawn Vaughn to team up with Ronald Jones II in the backfield.

    The most important draft pick was Tristan Wirfs. The Iowa tackle provided great value at No. 13 and should be an immediate starter on an offensive line that struggled to protect Jameis Winston (47 sacks) last season. 

    The Bucs did a good job of retaining key talent on the defensive side of the ball. Last year's NFL sack leader Shaquil Barrett is back on the franchise tag, and Jason Pierre-Paul was retained to help with the loss of Carl Nassib, who is off to Las Vegas.

    The team added a likely starter in Antoine Winfield Jr. in the second round. The Bucs were fortunate for him to still be there given he was the fourth safety taken in the second round and NFL Media's second-rated player at the position. Tyler Johnson was one of the most consistently productive players in college football and PFF's second-highest-graded slot receiver in the draft. He could surprisingly do a lot to take over Breshad Perriman's role as the third receiver on the team as a fifth-round pick. 

    Adding a future Hall of Fame inductee at quarterback, nailing the draft and finding a way to keep one of the most productive edge-rushers in the league last season wins the offseason and sets the stage for a fun 2020.

AFC East: Miami Dolphins

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    After an NBA-style tearing down of the roster and tanking for Tua, the Miami Dolphins had to nail the 2020 offseason to make all of the losing in 2019 worth it. On paper, they did just that. 

    The most important thing they did was draft Tua Tagovailoa. Despite the injury concerns and small frame, Tagovailoa was one of the most dynamic quarterbacks in the college ranks in recent memory. Even with the risk of him coming off a serious hip injury, he's worth selecting because of his ceiling. The Dolphins are in a good position to let the Hawaiian sit as long he needs to with veteran Ryan Fitzpatrick on the roster. 

    They also used the draft to start building the future offensive line that will protect their investment. Austin Jackson and Robert Hunt are both projects but will likely battle to be immediate starters and develop on the job. Ted Karras and Ereck Flowers will also join as free-agent additions. Flowers flourished after moving to guard in Washington, and Karras allowed just two sacks on over 1,000 snaps at center, per PFF

    They also added running backs Jordan Howard and Matt Breida to reconstruct a backfield that sorely needed a talent infusion. 

    In a league where teams have to defend the pass more than ever, it's easy to get behind the investment the Dolphins made at cornerback. They were the winners of the Byron Jones sweepstakes and drafted Noah Igbinoghene in the first round. They'll team up with Xavien Howard to create a formidable trio.

    The front seven will have a heavy infusion of veterans to rebuild a defense that was last in sacks (23) and 27th in run-defense DVOA. Kyle Van Noy, Emmanuel Ogbah and Shaq Lawson combined for 18.5 sacks and 26 tackles for loss last season, giving them more disruptive force up front. 

    The 2020 season could still be ugly for the Fins. The offensive line is going to need time to jell, and Tagovailoa may need to wait until that happens before taking the reins. But the Dolphins went from cellar-dweller to team with a distinct direction and future in the offseason, which makes them the biggest winner in the division.

NFC East: Philadelphia Eagles

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    The Eagles are the rare team that both won the division in 2019 and got appreciably better in 2020. 

    Once you look past the fact that Jalen Reagor wasn't expected to go before Justin Jefferson, he actually makes sense as Philadelphia's pick. He didn't put up the gaudy numbers of his LSU counterpart, but he also wasn't in an offense with Joe Burrow, Clyde Edwards-Helaire, Ja'Marr Chase and Thaddeus Moss. Reagor is the kind of athletic receiver with speed to burn the Eagles needed.

    They also drafted John Hightower and traded for Marquise Goodwin, adding speed and depth to a receiving corps that was down to Greg Ward Jr. as its top target by the end of 2019. 

    Selecting Jalen Hurts was certainly a surprise, but with Wentz's history of injuries, the backup quarterback position is extremely important for the Eagles, and he can be used creatively outside of that role. His closest athletic comparable on Mockdraftable is first-round linebacker Patrick Queen, not any quarterback. 

    The defense got better in the secondary and along the line. Trading for Darius Slay gives them a No. 1 corner they can believe in, and Nickell Robey-Coleman was a value in free agency who can be the third corner. Linebacker Davion Taylor and safety K'Von Wallace were drafted in the third and fourth rounds, respectively, and both could play important snaps in 2020.

    The defensive line got better with the signing of Javon Hargrave, who gives them a legitimate nose tackle to pair with Fletcher Cox on the interior. 

    The Cowboys did a good job of retaining Dak Prescott and Amari Cooper and had one of the best drafts, but cap limitations forced them to watch Byron Jones, Maliek Collins and Robert Quinn go on defense. The Redskins continued to rebuild with Chase Young and a talented draft haul and the Giants had a great draft, but the Eagles used both free agency and the draft to target specific shortcomings from last season without letting too much talent walk out the door.

AFC West: Denver Broncos

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    There was a lot to like about the collective offseasons of the AFC West's four teams. So it's one of the toughest divisions to name a decisive winner. 

    The Las Vegas Raiders patched major holes on defense in free agency. Cory Littleton and Nick Kwiatkoski will set that defense in the right direction. The Chargers' win total over/under sits at 8.5 after a five-win season in 2019 and losing Philip Rivers. The Chiefs kept Chris Jones and drafted a pair of starting-caliber players in Clyde Edwards-Helaire and Willie Gay Jr. 

    But the Broncos entered the offseason with one important goal: put as much as they can around Drew Lock to give him a chance to succeed. And they did just that. 

    Lock enters the season with a lot of hype after the team went 4-1 in his five starts to close out the season. It's a small sample size, but he looks like the quarterback of the future. 

    The Broncos signed Melvin Gordon III to pair with Phillip Lindsay and secured Graham Glasgow to solidify the pass protection on the interior. They drafted a future corps of weapons that could be dangerous in the coming years in Jerry Jeudy, K.J. Hamler and Albert Okwuegbunam. Taking interior offensive lineman Lloyd Cushenberry III will help protect Lock as well. 

    On defense, they took advantage of both the Jaguars and Titans looking to dump salary. Acquiring both A.J. Bouye and Jurrell Casey in trades for picks and giving up minimal draft capital allowed them to address their needs on that side of the ball without spending big. They still have $17.7 million left in cap space, per Spotrac, so they aren't cash-strapped and maintain flexibility going forward. 

    In a division with the reigning Super Bowl champions, all three teams did a lot to catch up with the Chiefs, but the Broncos set themselves up to find out if Lock really is the quarterback of the future and improve on their 7-9 campaign from last season.

NFC West: Arizona Cardinals

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    The Arizona Cardinals are the easiest selection on the list. The way they managed the draft and free agency made up serious ground in the ultra-competitive NFC West. 

    The obvious strength is the DeAndre Hopkins trade. Getting out from under David Johnson's onerous contract while only giving up a second-round pick and swapping fourths to acquire one of the game's best receivers was a ridiculous haul. Hopkins should love playing in Kliff Kingsbury's wide-open offense, and he will work wonders for second-year quarterback Kyler Murray. 

    Re-signing D.J. Humphries was the right move. Finding young tackles who can play at a high level is difficult, and he offers stability at one of the tackle spots. Devon Kennard was a consistent pass-rushing presence for Detroit and will now get to line up across from Chandler Jones, who remains one of the most underrated sack-artists in the league. They put the defensive line over the top with Jordan Phillips and his 9.5 sacks in 2019. 

    Then came the draft, and the Cardinals were again one of the big winners. They benefitted from a small fall for do-it-all defender Isaiah Simmons. He has the potential to be a foundational piece on their defense for years to come. They also landed Josh Jones in the third round, giving them a tackle with first-round potential. 

    With the 49ers coming off an NFC championship, the Rams one year removed from a Super Bowl appearance and the Seahawks seemingly playing the role of contender every year despite head-scratching decisions in the offseason, the Cardinals had to have a monster offseason to close the gap. 

    They did just that and will be one of the most exciting teams to watch in 2020.