The Most Improved Teams of the 2021 NFL Offseason
The whirlwind of NFL free agency and the draft have finally begun to wind down, and in this quiet time before offseason training activities and training camps, we are left with only our thoughts about how our teams fared through it all.
It was once again a strange NFL offseason affected by COVID-19; contracts were affected by the loss of revenue from the 2020 season and the salary cap of $182.5 million, down from $198.2 million in 2020. Once again, the annual scouting combine was canceled due to the pandemic, though teams were able to reap the benefits of players participating in their schools’ pro days and conduct interviews virtually.
There were a few splashy free agencies, including the New England Patriots, who spent almost as much in two days as they had in the previous 10 years. (More on that coming up.) There were also some head-scratching moves, such as the Oakland Raiders essentially disassembling their entire offensive line.
The NFL draft introduced a few generational players into the league, from quarterback Trevor Lawrence to tight end Kyle Pitts.
Let’s take a look at the league’s five teams who, through their savvy moves in both free agency and the draft, set themselves up for an improved 2021 campaign. For some, that may mean rising out of the basement. For others who were already contenders, it may mean the difference between sitting home in January and coming home with a Lombardi Trophy.
Major Additions: QB Trevor Lawrence (first-round pick), RB Travis Etienne (first-round pick), CB Shaquill Griffin, DT Roy Robertson-Harris, WR Marvin Jones Jr., DB Tyson Campbell (second-round pick), WR Phillip Dorsett, RB Carlos Hyde, S Rayshawn Jenkins, TE Chris Manhertz, Edge Jihad Ward, DT Tyson Alualu, DT Malcom Brown (trade)
Look, when you’re holding two first-round picks—two picks inside the top 25, in fact—heading into the draft, it would be hard to do something to mess it up enough that you’d get left off a “most improved” list during the offseason.
But not only did the Jacksonville Jaguars merely avoid screwing up in the first round of the 2021 NFL Draft—they knocked it out of the park, selecting generational quarterback Trevor Lawrence at No. 1 overall and coming back for running back Travis Etienne at No. 25 overall.
The Jaguars’ selections later in the draft didn’t make quite as much of an impression as their first round, but it was nevertheless enough to get them off to the races. Combined with a fantastic free-agency period, the Jaguars, who went 1-15 in 2020, have put the AFC on notice.
In addition to being blessed with two first-round draft selections, the Jaguars had cash to burn in free agency.
Shaquill Griffin was brought in to help turn around a pass defense that gave up the third-most passing touchdowns in the league in 2020. But where Urban Meyer seemed to want to upgrade his team was up front. That’s no surprise, given that the Jaguars were ranked 27th in the league in 2020 in run defense. Signing Roy Robertson-Harris, Tyson Alualu, Jihad Ward and Malcom Brown should get the Jags closer to where they want to be.
On offense, Lawrence and Etienne join free-agent signings Phillip Dorsett and Marvin Jones Jr., who provide the passing offense with a veteran balance as DJ Chark Jr. and Laviska Shenault Jr. continue to develop.
Overall, the Jaguars should improve in multiple categories on both sides of the ball thanks to their offseason moves. Some might argue that it would be hard for them to do as badly as they did in 2020 again, but it’s not wild at all to think this team could go from 1-15 to the playoffs in the span of one season.
New England Patriots
Major Additions: EDGE Matthew Judon, QB Mac Jones (first-round pick), OT Trent Brown (trade), TE Jonnu Smith, TE Hunter Henry, DT Davon Godchaux, DB Jalen Mills, WR Nelson Agholor, WR Kendrick Bourne, DT Henry Anderson, DL Christian Barmore (second-round pick), DE Ronnie Perkins (third-round pick)
Bill Belichick was one busy man this offseason. The New England Patriots seemed to ascribe to the theory this offseason that spending the most in free agency would yield the greatest possible chance of improving the team, and they may not be wrong. Given Belichick’s savvy free-agency moves over his career, we have little reason to doubt his strategy this offseason.
However, even though Belichick has displayed a keen sense for when to bring players in and when to let them walk, the Patriots have never dipped their toes this far into the water. The Patriots spent a whopping $227.5 million in the first two days of free agency, per Warren Sharp. They’d spent $359.9 million in all in the previous 10 years.
New England made major upgrades on both sides of the ball. On offense, of course, they have their potential new franchise quarterback in Mac Jones. But Cam Newton still has a one-year deal, and he will benefit from the addition of Jonnu Smith and Hunter Henry, as well as wideouts Nelson Agholor and Kendrick Bourne. Trading for Trent Brown should hopefully bring it all together.
On defense, the Patriots made big moves in free agency and then supplemented them during the draft. Edge-rusher Matthew Judon set them back $54.5 million for four years, per Spotrac, but provides an instant upgrade. Drafting Alabama defensive tackle Christian Barmore at No. 38 overall and Oklahoma edge-rusher Ronnie Perkins at No. 96 overall represented the savvy draft value we’ve come to expect from Belichick.
What’s more, Dont’a Hightower will return in 2021 after opting out of the 2020 season due to COVID-19.
It was shocking to see the Patriots miss the playoffs for the first time since 2008 last season. New England’s offseason moves send a clear message that the team does not expect that to be the case again in 2021.
New York Jets
Major Additions: QB Zach Wilson (first-round pick), OL Alijah Vera-Tucker (first-round pick), Edge Carl Lawson, WR Corey Davis, WR Elijah Moore (second-round pick), LB Jarrad Davis, RB Michael Carter (fourth-round pick)
After the New York Jets went 2-14 in 2020, their worst record since 1996, their offseason to-do list became enormous. With free agency and the draft in the rearview mirror, it's hard to say whether the Jets would be able to actually contend in 2021, but there's no question whatsoever they're putting out a vastly improved team from last season.
New York's biggest decision this offseason was always going to be which quarterback it selected with the No. 2 overall pick. And it's not like the Jets didn't have months to mull this over, as it was clear from day one the Jaguars had written Trevor Lawrence's name on their draft board in Sharpie. Ultimately, the Jets went with Brigham Young's Zach Wilson over Trey Lance, Justin Fields or Mac Jones.
We won't know for a couple years how that decision will pan out, but for now, we assume the Jets got their guy and are building the rest of their team accordingly. Wilson will likely start right away, as Sam Darnold is now suiting up for the Carolina Panthers. And he'll have two new weapons in rookie Elijah Moore and free-agent signing Corey Davis, as well as some protection with interior lineman Alijah Vera-Tucker.
On the other side of the ball, Carl Lawson helps boost a front seven anchored by Quinnen Williams.
The new additions at key spots make the Jets a bit of a "wait and see team," but we can confidently assume they won't be finishing at 2-14 again in 2021.
Major Additions: Edge J.J. Watt, WR A.J. Green, C Rodney Hudson (trade), LB Zaven Collins (first-round pick), WR Rondale Moore (second-round pick)
Last offseason, the Arizona Cardinals went out and fleeced the Houston Texans in obtaining wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins.
This year, they arguably did it again by landing J.J. Watt in free agency after the Texans cut him.
Arizona’s 8-8 record in 2020 was truly middling; not great, not terrible. But in a division as stacked as the NFC West, going .500 isn’t going to cut it if you want to be a postseason team, and the Cardinals did as much as they could this offseason to get over that hump.
A.J. Green isn’t the top wideout he once was, but he will bring a valuable veteran presence to the offense as Kyler Murray continues to find his way, especially if this is the offseason Larry Fitzgerald decides to hang up the cleats. On the flip side, Arizona also added an infusion of youth with Rondale Moore, who in our scouting report we called an "explosive WR who can be utilized as a weapon across the formation," in the second round of the draft.
Arizona also made the savvy move to take advantage of the Las Vegas Raiders’ confusing and seemingly pointless fire sale on offensive line, signing Rodney Hudson, who will hopefully be the glue that brings the rest of these pieces together.
Kansas City Chiefs
Major Additions: OG Joe Thuney, OT Orlando Brown (trade), OG Kyle Long, DT Jarran Reed, LB Nick Bolton (second-round pick), OL Creed Humphrey (second-round pick)
Is it possible to make a case that a team that went to the Super Bowl in February is "most improved" after free agency and the draft?
The Chiefs were, clearly, already in much better shape heading into this offseason than the majority of teams in the league. However, if just a handful of key signings (spoiler alert: mostly along the offensive line) means the difference between losing to the wild-card Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the Super Bowl and returning to win it in 2022, then the degree of improvement doesn't matter as much as the outcome.
Indeed, the Chiefs threw as much money and resources at the offensive line as they could this offseason after it proved to the whole world in primetime that it could not stand up to the Bucs front seven in the Super Bowl. When you have a once-in-a-generation talent like Patrick Mahomes, you are essentially obligated to give him the best offensive line possible. The Chiefs proved they know that in a big way with Joe Thuney's five-year, $80-million dollar contract.
And though they were known to be in the Trent Williams market, ultimately that deal not working out allowed the Chiefs to sign defensive tackle Jarran Reed and improve on the other side of the ball as well.
Kansas City also took a flier on two potential new weapons for Mahomes in fifth-round tight end Noah Gray and wide receiver Cornell Powell.
Mahomes and Co. didn't need much to have the best chance possible to return to the Super Bowl this season. General manager Brett Veach made sure he got it.