Each NFL Division's Biggest 2021 Offseason Winner
Every offseason, one team goes above and beyond to build a strong roster for the upcoming campaign and the long-term future.
Clubs that make the right moves between February and May don't always end up in the thick of a playoff run, but we must acknowledge the urgency to field a contender via trades, free-agent pickups, re-signings and draft picks.
While trades that involved quarterbacks grabbed headlines, some general managers invested heavily in the supporting cast around the team's offensive centerpiece. A high-level signal-caller can take a club only so far without a solid offensive line and playmakers around him.
After a look at all of the roster transactions over the past few months, we crowned an offseason winner for each division.
The qualifications measure how well a front office addressed roster needs, the projected impact of these recent acquisitions and the outlook of the franchise beyond the 2021 season. Every team listed below is set up for significant improvement in the near future.
AFC East: New England Patriots
The New England Patriots went on a spending spree in free agency. They used their resources to improve a bottom-tier offense that ranked 27th in yards and points last season.
Quarterback Cam Newton may have a big grin on his face at training camp. He has a new lead wideout in Nelson Agholor, who recorded career highs with 896 receiving yards and 18.7 yards per catch in 2020. Hunter Henry and Jonnu Smith are a formidable tight end duo. In addition, the Patriots executed a trade with the Las Vegas Raiders to acquire Pro Bowl right tackle Trent Brown.
New England strengthened its top-10 scoring defense as well. It added edge-rusher Matt Judon and linebacker Kyle Van Noy, who's familiar with the team, and it selected pass-rushing defensive tackle Christian Barmore in the second round of the draft.
In case Newton continues to struggle with the help around him, the Patriots can take a look at their future starting quarterback, Mac Jones. The front office built a team ready to contend with either under center.
The New York Jets put together a strong 2021 draft class, though they didn't use premium resources to improve a porous pass defense that ranked 28th in 2020. Gang Green needs veteran help on the back end. Instead, the team added middle-to-late round defensive backs to address its weakest position group.
The Miami Dolphins jettisoned two defensive team captains in Van Noy and defensive back Bobby McCain, which may have an adverse effect on the unit's performance.
Coming off an AFC Championship appearance, the Buffalo Bills didn't need to move the needle in the offseason. They drafted defensive ends Gregory Rousseau and Carlos "Boogie" Basham to bolster their pass rush, but that doesn't compare to the Patriots' potential improvement at multiple positions.
AFC North: Cleveland Browns
The Cleveland Browns get the nod because the front office went all-in to fix the defense.
The Browns signed safety John Johnson III, defensive end Jadeveon Clowney and slot defender Troy Hill. They selected cornerback Greg Newsome II in the first round. He'll push for a starting role as Greedy Williams comes off a lost season because of a shoulder injury. Rookie second-rounder Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah projects as a versatile chesspiece.
With all of those acquisitions, the Browns defense, which ranked 21st in scoring last season, should improve significantly in 2021.
The Cincinnati Bengals may make a mistake with their second-round pick. According to The Athletic's Jay Morrison, Cincinnati will move Jackson Carman to guard after he played most of his snaps at left tackle as a collegian.
The Bengals could have added a natural guard later in the draft and selected a prospect who ranked higher than fourth-rounder D'Ante Smith on their big board. The team needs a high-potential backup option at right tackle behind Riley Reiff, who signed a one-year deal.
The Pittsburgh Steelers lost three offensive linemen this offseason in guard Matt Feiler, center Maurkice Pouncey and tackle Alejandro Villanueva. They didn't land a top free agent to compensate for the loss of the starting experience up front, which raises some concerns. The front office waited until the third round to address the position group.
The Baltimore Ravens patched up their offensive line following the departure of tackle Orlando Brown Jr. via trade. They signed Villanueva to replace the two-time Pro Bowler and added guard Kevin Zeitler, who brings a strong veteran presence as a run-blocker.
Yet the team took a big swing with edge-rusher Odafe Oweh, a raw talent out of Penn State. The No. 31 overall pick has big cleats to fill following the loss of Matt Judon via free agency. Baltimore's defense needs a proven pass-rusher.
AFC South: Jacksonville Jaguars
The Jacksonville Jaguars had an inside track to win this division because everyone knew they would take one of the most accomplished quarterbacks to come out of the collegiate ranks in recent years.
Through three terms at Clemson, Trevor Lawrence made some throws that we often see on the pro level. He can adjust to coverages pre-snap and reads defenses with his eyes downfield. The 6'6", 213-pound signal-caller also has the accuracy and athleticism that makes him a threat inside and outside of the pocket.
Furthermore, Jacksonville bolstered the front and back ends of its defense, which is a practical approach considering the team ranked 27th versus passing attacks and 30th against the run in 2020.
Rookie fourth-rounder Jay Tufele and seventh-year veteran Malcom Brown can plug holes on running downs. The Jaguars could have a stifling secondary with the addition of cornerback Shaquill Griffin, safety Rayshawn Jenkins, rookie second-rounder Tyson Campbell in the slot and ball-hawking safety Andre Cisco.
The Indianapolis Colts come in a close second because they landed quarterback Carson Wentz in a trade deal with the Philadelphia Eagles. He can hit the restart button after throwing for 16 touchdowns and 15 interceptions last year.
However, the Colts may not re-sign Justin Houston. They drafted Kwity Paye and Dayo Odeyingbo in the first and second rounds, respectively. The former only logged 11.5 sacks through four collegiate terms, and the latter is recovering from a torn Achilles. That's not ideal.
The Tennessee Titans signed three probable starters for their defense in edge-rusher Bud Dupree, defensive lineman Denico Autry and cornerback Janoris Jenkins. However, rookie cornerback Caleb Farley's recent back surgery raises some concerns. Secondly, with him on board, the coaching staff must figure out where Kristian Fulton fits in the secondary.
The Houston Texans didn't have the premium draft capital to select a top quarterback prospect when they needed one. Deshaun Watson's NFL future is uncertain after 22 lawsuits were filed against him by women alleging sexual assault and misconduct. Tyrod Taylor will likely start since rookie third-rounder Davis Mills has limited playing experience at Stanford. This team may struggle to win four games in 2021.
AFC West: Los Angeles Chargers
The Los Angeles Chargers made notable moves on both sides of the ball.
First, the team hired Brandon Staley for its head-coaching position. As the Los Angeles Rams defensive coordinator, he fielded the top unit in points and yards allowed in 2020.
Between free agency and the draft, the Chargers made a concerted effort to protect quarterback Justin Herbert. They signed All-Pro center Corey Linsley and versatile offensive lineman Matt Feiler, who can play guard or tackle. Los Angeles landed tackle Rashawn Slater with its first-round pick.
On top of that, Herbert will have a safety blanket in tight end Jared Cook, who's caught 16 touchdown passes since 2019.
The Kansas City Chiefs barely missed out on the offseason division crown. They also revamped their offensive line, trading for two-time Pro Bowl tackle Orlando Brown Jr. and signing guard Joe Thuney. Austin Blythe may have a competition with rookie second-rounder Creed Humphrey for the starting spot at center.
On the flip side, the Chiefs have questionable depth behind defensive end Frank Clark. The defense could struggle to generate consistent pressure on the edge.
Meanwhile, the Las Vegas Raiders traded three starting offensive linemen. Although Trent Brown missed half of his games with the Silver and Black, the front five will lose continuity with the departure of center Rodney Hudson and Gabe Jackson. In addition, quarterback Derek Carr lost his lead receiver, Nelson Agholor, to the Patriots in free agency.
The Denver Broncos acquired quarterback Teddy Bridgewater from the Carolina Panthers. Now, they have an open competition at the position. That's not ideal for head coach Vic Fangio, who may be on the hot seat with a 12-20 record over two seasons.
NFC East: New York Giants
This offseason, general manager Dave Gettleman deserves an "A" for providing quarterback Daniel Jones with the weapons he needs to make a third-year leap and filling a void on a top-10 scoring defense. The New York Giants appear to have a complete squad.
Gettleman signed Kenny Golladay, who's a go-to receiver, and drafted wideout Kadarius Toney. They'll join Darius Slayton, Sterling Shepard and Evan Engram as one of the league's top pass-catching groups.
While Toney may not have a big impact with so much talent at his position, the Giants needed more offensive firepower. Running back Saquon Barkley's return from a torn ACL should help, but he's missed 17 games over the last two years. If the third-year tailback goes down again, Jones should be able to move the ball through the air.
In 2020, Big Blue fielded the ninth-ranked scoring defense, but aside from Leonard Williams, the unit struggled to generate pocket pressure. Rookie second-rounder Azeez Ojulari could make an immediate impact in that area. He's a fluid athlete who has shown a natural ability to bend around the pocket. He logged 9.5 sacks in his final collegiate term at Georgia.
The Dallas Cowboys should've made a stronger move to acquire a proven pass-rusher or a top prospect to line up opposite DeMarcus Lawrence. Since 2015, Randy Gregory has played in just 38 games because of multiple suspensions. Rookie third-rounder Chauncey Golston logged modest pass-rushing numbers at Iowa with 12 sacks through four terms.
The Philadelphia Eagles didn't address their need at cornerback until the fourth round, selecting Zech McPhearson. That's risky because Darius Slay struggled last season, allowing a 76.7 percent completion rate and a 111.9 passer rating. Avonte Maddox had some coverage issues as well, giving up a 67.3 percent completion rate and a 108.3 passer rating.
Quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick is the projected starter for the Washington Football Team. He's never led a squad to the playoffs in his 16-year career. Kyle Allen or Taylor Heinicke could replace him, but the front office should've selected a Day 2 prospect such as Kyle Trask, Kellen Mond or Davis Mills to groom for the future.
NFC North: Detroit Lions
Detroit Lions general manager Brad Holmes deserves more praise this offseason.
Although Holmes dealt quarterback Matthew Stafford, he acquired Jared Goff and two future first-round picks along with a third-rounder, which the team used to select cornerback Ifeatu Melifonwu. The Lions can win plenty of games with their new signal-caller who's played in a Super Bowl and put together back-to-back Pro Bowl seasons. The premium picks will allow Detroit to pivot at the position if necessary.
The Lions strengthened both sides of their front lines. As arguably the best tackle in the 2021 draft, Penei Sewell should make an immediate impact. On Day 2, Detroit selected defensive tackles Levi Onwuzurike and Alim McNeill. Neither pick draws a ton of excitement, but this team can beat its opponents in the trenches as a tough competitive squad in 2021.
Although the Chicago Bears made one of the biggest draft-day splashes with a move up for quarterback Justin Fields, they have major question marks in other areas. The team cut offensive tackles Bobby Massie and Charles Leno Jr. Rookie second-rounder Teven Jenkins, who played mostly right tackle at Oklahoma State, will move to the left side.
The Bears need to resolve a contract situation with Allen Robinson II, whom the team franchise-tagged this offseason. Without a long-term deal, the star wideout could walk away in 2022, per The Athletic's Kevin Fishbain.
The Minnesota Vikings signed cornerback Patrick Peterson. He's going to land on the wrong side of 30 years old in July, and his Pro Bowl campaigns may be behind him. The club also signed safety Xavier Woods, who recorded one pass breakup and zero interceptions through 15 outings last season. In April, cornerback Jeff Gladney was charged with third-degree felony family assault and faces two to 10 years in prison if convicted.
In 2020, the Vikings' pass defense ranked 25th, and it may not improve much this year.
NFC South: Tampa Bay Buccaneers
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers kept the core of their Super Bowl roster together thanks in part to quarterback Tom Brady.
According to NFL Network's Ian Rapoport, Brady reworked his contract, which gave the team more cap flexibility. The Buccaneers franchise-tagged wideout Chris Godwin. They re-signed edge-rusher Shaquil Barrett, wideout Antonio Brown, tight end Rob Gronkowski, running back Leonard Fournette and defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh. The club also added dual-threat tailback Giovani Bernard.
With continuity across the roster, the Buccaneers could win back-to-back titles.
The Carolina Panthers acquired quarterback Sam Darnold from the New York Jets, which is a move that could propel this club into contention or set it back a couple of years. If the fourth-year signal-caller doesn't show improvement, the Panthers may start to wonder what would be if they took Justin Fields instead of cornerback Jaycee Horn with the eighth pick, especially if the Ohio State product plays well in Chicago.
The New Orleans Saints have an open quarterback competition between Jameis Winston and Taysom Hill to replace Drew Brees. They selected Ian Book in the fourth round, but he's not a viable competitor in the battle yet. The Saints lost key starters in cornerback Janoris Jenkins (cost-cutting release) and Trey Hendrickson, their 2020 sack leader (free agency). This team may take a slight step back in 2021.
The Atlanta Falcons should field an electric offense with quarterback Matt Ryan and his plethora of offensive weapons, which include Julio Jones (if he's not traded), Calvin Ridley, Russell Gage, Kyle Pitts and Hayden Hurst. The big question is: Who's going to bring consistent pocket pressure? In 2020, linebacker Deion Jones led the team in sacks with 4.5. Yet Atlanta didn't make any notable veteran additions on the edge.
NFC West: Arizona Cardinals
The Arizona Cardinals used their cap space to load up on veteran talent, which shows a win-now approach.
They signed defensive lineman J.J. Watt, cornerback Malcolm Butler and wideout A.J. Green. They also acquired center Rodney Hudson from the Las Vegas Raiders. Although these players are 31 years or older, Arizona could plug all of them into starting roles. Recently, Green's receiving numbers have dropped, but he's still an upgrade over Larry Fitzgerald, who may retire this offseason.
As the Cardinals' general manager, Steve Keim has gone through five consecutive non-winning seasons. Perhaps he's feeling some pressure, though his team seems primed to contend for a playoff spot if his veteran acquisitions can stay healthy.
The Los Angeles Rams made a blockbuster move for quarterback Matthew Stafford, who isn't a significant upgrade over Jared Goff in terms of passing efficiency. They have identical interception rates (2.3) for their careers. Goff has a better completion percentage. Secondly, in 2019, Stafford missed eight contests because of hip and back injuries and played through multiple ailments last year. He's a high-risk acquisition at an expensive price.
In recent seasons, the Seattle Seahawks offense has performed at its best when the team runs the ball efficiently. Last year, the unit ranked 12th in yards on the ground. This club needs another veteran in the backfield. In 2020, running back Chris Carson sat out four games with a foot injury. His backup, Rashaad Penny, has missed 21 games in three seasons.
The San Francisco 49ers should add a solid veteran cornerback to shore up the secondary. According to Chris Biderman of the Sacramento Bee, the team had discussions about re-signing Richard Sherman.
Although Sherman is familiar with the 49ers, he allowed a 72.4 percent completion rate and a 116.2 passer rating. If Jason Verrett goes down with an injury, which has happened frequently in the past, San Francisco needs a better fill-in option than Sherman and an unproven rookie third-rounder in Ambry Thomas.