Ranking the 7 Most Improved Teams of the 2021 NFL Offseason
Classifying winners of the NFL offseason can be an exercise in futility. Too many factors during a season can undermine even the best of offseasons—injuries, a lack of chemistry and poor coaching are only a few.
However, it's still worth digging into which teams may have made the biggest improvements during the 2021 offseason. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers proved a year ago that a strong offseason can lead to a title—even if their case is a unique one.
Offseason dream teams simply don't come together the way the 2020 Buccaneers did very often.
With this in mind, we ranked the seven teams that improved the most during free agency, the draft and the trade market. While we can't predict outright success for every team on this list, we'll dive into the additions and changes that give them opportunities to be better than they were a year ago.
7. New York Giants
Notable Additions: WR Kenny Golladay, CB Adoree' Jackson, RB Devontae Booker, TE Kyle Rudolph, WR Kadarius Toney, Edge Azeez Ojulari
The New York Giants still don't know what they have in quarterback Daniel Jones. The Duke product passed for 24 touchdowns with 12 interceptions as a rookie but took a significant step back in year two. He tossed 11 touchdowns with 10 interceptions and had a passer rating of only 80.4.
New York's offseason has mostly been about supporting Jones. Adding veteran receiver Kenny Golladay should give Jones the No. 1 target he has lacked. Kyle Rudolph will complement Evan Engram at tight end, while rookie Kadarius Toney can add some wrinkles to the offense as a gadget player.
With Golladay, Rudolph and Toney in the fold, Jones should have a quality perimeter target, another reliable mid-level target and a weapon who can turn bubble screens and swing passes into big plays. That could be huge as running back Saquon Barkley continues to make his way back from a torn ACL; he could miss two to six weeks of the regular season, according to The Athletic's Virginia Zakas.
The addition of running back Devontae Booker shouldn't be overlooked either. He can help carry the load early, spell Barkley once he returns and help keep the former Penn State superstar healthy.
New players such as Adoree' Jackson and Azeez Ojulari should bolster a defense that ranked 12th overall in 2020. Jackson has 41 games of starting experience. Ojulari, while a rookie, should boost a pass rush that was reliant on defensive lineman Leonard Williams last season—no other player logged more than four sacks.
However, the biggest improvement came in the offensive supporting cast New York has put around Jones.
6. Jacksonville Jaguars
Notable Additions: QB Trevor Lawrence, RB Travis Etienne Jr., CB Shaquill Griffin, WR Marvin Jones Jr., DT Roy Robertson-Harris
The Jacksonville Jaguars made this list virtually by default. While one team has followed up a one-win season by being worse—see the 2016-17 Cleveland Browns—Jacksonville has nowhere to go but up.
Landing Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence might have been enough to deliver a multiwin improvement. While unproven, he has the potential to be the Jaguars' long-coveted franchise quarterback.
"Lawrence is living up to the hype he received as the top high school quarterback in the country and looks like a Week 1 franchise quarterback with the upside to win multiple MVPs, and only injuries or an incompetent franchise will put him on a path toward failure," Nate Tice of the B/R NFL scouting department wrote.
Jacksonville doesn't have the best track record of drafting, and head coach Urban Meyer has no NFL coaching experience, so early expectations for Lawrence may need to be tempered. One could argue, however, that his floor gives the Jags the best quarterbacking situation they've had in years.
Jacksonville also drafted Lawrence's teammate Travis Etienne Jr., and he and Marvin Jones Jr. should add punch to the offense. Defensive additions Shaquill Griffin and Roy Robertson-Harris should help turn around a unit that ranked 31st last season.
Griffin isn't an elite cornerback, but he was a Pro Bowler in 2019. Robertson-Harris had 2.5 sacks and 16 quarterback pressures two seasons ago and should strengthen a pass rush that logged only 18 sacks in 2020.
The Jaguars should be better on both sides of the ball—particularly on offense—and may get themselves out of the AFC South basement this season.
5. Cincinnati Bengals
Notable Additions: OT Riley Reiff, DT Larry Ogunjobi, Edge Trey Hendrickson, CB Eli Apple, WR Ja'Marr Chase, G Jackson Carman
The Cincinnati Bengals won only four games last year, but quarterback Joe Burrow showed glimpses of what he can be. The 2020 No. 1 pick out of LSU passed for 2,688 yards with 13 touchdowns and five interceptions in 10 games before suffering a torn ACL and MCL in his left knee.
Cincinnati made a couple of moves to help protect Burrow by signing right tackle Riley Reiff and drafting guard Jackson Carman. However, Burrow's biggest new asset may be former college teammate Ja'Marr Chase, who Cincinnati selected fifth in the draft. The two have preexisting chemistry, and Chase can change what the Bengals do.
"It's not just the Chase-Burrow connection that will be fun to track," The Athletic's Jay Morrison wrote. "It's how much [head coach Zac] Taylor and [offensive coordinator] Brian Callahan will move him around."
Chase's ability to create mismatches from multiple spots in the formation will keep defenses off-balance and help open things up for the likes of Tee Higgins, Tyler Boyd and Joe Mixon in the passing game.
Cincinnati also made notable additions to its 26th-ranked defense, which should alleviate some of the pressure on Burrow. Larry Ogunjobi is a terrific run-stuffer from the defensive interior—he has logged 180 tackles in four seasons—while Trey Hendrickson is coming off a campaign with 13.5 sacks and 33 quarterback pressures.
The Bengals ranked 29th against the run last season and logged a mere 17 sacks.
While the Bengals may not be a playoff team, they have improved enough to give Burrow a shot at development.
4. Washington Football Team
Notable Additions: QB Ryan Fitzpatrick, WR Curtis Samuel, WR Dyami Brown, CB William Jackson III, OT Charles Leno Jr., LB Jamin Davis
The Washington Football Team had just seven victories in 2020, but it did win the NFC East. An improved passing attack—Washington ranked 25th in passing yards last season—could be enough to make the Football Team a formidable playoff force.
And Washington should have a vastly improved passing offense. Ryan Fitzpatrick has never established himself as a franchise quarterback, but he's a quality journeyman who helped the Miami Dolphins reach 10 wins a year ago.
As a collective, Washington's quarterbacks averaged 6.3 yards per pass attempt in 2020. Fitzpatrick averaged 7.8 yards per attempt last season and has posted 6.9 yards per pass for his career. He has the proven arm talent needed for the Football Team to better push the ball down the field.
Fitzpatrick will be joined by wideout Curtis Samuel, who played for coach Ron Rivera and offensive coordinator Scott Turner with the Carolina Panthers. Washington further bolstered its receiving corps by drafting Dyami Brown in the third round.
Defensive additions Jamin Davis and William Jackson III will help a defense that was already elite in 2020. Washington ranked second in total defense and fourth in scoring defense. Jackson is a proven starter who allowed an opposing passer rating of only 88.2 last season. Davis is a first-round talent who is impressing in camp.
"Jamin stood out right away," Rivera said, per Nicki Jhabvala of the Washington Post.
Washington's defense could be the league's best unit this year, and with a more potent offense, the Football Team could be poised to repeat as NFC East champs.
3. Cleveland Browns
Notable Additions: S John Johnson III, CB Troy Hill, Edge Jadeveon Clowney, Edge Takkarist McKinley, LB Anthony Walker, CB Greg Newsome II, LB Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah
The Cleveland Browns were an 11-win squad in 2020, so their improvement may be more about quality of play than quantity of wins. Cleveland reached the divisional playoffs despite a defense that ranked 17th overall and 21st in points allowed.
The Browns focused almost exclusively on remaking their defense this offseason.
Safety John Johnson III will provide a playmaker on the back end, while Troy Hill and rookie Greg Newsome II will bolster the team's cornerback depth. Linebackers Anthony Walker and Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, a second-round pick, should help remake the second level, while Jadeveon Clowney and Takkarist McKinley will boost the pass rush.
Johnson and Hill are proven playmakers in the secondary who combined for 182 tackles, 18 passes defended and two touchdowns last season. Clowney and McKinley can rotate to provide a strong bookend presence opposite All-Pro Myles Garrett.
With bona fide defensive playmakers in Garrett and Denzel Ward already on the roster, Cleveland could have a championship-caliber defense.
That would be a huge development for a team that has the offensive pieces to go toe-to-toe with any foe. Cleveland had the league's third-ranked rushing attack last season and a quarterback in Baker Mayfield who was graded second-best in the NFL from Week 7 through the playoffs by Pro Football Focus.
The Browns might not dramatically improve their win total, but they should be a factor into late January or even February.
2. New England Patriots
Notable Additions: QB Mac Jones, Edge Matt Judon, TE Hunter Henry, TE Jonnu Smith, WR Nelson Agholor, LB Kyle Van Noy, WR Kendrick Bourne, DT Christian Barmore
The New England Patriots may deserve bonus points for their volume approach to free agency. They overhauled their pass-catching corps by adding Hunter Henry, Jonnu Smith, Nelson Agholor and Kendrick Bourne.
Should Cam Newton remain the starting quarterback, he will have a much better supporting cast than he had in 2020 when New England ranked 30th in passing yards.
The Patriots' receiving corps was beyond lackluster in 2020. Only two pass-catchers—Jakobi Meyers and Damiere Byrd—topped 500 receiving yards, and none reached the 750-yard mark. Byrd left in free agency, but Henry, Smith, Agholor and Bourne combined for 2,624 receiving yards last season. New England's new receiving corps may not be elite, but it should be markedly better.
Of course, Newton is likely to face competition from No. 15 pick Mac Jones. That should yield a better situation behind center too.
Defensively, the Patriots were solid in 2020, ranking seventh in points allowed. And additions Matt Judon, Kyle Van Noy and second-round pick Christian Barmore—along with the return of Dont'a Hightower following his 2020 opt-out—could give New England a borderline elite unit.
A lot will hinge on what the Patriots get out of their quarterback, but it shouldn't be a surprise if New England is back in the playoff mix.
1. New York Jets
Notable Additions: QB Zach Wilson, G Alijah Vera-Tucker, WR Corey Davis, WR Elijah Moore, RB Michael Carter, Edge Carl Lawson, DT Sheldon Rankins, S Lamarcus Joyner, LB Jarrad Davis, RB Tevin Coleman
The New York Jets may have overhauled their franchise more than any other this offseason. They started by bringing in the respected duo of head coach Robert Saleh and offensive coordinator Mike LaFleur, both of whom helped the San Francisco 49ers reach the Super Bowl two years ago.
The Jets also landed their new franchise quarterback in BYU's Zach Wilson. Like Trevor Lawrence, Wilson is unproven. Also like Lawrence, he appears to be a future star.
"Wilson is a legit franchise QB prospect who will add excitement and explosive plays to whatever offense he joins but might take some time to adjust to what he can—and can't—get away with at the NFL level," B/R NFL scout Nate Tice wrote.
Wilson will be joined by Alijah Vera-Tucker, Corey Davis, Michael Carter, Tevin Coleman and Elijah Moore. Vera-Tucker should help upgrade the line, while Carter and Coleman could form a solid duo in the backfield. Davis is coming off a 984-yard receiving campaign, and Moore had 1,193 receiving yards at Mississippi last season.
If Wilson can make a quick transition to the NFL—and the rest of the newcomers can jell—the Jets may feature their most potent offense in years.
New York also took steps to improve its 24th-ranked defense, adding Sheldon Rankins, Lamarcus Joyner and Carl Lawson. Lawson, who had 44 quarterback pressures in 2020, could be a potent addition to a defense that had only 31 sacks last year.
While the Jets may not contend for a playoff spot, a five- or six-win improvement is not out of the question.
Advanced statistics from Pro Football Reference unless otherwise noted.