|Hoping to improve a defense that ranked 31st in 2011, the Pats drafted Chandler Jones (left) and Dont'a Hightower.|
The draft is over. So is free agency, for the most part. (Sorry, Chad.) Minicamps and OTAs will wrap up by the end of the month. With much of the offseason in the rearview, it's time to take a look back and ask a simple question: Which team has improved the most this offseason?
Patriots took care of business in the draft and free agencySeveral teams made solid additions in free agency, including Kansas City (Eric Winston, Peyton Hillis, Stanford Routt and Kevin Boss), Denver (Peyton Manning) and Buffalo (Mario Williams). And a number of teams cleaned up in the draft (Cincinnati and Philadelphia, to name a couple). But it looks like New England might've big-footed everyone in both areas. The rich got much richer.
With its first two picks in April's draft, New England nabbed a pair of athletic, play-making, front-seven defenders in Chandler Jones and Dont'a Hightower. Both could be immediate-impact guys, even if they're in situational roles. In free agency, the Pats' biggest splashes were re-signing WR Wes Welker (via the franchise tag) and securing Rob Gronkowski long term with an extension. They also made some subtle -- but potentially rewarding -- free-agent acquisitions in WR Brandon Lloyd, RB Joseph Addai, DT/DE Jonathan Fanene and TE Daniel Fells.
Most of the players the Patriots added are smart guys who have no problem playing roles, which is huge in New England's environment.
Bengals continue to build promising roster through the draftMike Brown may never be considered an elite GM, but his Bengals are on a nice little run. No, they didn't break the bank in free agency. But they kept their on-the-fly rebuild going in impressive fashion.
First, logic says that Andy Dalton and A.J. Green are going to improve from Year 1 to Year 2. Ditto for offensive coordinator Jay Gruden, who pairs with Mike Zimmer to form what's fast becoming one of the strongest coordinator combinations in the league. And on defense, there's the hope they'll get back Leon Hall, one of the league's better young corners before tearing his Achilles last November.
And then there's the draft, where they used capital built in the Carson Palmer trade to compile what looks like a very strong group on paper. Dre Kirkpatrick helps at corner. They swooped in at 27 to take a player division rival Baltimore wanted: guard Kevin Zeitler. Then they took three players in the second and third rounds who were considered steals at their draft slots: defensive tackles Devon Still and Brandon Thompson and receiver Mohamed Sanu.
Does this mean they're going to improve markedly from their 9-7 mark of last fall? Not necessarily. The AFC North's a rugged place to do business. But remember, the last two times Marvin Lewis' crew made the playoffs (2005, 2009), there was a significant drop-off the next year. It seems like this time around the Bengals have done all they can to prevent that from happening again.
It's a passing league, and the Bills definitely took this to heartIt's a battle to win any game in the AFC East, and that's especially the case for the division's have-nots. But the Bills are in position to compete in the division now, thanks to a stellar offseason.
It's a passing league and it's a passing division -- the Patriots have shown that year after year. So, the Bills invested in players and coaches to set themselves up for it. Buffalo signed high-priced pass rusher Mario Williams, who figures to make life difficult for Tom Brady, Mark Sanchez and whoever the Dolphins start. Williams' pressure will make life easier for first-round cornerback Stephon Gilmore, who is Day 1-ready.
And don't forget the under-the-radar hire of quarterbacks coach David Lee. He's a hard-nosed passing mechanic who should fix what ailed quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick in the second half of last season. No one addressed their weaknesses like Buffalo. They are in a better position than the Jets to earn the Wild Card.
After horrendous 2011 campaign, Bucs successfully executed an extreme makeoverThe one team that has improved the most this offseason is the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. After a disastrous 2011 season, they have made several impactful moves to improve their squad.
First of all, they hired a very discipline-oriented head coach in Greg Schiano. Then they were extremely aggressive in free agency, bringing in premier players like WR Vincent Jackson and OG Carl Nicks. Finally, they hit a home run in April's draft. Safety Mark Barron and RB Doug Martin are both instant-impact players who will provide upgrades on both sides of the ball.
The NFC South is one of the NFL's toughest divisions, but the Bucs are now in position to compete for a playoff spot.
With RG3 and some other playmakers in tow, Washington thinking big in 2012At a time when offseason grades are really nothing more than predictions of anticipated potential, it seems sensible enough to suggest any team that has added a possible franchise quarterback has the most to gain. That said, since the Redskins also are among the teams that added some real weapons to an otherwise stagnant offense, I'd say it's equally sensible to expect far more from this team in 2012.
I still believe in the Shanahan system, particularly in the capabilities of offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan. With the right pieces to play with -- including dynamic QB Robert Griffin III -- the Redskins have put themselves in as advantageous a position as possible with their offseason activity.
Buccaneers upgraded numerous spots on both sides of the ballThere are certainly a number of teams that have improved themselves, making this a tough call. But I'm going with Tampa Bay.
On offense, the Buccaneers added a No. 1 receiver in Vincent Jackson, a Pro Bowl OG in Carl Nicks and a No. 1 back in Doug Martin (who reminds me of Ray Rice coming out of college). Defensively, Mark Barron has Pro Bowl ability, Lavonte David should be a big producer at OLB, and Eric Wright will help at CB, allowing Ronde Barber to move to safety. I picked Tampa Bay, not only for the quality of players added, but also for the number of positions upgraded.
After this offseason, Cowboys looking SuperThe Steelers transformed one of the league's six worst offensive lines into one of the six (or so) best. The Chiefs are now loaded for bear on both sides of the ball. (Well, except at QB.) The Bills have a credible shot at jumping into the wild-card race with an improved defense. The Niners and Bears armed themselves for future shootouts with the league's more explosive offenses. And the Bucs' additions -- from Greg Schiano on down -- have made Tampa the hip pick in the NFC South.
But ... Who improved the most? I say it's the team that'll represent the NFC in the Super Bowl: the Dallas Cowboys. Like their in-state counterparts in Houston did a year ago, the Cowboys have turned their woeful secondary into a position of strength. And also like the Texans last season (at least before Matt Schaub went down), Dallas will be the most complete team in its conference.
Former Kansas City CB Brandon Carr and sixth overall pick Morris Claiborne oughta give Mike Vick, Eli Manning and Robert Griffin III fits for the next several years. Safety Brodney Poole, who's very good against the pass, provides further help. Also, Dan Connor toughens 'em up against the run. Offensively, free-agent signees Mackenzy Bernadeau and Nate Livings upgrade the line.
It's two years later than Jerry Jones would've liked, but a trip to the Superdome will be a nice consolation prize for missing out on the hometown Super Bowl a couple seasons ago.
(On a personal note, kudos to me for abstaining from any lame J.R. Ewing/"Dallas" cracks while penning this commentary.)
With expectations at their lowest, Chargers admirably retooled rosterThe Chargers are annually "Next Year's Champion" -- a team routinely picked by columnists to win the Super Bowl ... before falling short every time. Heck, the team has failed to even reach the playoffs in the past couple years. So maybe it's fitting that in a year when expectations are at their lowest -- I mean, they brought back Norv Turner ... -- the Chargers might have had their best offseason in quite some time.
Vincent Jackson has been a malcontent, and his departure will actually be a boon for Philip Rivers, who did just fine during the receiver's absence in 2010. Robert Meachem piled up 20 touchdown receptions over the past three years, compared to Jackson's 21. He gives the Chargers similar production without the attitude.
A.J. Smith also made some great unheralded moves, snagging Eddie Royal (who fills the special teams void left by last year's departure of Darren Sproles), adding Jarret Johnson at outside linebacker and taking a chance on Melvin Ingram -- a top-10 talent who fell to San Diego at No. 18.
The Chargers were beaten up for bringing Smith and Turner back this year, but Smith has put the Chargers in a position to succeed. It's up to Turner to get them to the promised land.
Bears improved depth, physicality at key positionsThe Bears significantly upgraded the physicality of their receiver corps in the offseason, trading for Brandon Marshall and then drafting Alshon Jeffery in the second round. They found more reliable backups at the other skill positions, as well, bringing in Jason Campbell and Michael Bush from the Raiders to make sure injuries to quarterback Jay Cutler and running back Matt Forte won't cause the sort of offensive meltdown the team experienced last season. Chicago's first-round pick, Shea McClellin, also looks to have a strong impact as a rush defensive end playing across from perennial Pro Bowler Julius Peppers.
These acquisitions should help the Bears avoid the sort of prolonged losing streak that kept them from the playoffs in 2011.
Jacksonville finally has a couple weapons out wideIt's gotten to the point where we have the Super Bowl ... and then the Super Bowl of the offseason. You're going to say I'm crazy, but I love what the Jaguars did the most. Yes, even without getting Tebow.
Jacksonville had no wideouts last season. Zero. I think Keenan McCardell led the team in catches. Then poof: Laurent Robinson in free agency, followed by Justin Blackmon in the draft, and suddenly they have weapons out wide. Mike Thomas can be effective in the slot, and all of this will help tight end Marcedes Lewis return to form. Chad Henne will either start or be a capable backup should Blaine Gabbert falter.
Take the NFL's leading rusher, add some instant offense, and at least on paper, the Jags can compete on Sundays.