General managers and coaches are always looking to improve the roster through player development/acquisition. Coaches, in particular, spend countless hours working with young players to improve their individual skills and football aptitude during OTAs (organized team activities) and minicamps, but evaluators can never really tell how much improvement has been made until the pads start popping in the fall.
With training camps underway, I thought this would be the perfect time to start a series studying which position groups across the NFL appear to be significantly improved heading into the 2015 season. Let's begin with running back -- rumors of the position's demise have been greatly exaggerated in recent years. A potent ground attack remains crucial in today's game. So, which backfields look a whole lot better than they were last season? Here's what I think:
5) Indianapolis Colts
Whenever a team adds Hall of Fame-caliber running back to the stable, it certainly improves the overall talent, depth and experience at the position. In the Colts' case, the signing of Frank Gore gives the team a dynamic workhorse runner in the backfield to alleviate some of the burden on Andrew Luck to carry the offense. The veteran runner has topped the 1,000-yard mark eight times in his 10-year career, including the past four seasons in a row. Although Father Time has robbed Gore of some of his top-end speed and burst, he remains a crafty runner with exceptional vision, balance and body control. And he's definitely an upgrade from Indy's leading rusher in 2014: Trent Richardson, who totaled 519 yards while averaging just 3.3 yards per carry.
4) San Diego Chargers
While the Bolts' passing offense ranked 10th in the NFL last season, the ground attack finished at 30th. San Diego simply didn't have a consistent threat in the backfield. That changed when the Chargers drafted Melvin Gordon with the No. 15 overall pick in April. The rookie out of Wisconsin is unquestionably San Diego's most dynamic runner since LaDainian Tomlinson; he gives the team an explosive back with tremendous balance, body control and burst.
Gordon's insertion into the lineup as the designated RB1 undoubtedly will upgrade the Chargers' running game, but this isn't the only significant note in the backfield -- Danny Woodhead's healthy return gives the offense an invaluable change-of-pace weapon. The slithery scat back is an exceptional route runner in space, exhibiting patience, poise and savvy while working free from defenders at the top of his routes. With Branden Oliver and Donald Brown filling out the roster as quality backups, it is hard to find a more talented RB group than the one in San Diego.
3) New Orleans Saints
Sean Payton is on a mission to rebuild the Saints into a title contender behind a balanced offense that has the capacity to generate explosive plays through the air or on the ground. With Payton preferring to feature a role-specific running back rotation to generate gains, it is imperative for the lineup to house a variety of playmakers with diverse skill sets. While Mark Ingram and Khiry Robinson have proven to be capable early-down runners in recent years, the team hasn't had an electric runner/receiver in the house since trading away Darren Sproles.
The arrival of C.J. Spiller as a prized free agent not only fills that void, but it gives the Saints a bona fide home-run hitter with the ability to score from anywhere on the field via perimeter runs, screens or option routes. The sixth-year pro has flashed brilliance at various points in his career, but Payton's creative play designs could help Spiller become the electric star most scouts anticipated he'd be when he entered the league as the No. 9 overall pick in 2010. Payton could unleash Spiller as a designated playmaker to enhance a rock-solid RB rotation that's capable of sparking a run at the NFC South title.
2) Philadelphia Eagles
It is uncommon for a team to jettison a former rushing champ ... and improve its ground attack. But that is indeed the case in Philadelphia. After facing harsh criticism from many observers for trading away LeSean McCoy, the Eagles landed a pair of downhill runners (DeMarco Murray and Ryan Mathews) ideally suited to play in Chip Kelly's spread system. Murray, in particular, is a workmanlike runner between the tackles, displaying superb balance, body control and vision on inside runs. Additionally, Murray is a terrific pass catcher adept at making plays on screens and check-downs. Although Mathews isn't as accomplished as a runner, he is an electric playmaker on the perimeter with soft hands and superb receiving skills. At the end of the day, both newcomers employ a north-south running style that fits Kelly's scheme, while McCoy is shiftier in his approach.
1) Buffalo Bills
The Bills haven't been to the playoffs since the 1999 campaign, but the arrival of a Pro Bowl runner with home-run skills could help the team end the drought in 2015. LeSean McCoy is an explosive rusher with a jitterbug running style that will remind Bills fans of a young Thurman Thomas. He has an uncanny knack for making defenders miss in traffic while also displaying surprising power and pop running through arm tackles. Although McCoy will register some negative runs attempting to bust a big play, he is one of the few runners in the NFL with the wiggle and burst to consistently deliver "explosive" runs (gains of 10-plus yards) despite routinely facing eight-man boxes.
With the team also adding a hammerhead lead blocker (Jerome Felton) to the lineup to clear the pathway for McCoy, the Bills could utilize a "ground and pound" approach to punish opponents in the AFC. Considering the expected contributions of Fred Jackson and Anthony Dixon as rotational players in Greg Roman's power-based offense, Buffalo's backfield is suddenly one of the most dangerous units in the NFL.