Immediately after the new league year's free agency and draft period, Around The NFL handed out awards for the best performances by scouts and general managers during the roster-reconstruction phase of March and April. Three months later, offseason practices and training camp reports have advanced our understanding of the strengths and weaknesses of each team.
Now that camps are wrapping up, it's the perfect time to study which position groups across the NFL appear to be significantly improved heading into the 2016 season. Today we concentrate on five front sevens that could really wreak havoc this year.
1) Jacksonville Jaguars
Last year at this time, veteran defensive tackle Sen'Derrick Marks -- coming off ACL surgery -- was Jacksonville's biggest name on defense. Now he seems like an afterthought with the addition of Super Bowl 50 hero Malik Jackson and a pair of top-five draft prospects in defensive end Dante Fowler Jr. and linebacker Myles Jack. Returning from a knee reconstruction of his own, Fowler has been the talk of camp, flashing pre-injury explosiveness.
A unit that entered last season short on viable starters is now flush with quality depth. Telvin Smith emerged as a poor man's Derrick Brooks at weakside linebacker, Paul Posluszny was a rock in the middle and free-agent acquisition Jared Odrick met expectations on the defensive line. To that nucleus, the Jaguars added former Colts first-round pick Bjoern Werner and a pair of young pass rushers in Yannick Ngakoue and Sheldon Day. Overshadowed by Fowler, the latter two have impressed in August practices. Jacksonville's front seven has transformed from the AFC South's shallowest to one of the conference's deepest in a span of six months.
2) Chicago Bears
General manager Ryan Pace deserves credit for constructing the roster to suit Vic Fangio's 3-4 scheme after years in the 4-3 alignment under Lovie Smith and Mel Tucker. The overhaul started with pass rusher Pernell McPhee last offseason and continued with this year's signings of Danny Trevathan and Jerrell Freeman, a pair of sure tacklers with premium coverage ability at inside linebacker. The free-agent crop also included behemoth defensive lineman Akiem Hicks, who has shown well this month.
Not done after free agency, Pace drafted freakishly athletic outside linebacker Leonard Floyd in the first round and All-SEC defensive end Jonathan Bullard in the third round. Early this month, coach John Fox compared Floyd to a "more explosive" version of 2012 All-Pro Aldon Smith, who starred under Fangio in San Francisco. If Floyd emerges as a difference maker off the edge, this linebacker corps could rival any in football.
3) New York Giants
GM Jerry Reese's free agency shopping spree brought breakout pass rusher Olivier Vernon, run-stuffing defensive tackle Damon "Snacks" Harrison and the re-signing of two-time Pro Bowler Jason Pierre-Paul. Vernon was one of the league's most disruptive sack artists in the second half of last season. If Pierre-Paul can translate his hurries and hits into sacks this year, he and Vernon have as much potential as any defensive-end duo in the NFL.
Although the linebackers remain a competitive disadvantage -- a staple of the past half-decade under Reese -- teaming Harrison with wide-bodied Johnathan Hankins and early-down thumper Jasper Brinkley should be a boon to the run defense. As is always the case, the key starters will have to stay healthy to instigate a turnaround in a make-or-break year for Reese.
4) Arizona Cardinals
Overly reliant on the blitz last season, Arizona's inconsistent pass rush was exploited in the NFC Championship Game loss at Carolina. That obvious need led to one of the offseason's biggest shock waves, when the Cardinals pulled off a blockbuster trade for Patriots pass rusher Chandler Jones. The first-time Pro Bowler will team with 2015 second-round pick Markus Golden, who drew comparisons to Steelers great James Harrison for his size, leverage and strong hands as a rookie. With Alex Okafor back to full health, GM Steve Keim felt confident enough in his outside linebackers to politely decline Dwight Freeney's interest in a return.
Already stout enough to rank second in Football Outsiders' metrics, the run defense added enigmatic defensive tackle Robert Nkemdiche, widely viewed as an early first-round talent. With veteran nose tackle Corey Peters returning from an Achilles injury and second-year pro Rodney Gunter ready for a bigger role, James Bettcher's defense is noticeably deeper in the trenches. This is a championship-caliber front seven.
5) Tampa Bay Buccaneers
The Bucs have been desperate for pass rushers ever since they whiffed on Adrian Clayborn and Da'Quan Bowers in the first two rounds of the 2011 NFL Draft. If the buzz out of training camp is any indication, they might have finally solved the issue with free-agent signee Robert Ayers and second-round rookie Noah Spence. While Pierre-Paul hogged the spotlight in the Big Apple, Ayers was quietly more productive on a week-to-week basis the past two years. Spence has been so explosive off the edge that defensive tackle Clinton McDonald is predicting a 10-sack seasonthis year.
Tampa Bay should be stronger at linebacker, as well, with promising second-year starter Kwon Alexander manning the middle and former Ravens and Jaguars star Daryl Smith adding experience on the outside. For this front seven to reach its potential, though, Gerald McCoy and Lavonte David must recapture the dominant form that resulted in All-Pro recognition prior to last season.