We have long needed a name to describe NFL's free agency and draft as a single entity, kicking off the new league year. "Offseason" doesn't fit the bill because this period doesn't encompass organized team activities and minicamps, which dominate the next two months before training camps open in late July.
While coaches run the show from August through February, this is the time for scouts and general managers to shine, shifting the personnel to give the organization its best chance of hoisting the Lombardi Trophy. In other words, the NFL just wrapped up the roster reconstruction phase.
Deconstruction to Reconstruction: Reggie McKenzie, Oakland Raiders
Two offseasons ago, Oakland Raiders owner Mark Davis held McKenzie's feet to the fire, announcing that there were no more built-in excuses for a team averaging four wins per season. McKenzie had demonstrated that he could deconstruct the roster, Davis explained, but the time for reconstruction had arrived. McKenzie went on to nail the 2014 and 2015 drafts, grabbing franchise cornerstones Khalil Mack, Derek Carr and Amari Cooper. Having that foundation in place allowed McKenzie to effectively recruit accomplished veterans such as Kelechi Osemele, Sean Smith, Bruce Irvin and Reggie Nelson in free agency.
Now the Raiders' aerial attack is the most dangerous it has been since the 2002 Super Bowl squad, the offensive line rivals Dallas Cowboys' for the NFL's most effective and the beleaguered secondary has four new starters since the beginning of last season -- including first-round pick Karl Joseph, who is drawing comparisons to All-Pro Earl Thomas and former Defensive Player of the Year Bob Sanders. After a decade in the darkness, Oakland is primed to challenge Denver for the AFC West title.
Most Improved Roster: Jacksonville Jaguars
A year ago, the best player on the roster -- defensive tackle Sen'Derrick Marks -- was sidelined following ACL surgery. After finishing 31st in defense last season, general manager David Caldwell began his overhaul by picking up above-average starters Malik Jackson, Prince Amukamara and Tashaun Gipson. With that structure in place, Caldwell then added three top-five draft talents with the return from injury of 2015 first-round pass rusher Dante Fowler to go with No. 5 overall pick Jalen Ramsey and ultra-talented wild card Myles Jack. More than 50 percent of coordinator Todd Wash's 11 starting spots could be filled with fresh faces.
The offense was already on the rise, scoring the second-most points (376) of any Jaguars squad this century despite leaky pass protection and an inconsistent ground attack. The running game gets a shot in the arm from power back Chris Ivory, who will also take over goal-line duties. The offensive line has been solidified with the addition of former Steelers left tackle Kelvin Beachum and the return of guard/center Brandon Linder, the team's best blocker. There are no excuses for coach Gus Bradley's outfit this year. They should be in the AFC playoff hunt.
Happiest Off. Coaches: Bill O'Brien, George Godsey, Houston Texans
O'Brien and Godsey deserve credit for capturing the AFC South title last season despite a clear lack of talent behind DeAndre Hopkins on offense. With Arian Foster injured and the quarterback depth chart in flux, the coaching staff resorted to smoke 'n' mirrors, coaxing first downs out of gadget plays and Wildcat looks in December.
O'Brien identified Brock Osweiler as his savior, leading to the former Broncos quarterback landing $37 million in guarantees over the next two years. Although Osweiler is an unknown commodity with just seven NFL starts under his belt, the Texans increased his chances of success by drafting playmakers in the first four rounds of the draft. After signing Lamar Miller as the new feature back, they added game-breaking wideout Will Fuller, speedy slot receiver Braxton Miller and explosive third-down back Tyler Ervin in addition to new center Nick Martin. The talent influx will allow O'Brien and Godsey to run their full offense, complementing a defense that was the NFL's stingiest in the second half of the season.
Happiest Defensive Coaches: John Fox, Vic Fangio, Chicago Bears
General manager Ryan Pace has done a commendable job of refashioning the roster to suit Fangio's 3-4 scheme after years in the 4-3 alignment under ex-coach Lovie Smith and former defensive coordinator Mel Tucker. The revamped front seven started last year, with the successful signing of disruptive edge rusher Pernell McPhee and the drafting of nose tackle Eddie Goldman. Pace then addressed inside linebacker in free agency, landing major upgrades in Danny Trevathan and Jerrell Freeman. The overhaul was complete when the Bears traded up for outside linebacker Leonard Floyd, and drafted defensive end Jonathan Bullard and inside linebacker Nick Kwiatkoski in the third and fourth rounds, respectively.
Fangio got the most out of the limited talent at his disposal last season. Now his front seven can compete with any in the division.
Happiest Player: Marcus Mariota, Tennessee Titans
Mariota authored an impressive rookie season despite a pair of knee injuries and a supporting cast that couldn't protect him or make plays down the field. One could feel only pity for Mariota, watching Cameron Wake abusing Tennessee's turnstile right tackles play after play in a Week 6 blowout. As well-suited as Mariota is to the read-option, boot-action attack, it's a system dependent on a power running game that was non-existent under the Titans' underwhelming backfield duo of Antonio Andrews and Bishop Sankey.
Enter 2014 Offensive Player of the Year DeMarco Murray and second-round bruiser Derrick Henry, two backs tailor-made for the smashmouth attack being installed by coach Mike Mularkey and new offensive coordinator Terry Robiskie. The Titans' draft haul was much ballyhooed not just for the obvious talent influx, but also for the toughness and physicality. First-round right tackle Jack Conklin joins veteran center Ben Jones on an offensive line that now stands a prayer of keeping Mariota upright. Throw in free-agent acquisition Rishard Matthews and an increased role for monstrous second-year receiver Dorial Green-Beckham, and nobody should be surprised if Mariota fulfills the franchise savior hypeemanating from Nashville.
Overplayed Hand: Colin Kaepernick, In Limbo
The hatred is real in San Francisco. So desperate to leave the 49ers' sinking ship after being benched for Blaine Gabbert last season, Kaepernick urged his agents to request a trade in February. Given a chance to join the reigning Super Bowl champions in a quarterback-friendly offense, Kaepernick and his camp opted instead for a failed leverage play, attempting to hold a quarterback-needy John Elway over a barrel.
Instead of taking the long view, understanding that jumpstarting his stalled career on an annual contender run by one of pro football's most respected executives would earn him more money in the future, Kaepernick balked at a 2016 pay cut. He's a fallen star, no longer viewed by any of the NFL's 32 organizations as a viable franchise quarterback. Kap had the opportunity to alter that perception in Denver. Now he's stuck in misery.
King in His Castle: John Elway, Denver Broncos
Elway has been to seven Super Bowls as a player or executive, leading the franchise to three Lombardi Trophies. The Broncos haven't lost the AFC West since he returned to honcho the front office in 2011. He now rivals Ozzie Newsome as the league's most accomplished and respected gridiron legend currently running football operations. He came under fire for losing Peyton Manning to retirement and Brock Osweiler to an over-inflated contract with the Texans, leaving only journeyman Mark Sanchez atop the depth chart.
Did the critics ever stop think Elway might have evaluated all of these quarterbacks correctly? Manning is done. Osweiler is no longer a competitive advantage when he's occupying more than 10 percent of the payroll rather than one percent. Kaepernick has regressed to the point that he must prove he can beat out the competition to earn franchise-quarterback money. Backed into a corner, Elway traded up for Paxton Lynch, a more talented version of Osweiler at a fraction of the cost. He's sitting high atop NFL mountain in 2016.
Flip This Roster: Howie Roseman, Philadelphia Eagles
Banished to the NovaCare dungeon under Chip Kelly last offseason, Roseman crawled through a river of filth and came out clean on the other side. He has spent the past two months purging the roster, erasing all traces of Kelly while trading up for potential quarterback savior Carson Wentz in a bold gambit to put the franchise back on course to contend in the NFC East.
Shopped Hungry: Jerry Reese, New York Giants
Panthers general manager Dave Gettleman insists he didn't "shop hungry" after losing Josh Norman to the Redskins. Can Reese say the same for his offseason spree? Once viewed as a top draft-and-develop general manager, Reese was forced to alter his style with his job on the line. He treated the roster reconstruction period like the perennially star-hungry Dolphins, overpaying for Olivier Vernon, Janoris Jenkins, Damon Harrison and Jason Pierre-Paul to fix a barren defense.
Carpe Diem: Arizona Cardinals
The Cardinals are coming off their finest season since 1948, leading the NFL in points and yards per game. Carson Palmer owns the NFL's best winning percentage (.870) since the start of the 2014 season, playing the best ball of his 12-year career. He's 36 years old, though, tossing passes to Larry Fitzgerald, who is also entering the twilight years of a sterling career.
After watching the Cardinals pressure Cam Newton on a season-low 20.7 percent of dropbacks in their season-ending loss, Arians and general manager Steve Keim prioritized finding a blue-goose pass rusher this offseason. Keim promptly traded for Pro Bowl edge rusher Chandler Jones while selecting talented defensive tackleRobert Nkemdiche in the first round of the draft. If Palmer and Fitzgerald don't reach the Super Bowl in the next two years, it won't be for lack of front-office support. Arians and Keim understand it's time to seize the moment.