These 8 teams improved the most in their divisions this offseason
An 11-win season in the NFL would be considered a success by most teams, and could very well lead to a playoff berth. However, the only guaranteed way for an NFL team to make the playoffs is to win their division outright. The value of divisional wins cannot be overstated.
While every NFL team finds ways to improve in the offseason, a team can only gain ground in their division if they improve more than their divisional rivals. These eight teams improved the most in each of their respective divisions through the draft and free agency this offseason:
AFC East: Miami Dolphins
Free agency grade: C-
Key additions: CB Byron Maxwell, DE Mario Williams, LB Kiko Alonso, OT Jermon Bushrod, S Isa Abdul-Quddus, DE Andre Branch
Key losses: DE Olivier Vernon, CB Brent Grimes, RB Lamar Miller, DE Derrick Shelby, CB Brice McCain, WR Rishard Matthews, DE Quinton Coples
Draft grade: A-
Key additions: OT Laremy Tunsil, CB Xavien Howard, RB Kenyan Drake, WR Leonte Carroo, WR Jakeem Grant, S Jordan Lucas, QB Brandon Doughty, WR Thomas Duarte
After adding several defensive players through trade and free agency, the Dolphins clearly went into the draft looking to address their offense, as six of their eight selections were offensive players. Due to off-field concerns, the Dolphins were able to draft Laremy Tunsil, arguably the best player in the draft, at 13th overall. Tunsil will instantly make the Dolphins’ offensive line more athletic and effective in protecting quarterback Ryan Tannehill.
The Dolphins also placed several new weapons around Tannehill in pass-catching running back Kenyan Drake, very underrated and highly productive wide receiver Leonte Carroo, a flex tight end in Thomas Duarte, and the speedy Jakeem Grant. Tannehill ranked just No. 25 in our quarterback grades in 2015, and needs to have a better 2016 if the Dolphins are going to make a playoff push. The Dolphins also added a potential backup quarterback in Brandon Doughty, who was highly accurate and highly productive in college, finishing as our No. 3-graded quarterback in the draft class.
While the Patriots are still the elite team in the AFC East, the Dolphins gained more ground on the Patriots than the Jets or Bills did during free agency and the draft.
NFC East: Philadelphia Eagles
Free agency grade: A-
Key additions: S Rodney McLeod, G Brandon Brooks, QB Chase Daniel, CB Leodis McKelvin, WR Chris Givens
Key losses: QB Mark Sanchez, CB Byron Maxwell, LB Kiko Alonso, RB DeMarco Murray, S Walter Thurmond (see the Eagles free agency grade
Draft grade: B
Key additions: QB Carson Wentz, C Isaac Seumalo, RB Wendell Smallwood, OT Halapoulivaati Vaitai, CB Blake Countess, S Jalen Mills, DE Alex McCalister, ILB Joe Walker
The NFC East is an interesting case, as it can be argued that in the short-term the Cowboys improved the most within the division with the tactical addition of Ezekiel Elliott. Elliott is an incredibly well-rounded running back who gained 1,000 yards after contact, caught 92.9 percent of his pass targets, and had a pass-blocking efficiency rating of 99.0 last season. Elliott will help the Cowboys maximize their time left with QB Tony Romo as the starter, and as a result the Cowboys should be the NFC East team with the largest increase in wins next season.
From a long-term standpoint the Eagles will have improved the most within the division if Carson Wentz emerges as the franchise quarterback they need in a year or two. In theory, Wentz would still be on the frontside of his career as the Eagles’ starting quarterback while the Cowboys and Giants will be in the unfortunate position of trying to find replacements for long-term starting quarterbacks who retired (Romo and Eli Manning, respectively).
AFC North: Cleveland Browns
Free agency grade: D+
Key additions: QB Robert Griffin III, S Rahim Moore, LB Demario Davis, OT Alvin Bailey
Key losses: WR Travis Benjamin, RT Mitchell Schwartz, C Alex Mack, CB/S Tashaun Gipson, DT Randy Starks, LB Karlos Dansby, WR Dwayne Bowe
Draft grade: A
Key additions: WR Corey Coleman, DE Emmanuel Ogbah, DE Carl Nassib, OT Shon Coleman, QB Cody Kessler, OLB Joe Schobert, WR Ricardo Louis, S Derrick Kindred, WR/TE Seth Devalve, WR Jordan Payton, OT Spencer Drango, WR Rashard Higgins, CB Trey Caldwell, ILB Scooby Wright III. 2017 first-round selection (from Philadelphia Eagles), 2017 second-round selection (from Tennessee Titans), 2018 second-round selection (from Philadelphia Eagles)
In the short-term the Ravens were the AFC North team that improved the most in the offseason, and should be the AFC North team with the largest increase in wins next season. However, the Browns should see the most long-term gains within the AFC North from this offseason due to the sheer amount of picks, players and production they added. As an example, in drafting Nassib, Ogbah and Schobert, the Browns added three of the most productive pass-rushers in the draft class, with a combined 37 sacks, 41 hits and 105 hurries in 2015.
Next year the Browns will have the extra draft picks to maneuver up in the draft to take a QB if they so choose, such as Clemson’s DeShaun Watson (who went to the Browns No. 1 overall in Steve Palazzolo’s 2017 mock draft). The process in place in Cleveland will take a few years to be at full speed, but if it does succeed, this offseason will be the one that began the turnaround.
NFC North: Chicago Bears
Free agency grade: A-
Key additions: ILB Jerrell Freeman, ILB Danny Trevathan, DE Akiem Hicks, RT Bobby Massie
Key losses: HB Matt Forte, TE Martellus Bennett, DE Jarvis Jenkins, ILB Shea McClellin
Draft grade: A-
Key additions: OLB Leonard Floyd, G Cody Whitehair, DE Jonathan Bullard, ILB Nick Kwiatkoski, S Deon Bush, CB Deiondre’ Hall, RB Jordan Howard, S DeAndre Houston-Carson, WR Daniel Braverman
The Bears got tremendous value early in the draft by adding three of PFF’s top 27 prospects in the class: Leonard Floyd (19), Cody Whitehair (17) and Jonathan Bullard (27). Floyd brings speed, athleticism and pass-rush ability to the Bears’ defense. Both sides of the line of scrimmage were also upgraded, as Cody Whitehair was the top-graded tackle in the draft class (he’ll likely play guard for Chicago), and Bullard was the highest-graded run defender in the country (+51.5). The Bears defense will look very different, as they added six new players to their front seven. The additions of Jerrell Freeman (90.6 overall grade in 2015) and Danny Trevathan (87.5) gave the Bears the two best linebackers in free agency and upgraded the second level of their defense considerably.
The Bears added players to help protect QB Jay Cutler (Whitehair and Bobby Massie), gave Cutler a new slot weapon in Daniel Braverman (a potential seventh-round sleeper), and upgraded their defense with speed and athleticism.
AFC South: Jacksonville Jaguars
Free agency grade: B+
Key additions: DT Malik Jackson, RB Chris Ivory, CB Prince Amukamara, S Tashaun Gipson, OT Kelvin Beachum
Key losses: C Stefan Wisniewski
Draft grade: A
Key additions: CB/S Jalen Ramsey, ILB Myles Jack, DE Yannick Ngakoue, DT Sheldon Day, DE Tyrone Holmes, QB Brandon Allen, DE Jonathan Woodard
Clearly the Jaguars’ plan this offseason was to invest in their defense to try and make the same type of leap forward that their offense made last season. Their plan has worked on paper, as no unit in the NFL was upgraded more this offseason than the Jaguars’ defense. The addition of Malik Jackson in free agency and Sheldon Day (our highest-graded DT in the class) in the draft, gave the Jaguars two players who can rush from DT or DE. The Jaguars should also see increased edge-rush production this season with the return of Dante Fowler Jr. (last year’s No. 3 overall pick who missed all of his rookie year due to a knee injury), in addition to their draft haul of Yannick Ngakoue, Tyrone Holmes, and Jonathan Woodard.
The biggest story of the Jaguars’ offseason and the true coup of the draft is that the Jaguars were able to get two of the top-5 players in this draft class in Jalen Ramsey (our highest-graded CB in the draft class) and Myles Jack (owner of the highest coverage grade among all FBS linebackers in 2014). Those two will instantly bring elite athleticism and coverage ability to the Jaguars defense, and potentially help turn it into the best defense in the AFC South.
NFC South: Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Free agency grade: B-
Key additions: ED Robert Ayers, G J.R. Sweezy, LB Daryl Smith, CB Brent Grimes, CB Josh Robinson
Key losses: G Logan Mankins (retired), LB Bruce Carter, LB Danny Lansanah
Draft grade: B-
Key additions: CB Vernon Hargreaves, DE Noah Spence, K Roberto Aguayo, CB Ryan Smith, OT Caleb Benenoch, OLB Devante Bond, FB Dan Vitale
Over the last two drafts, the Buccaneers had been largely ignoring their defense. This year they drafted four defensive players and added key defensive free agents. Robert Ayers and Noah Spence will seriously increase the Buccaneers’ edge-rush production. The Buccaneers also upgraded their pass coverage with two free-agent cornerbacks (Brent Grimes and Josh Robinson) and two cornerbacks in the draft (Vernon Hargreaves III and Ryan Smith). Hargreaves was one of the top coverage cornerbacks in the draft, only allowing a passer rating of 82.3 when targeted, and will instantly make the Buccaneers’ secondary better.
Although trading up to draft a kicker in the second round is a decision that was heavily scrutinized, Roberto Aguayo’s intermediate accuracy should turn extra points into less of an adventure for the Buccaneers, and could lead to a scoring increase next season. The Buccaneers improved their pass rush, their secondary and their special teams to take the largest step this offseason in the NFC South.
AFC West: Oakland Raiders
Free agency grade: B
Key additions: CB Sean Smith, G Kelechi Osemele, LB Bruce Irvin
Key losses: LB Curtis Lofton (cut), ED Justin Tuck (retired), S Charles Woodson (retired), G J’Marcus Webb
Draft grade: B
Key ddditions: S Karl Joseph, DE Jihad Ward, DE Shilique Calhoun, QB Connor Cook, RB Deandre Washington, OLB Cory James, G Vadal Alexander
The addition of Kelechi Osemele brings the fifth-best run-blocking guard in the NFL to Oakland, and helps to form arguably the best offensive line in the NFL. The Raiders hope the offensive line will serve as a key part in the continued improvement of Derek Carr. While the secondary will no doubt miss the legendary Charles Woodson, the additions of Sean Smith and the instinctive rookie safety Karl Joseph will help ease the loss. By retaining Aldon Smith, signing Bruce Irvin and drafting Shilique Calhoun, the Raiders are hoping to platoon edge rushers in much the same way the Broncos did last season, helping keep superstar edge rusher Khalil Mack fresh.
Rookie QB Connor Cook could potentially develop into a valuable trade commodity in a few years, or he can be an insurance policy in the event that Carr does take a step back. If Carr can continue his significant improvement from his rookie season (when he ranked second-to-last in QB grades at No. 38) to his 2015 sophomore campaign (when he ranked No. 11), then the Raiders should become division contenders for years to come.
NFC West: Los Angeles Rams
Free agency grade: C+
Key additions: DE Quinton Coples, CB Coty Sensabaugh
Key losses: S Rodney McLeod, DT Nick Fairley, CB Janoris Jenkins, DE Chris Long
Draft grade: A-
Key additions: QB Jared Goff, TE Tyler Higbee, WR Pharoh Cooper, TE Temarrick Hemingway, ILB Josh Forrest, WR Michael Thomas
The Rams made the biggest improvement in the division at the game’s most important position by aggressively trading up to draft Cal QB Jared Goff. Goff has shown that he has the tools to play right away in the NFL, as he was the top-rated quarterback in the draft class against pressure, against the blitz, and on third downs. The Rams decided to help Goff out immediately by drafting two tight ends, including Tyler Higbee, the third-graded tight end in the class, and two wide receivers, including the underrated Michael Thomas (who was the No. 38 overall player on the PFF draft board who went in the seventh round).
The Rams now get to play in a much larger market in L.A., with a new stadium on the horizon, and with a new quarterback and face of the franchise. In drafting Goff, in addition to other offseason moves, the Rams have put themselves in contention for the NFC West title for years to come. The future is bright in Los Angeles.