Most improved teams in every division

Sam Monson looks at what teams have done the most to help their causes in the 2017 offseason.

| 4 weeks ago
(Matt Hazlett/Getty Images)

(Matt Hazlett/Getty Images)

Most improved teams in every division

With both free agency and the draft in the books, the major period of talent acquisition has been done already for every team heading into the 2017 season. Players will emerge throughout training camps and preseason, but for the most part, what we see on paper now is what will roll into opening day for most teams, so it’s time to start handing out paper championships. Which teams in each division have improved the most from a season ago?

AFC East

New England Patriots

This should terrify the rest of the NFL. The defending Super Bowl champions look significantly better on paper than they did a season ago. They lost starting CB Logan Ryan in free agency, and while many expected them to lose Malcolm Butler as well, they have retained his services as well as adding Stephon Gilmore from Buffalo, representing a significant upgrade over Ryan. Brandin Cooks came over in a trade from New Orleans, giving them a deep threat that had been absent from the team for a while and a player to whom targets last season yielded a passer rating of 119.2, better than any New England receiver. Their draft consisted of just four mid- to low-round picks, but they still managed to pick up some intriguing developmental prospects from that group.

AFC South

Jacksonville Jaguars

Leonard Fournette

The Jaguars are in danger of becoming the new Washington Redskins in terms of perennial offseason champions, but it’s tough to argue with a huge influx of talent over the past few months. A.J. Bouye coming over from Houston should give them the league’s best young cornerback pairing along with last year’s top pick Jalen Ramsey. Bouye notched 13 pass breakups and three picks including the playoffs last season. Calais Campbell was the most dominant interior pass-rusher in the league last season not named Aaron Donald, notching nine sacks, 15 hits, 32 hurries, and five batted passes. In the draft, Leonard Fournette may be something of an anachronism in a 2017 NFL offense, but he should provide a massive early-down lift to their run game. Ultimately the team’s success will still rest on the shoulders of Blake Bortles.

AFC North

Cleveland Browns

I think as a division, the AFC North may have helped itself more than any other from top to bottom this offseason, but it’s hard not to love what the Browns have done. From effectively “buying” a second-round draft pick from the Houston Texans in the Brock Osweiler trade, to adding significant reinforcements to their offensive line, to locking up Jamie Collins and then snaring three first-round picks and QB DeShone Kizer by the end of the second round, this team is undoubtedly moving steadily away from the basement of the division and the league. What is most encouraging is that they didn’t panic for a quarterback, instead rebuilding the offense for whoever starts to have a much easier job. J.C. Tretter last season allowed just eight total pressures across seven games at center, while Cameron Erving notched 30 by the end of the year.

AFC West

Denver Broncos

Garett Bolles

The AFC West wasn’t a big player in free agency, with the most significant additions for most teams coming via the draft. Each team has at least one significant addition, but the team that clearly went to work addressing an area of weakness is the Denver Broncos. They added Ronald Leary to address a weakness at guard, and then grabbed Garett Bolles with their top pick to fix their left tackle problem. Leary didn’t allow a single sack in 2016, compared to the four that Max Garcia did playing left guard for the Broncos. Carlos Henderson also has the ability to make an impact early, as he led all FBS wide receivers last season in broken tackles, with 48, 22 more than anybody else.

NFC East

Philadelphia Eagles

Alshon Jeffery was the big get for the Eagles in free agency, bringing a receiver with legit No. 1 potential to a unit that has been unable to make plays for some time, but they also added a number of other low-key players to provide depth. The draft though is what separates them. In Derek Barnett, they added a pass-rusher in the first round who has accumulated 187 total pressures over the past three seasons, 23 more than No. 1 overall pick Myles Garrett. CB Sidney Jones was unfortunate to injure his Achilles pre-draft, but he has the talent to be the best CB in this class. He didn’t allow a touchdown in 2016 and just one the year before that. Lower down in the draft they also added several players that will have the chance to contribute early.

NFC South

New Orleans Saints

Ryan Ramczyk 2It’s hard not to like what the Tampa Bay Buccaneers did over free agency and the draft, but the Saints draft was so good I think it edges it. Marshon Lattimore slipping to No. 11 could prove to be a steal, as he was the clear best corner in the draft. Last season, he allowed an NFL passer rating of just 31.9 when targeted, and gave up only 18 catches all season. Ryan Ramczyk was the best tackle prospect in the draft, allowing just 12 total pressures all season, and their next four picks in the draft could all make significant impacts as rookies. Adrian Peterson coming on board for a modest contract could also prove to be a high-reward move for little risk, as he has a habit of defying convention when it comes to what he should be able to do physically over his career.

NFC North

Detroit Lions

The Lions swapped out two of their offensive linemen over the free agency period, upgraded at each spot, and got cheaper while doing it. That’s impressive right off the bat, while their draft hit on a series of needs. Jarrad Davis should start from day one at middle linebacker for the team where his athleticism can shine through. Teez Tabor slipped in the draft because of pedestrian speed, but has allowed just two touchdowns over the past three seasons, and only been beaten for a pass longer than 30 yards in one of those years (on a route in which he slipped over).

NFC West

San Francisco 49ers

Solomon Thomas

The 49ers had the furthest to go in terms of repairing their roster, so it makes sense to some degree that they are the most improved. Free agency brought over players like Pierre Garcon, a stopgap QB in Brian Hoyer, and the league’s best fullback in Kyle Juszczyk, but the draft was where things really picked up. They picked up extra draft collateral to drop one spot at the top of the draft, and still got the player they were targeting all along in Stanford’s Solomon Thomas. Thomas was one of college’s most disruptive forces in 2016, notching 44 total pressures and 46 defensive stops. They were able to jump back into the first round and get LB Reuben Foster, a player they would have happily taken at No. 3 overall had Thomas gone to Chicago as a result of the trade. Foster is the most dominant LB in the class and only concerns over his shoulder caused him to slip. TE George Kittle in the fifth round could also prove to be a steal given his skill set and athleticism.

| Senior Analyst

Sam is a Senior Analyst at Pro Football Focus, as well as a contributor to ESPN.

  • dlund6cutler

    What about the Bears? I mean we got 2 Quarterbacks that we didn’t need, A bunch of D2 prospects and DION SIMS!!! I’m projecting another crappy season.

    • Lupo

      that’s $10M Dion Simms to you…. lolBears

      • dlund6cutler

        Yeah, Life Sucks.

    • TrumpleThinSkin

      Don’t forget to mention giving up three draft picks to move up ONE SPOT to grab a QB that would have still been available without that move. That was easily the worst draft in the NFL…. maybe in all of NFL history.

      • crosseyedlemon

        Totally agree. Ryan Pace is so inept that you have to wonder if he is secretly on the Packers payroll.

      • WJOinfo

        Don’t forget about the Raiders missing the clock……

    • crosseyedlemon

      The silver lining is that another crappy season equals merchandise discounts. Got me a ball cap after Christmas for $10 when other teams were selling at $28…lol.

      • dlund6cutler

        Well that’s 1 upside.

    • Andre Taylor

      The article was about most improved team friend, not the least improved team.

  • Indian-Homie

    Wooo GO 49ERS!!!! I believe in you Jed+Lynch+Shanahan.

    • Gordon Walker

      I am now, after the pain and dismay of Tomsula/Kelly and Baalke, actually ok with Harbaugh being forced out as it led eventually to Lynch and Shanahan. Everything I have seen of them has been great and I expect Shanahan to be the best coach we’ve had since the transcendent Bill Walsh.

    • Anonymous

      well if you go by the super bowl play calling…. the 49ers are doomed, still.

  • crosseyedlemon

    Broncos only team listed that will reach the playoffs.

    • Carp

      Did Tom Brady get suspended again?

      • JimmyCrackCorn

        Would that even stop them?

        • Poet

          No, not even being caught deflating footballs garanties to have a legitimate SB champion. Sad but true.

          • Alan Mazz


    • Jeffrey Kellison


  • Gordon Walker

    Joe Williams, Witherspoon and (surprise) Beathard are also great picks who are going to have a major impact on the Niners this or next (Beathard) year.

    • Andre Taylor

      Bud i hate to disappoint you, but C.J. Beatherd was drafted to be the future backup. Kyle Shanahan and John Lynch are banking on Kirk Cousins being available next off-season. If not they will get one of the top QB’s in 2018’s draft.

    • Alan Mazz


    • Tim Edell

      Love the Joe Williams pick but trading up to take Beathard was one of the most questionable moves of the draft.

  • Michael

    I dont know why I even bother with PFF. They have to be the most ignorant annalist out there

    • Alan Mazz


  • James Yeatts

    I think the Chargers (ALWAYS the San Diego Chargers!) improved the most in the AFC West.

    In 2016 they had by FAR the most significant number of players placed on season ending injured reserve. So, just getting them all back is a huge upgrade. However they went out and attacked their biggest glaring problem in bringing in a new offensive tackle in Okung then drafted, arguably the two best guards in the draft in Lamp and Feeney. They drafted arguably the best WR in the draft with Mike Williams. They picked up two new safeties in the draft. Desmond King was a steal in the fifth round. He’ll be switched to Free Safety.

    Last year they only had Bosa for 12 games. They lost their best WR, Keenan Allen in the first half of the first game! They lost their best CB, Varrett for about 12 games. Best receiving RB Woodhead for about 12 games, their back up RB Oliver and second best WR Stevie Johnson in the preseason! Melvin Gordon lost 4 games. On and on it went! Still they lost 9 games by less than a TD.

    If this team can stay healthy, a big if, and avoid any contract hold outs then they’re easily the most improved team in the AFC West. They might even contend. IMHO.

  • mike

    so, broncos are listed at most improved in the AFC West on the strength of leary signing, bolles and henderson drafted?
    in the same division, the chargers took mike williams (who is inarguably better than henderson) forrest lamp (lamp is better than bolles according to their own rating shown under the saints blurb), and dan feeney (who they rated the best pass blocking guard in this draft).
    bolles is 25 and getting 1st round money vs lamp who is 23 making 2nd round money and PFF rated him higher than bolles.
    they signed leary (28) for big money vs feeney who is still only 22 and making 3rd round money. can leary play without all-pros on either side of him?


    • Andre Taylor

      Mike im a diehard Raven fan, however there is no way the Broncos are the most improved team in the AFC West. Forget the money any of the players are making, or where they were drafted. The bottom line is Denver has a excellent secondary, OLB Von Miller is one of the premier pass rushers in the NFL. OLB’s Shane Ray and Shaquill Barrett are good up and coming players, Denver also has to pro-bowl caliber WR’s. DE Derek Wolfe is one of the better 3-4 DE’s in football, and ILB Brandon Marshall is a real asset to their defense. Ok now to reality, the loss of future HOFer Demarcus Ware will be felt from a leadership department. Despite adding DT Domata Peko and DL Zach Kerr, the loss of DE/DT Malik Jackson and NT Sylvester Williams, along with ILB Danny Trevathan in consecutive years isn’t improving the Broncos run defense. Outside of Wolfe they have no difference maker on the D-line. Adding LT prospect Garett Bolles, RG Ronald Leery, and often injured RT Menelik Watson doesn’t necessarily mean the O-line will jell. Last off-season they resigned RB C.J. Anderson to a 4 year 18 million dollar contract, going so far to outbid the Dolphins. Anderson was hurt most of the year, and didn’t look good when he did play, Elway drafted Devontae Booker in the 4th round he had some nice moments. But looked slow and inconsistent, this off-season Elway signs veteran and former Chief, RB Jamaal Charles who hasn’t been healthy in 3 years. Then you add in the unknown at QB with Trevor Siemian, and Paxton Lynch, Siemian played ok. But was sacked a hell of alot, Paxton clearly wasn’t ready. Whereas the Chargers QB Phillip Rivers is an established veteran, who is much better then anything the Broncos have at QB. Veteran LT Russell Okung was added, along with LG Forrest Lamp, and RG Dan Feeney in the 2nd and 3rd round of this year’s draft. The organization felt so good about the additions, they cut veterans LT King Dunlap, and LG Orlando Franklin. Which says alot, most times teams wait until training camp unless they are really impressed. That isn’t even counting the job that C Matt Slauson did last year, along with getting 2nd year C/G Max Taex who redshirted last year from a college injury, with Joe Barksdale at RT. Even if WR Keenan Allen doesn’t come back healthy right away, LA is 4 deep without him after drafting WR Mike Williams in the 1st round.

  • Nick Perry

    The :Lions got cheaper on the OL? Hmmm, I’m not disputing this but after giving Lang the contract they did I have a hard time believing that. BUT they did improve … A LOT so that’s what matters most. Tezz Tabor isn’t playing in the SEC anymore. Granted it’s the best conference in college football but it’s not the NFL. The Packers for example are going to test him, test him, and test him some more. Mostly because they’ll have a huge amount of success running by him.