You can just feel the season creeping up on us. It’s almost June, the schedule is set, teams are practicing at OTAs, optimism is in the air. With that in mind, and with most of the major roster moves now complete, the MMQB staff decided to take a look at which teams improved the most this offseason. A few weeks ago we voted in our first Power Rankings Poll of the 2019 season, but today our writers will single out individual teams that have made the best moves.
Full disclosure: I was the first staff member to reply to the email, so I was able to secure the Cleveland Browns for this exercise. John Dorsey went swinging for the fences, no doubt sparking some envy around the league from teams who weren’t as aggressive (and perhaps my colleagues who were too slow on the reply all).
Of course, it’s far more common for a splashy offseason to go wrong than right. But one difference here is that Dorsey got his QB—Baker Mayfield—last year, instantly making the Browns a viable team, and this year he supplemented the rest of the roster with talent. The splashiest move, of course, was the trade for Odell Beckham, Jr. But the acquisitions of Sheldon Richardson and Olivier Vernon will help another one of Cleveland’s star players, Myles Garrett, who admitted to the team’s website that his workload last season was a bit tiring. While the addition of running back Kareem Hunt, just 10 weeks after the Chiefs released him for being untruthful after multiple violent incidents, certainly raised questions, Hunt said in a press conference that he is following a structured program that includes counseling twice per week and outreach in local schools.
One move that did not get as much attention as others was the Browns nabbing LSU’s Greedy Williams, thought of by many evaluators as the best cover corner in this year’s draft, in the second round. I was surprised he lasted all the way to No. 46, and while there was some criticism about his tackling abilities, Dorsey dismissed that, saying, “corners are paid to cover.”
The tipping point for the Browns will be how Freddie Kitchens, the rookie head coach, manages the mix of personalities, including many second-chance players like Beckham who have a chip on their shoulders. —Jenny Vrentas
NEW YORK JETS:
From what I’ve gathered via the take cycle, a three-headed bronze bust featuring Mike Maccagnan, Darron Lee and Jordan Leggett is currently being created in Canton. I, however, am making the bold prediction that the Jets will be able to not only survive the crippling losses of the past week, but thrive.
The easiest way to build a winner in the NFL is to find the right coach/QB combination, and in Sam Darnold and Adam Gase the Jets might finally have it. I know, I know, if you take away Gase’s past successes, he has no past successes. Plus, he had a losing record as a head coach in Miami, which is damning as long as you strip away all context when you’re considering statistics (the Patriots haven’t won a Super Bowl in three months!). However, the Dolphins team Gase just coached to a 7-9 record upgraded this offseason with two quarterbacks better than any they’ve had over the past three years, and they are still considered the consensus worst team in football. Two seasons ago Gase won 10 games and went to the playoffs with a combination of Ryan Tannehill and Matt Moore under center. So with that in mind, pairing him with a rising young star in Darnold has a great chance to work.
The Jets also added a second alpha in the middle of the defense. C.J. Mosley has his shortcomings in coverage, but pairing him and Jamal Adams behind Leonard and Quinnen Williams, gives Gregg Williams some fun options schematically. And Darnold has an underrated group of triplets (Robby Anderson, Jamison Crowder and Le’Veon Bell) to work with after having Anderson and whatever two guys happened to be hanging out at the Port Authority Bus Terminal on Sundays last year.
So yeah, they fired the GM after the draft, which is a “bad look” (another stat: the Chiefs did the same thing two years ago and they haven’t been to a Super Bowl since!), and also Adam Gase looked like Tigtone at his introductory press conference. But the Jets are a lot better in areas that actually matter, and that’s enough to put a winning record and a Wild-Card spot within reach. —Gary Gramling
It’s a quarterback’s league, as the old cliché goes. And while this may sound simplistic, it’s often true: The most important thing when it comes to contending in the NFL is whether or not you’ve got one. If you’re looking for teams that improved the most in a given timeframe, looking at teams that changed quarterbacks is often a good place to start. This offseason saw a few—the teams that drafted rookies, plus the Redskins, Dolphins, Broncos and Jaguars, who came away with the most coveted arm in the free agent market. The Jaguars would have been a likely regression candidates anyway, after dropping from AFC South champs and nearly topping the Patriots in the AFC Championship Game in 2017 to 5-11 last year. They also moved on from Blake Bortles and signed Nick Foles. Bortles was often the scapegoat for Jaguars losses during his tenure, and though he does deserve more credit than many people would like for the success the team did have with him under center, his shortcomings were also clear.
Foles, meanwhile, was also inconsistent at times during his much-celebrated second stint in Philly. But he also played great in big spots (notably, you know, the NFC Championship Game and Super Bowl), and there’s a reason he got paid big bucks.
That said, Foles should not be confused for a top five quarterback in the league. It’s possible he will struggle without Philly’s line and pass-catchers. He may not move Jacksonville’s floor, or even their median expectations that much. But the reason I include them on this list is because he dramatically improves his team’s ceiling. And in a league where every team is chasing the ultimate prize, that’s enough for me to say they’ve improved as much as anyone.
He also wasn’t the Jags’ only move this offseason. The MMQB’s Andy Benoit gave them a B+ and an A for their first two draft picks, Kentucky edge rusher Josh Allen at No. 7 and Florida offensive lineman Jawaan Taylor at No. 35.
In a top-heavy AFC, the Jaguars may be hard-pressed to make a deep playoff run like two years ago. But they can still be one of the NFL’s most-improved teams. —Mitch Goldich
The Steelers will be without a few notable faces this season, but after a tumultuous 2018 that ended with Pittsburgh missing the playoffs, it’s all for the better. Blanketing the locker room for the entirety of last season was Le’Veon Bell’s holdout, as the star running back refused to sign his franchise tag and remained locked in a contract dispute with the Pittsburgh front office for the entire season. Efforts to trade him were futile, and Bell went the entire season without playing a single down of football, before signing with the Jets this offseason.
With Bell’s drama hanging over the team, Antonio Brown didn’t do much to help. The star wide receiver feuded with offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner during the season, and Brown didn’t show for the final game of the year after he got into a heated argument with Ben Roethlisberger and stormed out of practice mid-week (sources say he was frustrated that the team MVP award went to JuJu Smith-Schuster). The Steelers won without Brown in Week 17—though narrowly missed the playoffs—and ultimately traded Brown to the Raiders.
After moving on from Brown and Bell, the Steelers are left with QB Ben Roethlisberger steering the ship with a handful of younger players, including Smith-Schuster, James Conner and new addition Donte Moncrief. While the roster certainly doesn’t have the (potential) star power of the 2018 squad, Smith-Schuster has already commented on the lack of locker-room drama. Things can certainly get better. —Bette Marston
While there may be a difference between improving as a team and becoming healthier as a team, allow me to blur the lines for a second. Teams that have gotten the courage to rip their rosters down to the studs (having done so with a long-term vision and aligned organizational mentality) have usually been rewarded. The Dolphins have been one of the most perpetually middling teams in football over the last two decades, seemingly always bad enough to warrant a pick in the teens but never good enough to reach the playoffs with a competitive roster. While the current regime detests the word tanking, this is a strategic tear down. They get a cheap look at Josh Rosen, and Ryan Fitzpatrick is there to help develop the room (and the wide receivers). The defense is shedding dead weight and retooling. Whether or not Adam Gase created an untenable environment there, the entire place is being fumigated while they figure out who can be on a competitive team in 2021, theoretically with a top quarterback in either of the next two classes. I’d rather be a Dolphins fan right now than a lot of other teams stuck in the middle. —Conor Orr
SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS:
I don’t like paying Kwon Alexander Top 10 linebacker money, but I loved everything else the Niners did this offseason. Dee Ford was an elite edge rusher in 2018 and should be motivated by the Chiefs’ willingness to deal him despite being on the cusp of a Super Bowl berth last winter. Pairing him with No. 2 overall pick Nick Bosa was a no-brainer, and suddenly the 49ers’ pass rush looks like a Top 10 unit, at least on paper. Adding running back Tevin Coleman at two years, $8.5 million is viewed as a steal around the league. Of course, the 49ers are counting on the biggest difference from 2018 to be the health of quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo, who suffered a season-ended leg injury three games into the season. He’s the main reason Vegas is betting on San Francisco to add more wins than any other team in 2019. —Robert Klemko
GREEN BAY PACKERS:
I’m arguing the Packers improved the most this offseason because they’ve undertaken a much-needed culture overhaul. Mike McCarthy’s coaching was stale and he had lost control of the team. Aaron Rodgers was changing many of McCarthy’s play calls at the line of scrimmage, the offense stalled without a consistent veteran threat Rodgers could rely on and the defense lacked the talent to keep the team alive.
By firing McCarthy and hiring Matt LaFleur, the Packers are starting fresh—and anything is better then the mess they became last season when they lost to a 2-9 Arizona Cardinals team, in cold weather, at home. Green Bay has also addressed the weaknesses in its defense with the additions of pass rushers Zadarius Smith and Preston Smith, and safety Adrian Amos. The free agent signings marked a departure from the thrifty free agent budgeting of previous GM Ted Thompson. In the draft, Green Bay focused on defense again in the first round with Michigan defensive end Rashan Gary and Maryland safety Darnell Savage, and later added a pass catching threat in tight end Jace Sternberger. So the team has an improved defense paired with a revamped offense. If Rodgers buys into the system, Green Bay will return to form. —Kalyn Kahler