Putting a pro sports team through a re-build, whether it’s a total strip-down or a major tweak, is always a risky proposition.
In the NFL, with the number of players on the roster, from defence to offence and special teams, a complete re-build is out of the question, so in terms of the Big 4, less risky in a lot of ways.
With free agency, trades and the draft, a middling NFL team can go from milquetoast to top of the heap, just ask the Carolina Panthers.
From 2009 to 2012, they were not a very good non-playoff team. But they drafted Cam Newton in 2011 and Luke Kuechly in 2012. As for free agents, they signed FB Mike Tolbert in 2012, WR Ted Ginn Jr. in 2013 and safety Kurt Coleman in 2015. All would have a hand in taking the Cats all the way to a Super Bowl appearance in 2015.
We think about 10 squads made small to significant moves this off-season to get better. Here they are, in no particular order.
10. San Francisco 49ers
Coming off a 2-14 season full of turmoil, there is nowhere to go but up for the 49ers. One of the biggest changes in the off-season was hiring Atlanta Falcons offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan as head coach and OC. He has the pedigree (his Dad is Mike Shanahan after all) and the chops to handle the high pressure job after 12 years spent as an assistant in the NFL. Otherwise, the 49ers made some decent free agent signings, especially getting Brian Hoyer as a stop-gap at quarterback and receivers Pierre Garcon (1,041 yards receiving in 2016, 3 TD with Washington) and Marquise Goodwin (431 yards, 3 TD with Buffalo). On defence, the last three drafts have yielded solid first round picks in DT Arik Armstead (2.5 sacks in four starts last year), DE Deforest Buckner (6.0 sacks, 43 tackles in 2016) and this year’s picks LB Reuben Foster (31st out of Alabama) and DE Solomon Thomas (3rd out of Stanford). The future looks a lot better.
9. Cleveland Browns
Like the 49ers, the 1-15 Browns couldn’t possibly get any worse (but don’t hold us to that, considering their recent history and the fact they cut CB Joe Haden this week). With their three first round picks in this year’s draft, the team used them to make solid picks, including no. 1 overall DE Myles Garrett to aid in getting the third worst defence to perform better. The Browns also selected S Jabrill Peppers 25th out of Michigan and then used their last pick in the first round to take TE David Njoku of Miami (FLA) 29th. One pick that might bear fruit was the selection of Notre Dame QB DeShone Kizer at no. 52. So, while the Browns future defence should look a whole lot better, there are rumblings that after they cut Haden, Brock Osweiler and his big contract are being shopped. Which would leave one of Kizer or second-year man Cody Kessler as the no. 1 quarterback. And, with WR Terrelle Pryor gone, newly acquired pass-catcher Kenny Britt will be the number one receiver target. We say they have improved, marginally, and won’t be 1-15 this year.
8. Jacksonville Jaguars
Defensively at least, Jacksonville’s already stout unit added some key pieces through free agency in the off-season to make them even better. A 3-13 season also afforded them the luxury of taking LSU RB Leonard Fournette 4th overall to help out the offence. But, back to the D, they signed Houston Texans CB A.J. Bouye to a big deal. He had 63 tackles, 16 pass defences, a sack and an interception in his best season yet in 2016. They also inked veteran Arizona DE Calais Campbell (8 sacks, INT) and Dallas Cowboys SS Barry Church (85 tackles, 2 INT) to replace the departed Jonathan Cyprien. This will be a scary good defence in 2017. On the other side of the ball, however, QB Blake Bortles, who had his fifth-year option picked up, will have to show that his mediocre 2016 season was a fluke. With Fournette in the backfield and a potential return to 2015 glory for WR Allen Robinson, the Jags should be a lot better than three wins.
7. Baltimore Ravens
At 8-8 and having one of the league’s top 10 stingiest defences, the Ravens were hardly bad in 2016. Yet, hardly were they that good and with questions surrounding QB Joe Flacco’s health, there a mixed signals as to what 2017 holds for the Ravens. One of the good things the Ravens did was to re-sign coach John Harbaugh to provide stability, for one year at least. Their defensive unit did wane in the latter stages of the 2016 season, costing the Ravens a wild card berth, so they made some incremental moves in the off-season to improve it. First, they signed veteran free agent CB Brandon Carr (61 tackles, 9 pass defences, INT with Dallas) and Arizona SS Tony Jefferson (96 tackles, 5 PD) who will look good alongside Eric Weddle. Their first two picks in the draft, CB Marlon Humphrey (16th from Alabama) and LB Tyus Bowser (47th from Houston) will be good down the road. The Ravens have improved, we just don’t know how much, considering the questions around their offence.
6. Detroit Lions
The Lions were good in 2016, going 9-7, and they might even be better in 2017. We say this because their elite level quarterback, Matt Stafford, became the highest paid player in the NFL with a five-year, $135 million contract extension this week. While some would snort coffee out their nose at that bit of contractual business, consider that it gives him piece of mind and the impetus to be even better. As an added boost, the Lions set about making Stafford’s pass protection even better, since he has been one of the more sacked quarterbacks the last three seasons (136 times total). They outbid a lot of teams for OT Rick Wagner (four good seasons in Baltimore) and then picked up veteran Pro Bowl OG T.J. Lang from Green Bay. Defensively, the Lions got a steal in the draft with Florida LB Jarrad Davis at no. 22. He is currently no. 1 on their depth chart and looking good. The Lions are due to make the playoffs again and should top the NFC North.
5. Indianapolis Colts
Like the Baltimore Ravens last year, the Colts were neither very bad, nor very good. And just like Baltimore, the Colts quarterback situation looks a little dicey going into 2017. Andrew Luck, who had surgery to correct a throwing arm shoulder issue, hasn’t thrown a pass in a pre-season game, yet and is still re-habbing. If he can go, the Colts are instantly better, if not, who knows. What the team did do in the off-season was shore up the defence with a couple of decent signings. They inked Houston OLB John Simon, who had 51 tackles and 3.5 sacks in 11 games last season. And to go opposite Simon, they also signed Super Bowl winning OLB Jabaal Sheard from New England. He recorded 33 tackles and 5.0 sacks in 15 games for the Patriots last year. First round draft pick Malik Hooker (15th from Ohio State) may not be far away from starting, either. The Colts other move of significance was getting WR Kamar Aiken form Baltimore. He had a great year in 2015 and gives Luck a new target downfield.
4. Philadelphia Eagles
Carson Wentz, while he didn’t blow anyone’s socks off with his rookie season, was a valuable first round pick and the Eagles made a big move to make him even better in 2017. Receiver Alshon Jeffery was the big prize in free agency and escaping rudderless Chicago should be the tonic to get him back to his Pro Bowl form of 2013, when he caught 89 passes for 1,421 yards and seven touchdowns. He spent four games on the sidelines in 2016 for violating the PED policy, so should be champing at the bit to get going. Another escapee who needed a change of scenery was veteran WR Torrey Smith, who was languishing in San Francisco and with more targets could eat least get back to 2014 form (767 receiving yards, 11 TD). Defensively, the Eagles gave themselves some hope for the future, snagging DE Derek Barnett 14th out of Tennessee and CB Rasul Douglas, who is second on the depth chart, 99th out of West Virginia.
3. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
In the NFC South, any team wanting to unseat the Atlanta Falcons has got to bring the sizzle. Offensive sizzle, that is. The Bucs took a big step that way in the off-season, signing elite receiver DeSean Jackson to a three-year contract. He had his fifth 1,000-yard plus receiving season (1,005) with Washington last year, along with four TDs. They gave QB Jameis Winston another big target in 6’6″ TE O.J. Howard, who the Buccaneers picked 19th overall out of Alabama. He is no. 1 on the depth chart so far and at his height, he is going to be a handful to cover in the red zone. On the D side, Tampa secured the services of veteran DE Chris Baker, who had 47 tackles and 3.5 sacks with the Redskins last season. The team also signed S J.J. Wilcox away from Dallas, where he had 49 tackles in 13 games (four starts), as well as six pass defences and an interceptions. On paper, Tampa looks better already.
2. Oakland Raiders
The Raiders are a team on the rise and even though none of their off-season moves were of the earth-shattering variety, they didn’t need to do a whole lot anyway. Not that Derek Carr needed more weapons, but the Raiders signed back-up WR Cordarrelle Patterson away from the Minnesota Vikings. He started eight of 16 games for the Vikes last year and caught 52 passes for 453 yards and two TDs. The signing of veteran TE Jared Cook was also pretty astute. In a battle with incumbent Lee Smith for the starting job, Cook caught 30 passes in 10 games (five starts) with the Packers last year, for 377 yards and a touchdown. As far as defence goes, they drafted fairly well, getting CB Gareon Conley 24th out of Ohio State and current depth chart number one’s DT Eddie Vanderdoes (88th from UCLA) and LB Marquel Lee (168th from Wake Forest). The Raiders have improved and will give New England a run this year.
1. New England Patriots
Speaking of the defending Super Bowl champion Patriots, how exactly does the best team in football get even better? Let us count the ways. The Pats got into trade mode in the off-season and the return haul was significant. Not having a ton of high draft picks, they did deal their 2017 first-rounder as part of a package to get WR Brandin Cooks from New Orleans. He had back-to-back 1,000-yards plus seasons in 2015-16 and hauled in a total of 17 TDs too. He’ll look mighty good opposite Julian Edelman. In a move to provide a steady back-up for star TE Rob Gronkowski, the Patriots got Dwayne Allen from Indianapolis for a fourth round pick in the draft. Not a big outlay for a guy who caught 35 passes for 406 yards and six TDs. On the defensive side, they signed Buffalo Bills veteran CB Stephon Gilmore to a five-year deal. He had 48 tackles, 12 pass defences and five interceptions in 2016 and will only get better under the guidance of Bill Belichick. Yes, the Patriots are better, much to the detriment of the rest of the herd.