A few weeks into the black hole of the offseason, which is filled with overblown reports from OTAs and media analysts coming up with crazy ideas for discussions, I had the time to go back and analyze which moves teams have made to improve a specific area of their football team. However, this is not about the most improved team overall, such as the Browns who added on several fronts, and I won’t name any teams that only added one superstar at a position and nothing else. This list is more about how these front offices made it a priority to invest into a unit that either needed to get better anyway or might have been solid to this point, but could be a true strength for them in 2019. These are the ten position groups I came up with and I added a few units at the bottom, who didn’t quite make the cut.
Packers pass rush
When I look at this Green Bay defense, I think it is the most talented they have had since their lone Super Bowl run with Aaron Rodgers at the helm, back in 2010/11. Since then they have not been in the top 10 in yards or points allowed once, with a lot of those rankings somewhere in the 20s. Unlike they were under former general manager Ted Thompson, the Packers were aggressive in free agency to spend money on the defense and have moved around a lot on the draft board since last year. I used the term pass rush, which is less than a real unit than an area of the team, because I think they will use their additions all over the front. First they acquired Preston and Za’Darius Smith via free agency to come off both edges and in the draft they used both first round picks on defense, going with Michigan’s freakish Rashan Gary 12th overall. Gary was not super-productive in college, especially in limited time last season, but he is exactly the chess piece Mike Pettine is looking for to move around and create havoc to make those blitz packages and stunts work. I also think they made an excellent selection in the fifth round, when they added another talented D-lineman in Texas A&M’s Kingsley Keke. Add to that the new safety duo of Adrian Amos coming over from Chicago and Darnell Savage being the team’s second pick in round one out of Maryland and you get a completely new look. Savage especially will be part of that pass rush, as he played a ton in the slot and comes off that corner like a lightning rod. Pettine will not shy away from being creative and bringing the heat against opposing signal-callers – and now he has the personnel to get there.
I know Lions fans were unsure about spending another top ten draft pick on a tight-end, after Eric Ebron was a big disappointment in Motown and even had his own fans booing at him, before breaking through in a Pro Bowl year in Indianapolis last season. However, I think Detroit really got a blue-chip contributor when they decided to select Iowa’s T.J. Hockenson. He is an excellent all-around football player, who is so much more than those modern day move tight-ends, who don’t bring you as much value when playing in-line. A good month before that the Lions had already signed Jesse James from Pittsburgh, who was their number one for most of his career and is a really good TE2. Add to that a seventh-round pick in Isaac Nauta, who fell that far due to poor combine numbers but was a dependable target at Georgia, and last year’s fourth-rounder Michael Roberts out of Toledo, who is a highly athletic 270-pounder who had 16 touchdowns his last year in college even if he was rather inconsistent. You can not even compare that to the tight-end room from last season, which only produced 450 yards altogether as a group. Matt Patricia is clearly trying to build a second Foxborough in Michigan with some of the draft picks they have made defensively and how they are trying to change this offense from Matt Stafford lining up in shotgun 40 times a game and trying to work his magic, to using a different personnel packages and staying on schedule with the run game and timing-based passing concepts. All those tight-ends will play a big role in that transition and you could see several 12 and maybe even 13 personnel packages, as they grind away games with Kerryon Johnson.
Eagles running backs
I was going back and forth between the Eagles and the Ravens about who improved their backfield the most, because both of them added a tough, hard-nosed veteran RB and a really talented rookie this offseason, after I thought that they didn’t have anybody special at the position last year. I ended up going with the Eagles because of the lack of production we saw from them and the chaos they had on a weekly basis, not knowing who might emerge amongst that group. Jay Ajayi looked slow and just couldn’t give you more than he was handed by the O-line, Corey Clement could not make the jump I expected him to and rookie Josh Adams was actually the most productive guy on that roster. Don’t get me wrong, Adams is a fine runner and he broke several long runs for Notre Dame his final year in college, but I always thought he was more of a straight-line speed guy, who didn’t see the field as well and couldn’t really create on his own. So about a month before the draft Howie Roseman saw the opportunity to trade a conditional sixth-round pick to the Bears for a guy in Jordan Howard, who was ultra-productive over his first two years in the league, but clearly wasn’t part of the plan that Matt Nagy had in Chicago. And when the draft rolled the Eagles selected Penn State’s Miles Sanders in the second round. That kid has some of the special stuff to make things happen that I referred to. Sanders has that combination of shiftiness and explosiveness, but also the physicality that I really like. Philly went from averaging 4.5 yards per carry in 2017 to only 3.9 last year and even though the O-line will have to get back to that level as well, they now have the guys carrying the rock to give them a strong rushing attack once again.
Panthers defensive front
When Carolina made that magical run to the Super Bowl in 2015/16 it was Cam Newton winning league MVP that dominated the media, but to a large degree that team was so good because of their defense, especially the front-seven. While Thomas Davis won’t suit up for them for the first time in 14 years, I think the front-five so to speak could be even better than the D-line was back then. With the Panthers shifting to more of a 3-4 base front this year, I count the outside linebackers to this group as well. Kawann Short and Dontari Poe were already an excellent duo on the interior, but this team invested more heavily into the guys around them than most people expected. First they brought in Bruce Irvin, who will somehow be on his third team in three years now, but has been productive to some degree everywhere he’s been at. Then with a left tackle prospect like Washington State’s Andre Dillard on the board at 16th overall in the draft, Carolina decided to go a different route with Florida State edge rusher Brian Burns, who I thought was the best at bending around the corner in this class. Plus, they came back in the fourth round and selected Alabama’s Christian Miller, who has shown flashes of dominance even though his game has been marked by inconsistencies. However, it was last week when they completed that unit with a familiar foe in Gerald McCoy, who they have seen up close many times from his nine-year career in Tampa Bay. After the Panthers ranked 27th in the league with just 35 sacks in 2018, they might have one of the most disruptive defensive fronts in football and could really shake things up with that next season.
If you asked me which was the most boring offense in the league during last season, the Cardinals would have been right at the top of the list and the stats back me up here – they were dead-last in both yards and points per game. A lot of that had to do with a lack of creativity and overall decision-making when it comes to the offensive play-calling and of course the O-line being reshuffled on a weekly basis could not give them any consistency either. However, it might have also been that 35-year old Larry Fitzgerald was by far their best weapon in the passing game. Christian Kirk showed some flashes as a rookie and Chad Williams at least has the competitive nature and skills to contribute to some degree, but no way can you expect a rookie quarterback in Josh Rosen to excel in that offense. Now with Kliff Kingsbury coming over to take over the attack and the decision to go with Kyler Murray first overall, Arizona needed to bring in pass-catchers for this Air Raid system. They ended up selecting UMass speedster Andy Isabella with that second-round pick they got for Rosen, they came back in the fourth round and drafted my number three overall receiver in Hakeem Butler out of Iowa State, who has elite size and can play all four receiver spots, and then they got one of my sleepers in the sixth in Fresno State’s KeeSean Johnson. Moreover, they also signed Kevin White, who is labelled as a bust for the Bears but might still have some talent, and Pharoh Cooper who was a first-team All-Pro return man just two years ago. We know two things – the Cardinals will throw the ball all over the yard and they now at least have several bodies to catch it. Plus, David Johnson is still there to take advantage of some lighter boxes.
49ers defensive line
You could argue that nobody will have a group making a bigger leap heading in 2019 then that 49ers defensive front. Before the draft started, they made a big trade for Kansas City outside linebacker Dee Ford, who is coming off a career year with 13 sacks and will give the Red-and-Gold a true speed-rushing threat off the edge. However, they did not settle for that and got one of the consensus top two draft prospects in Ohio State defensive end Nick Bosa. The younger brother of the Chargers’ Joey has pretty much the exact same skill-set as his brother and is a little more athletically gifted in my opinion. However, it is not just about adding those two guys to the room, it is also the way they allow everybody else to line up in different places. DeForest Buckner has become a superstar on the interior for the Niners, but those other guys played a lot out of position. Solomon Thomas can be an excellent base D-end on early downs, but he has always been better lining up over guards on third down. Arik Armstead has not really paid off for San Fran either coming out of Oregon, but at 6’7” and nearly 300 pounds he was flexed out to the edge too much as well out of necessity, which didn’t work out for him personally. All of a sudden, a defense that ranked in the bottom ten among sacks with 37 of them and really struggled to put pressure on opposing quarterbacks for large stretches, could field one of the more dangerous pass rush units in the league. They also added linebacker Kwon Alexander to line up right in the middle of that defense and hold things together.
Bills offensive line
Brandon Beane and the Bills have added so many bodies this offseason, you could look at wide receiver and tight-end here as well, but to me it is clearly the offensive line that has been improved in a major way this offseason. The biggest piece here is Mitch Morse coming over from Kansas City, who I thought was a top three center over the course of the 2018 season. They also brought over a quality swing tackle in Ty Nsekhe from the nation’s capital, who I think definitely believe has starting potential. And then they signed Quinton Spain, who was made expendable in Tennessee, but at the very least is good competition for Wyatt Teller and could actually start at one of those guard spots. Then in the draft it was all about improving up front on either side of the ball and after they used a top ten pick on the freakish D-tackle Ed Oliver out of Houston, they came back in the second round and traded up a few spots to ensure they got Oklahoma’s Cody Ford, who I thought was a top 20 overall prospect and looked like he could be a mauling right tackle but was largely projected to move inside. Either way you want to turn this, they should have at least three new starters to go with left tackle Dion Dawkins. Morse will be the center(piece) for them and then they can choose whoever are the top three guys left and decide where they fit, because you have some position flexibility. With the oldest running back duo ever and a mini-Shady McCoy in FAU’s Devin Singletary, Buffalo should be able to pound the rock and give their second-year QB Josh Allen more time to get the ball to those new weapons downfield. When I take the defense into account as well, you have to watch out for this team.
I like what the Broncos have done at the quarterback position and I have them among my “honorable mentions”, but I have to credit Miami here, because I think the resources they have given up and the money they invested into the position compared to what they have now is the best out there. First they signed long-time veteran journeyman Ryan Fitzpatrick, who is the one guy who has flirted with that starter-to-backup line more than anybody I can remember for about the last decade. We have seen him put together incredible stretches, just like he did at the start of this past season, but we have also seen him just throw away the job once he looks like “the guy”. Either way, there is not a lot of people who would be better as a spot-starter and veteran to have in that QB room. However, the big scoop for these Phins was the way they acquired a top-ten pick from just a year ago in Josh Rosen. On day two of the 2019 draft, they traded down with the Saints and ended up giving Arizona that 62nd pick and a fifth-rounder for the second-year man, while having acquired a sixth and a 2020 second-rounder from New Orleans prior to that. So basically they swapped day three picks and pushed a round two selection back a year in order to pick up a quarterback, who I thought was worth a first-rounder and still believe in going forward. Fitzy has looked good in camp according to reports and Rosen was the most talented pure thrower of the ball in last year’s stacked class of signal-callers. Those two guys lead to a cap hit of less than seven million quarterbacks, which is less than half of what they paid Ryan Tannehill cost them in each of the last two years. Plus, they could still follow that ridiculous idea of tanking for another guy next year.
Don’t get me wrong – I have always been a fan of Eric Berry and there were several years where he was one of the premiere playmakers on the back-end, but he was not available for most of last season and when he did come back, he looked not nearly as dynamic, being beaten one-on-one by Rob Gronkowski in the AFC Championship game in crucial situations. Ron Parker and Eric Murray led KC in safety snaps last season, but they were responsible for several big plays, and Daniel Sorensen has always been solid for them when called upon, but as a starter he will have always leave something to be desired. For a defense that lost three of their four biggest names in Berry, Justin Houston and Dee Ford, you would be really concerned, but if that unit was ranked second-to-last in yards allowed per game, it is time to restructure. So they made two big additions in March and April with Tyrann Mathieu, who played a lot of deep safety last season, but is a highly versatile DB whose leadership qualities were praised by Texans coaches in his one year there, and then they made a huge trade for Seahawks defensive end Frank Clark, who I think is at least as good as Ford and we already know he brings it every week and year. Due to that blockbuster deal with Seattle, the Chiefs didn’t have a first-round pick, but they jumped into the second and selected Virginia safety Juan Thornhill, who is a really explosive athlete and brings position flexibility, having started his career on the outside and showing the all-around skill-set to contribute in every area. Pairing the safety up with the veteran Mathieu will not only accelerate his growth, but give new DC Steve Spagnuolo a really versatile duo on the back-end.
After Jon Gruden and the Raiders traded Amari Cooper in the middle of last season, their receiver group was atrocious. Jordy Nelson was probably the best guy among that group and he has retired since then. Martavis Bryant seemingly could not learn the playbook and wasn’t on the field close to what his talent would dictate, Seth Roberts is now the third or maybe even fourth receiver on a very inexperienced Ravens depth chart and Brandon LaFell has gone from an okay number two about three years ago to having his worst statistical season as a pro. The one guy I still like that is left from that group is second-year man Marcell Ateman, who comes off the ball as a vertical threat and has the size as well as the hands to make tough catches over defenders. With that being said, Oakland’s top three receiver spots are on a different level now. No matter what you think of Antonio Brown’s offseason craziness, when that guy is right, he is among the very best at the position. Tyrell Williams has a chance to be one of the top WR2s and was always underrated with the Chargers. And Hunter Renfrow might not meet NFL standards for size or athleticism, but he puts in work as a slot receiver and always came up clutch for Clemson on third downs. I think this trio could be better than what the Raiders had with Amari Cooper in year two and Michael Crabtree at his best back in 2016, when Derek Carr was an MVP candidate until he got hurt in week 16 and everybody forgot about him. If Jon Gruden is willing to adept more to the modern game and utilize wide-open sets, the entire offense could make a huge jump.
Other position groups that got better:
Falcons offensive line
Ravens running backs
Steelers inside linebackers
Jets defensive line