As I’ve been working through every NFL roster to point out their biggest remaining need(s) and which players could break out for them in 2020, I wanted to look at this from a different angle. Therefore, I compared the rosters from a year to the ones heading into this upcoming season and tried to figure out who has improved the most at every single position.
For this piece, I am considering top-end play a depth. Players that are simply coming back from injury will be weighed to a smaller degree, but that can obviously vary depending on how much or if that guy actually played for them last season.
With that being said, here is my list:
Quarterbacks – Tampa Bay Buccaneers
As much as everybody wants to ridicule Jameis Winston for those 30 interceptions he threw last season, he did also lead the league in passing yards and tossed 33 touchdowns. So the Bucs will certainly lose some of that explosive element from their passing attack, but that transition to Tom Brady has positives that absolutely outweigh that. With an all-time great at the helm, Tampa Bay immediately upgrades their situational football awareness, turning them into more of a well-oiled, efficient machine rather than an offense with a bombs-away mindset. There will be an adjustment from both sides, with Bruce Arians and Byron Leftwich allowing Tom to spread the field a little more and take advantage of the space created with the horizontal passing attack, but the 43-year old QB will have to be willing to stand inside that pocket more and take a few shots off play-action, more so than what he did in recent years with New England. I expect this entire team to benefit from the move, maybe not in terms of those receivers seeing as many downfield targets coming their way to bolster the stats, but if you can protect the legend, he is one of the most precise passers in NFL history, which will allow them to convert on drives more consistently, and maybe even more than that the defense not being put in those spots with short turn-arounds, as opposing offenses are set up in scoring range after turnovers or they are just tired from being on the field too much. Looking at the QB2 position, Blaine Gabbert may be labelled as a bust, since he certainly never lived up to the status of a top ten pick – especially when you look back at that loaded 2011 draft, which had J.J. Watt going a spot behind Gabbert – he has been a solid backup these last few years and he has already worked with Bruce Arians in Arizona, where he performed much better than the stats would indicate. That’s why he was brought in a year ago and then re-signed this offseason, despite missing almost all of 2019 with a dislocated shoulder. The Bucs also still have last year’s backup Ryan Griffin, who has been sticking around for a while now in Tampa, but has only thrown four passes in the regular season since entering the league in 2013. So basically they are replacing Jameis with Brady and get Gabbert back.
Also considered: Indianapolis Colts
Running backs – Washington Redskins
This is not meant to be an insult by any means – since I believe for a 35-year old running back to still be as effective as is, definitely is an accomplishment – but for Adrian Peterson to make up for 57 percent of your team’s rushing yards at this point of his career and him almost picking up twice the yardage of all the other backs on that roster combined, is not a recipe for success. AP is an all-time great and can still contribute to an RB room, but they needed to put some more young talent on the field. What really stands out for this Washington team is just how many bodies they now have on the roster. When you look at the actual acquisitions of Peyton Barber as a solid, tough ball-carrier and J.D. McKissic having the ability to catch the ball in space and run away from people, that’s already pretty good. The main add here however is their third-round pick Antonio Gibson, who primarily played slot receiver at Memphis, but has that explosiveness and contact balance to be a difference-maker with the ball in his hands. Whenever the Tigers handed or pitched him the ball, he seemed to make something happen. I believe new offensive coordinator Scott Turner will utilize his versatile skill-set on fly sweeps, creating mismatches out of the backfield and as a decoy for the defense. And while I didn’t want to talk too much about players coming off an injury, you just can’t ignore this with the Redskins. I loved Derrius Guice coming out of LSU in 2018 due to what an angry runner with natural feel for the position he was. However, the second-rounder missed his entire rookie campaign and then went on IR after five weeks again last season. When he was out there, he averaged 5.8 yards per carry and got involved in the pass game – something people questioned about him coming out of college. And the X-factor among this entire group is Bryce Love, who was a runner-up to the Heisman in 2017, but had a disappointing season after that behind a weakened Stanford O-line and has yet to see the field for Washington. He was the master of those 20+ yard breakaway runs as a junior and if he can finally get back to full health, he could contribute as well. The Redskins did lose a very good third-down back in Chris Thompson, but I think they can compensate for his departure with some of the other guys.
Also considered: Miami Dolphins
Wide receivers – Denver Broncos
I could go a couple of different routes here and this is actually the one with the least proven players at the pro level, but I just see so much talent in Denver. Let’s just start like this – Courtland Sutton to me is one of the young star receivers in the league already and he is still growing. The Broncos really only needed one more piece to that group, since DeSean Hamilton is not a bad option in the slot and a lot of their production was going to come through their backs and first-round tight-end Noah Fant from a year ago. So after they were able to just sit there in the middle of the first round and have a supreme route-runner and ankle-breaking Jerry Jeudy from Alabama fall to them, they could have just focused on other areas of the team. Instead they came back in round two and grabbed a true can-opener in Penn State’s K.J. Hamler, who might have had some drop issues last season, but also is tremendous at tracking the deep ball after blowing past safeties and is really tough to put a hand on in space. Having Jeudy as that piece you can move around the formation and creating separation with the way he sets up his breaks will already be major help for second-year quarterback Drew Lock, but now to also bring in Hamler only enhances that. Not only does Lock obviously have the big arm to attack downfield if he has the speedster streaking free, but when you get defenses rolling the coverage the opposite way and now Jeudy fools somebody with a double-move against man-coverage or you put the two rookie to one side and now there’s Sutton matched up one-on-one with somebody, where he can use his physicality to get open. That is just a lethal core of pass-catchers all of a sudden and I haven’t even talked about how this will effect Fant as a vertical target detached from the line or fourth-round pick Albert Okwuegbunam getting back together with his former QB at Missouri and how those 12 personnel sets could create issues for the opposition. Emmanuel Sanders certainly played well for Denver in the first half of the season before he was traded to San Francisco, but as remarkable as his recovery was, he wasn’t as dynamic as the two rooks will be. In the seventh round the Broncos added another burner in Tyrie Cleveland, who is good for a couple of deep balls and can contribute in the return game as well.
Also considered: Philadelphia Eagles & Buffalo Bills
Tight-ends – Cleveland Browns
On paper, when you looked at this Browns team and saw a former first-round pick who only turned 23 a couple of weeks ago and recorded over 1000 receiving yards plus eight touchdowns through his first two years, you would not have said they were in the market for a big-time tight-end. Despite that, they went out and made Austin Hooper the highest-paid player at the position on average, outside of Hunter Henry on the franchise tag. Hooper was a major beneficiary from Dirk Koetter’s TE-happy offense in Atlanta, when he almost reached the 800-yard mark and got to the end-zone six times, despite missing three games due to injury. However, even before that, he had shown improvement every single year with increasing receptions and yards as well as catch percentage, while only dropping one of 97 targets last season. Just him and David Njoku, who was expected to be one of the young stars at the position heading into 2019, would be an incredible duo and create problems for opposing defenses, lining up on either end of the line in ace sets and releasing off play-action, but then Cleveland even strengthened that group by drafting FAU’s Harrison Bryant early on day three. I have some questions about his ability to be a factor as an in-line blocker at the next level and how his catch-radius limits some of the things he can do, but he can certainly stress defenses down the seams and he is dangerous slipping out into the flats on simple bootlegs. With Kevin Stefanski as the new head-man and bringing his offense with him, Cleveland will run a lot of 12 personnel and while those guys won’t necessarily blow people off the ball in the run-game, they all have the athleticism to at least secure the edge and help Nick Chubb & Kareem Hunt to threaten defenses that way on outside zone plays, plus they don’t lose much when they just drop back. The Browns did lose their two leading receivers from the tight-end position in Ricky Seals-Jones and Demetrius Harris, but they only combined for 378 yards. Hooper more than doubled that in 13 games last season and while it is obviously a big jump from Conference USA to the NFL, Bryant did crack the rarely reached 1000-yard mark as a college TE. With David Njoku trying to re-establish himself coming off injury, this could easily be the best trio in the entire league.
Also considered: Chicago Bears & Seattle Seahawks
Offensive line – Miami Dolphins
There were a few ways I could have gone here, since there are more than ten teams that will probably have at least two new starters compared to 2019 or just drafted multiple offensive linemen. While I believe the Giants and Browns have added better players to fill out the O-line, for the Dolphins it came down to volume and who they had on the roster originally. This was their starting five at the end of last season from left to right – Julie’n Davenport, Michael Deiter, Daniel Kilgore, Evan Boehm and Jesse Davis. That is a very underwhelming group and the casual NFL fan probably couldn’t name a single one of them or even heard of more than one. I liked Deiter quite a bit coming out of Wisconsin a year ago as my 76th overall prospect in the draft and he should be the one guy to keep his starting spot, but there’s a pretty good chance the Phins will have four new guys around him. Kilgore and Boehm are the two guys they let walk this offseason, but they have added so many other quality pieces. First, they get back Danny Isidora, whose potential I liked coming out of college and was traded for a week before the 2019 season started, only to go on IR after starting the first three weeks. In free agency they signed center Ted Karras, who filled in pretty well all of last year for David Andrews in New England, and Ereck Flowers, who has been a punching bag for NFL fans as labelled first-round bust, but actually played his best season yet probably as a full-time starter at left guard for Washington in 2019, when he was responsible for just 2.5 sacks. Those were already positive steps, but then Miami entered the draft and just went all-in on the O-line once they had secured their franchise quarterback in Tua with that fifth overall pick. With the 18th overall selection they brought in USC tackle Austin Jackson, who I thought was overrated in the prospect, but undeniably has the physical talent to develop into a good starter, early in the second round they got one of my favorites in the entire draft in Louisiana’s Robert Hunt, who was a mauler in the run game from that right tackle spot, but needed to clean up his footwork to sustain that success as a pass-protector, and then they came back on day three and got another huge man in Georgia guard Solomon Kindley. Assuming they put Jackson on the blind-side day one, start their two FA acquisitions to go with Deiter and book-end it with Hunt, who I thought would be better suited to play inside early on, but has been very effective at right tackle, this starting five already looks so much better and they have some depth behind it.
Also considered: New York Giants & Cleveland Browns
Edge rush – Buffalo Bills
Coming off their first double-digit win season since the turn of the millennium, Buffalo went into this offseason with one area on either side of the ball the felt like they needed to address – wide receiver and edge rush. GM Brandon Beane used his first-round pick to acquire a proven commodity in Stefon Diggs, who matches very well with the big-armed Josh Allen throwing the ball deep off play-action to his new target, just like he did several times in Minnesota. They had already signed a defensive end in free agency in former Panther Mario Addison, who was one of the more underrated players at the position in football during these last few years in Carolina, with the numbers to back up his game, having recorded at least nine sacks in four straight seasons. However, when they were finally on the clock in the middle of the second draft in the draft, they got one of the bigger steals of the entire weekend to me in Iowa’s A.J. Epenesa, which I thought would have been a target for them with that original first-round pick at 22nd overall and I had ranked right around there. While there was some speculation of putting the former Hawkeye at 3-tech since he measures in at 6’5”, 275 pounds and had an underwhelming combine for an edge player – which is also the reason he even fell that far – with the Bills already having a top-ten pick in Ed Oliver best suited to play that spot and Epenesa to me projecting best as a strong-side D-end in a 4-3 anyway, that’s what I look at him as here. I love his ability to anchor again the run, the length he presents and how well he already uses his hands. In terms of the losses Buffalo has suffered, Shaq Lawson was an improving player who the prior regime had spent a first-round pick on, but he had never quite lived up to that status and did ultimately sign for 10 million annually with Miami. Lorenzo Alexander’s retirement also throws up some questions, since he basically was their starting SAM linebacker the last four years (with the games he didn’t get the official start beginning in nickel package), which was the best stretch of his entire career, and they brought him down to the edge on over sets or as a rush end on sub. However, at 37 years old and with other pieces being brought in to go with two excellent stand-up backers, the biggest loss is probably his leadership. The Bills still have Jerry Hughes as one of the more underappreciated players in the entire league and a 16-game starter for them in Trent Murphy, who is their returning leader in total pressures in 2019.
Also considered: Atlanta Falcons & Miami Dolphins
Interior defensive line – Dallas Cowboys
This was probably the easiest pick from this entire write-up. I will mention a couple of AFC North teams at the bottom which did upgrade, but when you look at all the additions the Cowboys have made, nobody really comes close to them. You can argue that both Gerald McCoy and Dontari Poe, who will be teammates once again after lining up next to each other in Carolina last season, have peaked already in their respective careers, but they are both former high first-round picks with a lot to like still. McCoy can get upfield as a 3-tech and be a disruptor both in the run and pass game, not having put up less than five sacks in any season, since he missed the majority of his second year in the league, earning the highest grade of any player on that Panthers defense last season by Pro Football Focus, which fell off over the second half of the year. Right behind him was Poe, who only played 39 percent of the defensive snaps as more a designated run-stopper, but his four sacks were the highest mark he had put up since 2014, despite missing five games. He can at least be a rock in the middle of that Dallas unit as their shade nose. Those two should immediately upgrade a middling run defense by keeping those fast-flowing linebackers clean and give them a boost in the pass game, with only five total sacks coming from the defensive tackle position in 2019. The Cowboys would have certainly liked to retain Maliek Collins, who was responsible for four of those sacks, but he hadn’t shown great improvement since his rookie campaign – even if he is still pretty young. With that being said, they were not done with the acquisitions on the defensive interior. Jerry Jones went to the Oklahoma well a second time in round three of the draft – after using their top pick on receiver Ceedee Lamb already – and selected Neville Gallimore, who was the 41st overall prospect on my board. His production was limited by the amount of stunts and games the Sooners ran up front as well as playing out of position mostly, as an undersized nose tackle, but while I talked about how he needs to become more efficient with his pass-rush moves, the talent and potential are obvious. Let that guy work with a maniac like Jim Tomsula as his D-line coach and he will soon be a disruptive force on the inside.
Also considered: Cincinnati Bengals & Baltimore Ravens
Linebackers – Arizona Cardinals
Similar to the interior D-line, there weren’t a lot of teams I considered in this linebacker discussion, since teams like the Ravens will have two rookies starting on the inside for them probably and I wanted at least some proven commodities. The Raiders were definitely a candidate to look at here with two new starters as well, as they reached into their pockets to invest into that group, but the one team that to me best combined young talent and established players was the Cardinals. Let’s not dance around the big name – Eight overall pick Isaiah Simmons is an athletic freak closest to the idea of position-less football in terms of skill-set. When he ran sub-4.4 and jumped out of the gym at the combine, he basically dropped the mic and didn’t participate in any on-field drills, since he had already put that ability to the field in incredible fashion for the Tigers. With the range of a free safety, explosive tackling skills of a linebacker and length of an edge rusher, he was a truly a unique prospect. Now it is time to put that to the NFL field and it will be interesting to see how exactly defensive coordinator Vance Joseph will use him, but to me he will be a clean-up player, as Arizona has added several bodies on the D-line to clog up lanes and force ball-carriers to bounce out wide, where Simmons can cut off that angle. Before the draft even, the Cardinals already signed free agent De’Vondre Campbell, who had started 54 of 59 career games with the Falcons, increasing his tackling output every single year and rarely missing until the entire unit struggled last season. In base sets, Simmons ability to cover space matches beautifully with one of the more underrated linebackers in the entire league in Jordan Hicks. And if they want to counter heavier personnel in that division, they can go to an over fronts with three stand-up backers and Chandler Jones on the edge. At the very least Campbell should be an excellent backup. Plus, signing another free agent in Devon Kennard, who you can put at SAM and allowing their best pass-rusher to use a wide nine alignment more recently, helps as well. I think with the additions they have made, they have just given themselves flexibility and depth, to go with a potential superstar in Simmons. And of the three guys they lost, Terrell Suggs was 37, Cassius Marsh is now on his fifth team since 2017 and Brooks Reed played less than seven percent of the snaps.
Also considered: Las Vegas Raiders & Baltimore Ravens
Cornerbacks – Miami Dolphins
When you look at the Dolphins cornerbacks with the highest snap count last season outside of Eric Rowe – who should be more of a matchup piece than an actual starter anyway – the next two names are Nik Needham and Jordan Wiltz. Similar to what I talked about with the Dolphins O-line earlier already, these aren’t necessarily names the general public is familiar with, and unless they get a chance to start for another team shortly, that won’t change any time soon. Needham in particular had a solid stretch at some point last season and he should be a quality backup, but Wiltz is off the roster altogether now and the upgrade the Dolphins have made from those guys – who did help them win a few games down the stretch – to who they will have in 2020 is astronomical. They have made former Cowboy Byron Jones the highest-paid corner in the entire league and while he may never put up any big numbers in terms of interceptions, but he played was sticky in coverage these last two years, allowing 7.6 and then only 5.1 yards per target these last two seasons respectively. Those numbers are better than the ones of Jalen Ramsey for example. Then with their third pick in the first round at 30th overall, Miami selected Auburn’s Noah Igbinoghene, who has only been on defense for two years, but already showed a lot promise thanks to the athletic skill-set he offers. Now they get their original star corner Xavien Howard back from IR, which could give them one of the premiere CB trios going forward. What is intriguing about them is the different types of matchup players they have now, which is how Brian Flores wanted to put together the secondary, similar to what they did in New England. Jones is that lanky, athletic corner who can get into the face of bigger receivers and not be taken advantage of at the catch point. Igbinoghene definitely still has a lot of room to grow and he didn’t line up in the slot many times in college, which was probably be his role as a rookie, but right now those rapid feet and fluid lower body can save him even if he takes a wrong step at times. And then Howard can play press or off and has that tremendous ability to click-and-close, which led to him tying for the lead-league in interceptions in 2018. This whole defense is really starting to take shape, after finishing dead-last in points allowed a year ago.
Also considered: Cincinnati Bengals & Detroit Lions
Safeties – Cleveland Browns
In terms of who they lost from the 2019 roster, the Browns are up there on that list. Outside of last year’s fourth-round pick Sheldrick Redwine, they will be without their four safeties with the highest snap count from last season, in starters Damarious Randall and Morgan Burnett, who missed a combined 13 games, and backups Jermaine Whitehead and Eric Murray. Those were all solid players in the roles they were asked to fulfill, but I still believe the three players they added this offseason equal a big net plus. The two major pieces here are second-round pick Grant Delpit from LSU and the signing of a former top-15 selection in Karl Joseph, formerly of the Raiders. Delpit is always critized for his issues as a tackler and some claims he took his foot off the pedal last season, when he was projected to be one of the first defensive players off the board altogether, but I never thought it was due to a lack of effort but rather just coming in too hot when he tried to get somebody down after a short catch. When you put him as a true deep middle safety, who can use his range and length to make plays on the ball in-between the numbers, he was worth a first-round pick to me still. And then Joseph complements that really well, since he is much better suited to play closer to the line of scrimmage despite being undersized for that role, thanks to his ability to elude blockers and that good mix of secure tackling skills he has developed with the hitting power he possesses. While he never really lived up to his original draft status, Joseph has shown improvement throughout his four years in Oakland and he enjoyed his best season yet in 2019 before he got hurt, especially in terms of his play in coverage. I understand why the Raiders decided to not make an effort to re-sign him with a guy they love in last year’s first-round pick Jonathan Abram coming back from injury, but for the Browns to get the 26-year old on a bargain 2.5-million dollar deal for this season is pretty darn good. With the two young corners Cleveland has and Joseph having that ability to match up with backs or tight-ends, plus Delpit back there, you will see a lot of single-high safety coverages. The Browns also signed former Viking Andrew Sendejo, who will be a high quality backup for them with plenty of starting experience as a combo-safety.
Also considered: Detroit Lions & Carolina Panthers