The NFL offseason is the ultimate equalizer for teams. It is an opportunity for under-performing teams to bridge the gap with Super Bowl contenders. The talent acquisition portion of the offseason is essentially complete — although players like Jadeveon Clowney and Cam Newton remain unsigned — so it is feasible to speculate on which teams were the most productive over the past three months.
CBS Sports breaks down the 10 best offseasons:
1. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
The Buccaneers brought back defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul, defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh and outside linebacker Shaq Barrett. Those three played an integral role in a defense that exceeded expectations in 2019. Tampa Bay then added a few characters that had built their reputations elsewhere: quarterback Tom Brady and tight end Rob Gronkowski.
The assembly of the roster continued through the draft. Iowa offensive tackle Tristan Wirfs fell to them in the teens. Running backs Ke’Shawn Vaughn and Raymond Calais will bring a new look to the offense. Wide receiver Tyler Johnson was a consistent producer for the Gophers. Safety Antoine Winfield Jr. plays a similar style to his father, who played 14 seasons with the Bills and Vikings. Tampa Bay has not won their division since 2007 but they should challenge New Orleans this year.
2. Arizona Cardinals
Arizona swindled Houston into taking running back David Johnson’s contract and were able to get wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins in return. They retained offensive tackle D.J. Humphries, running back Kenyan Drake and wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald before signing outside linebackers De’Vondre Campbell and Devon Kennard.
Roster improvement continued through the 2020 NFL Draft. Clemson linebacker Isaiah Simmons was selected No. 8 overall. Running back Eno Benjamin and offensive tackle Josh Jones could develop into starters as well. The Cardinals showed a lot of growth last season but they are poised to take another step forward within the NFC West.
3. Baltimore Ravens
Safety Tony Jefferson was released and offensive guard Marshal Yanda retired. An inauspicious start to the offseason would eventually turn in their favor. Baltimore franchise-tagged outside linebacker Matt Judon and acquired defensive end Calais Campbell in a trade with the Jaguars. Backup tight end Hayden Hurst was sent to Atlanta for the pick used to select Ohio State running back J.K. Dobbins.
The Ravens added functional depth before completing what was widely-regarded as one of the best draft classes in the NFL. The crown jewel was LSU inside linebacker Patrick Queen, who will give the AFC North franchise speed and physicality at the heart of the unit. Wide receiver Devin Duvernay, inside linebacker Malik Harrison, defensive tackle Justin Madubuike and the aforementioned Dobbins all have starting traits. Baltimore and quarterback Lamar Jackson have fallen in the opening round of the playoffs each of the past two years. The roster is nearly flawless and the only opponent standing in their path is themselves.
4. San Francisco 49ers
General manager John Lynch was faced with some complicated decisions this offseason. The team backed up the BRINKS trucks for defensive end Arik Armstead and safety Jimmie Ward. Those moves made them realize that defensive tackle DeForest Buckner was a luxury so they shipped him to Indianapolis in exchange for a first-round pick. They made a series of budget signings to sustain a Super Bowl caliber roster.
San Francisco used their two first-round selections to fill a few large needs: South Carolina defensive tackle Javon Kinlaw and wide receiver Brandon Aiyuk. With the knowledge that Joe Staley would soon file for retirement, the 49ers made a swift move to replace him with Trent Williams. Will this offseason’s moves be enough to get Kyle Shanahan’s team over the hump?
5. Cleveland Browns
Cleveland spent a lot of money on right tackle Jack Conklin and tight end Austin Hooper. Some analysts will take issue with their strategy to spend money on less-appreciated positions. However, it shows that they have an identity. The Browns are going to set up the pass through the run game. The fullback position was reintroduced in the form of a trade for Andy Janovich.
By the time the draft arrived, general manager Andrew Berry had filled every role minus left tackle and could focus on adding the best talent with each selection. Alabama offensive tackle Jedrick Wills was taken No. 10 overall. LSU safety Grant Delpit was added to the secondary on Day 2. Cleveland was able to accomplish their objectives at every turn. The team is in a position to end their playoff drought dating back to 2002.
Cincinnati would have been the third AFC North franchise on this list had it not been for strategical differences. They had a great draft and signed a few big free agents. However, they should have continued their rebuild with draft selections acquired in trades of veterans. They could have added draft capital if they had parted with Tyler Eifert, Andy Dalton and others.
6. New York Jets
General manager Joe Douglas values offensive line play, which is why I remained stubborn in my projections of an offensive tackle at No. 11 overall. Louisville’s Mekhi Becton was inevitably taken with that choice. New York set forth to execute a plan similar to the one orchestrated by Buffalo a year earlier; build the offensive line. The plan led to the signings of offensive tackle George Fant, offensive guard Alex Lewis, offensive guard Greg Van Roten and center Connor McGovern. The Jets suddenly built depth to protect their most prized asset — Sam Darnold.
They were unable to fill needs at cornerback and along the edge, but Rome was not built in a day. Douglass did make some quality selections with Florida running back La’Mical Perine, Florida edge rusher Jabari Zuniga, California safety Ashtyn Davis, Charlotte offensive lineman Cameron Clark and Baylor wide receiver Denzel Mims. Virginia cornerback Bryce Hall’s selection in the fifth round was one of the best values in 2020.
7. Las Vegas Raiders
General manager Mike Mayock and head coach Jon Gruden have done a great job of building that roster. As a whole, the team exceeded expectations last season but were no more than pretenders when it mattered most. They arrived on the scene sooner than expected but are now building something sustainable. The linebacker unit had been a huge area of weakness but they turned it into a strength by signing Nick Kwiatkoski and Cory Littleton. Defensive tackle Maliek Collins was an underrated signing. Marcus Mariota gives them another viable option to start and should minimally apply pressure to Derek Carr.
Las Vegas’ strategy — along with Denver’s — on offense is abundantly clear. It will be difficult slowing Patrick Mahomes down so they needed a comparable output. After the failed trade for Antonio Brown in 2019, the Raiders added speed and ability through the draft: Alabama’s Henry Ruggs III, South Carolina’s Bryan Edwards and Kentucky’s Lynn Bowden Jr. On defense, the third round felt too early for the selection of Clemson outside Tanner Muse but the talent is undeniable. Cornerback Amik Robertson is a gritty player that should buy into the culture. The Raiders have had just one winning season since 2002.
8. New Orleans Saints
Drew Brees has returned for likely one final season. Teddy Bridgewater is gone but Jameis Winston was signed as his replacement. Safety Malcolm Jenkins, cornerback Janoris Jenkins and offensive guard Andrus Peat also received large contracts from the NFC South franchise. New Orleans did not make many changes but those that did occur were significant. It feels as though New Orleans knows that the Brees era is coming to an end and they were looking to stack the deck one last time.
The signing of Emmanuel Sanders gives New Orleans the first reliable second option since Jimmy Graham. Pro Bowl offensive guard Larry Warford was released but the team had a plan to become younger and cheaper. With the No. 24 overall selection, Michigan center Cesar Ruiz was selected. Outside linebacker Zack Baun and tight end Adam Trautman were taken to give them two developmental starters.
9. Los Angeles Chargers
The Chargers won the exchange of offensive tackle Russell Okung for offensive guard Trai Turner. In fact, most of the leg work was done before the 2020 NFL Draft. The retention of running back Austin Ekeler and tight end Hunter Henry was key. General manager Tom Telesco built one of the most intriguing defenses by adding veterans Chris Harris Jr. and Linval Joseph as well as rookie linebacker Kenneth Murray. Running back Joshua Kelley, wide receiver K.J. Hill and wide receiver Joe Reed were all value choices. The real prize could be Oregon quarterback Justin Herbert. If Herbert is able to develop into a franchise quarterback, then it will be appreciated as one of the best in franchise history.
Offensive tackle Bryan Bulaga was a critical signing for the offensive line. There are still concerns about quarterback and left play in 2020, however.
10. Indianapolis Colts
The final spot essentially came down to the Cowboys and Colts. Indianapolis received a boost early with the return of left tackle Anthony Castonzo, who strongly considered retirement. They added a veteran quarterback, Philip Rivers, with familiarity of Frank Reich’s system, and traded for Pro Bowl defensive tackle DeForest Buckner. General manager Chris Ballard drastically upgraded some areas of weakness. If Xavier Rhodes can show some semblance of his All-Pro talent, the defense will take a massive step forward.
The work continued through the 2020 NFL Draft. The team did well to surround Rivers with talent. Wisconsin running back Jonathan Taylor and USC wide receiver Michael Pittman Jr. were great additions in Round 2. Ball State offensive guard Danny Pinter, Utah safety Julian Blackmon and Washington quarterback Jacob Eason are all potential future starters.
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