10. New York Giants
The G-Men focused primarily on fixing the secondary in free agency, and despite Will Hill’s lengthy suspension, the team managed to turn a weakness into a strength by signing Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and Walter Thurmond III, who look to team up with the talented Prince Amukamara to form one of the NFL’s stoutest cornerback corps.
In the draft, New York turned much of its attention to the offensive side of the ball. The club plans to utilize the playmaking ability of their first round receiver Odell Beckham Jr. (No. 12 overall pick) early and often, and he should be an important piece of the Giants’ aerial attack, which also features Victor Cruz, Rueben Randle and Jerrel Jernigan.
Big Blue also continued to improve its ground game by selecting fourth round running back and 2013 Heisman Finalist Andre Williams, who had a second round grade on the team’s draft board and will operate as the No. 2 RB behind Rashad Jennings. The Giants’ offensive line is also in better shape with the additions of second round center Weston Richburg, as well as ex-Chiefs OG Geoff Schwartz and ex-Saints OT Charles Brown. Last year’s first round pick, Justin Pugh, also showed plenty of promise down the stretch last season.
But despite the improvements on offense and the pass defense, the Giants will need last year’s second and third round picks, Johnathan Hankins and Damontre Moore (and 2014 third round DT Jay Bromley), to step up following the departures of Justin Tuck and Linval Joseph in order for the team to get back to postseason contention in the upcoming 2014 season.
9. Atlanta Falcons
Matt Ryan was pummeled like a piñata behind the Falcons’ porous offensive line last season. The defensive line wasn’t much better, so Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff and company went into the offseason with a plan to get bigger, stronger and more physical in the trenches and they executed it to near perfection.
Re-signing OL Joe Hawley and acquiring OG Jon Asamoah, a strong pass protector with a nasty attitude, definitely improved the offensive line, but the inevitable selection of OT Jake Matthews with the No. 6 overall pick in the draft should provide the most impact. Matthews was widely regarded as arguably safest and most pro-ready prospect in the entire draft. The strong, athletic technician comes with requisite NFL bloodlines and excelled while protecting Johnny Manziel, so it should be easier to block for the more stationary Matt Ryan.
As well as the club did addressing its needs along the offensive line, Atlanta might have made even more improvements on the other side of the ball. In addition to re-signing DT Jonathan Babineaux, the Falcons picked up another ex-Chiefs lineman in DE Tyson Jackson and former Dolphins DT Paul Soliai, before landing DT Ra’Shede Hageman with the No. 39 overall pick in the draft.
Hageman was widely regarded as one of the biggest boom-or-bust prospects in the entire draft for his flashes of brilliance in regards to his interior disruption thanks to an explosive first step, but lack of consistency.
But because of their new talent and depth, the Falcons won’t have to rely too much on Hageman, so they should be able to utilize him well as they shift between three and four man fronts on defense.
Despite all of the attention the Falcons placed in the trenches, the team has made other moves this offseason. Fourth round running back Devonta Freeman has plenty of promise behind the Falcons’ overhauled O-line and should see plenty of action in a rotation with Steven Jackson and Jacquizz Rodgers thanks to his soft hands and impressive one-cut ability.
Devin Hester could also provide a big boost in the return game and Javier Arenas brings versatility to the secondary (and some return chops of his own). Third round safety Dezmen Southward should also help out at the back-end of the defense, and the Falcons plan to lean on plenty of three receiver sets with Roddy White, Julio Jones and last year’s breakout producer Harry Douglas after deciding not to replace Tony Gonzalez. The NFC South is going to be very competitive, and the Falcons are back in the playoff conversation.
8. Baltimore Ravens
After patching up a few holes on offense in free agency, the Ravens focused on their attention on adding young talent on defense through the draft. Despite losing SS James Ihedigbo to the Lions, the Ravens managed to strengthen their secondary this offseason by moving Matt Elam to strong safety and picking up third round prospect Terrence Brooks.
The front seven also gets a big boost with the addition of second round defensive tackle Timmy Jernigan and first round linebacker C.J. Mosely, who looks to provide an immediate impact as a day one starter and rounds out the most impressive LB corps the club has had since Ray Lewis’ prime with Daryl Smith, Arthur Brown, Elvis Dumervil and Terrell Suggs.
There’s still some questions on offense, however. Ray Rice looks to have avoided major trouble for his early offseason arrest, but he’s still expected to get suspended for the first few games of the season. Having OG Kelechi Osemele back healthy and acquiring center Jeremy Zuttah will help, but right tackle remains a concern, with 2013 fifth round OT Ricky Wagner penciled in as a first-time starter. Perhaps they’ll finally pick up Eric Winston, one of the best free agents still available.
The Ravens will utilize Dennis Pitta and Owen Daniels in two tight end sets to strengthen the WR tag team of Torrey Smith and Steve Smith with Jacoby Jones and Marlon Brown splitting No. 3 WR duties.
Steve Smith, 35, obviously has lost some steps in recent years, but he still possesses very reliable hands and is still capable of making plays against tight coverage. The 14-year receiver also fits into the mold of the chain-moving receiver the Ravens sorely lacked after trading Anquan Boldin and could be a big difference-maker in January.
7. Houston Texans
Houston (didn’t make much noise) was relatively quiet on the open market, yet despite the departures of QB Matt Schaub, RB Ben Tate, TE Owen Daniels, DT Earl Mitchell, DE Antonio Smith, LB Darryl Sharpton and SS Danieal Manning—each of whom started at least five games in 2013—the team has significantly improved its 2014 fortunes this offseason.
In addition to solidifying the secondary by signing Chris Clemons and Kendrick Lewis, the Texans absolutely aced the draft. Not only did they land the most talented prospect in the draft in Jadeveon Clowney, but Rick Smith and his staff somehow managed to pick up another pair of blue-chip talents with first-round ability in OG Xavier Su’a-Filo and DT Louis Nix III.
Tom Savage also provides first-year head coach Bill O’Brien with a young, big-armed quarterback to mold behind Case Keenum and/or Ryan Fitzpatrick (who has never operated with the type of tools and protection that he’ll have in Houston) in 2014. Although they won’t be battling for a trip to the Super Bowl with Fitzpatrick/Keenum under center, Houston should re-emerge as a legitimate playoff contender this year by running the football with authority and playing smashmouth defense.
6. Minnesota Vikings
Minnesota didn’t make much noise via free agency and could face a tough test on defense after losing valuable All-Pro leadership with the departures of Jared Allen and Kevin Williams—one of the best free agents still available.
Nevertheless, the Vikings have definitely revamped their defense in terms of talent by bringing back Everson Griffen (who replaces Allen opposite Brian Robison) and adding ex-Bears DE Corey Wooton and ex-Giants DT Linval Joseph off the open market. The team also used the No. 9 overall pick in the draft on Anthony Barr and a third round pick on DE Scott Crichton.
One of the draft’s biggest boom-or-bust prospects, Barr lacks ideal flexibility and physicality and could have the makings of a one-trick pass rushing pony if he doesn’t learn to adapt his game and use more effective counter moves on a consistent basis. He’s also struggled at times in coverage and the run game, but there’s also no denying his impressive skill set and sky-high potential. Barr is expected to play a Von Miller-like role in Mike Zimmer’s defense as a strong-side LB on early downs before rushing the QB in sub-packages.
“Typically, our ‘Sam’ linebacker blitzes a lot more than our ‘Will’ linebacker, for instance” Zimmer said, per ESPN.com’s Ben Goessling. “We’re thinking of ways to continually try to pressure the quarterback as many times as we can, and the position he plays is a pressure position.”
Mike Zimmer has always done a good job of carving out roles for linemen that play to their strengths.
Let’s not forget about the secondary, which got strengthened with the additions of veteran Captain Munnerlyn and sixth round cornerbacks Kendall James and Antone Exum, who some projected as a third-round pick.
And of course, Minnesota also chose its quarterback of the future in Teddy Bridgewater with the No. 32 overall pick, who very well could unseat Matt Cassel before or fairly early in the 2014 regular season.
5. Denver Broncos
How could a club that made it all the way to the Super Bowl be among the most-improved teams this offseason?
In addition to acquiring DeMarcus Ware—who could provide the team with the NFL’s most lethal pass-rush tandem opposite Von Miller—Denver bolstered its secondary by replacing Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie with the more volatile Aqib Talib, landed Bradley Roby with the No. 31 overall pick in the draft and secured one of the league’s best box safeties off the open market in ex-Browns SS T.J. Ward (even though he’s now facing off-the-field trouble).
And despite the departure of Eric Decker, Denver’s receiving corps looks even better than it did last year after the additions of ex-Steelers receiver Emmanuel Sanders and second round WR Cody Latimer.
4. Jacksonville Jaguars
Passing on Khalil Mack and Sammy Watkins for a developmental quarterback with the No. 3 overall pick certainly turned some heads, but the Jaguars were wise to pounce on “their guy” when they had the chance. David Caldwell and Gus Bradley are clearly focused on building for the future, and it was a heads-up decision to bring back Chad Henne.
But regardless of what they say, you want the third overall pick to be ready to go at some point in his first year. Whenever he finally takes over the starting job (we’re guessing sometime in November 2014), Blake Bortles will certainly have some talented young weapons to work with after the additions of second-round wide outs Marqise Lee and Allen Robinson, who join the likes of Cecil Shorts (121 receptions for 1,756 yards and 10 TDs over the last two seasons), Ace Sanders (51 receptions for 484 yards in his rookie campaign in 2013) and the very talented and troubled (and indefinitely suspended) Justin Blackmon.
Jacksonville also managed to strengthen its offensive line with the additions of third round OG Brandon Linder, free agent OG Zane Beadles (who will line up alongside last year’s No. 2 overall pick, Luke Joeckel) as well as the front seven by picking up fifth round edge rushers Chris Smith and Telvin Smith (a phenomenal steal) and ex-Seahawks defensive linemen Chris Clemons and Red Bryant, who reunite with former Seattle DC and current Jags HC Gus Bradley.
Jacksonville should also have a decent running game after replacing MJD with a promising young RB in Toby Gerhart and another late-round steal in Bortles’ college teammate Storm Johnson.
The Jags haven’t had a winning season or made the playoffs since 2007. That’s unlikely to change in 2014, but the team has clearly taken plenty of positive steps this offseason and could contend for the AFC South title in 2015.
3. Chicago Bears
Despite losing DT Henry Melton to the Cowboys, DE Julius Peppers to the Packers, DE Corey Wootton to the Vikings, return specialist Devin Hester to the Falcons and QB Josh McCown and FS Major Wright to the Bucs, the Monsters of the Midway have managed to improve their 2014 fortunes over the last two and a half months.
In addition to signing ex-Vikings DE Jared Allen, former Raiders DE Lamarr Houston and ex-Lions DEs Israel Idonije and William Young, the Bears continued to overhaul in the trenches on the second day of the draft with the additions of defensive tackles Ego Ferguson and Will Sutton.
Chicago has also strengthened its secondary by bringing back Charles Tillman and signing Ryan Mundy and M.D. Jennings in free agency and using the No. 14 overall pick in the draft on Kyle Fuller
The Bears have also strengthened the secondary by selecting Kyle Fuller with the No. 14 overall pick and picking up Brock Vereen at the tail-end of the fourth round, along with signing Ryan Mundy and M.D. Jennings and bringing back Charles Tillman in free agency. Chicago also added former Saints center Brian De La Puente, one of the best bargains in the entire 2014 FA class and provided the ground game with an impressive 1-2 punch with the addition of Ka’Deem Carey.
But don’t trust Phil Emery. The Bears general manager revealed just a few days before the draft that he conducted a “study” that revealed late-round QBs aren’t worth drafting…and then he took David Fales in the sixth round.
2. Oakland Raiders
The Raiders have been turning heads since the start of free agency and they continued to impress during the draft, as they managed to find excellent value while addressing most of their needs.
It’s pretty puzzling that they didn’t pick up a weapon early in the draft to line up opposite James Jones, and the lack of reliable receivers could become one of their biggest obstacles as they try to end an 11-year playoff drought.
Nevertheless, Derek Carr very well could be the franchise quarterback of the future, and he should be able to deliver if Matt Schaub goes down or plays like he did last year. And despite the departure of Jared Veldheer in free agency, Oakland’s offensive line looks much more stable after the arrivals of Kevin Booth, Austin Howard, Donald Penn and Gabe Jackson.
Keith McGill and Justin Ellis were also great mid-round draft steals and add solid depth to defense that will likely wreck enough havoc to make the Raiders competitive week-in and week-out, even with a deficient offense.
Reggie McKenzie and Dennis Allen’s future are uncertain, but the club’s success in this year’s draft could be a turning point for the franchise considering five of the team’s last eight first round picks are out of the NFL. With at least 10 new starters in 2014, the Raiders brass are clearly in win-now mode, but they’re at least a year or two away from being a serious playoff contender.
1. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
You’ve got to hand it to first-year head coach Lovie Smith and general manager Jason Licht. After putting most of their focus in free agency on improving in the trenches with the additions of ex-Bengals DE Michael Johnson and OT Anthony Collins, along with a quality run-stuffer in ex-Seahawks DL Clinton McDonald (also another former Bengal) and ex-Packers center Evan Dietrich-Smith, Tampa Bay turned plenty of heads by using each of its six picks in the draft towards building an offensive powerhouse.
And even though the move has taken a back seat to all of the other additions in the trenches and at the skill positions, Tampa Bay did a brilliant job of replacing Darrelle Revis. Former Titans corner Alterraun Verner is an excellent fit in Lovie Smith’s Cover 2-themed scheme. He’s also three and a half years younger and comes at roughly half the price of Revis.
After inevitably using the No. 7 overall pick in the draft on 6-foot-5 wide out Mike Evans, Tampa Bay picked up another massive target in tight end Austin Seferian Jenkins with the No. 39 overall selection, before capping off the second day of the draft with the addition of yet another dynamic weapon in WVU RB Charles Sims.
“I’d be lying if I didn’t say there was a comfort zone in that,” admitted presumed starting quarterback Josh McCown, who comes off a career year throwing to Chicago’s big targets in 2013.
Despite finishing 30th in scoring and dead last in the league in passing and total offense last season, Tampa Bay has managed to emerge as a sexy pick to make the playoffs this offseason, even with McCown and/or second-year signal-caller Mike Glennon under center (they’ll both probably start some games in 2014).
With Vincent Jackson (who is the same height as Evans and Seferian-Jenkins) leading the charge, new OC Jeff Tedford’s aerial assault should be really fun to watch this season, regardless of who’s under center.
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