It happens every offseason in the NFL.
Football fans and experts try to identify the teams that will finally make the leap from cellar-dweller to a potential playoff — or Super Bowl — contender.
Sometimes it’s the franchises that ended the season on an unbelievable hot streak, like the 2017 San Francisco 49ers. After the team trotted out Brian Hoyer and C.J. Beathard to win a total of one of their first 10 tilts, newly acquired Jimmy Garoppolo led San Francisco on a five-game winning streak to close out the campaign.
The 2018 49ers received a plethora of offseason attention, only to lose Jimmy G to a torn ACL in Week 3. The Niners, despite all the hype, finished their disappointing season with just four wins.
What about last year’s most-hyped squad, the Cleveland Browns?
With the Browns adding a ton of talent in Baker Mayfield, Jarvis Landry, Nick Chubb, among others, Cleveland traded for Odell Beckham to put the Browns over the top and back in the playoffs for the first time since 2002 (!).
Unfortunately, like the 49ers, the Browns failed to live up to the immense expectations and finished as one of the most disappointing teams in the league.
Winning the offseason comes with a lot of hype, but that doesn’t mean we should expect these much-improved teams to instantly become juggernauts. It took the 49ers another year, while we’re still waiting to see if the Browns can realize their potential.
Perhaps 2020 will be the year where the winner of the offseason does make the leap to heavyweight status. Which five franchises have improved the most since last season? Some are no-brainers. Others? Not so much.
1. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
2019 record: 7-9
Jameis Winston got all the headlines in Tampa Bay because of his roller coaster of a year where he led the league in passing yards and interceptions in his iconic 30/30 season. But don’t sleep on the next great NFL defense.
Buccaneers defensive coordinator Todd Bowles turned the talented Tampa defense into a top-five unit, according to DVOA. And the defense should only get better as rookies Devin White, Sean Murphy-Bunting and Jamel Dean continue to improve. Those youngsters along with the return of Jason Pierre-Paul, Ndamukong Suh and Shaquil Barrett should make the defense even better in 2020.
And that’s without even mentioning that the Buccaneers added arguably the greatest player of all time in Tom Brady. Maybe you’ve heard of him?
While Brady might not the best quarterback in the NFL anymore, he’s surrounded by the most offensive talent he’s had since his stellar 2007 campaign. Brady will have two of the best receivers in the league in Chris Godwin and Mike Evans and three sold tight ends — including the newly acquired Rob Gronkowski.
Nobody knows if Gronk will be the Gronk of old, but the greatest tight end of all time will be just 31 at the start of the season. Plus, if you think Gronk lost his fastball, then you clearly didn’t see him become a WWE Champion at WrestleMania 36.
The Bucs did a phenomenal job filling their holes in the draft as well. Tampa Bay entered the annual selection process with glaring needs at offensive tackle and running back, addressing both with players who can make an immediate impact on a win-now franchise.
Watch out for Tampa Bay in an absolutely stacked division.
2. Indianapolis Colts
Notable losses: Eric Ebron, Devin Funchess, Adam Vinatieri
2019 record: 7-9
There might not be a team that’s improved more this offseason than the Indianapolis Colts. That’s what happens when you add two difference makers on each side of the ball. Indy traded the 13th overall pick to the San Francisco 49ers for DeForest Buckner, an All-Pro defensive tackle who is just 26 years old, and they added former Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers to a team teeming with talent.
Rivers should elevate an offense that struggled to score last season, finishing 19th in offensive DVOA. But general manager Chris Ballard made sure to give the team’s offense a big makeover this offseason.
Ballard added rookies Michael Pittman Jr. and Jonathan Taylor in the second round of the draft and signed tight end Trey Burton. Rivers, with the return of Parris Campbell, should be able to flourish behind the Colts’ stellar offensive line.
On the defensive side, Buckner should immediately make an impact on and off the field. He fills a huge hole in the middle of Indy’s defensive line and he should be a leader in the locker room. That’s exactly what the Colts needed, despite paying a hefty price for his services.
On top of that, the Colts are also in a division that is ripe for the taking. The Jaguars might be the worst team in the league, the Texans have Bill O’Brien sabotaging his own squad with terrible trades and the Titans might not be able to reproduce the success they had a year ago.
The Colts are now in win-now mode, and we can’t wait to see the results.
3. Arizona Cardinals
Notable additions: DeAndre Hopkins (trade), Jordan Phillips, De’Vondre Campbell
Notable losses: David Johnson (trade), Rodney Gunter, Cassius Marsh
2019 record: 5-10-1
Despite losing ten games in 2019, the Cardinals have a lot to like about where the franchise is heading in the future.
Kliff Kingsbury proved that his creative offensive and dynamic play-calling can absolutely work in the league. And Kyler Murray showed that he is a star in the making, displaying the playmaking skills of a future All-Pro despite his diminutive stature.
Arizona finished the season 13th in offensive DVOA in 2019, and they added four-time All-Pro DeAndre Hopkins to a wide receiver group that includes Christian Kirk and future Hall of Famer Larry Fitzgerald. Opposing NFC defenses better be ready for a much-improved Air Raid attack from the high-flying Cardinals.
With another year in Kingsbury’s offense, the Cardinals offense should become a top-ten unit, but the team’s success will hinge on how well the defense plays.
The Cardinals have some exciting talent on defense, such as underrated pass rusher Chandler Jones and Budda Baker, but Arizona needs a lot of help on that side of the ball. However, the team did upgrade on defense by scooping up Isaiah Simmons — an athletic freak — in the first round of the NFL Draft. He should help slow the onslaught of opposing tight ends, which was the Cardinals defenses’ Achilles heel in 2019.
In arguably the toughest division in the NFL, the Cardinals should improve on their 5-10-1 record from a year ago, but the squad might be a year away from being a true playoff contender.
4. Cincinnati Bengals
There’s nowhere to go but up for the Bengals. And it sure is a lot easier to improve when you’re the worst team in the league. But Cincinnati isn't your typical lowly NFL squad.
The Bengals also uncharacteristically went on a shopping spree this offseason. Typically a conservative organization, Cincy added Vonn Bell and Trae Waynes to the secondary while breaking the bank for defensive lineman D.J. Reader.
The Bengals could make their biggest jump on offense, though. Burrow should have A.J. Green back and healthy, Tyler Boyd in the slot and John Ross taking the top off the defense. Those guys, along with Green-clone Tee Higgins, should turn the Bengals into a potentially dynamic offensive attack. Those pass catchers, along with Joe Mixon and an improved offensive line, could lead to a big jump in wins for the worst team in the NFL in 2019.
5. Los Angeles Chargers
Notable losses: Philip Rivers, Melvin Gordon
2019 record: 5-11
The Chargers lost Philip Rivers, sure, but that doesn’t mean the forgotten Los Angeles franchise hasn’t improved immensely in the offseason.
In an ironic twist, the Chargers — who seem to always have issues on the offensive line — decided to upgrade the blocking unit once Rivers departed for the Colts.
Adding Bryan Bulaga and Trai Turner instantly improves one of the worst offensive lines in the NFL to an above-average one. And they’ll need it for incoming rookie quarterback Justin Herbert, who the team selected sixth overall in the 2020 NFL Draft.
The former Oregon passer comes into a loaded situation as a rookie. He’s got an improved offensive line, Keenan Allen and Mike Williams out wide and Hunter Henry at tight end. Not to mention the criminally underrated Austin Ekeler catching passes out of the backfield.
On defense, the Chargers added four-time Pro Bowl corner Chris Harris to the already talented secondary, along with Linval Joseph to plug up the middle of the defense.
Don’t look now, but the Chargers might have one of the best defenses in the league.
The biggest question for Los Angeles is, of course, can they expect to make a playoff run with either Tyrod Taylor or the rookie Herbert under center. If the answer is no, then the Chargers might have to make a call to one Cam Newton.
Photo: Getty Images