June 29, 2021

Ranking the 5 Most Improved NFL Teams in 2021

It's been a whirlwind of an offseason in the NFL. 

With the league still being affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, the salary cap dropped all the way down to $182.5 million, from $198.2 million a year ago. That along with a canceled NFL Scouting Combine made it incredibly difficult for teams to upgrade their roster this year.  

There were a few splashy signings in free agency — including the New England Patriots, who spent almost as much in two days as they had in the previous 10 years. (More on that coming up.) There were also some head-scratching moves, such as the Las Vegas Raiders essentially disassembling their entire offensive line. The 2021 NFL Draft introduced a few generational players into the league, from quarterback Trevor Lawrence to tight end Kyle Pitts.

But which teams won the offseason and improved the most? We've ranked the five NFL franchises that upgraded in 2021. 

5. Arizona Cardinals

Major Additions: J.J. Watt, A.J. Green, Rodney Hudson, Zaven Collins, Rondale Moore   

Arizona’s 8-8 record in 2020 was truly middling; not great, not terrible. But in a stacked NFC West, going .500 isn’t going to cut it, and the Cardinals did as much as they could this offseason to get over that hump.

A year after Arizona fleeced the Houston Texans by acquiring wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins, the Cardinals did it again this offseason by landing J.J. Watt in free agency.

Arizona also added A.J. Green, who isn’t the top wideout he once was, but he will bring a valuable veteran presence to the offense as Kyler Murray continues to find his way, especially if this is the offseason Larry Fitzgerald decides to hang up the cleats. 

The Cards continued to add to their wide receiver room with second-round pick Rondale Moore. Arizona also made the savvy move to take advantage of the Las Vegas Raiders’ confusing and seemingly pointless fire sale on offensive line, signing Rodney Hudson, who will hopefully be the glue that brings the rest of these pieces together. 

The Cardinals also made another first-round investment at linebacker by selecting Zaven Collins. He should team up with last year's top selection, Isaiah Simmons, to upgrade a mediocre defense. 

If the Cards don't improve this season, then coach Kliff Kingsbury might be headed back to the Big 12. 

4. New England Patriots

Major additions: Matthew Judon, Mac Jones, Trent Brown, Jonnu Smith, Hunter Henry, Davon Godchaux, Jalen Mills, Nelson Agholor, Henry Anderson, Christian Barmore, Ronnie Perkins, Kendrick Bourne

Bill Belichick was one busy man this offseason.

The New England Patriots seemed to ascribe to the theory this offseason that spending the most in free agency would yield the greatest possible chance of improving the team, and they may not be wrong. Given Belichick’s savvy free-agency moves over his career, we have little reason to doubt his strategy this offseason. However, even though Belichick has displayed a keen sense for when to bring players in and when to let them walk, the Patriots have never dipped their toes this far into the water.

The Patriots spent a whopping $227.5 million in the first two days of free agency, per Warren Sharp. They’d spent $359.9 million in all in the previous 10 years. That shopping spree resulted in major upgrades on both sides of the ball for New England.

On offense, of course, they have their potential new franchise quarterback in Mac Jones. But the Pats still have Cam Newton on a one-year deal, and he will benefit from the addition of Jonnu Smith and Hunter Henry, as well as wideouts Nelson Agholor and Kendrick Bourne. Trading for Trent Brown should hopefully bring it all together.

On defense, the Patriots made big moves in free agency and then supplemented them during the draft. Edge-rusher Matthew Judon set them back $54.5 million for four years, but provides an instant upgrade. Drafting Alabama defensive tackle Christian Barmore at No. 38 overall and Oklahoma edge-rusher Ronnie Perkins at No. 96 overall represented the savvy draft value we’ve come to expect from Belichick. What’s more, Dont’a Hightower will return in 2021 after opting out of the 2020 season.

It was shocking to see the Patriots miss the playoffs for the first time since 2008 last season. New England’s offseason moves send a clear message that the team does not expect that to be the case again in 2021. 

3. Cleveland Browns

Major additions: John Johnson, Troy Hill, Jadeveon Clowney, Takkarist McKinley, Greg Newsome II, Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, Malik Jackson

The Cleveland Browns relentlessly attacked their perceived weaknesses this offseason. They threw most of their assets to their battered defense, replenishing the unit with youth and depth throughout. Every level of the unit is better entering 2021.

The defensive line has more bodies to rotate and a little more upside than 2020. Losing Olivier Vernon and Sheldon Richardson is painful, but Vernon isn't healthy and Richardson was expensive for a snap-eater. Changes had to be made with reliability in mind.

Jadeveon Clowney was a smart, low-risk pickup as someone who can play both end and tackle. He's not a big pass-rush threat but he's solid enough and is a great run defender. Malik Jackson and Takkarist McKinley are better suited as rotational pass-rush specialists.

The back-end of the defense got a major facelift. John Johnson is a Swiss-Army knife at safety and will tremendously help the entire unit with his well-roundedness. They keyed in on him in free agency and knew all along he was their top target.

Corners Greg Newsome II and Troy Hill are productive as well. Newsome must prove to be durable but his collegiate film and production were phenomenal. Hill is consistent and able to play in the slot or outside.

If the Baker Mayfield and the Browns' offensive line continue to improve, Cleveland has set themselves up to be a Super Bowl contender in the AFC. 

2. Washington Football Team

Major additions: Ryan Fitzpatrick, Curtis Samuel, Dyami Brown, Ereck Flowers, Samuel Cosmi, Jamin Davis, William Jackson IIIBobby McCain

Expectations for the Washington Football Team have been low for a long time. They often chase the wrong free-agent fit and splurge on big names who won't last more than a year or two. But Ron Rivera's influence on this roster is simply working like a charm.

The offense is significantly more dangerous entering 2021 with Ryan Fitzpatrick being surrounded by speedsters Curtis Samuel and Dyami Brown. The Football Team might complete under 60 percent of their attempts but reach 5,000 yards with the speed from the receivers and Fitzpatrick's gusto. 

Fitzpatrick isn't the ideal full-season starter, and their draft would've been even better had they landed either Justin Fields or Jones to secure a long-term prospect. But they're much healthier entering this year than when the offseason began.

This includes the defense. Adding a premier linebacker and cornerback was on the to-do list, and Washington nailed their two moves. First-round linebacker Jamin Davis should win Defensive Rookie of the Year if he's as good of a fit as he is on paper. He's rangy, dynamic, explosive and smart.

Cornerback William Jackson III is a stud as well. He's sticky as they come in coverage. Hopefully, his ball production takes a leap, but he's always in position to force tough catches thanks to pure technique and instinct. 

Washington should be a playoff team in 2021, or at least come as close to being with a game of making it. They're that good on defense and dangerous on offense.

1. Jacksonville Jaguars

Major additions: Trevor Lawrence, Travis Etienne, Shaquill Griffin, Roy Robertson-Harris, Marvin Jones Jr., Tyson Campbell, Carlos Hyde, Rayshawn Jenkins, Malcom Brown

Look, when you’re holding a pair of top-25 picks heading into the draft, it would be hard to do something to mess it up enough that you’d get left off a “most improved” list during the offseason. But not only did the Jacksonville Jaguars merely avoid screwing up in the first round of the 2021 NFL Draft, they knocked it out of the park, selecting generational quarterback Trevor Lawrence at No. 1 overall and running back Travis Etienne at No. 25 overall.

The Jaguars’ selections later in the draft didn’t make quite as much of an impression as their first round, but it was nevertheless enough to get them off to the races. Combined with a fantastic free-agency period, the Jaguars, who went 1-15 in 2020, have put the AFC on notice.

In addition to being blessed with two first-round draft selections, the Jaguars had money to blow in free agency. Shaquill Griffin was brought in to help turn around a pass defense that gave up the third-most passing touchdowns in the league in 2020. But where Urban Meyer seemed to want to upgrade his team was up front. That’s no surprise, given that the Jaguars were ranked 27th in the league in 2020 in run defense. Signing Roy Robertson-Harris, Tyson Alualu, Jihad Ward and Malcom Brown should get the Jags closer to where they want to be.

On the other side of the ball, Lawrence and Etienne join free-agent signings Phillip Dorsett and Marvin Jones Jr., who provide the passing offense with a veteran balance as DJ Chark Jr. and Laviska Shenault Jr. continue to develop.

Overall, the Jaguars should improve in multiple categories on both sides of the ball thanks to their offseason moves. Some might argue that it would be hard for them to do as badly as they did in 2020 again, but it’s not wild at all to think this team could go from 1-15 to the playoffs in the span of one season.

Photo: Getty Images