Every fanbase has reason to believe their team dramatically improved when the calendar date falls somewhere between the draft and Week 1 of the regular season. But unfortunately, not all of them will make the leap and become playoff contenders, so we’re going to highlight which ones have the most clear and substantial reasons for a boost in optimism.
How teams finished down the stretch in 2013 will provide the focal point from which today’s squads are compared. The 2013 Jacksonville Jaguars played much better than a 4-12 team from November onward, so their projected improvement this offseason will be evaluated largely against the 4-4 finish, which drops them to an honorable mention.
Let’s take a look at the “improved eight.”
New York Giants
If new offensive coordinator Ben McAdoo can bring in anything resembling the system Mike McCarthy ran while McAdoo served as assistant with the Packers, it’s a grand opportunity to jump-start Eli Manning’s career following two rough seasons. Mixing an array of quick releases and combo routes should ignite Victor Cruz, Odell Beckham Jr. and especially Rueben Randle, who struggled mightily to grasp the option-route system and saw eight interceptions on passes targeting him last season.
And if Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie can continue to lock down dominant receivers and Johnathan Hankins consistently flashes his interior power and gets to play more snaps, New York’s defense could improve on an underrated 2013 campaign that was shadowed by offensive struggles.
The Giants also revamped their interior offensive line this offseason by bringing in Geoff Schwartz and J.D. Walton while letting the struggling components walk away. If Charles Brown can fill in for left tackle Will Beatty as he did in springing this 73-yard touchdown run by Rashad Jennings this weekend, the Giants’ offensive front might become a strength for the first time in years. Andre Williams and Jennings should provide massive improvement on a backfield that averaged 3.5 yards per carry (29th) last season.
(GIF via GIFDSPORTS)
Indy must find a healthy balance between the run-and-gun style in which Andrew Luck flourished when the Colts (reluctantly) went that route when trailing last year, and the big sets offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton likes to employ. With tight end Dwayne Allen returning from season-long injury to join improving teammate Coby Fleener and midseason acquisition Trent Richardson, perhaps Hamilton’s bigger packages can finally succeed at the pro level. Indy even used packages with six linemen second-most in the league, according to Football Outsiders.
The ideal scenario has Indy’s offense alternating different looks—not as a reaction to falling behind multiple scores early as was often the case in 2013. The return of Allen is a bonafide bonus in this effort.
Meanwhile, the passing game will certainly find benefit in a dangerous T.Y. Hilton, healthy Reggie Wayne, revived Hakeem Nicks, rookie Donte Moncrief and maturing deep threat Da’Rick Rogers. Luck enters his third year flush with weapons. With the right offensive approach from kickoff, Indy can compete with any team.
St. Louis Rams
There are few more difficult tasks in today’s game than pushing around an NFC West front seven. The Rams managed to do this at times in 2013—springing Zac Stacy for 134 yards against the Seahawks on Monday Night Football—and look poised to improve up front even more on both sides of the ball this upcoming season.
Rodger Saffold has proved versatile enough to excel at guard and Joe Barksdale has stepped in well at right tackle. If Jake Long can stay healthy, then the left side possesses a nice mix of agility and power with top pick Greg Robinson aside center Scott Wells, each veteran ranking in the upper-half of their position in Pro Football Focus’ positional grading.
Maybe an indication of how much I like what the Rams did in Round 1 in the 2014 draft, but I am fired up to see Greg Robinson & Aaron Donald
— Scott Bischoff (@Bischoff_Scott) August 9, 2014
The Rams defense finished third in the NFL in sacks and should only instill more terror in opposing quarterbacks by adding interior penetration from rookie DT Aaron Donald, the Rams’ second first-round pick this May. St. Louis somehow became more dangerous in the trenches.
If Sam Bradford finds the form shown just before his season-ending injury, St. Louis just may escape the vaunted NFC West with a playoff bid.
Chicago didn’t necessarily trade great defense for prolific offense by firing Lovie Smith and hiring Marc Trestman.
The Bears have had playmakers on both sides of the ball in the past two seasons, but the defense got older, and the offensive unit really began to improve. Charles Tillman, Henry Melton and Julius Peppers fell off just as Alshon Jeffery and Martellus Bennett added crucial extra threats in the passing game. Meanwhile, the O-line was revamped with new talent.
— Chicago Bears (@ChicagoBears) July 16, 2014
It’s tough to lose a defensive mind like Smith but Chicago’s defense could rebound dramatically in their second year post-Lovie. Kyle Fuller injects needed toughness and versatility into the secondary while the additions of Jared Allen, Lamarr Houston and Willie Young replace much of a defensive line that got pushed around last season. Houston and Young finished in first and second place among 4-3 DEs in PFF run-stop percentage last year. Allen might really thrive in the unit if Chicago manages the 32-year-old’s snaps better than Minnesota did. Mel Tucker’s not a bad coordinator, he just had a rough unit in 2013.
This is Jake Locker’s last chance to be the team’s starting QB and Ken Whisenhunt will make the most of it. A Philip Rivers-level rejuvenation is a bit steep to ask, rocketing from Pro Football Focus‘ No. 23 quarterback pre-Whisenhunt in 2012 to No. 2 behind only Peyton Manning in 2013. But protecting Tennessee’s passer through effective use of run game, manipulation of down-and-distance and implementing Dexter McCluster in a Woodhead-esque role may just keep Locker healthy for once in his short professional career.
The Titans clearly hope to reclaim the early 2013 Locker who led Tennessee out to a 3-1 start with a 6-0 TD-INT ratio and a 67 percent completion percentage in the latter two weeks of that stretch. Then injury doomed the eighth pick in the 2011 draft yet again and neither he nor the Titans were the same in a long tumble to the finish. A receiving core boasting a nice mix of experience and skill sets in Kendall Wright, Nate Washington and young burner Justin Hunter was hung out to dry. But they’ll get another chance this upcoming season with a fresh start.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Lovie Smith is my preseason pick for the 2014 NFL Coach of the Year award given the Schiano bump and also how much better an extremely talented defense will be utilized. The Bucs possess elite talent in the front-seven with DT Gerald McCoy and OLB Lavonte David while the addition of Alterraun Verner should fit well in Smith’s Tampa-2 zone concepts. It’s not crazy to think this trio could be as effective as Chicago’s equivalent of Peppers, Briggs and Tillman.
No outside linebacker instinctually shoots gaps like David currently does, and at 24 he should only grow better at wreaking havoc on opposing quarterbacks.
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Josh McCown opened his tenure with the Bucs in abysmal fashion but it’s rash to draw a firm conclusion from Week 1 of the preseason in a new offense. If things do go south with the veteran quarterback, Tampa does have a reliable-enough young passer on the bench who can win thanks to a stout, ball-hawking Lovie Smith defense making plays on the other side of the ball.
Projecting the Redskins will finish this season comes on whether the ordeal in Cincinnati was Andy Dalton holding back Jay Gruden or vice versa.
Measuring Dalton’s overall production against some of his train-wreck performances—this January’s playoff loss comes to mind—I believe the new Redskins coach did a nice job much of the time getting Dalton to release quickly. He also put RB Gio Bernard in position to make plays in the open field (12th in YAC of all positions as a rookie) while finding good moments to dial up shot plays. Not saying Gruden was perfect but these elements should translate, as the ‘Skins now have the offensive weapons to do both of these things quite well.
DeSean Jackson, Pierre Garcon, Andre Roberts and Jordan Reed provide Gruden with a nice cast to ignite Robert Griffin III. Roy Helu (or Lache Seastrunk, for that matter) is no Gio Bernard out of the backfield, but Alfred Morris remains one of the league’s premier downhill runners. But this season’s fate largely comes down to RGIII’s confidence in his knee and showing his worth as a pocket passer at this level. Capitalizing on the ample WR talent comes down to how Gruden and Griffin click.
So far, paying Joe Flacco hasn’t gone well. But is it a lost cause or was it just a lost year?
The foundational fix is for new offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak’s zone-block scheme to reinvigorate the Baltimore run game, which will trickle down to the passing game. Since GM Ozzie Newsome joined forces with the Ravens, this team has been built to succeed when the run game is dictating matters offensively. Ditto for Kubiak’s squads in Houston. Without it the rest falls in.
And the Ravens will need to improve in that regard. Baltimore averaged a top 10 rushing finish from 2008-2012 before dropping to 30th in 2013.
An offensive line that regressed dramatically in 2013 already looks improved this preseason and it doesn’t appear to be just August noise. Marshal Yanda should return to the class of the position now that there’s competence to his left and a change to his right. To Flacco’s left the Ravens get both Eugene Monroe and Kelechi Osemele for a full season this time around. Ray Rice appears healthy again and Bernard Pierce looks to round out a strong RB duo in the thumping one-cut mold for Kubiak.