2017’s Most Improved NFL Teams
It usually happens every year. An NFL team rises from its failures the previous season, turns things around, and makes great improvements. A year ago, one of those teams was the Oakland Raiders. After going 7-9 in 2015, the Raiders improved to 12-4 and qualified for the postseason. The Miami Dolphins turned their 6-10 record in 2015 into a 10-6 campaign in 2016 and earned a wild card berth. Somewhere, there is a team entering training camp right now that is not expected to win in 2017, but will do so anyway. Here are three that could end 2017 as the most improved NFL teams.
NEW ORLEANS SAINTS
After four trips to the postseason – including a Super Bowl title – in five years, the New Orleans Saints have recorded three straight 7-9 seasons. In each of those three seasons, quarterback Drew Brees has led the NFL in passing yards. The offense is definitely not the problem. The Saints led the entire NFL in total offense in two of the past three seasons. The one where they didn’t finish first? They finished second. For New Orleans, improvement in the win column starts with improvement on defense.
New Orleans picked up edge rusher Alex Okafor from the Arizona Cardinals. Okafor, a fourth round draft choice in 2013, played 13 games with the Cardinals last season and recorded eight sacks. Manti Te’o was signed after beginning his career in San Diego. Te’o missed most of last season with a torn Achilles tendon. Both Te’o and Okafor will be counted on to help improve the Saints defense which might be without its biggest acquisition prior to last season, DT Nick Fairley. The 6-foot-4, 308-pound Fairley was diagnosed with a heart condition that could end his pro football career.
The Saints addressed their needs in the defensive backfield by taking former Ohio State star Marshon Lattimore in the first round. Lattimore is a 6-foot, 195-pounder with 4.3 speed who can match up with any receiver. New Orleans also took safety Marcus Williams out of Utah in the second round. Both Lattimore and Williams could play big roles in a New Orleans defense that was dead last against the pass last season.
Two straight trips to postseason and a berth in the NFC Championship game had Arizona entering the 2016 season with high expectations. Head coach Bruce Arians and the Cardinals started 1-3 right out of the gate and won just three games in the first half of the season. They won their last two games and still had a shot at the playoffs late in the season despite finishing 7-8-1. Arians and company should be much better in 2017.
Like New Orleans, the Cardinals are pretty good offensively. The Cardinals need players like defensive lineman Robert Nkemdiche to improve. Arians and the Cardinals went heavy on defense in the draft selecting former Temple linebacker Haason Reddick with their first pick. Reddick played defensive end at Temple where, ironically, Arians served as a head coach in the 1980s. The Cards also picked up a very good safety in former Washington Huskie Budda Baker (5-10, 195).
The Jaguars haven’t had a winning season since 2007, which was also the last time they made the postseason. In each of the past few seasons, it appeared as if Jacksonville was on the verge of turning things around. Two years ago, it was young quarterback Blake Bortles and his receiving tandem of Allen Robinson and Allen Hurns. Robinson had 80 receptions for 1,400 yards and 14 TDs. Hurns caught 64 balls for 1,031 yards and 10 touchdowns. Their production fell off heavily last season with Robinson getting 73 catches for 883 and Hurns just 35 receptions and 477 yards. As a pair, the two receivers combined for just nine touchdowns in 2016. That has to change in 2017.
Bortles is still one of the better young quarterbacks in the league. He threw for 3,905 yards and 23 touchdowns last season, but his quarterback rating of 48.9 is a concern. Bortles tossed 16 interceptions last year, a career low, but his yards per attempt fell from 7.31 in 2016 to 6.25 last year. Jacksonville added another piece to the offense’s puzzle when they selected RB Leonard Fournette with the fourth pick in this year’s draft. They also addressed the offensive line by taking Alabama offensive tackle Cam Robinson in the second round and signing former Dolphins OT Branden Albert in March.
The Jags need to get better on defense, not so much physically but mentally. Last year, Jacksonville was sixth in the NFL in total defense giving up 321.7 yards per game, but the unit gave up 25 points per game which was 25th in the league. Jacksonville signed CB A.J. Bouye from Houston to add him to a stingy secondary. The Jags also added a solid veteran defensive end in Calais Campbell who came over from Arizona. Campbell, Malik Jackson, and Yannick Ngakoue should be able to produce pressure on opposing quarterbacks. The Jags will need to do something to help their secondary.