It's easy to dismiss the idea of "winning the offseason." But the fact remains that having a talented roster can make it a lot easier to succeed on the field -- and the offseason is, by and large, when teams get to add that kind of difference-making talent.
Now that most of the roster-building is done, and with OTAs around the corner, I thought I'd rank the teams that have enjoyed the six best offseasons thus far, encompassing the totality of moves made in the draft, free agency and via trade. Below are the six best offseasons, arranged in reverse order:
6) Houston Texans
The Texans did extremely well in free agency, adding a new quarterback (Brock Osweiler) and running back (Lamar Miller), and they helped themselves in the draft, especially with receivers Will Fuller and Braxton Miller and center Nick Martin. Fuller and Braxton Miller are two speed guys who can do a lot to open things up for DeAndre Hopkins, while Martin eases the sting of veteran Ben Jones' departure. Spot player Tyler Ervin could emerge as a long-yardage back and key rookie piece. Undrafted free agent Stephen Anderson is a smallish tight end (6-foot-2, 230 pounds) who could end up helping the team a lot.
When I saw Bill O'Brien at Baylor's pro day, I told him he should be jailed for the theft of Osweiler and Lamar Miller. I think Miller can replace departed veteran Arian Foster, but admittedly, the jury's still out on Osweiler, given his limited NFL résumé (seven career starts). I've been high on the quarterback going back to his days as a draft prospect coming out of Arizona State, but we just can't be sure exactly what he'll do as a franchise signal caller. To some extent, the final grade on this offseason will depend on how Osweiler turns out.
5) Minnesota Vikings
The Vikings needed offensive help and got it this offseason. Free-agent additions Alex Boone and Andre Smith will bolster an offensive line that should also welcome back fully healthy editions of John Sullivan and Phil Loadholt (who both missed all of 2015 with injuries). That unit will be directed this season by Tony Sparano, who is a good coach. First-round pick Laquon Treadwell, meanwhile, looks like the chain-moving No. 1 receiver the Vikes have lacked these past few seasons. Put a No. 88 on his back and you'd think he's Michael Irvin. He's also a blocker like Irvin was, meaning he'll make the passing and running game better. He's exactly what the doctor ordered for coordinator Norv Turner.
I liked Minnesota's draft haul, including cornerback Mackensie Alexander. I also like undrafted free agent Brandon Ross, who has a chance to be a really good running back down the road. Mike Zimmer is a special coach, and there is terrific cohesion in this organization, from the owners to the front office to the coaches. This was a good offseason for a team that I expect will repeat as NFC North champs.
4) Arizona Cardinals
Arizona won 13 games in 2015 behind a stellar point differential of 176. The fact that the Cards still managed to improve has made their offseason that much more impressive.
Trading for Chandler Jones was a great move. Arizona gave up a second-round pick and a player (Jonathan Cooper) who probably wasn't going to ever be anything more than an average starter. In return, the Cards received a stud who should be able to give a major shot in the arm to their pass rush. (Arizona tied for 20th in sacks last season with 36.) I also liked their draft picks, including the selections of Robert Nkemdiche -- a hit-or-miss proposition that I think will turn into a home run -- cornerback Brandon Williams and center Evan Boehm.
One of the risks in the Jones trade is that he'll split town when he hits free agency after this season, but the Cardinals are good at retaining talent. Re-signing backup Drew Stanton might not have made many headlines, but the veteran quarterback can win games if need be. And the team appears to be on the verge of extendingTyrann Mathieu. Locking up a defensive difference maker whose impact is hard to overstate would just be another feather in Arizona's cap this offseason.
3) Oakland Raiders
The Raiders were on the rise last season, improving by four wins and bettering their point differential by 159 (from -199 in 2014 to -40 in 2015). They jumped up in sacks (from 22 to 38) and turnover differential (-15 to 1). And their upward swing continued into the offseason.
The secondary was a weak spot in 2015, and it was made even weaker by the retirement of Charles Woodson. To address that, Oakland added a big, tall cornerback (Sean Smith), a seasoned safety with ball skills (Reggie Nelson) and an instant-impact rookie (Karl Joseph). But the Raiders didn't stop at fixing deficiencies -- they also boosted a strength, further augmenting their Khalil Mack-led pass rush with veteran Bruce Irvin and draftees Jihad Ward (who has lots of upside) and Shilique Calhoun. The latter player is a real sleeper who played very well at Michigan State as a down lineman and should find a spot as an outside linebacker. Defensive line coach Jethro Franklin is a hidden gem, in my opinion. He's really good at what he does and is extremely knowledgeable, as I can personally attest after sitting with him at the NFL Scouting Combine.
On offense, the Raiders were smart to re-sign Donald Penn and bring Kelechi Osemele into the fold. The fourth-round selection of quarterback Connor Cook, meanwhile, was an interesting move. Really, the key here is that instead of fielding a roster full of aging, ineffectual players, the Raiders finally have their stuff together. The arrow is pointing up.
2) Tennessee Titans
The Titans did a number of good things this offseason, starting with hiring Jon Robinson as general manager. He's been through New England and Tampa, and you can see the influence of those organizations on the up-and-comer. They also helped themselves by retaining Mike Mularkey -- who finished out 2015 in an interim role after replacing the fired Ken Whisenhunt -- rather than starting over with a new coach and a new system. And they added top-notch assistant coaches like offensive coordinator Terry Robiskie, offensive line coach Russ Grimm and special teams coordinator Bobby April.
Tennessee's ground attack ranked 25th last season, with quarterback Marcus Mariota putting up the second-most rushing yards (252) on the team. Trading for DeMarco Murray and drafting Derrick Henry significantly upgraded this part of the offense. Tennessee wants to run the ball and eat up clock, and these interchangeable backs fit that aim perfectly. I expect Murray to top 1,000 yards, which would be quite an improvement in Tennessee. Drafting Jack Conklin and signing veteran Ben Jones -- perhaps their best free-agent addition -- should also help in that regard.
The Dick LeBeau-led defense wasn't bad in 2015, ranking 12th overall. (Though the Titans did give up 26.4 points per game.) The unit added former Cardinals safety Rashad Johnson in free agency, along with some bright rookie talent in pass rusher Kevin Dodd and safety Kevin Byard, who could be one of the steals of the draft.
1) Jacksonville Jaguars
The Jaguars made giant strides from 2014 to '15, chopping their point differential from -163 to -72 behind the AFC's seventh-best scoring offense. That's right: Blake Bortles, Allen Robinson and Allen Hurns headline a Jacksonville attack that can now score points. With that as a starting place, the Jags were in the perfect position to add key pieces this offseason.
This was the right time for the Jags to spend -- and spend they did, inking a number of high-dollar free agents. The key thing about Jacksonville's buying spree is that all but one of the new acquisitions (30-year-old Mackenzy Bernadeau) is 28 or younger.
The offense will get a boost from veteran running back Chris Ivory (28) and Kelvin Beachum (26), who could potentially start at left tackle and allow former first-round pick Luke Joeckel to shift to guard (which could help the unit continue to cut down on sacks). Retaining backup quarterback Chad Henne was an underrated but important move, as was landing punter Brad Nortman (26), who is a tremendous directional kicker. But the Jags mainly helped themselves on defense, signing Malik Jackson (26), Prince Amukamara (26) and Tashaun Gipson (25) -- and drafting Jalen Ramsey and Myles Jack to a group that also will welcome back injured 2015 first-rounder Dante Fowler. Oh, and Jacksonville picked up former first-round pick Bjoern Werner, recently cut by the Colts.
Beyond Ramsey and Jack, this draft fell very well for the Jaguars. When coach Gus Bradley and GM David Caldwell arrived in 2013, they didn't have much to work with. Now everything is headed in the right direction in Jacksonville.
UPDATE: NFL Media Insider Ian Rapoport reported Thursday that Ramsey suffered a torn meniscus in his knee but is expected to recover in time for training camp, pending a second opinion.