Immediately after the new league year's free agency and draft period, Around The NFL handed out awards for the best performances by scouts and general managers during the roster-reconstruction phase of March and April. Three months later, offseason practices and training camp reports have advanced our understanding of the strengths and weaknesses of each team.
Now that camps are wrapping up, it's the perfect time to study which position groups across the NFL appear to be significantly improved heading into the 2016 season. Today, we focus our lens on the defensive backfield, an area of great improvement for a pair of buzzworthy teams ...
1) Oakland Raiders
Even with future Hall of Famer Charles Woodson anchoring the unit, and with a midseason boost from successful waiver pickup David Amerson, the secondary was too often the weak link in Oakland's 2015 defense. Former first-round pick D.J. Hayden was a liability at cornerback, and the Raiders were routinely forced to play castoffs Larry Asante and Taylor Mays at strong safety.
Enter Pro Bowl free safety Reggie Nelson, first-round strong safety Karl Joseph and former Chiefs cornerback Sean Smith. The Smith-Amerson tag team at cornerback figures to be one of the NFL's most physically imposing, pushing Hayden into a battle with T.J. Carrie, Neiko Thorpe and Nate Allen for snaps in subpackages. Nelson's 21 interceptions over the past five seasons are second only to Richard Sherman's total of 26 in that span. Ten months after tearing his ACL at West Virginia, Joseph started the Raiders' preseason opener opposite Nelson. Not bad for a bone-jarring safety who drew comparisons to Earl Thomas, Brian Dawkins and former Defensive Player of the Year Bob Sanders on draft night.
2) Jacksonville Jaguars
For the entirety of the David Caldwell-Gus Bradley era in Jacksonville, the defense has lacked star power. The secondary has been particularly underwhelming, despite seven draft picks being devoted to the defensive backfield from 2013 through '15, and despite big money being thrown at former Packers cornerback Davon House last offseason. The Jaguars still finished a woeful 31st in Football Outsiders' pass defense metrics in 2015. That's bound to change this season.
Caldwell splurged on safety Tashaun Gipson (a Pro Bowler two seasons ago) and signed overqualified veteran Prince Amukamara to man the slot. To top it all off, Florida State cornerback Jalen Ramsey -- viewed by many as the best overall talent in the draft -- fell into Jacksonville's lap with the fifth overall pick. With former Broncos postseason hero Malik Jackson and a reinvigorated Dante Fowler Jr. leading a frisky Jacksonville pass rush this year, the secondary has a fighting chance to finish in the top half of the league.
3) Washington Redskins
A staple of the Jay Gruden-era Redskins: Opposing wide receivers running unhindered through the defensive backfield for chunk plays down the field. The front office handed former Panthers All-Pro Josh Norman $75 million to make that problem go away.
Norman won't be tasked with fixing the leaky secondary without help. Every bit as talented as his new cohort, Bashaud Breeland authored a Pro Bowl-caliber season of his own last year and has turned heads with his sticky coverage and playmaking skills in training camp.
"We got a little bit more nasty," defensive end Chris Baker told Around The NFL last week. "Norman] brings a nasty attitude towards our defense and [it's really helped outBashaud Breeland. I haven't seen him look this good."
4) Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Lovie Smith wore out his welcome in part because his outdated Tampa 2 scheme was an undermanned competitive disadvantage, allowing opposing quarterbacks to complete 70 percent of their passes against the Bucs last season, with 31 touchdowns. New defensive coordinator Mike Smith will use multiple fronts, mix coverages and bring heat from all angles behind an overhauled defensive front.
After signing four-time Pro Bowler Brent Grimes and using the No. 11 overall draft pick on Vernon Hargreaves, the Bucs now go four-deep at cornerback (with Alterraun Verner and Johnthan Banks already in place). That quartet smothered the Eagles' wideouts in the preseason opener, utterly bedeviling the quarterback trio of Sam Bradford, Chase Daniel and Carson Wentz. If Noah Spence and Robert Ayers can consistently bring the heat as edge rushers, that won't be the only time this secondary shuts down opposing aerial attacks.
5) New York Giants
Former Rams cornerback Janoris Jenkins is far from a slam-dunk upgrade on the departed Amukamara, but first-round corner Eli Apple and third-round safety Darian Thompson should provide quality depth while tightening the windows in the middle of the field. Thompson is expected to step in as the center fielder, allowing bruising second-year safety Landon Collins to play closer to the line of scrimmage. Even if the rookies suffer growing pains, the arrow is pointing up with the talent infusion.