New and improved
Five teams who bettered themselves this offseason
Posted: Friday March 14, 2008 1:25PM; Updated: Friday March 14, 2008 4:41PM
In terms of getting better quickly, nobody in the NFL improved more dramatically in 2007 than Cleveland (six more wins than 2006), Green Bay and Tampa Bay (five each). With the league's offseason re-distribution of talent in full swing, and the draft still six weeks away, here are the five teams I think have done the most to better their lot in the NFL:
1. Cleveland Browns
The Browns finished 10-6 last season, the same record as the eventual Super Bowl champion Giants. But they didn't let their success convince them that they had arrived. Cleveland has stayed hungry this offseason, and made moves that I believe render them the team to beat in the AFC North.
For starters, stability in key spots is becoming contagious in Cleveland. The Browns wisely re-signed quarterback Derek Anderson and running back Jamal Lewis, and head coach Romeo Crennel has a new deal too. General manager Phil Savage will join the ranks of the newly extended contract set shortly. Those are all the signs of a team on the rise.
Cleveland prioritized getting bigger on its interior defensive line and made aggressive trades with Green Bay and Detroit that netted them tackles Corey Williams and Shaun Rogers, at the cost of second- and third-round picks, as well as starting cornerback Leigh Bodden. The addition of Donte' Stallworth brought them a quality No. 2 receiver, and Rex Hadnot adds depth to an offensive line that has suddenly become one of the team's strengths.
What they still need: To successfully mitigate any potential friction that could result from potential franchise quarterback Brady Quinn spending another season as Anderson's backup. Having two quality quarterbacks is the proverbial good problem to have, but a potential distraction nonetheless.
How much better?: From 10-6 to 12-4.
2. Philadelphia Eagles
The Eagles won their final three games last season and scratched their way back to .500, and they've kept the momentum going nicely into the offseason. Philly's best decision so far in 2008 has been to not overreact to the fans and media pundits who clamored for the end of Andy Reid's tenure after his most challenging season in his nine years on the Eagles sideline. And while we're at it, let's add a big ditto for Donovan McNabb, who finished very strong and is going to get at least one more year as Philadelphia's franchise quarterback.
As for the team's personnel moves, franchising tight end L.J. Smith alleviated one potential need, and landing ex-Patriots cornerback Asante Samuel -- the top player available in free agency -- gives the Eagles secondary a proven playmaker with a winning pedigree. He can't do much of anything alone, but if the Eagles can generate more of a pass rush than they did in 2007, Samuel will be part of the winning puzzle.
Philly's pass rush got a boost with the signing of ex-Raider defensive end Chris Clemons, who was one of the more underrated talents in free agency. I also like the release of underachieving defensive end Jevon Kearse -- addition by subtraction -- and veteran linebacker Takeo Spikes, who is the kiss of death for any team's playoff hopes (10 years in the NFL without a postseason trip). The Eagles young linebacking corps of Omar Gaither, Stewart Bradley and Chris Gocong is now set.
What they still need: Stop us if you've heard this one before, but the Eagles could really use a No. 1 receiver. Maybe he arrives via the draft, where Philly owns the 19th pick, or maybe someone can still be pried loose via a trade involving former starting cornerback Lito Sheppard.
How much better?: From 8-8 to 11-5.