The major events of the 2021 NFL offseason, at least when it comes to player transactions, have largely passed now that most marquee free agents have found a home and the draft has happened.
That begs the question, as preparations get underway for workouts and eventual training camps: Which teams won the hardest this NFL offseason?
Let’s look at five franchises who should be extremely optimistic thanks to how proactive their front offices were in attacking needs on the roster and greatly improving their outlook for this coming season.
Drafting Trevor Lawrence first overall probably would’ve been enough to give Jacksonville’s offseason a winning grade, but the Jaguars didn’t let that landmark pick define them. They made a bold hire in head coach Urban Meyer, who’s built winning programs immediately at a multitude of prior NCAA stints.
Meyer and Lawrence alone aren’t enough for the Jaguars to ascend from the AFC South basement to the playoffs, but the team made plenty more savvy moves.
Veteran receiver Marvin Jones gives D.J. Chark and Laviska Shenault Jr. a great mentor to learn from. The same goes for how Shaquil Griffin can help 2020 first-round cornerback C.J. Henderson and the draft’s first Day 2 pick, Tyson Campbell, realize their potential in the NFL in short order.
Don’t be shocked if Stanford offensive tackle Walker Little and Syracuse safety Andre Cisco are effective starters sooner rather than later, despite being second- and third-round picks respectively. Little opted out of 2020 but is a freakish athlete hailing from a pro-style system. Cisco is a playmaker who’ll be almost a full year removed from a torn ACL once Week 1 rolls around.
Finally, the Jags also drafted Lawrence’s Clemson teammate, tailback Travis Etienne, 25th overall. Etienne is an explosive runner with receiver-type pass-catching skills who adds a whole new dimension to the offense.
A nice mix of veterans and injection of young talent, combined with the paradigm-altering acquisitions of Lawrence and Meyer, make the Jaguars a huge NFL offseason winner.
Los Angeles Rams
Some put a premium on draft capital. The Rams laugh in the face of it. They’ve sacrificed multiple first-round picks for the likes of All-Pro cornerback Jalen Ramsey in the past, and did so again to upgrade at quarterback from Jared Goff with Matthew Stafford in a splashy trade this offseason. They’re probably just fine with that.
Finally getting Stafford out of Detroit is something pretty much any non-Lions football purist wanted to see. He’s among the most talented passers ever, and hasn’t been in an NFL situation where he’s set up to thrive maybe ever.
Stafford alone makes the Rams’ offseason a raging success. GM Les Snead made good use of the draft picks Los Angeles did have. Snead acquired a super-fast playmaker in Tutu Atwell to join their receiving group, and a needed run-stopping linebacker in Round 3 in South Carolina tackling machine Ernest Jones.
Snead added two high-upside, excellent depth pieces to kick off Day 3 of the draft as well with defensive lineman Bobby Brown III and cornerback Robert Rochell. The Rams’ rookie class could definitely make an impact in 2021, and their incumbents who have to step up for departed starters seem more than capable of doing so.
Los Angeles Chargers
Pro Football Focus rated the Chargers as having the NFL’s worst offensive line last season. Not the best way to support your young stud QB in Justin Herbert. The Bolts recognized this, and signed Corey Linsley to be their new center in free agency. They then lured former Steelers guard Matt Feiler away from Pittsburgh.
Next, the other LA team who hired one-year wunderkind Rams defensive coordinator Brandon Staley to be their new head coach sat at 13th overall in the 2021 NFL Draft and let Northwestern left tackle Rashawn Slater fall right into their lap.
Slater, Feiler and Linsley will make the Chargers’ o-line so much better. But the rest of their draft was strong too, as they landed Asante Samuel Jr. to start at cornerback and a legitimate No. 3 receiver in Josh Palmer.
It’s scary to think that Herbert is only going to get better from his rookie campaign, and that Staley can only help a defense that’s loaded with young studs like All-Pro safety Derwin James, Samuel, Joey Bosa and Kenneth Murray Jr.
Add all that up, and the Chargers are huge winners of this 2021 NFL offseason.
Those key Rams defensive backs mentioned before, Johnson and Hill? They both went to Cleveland in free agency, which injects so much life into a Browns secondary that was paper-thin in 2020 and ultimately cost the team a chance to advance beyond the AFC Divisional Round.
Between adding those two and Jadeveon Clowney to the defensive line, Cleveland transformed its defense on the open market alone. Then, the draft rolled around, and in the first round, the Browns took Northwestern cornerback Greg Newsome II, and traded up for Notre Dame star linebacker Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah in Round 2.
Newsome is probably going to beat out Greedy Wiliams for the No. 2 cornerback job. Owusu-Koramoah profiles as an immediate starter who has the athleticism and tenacity to boost Cleveland’s linebacker corps to another level.
It’s strange to say, but Cleveland is a legitimate Super Bowl contender thanks to its overhauled defense and continuity established by reigning Coach of the Year Kevin Stefanski with an ascending QB in Baker Mayfield.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
The Super Bowl LV winners retained all 22 of their starters on offense and defense from their championship team. That’s right. You read that right.
Call it the Tom Brady Effect. The GOAT’s leadership and indefatigable winning mentality brought over from two legendary decades with the New England Patriots rubbed off on the Buccaneers last season. They came together after a late bye week and won eight straight en route to the Lombardi Trophy.
Perhaps such unique circumstances and the COVID-19-restricted season made everyone want to stick around for one last ride, too. Whatever the case may be, somehow general manager Jason Licht pulled this off, against all odds. We’ve never seen anything like it in modern NFL history.
As long as Brady stays healthy for the 17-game regular-season gauntlet, this team should continue to be the Super Bowl favorite. They’re also well-built with depth players from their rookie class with edge defender Joe Tryon, hopeful Brady successor Kyle Trask and underrated, speedy receiver Jaelon Darden.