It’s been one of the busiest offseasons in recent NFL history. More so than just free agency, trades have been the name of the game around the league. From the Los Angeles Rams adding two Pro Bowl cornerbacks to the San Francisco 49ers re-signing a player they acquired last season, this has played a huge role in the dynamic of the offseason thus far.
Let us not forget about the Green Bay Packers making some rare free agent moves to improve their roster and the Denver Broncos finally finding a solution at quarterback. Heading into NFL Draft season, here’s a look at eight teams that have joined the Super Bowl conversation already this offseason.
Los Angeles Chargers
It’s not that the Chargers have done a whole heck of a lot thus far this offseason. Signing elite cornerback Casey Hayward to a team-friendly extension was a strong move. As was picking up Pro Bowl center Mike Pouncey after he was released by the Miami Dolphins. That’s a franchise knowing what it needed and taking care of business during the offseason.
Los Angeles is coming off a 2017 campaign that saw it win nine of its final 12 games. The core pieces are there on both sides of the ball with future Hall of Famer Philip Rivers calling the shots on offense and a defense that yielded the third-fewest points in the league. Adding Pouncey to team up with youngsters Dan Feeney and Forrest Lamp was an absolutely huge move. And in an AFC West that appears to be ripe for the taking, Los Angeles heads into draft season as the odds-on favorites. That’s no small thing.
Green Bay Packers
First-year Packers GM Brian Gutekunst was true to his word in indicating that the team would be more active in free agency under his watch. He also wasn’t afraid to make the difficult move of releasing an aging Jordy Nelson, only to replace him on offense with a Pro Bowl tight end in Jimmy Graham. In and of itself, that’s a major upgrade for Green Bay.
Now take into account the signing of fellow former Pro Bowler, defensive lineman Muhammad Wilkerson, and the Packers’ talent level has improved leaps and bounds this offseason. Acquiring someone that could put consistent pressure on the quarterback was a necessity for the Packers. Wilkerson is one of the best in the business at that. Sure Green Bay needs to go defensive back heavy in the coming draft after missing out on Chicago Bears corner Kyle Fuller. But Gutekunst has laid the foundation for a much improved version of this team in 2018.
Even before focusing on free agency, the strong rehabs we’re seeing from quarterback Deshaun Watson and defensive end J.J. Watt has already improved Houston’s standing heading into the 2018 season. When both are healthy, these Texans are right up there with Jacksonville as the top team in the AFC South. That’s almost not even in question.
Though, the signing of former All-Pro safety Tyrann Mathieu is what leads us to believe Houston might very well be on the verge of taking that next step. Sure Mathieu has dealt with injuries over the past couple seasons. That’s fine. When healthy, he’s among the best ball-hawking defensive backs in the game. Adding him to the mix with Watt, Jadeveon Clowney and Whitney Mercilus will turn around what was an injury-plagued and disappointing defense last season. With Watson teaming up to toss the rock to DeAndre Hopkins, these Texans could very well be dangerous on both sides of the ball next season.
Los Angeles Rams
It was pretty clear that Los Angeles wasn’t quite ready for prime time in its loss to the Atlanta Falcons in the NFC Wildcard Playoffs last season. That’s not an indictment of the Rams. This is still a very young team with the youngest head coach in the NFL. GM Les Snead and Co. sought to change that in a big way early in the offseason.
It started with the trade for Pro Bowl cornerback Marcus Peters in a deal that has fans of Peters’ former Kansas City Chiefs team in complete shock. The Rams then doubled down with another cornerback for defensive coordinator Wade Phillips in the form of fellow Pro Bowler Aqib Talib. Talk about the Rams building up the latest version of the now defunct Legion of Boom. With reigning Offensive Player of the Year Todd Gurley, Defensive Player of the Year Aaron Donald and a bright young quarterback in Jared Goff set to continue shining, the Rams could very well be looking Super Bowl here in the not-so-distant future.
This is all about Pittsburgh making sure that it didn’t even let Le’Veon Bell test free agency. Sure the All-Pro running back will likely sit out all of Pittsburgh’s offseason activities, but he’ll be back in time for the preseason. With Bell, Ben Roethlisberger and Antonio Brown in the mix, these Steelers are always going to be top-end conference title contenders.
Normally quiet in free agency, Pittsburgh also sought out to address a major need on defense. Following the release of veteran safety Mike Mitchell, the team signed long-time Packers starter Morgan Burnett to replace him. That’s a major upgrade in the secondary. It also teams Burnett up with Sean Davis to form a pretty awesome safety duo in Pittsburgh.
It’s all about the quarterback, stupid. Apparently, Broncos GM John Elway finally hedged his bets on that warn out political tagline by addressing the elephant in the room. Denver’s regression into the AFC West’s cellar last season had everything to do with one of the worst quarterback situations in the NFL. That’s now been remedied by the signing of veteran Case Keenum. The former Minnesota Vikings signal caller is coming off a career-best performance and will provide some stability under center for a Broncos team that has not had that since Peyton Manning back in 2014.
For a team that still boasts talent pretty much everywhere else on the roster, this is an absolutely huge deal. It also enables the Broncos to potentially address another position at No. 5 overall if they decide against going with a quarterback of the future in the coming NFL Draft. Given that quarterbacks are going to fly off the board before that fifth pick, this means Denver could very well end up with one of the best players in the draft.
San Francisco 49ers
According to this one popular Vegas odds-maker, San Francisco now boasts top-five odds to win the Super Bowl next season. Okay, that’s pretty darn premature. We will, however, say that this version of the 49ers is vastly improved. It obviously started with the acquisition of Jimmy Garoppolo, who led San Francisco to a 5-0 record in his five starts to conclude last season. Not only that, the 49ers averaged nearly 30 points per game with wins over three playoff teams in those five games. That enabled Garoppolo to receive what was then the richest contract in NFL history.
Since then, GM John Lynch and Co. have added multiple starters on both sides of the ball with the ample cap room the team had. This includes the signing of future Hall of Famer corner Richard Sherman and a talented young running back in the form of Jerick McKinnon. When we add in the signings of offensive linemen Weston Richburg and Jonathan Cooper, San Francisco has already improved leaps and bounds over the past several weeks. With a top-10 pick and four selections in the first three rounds of next month’s draft, the rich will only get richer here. That should lead to a relatively competitive NFC West race between Los Angeles and San Francisco next season.
New Orleans Saints
No one really knows how far New Orleans would have gone last season if it wasn’t for the mental hiccup from safety Marcus Williams in the NFC Divisional Playoffs against Minnesota. This team easily could have ultimately ended up hoisting the Lombardi Trophy. Alas, that was not meant to be. With an improved defensive performance, New Orleans set out to improve that side of the ball even more in free agency. That included signing cornerback Patrick Robinson, linebacker Demario Davis and safety Kurt Coleman. These were targeted moves for a team that needed to find upgrades at all three positions.
Now heading into draft season, New Orleans has its future Hall of Famer quarterback locked up long term and will look to add more talent to that side of the ball. Last season saw these Saints overtake Atlanta in the NFC South. It would not be a surprise this coming season if New Orleans were to take that next step to legitimate Super Bowl contention. The talent is there. The experience is there. It’s now all about putting it together on the field.