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.
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.
Teams that consistently win in this league are brutal in their self-assessment of their own weaknesses. The Saints obviously didn't get it done on defense in 2007, and that's why they went out and made an early move at each line of defense, adding middle linebacker Jonathan Vilma, cornerback Randall Gay and defensive end Bobby McCray.
McCray's signing could be pivotal. The former 2004 final-round selection had 10 sacks as recently as 2006, and his addition allows the Saints to shift Charles Grant inside to tackle, from where he can apply some much-needed up-the-gut pressure. With Will Smith at the other end, the Saints will put a pretty athletic front four on the field, reminiscent of the three-defensive-end approach that produced such great results for the Super Bowl-winning Giants last season.
I'm also impressed by New Orleans' foresight in re-signing so many of its own key role players, such as Devery Henderson, David Patten, Aaron Stecker, Jamar Nesbit, Billy Miller, Brian Young and Mark Simoneau. Linebacker Dan Morgan adds depth at weakside linebacker, and the team on Thursday upgraded its backup quarterback slot by signing veteran Mark Brunell as Drew Brees' understudy. Only the loss of center Jeff Faine in free agency registers as a potential setback this offseason, even though New Orleans feels Jonathan Goodwin represents little drop-off at the position.
What they still need: Another cornerback to further strengthen the pass defense, or a run-stuffing defensive tackle who wins more than he loses at the point of attack. The Saints, at No. 10 in the draft, are probably going to finish just out of the money in terms of top defensive tackles Glenn Dorsey and Sedrick Ellis, so a top-ranked cornerback (Leodis McKelvin, Aqib Talib or Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie) in the first round makes more sense.
How much better?: From 7-9 to 11-5.
When you have a disaster on the scale of the 2007 Falcons, there's almost nowhere to go but up. That said, Atlanta is better off today with the tandem of general manager Thomas Dimitroff and head coach Mike Smith -- first-timers both -- than they were last year at this time with Rich McKay and Bobby Petrino calling the shots. New offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey is another upgrade. It's early in the rebuilding process, but I like a lot of the moves -- and non-moves -- that Atlanta's new regime has made so far.
Getting running back Michael Turner in free agency was a plus, even if Atlanta did have to slightly overpay for a still unproven commodity in terms of starting experience. Bidding farewell to established stars such as Warrick Dunn and Alge Crumpler is never particularly easy to watch, but the Falcons are making a fresh start of it and those two had more to do with where this team has been than where it's going.
I also like that the Falcons so far haven't given away cornerback DeAngelo Hall in one of those just-be-done-with-him trades or release jobs. Starting cornerbacks, even ones who aren't as good as they think they are, don't grow on trees in the NFL, and the Falcons need to show patience on this front, not impetuousness.
Other than signing Turner, the Falcons haven't done anything that rates big headlines. But that means they haven't thrown around silly money, and I do give them credit for adding safety Erik Coleman, and concentrating on their lines with the signings of center Alex Stepanovich and defensive tackle Kindal Moorehead. Rebuilding should always start up front on both sides of the ball.
What they still need: A starting quarterback. The Falcons re-signed Chris Redman, who played better than anyone had a right to expect in his four starts last year, and this week brought back Joey Harrington with a restructured contract. D.J. Shockley is another name, but not necessarily the answer. While conventional wisdom says Atlanta will take Matt Ryan with the No. 3 pick, the Falcons could easily go with LSU defensive tackle Glenn Dorsey and try to land their quarterback of the future (Brian Brohm?) in the second round. That might even be the smartest move of all.
How much better?: From 4-12 to 7-9.
Since starting last season 6-2, the Lions haven't had much good news to chew on, so it's a stretch of sorts to put them on my most-improved list. But I still see some encouraging signs. First off, for whatever reason, Mike Martz's two-year stint as Detroit's offensive coordinator was an ill fit from the start, and now it's over. He's in San Francisco, and Jim Colletto has been elevated to OC. He's going to bring a more simplified, straight-forward approach to the playbook, and balance out an offense that had largely forgotten the run.
Detroit has also had some much-needed success in remaking its secondary, getting a solid starting cornerback in Leigh Bodden in the Shaun Rogers trade with Cleveland, as well as signing cornerback Brian Kelly and safety Dwight Smith. Lions head coach Rod Marinelli has history with both players from his days in Tampa Bay, and thus may get something out of them. Another ex-Buc, defensive tackle Chuck Darby, adds bulk up front that helps offset the loss of Rogers.
This week, Detroit cut two more of its failed top draft picks in running back Kevin Jones (who can't stay healthy) and defensive end Kalimba Edwards (who can't play). Throw in the trade of Rogers and letting the likes of Damien Woody and Boss Bailey walk in free agency, and the Lions are at least coming to grips with the dead wood on their roster.
Now if they can continue to squelch the idea that receiver Roy Williams is on the trading block, find a way to protect quarterback Jon Kitna a little better, and re-commit to a running game led by Tatum Bell or a rusher to be determined later, the Lions might still deliver on some of that first-half promise of last season.
What they still need: More defensive help has to arrive via the draft. Another cornerback could be in store with Detroit's No. 15 pick, although an offensive tackle such as Vanderbilt's Chris Williams or Pitt's Jeff Otah might be too valuable to pass on. The Lions need a solid hit with that extra third-rounder that they obtained from the Browns in the trade for Rogers.
How much better?: From 7-9 to 9-7.