These five non-playoff teams have acquitted themselves the most

Thursday March 20th, 2014

After proving himself in Chicago, Josh McCown will likely start at QB for Tampa Bay this year.
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Twenty teams disappoint their fan bases and miss the playoffs every season in the NFL, and history says five or six clubs make the postseason in any given year after missing out the year before (there have been at least four new teams in the playoffs for 24 consecutive seasons).

In 2013, Carolina, Philadelphia, New Orleans, Kansas City and San Diego all returned to the postseason after playoff droughts of varying degrees. For the also-rans of last year, the work to get back into the 12-team winners circle began as soon as Week 17 of the regular season concluded on Dec. 29 (those wacky Browns didn't even wait until Black Monday to fire first-year head coach Rob Chudzinski).

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A little less than three months later, here's our quick-take ranking of the five 2013 non-playoff teams that have helped themselves the most this offseason, via signings, trades, releases, coach or front office hires, whatever means necessary. To be clear, I'm not forecasting that these five teams have all closed the gap and will be playoff-bound this season. But I do like most of the work that has been done so far, and the direction the arrow is pointing:

1. Tampa Bay -- You can't tell the story of the Bucs' multifaceted offseason upgrades without starting at the swift dismissal of head coach Greg Schiano and general manager Mark Dominik, and the almost as rapid embrace of Lovie Smith and new GM Jason Licht. Even if you didn't judge Smith's homecoming to Tampa Bay to be a masterstroke, there's at least the conviction that a proven commodity is now in charge and the experience factor has greatly been welcomed after the upheaval of the Schiano and Raheem Morris eras. Offensive coordinator Jeff Tedford and defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier were quality hires in my book, too.

What is Smith's presence worth in the tough NFC South, where the Bucs finished a distant 4-12 and in last place in 2013? I can't help but notice that of last season's eight new head coaches, three took their teams to the playoffs -- Kansas City's Andy Reid, Philadelphia's Chip Kelly and San Diego's Mike McCoy -- and two other coaching newbies missed the postseason by just one game (Arizona's Bruce Arians and Chicago's Marc Trestman). Not a bad success ratio on the breath-of-fresh-air front.

But new management alone without new personnel choices wouldn't have convinced me that a new day in Tampa Bay was within reach. The Bucs haven't just been busy -- signing nine free agents in the opening week of the league's annual shopping season -- they've been smart too, getting younger, less top-heavy in terms of salary, and displaying a nice touch for getting ascending players who still have something to prove. And Tampa Bay did it without committing even $10 million fully guaranteed to any one player.

Defensive end Michael Johnson, cornerback Alterraun Verner, offensive tackle Anthony Collins, center Evan Dietrich-Smith, tight end Brandon Myers and defensive tackle Clinton McDonald all fit that mold, and critics be damned, I loved the Josh McCown signing at quarterback. I really do see a little late-career Rich Gannon-like magic in McCown's immediate future in Tampa Bay, albeit not quite at league MVP levels. If nothing else, the veteran's presence will serve to make second-year QB Mike Glennon better in a variety of ways. Watch and see.

The Bucs have basically rebuilt their offensive line overnight, cutting the declining Donald Penn and Davis Joseph in favor of younger talents. And as for the much-critiqued release of all-world cornerback Darrelle Revis, I get why the Bucs moved on. It would have been optimum to get a draft pick or two in return for him, but that was the downside of having no dead money to deal with after his departure.

The ability to spread Revis's gaudy $16 million salary to different parts of the roster, upgrading multiple areas, will pay off in the long run. You always want elite players, but a star system isn't always best for a franchise trying to claw its way back to relevance after a six-season playoff drought. Kudos to the Bucs for making tough choices this offseason, and being bold enough to enact Smith's and Licht's vision of the future.

2. Minnesota -- I was tempted to put the Vikings on this list just for being the first team shrewd (or desperate?) enough to hire longtime Bengals defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer as its head coach. I'm convinced Zimmer will get results, because he's always gotten results when given time to work his plan. He'll mold this team in his own hard-nosed image, and that's what it's going to take if last-place Minnesota is going to climb back onto a more competitive footing with the more talent-laded Packers, Bears and Lions in the NFC North.

Staying on the coaching addition front, landing Norv Turner as offensive coordinator was another step in the right direction in Minnesota. Whatever you think of him as a head coach, Turner the OC knows how to effectively use his weapons and attack a defense, putting his players in the best position to maximize their skills. Quarterback Matt Cassel will benefit, and Vikings fans should prepare to see Turner find inventive ways to feature the unique skill set of receiver Cordarelle Patterson.

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In free agency, I give Minnesota high marks for systematically addressing a series of needs that should allow it to approach the draft in a much more advantageous position. General manager Rick Spielman has done good work and shouldn't have to reach to fill any glaring void in the draft. The re-signing of Cassel to a two-year deal -- and he was by far the best, most productive of the three quarterbacks the Vikings started last season -- was a quiet but critical move, because now Minnesota doesn't have to force anything on the QB-of-the-future question. If there's a passer the Vikings are in love with at No. 8, they can grab him. But they don't have to, which opens up the second or third rounds as quarterback options, and keeps Minnesota away from repeating its Christian Ponder mistake of 2011's first round.

Like Tampa Bay cutting ties with Revis, the Vikings ending their successful six-year run with defensive end Jared Allen was a tough call made for the right reasons. Minnesota's defense bottomed out in 2013, ranking last in points allowed (30 per game) and next-to-last in yards (397.6) and passing yards (287.2). The Vikings had to get younger, and by signing the underrated cornerback Captain Munnerlyn, defensive tackle Linval Joseph, and re-signing defensive end Everson Griffen, Minnesota locked up three starting cogs who are under the age of 27.

Griffen got a shocking deal (five years, $42.5 million, $20 million guaranteed) for a guy who has started just one game in his career, but he's no novice, with 13.5 sacks in the past two years and plenty of upside to develop. He needs to deliver in Allen's old spot, but Zimmer generally knows how to get the best out of his pass rushers, which no doubt bolstered the Vikings' faith. Joseph was another good get, filling a hole at nose tackle that has been problematic since Pat Williams was going to Pro Bowls, and Munnerlyn is a feisty cover man who was one of the bigger reasons behind Carolina's defensive dominance in 2013.

Minnesota went 5-10-1 in Leslie Frazier's final season, but there was that much more competitive 4-3-1 record in the second half to build upon. With an impact draft, solid quarterbacking and likely defensive improvement under Zimmer, a turnaround season for the Vikings might unfold in their new outdoor environs.

3. Jacksonville -- With just 11 Jacksonville wins over the course of the past three seasons, it would take a confluence of factors coming together almost seamlessly for the Jaguars to vault themselves into playoff contention ahead of schedule in 2014. Still, I'm just one of many who love where Gus Bradley's program is headed in Jacksonville, and stranger things have happened in the NFL than a team going from 4-12 (and that ugly 0-8 start last year) to a 9-7 or 10-6 wild-card berth. That's probably just offseason giddiness talking, but the Jaguars may be an impact draft class away (11 picks) from being able to go toe-to-toe with anyone in the relatively mild AFC South. They already give Houston and Tennessee trouble, going 3-1 against them in 2013, and that just leaves first-place Indianapolis to chase.

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A funny thing is starting to unfold in Jacksonville in regards to free agency: Players really want to play there, and it has lots more to do with Bradley and his burgeoning reputation for being a pretty good leader of men than it does the weather or the lack of a state income tax in Florida. Ex-Vikings running back Toby Gerhart, former Broncos guard Zane Beadles and ex-Seattle defensive linemen Red Bryant and Chris Clemons were all nice complementary additions in recent days, and in each case those players had options other than the perennially losing Jaguars. The building sense that Jacksonville is on the right track also aided in the re-signing of veterans like defensive end Jason Babin, cornerback Will Blackmon and quarterback Chad Henne.

The Jaguars were more active than expected and got a lot accomplished in the opening rush of free agency. They targeted for special attention the defensive line, and no surprise there. Jacksonville has finished last in the league in sacks for two years running, and the lack of a pass rush has been a chronic concern for years. Clemons, 32, is coming off just a 4.5-sack season in Seattle, but he has 58 career sacks and should be stronger and quicker after fully recovering from an ACL injury in the Seahawks' 2012 postseason run.

Bryant has a chance to be one of those sneaky good free-agent signings if he can return to the form he flashed earlier in his Seattle career, and Bradley is banking on a return to defensive tackle helping ex-Steelers first-round pick Ziggy Hood become something other than a career underachiever. Toss in the return of Babin, who had a productive first year in Jacksonville (7.5 sacks) -- and maybe the arrival of one Jadeveon Clowney with the draft's No. 3 pick -- and perhaps the Jaguars' greatest liability has been transformed into something approaching a strength.

Offensively, the re-signing of the reliable Henne tells me the Jaguars probably are looking for their future quarterback in the second round this spring, and I still can't believe Jacksonville managed to get a seventh-round draft pick (and maybe a second, conditional selection) from the 49ers in exchange for Blaine Gabbert, whose window of opportunity with the Jags had finally closed. Beadles adds a proven veteran presence at guard, and the move to get younger and more productive at running back -- with the lightly used Gerhart replacing the injury-prone Maurice Jones-Drew -- could prove to be one of the more underrated signings of the offseason.

Significant needs still exist at outside linebacker, at center (after vet Brad Meester retired) and perhaps receiver, where former Raven Tandon Doss just joined the depth chart picture as a bigger target. But the second and third tiers of free agency are still to be mined, and Jacksonville has all those draft picks to further upgrade the talent level. The Jaguars remain playoff long shots for now, but Bradley has his team on the rise and some day the 2014 offseason might be remembered for the moves were the turning point and changed the franchise's fortunes.

4. New York Giants -- Granted, this one is still very much a work in progress and requires a little squinting to see in mid-to-late March. But we're grading on a curve here because the Giants were an unmitigated mess last season. A predictable, injury-plagued mess. Their quarterback regressed, their offensive line was a disaster, and the season was one of streaks and (mostly) valleys. How they went 7-3 in the final 10 games I'll never know.

But the thing is, they don't panic in the land of the G-Men, because that's the Mara Way. They don't throw out the whole organizational blueprint after one dismal 7-9 year. Instead, a big part of the focus is on re-inventing themselves on offense, and that's where the Giants made an inspired move in hiring ex-Packers quarterbacks coach Ben McAdoo as offensive coordinator, replacing the departed Kevin Gilbride, who stepped down.

So let's start with that positive. McAdoo will diversify the Giants offense, breathe some much-needed discipline into the at-times sloppy game of Eli Manning, and make New York a more exciting, less-tendency driven attack. At least that's the plan. Like I said, there's more to work to be done, especially on the offensive line, where the Giants have mostly question marks at the moment.

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At least New York added a quality running back in free agency in Rashad Jennings, picked up ex-Chiefs guard Geoff Schwartz, and reunited with an old friend in receiver Mario Manningham. I also like the addition of diminutive kick return Trindon Holliday, even though he finally wore out Denver's patience with his sloppy ball-handling issues. They know how to fix such things in New York. Just ask Tiki Barber.

Defensively, the picture doesn't require quite so much a leap of faith, even though the loss of end Justin Tuck and tackle Linval Joseph has Giants fans worried. Bidding farewell to Tuck I get given his age and price tag, but Joseph was a significant loss. Besides being young (25), he's the rare tackle who can both stuff the run and rush the passer, and his absence might be felt. On the upside, the secondary is definitely improved with the addition of ex-Broncos cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and ex-Seattle slot corner Walter Thurmond, and the re-signing of inside linebacker Jon Beason was New York's top priority in free agency. Even the pick-up of ex-Ravens linebacker Jameel McClain should be considered a nice little move.

I also liked New York's signing of Seattle pass-rushing linebacker O'Brien Schofield early in free agency, but he failed their physical because of knee issues and remains on the market for now. Perhaps they will double back around to him at some point if their needs persist. Running back Peyton Hillis, linebacker Mark Herzlich and safety Stevie Brown were all low-cost re-signings that made solid sense.

Manning still doesn't have enough weapons at his disposal at receiver, but that doesn't mean letting go of injury-prone veteran pass-catcher Hakeem Nicks was the wrong call. Nicks got a one-year prove-it deal in Indianapolis, and if he produces, who knows, maybe the Giants re-sign him in 2015. For now, the first couple rounds of the draft shape up huge for New York. If they're going to get another receiving threat to pair with Victor Cruz (maybe North Carolina tight end Eric Ebron), the Giants should have quality choices with their No. 12 pick.

For all the uncertainties, the gap between the 7-9 Giants and the 10-6 NFC East-winning Eagles wasn't huge. New York has always ridden the rollercoaster a bit in the Tom Coughlin era, and the veteran coach usually does his best work when his team's chances are discounted. Plenty observers will still be in that camp when the Giants' 2014 season opens.

5. Cleveland -- First off, an admission: I had the Browns on this same list last season, so clearly I can't be trusted to accurately read Cleveland's state of competitiveness. What's that saying: Fool me multiple times, shame on me?

With the Browns winning only four or five games the past six seasons in a row, and starting over on a near-annual basis, there's probably plenty of us who have erroneously bought into a few too many Cleveland rebuilding efforts. But I'm playing the law of averages and giving the "new'' Browns the benefit of the doubt once again, because some day the futility and constant re-invention has to end.

When it comes to new Cleveland head coach Mike Pettine, I'm buying into what he's selling, and that's where the Browns offseason upgrade obviously starts for me. Pettine is a no-nonsense, straight-talker who knows his stuff and doesn't seemed to be overwhelmed or awed by the size of the make-over project he has been handed. Ditto in the kudos department for Cleveland replacing the suspect Joe Banner-Mike Lombardi front office tandem with new general manager Ray Farmer, despite the typical ham-handedness of how the Browns executed both their coaching and front office moves. If they got it right this time, all will be forgiven in the long run.

Still, no one should be kidding themselves in Cleveland: It's going to come down to the quarterback position and if the Browns can finally solve their long-running nightmare at the game's most pivotal spot. With both Brandon Weeden and Jason Campbell banished, it's up to the largely untested Brian Hoyer and a very big blank-to-be-filled-in-the-draft to take the embers of hope that exist in Cleveland and turn them into a legitimate flame. That's simply not enough to inspire confidence just yet. But with two first-round picks (No. 4 and 26), the Browns have a lot of options to work with in finding a passer. If they don't like one of the top-rated names, they can wait and hope to uncover their own version of Russell Wilson or Colin Kaepernick somewhere lower in the draft, be it at No. 26 (the Trent Richardson slot) or early in the second round.

But from what we have to go on now in terms of personnel moves, Cleveland acquitted itself well in free agency. Running back Ben Tate, late of Houston, is a legitimate No. 1 rusher if he can stay healthy, and he'd give the Browns an element of reliable ground threat they were solely lacking last season with Richardson, Willis McGahee and others. Stealing away slot receiver Andrew Hawkins from rival Cincinnati in restricted free agency gets another thumbs up, helping move Cleveland past its troubling Davone Bess mistake of a year ago. Hawkins joining Josh Gordon and Jordan Cameron gives the Browns three quality receiving targets, and that's going to make somebody a better quarterback.

On defense, I'm not sure ex-49er strong safety Donte Whitner is an upgrade over the departed T.J. Ward (who signed with Denver), but acquiring the veteran leadership and play-making of linebacker Karlos Dansby looks like a shrewd move. He should serve to offset the locker-room loss of veteran inside linebacker D'Qwell Jackson. Granted, Cleveland needs to get the Dansby of Arizona vintage (twice), and not the well-paid but underachieving Miami-era version.

I'm convinced the Browns are better. How much better remains to be seen. There have been too many false starts in Cleveland to get ahead of the story. But if Pettine and Farmer are as solid as I think they are, and Cleveland finally drafts and develops a difference-making quarterback in 2014, the end to the misery may be starting to come within sight.

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