With Super Bowl 56 in the books, it is now officially the offseason — a time for optimism for all 32 NFL franchises.
Here is each NFL team's most improved player this year, according to PFF’s play-by-play grading system.
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PFF Grade change from 2020 to 2021: 69.4 → 81.9 (+12.5)
Conner’s massive grade swing can be credited to his impact as a receiver. His role increased at the midway point of the season, and he displayed some of the most reliable hands at the position — he was one of two running backs with over 40 targets and no drops on the year. From Week 9 forward, Conner earned a position-leading 90.5 receiving grade.
PFF Grade change from 2020 to 2021: 60.8 → 82.7 (+21.9)
Terrell was one of the most improved players in the NFL this past season. He locked up his opponents on a weekly basis, allowing no more than 32 yards in a single game this year. The corner also ended up allowing 0.37 yards per coverage snap — the third-lowest figure in the PFF era — behind only Asante Samuel in 2010 and Nnamdi Asomugha in 2008 (0.36 each).
PFF Grade change from 2020 to 2021: 52.6 → 74.8 (+22.2)
Bynes produced at a career-low level in his lone season as a Cincinnati Bengal in 2020. He turned in a 52.6 PFF grade that year — over 27.0 grading points lower than his 2019 campaign in Baltimore. He came back to the Ravens for 2021 and bounced back once he became the starter in Week 6. From that point on, Bynes was a top-10-graded linebacker in the NFL.
PFF Grade change from 2020 to 2021: 45.8 → 71.8 (+26.0)
Oliver had his best season in the NFL ranks in 2021. The 2019 top-10 pick posted a career-high 74.8 pass-rush grade last year while raising his run-defense grade over 27.0 points year-over-year. Oliver’s positively and negatively graded run-play rate differential went from -9.8% in 2020 to +1.7%. His run defense still isn’t great, but it’s progress that Buffalo needed to see.
PFF Grade change from 2020 to 2021: 49.8 → 72.7 (+22.9)
Thompson had a bounce-back year in 2021. He struggled to lead the linebacker corps without Luke Kuechly in 2020 with a 49.8 PFF grade, ranking 54th of 79 qualifying linebackers. This year, Thompson returned to form as the leader of the position group, producing a top-10 grade at the position.
CHICAGO BEARS: EDGE ROBERT QUINN
PFF Grade change from 2020 to 2021: 61.6 → 69.9 (+8.3)
Chicago needed to see some improvement out of Quinn in 2021 after a disappointing first year with the team on a big contract signed in the 2020 offseason. It wasn’t quite the elite form we once saw from Quinn back in his early days with the then-St. Louis Rams, but it was still a strong year from a pass-rush perspective. He earned a 79.7 pass-rush grade in 2021, which ranked 17th among qualifying edge defenders.
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PFF Grade change from 2020 to 2021: 75.1 → 91.8 (+16.7)
Burrow actually didn’t see the largest PFF grade climb year-over-year on his own team — that honor belongs to cornerback Chidobe Awuzie. Burrow is the choice here, though, because making the jump to elite status, like he did in only his second year in the NFL ranks, is rare to see. Not only was his 91.8 PFF grade in 2021 the highest among all quarterbacks for the season, but it was the second-best by a second-year quarterback in the PFF era (since 2006). Cincinnati can now say they have one of the few, elite franchise quarterbacks in the NFL, which is why I think we will see Burrow avenge this Super Bowl loss at some point in his career.
PFF Grade change from 2020 to 2021: 45.5 → 69.1 (+23.6)
Walker had a career-best season in 2021 after making the move from Indianapolis to Cleveland. His coverage play with the Browns stood out in particular — Walker’s 78.2 coverage grade was among the five highest at the position for the year. He recorded 18 passing stops and forced incompletions while not allowing a single touchdown.
PFF Grade change from 2020 to 2021: 55.7 → 75.9 (+20.2)
Kearse showed flashes of promise as a reserve throughout his first four years in the NFL with the Minnesota Vikings from 2016 through 2019. After a year with the underwhelming Detroit Lions in 2020, Kearse took on a starting job with the Cowboys in 2021 and ended up as the 12th-highest-graded player at the position for the season. He led all safeties in pass breakups with 10, tied for fifth in defensive stops with 33, finished second in missed tackle rate at 3.9% (four misses on 103 attempts) and tied for third in total pressures with 11.
PFF Grade change from 2020 to 2021: 40.5 → 64.2 (+23.7)
Cushenberry was a liability during his 2020 rookie campaign — his 40.5 PFF grade that season was the worst among all NFL centers — but he took a necessary step forward in his sophomore campaign. He still has plenty of room to grow, but ranking 22nd of 40 qualifying centers in PFF grade is a lot better than dead last.
DETROIT LIONS: EDGE CHARLES HARRIS
PFF Grade change from 2020 to 2021: 55.7 → 68.3 (+12.6)
After years of struggles in Miami and a failed turnaround in 2020 with Atlanta, Harris finally made an impact in the pass-rush with Detroit in 2021. The 2017 first-round pick earned a 78.7 pass-rush grade in 2021, surpassing his previous career-high by double-digit grading points and ranking 19th among qualifying edge defenders. Harris’ revitalized season is a testament to the coaching staff in Detroit.
PFF Grade change from 2020 to 2021: 49.0 → 86.0 (+37.0)
Green Bay’s defense had several candidates for most improved player, but its representative has to be Campbell. The off-ball linebacker saw the biggest grading leap year-over-year of any player in the NFL this past season. His tackling was special, with just four misses on 145 attempts and 55 defensive stops. Campbell was the second-highest-graded linebacker in the NFL playing for his third team in three years in 2021. A change of scenery did wonders for his career.
PFF Grade change from 2020 to 2021: 50.2 → 77.6 (+27.4)
Thomas had one of the most underrated seasons in the league this year. Up until this last season, the 2018 undrafted free agent had played only 237 snaps in meaningful NFL games for the Browns. Last year, Thomas stepped up as the nickel for Houston, and he was one of the best at the position. Thomas posted one of the five highest slot coverage grades in the NFL and allowed the fewest yards per slot coverage snap (0.50).
PFF Grade change from 2020 to 2021: 62.8 → 78.0 (+15.2)
Pittman became the reliable possession receiver the team drafted him to be last year. He was one of the 10 most productive wide receivers in the NFL against zone coverage this season. Pittman generated 2.17 yards per route run against zone and finished with the seventh-most yards (458) by finding soft spots in the coverage. The 6-foot-4, 220-pound receiver also stood strong in contested scenarios, catching 18 of 28 such targets.
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PFF Grade change from 2020 to 2021: 69.6 → 78.5 (+8.9)
Allen's 0.19 PFF Wins Above Replacement in 2021 was three times more than either of his first two seasons in the NFL. The 2019 seventh overall pick started out the 2021 season hot with an 86.9 PFF grade through Week 11 — the fourth-best at the position — but teetered off down the stretch. Allen produced far more high-level reps this past season and needs to find some consistency in 2022.
PFF Grade change from 2020 to 2021: 64.3 → 71.2 (+6.9)
Ward was picked on more in 2021 than in any other season of his career — he was targeted on 17.9% of his coverage snaps, the 14th-highest rate among NFL corners. Despite that, Ward held his own and recorded a career-high PFF grade. He generated 0.37 PFF WAR, which ranked 16th among NFL corners and was over seventh-tenths more than his previous career-best.
LAS VEGAS RAIDERS: EDGE MAXX CROSBY
PFF Grade change from 2020 to 2021: 57.8 → 91.7 (+33.9)
Crosby is right there with Terrell and Campbell for most improved player in the NFL. His 33.9-point PFF grade swing year-over-year was the second-highest in the league, regardless of position. He went from 65th to second among edge defenders in PFF grade. Crosby’s 108 pressures in 2021 led the NFL and were 60 more than the year before. That kind of leap in production is unprecedented.
PFF Grade change from 2020 to 2021: 79.9 → 90.1 (+10.2)
It’s not easy making the leap to elite status at quarterback, but Herbert joins Burrow among that rare group to do so. The 2020 sixth-overall pick was the fourth-highest-graded quarterback of the 2021 season. The former Oregon Duck is known for his rocket-launcher arm, but his ability to take care of the football is a big reason why he got earned that highly regarded PFF grade this past season. Just 1.6% of his dropbacks ended in a turnover-worthy play in 2021, edging out Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers for the best in the NFL.
PFF Grade change from 2020 to 2021: 81.6 → 93.0 (+11.4)
Kupp was the model of consistency in his NFL career prior to 2021. He earned a receiving grade between 76.1 and 79.1 in each of his first four seasons. Kupp ascended out of the “great, but not elite” tier this season, producing one of the best wide receiver seasons in NFL history. His 93.1 receiving grade in 2021 is the second-best single-season mark in the entire PFF database (Julio Jones in 2016).
PFF Grade change from 2020 to 2021: 69.3 → 84.9 (+15.6)
Sieler played much less two-technique last season — heads-up between the two guards — and it paid significant dividends. The 6-foot-6, 290-pound interior lineman posted a career-best 94.9 PFF grade that featured a grade north of 76.0 against the run and in pass rush. He may not be an every-down player, but that didn’t stop him from generating the fourth-most PFF WAR at the position in 2021.
PFF Grade change from 2020 to 2021: 61.9 → 66.4 (+4.5)
There weren’t many “most improved” options in Minnesota, but Woods, whom the team signed last offseason, is a player that qualifies. He improved in PFF grade year-over-year, going back to primarily free safety after moving to a more versatile job for 2020 with the Cowboys. He did see a drop in coverage play in 2021, but his run defense was the best of his career by far. Woods earned an 87.5 run defense grade last year, which surpassed his previous career-best by 10 grading points.
PFF Grade change from 2020 to 2021: 66.2 → 80.0 (+13.8)
Phillips plays close to the line of scrimmage. Most of his snaps come in the box, but he earned this vastly improved grade in 2021 because of high-level plays made in the few snaps he got in the slot. On 96 slot coverage snaps in 2021, Phillips intercepted two passes, forced three incompletions and recorded five passing stops. His textbook tackling, regardless of where he was on the field, also helped him get to an 80.0 mark for the season, which ranked seventh among all safeties.
PFF Grade change from 2020 to 2021: 40.5 → 70.0 (+29.5)
Williams only started a handful of games in 2021 and was mostly brought in off the bench. Still, there’s no denying he was significantly better than any other point in his career. It was the first season of his career that he didn’t play a significant amount of his snaps at cornerback. He proceeded to produce a career-high PFF grade.
PFF Grade change from 2020 to 2021: 62.4 → 78.9 (+16.5)
Thomas looked like a completely different player in 2021 compared to his 2020 rookie campaign. The top-five pick grew his pass-block grade from 54.7 to 82.1 year-over-year. He went from allowing the second-worst pressure rate among tackles at 9.9% to the seventh-lowest at 3.7%. He’s starting to put it all together from a technical perspective and is a candidate to take his play to elite status in 2022.
PFF Grade change from 2020 to 2021: 71.5 → 80.3 (+8.8)
Franklin-Myers signed a big contract extension a month into the 2021 season and used that as fuel to have a career-best year. He earned a top-15 PFF grade among edge defenders last year at 80.3 and was among the top-10 most valuable edge defenders of 2021. He is likely going to be a key cog in New York’s talented defensive line for 2022 and beyond.
PFF Grade change from 2020 to 2021: 37.8 → 71.0 (+33.2)
Maddox was moved exclusively to outside corner for 2020, and it went poorly, as evidenced by his 37.8 PFF grade. In 2021, Maddox moved to the slot where he belongs and saw a drastic improvement. He actually finished the year as a top-five-graded defensive back in the slot. Maddox's tackling was on point, with just five misses on 77 attempts and 24 defensive stops.
PFF Grade change from 2020 to 2021: 34.8 → 68.1 (+33.3)
Turner was traded to the Chargers in the 2020 offseason, but his lone year in the L.A. powder blue and yellow went very poorly. The injury-riddled campaign ended in a 34.8 PFF grade. Turner was subsequently cut in the 2021 offseason and picked up by the Steelers, where he returned to his old form with the Panthers. His 68.1 PFF grade ranked a respectable 30th among 79 qualifying guards.
PFF Grade change from 2020 to 2021: 79.8 → 90.2 (+10.4)
Samuel played in only six games in 2020 due to injury. He was a quality underneath weapon in his short time on the field, but he wasn’t nearly as dangerous as he was in his 2021 breakout campaign.
Samuel was one of four wide receivers to earn an elite PFF grade above 90.0, thanks to his efforts as both a receiver and a runner. He averaged an NFL-leading 10.8 yards after the catch while shedding 27 tackles. On the ground, Samuel picked up 14 explosive runs of 10-plus yards and broke 28 tackles on 86 carries.
PFF Grade change from 2020 to 2021: 68.1 → 70.2 (+2.1)
Jones started more games in 2021 than in any other season of his NFL career. Injuries got in the way at times, but he never got the opportunity when healthy to hold a job. That chance came in Week 4 this season, and after a couple of rocky starts, Jones more than proved he belonged on the field. From Week 6 on, he was the seventh-highest-graded cornerback in the NFL. He allowed just 187 yards on 359 coverage snaps in that span while breaking up seven passes.
PFF Grade change from 2020 to 2021: 67.2 → 89.1 (+21.9)
Winfield was good as a rookie, given the circumstances, but he took a step forward to top-tier status in his sophomore campaign. His 89.1 PFF grade trailed only Kevin Byard for the best among safeties. Winfield was the only player at the position to earn a grade above 80.0 against the run, as a blitzer and in coverage. He also played the most coverage snaps (676) without a touchdown allowed among safeties.
PFF Grade change from 2020 to 2021: 66.6 → 85.9 (+19.3)
Hooker suffered an injury during the first week of 2021 that kept him out a month. Upon his return, Hooker looked like a decidedly different player. He proceeded to produce a top-three PFF grade among NFL safeties. Hooker saw double-digit grading improvements both against the run and in coverage last year, which was also his first as a full-time starter in the NFL.
PFF Grade change from 2020 to 2021: 66.7 → 81.5 (+14.8)
Fuller was moved to the outside in his return to Washington in 2020, and it was volatile to say the least. He allowed a career-high five touchdowns and earned his second-lowest PFF grade of his career.
His second-year playing on the outside in 2021 went far better. He finished as the second-most valuable cornerback in the NFL and got better as the year went on. From Week 8 forward, he was the highest-graded corner in the NFL.