Last week, colleague Nathan Jahnke broke down the most-improved units in the NFL heading into 2016. Shifting the focus to individual contributors, here are 20 additions—arriving via draft, free-agency signings, or trades—with the potential to dramatically help their new teams from day one.
1. Josh Norman, CB, Redskins
How he got here: Free agency (from Panthers)
Norman’s rights were locked up for the majority of the offseason, but a refusal to sign his franchise tender left his position in Carolina precarious. GM Dave Gettleman was unfazed by a shortage of corners, rescinding the tag and allowing Norman to hit the market. New Redskins defensive coordinator Joe Barry improved the defense in 2015, but had an obvious hole in the secondary opposite Bashaud Breeland. Chris Culliver struggled last season, allowing a QB rating of 134.8 (surrendering four touchdowns on 35 targets). Will Blackmon, meanwhile, is much better suited to a more limited role in the slot. He allowed 63 percent of targets to be caught for 264 yards, three touchdowns, and recorded two picks inside in 2015. In contrast, when lined up outside, Blackmon allowed 51 percent of targets to be caught for 418 yards, four touchdowns, and no picks a year ago. Norman’s 54.0 QB rating allowed led all NFL corners a year ago; he should be a dramatic upgrade in Washington.
2. Sean Smith, CB, Raiders
How he got here: Free agency (from Chiefs)
Back-to-back corners top this list; it’s a testament to the importance of the position in the modern NFL. Smith is one of the few corners who can match up physically with some of the bigger bodies at wide receiver. He ranked as our 12th-overall corner a year ago, allowing a QB rating of just 87.3. For comparison, D.J. Hayden ranked 105th, allowing a QB rating of 104.1 and five touchdowns. Hayden was a liability on the outside, and has been replaced by a Pro-Bowl level talent.
3. Malik Jackson, DT, Jaguars
How he got here: Free agency (from Broncos)
Time is running out for Gus Bradley. The Jaguars are certainly on the prowl, but have yet to take command the AFC South. The three-technique pass-rusher position in Bradley’s 4-3 under front cries out for a dominant player. Jackson is the ideal candidate to fill that role; he finished seventh amongst interior defenders with an 88.5 pass-rush grade a year ago, amassing 60 combined pressures and seven batted passes. The former Bronco provides a dramatic improvement for a unit that lacked a positively-graded interior pass-rusher last season.
4. Brandon Brooks, G, Eagles
How he got here: Free agency (from Texans)
The Philadelphia Eagles' guard play in 2015 was atrocious. Matt Tobin was a disaster at right guard, giving up 10 combined pressures in a season-defining game against Washington. In contrast, Brandon Brooks surrendered only 24 combined pressures all year. The Eagles simply couldn’t prevent an interior rush in 2015, completely debilitating the offense. Brooks is the perfect antidote for the issues that plagued the Philly offensive line. He’ll provide a major boost for an O-line unit that is in desperate need of treatment.
5. Reggie Ragland, ILB, Bills
How he got here: 2016 NFL draft (Round 2, pick No. 41 overall, Alabama)
Last season, the Bills’ defense was not of the standard Rex Ryan expects, particularly in the front seven. Starting middle linebacker Preston Brown ranked 90th out of 97 qualifying linebackers in overall grade a year ago. He was third from bottom in run defense alone, recording a 23.7 grade (on PFF's 1–100 scale). Ragland will have to prove himself capable of handling his coverage responsibilities in the NFL, but he’ll be a dramatic upgrade from day one against the run. Ragland’s instincts and burst to close sideline to sideline stand out. He should make an instant impact for Buffalo.
6. Jerrell Freeman, ILB, Bears
How he got here: Free agency (from Colts)
The Bears were desperate for help at inside linebacker after John Timu, Christian Jones, and Shea McClellin struggled through 2015. Freeman was our fourth-overall linebacker a year ago, dominating against the run in particular. Partnering him with fellow free agent Danny Trevathan completely alters their outlook at the position heading into 2016.
7. William Jackson III, CB, Bengals
How he got here: 2016 NFL draft (Round 1, pick No. 24 overall, Houston)
The opportunities for Dre Kirkpatrick to start in Cincinnati had been limited up to the 2015 season, perhaps partly because of what the coaches saw in practice. As a full-time starter, he ranked 103rd overall at the position (in terms of grade). He was seventh from the bottom in tackling efficiency, missing 16-of-71 attempted in 2015; William Jackson missed only five-of-52 in college a year ago. The former Houston Cougar's physicality and exceptional coverage skills make him a good candidate for immediate success.
8. Ezekiel Elliott, RB, Cowboys
How he got here: 2016 NFL draft (Round 1, pick No. 4 overall, Ohio State)
We’ve analyzed both the Cowboys’ offensive line and Ezekiel Elliott himself this offseason; the two should be perfect for each other. Dallas’ running backs were far from terrible a year ago, but they lacked the star quality Elliott possesses. He generated 3.6 yards after contact per attempt in 2015, predominantly from busting long runs once he reached the second level. The Cowboys’ line will make that happen more frequently than any of the other 31 teams, suggesting Elliott is primed for a big year.
9. Ronnie Stanley, OT, Ravens
How he got here: 2016 NFL draft (Round 1, pick No. 6 overall, Notre Dame)
An injury suffered by Eugene Monroe left the Ravens reliant on 2014 undrafted free agent James Hurst last season at tackle. He was our 74th-highest-graded OT last season, giving up 41 combined pressures in just 358 snaps. Stanley was probably the best pass-protector in the 2015 draft class, and he’s a perfect fit in Baltimore’s zone-blocking scheme. Stanley possesses the quick feet and athleticism to cut off backside defenders in outside zone—he should make an impact in both facets of play.
10. Ryan Kelly, C, Colts
How he got here: 2016 NFL draft (Round 1, pick No. 18 overall, Alabama)
Since potential Hall-of-Fame center Jeff Saturday retired, the position has been one of concern for the Colts. Ryan Kelly has all the traits to make the spot his own for an entire career. The 18th-overall pick still has room for development in pass protection, but can make any block in the run game and has off-the-chart intangibles. Kelly can generate vertical movement in-line, as well as block linebackers in space at the second level.
11. Ladarius Green, TE, Steelers
How he got here: Free agency (from Chargers)
Heath Miller’s retirement opened up a starting spot at tight end in Pittsburgh. Ladarius Green, who was struggling for playing time behind Antonio Gates in San Diego, snatched up the opportunity by signing with the Steelers in free agency. His development has slowed somewhat by being forced to sit on the bench, but career numbers of 82 catches for of 1,128 yards, eight touchdowns, and six drops suggests he’s capable of taking on a starting role.
12. Corey Coleman, WR, Browns
How he got here: 2016 NFL draft (Round 1, pick No. 15 overall, Baylor)
The Browns’ top two wide receivers from a year ago—Travis Benjamin and Brian Hartline—are both no longer with the team. Coleman’s success depends, to a large degree, on another former Baylor standout, Robert Griffin III. The wideout was our No. 1 receiver in this class, and a steal down at pick No. 15. If RG III can return to the form he showed in his rookie year, then the Browns’ passing game could be much better than expected.
13. Sheldon Rankins, DT, Saints
How he got here: 2016 NFL draft (Round 1, pick No. 12 overall, Louisville)
The Saints were desperate for help on the interior of their defensive line this offseason. The “Williams Wall” may have finally crumbled, with Pat long retired and Kevin still sitting on the free-agent market. Aside from Williams (who graded positively for the ninth year running), the Saints lacked a difference-maker inside. Sheldon Rankins can convert the unit from a weakness to a strength. He was one of only six interior defensive lineman with a minimum of 39 stops and 39 combined pressures, highlighting the diversity of his skill-set.
14. Damon Harrison, DT, Giants
How he got here: Free agency (from Jets)
Adding Harrison has a ripple effect across the Giants’ defensive line. It gives Johnathan Hankins a little more freedom to rush the passer, with the knowledge that he has one of the league’s stoutest nose tackles beside him. Harrison led the NFL in run-stop percentage, making 49 stops in just 271 snaps. None of the Giants’ incumbent defensive tackles recorded more than 19 in the entirety of 2015.
15. DeForest Buckner, DE, 49ers
How he got here: 2016 NFL draft (Round 1, pick No. 7 overall)
The defensive line is one of the few strengths on the 49ers’ roster, but Buckner was easily the best player available at seventh overall. He dominated in Pac-12 play, earning easily the highest grade amongst interior defensive lineman in this class. Quinton Dial and Glenn Dorsey are solid five-techniques, but neither has anywhere close to the potential of Buckner. He’ll also be reunited with Arik Armstead; together they can form a terrifying duo of interior pass-rushers.
16. Nick Martin, C, Texans
How he got here: 2016 NFL draft (Round 2, pick No. 50 overall)
There wasn’t a lot separating the top two centers in the 2016 draft class, making Martin a much better value pick an entire round later. He’s an ideal fit in Houston—like his former Notre Dame teammate, Stanley, he can use his athleticism to outmaneuver front-seven defenders. Ben Jones was serviceable in 2015 (18th-highest-graded center), but Martin’s upside is much higher.
17. Mitchell Schwartz, OT, Chiefs
How he got here: Free agency (from Browns)
The Chiefs are relying on internal improvement at a number of offensive-line positions in 2016, but did dip into free-agency for Mitchell Schwartz, signing him to a long-term deal. The right tackle spot was a problem throughout the 2015 season, with Jah Reid and Donald Stephenson muddling through. Schwartz is a dramatic improvement; he ranked sixth amongst tackles a year ago, playing especially well in pass-protection.
18. Kenny Clark, DT, Packers
How he got here: 2016 NFL draft (Round 1, pick No. 27 overall, UCLA)
The Packers may have signed Letroy Guion this offseason, but they were obviously aware he’s a less-than-ideal starting nose tackle. B.J. Raji, meanwhile, retired after a disappointing season. Kenny Clark played almost every down for UCLA, ranking 13th in terms of overall grade at the position last year. He was particularly effective when required to hold his ground against double-teams, making him a dramatic improvement at the nose tackle position for Green Bay.
19. Alex Mack, C, Falcons
How he got here: Free agency (from Browns)
Every play starts with the snap, and the inability to ensure a clean handoff cost the Falcons on a number of occasions in 2015. Mike Person wasn’t bad at the other elements of playing center, but his snapping issue undermined the offense as a whole. Mack is an improvement in both the blocking and ball-handling requirements of the position, as well. After a career-low grade in Cleveland a year ago, however, the Falcons will hope a more motivated Mack can return to Pro-Bowl form.
20. Brandon Mebane, DT, Chargers
How he got here: Free agency (from Seahawks)
The Chargers’ lines were verging on disgraceful last season. Brandon Mebane is on the downslope of his career, but at least provides a keystone around which San Diego can build. He’s consistently graded positively against the run, a claim none of the Chargers’ 2015 starters could make. Mebane gets the Chargers’ defensive front back on the road to respectability, even if there is much work still to be done.