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Why the Bucs aren't the NFL's offseason champs, though they're close

To be crowned an offseason champion is something of a dubious honor, suggesting you've added ample talent but leaving the question of whether that will translate to an actual improvement in the standings.

The Bucs have drawn headlines as one of the NFL's most improved teams since the end of 2016, making a splash in free agency in the draft. Here is our ranking of the five NFL teams that helped themselves the most this offseason — can they follow up with real improvement on the field in 2017?

5. SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS

The makeover started boldly with general manager John Lynch and head coach Kyle Shanahan promising but inexperienced in their new jobs. San Francisco's downward spiral — from 12 wins in 2013 to eight to five to two -- has been profound, with the NFL's worst defense, in points and yards allowed last season.

Lynch had a draft swindle, picking up two third-rounders and a fourth from Chicago to slide down one spot and still get DL Solomon Thomas at No. 3, and he dealt his way back into the first round to grab LB Reuben Foster at No. 31.

San Francisco was active in adding veterans in free agency — LB Malcolm Smith, WRs Pierre Garcon and Marquise Goodwin, OLB Elvis Dumervil, and trading for C Jeremy Zuttah.

The glaring question mark, of course, is at quarterback: Is Brian Hoyer, starting for his fourth team in four seasons, the guy? He has 25 touchdowns against just seven interceptions over the past two years, but keeps getting discarded by other teams. Lynch had his work cut out for him in a fixer-upper job, but he's taken a big first step toward changing directions in San Francisco.

4. TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS

The Bucs are trying to improve their win total for a third year in a row — see accompanying chart — and the leap that gets noticed the most nationally is the one that gets a team into the playoffs. Would 10-6 get the Bucs a wild card? Most likely, though the schedule isn't easy, either in division or in games against Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers, Eli Manning and more.

The offensive upgrades have been well chronicled — DeSean Jackson is the deep threat they've sorely needed, and first-rounder O.J. Howard will help both the run and pass game as a complete tight end to add to the promising Cameron Brate.

Chris Baker may be the best defensive tackle to line up next to Gerald McCoy, and the Bucs need to find the right combination at safety, with veteran J.J. Wilcox and second-round rookie Justin Evans tryiing to upgrade on incumbents Chris Conte and Keith Tandy.

If the national curiosity isn't already on Tampa Bay, HBO's "Hard Knocks" will take care of that next month. After going from two wins in 2014 to six in 2015 and nine last season, anything short of the playoffs will be a disappointment for Dirk Koetter, Jameis Winston and friends.

3. NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS

It's a frightening thought, that the defending Super Bowl champion could also be among the league's most improved teams.

They traded their first-round pick for Saints WR Brandin Cooks, who has 17 TDs and 2,311 receiving yards over the last two years. They picked up two more veterans by simply trading down a round in the draft, adding DE Kony Ealy from Carolina and TE Dwayne Allen from Indianapolis. They added CB Stephon Gilmore, who's only 26 and has 11 interceptions in the last three years, and signed RB Mike Gillislee and LB David Harris in free agency as well.

It's also about moves they didn't make —- with Tom Brady turning 40 in August, they opted not to trade away backup Jimmy Garoppolo, an unrestricted free agent in 2018. They didn't trade cornerback Malcolm Butler, who will also be a free agent next spring. So the Patriots know they will lose major talent after this season, but they're that much more poised to try to repeat as champs in 2017.

2. JACKSONVILLE JAGUARS

People thought the Jaguars made big moves last year, and they took a step back in the standings. This is a franchise that has won five games or less in each of the last six years, so there's ample room to improve and return to NFL relevance.

With a vast amount of salary-cap room, the Jaguars paid big for some of the top available talent -- CB A.J. Bouye, DT Calais Campbell and S Barry Church led the way. Keeping Doug Marrone as head coach wasn't a splash move at all, but adding Tom Coughlin to run the team could be a spark. They added two tackles in veteran Branden Albert and rookie Cam Robinson, a steal in the second round.

The biggest splash will be former LSU star Leonard Fournette, drafted with the No. 4 overall pick. He'll have the same high expectations that Ezekiel Elliott did with Dallas last year —- can a dominant running back help a young quarterback like Blake Bortles, whose window to prove himself as a franchise QB is closing fast?

The trick is improving in a tough AFC South —- the Jaguars finished five games out of third place last year, so any big improvement needs to coincide with the Colts or Texans slipping from where they've been.

1. CLEVELAND BROWNS

It's so easy to improve on a 1-15 season, and the Browns are the most entrenched last-place team in the NFL — in the last nine years, they've finished fourth in the AFC North eight times, the exception a 5-11 third-place finish in 2010.

But armed with a ton of draft picks and cap room, the Browns were busy, spending to upgrade their offensive line with C J.C. Tretter and G Kevin Zeitler, also locking up G Joel Bitonio with a big extension. They added second-tier help in CB Jason McCourty and WR Kenny Britt, and invested longterm in LB Jamie Collins, acquired cheap during last season from the Patriots.

They played it smart in the draft — rather than reach for a quarterback, Cleveland took DE Myles Garrett at No. 1 overall, traded down to pick up a 2018 first-rounder from Houston as one of four draft trades, and still added S Jabrill Peppers and TE David Njoku in the first round.

Is second-rounder DeShone Kizer the long-awaited answer at quarterback? That's probably the biggest question in how quickly the Browns can improve in the standings. An improved line will help Isaiah Crowell, who averaged 4.8 yards per carry and will be counted on for more in 2017.

Contact Greg Auman at gauman@tampabay.com and (813) 310-2690. Follow @gregauman.

Why the Bucs aren't the NFL's offseason champs, though they're close 07/07/17 [Last modified: Saturday, July 8, 2017 12:40am]
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