Five NFL teams that took major step forward this offseason: Jets, Dolphins lead way

The NFL offseason can be a time of transformation – at least for the teams with the means and motivation to remake themselves.

This spring, however, was far more muted in player movement relative to last year, when a horde of big names were dealt or signed to splashy deals. But while the bulk of teams opted for modifications rather than full-blown reconfigurations, the past few months reinforced that there is no such thing as status quo in the NFL. Several franchises took advantage of the opportunity by addressing key deficiencies or bolstering their overall outlook with upgrades to their roster or coaching staffs.

Here are five teams that took a significant step forward for 2023 this offseason:

New York Jets

New York Jets quarterback Aaron Rodgers (8) warms up during OTA’s at Atlantic Health Jets Training Center.
New York Jets quarterback Aaron Rodgers (8) warms up during OTA’s at Atlantic Health Jets Training Center.

Aaron Rodgers didn't even need to take his first snap to recalibrate everything for the Jets. Gang Green, of course, owns the NFL's longest active postseason drought at 12 years – a franchise worst – and last won the AFC East in 2002. Yet coach Robert Saleh hasn't been afraid to set a much higher bar, saying last week that in any given year, "realistically there's maybe six or eight teams that have an actual chance to (win the Super Bowl), and I do think we are one of those teams."

Rodgers' arrival reshaped what previously looked to be a promising young nucleus into a group going all in for a title in the next year or two. The excitement from within Florham Park is already palpable, with his new teammates raving about the standard that the four-time NFL MVP is setting. Even if Rodgers doesn't recapture his outright elite form of 2020-21, providing upper-echelon quarterback play could be the boost the team needs to join the AFC's top class of contenders. The Jets began last year 7-4, but Zach Wilson proved to be too heavy of an anchor for the rest of the offense to overcome. After enduring two seasons of Wilson finishing last in the NFL in quarterback rating among qualified passers, a New York roster dotted with burgeoning talent is poised to make a significant leap with Rodgers at the helm.

Merely making the postseason or even claiming the divisional crown, however, likely won't cut it for Rodgers or Jets fans as the 39-year-old looks to follow the championship precedent set by Tom Brady and Matthew Stafford when the veteran quarterbacks joined their new teams in recent years. Still, there's no question it's a new day in New York.

Miami Dolphins

Swapping in Jalen Ramsey for Byron Jones opposite Xavien Howard marks an unquestionable advancement for a defense that ranked 27th in passing yards allowed (234.8) and opposing quarterback rating (95.3). While Ramsey, 28, is coming off a down year relative to his typical performance, there's little reason to suggest that the three-time All-Pro is coming down from his perch as one of the league's elite cornerbacks. In a division with Rodgers and Josh Allen, Ramsey stands as a necessary counter.

But the schism between the Dolphins' abundant defensive talent and the unit's lagging performance suggests a larger, schematic issue – one that Ramsey alone can't solve. Enter Vic Fangio. After sitting out the 2022 season, the former Denver Broncos coach was the most sought-after defensive assistant on the market before Miami secured him. In a stark contrast from Josh Boyer's blitz-happy approach that frequently left the defense vulnerable, Fangio's massively influential scheme bottles up big plays with its two-high looks. With defensive tackle Christian Wilkins, edge rusher Jaelan Phillips and safety Jevon Holland all exhibiting Pro Bowl potential, there's room for this to be one of the league's best units.

There are, of course, weighty concerns about quarterback Tua Tagovailoa's health and performance, as well as unresolved issues along the offensive line. But if things hold on the other side of the ball, Miami's defense can nudge the team into contender status for the next few years.

Chicago Bears

Restraint wasn't in Ryan Poles' toolkit for rebuilding the Bears. Chicago's general manager drew a sharp contrast from the rest of the league in free agency, using his massive war chest of salary cap space to bring on linebackers Tremaine Edmunds and T.J. Edwards and offensive guard Nate Davis, among others. The real splash move, however, was moving back from the No. 1 pick in a trade with the Carolina Panthers. Poles received a bounty, including wide receiver DJ Moore and a 2024 first-round pick, to move back to No. 9.

There's still a long way to go – the pass rush remains perilously thin – for an outfit that finished with the league's worst record (3-14) and ended the year on a 10-game losing skid. This collection of moves, however, at least pulls the team into respectability. Quarterback Justin Fields desperately needed a true No. 1 target, and Moore's arrival – combined with the upgraded protection provided by Davis and first-round right tackle Darnell Wright – should accelerate the third-year passer's development. And if Fields doesn't progress as hoped with the added support, the Bears will be equipped with two likely early first-round choices next spring to evaluate their options behind center.

Carolina Panthers

Since first parting ways with Cam Newton in the spring of 2020, Carolina trotted out a series of half measures behind center: Teddy Bridgewater, Sam Darnold, Baker Mayfield and PJ Walker – and even Newton again. That inauspicious run was apparently enough to push general manager Scott Fitterer to swing the trade with the Bears for the No. 1 overall pick, which the team used on Alabama quarterback Bryce Young.

But what kind of immediate return on investment can the team reasonably expect from the rookie? Young is much more of a distributor than a world-beater, and his lackluster receiving corps can't be counted on to do him many favors. Still, new coach Frank Reich and offensive coordinator Thomas Brown are blending their approaches to create a bespoke attack for the former Heisman Trophy winner, emphasizing his strengths both as a processor and an off-schedule passer. If Young can make quick, clean decisions, it will mark a stark difference for a team that has ranked 29th and 30th in total offense in the last two seasons.

Simply getting Young and Reich in the building are substantial victories for a franchise that hasn't been able to get things right at two of the most important spots. And with the NFC South crown decidedly within reach, the Panthers might not have to wait long to reap the rewards of their moves.

Baltimore Ravens

Adding a marquee talent isn't the only avenue for offseason progress. For the Ravens, repairing their relationship with an existing superstar helped propel the franchise forward for 2023. The prolonged standoff between the team and Lamar Jackson reached an amicable end in late April, when Baltimore made its star quarterback the NFL's new highest-paid player with a five-year contract worth $260 million.

The Ravens' rosier outlook, however, isn't simply a product of better vibes. A franchise infamous for its lack of investment at wide receiver finally reconfigured its receiving corps in a major way, with Baltimore signing Odell Beckham Jr. and Nelson Agholor before taking Zay Flowers in the first round of the draft. With tight end Mark Andrews leading the way and third-year wideout Rashod Bateman seeking a breakout season, this is unquestionably the most talented and explosive group of skill-position players Jackson has been afforded in his career.

Perhaps the most crucial offseason improvement, however, is rooted in a new approach that will better position Baltimore to take advantage of those receivers. Gone are Greg Roman and his rigid, run-centric offensive scheme. Todd Monken takes over after helping Georgia win consecutive national titles, and the former Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Cleveland Browns offensive coordinator has proven to be adaptable. His approach has already been lauded by Jackson, who said he expects a more open passing attack, noting that "running only takes you so far."

The Ravens' ramped-up offense might be put to the test early, as some defensive shortcomings could leave the team in more shootouts than it's accustomed to. But this is exactly the remodel that was called for in Baltimore.

Follow USA TODAY Sports' Michael Middlehurst-Schwartz on Twitter @MikeMSchwartz.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: NFL news: Five teams that took major step forward this offseason