Ledyard: After strong offseason, these 4 clubs could be poised for contention

Titans, Bears among teams whose offseason could translate into Rams- or Jaguars-esque ascension

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Annually, a few teams rise to relevancy after down years took them off our radar the season before. The Rams and Jaguars were prime examples of that last year, and now several teams will be bidding to emerge as the 2018 versions of those playoff clubs. Here are four teams that improved significantly this offseason by filling major holes with quality talent, giving themselves a shot to compete in 2018.

Tennessee Titans

Wait, the Titans made the playoffs last year, how can they be an upstart? Raise your hand if you thought the Titans were a real threat for the AFC title, even after defeating Kansas City. That’s what I thought.

But now, Tennessee has a new coaching staff, one that will hopefully ditch the Titans archaic offense, spread the field and give Marcus Mariota and his talented receivers a chance to thrive. It should also aid Derrick Henry, who was always more of a space runner than a power guy. His athleticism and vision should shine without as much congestion in the box.

Tennessee was also aggressive in the draft, trading up for linebacker Rashaan Evans and edge defender Harold Landry to fill the biggest holes on their roster. Adding those two to Malcolm Butler’s addition at cornerback should round a defense that flashed at times last year but now looks to be complete.

The key to Tennessee’s success is Mariota and the new coaching staff, which has to find ways to maximize the talent on this roster that the former staff never did. Offensive coordinator Matt LaFleur has the ability to quickly turn himself into an attractive head-coaching candidate if he and Mariota can work some magic with the Titans offense this season.

Cincinnati Bengals

Two straight losing seasons figured to be the end of Marvin Lewis, but the man continues to endure despite never having won a playoff game. That aspect of the Bengals might never change, regardless of all the talent going to waste under his charge.

Yet the talent level continues to rise despite Lewis’ failures, as the Bengals again had a strong draft and improved their few weaknesses this offseason. One of the worst offensive lines in the NFL added a plug-and-play center in Billy Price in Round One, after trading for Cordy Glenn earlier in the year to fortify the left side of the Bengals' front wall.

On defense, the Bengals needed to add talent at linebacker and at safety for Teryl Austin’s crew. Signing Preston Brown and drafting Malik Jefferson gives Vontaze Burfict some much-needed help, while Jessie Bates could be the single-high safety that Austin had in Detroit in Glover Quin.

Cincinnati continued to stockpile defensive line and edge defender talent, and now boast one of the deepest groups in the league. They can get after the quarterback, and have legit talent in the secondary, but the play of Andy Dalton remains the big question mark. Will the Bengals regret not opting for a quarterback earlier in the draft?

Chicago Bears

The Bears' turnaround attempt will depend heavily on the play of Mitch Trubisky, but they sure spent the entire offseason getting him all the help he should need. The worst receiving corps in the NFL was replaced by Allen Robinson, Anthony Miller, Taylor Gabriel and Trey Burton, finally getting Trubisky the weapons he needs to take off as a passer.

In the meantime, the drafting of James Daniels fortified the one hole on the offensive line (left guard), which should allow the Bears to continue to lean on Jordan Howard and Tarik Cohan for success on the ground. Suddenly, there are very few holes on the Bears roster on offense, even if the team is still short on stars.

Defensively, the Bears were already formidable, and adding the best defensive player in the draft in Roquan Smith should complete a unit nearing elite status. I still have some concerns with the Bears' ability to generate pressure off the edge, but Akiem Hicks and Eddie Goldman inside help offset that weakness.

New head coach Matt Nnagy will still have the challenge of implementing a new system with a fairly young and inexperienced group of players, so the playoffs might be a year away still for the Bears. After this offseason, however, they appear to be headed in the right direction.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

There were a lot of issues with the Bucs coming off of a 5-11 season, their tenth in a row that ended without a playoff berth. But no concern was as big as their overarching softness as a team. Something had to change to get the Bucs back to a team that valued physicality and aggression in its schemes and their play temperament.

So GM Jason Licht started in the trenches, adding a center with a nasty mean streak in Ryan Jensen, before selecting Alex Cappa in Round Three, one of the best finishers in the draft. Cappa should push for time at left guard right away, while Jensen will plug in next to Ali Marpet to give the Bucs a much improved interior offensive line.

On defense, the changes were even more needed. After jettisoning Chris Baker’s apathetic 2017 presence, the Bucs added high motor, powerful run defenders to their front line in Jason Pierre-Paul, Vinny Curry, Mitch Unrein and Beau Allen. All four would be described by any coach as relentless workers and dogged in their playing style, an identity first-round pick Vita Vea also brings to the table. Add those five to a group that already offered Gerald McCoy and a bigger, healthier Noah Spence, and the Bucs offer the most improved defensive line in the NFL.

Tampa also needed some of that nasty in the secondary, where rookies M.J. Stewart and Carlton Davis should be the future at the position. With Brent Grimes hitting 35 before the season ends, that future may come sooner than expected if Vernon Hargreaves can’t step up this year.

The Bucs mandate was to get better in the trenches, find a running back (enter Ronald Jones), improve the cornerback position and get more physical overall. They’ve checked all of those boxes, and while it may not be enough in the currently loaded NFC, Tampa will be much more competitive in 2018.

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