Instant Impact Veteran: DeSean Jackson — Tampa Bay Buccaneers
For as big as Jameis Winston’s arm is, the Buccaneers didn’t successfully complete passes down the field often in 2016. The rocket-armed quarterback finished the year with just a 7.2 yard per attempt average, and was 17th in the league in completions of over 20 yards. Having no reliable target outside of Mike Evans was a major reason for that lack of production. Enter DeSean Jackson. Jackson is still one of the premier deep threats in the NFL — as last year he led all receivers (with at least 50 receptions) in yards per catch average (17.9).
Under-The Radar Acquisition: Manti Te’o — New Orleans Saints
All Catfish jokes aside, Te’o has become an undervalued asset at the linebacker position. The 2012 Bednarik Award winner spent four years anchoring the middle of San Diego’s defense. Te’o has a good sense for the game, regularly exhibiting expert skills in pass coverage. New Orleans granted him a reasonable 2-year/$5 million contract in a low-risk/medium-to-high-reward move. The Saints haven’t trotted out a capable defensive unit since their Super Bowl run in 2010. It’s these kind of shrewd moves that will get them back to that level.
First Rounder: Christian McCaffrey — Carolina Panthers
Carolina desperately lacked creativity in an offensively-challenged 2016 season. Opposing defenses locked in on Cam Newton, often dishing out brutal hits on the former MVP when he decided to scramble. Greg Olsen has been a consistent mainstay in the receiving corps, but Carolina has lacked depth on the outside ever since the Steve Smith and Mushin Muhammad days. McCaffrey can line up anywhere on the field – even in special teams as a punt returner. Serving as an elite security blanket option for Newton, he’ll be given every opportunity in his rookie year. McCaffrey will end up being a driving force for the much-improved offense.
Late Sleeper Pick: Corn Elder (5th Round) — Carolina Panthers
Suffering from a Super Bowl hangover, the Panthers defense took a major step back from their excellent season the previous year. Luke Kuechly missing six games surely played a part in the regression, though there were other factors in play here as well. A major finger can be pointed to the Panthers failing to recover from the loss of Josh Norman. The brash cornerback made a name for himself with a fantastic year during Carolina’s 15-1 season. James Bradberry filled in admirably, but it’s nearly impossible to replace a player of Norman’s talent with one guy. Carolina picked up another potential starter on the outside with Corn Elder — adding to their platoon of athletic cornerbacks.
Non-Player: Offensive Coordinator Steve Sarkisian — Atlanta Falcons
Out goes Kyle Shanahan and in comes the polarizing Sarkisian. The Falcons’ new offensive coordinator has an extensive resume — including stops with Southern Cal, the University of Washington, the Oakland Raiders, and most recently, the University of Alabama. He’s had success and made headlines at virtually every stop he’s made. Atlanta would prefer more of the former and less of the latter. Sark inherits one of the best offenses in the NFL – with a bevy of weapons at his disposal. Expect a huge year from Devonta Freeman under Sarkisian’s running back-friendly system.
Sources: Kim Klement/USA TODAY Sports, Jeremy Brevard/USA TODAY Sports,