With so many variables to consider, identifying whether an NFL team actually made improvement during the offseason can be tricky.
This year might be one of the trickiest.
Five teams, including the Buffalo Bills, used a first-round draft pick in hopes of landing a franchise quarterback. Expecting any of them to make a significant splash this year is likely expecting too much, yet it's also fair to credit each club with taking the initiative to upgrade itself.
The challenge is trying to determine just how much credit to give, especially in relation to other transactions that were made.
In assessing what AFC teams did during the offseason, the first-round quarterback factor applied in four cases. Besides the Bills, the Cleveland Browns, New York Jets, and Baltimore Ravens also selected one on the draft's opening night.
Here's a rundown of what the offseason comings and goings meant to all 16 AFC clubs, categorized by whether they caused them to move forward, step back or stay the same:
THEY MOVED FORWARD
Summary: By selecting Louisville quarterback Lamar Jackson with the 32nd overall pick, they have the most serious challenger yet for Joe Flacco. Jackson is a dynamic enough talent -- with his ultra-powerful throwing arm and tremendous athleticism -- that if he doesn't unseat Flacco this year, he'll at least be utilized in certain offensive packages. By adding Michael Crabtree, Willie Snead and John Brown, the Ravens did give Flacco arguably the best group of receivers he has had since they won the Super Bowl after the 2012 season.
Summary: They used the top overall pick on Oklahoma quarterback Baker Mayfield, so it would hardly be a shock to see him on the field this year. Meanwhile, the Browns gave up a third-round choice for former Bill Tyrod Taylor, who should at least be more efficient than last year's starter, DeShone Kizer, who threw 22 interceptions, for however long Taylor starts. They also added former Miami Dolphin Jarvis Landry, the NFL's leader in receptions last season, to a pass-catching corps that includes Josh Gordon, whose immense talent could rekindle provided he avoids the mistakes that led to his being suspended for 56 career games (55 for violating the league's substance-abuse policy).
Summary: These guys took what they hope is a quicker route to landing a franchise quarterback by signing Case Keenum as a free agent. Keenum completed 67.6 percent of his passes and threw 22 touchdowns to lead the Minnesota Vikings to the playoffs, which is the sort of production the Broncos haven't gotten from a quarterback in a while. They were thrilled to be able to use the fifth overall choice on the draft's biggest difference-maker on defense, end Bradley Chubb from North Carolina State, while spending two of their first four picks on receivers (Courtland Sutton from SMU and DaeSean Hamilton from Penn State). Free agent tackle Jared Veldheer should help keep Keenum upright.
Summary: Whatever hope for improvement they have begins and ends with the health of quarterback Andrew Luck, who has traveled a long road from neck surgery and promises to be ready by the start of the season. What level of performance they'll get from him when he returns is anyone's guess. The Colts made a long-overdue investment in their offensive line, using their first two picks on guards Quenton Nelson from Notre Dame and Braden Smith from Auburn.
Los Angeles Chargers
Summary: First, they're getting back last year's top two picks who were lost to injuries: wide receiver Mike Williams and guard Forrest Lamp. Second, they plugged two large holes by using their first-round choice on safety Derwin James from Florida State and picking up free-agent center Mike Pouncey. The loss of tight end Hunter Henry to a season-ending ACL injury is a blow, but the Chargers just might have enough other talent on offense — beginning with quarterback Philip Rivers — to overcome it. One possible remedy is re-signing Antonio Gates, who would probably have no interest in playing for any other team.
New York Jets
Summary: More than a few observers think the Jets were the biggest long-term winners of the offseason by having USC's Sam Darnold somehow fall to the third overall spot of the draft, to which they traded up in pursuit of a franchise QB. Darnold was widely seen as the best prospect at the position, where the Jets also have solid veterans in Teddy Bridgewater and Josh McCown.
Summary: If you're going to copy anyone in the NFL, you might as well copy the best. General Manager Jon Robinson has placed a definite New England Patriots stamp on the Titans, using the blueprint with which he worked as a former member of the Pats' front office. He replaced coach Mike Mularkey with former New England linebacker Mike Vrabel, then signed a couple of quality ex-Patriots in free agency: cornerback Malcolm Butler and running back Dion Lewis.
THEY STEPPED BACK
Summary: Putting them here is not a knock on the selection of Josh Allen with the seventh overall pick, even if the former Wyoming star is as raw as they come. In fact, GM Brandon Beane and coach Sean McDermott are to be commended for the organization's rare display of aggressiveness to trade up to get a potential franchise QB. The problem is the major hits their offensive line took with the retirement of center Eric Wood and the retirement-turned-release of guard Richie Incognito. Those holes weren't sufficiently plugged, nor were some substantial ones at wide receiver.
Kansas City Chiefs
Summary: They're taking a fairly big gamble by handing the starting quarterback job to 2017 first-rounder Patrick Mahomes after shipping 13-year vet Alex Smith and his 4,000 passing yards to the Washington Redskins. Mahomes made one start as a rookie, and that was in the season finale when the Chiefs already secured a playoff spot. Trading top-flight cornerback Marcus Peters to the Los Angeles Rams could prove to be addition by subtraction because of attitude problems, but that was a lot of talent to let go.
Summary: After a house-cleaning that sent malcontents such as wide receiver Jarvis Landry and defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh elsewhere, the Dolphins believe they've improved the locker-room culture in a big way. Perhaps. But it doesn't feel as if they've done a whole lot in the way of additions to actually field a better team, and that could ultimately make them worse. The whole season will come down to Ryan Tannehill's return from a knee injury and whether he can prove, once and for all, he's the answer at quarterback for a team that made noises about finding a new one.
Summary: Now that all of the hype over Jon Gruden's $100-million coaching return to the team that gave him his first big shot has faded, it's time to focus on exactly what they're getting from their historic investment. So far, there has been plenty of second-guessing about his management of the offseason. Free-agent wide receivers Martavis Bryant and Jordy Nelson could be in for a major drop-offs, going from iconic quarterbacks Ben Roethlisberger and Aaron Rodgers to Derek Carr, who slumped last season. Free-agent linebacker Derrick Johnson is 35 and playing on Achilles tendons that needed surgical repair.
THEY STAYED THE SAME
Summary: Convinced they still have most of what it takes to get back to being that team that made annual (but brief) playoff appearances, the Bengals didn't do a whole lot of retooling. Their biggest acquisition was tackle Cordy Glenn, whose chronic foot and ankle issues made it easy for the Bills to send him packing and make Dion Dawkins their permanent replacement on the left side.
Summary: Most of what they're counting on for improvement is getting three key players back healthy. Topping the list is quarterback Deshaun Watson, who was well on his way to rookie-of-the-year honors before suffering an ACL injury in practice. J.J. Watt and Whitney Mercilus are also coming back to a defense that surrendered an NFL high of 27.2 points per game last season. One area where the Texans could regret standing pat is the offensive line, which gave up 54 sacks last year.
Summary: After leading the league in rushing last season with an average of 141.4 yards per game, they decided to build on a good thing by adding the top guard in free agency, former Carolina Panther Andrew Norwell. As if their defensive front that regularly overwhelmed opponents wasn't strong enough, they used a first-round draft pick on Florida's Taven Bryan. They also were satisfied with Blake Bortles' postseason performance enough to extend his contract.
New England Patriots
Summary: Never mind all of the drama involving Tom Brady, Rob Gronkowski and Bill Belichick. The band is staying together for another season, and that continues to be bad news for the rest of the division, conference, and league. Even with Julian Edelman suspended for the first four games, the Patriots are still widely seen as the favorites to win the Super Bowl.
Summary: The best that can be said about their offseason is that they managed to keep their core strength together. Although Ben Roethlisberger was miffed that the team drafted his replacement, he's still playing quarterback and will still be throwing to Antonio Brown and handing off/throwing to Le'Veon Bell, who continues to seek a long-term deal. There probably will be some drama, but it isn't likely to get in the way of another AFC North title.