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Five best offseasons of 2017: Patriots, Browns lead the pack

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Scoff at the notion of winning the offseason if you want to, but the fact is, this is the time when rosters can be changed and improved. Whether via the draft or free agency (or both), this is when bad teams have a chance to get better and good teams have a chance to get stronger.

We obviously won't know the impact of all the various signings and selections until football is actually played again. But with most moves having been made, it's useful to review the roster shuffling and assess which teams did the most to improve themselves. Below are the five teams that I think have enjoyed the best offseasons:

1) New England Patriots

Bill Belichick's approach to reloading this offseason -- essentially exchanging inexperienced, unproven rookies for a raft of high-impact veterans -- is strongly reminiscent of what George Allen did with the Washington Redskins in the early 1970s. In 1971 and '72, Allen surrendered a host of picks for veteran players, eventually taking Washington to Super Bowl VII. Knowing Belichick and his memory, I wouldn't be surprised if he had Allen in mind this offseason.

Belichick turned a first-round pick into receiver Brandin Cooks, a second-round pick into defensive end Kony Ealy, a fourth-round pick into tight end Dwayne Allen and a fifth-round pick into running back Mike Gillislee. He also signed cornerback Stephon Gilmore, running back Rex Burkhead and defensive end Lawrence Guy and retained linebacker Dont'a Hightower and cornerback Malcolm Butler, among others, making this the most talented Patriots team since 2007's 16-0 squad. Plus, the four players New England did draft this year should contribute. The Patriots have a tough schedule ahead, but Belichick seems to have a knack for countering the forces that encourage competitive balance. Thus, the reigning Super Bowl champions are in the best possible position for repeating.

2) Cleveland Browns

Cleveland had a ton of money to spend and spent it well, fortifying what had become a weak offensive line by signing guard Kevin Zeitler and center JC Tretter. Veteran receiver Kenny Britt has been around, but he knows how to run routes, has speed and is still only 28 -- he'll be a help on offense. Veteran cornerback Jason McCourty will help make sure the secondary is lined up correctly. The Browns also made the most of their bounty of draft picks, especially with the trio of first-rounders they ended up with. Defensive end Myles Garrett will post double-digit sacks as a rookie. Hybrid defender Jabrill Peppers might not have a defined role yet, but he's a football player, and the Browns will find a place for him. David Njoku will be an outstanding tight end, a future Pro Bowler with incredible upside.

The quarterback situation is still unsolved, but at least the Browns have options. Veteran Brock Osweiler -- whose acquisition actually netted the Browns a future pick -- might end up being a better fit in Cleveland under Hue Jackson than he was in Houston. And while second-round pick DeShone Kizer isn't ready to help yet, he's got the raw material to eventually become the best quarterback of the 2017 class. Cleveland likely won't win much more in 2017 than it did last season, but the roster is so much better. Jackson is a good coach, the division isn't exactly imposing outside of Pittsburgh, and the schedule is not daunting. Plus, the Browns added the Texans' first-round pick for next year, giving them a total of five picks in the first two rounds of the 2018 NFL Draft. In short, you couldn't really do much more to improve your position than Cleveland did this offseason.

3) Carolina Panthers

The Panthers finished at the bottom of the NFC South with a 6-10 record -- but they also lost six games by three points or fewer, meaning there wasn't that much separating them from contention. Cam Newton's cast of pass catchers was lacking in 2016, but the Panthers' first two draft picks (the ultra-versatile Christian McCaffrey and the sure-handed Curtis Samuel) both project as matchup nightmares who can provide some serious juice to this aerial attack. I'm not worried about Newton's surgically-repaired shoulder, but I am extremely high on McCaffrey and Samuel, and I'm confident the rookies will help Carolina's QB return to his MVP form after a down season.

I liked what Carolina did in bringing back defensive end Julius Peppers and cornerback Captain Munnerlyn. They might be late in their careers, but I think it made sense in terms of fit and locker-room impact. Peppers is only one year removed from a 10.5-sack season, while Munnerlyn can provide guidance to the youngsters in the secondary. This defense plays pretty well, and adding pass rusher Daeshon Hall in the third round will only help. Locking up Kawann Short was huge. Adding veteran Matt Kalil and rookie Taylor Moton will boost the offensive line. Ultimately, McCaffrey and Samuel are the keys, and I think they have Newton and the Panthers primed for a turnaround.

4) Indianapolis Colts

Hiring Chris Ballard to be the general manager made this team better immediately -- that move by itself improved the Colts' fortunes dramatically. One of the things that hurt this team more than anything last year was the push-pull between the head coach, then-GM Ryan Grigson and the staff, and I think Ballard will eliminate that troublesome element.

And look at the moves the Colts have made in his short tenure. Indianapolis signed a slew of defensive veterans -- including defensive lineman Johnathan Hankins and linebacker Jabaal Sheard -- and drafted Malik Hooker, a safety who could be a star in this league for the next 10 years. Second-rounder Quincy Wilson will be a solid corner and third-rounder Tarell Basham should help buttress the pass rush. It would've been nice to add a top-flight running back, but fourth-round pick Marlon Mack -- whose 10-yard split of 1.50 seconds was the best time of any running back at the NFL Scouting Combine -- has the quickness and pass-catching ability to be a very good pro. Mack will fill a third-down-back role that enables the Colts to run a lot of play action, which should help protect Andrew Luck -- as should fourth-round tackle Zach Banner.

5) Tennessee Titans

This will be the year Marcus Mariota breaks through to stardom -- and the Titans have set him up well. GM Jon Robinson boosted the defense with the signings of cornerback Logan Ryan, safety Johnathan Cyprien and defensive lineman Sylvester Williams, with the latter two especially looking like young foundational pieces. First-round pick Adoree' Jackson is going to be a great kick returner and make a real impact as a slot corner (he could even potentially provide some juice on offense). The Titans really needed help at receiver, and they got it with first-rounder Corey Davis and third-rounder Taywan Taylor. I like Davis a lot, while Taylor has all the traits you look for in a successful slot receiver -- he reminds me of a young Wes Welker. And don't forget about third-round pick Jonnu Smith at tight end.

The Titans are a young team that was successful last year, tying the Texans for the best record in the AFC South, and they really helped themselves with the draft and in free agency. The offensive line is strong -- I like tackles Taylor Lewan and Jack Conklin -- and the DeMarco Murray-Derrick Henry RB combo enables them to pound the ball when they want. Mariota is getting better every year, and I think we'll see him make good on the upside we witnessed when he was a relatively inexperienced prospect.

Wild card: Tampa Bay Buccaneers

The defense, which was strong in 2016, added two good starters in veteran free agents Chris Baker and J.J. Wilcox, while the offense took a huge step forward with the signing of receiver DeSean Jackson and the drafting of tight end O.J. Howard. Based on coach Dirk Koetter's history with Tony Gonzalez in Atlanta, I'm expecting big things out of Howard. Jackson, meanwhile, will only help receiver Mike Evans play better.

Follow Gil Brandt on Twitter @Gil_Brandt.

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