All across the league, NFL personnel people have spent the past few months patting themselves on the back, all with the same idea: "We've improved our team."
Some have, some just think they have. But that doesn't mean the on-paper team will translate into a good one on the field.
That's going to take work. Some of the roster decisions have put certain players in the spotlight heading into 2017. Every team has players that need to step up for them to have a chance to get better as a team -- or, in some cases, be a playoff team and beyond.
I've identified one player for all 32 teams who needs to take a big step forward this season. Some teams have a lot of guys, but I picked just one.
These 32 players will be key to the growth of their teams come the regular season. Now is the time to get better, and now is the time to wonder if they can indeed take the next, big step in improving themselves and their teams.
Cornerback Brandon Williams
They didn't draft a corner until the fifth round this year, or sign one in free agency at all, which means Williams has to be the answer. A third-round pick last year, he started the first two games and had some issues before going to the bench. But another year in the system should help his growth. He has to be the guy opposite Patrick Peterson after Justin Bethel struggled badly last season.
Linebacker De'Vondre Campbell
We saw Deion Jones become a breakout player as a rookie, and Campbell flashed his potential in the postseason. He had 10 starts during the regular season but really showed up in the postseason, especially against Seattle. He has big-play speed, and as he becomes more comfortable with his assignments he will show it off even more. With Duke Riley being drafted in the third round this year, there will likely be some consideration paid to playing Campbell on the strong side. But I think he opens as the weakside starter.
Receiver Breshad Perriman
After missing all of 2015 with a knee injury as a first-round pick, Perriman came back to catch 33 passes for 459 yards and three touchdowns last season. His 15.1 yards per catch shows he has the big-play ability. With Steve Smith gone to retirement, he has to become a 75-catch player this year. He has the tools, and now with a full year under his belt, he should be much more comfortable.
Defensive end Shaq Lawson
After being a first-round pick in 2016, he missed the team's first six games following shoulder surgery. He got two sacks in his second and third games back, but didn't get another the rest of the season. He is expected to be a starter at left end this season in new coach Sean McDermott's 4-3 scheme, which has featured a lot of good edge rushers in the past. Lawson has to get at least eight sacks this season.
Wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin
It doesn't help his cause that he showed up at the team's offseason work out of shape, with one report sayingMaybe he can play tackle? Benjamin never had great speed, but he needs to get in shape to separate and have a decent season. He had 63 catches last season after missing 2015 with a torn ACL. He has to be more focused on the game, and they need him to be more productive down the field.
Outside linebacker Leonard Floyd
After getting just half a sack in his first six games last season, Floyd had 6.5 in the final 10 games of his rookie season. The 2016 first-round pick showed some nice pass-rush ability and has the look of a player in this scheme who should get to double-digit sacks in his second season. There are a lot of pass rushers who make big strides in Year 2, and the Bears have to hope Floyd does the same.
Left tackle Cedric Ogbuehi
The 2015 first-round pick had some problems starting at right tackle last season, but he is more of a left tackle. With veteran left tackle Andrew Whitworth signing with the Los Angeles Rams, Ogbuehi will move from the right side to his more natural left side to protect Andy Dalton's blind side. I think he will play much better on the left than he did on the right. They will also start third-year player Jake Fisher on the right side.
Wide receiver Corey Coleman
The 2016 first-round pick played just 10 games last season because of injuries and had 33 catches with no touchdowns. Since Terrelle Pryor wasn't brought back, Coleman will be counted on to be the team's No. 1 receiver. He has to make strides -- no matter who plays quarterback. Veteran Kenny Britt is expected to start on the other side.
Right tackle Chaz Green
With right tackle Doug Free opting to retire, the Cowboys need Green to step in and play well to keep their top-ranked offensive line among the best in the league. Green, a 2015 third-round pick, started two games last year at left tackle when Tyron Smith was out and did a nice job. But if he struggles early in camp, the Cowboys could go with Byron Bell or maybe even move left guard La'el Collins outside to tackle. The best case would be for Green to step in and win the job and keep the rest of the line that opened 2016 intact.
Outside linebacker Shane Ray
Veteran pass rusher DeMarcus Ware retired, which leaves Ray as the starter opposite Von Miller. In his work as a backup and part-time starter, Ray has done some good things since being the team's first-round pick in 2015. He has 12 sacks in his first two seasons, including eight last year when he made eight starts. This is his chance to show he can be an elite edge rusher opposite Miller.
Defensive end Cornelius Washington
The Lions signed Washington away from the Bears, where he was a rotational player. He had his best season in 2016, getting two sacks and playing more than 350 snaps. Detroit had major pass-rush issues last season, finishing tied for 30th in the league. The Lions didn't draft a pass rusher until the sixth round, so they must have big expectations for Washington, a fourth-year player from Georgia.
Green Bay Packers
Running back Ty Montgomery
The job as the lead runner is his for now. He made a nice transition from receiver to running back last season, rushing for 457 yards (5.9 per carry). He also caught 44 passes. But in the postseason, when it gets tougher to run, he had just 91 yards on 25 carries. With Eddie Lacy gone, the job is now his, with rookie Jamaal Williams his primary competition. Montgomery did a nice job in a sub role in 2016 -- getting six starts in the regular season -- but it will be interesting to see how he does now that he is the No. 1 runner.
Nose tackle D.J. Reader
With Vince Wilfork retiring, Reader will take over as the full-time starter on the nose. He played well as a rookie in 2016, which gives the team hope that he will continue to grow as a player. I think he will. He is a big, strong power player, but it will be tough to expect him to hold the point the way the mammoth Wilfork did in his career. But Reader should bring more in terms of pass-rush ability. He started seven games and had one sack last season. For a team built around the defense, he has to play big this season.
Defensive end Jabaal Sheard
The Colts had 33 sacks last season, which is why they spent on edge rushers in free agency. One of those guys was Sheard, who had 13 sacks in nine starts over two seasons with the Patriots. But after getting eight sacks in 2015, he found himself in Bill Belichick's doghouse some last season and finished with just five sacks. He has to be a big part of the improved Colts pass rush this season.
Defensive end Dante Fowler Jr.
It was too obvious to stick quarterback Blake Bortles in this spot. That's a given. But I went with Fowler. After missing his rookie year in 2015, Fowler came back with four sacks last season, just one in the final 10 games. Fowler played well against the run, and he plays hard, but he lets his emotions get the best of him and he needs to improve his pass-rush moves. He has to learn how to use his hands and power better. If he can do that, he could double his sack total this season. The Jaguars need it in the worst way.
Kansas City Chiefs
Wide receiver Jeremy Maclin
After an impressive 2015 season with the Chiefs -- his first after signing as a free agent from the Eagles -- Maclin had a disappointing 2016 season. He had just 44 catches and two touchdowns after getting 87 and eight in 2015. He did miss three games with injuries, but he just wasn't the same player. The Chiefs need him to get back to being the 2015 Maclin.
Los Angeles Chargers
Left tackle Russell Okung
They signed him away from Denver as a free agent and let King Dunlap go. Okung was a good player when he was with Seattle, but he had problems in pass protection last season in Denver. That makes him a big risk protecting the backside of Philip Rivers. He turns 30 this summer, so age shouldn't be an issue. They need him to play better.
Los Angeles Rams
Running back Todd Gurley
After an impressive rookie season in 2015, Gurley struggled in a big way in 2016. His rushing total fell from 1,106 yards to 885 and his yards per carry fell from 4.8 to 3.2. Some of that was because of bad offensive line play, but he also didn't look like the same runner. He wasn't as decisive with his cuts and reads. He has to get back to the runner we saw in 2015, when he seemed to be a future star.
Defensive tackle Jordan Phillips
The Dolphins had major issues stopping the run last season, ranking 30th. And that's with Ndamukong Suh playing at a high level. They need more production from the guys next to him. Phillips will get the first chance to start, but they did just draft two defensive tackles. Coach Adam Gase has questioned Phillips in terms of effort at times, so this is a big year for him. There are games, like Week 17 against the Pats last season, that make you think Phillips could be a big-time player. He just needs to want it more.
Wide receiver Laquon Treadwell
The Vikings drafted him in the first round last year and he did almost nothing for them as a rookie, catching just one pass on three targets. There was talk that coach Mike Zimmer didn't like the way he practiced, which limited his time on the field. The Vikings must get more out of him this season, maybe even 65 catches or so. He is a big receiver, and the Vikings need that in their offense.
New England Patriots
Defensive end Kony Ealy
Fifteen months ago, playing in the Super Bowl for the Carolina Panthers, he looked like a future star. He had three sacks and an interception against Denver that day, raising expectations last season. But he had just five sacks and was traded to the Patriots in March for a second-round pick. With Jabaal Sheard and Chris Long gone, the Patriots need Ealy to play more like he did against Denver on the biggest stage than he did last season.
New Orleans Saints
Defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins
He suffered a broken leg in camp in August and didn't play until Week 9; when he returned, he clearly wasn't in football shape. He did get a sack in two games, one in late November and another in early December. But they need so much more from him this season -- and he has the skill set to become a force inside. Rankins was solid against the run, but he needs to become a push-the-pocket inside rusher for the Saints, a team without a pure speed rusher to go with Cam Jordan.
New York Giants
Left tackle Ereck Flowers
The Giants did little to fix their line this offseason, which means Flowers will again be protecting Eli Manning's backside. He had major problems last season, and some think he would be better suited to the right side. He was a spinning top in pass protection last season. He has to get better in 2017 if this is a team that is to push for more than just a playoff appearance.
New York Jets
Linebacker Darron Lee
They used a first-round pick on him last year and he struggled for much of the season. He has unreal athletic ability, but he often got out of position last season and seemed to be thinking more than reacting. With another year in the system, I would expect him to use the skills to make a big leap forward. For a team that lacks talent in the back seven, the Jets need him to do so.
Inside linebacker Cory James
The Raiders had major issues inside last season, picking up Perry Riley off the scrap heap and making him their starter. James started five games as a rookie seventh-round pick and showed some ability. He had 15 tackles in a game against the Ravens. But at 229 pounds, he was small for the position and had some problems in the run game. If he can add some power and strength, he has a real chance to start for the Raiders, who need an upgrade inside.
Cornerback Jalen Mills
They drafted two corners this year, but one is Sidney Jones, who is coming off a torn Achilles tendon. Mills is expected to be the starter at one corner after starting two games as a rookie seventh-round pick last year. He had his moments where he struggled against good receivers, but that's to be expected of a young corner. He has the tools to develop into more, and the Eagles think he can. They sure need him to do it this year.
Inside linebacker Vince Williams
He started four games for the injured Ryan Shazier last season, but with Lawrence Timmons leaving for Miami as a free agent, Williams will start next to Shazier in 2017. He started 13 games in 2013, and has been a valuable reserve since. At 27, he is almost four years younger than Timmons, which is something I think will show up on the field. They've had some good inside linebackers over the years. That puts Williams firmly in the crosshairs this season.
San Francisco 49ers
Defensive end Arik Armstead
After impressing as a rookie in 2015, he wasn't the same player last season. He struggled against the run, and teams ran all over the 49ers. He did have a shoulder issue that eventually landed him on injured reserve, but he has to take a big step forward this season on a young line that has talent with the addition of Solomon Thomas with the third overall pick this year.
Offensive lineman Germain Ifedi
It would be easy to just say the entire offensive line should be in this space, but Ifedi, the team's first-round pick in 2016, struggled as a rookie when they moved him inside from his college position of tackle. He made 13 starts, but he was a big reason the Seattle line was a sieve and couldn't run block. He has to show major improvement in 2017 or the line will again be a major issue.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Defensive end Noah Spence
They need him to become even more of a force off the edge than what he showed as a rookie. I think it will happen. He had 5.5 sacks last season in three starts and was impressive in his pass-rush role. I think he will take on an even bigger role this season, and Tampa Bay needs him to double that sack total. The tools are there to get it done, and he puts in the work to be good at dumping passers.
Outside linebacker Kevin Dodd
They have two good edge players in Brian Orakpo and Derrick Morgan, but Orakpo turns 31 this year. They need depth behind those two, which is why they took Dodd in the second round last year. But after having surgery last May on his right foot, he was limited to nine games and had just one sack. He was also a healthy scratch for a game because coach Mike Mularkey questioned his work in practice. They need Dodd to be more of a factor this year, giving the two veterans some relief.
Wide receiver Josh Doctson
He was limited to two games and had just two catches last season as a rookie because of an Achilles' tendon issue that kept him on the sidelines for much of the preseason work. With DeSean Jackson and Pierre Garcon gone in free agency, the Redskins need a big move forward this season by Doctson. He has spent a year in the offense, at least mentally, which will help his development. He is further along than just a rookie, which is a good thing since they need him to play a prominent role in the offense.