The most improved position group in each NFL division 

Zeroing in on one position has paid off for teams.

Devoting resources to one position group can pay off in a big way for NFL teams. We got an example of that just last year when the Colts built a formidable offensive line by adding Quenton Nelson and Braden Smith in the draft. The Colts ended up allowing the least amount of sacks in the league and won a playoff game where they thoroughly handled J.J. Watt and Jadeveon Clowney.

The year before, the Jaguars built a championship-caliber secondary by signing A.J. Bouye, Tashaun Gipson, and Barry Church. That passing defense finished first in passer rating, interception percentage, and passing yards per game, and Jacksonville came up just short of a Super Bowl appearance.

Significantly improving a single position group can propel a team into the playoffs. Both the Jaguars and the Colts went from last in their division to contenders the following season.

This year, each division has a team that bolstered one position enough to help them challenge for a playoff spot. Here are the teams that helped themselves the most in the offseason.

AFC East: Bills offensive line

Notable Additions: Mitch Morse, Ty Nsekhe, Cody Ford

The Bills have quietly had a productive offseason designed to get Josh Allen more help. John Brown, Cole Beasley, Frank Gore, and Devin Singletary should inject some life into an offense that only averaged 4.7 yards per play last year.

But the biggest improvement they made was along the offensive line. Buffalo needed to upgrade a unit that finished 21st in sack percentage and 30th in adjusted line yards.

To address the problem, the Bills signed center Mitch Morse and tackle Ty Nsekhe in free agency and took tackle/guard Cody Ford in the second round of the draft. They also had a couple quality depth signings in center Spencer Long and guard Quinton Spain. The first three could immediately slide into the Bills’ starting lineup.

Nsekhe is the most intriguing player they added. He was mainly a backup in Washington, but whenever Trent Williams and Morgan Moses went down with injury, he performed well with little to no dropoff.

It’s unlikely that the Bills will get past the Patriots to win the AFC East, but they’ve brought in just enough pieces to field a competent offense. That, paired with an already good defense, could have Buffalo challenging for a playoff spot late in the season.

AFC South: Texans secondary

Notable Additions: Bradley Roby, Tashaun Gipson, Briean Boddy-Calhoun, Lonnie Johnson

Houston was forced to hit the reset button on its secondary this offseason. The team lost Kareem Jackson and Tyrann Mathieu to free agency, released former first-round cornerback Kevin Johnson, and needed to add a player to compete with cornerback Aaron Colvin.

During free agency, Texans signed a quartet of defensive backs: Bradley Roby, Tashaun Gipson, Briean Boddy-Calhoun, and Jahleel Addae.

The Roby signing, in particular, has a ton of upside. He looked like he was going to be one of the better corners in the league after playing a pivotal role on the BroncosSuper Bowl 50 defense, but his play has been a bit inconsistent since then. Roby signed for just one year, so he has motivation to get back on track to cash in next offseason.

The Texans weren’t done there, though. They also drafted Kentucky cornerback Lonnie Johnson in the second round.

In 2019, the Texans play Andrew Luck twice, Matt Ryan, Drew Brees, Philip Rivers, Patrick Mahomes, and Tom Brady. That’s a gauntlet of passing attacks; revamping their secondary was a must to defend their division crown.

AFC North: Browns defensive line

Notable Additions: Olivier Vernon, Sheldon Richardson

Trading for Odell Beckham Jr. was obviously the peak of the Browns’ offseason, but they made other key moves as well — particularly along the defensive line.

Cleveland already had skilled players on the defensive line with Myles Garrett and Larry Ogunjobi. To help take the unit to a new level, general manager John Dorsey went out and acquired Olivier Vernon from the Giants in a trade and then signed Sheldon Richardson at the start of free agency.

When you look at the raw numbers for both Vernon and Richardson, they might appear to be a little underwhelming. They had a combined 11.5 sacks in 2018, but sack numbers don’t tell the whole story. According to Sports Info Solutions, Vernon ranked 26th in pressure rate out of 115 edge defenders with at least 200 pass rush snaps last season. Richardson ranked 13th in pressure rate out of 59 defensive tackles with at least 200 pass rush snaps. That’s two significant additions to a defense that finished 28th in sack percentage.

Cleveland is breaking in new defensive coordinator Steve Wilks and has a young secondary. An elite defensive line won’t just make for a smoother transition. It’ll also give the Browns a better chance to win their first-ever AFC North title.

AFC West: Raiders wide receivers

Notable Additions: Antonio Brown, Tyrell Williams, Hunter Renfrow

After the Raiders traded away Amari Cooper last season, Derek Carr didn’t really have any threats at receiver. That has changed since. In one offseason, Oakland went from having a bottom-tier group of receivers to one of the strongest in the league.

The Raiders’ first move was to trade third- and fifth-round picks to the Steelers for future Hall of Famer Antonio Brown. They gave Brown a new contract, keeping him on the roster for years to come. Then they signed former Chargers receiver Tyrell Williams to a four-year deal in free agency. Williams has been a big-play machine for the Chargers over the last few years — he’s had a reception of at least 80 yards in three of his four seasons in the NFL.

In the draft, Oakland selected Clemson receiver Hunter Renfrow, who should immediately compete for reps out of the slot with J.J. Nelson and Ryan Grant. Renfrow wasn’t the most productive receiver in college, but he always came up big when Clemson needed him, including his game-winning touchdown in the 2017 College Football Playoff National Championship.

Now, Carr has more than enough pieces around him to have a successful season. If he doesn’t perform well, we’ll probably see the Raiders look for a new quarterback as they head to Las Vegas in 2020.

NFC East: Eagles running backs

Notable Additions: Jordan Howard, Miles Sanders

Philadelphia struggled to find a groove at running back last year. The team never figured out a rotation that worked after Jay Ajayi tore his ACL in Week 5. Despite having an offensive line featuring Jason Peters, Jason Kelce, Brandon Brooks, and Lane Johnson, the Eagles averaged just 3.9 yards per carry — 30th in the NFL.

To fix the issue, they made a trade for Jordan Howard with the Chicago Bears and drafted Penn State running back Miles Sanders in the second round.

Unlike his first two years in the league, Howard failed to reach 1,000 yards in 2018, but he’s still better than the running backs the Eagles had last year. Howard should be able to get up to speed rather quickly, too. Both his former coach (Matt Nagy) and his new one (Doug Pederson) worked under Andy Reid in Kansas City and run similar offensive schemes.

Sanders is an athletic running back who can do a bit of everything. He can generate explosive plays on the ground and through the air — he chipped in 24 catches to go along with 1,274 rushing yards in 2018.

Now that the Eagles have retooled their running backs, they have one of the most complete offenses in the NFL: an all-star offensive line, two studs at tight end, and a talented, diverse group of receivers. Their season hinges on Carson Wentz staying healthy, but this offense is poised for a playoff run.

NFC South: Falcons offensive line

Notable Additions: James Carpenter, Jamon Brown, Chris Lindstrom, Kaleb McGary

The only real hole the Falcons had on offense going into the season was their offensive line, and they were aggressive as hell to get it fixed.

In free agency, they signed guards James Carpenter and Jamon Brown to multi-year deals. It looked like Carpenter was going to start at left guard and Brown was going to start a right guard until the NFL Draft changed things.

Atlanta surprised everyone by picking Boston College guard Chris Lindstrom with the 14th pick in the draft. It made another splash by trading back into the first round to grab Washington offensive tackle Kaleb McGary.

It’s unclear whether Brown or Carpenter will be a backup, but both rookies are projected to start. For what it’s worth, Brown has never played left guard during his time in the NFL. If Carpenter ends up in the starting lineup, that will give Atlanta five first-round picks along the offensive line.

The Falcons found depth and long-term starters to protect franchise quarterback Matt Ryan, who probably won’t get sacked 42 times again like he did last season. Head coach Dan Quinn felt like they needed to improve their offensive line to get back into the playoffs after a year off. Now they have the players to be more consistent in the trenches.

NFC North: Packers defensive line

Notable Additions: Preston Smith, Za’Darius Smith, Rashan Gary

The Packers needed to revitalize their defensive line. After releasing former first-round pick Nick Perry and losing Clay Matthews to free agency, they had holes to fill on the front line of their defense.

The Packers already had two notable names returning to their defensive line — Mike Daniels and Kenny Clark — but their front office clearly felt like they needed a major infusion of talent. As a result, Green Bay gave out two big contracts on the defensive line, signing edge rushers Za’Darius Smith and Preston Smith.

The Packers didn't stop there. With the 12th pick in the draft, they made a bit of a surprise pick with Michigan defensive end Rashan Gary. He’s a raw player, but he’s ridiculously athletic. Gary ran a 4.58 40-yard dash despite weighing 277 pounds.

Those three players give defensive coordinator Mike Pettine a ton of flexibility to get creative with his fronts. Pettine’s scheme heavily relies on man coverage — adding defenders who can defeat blocks will force more errant throws for Green Bay’s young secondary.

In theory, that should create more turnover opportunities for the Packers’ defense, giving the ball back to Aaron Rodgers. Chaos in the backfield and turnovers can be what gets this defense, and this team, back to being playoff caliber.

NFC West: 49ers defensive line

Notable Additions: Nick Bosa, Dee Ford

This offseason, San Francisco needed to upgrade its pass rush, which hasn’t finished better than 23rd in sack percentage in each of the last two seasons. DeForest Buckner has turned into a legitimate star at defensive tackle, but the 49ers have been lacking an edge rush since Jim Harbaugh was their head coach.

They made two big moves to boost their defensive end spots for 2019 and beyond. First, they traded a 2020 second-round pick to the Chiefs for pass rusher Dee Ford — and immediately gave him a five-year deal.

The next move was to take Ohio State defensive Nick Bosa, who very well might be the best player out of the 2019 NFL Draft, with the second overall pick. With Ford and Bosa joining Buckner, the 49ers finally have a defensive line capable of taking over games. The additions should also help them defend against Russell Wilson and Kyler Murray, the two mobile quarterbacks in their division.

With a disruptive defensive line and Jimmy Garoppolo returning back from injury, the 49ers have a chance to put together their first winning season since 2013.

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Trumpism Is the New McCarthyism
When some presidents leave office, politicians and political thinkers jockey to be their intellectual heirs. Even Ronald Reagan, a Republican, claimed the legacy of John F. Kennedy. Even Barack Obama, a Democrat, claimed the legacy of Reagan.If Donald Trump loses this fall, few will be in a hurry to claim his legacy. Commentators on the left and in the center—and even some on the right—will compete instead to tar their foes with it. For people across a broad ideological terrain, Trumpism will be less an attractive political philosophy than a term of abuse.The best precedent is McCarthyism, which has become a synonym for hysterical intolerance. Joseph McCarthy, like Trump, built his political career on demagoguery, intimidation, and a cult of personality—not tangible achievements or coherent ideas. And as the psychology professor Dan P. McAdams has observed, “When narcissists begin to disappoint those whom they once dazzled, their descent can be especially precipitous.” More than a half century after the senator from Wisconsin died, progressives accuse conservatives of McCarthyism, and vice versa. But few embrace the label themselves. Especially if Trump is badly defeated in November—a distinct possibility—Trumpism too will likely be used primarily as an epithet.What the epithet means, however—and to whom it applies—is already being contested. On one side sit people who define Trumpism as a form of intolerance, a disrespect for the rules that undergird American democracy. On the other sit people who define Trumpism as a form of oppression, a manifestation of the fact that the rules undergirding American democracy are saturated with racial, gender, and class bias. The debate between these two views will shape the relationship between the activist left and the political center for years to come.You can see the outlines of the first anti-Trump position—Trumpism as intolerance—in last week’s much-discussed “Letter on Justice and Open Debate,” published by Harper’s Magazine. The authors call Trump “a real threat to democracy” and an ally of “the forces of illiberalism.” But they worry that illiberal tendencies are also growing on the left, which is creating “its own brand of dogma or coercion” that threatens “democratic inclusion.” The authors don’t claim that leftist intolerance poses as grave a threat as the populism of the right. But the implication is that Trumpism is not simply a right-wing phenomenon. It’s a form of intolerance—a willingness to violate the norms of liberal-democratic fair play—that transcends ideological divides. As Yascha Mounk, one of the letter’s signers and an Atlantic contributing writer, argues in an introduction to his new journal, Persuasion, “The primary threat to liberal democracy is posed by the populist right” but the “values of a free society” also “are losing their luster among significant parts of the left.”Mounk and others of similar mind are proposing an updated version of what Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. in 1949 famously called the “vital center,” in a book of the same name. Schlesinger’s argument was that both the fascist right and the communist left shared common totalitarian features. It was thus necessary for liberals and conservatives who believed in a free society to recognize that, whatever their policy differences, they shared a broad ideological camp: the vital center. Substitute Trumpism for totalitarianism, and you can detect the same impulse in the work of those writers who define Trumpism as a species of intolerance that manifests itself on both the left and the right.In contrast, influential progressives are defining Trumpism not as intolerance but as oppression, and thus, necessarily, the province of those who enjoy racial, gender, or class privilege. After the Harper’s letter was published, another group of commentators wrote a response titled “A More Specific Letter on Justice and Open Debate.” This group—“started by journalists of color with contributions from the larger journalism, academic and publishing community,” according to the letter—accused the Harper’s signatories of failing to “deal with the problem of power: who has it and who does not.” The Harper’s letter never uses the words Black, white, brown, or trans. The response (which, granted, is longer) uses them at least four dozen times. It claims that the Harper’s signers are using the supposed intolerance of members of historically oppressed groups as an excuse for their own “unwillingness to dismantle systems that keep people like them in and the rest of us out.”In The Atlantic, Ta-Nehisi Coates famously described Trump’s politics as white supremacy made evident because of the election of a Black president. Although the writers of the “More Specific Letter” don’t mention Trump by name, they’re building on Coates’s argument: Trumpism is the brutal manifestation of inherited power. Thus, the notion that it could be a malady that transcends lines of class, race, gender, and ideology—expressed not only by Republican politicians but by people of color in newsrooms and on campuses—is nonsense. As the writer Jeet Heer has argued, Trumpism is the culmination of the GOP’s decision to make itself white America’s vehicle for opposing racial equality. So there cannot be a “Trumpism of the left.”Today, the argument about the meaning of Trumpism is taking place in intellectuals’ letters. But if Trump loses, it will migrate to Washington. Democrats insistent on dramatic change will collide with conservatives able to block it. Progressives will then demand, as they have already begun to do, structural changes that would let them override the right’s veto. Such demands could take the form of sweeping new executive actions, alterations to the structure of the Supreme Court, efforts to abolish the filibuster, and moves to grant statehood to Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico. Some of the people who define Trumpism as intolerance will view such moves as a progressive form of Trumpism—that is, as an assault on the rules of fair play. In 2018, Obama’s former White House counsel Bob Bauer warned that if liberals expanded the size of the Supreme Court, they would “emulate President Trump’s contempt for democratic institutions and the rule of law.” If Trump’s Democratic successor imposes policies of “the far left via executive order,” my colleague David Frum argued last year, it will be a sign that “neither side abides by the rules of democracy.”The progressives who define Trumpism as oppression will reject these claims as absurd. They will argue that certain aspects of America’s system of government undemocratically entrench the privilege of historically dominant groups; by this logic, structural changes that allow progressives to bypass conservative opposition constitute not an attack on democracy but the removal of barriers to it. Making Washington, D.C., a state, The Week’s Ryan Cooper has argued, would enfranchise 700,000 people—almost half of them Black—“who are currently treated like quasi-colonial subjects.” Eliminating the filibuster, Cooper maintains, would end a practice that, historically, has been “primarily used by racists to stop civil rights legislation.”Schlesinger’s vision of a vital center—composed of liberals and conservatives who made common cause against both the undemocratic left and the undemocratic right—dominated American politics in the years after World War II because there was no leftist movement powerful enough to challenge it. In the late 1960s—under pressure from the anti-war movement, the feminist movement, and the movement for Black freedom—it lost its intellectual hegemony. The problem for Schlesinger’s successors today is that they are trying to constitute a new vital center at a time when the activist left is strong enough to challenge their control over the terms of debate. One way that challenge will unfold is through an effort at ideological guilt by association, in which each side will accuse the other of being Trumpism’s rightful heir.
A Mission to the Sun Left Just in Time
Solar Orbiter / EUI Team (ESA & NASA) / CSL / IAS / MPS / PMOD / WRC / ROB / UCL / MSSLFor Daniel Müller, a solar physicist at the European Space Agency, there are two suns. There’s the one that hangs in the sky and warms his skin as he walks along the coastline near his home in the Netherlands. And there’s the one that exists indoors, on his computer screen, which he can stare at for hours, studying the swirls in a fiery landscape.As much as he enjoys a sunny walk on the beach, Müller has been basking in the other version of our star this summer: A recently launched spacecraft has captured the closest images ever taken of the sun and sent them back to Earth.The images show the sun in glowing detail. They were captured by telescopes on Solar Orbiter (a delightfully straightforward name for a mission) as the spacecraft zoomed past the sun. The hot plasma resembles a portrait of storm clouds rendered in gold tones.To the untrained eye, these are pretty pictures, but to scientists such as Müller, they might provide important information about a star that, despite its close proximity and decades of research, the scientific community is still trying to understand.Take a closer look at the images from Solar Orbiter and you’ll see sparks of light nestled in the plasma swirls. Each pinprick is a solar flare, an explosion of energy most likely caused by the tangling of magnetic fields.Solar Orbiter / EUI Team (ESA & NASA) / CSL / IAS / MPS / PMOD / WRC / ROB / UCL / MSSLOn Earth, these smaller flares could stretch from Washington, D.C., to New York City. By the sun’s standards, they are tiny, producing only about a billionth of the energy of flares that can be detected from the ground and even temporarily knock out our communications.The miniature flares could help explain the nature of the outermost layer of the sun’s atmosphere, a region visible to us only during a solar eclipse, as a milky-white ring in a darkened sky. Known as the corona, this layer is, paradoxically, far hotter than the sun’s surface: It’s nearly 2 million degrees Fahrenheit (more than 1 million degrees Celsius), while the surface is a comparatively cool 9,900 degrees Fahrenheit (about 5,500 degrees Celsius). Observations have shown that the same is true for other sunlike stars, but our own star provides the best option for investigating why that is; after all, the sun is the only star we’re likely to ever get this close to.The flares flicker in the depths of the corona, just above the sun’s surface, and the new photos suggest that the sun is covered in them. The phenomena might fit a theory that the solar physicist Eugene Parker proposed decades ago, when telescope technology wasn’t sophisticated enough to acquire these kinds of views. Parker hypothesized that magnetic interactions would spark a flurry of small flares near the surface of the sun—nanoflares, as he called them. These flares could produce enough energy to raise the corona’s temperature to scorching heights.[Read: Fly me to the sun]“A few of them together do not create a lot of heat or energy,” says Holly Gilbert, a NASA solar physicist who works on the mission. “If you combine them all together, it’s possible that that is contributing to the coronal heating.”The corona is one of several conundrums at the center of our solar system. Scientists have yet to pin down the mechanism that fuels the sun’s biggest flares, or that unleashes solar wind toward Earth and beyond, past planets and moons, to the solar system’s invisible edges, where the high-energy stream starts mixing with the cooler particles of interstellar space.Solar Orbiter, which is operated by the European Space Agency and NASA, left Earth just in time. The mission departed in mid-February, weeks before authorities started issuing stay-at-home orders because of the coronavirus in Europe, where the spacecraft was manufactured, and the United States, where it was launched. Hundreds of employees from the two space agencies traveled to Cape Canaveral for the launch and celebrated together in the kind of gathering that would be banned today.In the months since, only two spacecraft operators have been allowed into the ESA’s control rooms at the same time, and always in face masks. Scientists who had planned to be in the room with them, to help get the spacecraft’s instruments online and working, guided the operators over video instead. “We were very worried at the beginning,” says José-Luis Pellón-Bailón, the mission’s deputy spacecraft-operations manager and one of the few people still permitted to enter the control room.[Read: The mystery at the center of the solar system]If space agencies had fallen behind schedule in February and missed the window to put Solar Orbiter on the best trajectory, they would have had to wait until October to launch. The pandemic has already slowed down other space projects, and contributed to a two-year launch delay for a Mars rover, which depends on cosmic alignments for its journey. When Müller considers this alternate reality, in which Solar Orbiter sits in a warehouse instead of coasting through space, he nearly shudders. “No one knows what the world will look like in October,” he said.Today, Solar Orbiter’s instruments are running smoothly. The spacecraft is currently hurtling away from us and toward Venus, where it will steal some of the planet’s gravity to adjust its orbit and swing closer to the sun. (It sounds strange, but flying into the sun is actually harder than leaving the solar system.) Officials haven’t yet decided how, years from now, the mission will end. They could leave the spacecraft gliding in space, or they could plunge it into the sun, as NASA is planning to do with another sun-observing spacecraft, named for Parker, the longtime physicist. That probe will get even closer to the sun, but it doesn’t have telescopes that can look directly at the star, as Solar Orbiter does.Solar Orbiter will make its next close approach to the sun early next year, loaded with commands to carry out a picture-perfect flyby. Scientists expect the spacecraft to catch even better views of the miniature flares they found this summer, and perhaps other intriguing features too. Maybe, by then, more than two people will be allowed in the control room, to guide the spacecraft’s course. On Earth, trajectories large and small—the course of a deadly virus, the minutiae of daily life—can’t be so easily programmed and planned.
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