A lot goes into finding sustained success in the NFL. Teams must acquire the right players and mesh them with the right systems while managing roster turnover and the salary cap. Naturally, this leads to free agency and the draft getting plenty of attention.
However, developing players is just as important if not more so. Not every star is a former first-round pick or high-priced acquisition, and games are not won on potential alone. Perennial contenders usually do a great job of developing players for the long term or getting the most out of budget additions. Perennial losers do not.
Consider that guard Joel Bitonio recently became the first player to receive a third contract from the long-suffering expansion-era Cleveland Browns.
Fortunately, we've seen improving players on even the most lackluster NFL rosters this season—players who, like Bitonio, could potentially become franchise staples.
Here, we'll dive into every NFL team's most improved player through the first 10 weeks of the season. These are players who have taken that proverbial next step whether due to natural development, scheme changes or an expanded role. These players have all seen noteworthy improvement in either statistical production or efficiency when compared to last season or previous seasons.
We're examining veterans only, and teams are listed in alphabetical order.
Arizona Cardinals: LB Isaiah Simmons
The Arizona Cardinals made linebacker Isaiah Simmons the eighth overall pick in the 2020 draft. While Simmons showed some flashes as a rookie, he also had lapses in coverage and was eventually pulled from the starting lineup.
After starting the first four games last season, Simmons made only three starts the rest of the way and played more than 55 percent of the snaps in just two of those games.
Fortunately, Simmons has taken a big second-year leap, particularly in coverage. He's allowed an opposing passer rating of only 77.4 after allowing a rating of 102.0 as a rookie. He's started all 10 games this season and is finally playing like the defensive centerpiece he was drafted to be.
Simmons has played 93 percent of the defensive snaps and has compiled 67 tackles, three force fumbles, four passes defended and an interception.
Atlanta Falcons: RB Cordarrelle Patterson
Veterans playing in their ninth season don't usually make lists like this one, but Atlanta Falcons runner/receiver Cordarrelle Patterson is an exception. A four-time All-Pro return specialist, Patterson has finally gotten a significant opportunity on offense.
"I feel like they are really embracing the guy I can be on the football field," Patterson said, per Kris Rhim of the team's official website.
Just nine games into the season, Patterson has already set new career-highs in receiving yards (473), receiving touchdowns (five) and rushing yards (303).
Unfortunately, Patterson may miss Week 11 with a sprained ankle, which would be a massive blow to Atlanta's offense. Along with rookie tight end Kyle Pitts, Patterson has become one of the Falcons' most reliable weapons.
Baltimore Ravens: QB Lamar Jackson
Former NFL MVPs don't usually make lists like this one either, but it's worth recognizing just how much more prolific Lamar Jackson has been as a passer in 2021.
The Baltimore Ravens signal-caller, the MVP in 2019, has made significant strides in the passing department. Yes, he had a down game against the Miami Dolphins in Week 10, but he's also on pace for a career-high 4,622 passing yards.
A higher volume hasn't led to diminished returns either. Jackson is still completing passes at a 64.4 percent clip—the same as last season—and continues to be one of the game's most dangerous ball carriers at any position.
He'll have an extra game with which to work, but Jackson is on pace for 1,207 rushing yards. That would narrowly beat the single-season record for a quarterback—one he set with 1,206 rushing yards in 2019.