March 13, 2023 7:57 am ET
The start of the “legal tampering” period (everyone knows this is an unironic oxymoron, right?) today means free agency has finally arrived.
Aside from the actual games and the slot-like fast pace of the draft, the next few days present some of the most chaotic on the NFL calendar. Many stars, building blocks, and depth talent will be moving around all over the country, and the effects will almost be dizzying.
We’ve forecasted one significant addition for all 32 teams. We’ve diagrammed awesome longshot bets (the Detroit Lions … contenders?) to take advantage of before it’s too late. And we’ve even discussed some of the best player-team fits. But now it’s time to put pen to paper … literally, in the case of free agents and their new contracts.
Free agency (and the draft by extension) might prove to be quite beneficial for NFL teams on the edge of a title or January competitiveness. Let’s break down one key aspect all 32 teams can improve upon in the next six weeks to give themselves a warranted shot at championship contention in 2023.
1Kansas City Chiefs: Keep the trenches together
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Truthfully, as long as Patrick Mahomes is the Chiefs’ quarterback, they’ll be in the mix for Super Bowls every season. But losing Frank Clark on defense and potentially letting Orlando Brown Jr. walk leaves sizable chasms in both Kansas City trenches. As long as the Chiefs address them properly, Mahomes and Co. are primed for a repeat.
2Philadelphia Eagles: Build a new band to keep together
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The Eagles remain in a prime spot. Even after losing Super Bowl 57, they’ve got the elite Jalen Hurts under center and many top-flight talents like A.J. Brown and Haason Reddick. However, Philadelphia may leave the free agency period without crucial NFC title cogs like DTs Javon Hargrave and Fletcher Cox, S Chauncey Gardner-Johnson, and James Bradberry.
Fortunately for the Eagles, they have two picks in the first round (No. 10 overall from the Saints and No. 30) and Howie Roseman on tap for a retool. Who knows? Perhaps the Eagles will come back better and younger in 2023.
3Buffalo Bills: Get Josh Allen some help
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I don’t care how they do it. The Bills cannot enter 2023 with legitimate Super Bowl aspirations if their receiving corps continues to be Stefon Diggs and Insert Inconsistent Weapon (sorry, Gabriel Davis). After Josh Allen took a beating in their divisional-round playoff loss, some legit upgrades to the offensive line wouldn’t be a terrible idea either.
If Allen is responsible for doing everything, the Bills will once again get nothing in January and February.
4Minnesota Vikings: Fix a sieve defense
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Of everyone in the league, last year’s 13-4 Vikings probably achieved most of their success with smoke and mirrors. If Minnesota doesn’t want to waste another season of reigning Offensive Player of the Year Justin Jefferson, it’ll place a premium on fixing the NFL’s 31st defense in yardage and 30th defense in scoring.
Danielle Hunter. That is the extent of the under-30 franchise building blocks on the Vikings’ defense.
5San Francisco 49ers: Find a quarterback
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I know the 49ers are convinced they’d have hoisted the Lombardi Trophy if Brock Purdy was healthy, but I’m pretty certain that wouldn’t have happened. No, no, if the loaded 49ers are serious about winning a Super Bowl any time soon, they’d do well to find a difference-making signal caller for once.
Lamar Jackson, perhaps?
6Cincinnati Bengals: Upgrade a middling secondary
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It’s a testament to Joe Burrow, Ja’Marr Chase, and the rest of the Bengals’ offense that Cincinnati has played on two straight Championship Sundays while Eli Apple mans a defensive boundary. Cincinnati is right there, literally on the doorstep of a Super Bowl. Finding a cornerback that opposing offenses don’t delight in humiliating might put it over the top.
7Dallas Cowboys: Find a consistent complement to CeeDee Lamb
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The real problem for the Cowboys to address is Mike McCarthy getting over his playoff jitters. But since he’s apparently going to be around for a while, Dallas should be adding another weapon. Running the offense through CeeDee Lamb and Tony Pollard is fun, but defenses in the playoffs can casually key on stopping two options.
It turns out trading Amari Cooper for pennies hurts the on-field product!
8Baltimore Ravens: Pay Lamar Jackson the money he's earned
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As Jackson and the Ravens wait out an awkward non-exclusive franchise tag situation, one fact seems abundantly clear about this situation. Baltimore will accomplish little in 2023 if they don’t have a motivated Jackson running the show. They may have already burned the bridge beyond repair.
9Los Angeles Chargers: Let Justin Herbert cook
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The Chargers made a proactive move to hire Kellen Moore as offensive coordinator. The focus for Moore should now be on developing a downfield passing attack worthy of Justin Herbert’s ability. Of qualified passers, Herbert’s 6.8 yards per attempt in 2022 ranked 23rd in the NFL. That is absurd and unnecessarily limits one of the sport’s top signal callers.
10New York Giants: Acquire some real receivers
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With all due respect to Darius Slayton, the Giants’ current receiving corps is atrocious. No defensive coordinator in their right mind is scared of Slayton, Isaiah Hodgins, Richie James, and Wan’Dale Robinson. Daniel Jones will be wearing Big Blue’s uniform for the foreseeable future. The least they could do for the QB is to get him improved support on the outside.
11Detroit Lions: Don't leave Aidan Hutchinson on an island
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The upstart Lions surprised a lot of people in 2022. Thanks mainly to a dynamite offense and the steady hand of the colorful Dan Campbell, Detroit finished the season red-hot and at a respectable 9-8. If the Lions are to take the next step — qualifying for the playoffs and making a run — they need to address their defense.
A league-worst unit in most relevant statistics needs more than Aidan Hutchinson trying to flex his muscles on offensive tackles by himself.
12Jacksonville Jaguars: Fortify the interior offensive line
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Some will center on the Jaguars’ somewhat embarrassing defense as the elephant in the room. But Jacksonville already has a promising nucleus — Josh Allen, Devin Lloyd, Travon Walker — on that side of the ball.
No, the Jaguars need to fix Trevor Lawrence’s bodyguards, particularly on the interior. Jacksonville couldn’t get by eventual Super Bowl champion Kansas City in the playoffs because Chris Jones and friends bruised and battered the middle of the Jaguars’ OL (seven QB hits, two sacks).
That can’t happen if Lawrence is to work his magic in the winter.
13Miami Dolphins: Remedy an awful defensive back-end
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To be fair to the Dolphins, they’re already on the right track!
A pumped Jalen Ramsey is headed to South Florida and should slot people like Xavien Howard into more suitable roles. The talent on the 25th-ranked passing DVOA (per Football Outsiders) from 2022 is there. It’s tough to beat a group with the ability of Ramsey, Howard, Jevon Holland, and Eric Rowe. Now it’s about Miami’s secondary piecing it together so Mike McDaniel’s offense can work with a lead now and then.
14Pittsburgh Steelers: Find a franchise left tackle
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The Steelers’ path to a title is more complicated than one quality offseason, but they can start by rebuilding an offensive wall for Kenny Pickett. Dan Moore Jr. did an admirable job at left tackle last season. However, he’s not a foundational puzzle piece next to the newly-extended Chukwama Okorafor on a team that wants to compete.
15Seattle Seahawks: Fill in the run-defense gaps, sign Bobby Wagner
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The Seahawks’ mission this spring should be elementary. They must upgrade a 25th-ranked rushing defense in DVOA to be taken seriously. Wherever else the Seahawks can improve matters little if other squads bully them in the ground game. Reuniting with linebacker Bobby Wagner, who is still playing at an All-Pro level, should be priority No. 1, No. 2, and No. 3.
16Washington Commanders: Dan Snyder sells the team
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The Commanders have a lot of great pieces!
Daron Payne! Chase Young! Jonathan Allen! Montez Sweat! Terry McLaurin! Jahan Dotson! Woo!
But Dan Snyder is the owner, and Sam Howell is the current starting QB. There is nothing this organization reviled by the NFLPA could do in one offseason to win the Super Bowl. This is a static state for Washington D.C.’s professional football team until Snyder is gone.
17Green Bay Packers: Start the Jordan Love era in earnest
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The Packers could have a promising signal caller in Jordan Love. They’ll never know if Aaron Rodgers continues to play a strange “will-he-or-won’t-he” game with them. But Love deserves a wholehearted shot at the helm of the green and gold. It might be what the Packers need to get themselves up off the mat at the end of the Rodgers era.
18New England Patriots: Realize Mac Jones isn't the answer
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Bill Belichick is a far smarter football mind than me, so I’m sure he’s already realized this, but Mac Jones will likely never win anything meaningful in New England. The Patriots might be overhauling their offensive staff and reconstructing their offensive line, but “point-guard” QBs won’t cut it at this level. This game is predicated on superstar weapons under center (and from the shotgun), and the Patriots have a Nerf toy.
19Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Not happening, tank for Caleb Williams
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Tom Brady is gone into retirement, and the Buccaneers are still trying to dust themselves off. One of the NFL’s previous older teams is in no legitimate position to compete for Super Bowl 58. Tampa Bay might profess it believes in Kyle Trask now, but he’s more likely the placeholder for a top QB prospect in 2024.
Can you say, Caleb Williams? Yes, this team can be that bad.
20Atlanta Falcons: Sand over a shoddy defense
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Their ignoring of Lamar Jackson aside, the Falcons can still compete in 2023. Few other franchises would be able to match Kyle Pitts, Drake London, Tyler Allgeir, and Cordarrelle Patterson on offense. It’s the defense that’s the problem.
Aside from Grady Jarrett and A.J. Terrell, there is no one the Falcons can reasonably rely on to get stops. Fortunately, Atlanta has almost $63 million in cap space. Expect most of that money to go toward some prerequisite franchise defenders. This team is a dark horse with the proper defensive strokes.
21Carolina Panthers: Not happening, but pick the right QB
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Just because the Panthers played beyond their means at 7-10 in 2022 doesn’t mean they’re destined to improve upon that record in 2023. Based on their No. 1 pick trade with the Chicago Bears involving receiver D.J. Moore, I would guess Frank Reich’s regime truly doesn’t plan on contending next season.
But Carolina can start looking ahead to the middle part of the decade if it drafts the right quarterback. If that’s Ohio State’s C.J. Stroud, so be it. Return in 2024 with him at the head of the pack.
22Cleveland Browns: The QB lives up to the soul-selling trade
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In Year 1 of an era with Deshaun Watson — who faced 20 accusations of sexual misconduct for what the NFL would later describe as “predatory behavior — the QB was horrendous.
As Christian D’Andrea wrote in December, Watson was the league’s 33rd-least efficient signal caller in 2022. With the Browns already up against the financial wall, unless Watson plays like the superstar they sold their soul for, Cleveland is an afterthought.
23New Orleans Saints: Derek Carr plays his 10th year unlike the first nine years
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Rather than tank and recalibrate for the future, the Saints are going for it in 2022. Mind you; it doesn’t necessarily mean “the Super Bowl.” This is a roster tailor-made to win the fourth-worst division in its conference, the NFC South.
The Saints only surpass such expectations and vie for a bigger prize in February if Carr plays like a First-Team All-Pro. He’s a 31-year-old quarterback known for maddening inconsistency. I wouldn’t bet on it, but I suppose the path is … there. Kind of.
24New York Jets: Acquire Aaron Rodgers and hope he isn't washed-up
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If the Jets bring Aaron Rodgers into their mix, they’re a championship contender. On paper. Rodgers would be the kind of player who could maximize Garrett Wilson and Breece Hall while an elite defense gets him the ball back. But Rodgers is also 39 years old and has started 15 NFL seasons. There is no guarantee he will play at his past MVP level. If anything, I’d say it’s more likely he struggles in his career twilight.
If they pull off the Rodgers trade, the Jets better hope they’re at least getting a semblance of the QB who made himself a legend in Green Bay.
25Tennessee Titans: Acquire Lamar Jackson because there's no other hope
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Mike Vrabel is probably too busy trying to convince Titans ownership that he is, in fact, not the problem in Nashville. No, you see, it was GM Jon Robinson alone that traded away A.J. Brown while trying to stay relevant with a mid-30s Ryan Tannehill. Vrabel would’ve clearly never signed off on such a move or any of the Titans’ roster decisions over the years. (Let’s ignore that he stayed on after an executive above his title got fired.)
Vrabel and the Titans only stay toe-to-toe with Jacksonville in the AFC South and in the contending mix if they acquire Lamar Jackson. He’s a player who would make everyone on their offense better. The Titans would have to do a lot of cap finessing and make some hard decisions (is Derrick Henry long for Tennessee?) if they wanted Jackson.
But that’s the price you pay when you put yourself in the crosshairs like Vrabel.
26Las Vegas Raiders: Reunite Josh McDaniels and Jimmy Garoppolo and hope it's a New England redux
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The Raiders would never dare to unofficially tank. Owner Mark Davis has put too much money into Josh McDaniels and Davante Adams and Chandler Jones and Darren Waller, and Hunter Renfrow, and … oh, you get it.
But without a QB — unless they believe in Jarrett Stidham for some reason — the Raiders aren’t in a position to push the atrocious Denver Broncos, let alone the Chiefs. I know Josh McDaniels is already thinking about signing Jimmy Garoppolo. For most teams, this probably wouldn’t make a lick of sense. For McDaniels, as he tries to prove he’s not a fraud: his former pet project would be perfect to at least get the ball into Adams and Renfrow’s hands.
Frankly, it’s not like McDaniels has other options.
27Denver Broncos: Rebuild Russell Wilson's offensive line
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Sean Payton has already professed that the Broncos will lean less on Wilson’s arm moving forward as he cleans up the mess in Denver. But this is a passing league. Eventually, Wilson will have to uncork his arm, and he’ll have to be upright to do it. Wilson was the league’s most-sacked QB (63) in 2022.
Payton can clean up the Broncos’ shop and culture all he wants, but that offensive line is barely passable for a rebuilding squad, let alone one that wants to be involved in February.
28Los Angeles Rams: Clear the cap deck, hope Matthew Stafford, Cooper Kupp, and Aaron Donald have a lot of juice left
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First and foremost on the Rams’ list of concerns this offseason is getting salary cap flexibility. They’ve only paid part of the bill, and it’s why Ramsey is gone. Second is hoping that Matthew Stafford, at age 35, can still sling it. (He’ll need a better line for that and TBD.) Third is anticipating a Cooper Kupp revival after a traumatic ankle injury. (Likely.) Fourth is crossing their fingers that Aaron Donald continues to dominate into his 30s (Very likely.)
The Rams should be rebuilding, but the primary members of their core can still lead a contender in the best-case scenario.
29Indianapolis Colts: Find a QB, hope at least half the AFC takes the season off
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There is no feasible reality where Jim Irsay’s Colts compete for a championship next season. Heck, Shane Steichen doesn’t even have a QB he likes. And. the Colts might not be pursuing one as wholeheartedly as they should! This team is awful from top to bottom and would need at least 5-6 key teams in the AFC to start tanking before it could even ponder contention.
But other than all of that, the Colts are OK!
30Arizona Cardinals: Kyler Murray's ACL recovery goes swimmingly, a bottom-third defense fills out
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Before the Cardinals think of accomplishing anything in 2023, they need to hope Kyler Murray gets healthier sooner rather than later. A late-season ACL tear complicates his recovery timeline, but if he comes back in September/October, they’re in business. With a healthy Murray, it would behoove new GM Monti Ossenfort to reinvigorate his 21st-ranked defense. J.J. Watt is gone, and all that’s guaranteed to return is Budda Baker.
If Arizona can’t stop anyone, it doesn’t matter what Murray achieves in his return.
31Houston Texans: Find a polished QB prospect, fully buy into DeMeco Ryans' culture
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I would not be worried about the Texans players buying into DeMeco Ryans’ mandate. For a great reason, he was one of football’s premier coordinators and should be able to work his teaching/leadership magic on a rebuilding organization with minimal trouble. From this perspective, getting someone polished like former Alabama QB Bryce Young into the fold would perfectly match Ryans’ mission. I would not doubt the Texans — who aren’t ready for a title — competing like a bunch of upstarts should they draft Young and pair him with Ryans’ magic.
32Chicago Bears: Give Justin Fields a chance
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The Bears are already off to a roaring start in this regard, pairing Fields with the gifted D.J. Moore in their blockbuster trade of the No. 1 overall pick. But now Fields needs an offensive line that can pass block and an improved 29th-ranked defense that can actually make stops. Fields has proven he can, quite literally, do it “all” on his own. If the Bears can even give him an improved fraction of a cast worthy of Fields’ ability, this team is going places, and he should start getting fitted for a crown.