We're closing in on the start of NFL free agency, and this much we already know: It's going to be a wild and crazy ride once again. The last few years of free agency have taught us that very few teams are willing to stand pat if they have options. There are going to be big swings and blockbuster deals, and it's going to be fun as hell to watch from this vantage point.
This is what happens when the Los Angeles Rams win a Super Bowl in 2021 by going all-in, and the Philadelphia Eagles nearly win a championship a year later with the same philosophy. Patience literally becomes an outdated mode of operation. There are simply too many reasons for teams to become hyper-aggressive when March arrives. Most have a chance to improve their rosters in a hurry, and a select few can even dream of contending for a title if everything breaks right.
So before we see what happens when free agency officially begins on March 15, let's look at some teams that should be locked and loaded to make moves. These are the five teams that should be thinking long and hard about doing some major wheeling and dealing in the coming weeks ...
The Lions turned plenty of heads in the second half of last season, when they produced their first winning record (9-8) in five years and nearly nabbed a wild-card berth. Now comes the hard part: operating in a world where nobody is going to take them for granted again. There's a very good chance Detroit could win the NFC North this coming season. For that to happen, the Lions will need to utilize all the resources available to them this offseason. Those assets include two first-round picks in the 2023 NFL Draft (one of which is the sixth overall selection) and a decent amount of salary-cap space (currently projected at just over $22 million, per Over the Cap).
The Lions need to find another playmaker at tight end after trading T.J. Hockenson to Minnesota last year, and there could be plenty of options on the open market (such as the Cowboys' Dalton Schultz, the Dolphins' Mike Gesicki and the Bengals' Hayden Hurst). The more pressing issue is bolstering a secondary that was a major factor in Detroit's failure to rank higher than 28th in the NFL in points allowed and 32nd in yards. If Lions general manager Brad Holmes wants a cornerback, he can go after free agents like Tampa Bay's Jamel Dean or Philadelphia's James Bradberry. If safety is where the Lions decide to go, they could look at proven playmakers like the Bengals' Jessie Bates or the Eagles' Chauncey Gardner-Johnson. There's also the ultra-sexy option of swinging a trade with the Rams, who are looking to potentially move star cornerback Jalen Ramsey. Holmes has been committed to building through the draft, but he was a member of the Rams' front office when they acquired Ramsey in 2019. He knows exactly what Ramsey could bring to a defense in need of more playmakers on the back end.
The Bears are going to make some noise primarily because they have too many reasons not to sit still this offseason. They're holding onto the No. 1 overall pick in the draft -- which GM Ryan Poles has discussed moving -- and they're projected to have more salary-cap space than any other team (roughly $97 million, per Over the Cap). Quarterback Justin Fields also is entering his third pro season, which means he's still on a cost-effective rookie contract (he'll count for $5.1 million against the cap in 2023) for a team that could improve in a hurry with some savvy acquisitions.
The first thing Poles needs to address is a long-running issue: Chicago's woeful offensive line. Poles was a member of the Kansas City Chiefs' front office when that franchise rebuilt its offensive line a couple years ago, so he knows how critical the right pieces are in this process. A right tackle like San Francisco's Mike McGlinchey would make sense here, as would a guard like Baltimore's Ben Powers. Poles also needs to find plenty of help for the league's worst scoring defense. He traded middle linebacker Roquan Smith to Baltimore at midseason, but another young talent like Buffalo's Tremaine Edmunds could be a nice addition in free agency. The same holds true for a defensive tackle like Javon Hargrave, who could improve a pass rush that collected a league-low 20 sacks in 2022. Hargrave had 11 sacks all by himself in Philadelphia last year. Whatever the Bears do, Poles has made it clear that he wants more playmakers on this roster. The NFC North is as wide-open as it's been in decades. Chicago should be looking to be in the hunt.
The Falcons have two significant factors working for them that put them on this list. One is they have just over $66 million in projected salary-cap space, second-most in the league, per Over the Cap. The other is they play in the worst division in football, the NFC South, and they have every reason to believe they can compete for that crown in 2023. Of course, the first thing Atlanta has to do is figure out the quarterback position. Veteran Marcus Mariota has been released, and Desmond Ridder showed some promise as a rookie last season. But the most intriguing possibility here is that the Falcons try to make a run at Baltimore's Lamar Jackson. They are the team that makes the most sense in terms of pursuing such a trade -- Atlanta has the eighth overall selection in this year's draft, a head coach in Arthur Smith who operated a run-heavy offense last year and the cap space to pay Jackson big money -- but a lot of dominoes have to fall in place before that happens.
Beyond chasing saviors under center, the Falcons have other pressing needs up and down the roster. They need more help at receiver, so a free agent like New England's Jakobi Meyers could be attractive. The defense has to improve in all areas, especially in the interior defensive line and at safety. There will be a variety of options at both those positions in free agency. The Falcons ultimately have a luxury going into this offseason that every other NFC South team doesn't: They aren't trying to resolve a coming salary-cap deficit. Atlanta is in the best position to improve quickly after a 7-10 season that exceeded the expectations of most. The Falcons should capitalize.
We know, we know. The Raiders produced a couple of blockbuster deals last offseason, when they traded for wide receiver Davante Adams and signed edge rusher Chandler Jones. What are the odds they'd be just as aggressive for a second straight offseason? The simple answer is this: They have no other choice. After deciding Derek Carr was no longer the right quarterback for the franchise, Las Vegas has to find somebody to stick under center next season. Drafting and developing somebody doesn't seem to make a ton of sense, given that the Raiders will be living in the same NFC West as Kansas City's Patrick Mahomes for at least the rest of the decade, while Justin Herbert is an undeniable talent for the Los Angeles Chargers and Denver just hired Sean Payton to fix quarterback Russell Wilson. The Raiders aren't doing anything in this division until they find somebody who can compete with all that. There are still reports they would be interested in trading for Green Bay's Aaron Rodgers, but signing free agent Jimmy Garoppolo wouldn't be a bad Plan B. He worked with second-year head coach Josh McDaniels during their time together in New England, and he showed in San Francisco he's a proven winner when he can stay healthy.
Aside from quarterback, Las Vegas has to determine how to deal with a defense that was one of the worst in the league, ranking 28th overall and 26th in scoring. Jones, a four-time Pro Bowler, didn't live up to the contract he signed last season, but Maxx Crosby, fresh off signing a lucrative four-year extension last season, remains one of the best edge rushers in the business. Where the Raiders really need to improve is at linebacker and in the secondary. The defense generated a league-low 13 takeaways in 2022, and it's only produced 12 interceptions over the last two years (also worst in the league). The team needs players who can force fumbles and pick off passes. It wouldn't be surprising if linebackers like Lavonte David of the Bucs and Bobby Wagner of the Rams or safeties like the Bengals' Jessie Bates, the Eagles' Chauncey Gardner-Johnson or the Bills' Jordan Poyer are on Las Vegas' radar -- as well as a trade prospect like Rams CB Jalen Ramsey. The Raiders have the fifth-most projected salary cap space in the league (roughly $39 million, per Over the Cap). They have some in-house business to address -- specifically, how to work out a deal with franchise-tagged running back Josh Jacobs -- but they had better be ready to make some more power moves.
The Giants shocked plenty of people with their success in 2022. Though he didn't have much to work with, Brian Daboll led this team to a wild-card spot -- and a playoff win -- in his first season, earning Coach of the Year honors. The Giants now head into this offseason with the third-best projected cap situation in the league (roughly $46 million, per Over the Cap) and some tough decisions to make. They obviously have to figure out a new contract for quarterback Daniel Jones. The same holds true for star running back Saquon Barkley, who showed he's still a breathtaking talent after being hampered by a couple of injury-plagued seasons. The Giants obviously must be mindful of how they handle an extension for a quarterback who isn't elite and a stud running back going into his second contract. But the real question is this: What are they going to do at receiver? One intriguing notion is that the Giants trade for Cardinals wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins. He turns 31 in June -- and he's still owed about $35 million over the next two seasons, according to Over the Cap -- but he's still one of the best available options in a year where the market isn't filled with top receivers. Odell Beckham Jr. might be a name that makes sense, as well, especially because he met with the Giants back when he was shopping himself to prospective playoff teams in December.
The Giants also should be looking to improve a defense that struggled against the run all season, giving up 144.2 rush yards per game (27th in the NFL). Free agent linebackers like the Bills' Tremaine Edmunds, the Bucs' Lavonte David and the Rams' Bobby Wagner all could be interesting names in that regard. The Giants know they came a long way in a short time this past year. If they want to improve in a division that is filled with talented teams like the defending NFC champion Philadelphia Eagles and another 2022 playoff team in the Dallas Cowboys, they're going to have to take some big swings.