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The Six Teams That Are Winning the NFL Offseason … So Far

This time of year, much of the focus is on big signings and trades. But under-the-radar moves are often what put teams over the top—and these six franchises could all make leaps in 2023 because of them.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Always be wary of lists like this. I know that’s not the best way to sell you on this analysis, but I’m just pointing out the obvious. The media’s track record on picking offseason winners is spotty at best, and there is a very good explanation why: Nobody really knows how players will acclimate to new teams or how much value they’ll provide.

The moves that make or break an offseason are typically under-the-radar ones that are difficult to appreciate without the benefit of hindsight. The cornerback who cost about $5 million a year, the cheap backup QB who played well in the starter’s absence, or the edge rusher who came out of nowhere to have a 10-sack season: Those are the players who dictate the success of an offseason—but those kinds of transactions don’t get covered much this time of the year. Instead, the focus is on the big-money signings and flashy trades.

Take last offseason, for instance. I think we can all agree now that the Chiefs did some good work a year ago. They found cheap replacements for Tyreek Hill while building up their draft capital, solidified the back end of the defense with shrewd signings and draft picks, and maintained the strongest parts of their roster without hurting their cap. Rewind to coverage of that offseason, though, and the discussion surrounding the eventual Super Bowl champs wasn’t so optimistic. Kansas City wasn’t just left off many “offseason winners” lists; it also found itself on some “losers” lists as a result of the Hill trade and the big moves made by its divisional foes.

So instead of just looking at the teams that have made headlines, let’s look at the ones that have been the busiest behind the scenes and try to figure out how much progress they’ve made.

Detroit Lions

Notable moves: Signed Cam Sutton (three years, $33 million), Emmanuel Moseley (one year, $6 million), C.J. Gardner-Johnson (one year, $8 million), David Montgomery (three years, $18 million), Graham Glasgow (one year, $4.5 million), and Marvin Jones Jr. (one year, $3 million)

I’m starting to think Detroit was unhappy with its secondary last season. The front office almost completely retooled its defensive backfield in free agency, inking Cam Sutton to a three-year deal and handing out one-year contracts to Emmanuel Moseley and C.J. Gardner-Johnson. With a solid foundation already in place for the pass rush unit, it made sense for the Lions to prioritize the secondary this offseason—especially after finishing 23rd in pass defense DVOA a season ago.

Based on price, Sutton appears to be the big addition. But he’s still getting a relatively modest salary—$11 million per year—and that makes sense for his talent level. He is by no means an eraser, but he can handle, say, 85 percent of the receivers he’ll come up against. And that’s valuable! While the former Steeler should be a reliable cog for this defense, Moseley is more of a wild card. He was an inconsistent cover guy for San Francisco and had a hard time staying on the field. But at $6 million, he’s not a very risky bet. Analytics enthusiasts will tell you that the best way to build an effective cornerback group is to sign a bunch of low-cost veteran talent and hope that a few of them stick. That seems to be Detroit’s play here—but I’m not sure it will work out unless 2020 first-round pick Jeff Okudah starts playing more like a CB1. We’ve seen some flashes of that over the past two seasons, but injuries have derailed his progress. If he’s sidelined again, or just ineffective, that would force Sutton and Moseley to take on roles they’re not necessarily built for.

The Gardner-Johnson signing was a no-brainer. He developed under Lions defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn while the two were in New Orleans, so there’s some scheme familiarity there. And given his coverage chops in the slot, he should help solve Detroit’s biggest defensive issue in 2022: covering slot receivers. The slot corner position was a revolving door for the Lions last year, with Mike Hughes, AJ Parker, and Will Harris all getting cracks at it. None of the options really worked, and Detroit finished last in expected points added allowed on man coverage snaps against slot targets, according to TruMedia.

The Lions vs. Slot Receivers in Man Coverage

Stat Rank
Stat Rank
Targets 7th
Total Yards 31st
Yards/Attempt 32nd
EPA Allowed 32nd
Success Rate 32nd
Data via TruMedia

On the offensive side of the ball, the Lions mostly kept things together. They did replace Jamaal Williams with David Montgomery after losing the former in free agency. While paying a back who’s struggled to stay on the field $6 million a year feels a bit rich, this offense will do well with Montgomery, especially around the goal line, where he’ll likely replace Williams as the team’s chief short-yardage back. And now it looks like the Graham Glasgow signing was to add depth amid uncertainty about Halapoulivaati Vaitai, who took a pay cut to remain with the Lions. Big V missed all of 2022 with a back injury, but GM Brad Holmes says Vaitai’s back is in “a really good place” after surgery and the team is confident he’ll play a big role in 2023. That Vaitai wasn’t a cap casualty suggests Lions brass earnestly believe that. And if his back continues to be an issue, Glasgow can step in.

There are still massive holes the team needs to fill at linebacker, tight end, and defensive tackle, but it’s a good sign that Holmes didn’t go out of his way to address those in free agency. The Lions had plenty of money to spend on big-name free agents but opted to use those resources to fill out the roster with midlevel talent at sensible prices. In the modern NFL, that has become an awfully effective approach.

Miami Dolphins

Notable moves: Traded for Jalen Ramsey and signed him to a three-year, $55 million contract; signed Mike White (two years, $8 million), David Long Jr. (two years, $11 million), DeShon Elliott (one year, $1.8 million), Braxton Berrios (one year, $3.5 million), and Dan Feeney (one year, $3.3 million); re-signed Andrew Van Ginkel (one year, $2.7 million) and Nik Needham (one year, $1.8 million); and added Vic Fangio as defensive coordinator

The Jalen Ramsey trade is Miami’s marquee offseason move, but I’m not sure he’s the team’s biggest addition. For me, that distinction goes to Fangio, who chose the Dolphins out of what was reportedly a long list of suitors. Not only is he a top defensive play caller, but he’s also taking over for below-replacement-level coordinator Josh Boyer, whose play-calling can best be summed up by that one Charlie Kelly meme. He blitzed too often and didn’t adapt even when it was clear that Miami’s secondary was not capable of playing that brand of coverage, which routinely put the corners (and even safeties at times) on an island. So having Fangio’s steady hand guiding the defense should elevate this unit in a hurry.

Ramsey will also accelerate that process. I can’t think of a better fit for this particular defense based on the way the roster is constructed. There were already some good pieces for a Fangio unit in place—a stout defensive line and smart, instinctive safeties—but Ramsey, who enjoyed one of the best seasons of his career under Fangio protégé Brandon Staley in 2020, brings it all together. Ramsey’s deal essentially works out to be a two-year, $35.5 million pact with a team option for a third year that would cost about $21.3 million. If Miami wants to move on after two years—when Ramsey would be 31—it would have to pay a $5.3 million dead cap charge, but it would also save about $16 million. Considering the trade compensation they sent back to the Rams—a third-round pick and reserve tight end Hunter Long—this is a relatively low-risk deal for the Dolphins with huge upside. Ramsey had some unfortunately timed lapses in coverage in 2022, which created the perception that he’s no longer a great player, but his film remains elite, and his coverage metrics paint a similar picture. In Fangio’s defense, he should be able to play a bit more man and get closer to receivers, where he’s at his best.

Miami’s busy (but thrifty) offseason was probably inspired by the team’s lack of draft capital. The Dolphins have no picks in the top 50 in this April’s draft, and only two in the top 100. They had to forfeit their first-round pick as a part of their punishment for the Tom Brady tampering scandal. They traded a first-rounder (one they’d gotten from San Francisco) for Bradley Chubb in the middle of last season. Plus, they sent the Rams a third-rounder for Ramsey, the Chiefs a fourth-rounder in last year’s Tyreek Hill deal, and the 49ers a fifth-rounder in a trade for running back Jeff Wilson Jr. back in November.

The Dolphins were also short on cap space entering the offseason, meaning they didn’t have a lot of options for improving the roster. Yet they managed to keep a wildly successful offense intact (for the most part), and they may have fixed the defense with two key additions that won’t have a big impact on the cap. This has been a best-case scenario offseason for a team that needed a good one to keep up in the AFC.

Of course, none of that will matter if Tua Tagovailoa can’t stay on the field and take another step in his development. Miami says it’s not going after Lamar Jackson, and it’s not in range to draft a top QB prospect—so it’s looking like it will be Tua’s show in 2023.

Atlanta Falcons

Notable moves: Signed Jessie Bates III (four years, $64 million), David Onyemata (three years, $35 million), Kaden Elliss (three years, $21.5 million), Taylor Heinicke (two years, $14 million), Calais Campbell (one year, $7 million), and Mike Hughes (two years, $7 million); re-signed Chris Lindstrom (five years, $102.5 million) and Kaleb McGary (three years, $34.5 million); and traded a seventh-round pick for Jonnu Smith

Look at the Falcons doing stuff! They were certainly busy during March’s free agency period, handing out four eight-figure contracts, inking big extensions for two offensive linemen, and making some low-cost moves for recognizable names. Now, will any of this vault Atlanta into contention without a massive second-year leap for quarterback Desmond Ridder? No. But at least they’re trying!

On the defensive side, it appears the Falcons’ main goal is to Saints-ify the unit. They brought in Ryan Nielsen as defensive coordinator, who coached the Saints defensive line before serving as co–defensive coordinator under Dennis Allen last season. Then they poached run-stuffing defensive tackle David Onyemata from New Orleans, along with linebacker Kaden Elliss, a useful blitzer who has the potential to be a solid three-down contributor. Newcomer Calais Campbell hasn’t played in this defense, but he should fit right in. He can still clog a run gap and take on a double-team with the best of them, which is a requirement for defensive linemen in this scheme. Overall, the Falcons were equally bad against the run and pass last year, so this unit needed any help it could get. And now there are seemingly enough pieces to cobble together a respectable defense.

Last year’s promising offense, led by Arthur Smith’s strong run scheme, was largely kept in place. Keeping the offensive line, which was the strength of this unit, together required a lot of money. Star guard Chris Lindstrom signed a $102.5 million extension in the offseason, and solid-if-not-spectacular right tackle Kaleb McGary got $34.5 million over three years. Guard Germain Ifedi is also back. The most notable addition to the offense is athletic tight end Jonnu Smith, who reunites with Arthur Smith after the two did good work together in Tennessee in 2019 and 2020. Jonnu Smith and Kyle Pitts will form the league’s most dynamic tight end pairing, but the former has plenty to prove after his massively disappointing stint in New England.

If the Falcons can find another receiver to pair with the ascending Drake London, the core of this offense will be quite good. The run game should still be elite under Smith’s watch, and the passing game will hopefully take some strides, with Pitts entering his third year and London and Ridder entering their second. Smith doesn’t need Ridder to be a star to get this offense running efficiently enough to win a mediocre NFC South. If the young quarterback can just do an adequate Ryan Tannehill impression—and I think he has the capacity to pull it off—then Atlanta has a chance to make the playoffs.

It feels a bit like the Falcons are trying to re-create the 2020 Tennessee Titans, and … I don’t hate it? At least from a “That could be fun” perspective. From a “Can they win a title like this?” perspective, this was probably a net-neutral offseason. But at the very least, this year should give the younger core players a chance at some meaningful football for the first time in their NFL careers. And there’s real value in that when you’re bringing along a young roster.

Chicago Bears

Notable moves: Traded for D.J. Moore and signed Tremaine Edmunds (four years, $72 million), Nate Davis (three years, $30 million), DeMarcus Walker (three years, $21 million), T.J. Edwards (three years, $19.5 million), P.J. Walker (two years, $4.2 million), and Robert Tonyan (one year, $2.7 million)

The Bears are popping up on all the “offseason winners” lists, but Justin Fields is the real winner here. After some discussion about his long-term future in Chicago, which started as soon as Ryan Poles was hired as GM in January, Fields got a vote of confidence when the front office traded away the first pick for D.J. Moore and a collection of other picks from the Panthers. Fields not only solidified his spot as the QB of the future (until further notice), but he also got a legitimate receiver in the process.

Outside of that, though, it’s difficult to get too fired up about the offseason work Poles has done. Tremaine Edmunds was a productive player in Buffalo and has a first-round pedigree, but that’s a lot of money to spend on a linebacker who doesn’t really move the needle for a defense. Edmunds is solid at a bunch of different things, but there’s no real strength to his game. The same can be said of T.J. Edwards, the former Eagles linebacker who signed on for $19.5 million over three years. DeMarcus Walker should help the pass rush, Robert Tonyan is a reliable second tight end behind Cole Kmet, and P.J. Walker is a more suitable backup for Fields than what Chicago had a year ago. But that’s about all the excitement I can muster.

After the trade with Carolina, though, Chicago now owns four picks in the top 64 of this year’s draft. An infusion of young talent is coming in a month—as long as Poles and Co. nail their selections. And there’s reason to believe they can: The Bears will bring in a deep class with all those picks, and they have needs at cornerback, offensive tackle, edge rusher, and even receiver still—you know, all the important positions.

The Bears have made a lot of splashy moves, with potentially more to come, and it’s easy to envision a world in which this team gets some love as a possible sleeper in the NFC North. But Poles still has plenty of work to do before the team gets to that point.

Cincinnati Bengals

Notable moves: Signed Orlando Brown Jr. (four years, $64.1 million), Nick Scott (three years, $12 million), Irv Smith Jr. (one year, $1.8 million), Sidney Jones (one year, $1.1 million), and Cody Ford (one year, $1.1 million) and re-signed Germaine Pratt (three years, $20.3 million), Max Scharping (one year, $1.3 million), and Trent Taylor (one year, $1.2 million)

The Bengals have yet to sign Joe Burrow, Ja’Marr Chase, or Tee Higgins to second contracts, and we’re already starting to see them lose depth. Safeties Vonn Bell and Jessie Bates III are gone from the secondary. Hayden Hurst and Samaje Perine, two key role players in last year’s offense, are also gone. And outside of Orlando Brown Jr., the team didn’t make any big signings.

So why are they on this list? Well, defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo didn’t leave for a head-coaching gig, and Higgins is still on the roster. That’s enough for this to be considered a successful offseason for Cincinnati. But the Bengals did more than just keep their core together. The Brown signing was questionable at first glance, but the four-year, $64.1 million deal is really just a two-year, $42 million commitment. That’s not a bad price for a good offensive tackle. Brown has had his problems in pass protection—especially against athletic edge rushers—but he’s more than serviceable, and his run-blocking makes up for other deficiencies. Irv Smith Jr. was a cheap replacement for Hurst and should provide a higher ceiling given his age and athleticism.

The Bengals own all of their draft picks and still have one big card left to play, with left tackle Jonah Williams stuck in roster limbo after the Brown signing. Don’t be surprised if Cincinnati flips him for draft capital later in the month. With its young stars in line for massive paydays, the draft will be the team’s primary source of talent over the next decade. Getting a head start on setting up that pipeline would cap off a smart offseason for the AFC North champs.

Carolina Panthers

Notable moves: Traded D.J. Moore and picks for the first pick in the 2023 draft; signed Adam Thielen (three years, $25 million), Miles Sanders (four years, $25.4 million), Vonn Bell (three years, $22.5 million), Hayden Hurst (three years, $21.8 million), Shy Tuttle (three years, $19.5 million), D.J. Chark (one year, $5 million), and Andy Dalton (two years, $10 million); and hired Frank Reich as head coach

Did the Panthers hire a retread head coach with only one playoff win in five years? They sure did! Did they trade a bunch of draft picks and the best player on the team for the first pick in a draft that doesn’t have any blue-chip prospects at QB? You bet! Did they spend a bunch of money on midlevel free agents who probably won’t be around by the time a new quarterback enters their prime? Absolutely! Is this the best way to build a roster capable of eventually winning a Super Bowl? Definitely not!

But the Panthers are here because it appears they have a plan. Maybe that’s a low bar for the NFL’s other 31 teams, but after the directionless Matt Rhule era, Carolina just needed to do enough for the fans to start feeling something again. A month from now, this fan base will likely have a young quarterback it can talk itself into. It will have a reason to invest. It’s been at least four years since Panthers fans have been provided with one of those—and that’s a massive W for a franchise that desperately needed one.

Plus, while I was dismissive of the Reich hiring above, he has put together quite the staff over the past few months. Reich brought in rising defensive coordinator Ejiro Evero from Denver, as well as Sean McVay assistant Thomas Brown to serve as offensive coordinator. And the fact that Reich isn’t just defaulting to guys he’s employed before is a positive sign for the former Colts coach. He’s willing to adapt—to learn from mistakes he made in Indianapolis. And a lot of what happened in his Colts tenure wasn’t really his fault anyway (the rotating cast of stopgap quarterbacks, the overpaid players at non-premium positions, the hoarding of cap space for no apparent reason, etc.).

More than any free agent signing, the success of this offseason will ultimately be decided by the coaching staff and how it develops whichever QB the Panthers wind up drafting. It doesn’t matter how well Hurst, Adam Thielen, Miles Sanders, or D.J. Chark performs if the quarterback stinks. But if that quarterback is passable early on and Carolina is able to hit on a few of these signings, this roster is good enough to win the NFC South and get this new era of Panthers football off to a quick start.

And if all of this blows up in the front office’s face, at least it won’t be too difficult to start over. That’s the proper way to initiate a rebuild.