NFL

Ranking each NFC team after first wave of free agency: Cowboys close gap on Eagles, Lions on the rise

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The first wave of free agency certainly saw some major moves in the NFC, as the contenders are trying to make a run at the Philadelphia Eagles for conference supremacy. The Dallas Cowboys made splash moves with the trade acquisitions of Stephon Gilmore and Brandin Cooks while the San Francisco 49ers signed one of the biggest free agents in Javon Hargrave

As for the Eagles? They kept plenty of their own talent from the Super Bowl team as they gear up to be the first repeat champion in the NFC East since they accomplished the feat from 2001 through 2004. The Detroit Lions and New York Giants have made enough noise in free agency to emerge as contenders for the top of the conference, while Derek Carr gives the New Orleans Saints an opportunity to make a deep playoff run of their own. 

How does the NFC stack up after the first wave of free agency? Here’s an early look at the contenders in the conference:

1. Philadelphia Eagles

The Eagles lost a lot of players in free agency, but that was expected given all the talent general manager Howie Roseman assembled on the 2022 roster. They were able to keep the top cornerback tandem in the league in Darius Slay and James Bradberry intact while Jason Kelce, Brandon Graham and Fletcher Cox decided to come back (with Cox and Graham taking hometown discounts). 

Losing Hargrave, T.J. Edwards and C.J. Gardner-Johnson will hurt, but the Eagles have young replacements in Jordan Davis, Nakobe Dean and Reed Blankenship. The same can be said for Cam Jurgens replacing Isaac Seumalo. Philadelphia kept older players who are still productive while having promising talent from the 2022 rookie class in place. 

Don’t forget the Eagles still have Jalen Hurts at quarterback — throwing to A.J. Brown, DeVonta Smith and Dallas Goedert. They only lost Hargrave from the pass-rush unit that finished with 70 sacks last season. 

The Eagles still have to improve at linebacker, safety and defensive tackle, but this is still the best team in the NFC. The Eagles arguably have the best quarterback in the conference. 

2. Dallas Cowboys

The Cowboys certainly improved an already talented roster, highlighted with the additions of Cooks and Gilmore. Cooks will be paired with CeeDee Lamb and Michael Gallup, giving Dak Prescott a very good trio of wideouts. Dallas also decided to finally give Tony Pollard the No. 1 running back spot, cutting ties with Ezekiel Elliott to do it. 

Dan Quinn’s defense got even better with the acquisition of Gilmore, pairing him opposite of Trevon Diggs to give the Cowboys a strong cornerback duo of their own. Retaining Wilson was also key for the secondary. Don’t forget Micah Parsons is still on that defense. 

Can Prescott erase the turnovers that plagued him in 2022? Will the Cowboys finally eliminate their divisional round hex? This season is their best opportunity to reach a conference championship game, no matter if Mike McCarthy is calling plays or not. 

3. San Francisco 49ers

The 49ers needed to add a pass rusher at defensive tackle to help out Nick Bosa, netting a major upgrade with Hargrave. San Francisco was too reliant on Bosa to carry the pass rush throughout the 2022 season, making the 49ers vulnerable when Bosa was contained. 

Moseley and Ward are losses in the secondary, yet San Francisco was able to retain Gipson. The 49ers still have Deebo Samuel, Brandon Aiyuk, Christian McCaffrey and George Kittle at the skill positions on offense — even if they took a hit on the offensive line with the loss of McGlinchey. 

San Francisco still has uncertainty at the quarterback position. Is this the year Trey Lance figures it out and stays healthy or will Brock Purdy recover from elbow surgery and take the reins? Until the 49ers have constant stability at quarterback, they’re a notch below the Eagles and Cowboys. 

4. Detroit Lions

One of the rising teams in the NFC last season, the Lions made major upgrades in the secondary with the free agent additions of Sutton, Moseley, Gardner-Johnson. Detroit turned its biggest weakness into a potential strength, especially on a defense that has Aidan Hutchinson and James Houston heading into Year 2. 

The Lions’ offense is talented with Amon-Ra St. Brown, Jameson Williams, Josh Reynolds and D’Andre Swift — and have Montgomery to bolster the running game (even with the surprising departure of Jamaal Williams). Jared Goff is also well-protected by one of the best offensive lines in football. 

Detroit is the best team in the NFC North with Aaron Rodgers departing Green Bay. How will the Lions handle increased expectations? They’re good enough to make a run at the contenders in the conference. 

5. New York Giants

The Giants deserve plenty of credit for keeping their core players Jones and Barkley this offseason, while giving Jones one of the game’s top pass-catching tight ends in Waller (when healthy). Jones also has Campbell, Slayton, Hodgins, Shepard and Wan’Dale Robinson at wide receiver — an improvement over 2022.

While the Giants are better at the skill positions, can the offensive line protect Jones enough to compete with the other high-powered offenses in the conference? Signing Okereke is a huge addition for a defense with a good pass rush, but that comes with the loss of Love in an already questionable secondary. 

Did the Giants get better — or are they hoping Jones takes the next step in Year 2 with Daboll? New York isn’t among the best teams in the NFC, but the Giants are good enough to compete with those teams that rank at the top. 

6. New Orleans Saints

The Saints wasted no time in getting their quarterback, signing Carr before free agency started. New Orleans has missed the playoffs the last two seasons due to inconsistent quarterback play and injuries at the position, something Carr will seek to eliminate. With Carr’s presence, the Saints are the best team in the NFC South.

New Orleans has talent at the skill positions with the addition of Williams to pair with Alvin Kamara at running back. If Thomas can return to pre-injury form, the passing game can be dangerous with young playmakers in Chris Olave, Rashid Shaheed and Johnson. The offensive line will benefit with Carr’s quick decision-making. 

Losing Davenport is a blow to the pass rush, but the Saints are well-equipped to withstand his loss with a strong linebacker group of Demario Davis and Pete Werner. Keeping the secondary intact will be huge for 2023. 

The Saints are a dark horse to make a deep playoff run. Of course, this depends on Carr having a career resurgence in New Orleans. 

7. Minnesota Vikings

A surprising 13-win season ultimately did lead to some changes for the Vikings, as Brian Flores is still looking to put a stamp on his defense. Davenport is a big addition to the pass rush, but the Vikings parting ways with Peterson and Kendricks raises some question marks on that side of the ball. Murphy should help fill the void, but Minnesota has plenty of question marks in the secondary.    

Losing Thielen will also hurt on offense, even if the Vikings have a rising wideout in K.J. Osborn. T.J. Hockenson is also back at tight end — and the Vikings still have Justin Jefferson

With an offensive line that did improve last season (but still has its faults) and Kirk Cousins at quarterback, the Vikings appear to have taken a step back. They did win 11 one-score games in 2022 and the roster is still a work in progress.                

8. Seattle Seahawks

The Seahawks were able to retain Smith at quarterback, giving him another season as the starter with D.K. Metcalf and Tyler Lockett. Kenneth Walker is also returning as the lead back with a promising young offensive line. The 2022 draft class of Walker, Abraham Lucas, Charles Cross, Tariq Woolen and Coby Bryant gives Seattle reason for optimism with its 2023 draft picks in tow. 

What is Seattle’s ceiling with Smith? He was the most improved player in the league last season, but was average in the second half of the year. Can Smith improve in 2023 — enough that Seattle doesn’t consider drafting its future franchise quarterback? 

The run defense also appears to have improved with the additions of Reed and Love, yet there appears to be a ceiling with this Seattle team. The 2023 draft — along with the improvements of the 2022 draft class — will play a major role if the Seahawks can make a return trip to the playoffs and compete with the top teams in the conference. 

9. Washington Commanders

The Commanders always appear a quarterback away from making significant noise in the NFC East — and this offseason is no different. Washington upgraded at quarterback with Brissett to compete with Sam Howell for the job, but are the Commanders really going into the season with those two battling for the starting job? 

Washington has talent at the skill positions, especially at wide receiver with Terry McLaurin, Jahan Dotson and Curtis Samuel. The offensive line is good enough, even with the loss of Schweitzer. The defense improved at cornerback with Dantzler and Barton will overcome the loss of Holcomb at linebacker. 

The defense still comes down to the front four, so retaining Payne was massive. If Washington does decide to pursue Lamar Jackson, the Commanders may be Super Bowl contenders. 

10. Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Tampa Bay was banking on losing Brady this offseason, getting Mayfield to compete with Kyle Trask for the starting quarterback job. The Buccaneers have questions at running back, yet are still stacked at wide receiver with Mike Evans, Chris Godwin and Gage. The offensive line needs improvement, especially with Donovan Smith not back at left tackle yet. 

The defensive line still has Shaquil Barrett, but could use more help getting to the quarterback. Bringing David back at linebacker will help, especially since the Buccaneers were also able to keep Dean around with Carlton Davis

There are plenty of question marks on the Buccaneers, yet they still can compete in the NFC South.

11. Green Bay Packers

The Packers are going to lose Rodgers to the New York Jets at some point, moving forward toward the next chapter with Jordan Love. Green Bay wasn’t major players in free agency, losing Lazard and Tonyan — undergoing a youth movement at wide receiver and tight end. 

This season is about developing Love with young standout Christian Watson — and an offensive line that can protect him when healthy. The defense should be able to keep the Packers in games, but they’re expected to take a step back once Rodgers departs. 

12. Los Angeles Rams

Another tough season appears to be in store for the Rams, even if the franchise is set to get back a healthy Matthew Stafford and Cooper Kupp. The Rams do have talent at several positions, yet had to unload talent (Ramsey, Bobby Wagner) because of salary cap constraints and lack of draft picks to get younger. 

A healthy Aaron Donald significantly helps this defense, but there are questions marks at linebacker and cornerback with Wagner and Ramsey gone. This team could compete in the NFC West if its core players stay healthy, yet depth is a significant concern. 

13. Chicago Bears

The Bears were one of the most of the active teams this offseason, trading down from the No. 1 overall pick and committing to Justin Fields at quarterback. Chicago added Moore to pair with Darnell Mooney at wide receiver and Foreman to team up with Khalil Herbert at running back. There’s still significant work to do on the offensive line. 

Edmunds and Edwards should shine at linebacker, while Billings helps the interior of the defensive line. Chicago still needs to upgrade the pass rush and at cornerback, but the Bears are trending in the right direction. Their win total should double in 2023. 

14. Carolina Panthers

The Panthers’ offseason is far from complete, as they traded a boatload of picks (and Moore) to move up from No. 9 to No. 1 overall — setting themselves up to select a franchise quarterback in the draft. Carolina’s offense will have a different look with Sanders at running back and Thielen at wide receiver, yet the Panthers need more pass catchers. 

The defense made plenty of additions with Thompson, Williams and Bell. How Ejiro Evero gets his scheme to impact the defense will be vital toward Carolina competing in the NFC South in 2023. 

Another franchise that’s heading in the right direction and can compete for the division this year. There’s still a lot of work to do in Carolina. 

15. Arizona Cardinals

The Cardinals are in a state of flux, set to unload DeAndre Hopkins in an offense that appeared set at wide receiver with Marquise Brown and Rondale Moore to help out. James Conner and Zach Ertz are returning at running back and tight end, so Kyler Murray should be okay with the skill positions once Hopkins departs — if the offensive line can protect him. 

What the Cardinals are going to do for Jonathan Gannon’s defense remains a mystery, especially at cornerback. Where Isaiah Simmons plays is also a mystery. This Cardinals team has plenty of questions — and not many answers. 

16. Atlanta Falcons

The Falcons are going to look significantly different in 2023, but will Atlanta be competitive? Atlanta’s rushing attack with Tyler Allgeier and Cordarrelle Patterson keeps the Falcons in games, but can the Falcons win with Heinicke or Desmond Ridder

Keeping the offensive line intact was important for the Falcons, who appear set to dominate the ground game again in 2023. The defense got a significant makeover with four new starters — including a difference-maker in Bates. 

If the Falcons get the quarterback situation ever figured out, they could compete for the NFC South title. Remember Lamar Jackson is still available.