Winning in March can come in various forms for NFL teams. There’s always that one team that splurges during the first week of free agency and revamps its roster because it has a ton of cap space, but that often means it wasn’t a good team the previous season. That said, adding talent to a terrible roster is still a win.
In the Bengals’ case, they made one big move, with the addition of left tackle Orlando Brown Jr. That one win in March might help Cincinnati get the ultimate win in February, as the team is a top contender for Super Bowl LVIII in Las Vegas.
But there were eight teams I’d rank ahead of the Bengals in terms of winning the first wave of free agency. And yes, some of these teams might not make the playoffs, but at least they made moves in an attempt to get better in a league that hasn’t had a repeat champion in nearly two decades and often has teams go from last to first overnight.
The following eight teams won in March and might do more of the same come the 2023 regular season.
The Falcons addressed their strengths and weaknesses with a well-executed free-agency plan, while avoiding desperate moves to land a franchise quarterback. Atlanta was one of the best rushing teams in the NFL last season, and that will likely continue in 2023 after the team retained right tackle Kaleb McGary and guard Chris Lindstrom. They also improved defensively with the additions of safety Jessie Bates III and David Onyemata.
If the Falcons truly believe in second-year quarterback Desmond Ridder, he’ll have more weapons with the arrivals of tight end Jonnu Smith and wide receiver Mack Hollins to go with wide receiver Drake London and tight end Kyle Pitts. The Falcons might also have the option of drafting one of the top four quarterbacks next month with the No. 8 pick, but if that doesn’t pan out, GM Terry Fontenot already has a solid Plan B with Ridder and Taylor Heinicke, who left Washington for Atlanta.
The Panthers have been searching for a franchise quarterback for nearly three years, and they finally realized the veteran route isn’t the way to go. They tried with Teddy Bridgewater, Sam Darnold and Baker Mayfield, and even went back to Cam Newton for a bit. After getting rejected by Derek Carr, Carolina said enough is enough and acquired the No. 1 pick from the Bears in exchange for draft picks and No. 1 wideout DJ Moore, whom the Panthers replaced with Adam Thielen. Whoever is drafted first among top QB prospects Bryce Young, C.J. Stroud and Anthony Richardson will get to throw to tight end Hayden Hurst and hand off to running back Miles Sanders.
Carolina might be undecided about which quarterback to draft next month, but it has improved offensively and kept its entire starting offensive line from last season together. The Panthers also added safety Vonn Bell and defensive tackle Shy Tuttle to go with a defense that features Brian Burns, Derrick Brown and Jaycee Horn.
Justin Fields might have benefited the most from the Bears’ trade with the Panthers. He’ll have a top wideout in Moore, and the team is in position to add more talented players around the third-year quarterback with the handful of draft picks it acquired from the Panthers. In the past week, Chicago has added tight end Robert Tonyan, running back D’Onta Foreman and guard Nate Davis.
GM Ryan Poles also took care of coach Matt Eberflus by signing T.J. Edwards and Tremaine Edmunds, two athletic inside linebackers with coverage skills who are ideal fits in Eberflus’s defensive system. Many had issues with how much the Bears spent for two off-ball linebackers, but every team has different needs and these two mesh well with what Chicago is trying to build defensively. Suddenly the Bears no longer have one of the worst rosters in the NFL.
The Browns achieved their goals of adding players to improve their poor run defense and provide aid for Myles Garrett on the defensive line. Ogbonnia Okoronkwo isn’t a household name, but he’s an ascending edge rusher who had five sacks and 11 quarterback hits for the Texans last season. The Browns, however, probably need one more edge rusher to solidify their pass-rushing rotation and record more than the 34 sacks they had last season.
Cleveland’s biggest addition was defensive tackle Dalvin Tomlinson, the stout run stopper who arrived from Minnesota. The Browns allowed 135 rushing yards per game, which ranked 25th in the NFL last season. Cleveland will be tough to beat on both sides of the ball in the trenches.
The Broncos quietly had a standout first week of free agency. We don’t really know what new coach Sean Payton truly thinks of Russell Wilson, but he added two offensive linemen in Mike McGlinchey and Ben Powers to protect him—or a different quarterback if Wilson continues to struggle in Denver. Running back Samaje Perine and fullback Michael Burton could pay dividends as underrated signings who offer versatility and blocking in the backfield.
Payton clearly wants to have a productive running back and wants to control the line of scrimmage, and he and GM George Paton didn’t neglect the other side of the trenches by adding Zach Allen, a versatile defensive lineman who can stop the run and rush the passer.
We’re all thinking it: The Lions are the favorites to win the NFC North with the many notable additions they made last week, and with the pending departure of Aaron Rodgers from the Packers to the Jets. Detroit had a glaring weakness with its secondary and addressed it by signing cornerbacks Cameron Sutton and Emmanuel Moseley, and safety C.J. Gardner-Johnson.
On offense, the Lions might have improved on the field by replacing Jamaal Williams with David Montgomery, but they took a hit emotionally because the bruising running back was the heart and soul of the surging team last season. The Lions will need to replace Williams’s leadership, and they’re one quality edge rusher away from becoming more than just NFC North contenders.
The Dolphins are approaching the tier of Super Bowl contenders after trading for cornerback Jalen Ramsey and signing linebacker David Long Jr., two perfect playmakers for defensive coordinator Vic Fangio.
Miami is loaded on both sides of the ball, with defensive tackle Christian Wilkins, cornerback Xavien Howard, left tackle Terron Armstead, and wide receivers Tyreek Hill and Jaylen Waddle, but for this squad to truly become a Super Bowl contender, Tua Tagovailoa will need to stay healthy and continue to perform at a high level. The Dolphins did add QB insurance with the addition of Mike White to go with Skylar Thompson, two backups who made our list of the league’s 16 best.
New York Giants
Daniel Jones got his money, and he finally got some more weapons on the field, too. Jones received a friendly target after the team traded for tight end Darren Waller and got another downfield threat with the arrival of wide receiver Parris Campbell. The Giants also re-signed wide receivers Darius Slayton and Sterling Shepard, and, if Shepard can stay healthy, Jones will have a much improved cast of skill players this season.
The Giants have a contract dilemma with running back Saquon Barkley, but they have until July to figure that out, and he’s not likely going anywhere this season after the team franchise-tagged him. On the defensive side, New York signed rising linebacker Bobby Okereke, who elevated his game after the injury to Shaquille Leonard last season in Indianapolis.