The Commercial Appeal

NFL teams set to make progress

- Nate Davis

With Super Bowl 57 and the entirety of the 2022 NFL season in the books, several teams can now start to embrace a sense of optimism heading into this year’s campaign. And a number of the league’s perennial doormats currently find themselves at the crossroads of opportunit­y and hope heading into free agency, the trade market and draft.

Obviously, a lot of things can still occur between February and May and even beyond. But these six franchises appear especially well set up to make major improvemen­ts that could make each of them forces to be reckoned with once the 2023 season commences:

Atlanta Falcons

They’ve gone 14-20 over the past two seasons under head coach Arthur Smith, who’s been working with a mix of fading veterans and rookies while this organizati­on burned off albatross contracts from the previous regime.

Per Overthecap, Smith and Co. will head into free agency with the secondbigg­est budget in the league – approximat­ely $57 million. Combine that with the No. 8 pick of the draft and an underrated nucleus of players that includes RB Tyler Allgeier, WR Drake London, TE Kyle Pitts and CB A.J. Terrell, and there’s no reason to believe ATL can’t rise to the top of what projects as an extremely weakened NFC South.

Chicago Bears

They ended the 2022 season with a league-worst 10-game losing streak, just long enough to leapfrog the Texans for the top pick of this year’s draft thanks to Houston’s Week 18 victory.

And while GM Ryan Poles hasn’t completely ruled out taking a quarterbac­k, it’s highly unlikely he’ll move off Justin Fields for one of this year’s passing prospects – which, in turn, means Poles has a golden opportunit­y to offload the No. 1 pick and reap the associated freight it would bring while remaining in the top five if he can get the Texans and Indianapol­is Colts to engage in

a bidding war in order to obtain the rookie QB1 they desire.

So, great chance Poles could wind up with Georgia DT Jalen Carter or Alabama OLB Will Anderson Jr., both worthy of this draft’s top pick, at No. 2 or 4 while picking up the extra draft capital Chicago so desperatel­y needs (and offsetting the loss of the No. 32 selection that was surrendere­d in last year’s questionab­le trade for WR Chase Claypool). Oh, Poles also enters free agency with nearly $100 million at his disposal, by far the most in the league. The Bears have a ton of holes to fill but should get much healthier in the coming weeks.

Cincinnati Bengals

Not hard to argue they ended the 2022 campaign as the league’s secondbest team after a narrow road loss in the

AFC title game to the eventual champion Kansas City Chiefs.

The Bengals, who concluded the regular season with an Afc-best eightgame heater, do face the prospect of losing three starting defensive backs in free agency – including safeties Jessie Bates III and Vonn Bell.

But not only does Cincinnati plan ahead – DBS Dax Hill and Cam Taylorbrit­t were the team’s top two picks of last year’s draft – it has nearly $36 million to spend in free agency. And don’t forget that in 2022, the Bengals reinforced their offensive line by signing veterans, allowing them to take something of a “best available player” approach in the draft. Could happen again.

Detroit Lions

With no apologies to the Minnesota

Vikings, they ended 2022 as the best team in the NFC North, Detroit winning eight of its final 10 games while coming up just short of the playoffs (but taking the Green Bay Packers down with them).

The Lions start 2023 with four of the draft’s first 55 selections, including the sixth and 18th choices of Round 1. They’re also currently projected to have $13 million in cap space.

With no apparent intent to replace QB Jared Goff, Detroit appears primed for upgrades across the board that should officially vault the Lions atop their division. (Also worth mentioning, as good as the Lions’ 2022 rookies were, first-round WR Jameson Williams essentiall­y redshirted while his surgically repaired knee finished healing.)

Houston Texans

They arguably still have the league’s most talent-bereft roster. But GM Nick Caserio and new HC Demeco Ryans have nearly $38 million to try and lure free agents to a place they haven’t been flocking to in recent years.

Houston also owns five of the draft’s top 73 picks, including Nos. 2, 12 and 33 overall – meaning near-absolute certainty this team will get its next face of the franchise under center, though Caserio will have to determine if a trade with Chicago up to first overall will be necessary if the Texans lock in on a specific passer.

Seattle Seahawks

Last year’s Russell Wilson trade? Working out quite nicely, thank you very much.

HC Pete Carroll and GM John Schneider have a pair of picks in both the first and second rounds of this year’s draft, the 5th and 37th courtesy of the Wilson deal and the Denver Broncos’ subsequent 2022 train wreck.

Coming off a surprise playoff berth, the expectatio­n is Seattle will reinvest a good chunk of its $31 million in cap space into pending free agent QB Geno Smith. Still, much to suggest the Seahawks are back to being a perennial factor in the NFC West.

 ?? JEFF HANISCH/USA TODAY SPORTS ?? Lions quarterbac­k Jared Goff passes against the Packers on Jan. 8 in Green Bay, Wis.
JEFF HANISCH/USA TODAY SPORTS Lions quarterbac­k Jared Goff passes against the Packers on Jan. 8 in Green Bay, Wis.

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