Sometimes the smartest thing that an NFL franchise can do is realize the precise moment it is time to rebuild.
Whether it is when to move on from a veteran quarterback, bring in a new head coach, or tear down an expensive roster and accumulate future draft picks to restock the cupboard with young talent, savvy general managers know when a given core has run its course and it is time to begin building anew.
Likewise, there comes a time in every rebuild when it is time to accelerate the process and spend via free agency and on the trade market to put your team over the top. The teams on this list have done exactly that, and as a result, could be primed to make a return to the postseason as early as this fall.
1) Chicago Bears
Marquee Additions: WR D.J. Moore, LB Tremaine Edmunds, LB T.J. Edwards, TE Robert Tonyan, OG Nate Davis, OT Darnell Wright, RB Roschon Johnson
Poles spent both free agency and the draft surrounding Chicago’s young quarterback with elite playmakers, fortifying the offensive line, and adding potentially game-altering talent to the defense, aiming to bring back some of the Bears’ ferocity of the Monsters of The Midway’s heyday.
Fields, who passed for 2,242 yards with 17 touchdowns to 11 interceptions, while finishing seventh in the league in rushing with 1,143 yards and 8 touchdowns, now has a dynamic collection of pass-catchers in Moore, Chase Claypool, Darnell Mooney, and tight end Cole Kmet, along with thunder and lightning backfield duo of Khalil Herbert and battering ram D’onta Foreman.
There’s a really good chance that Poles’ Bears wind up the most improved team in 2023, which would go a long way towards Chicago returning to the postseason for the first time since 2020, after finishing 3-14 in 2022.
2) Detroit Lions
Marquee Additions: S C.J. Gardner-Johnson, CB Cameron Sutton, RB David Montgomery, RB, Jahmyr Gibbs, LB Jack Campbell, DB Brian Branch, QB Hendon Hooker
Brad Holmes has gone a long way in restoring the Detroit Lions‘ roar the past two offseasons.
Thanks to a relentlessly competitive culture driven by head coach Dan Campbell along with loads and loads of top talent from the top of the past two draft classes, Detroit seems primed to challenge for the NFC North crown.
Aidan Hutchinson came up just short of winning NFL Defensive Rookie of The Year, but his 9.5 sack campaign that featured 53 pressures demonstrated that he is a foundational centerpiece of an attacking defense. That defense got an infusion of veteran playmaking ability when Holmes pilfered safety C.J. Gardner-Johnson from the Philadelphia Eagles this offseason and paired him with one of the steals of the NFL Draft, Alabama safety Brian Branch.
Meanwhile, offensively, rookie Jahmyr Gibbs gives quarterback Jared Goff a slashing weapon in the backfield, and the Lions’ young receiving corps of Amon-Ra St. Brown and Jameson Williams might be the most electrifying duo in the league. Just for good measure, and extreme value, Holmes drafted Hendon Hooker, who many believe has elite franchise quarterback upside.
In a suddenly wide open division, expect the shrewd moves Holmes has made in recent years to propel the Lions to the top of it.
3) Carolina Panthers
Marquee Additions: RB Miles Sanders, WR Adam Thielen, QB Bryce Young, WR D.J. Chark, TE Hayden Hurst
Panthers general manager Scott Fitterer just put on a clinic of how to surround a rookie quarterback with everything necessary for immediate success … in the span of one offseason.
Not only did the Panthers trade up with the Bears to select Bryce Young with the No. 1 overall pick in the NFL Draft, but few positions matter more to a young quarterback’s development than tight end, and Carolina signed Hurst, fresh off a season in which Joe Burrow had a 97.1 passer rating on his 65 targets.
Meanwhile, the trio of Thielen, Chark, and Sanders give the offense a veteran core of experienced playmakers. Sanders in particular has the potential to significantly boost Young, because of his prowess as a receiver out of the backfield, after catching 124 passes through the first four seasons of his career.
Frank Reich’s calming presence, along with reliable veteran weapons give Young the chance to prove immediately why the Panthers chose him No. 1 overall. Likewise, Carolina playing in a division with no clear-cut favorite, and with a young core in place, make it possible that Fitterer just might have his team on the fast-track to postseason success.
4) Pittsburgh Steelers
Marquee Additions: OG Nate Herbig, CB Patrick Peterson, OT LeRaven Clark, OT Broderick Jones, CB Joey Porter Jr.
All the Steelers seem to do is load up on talent.
Omar Khan clearly has a vision for what he wants Pittsburgh to become, though it is no easy task in a loaded AFC North Division. But, after Kenny Pickett showed moments of promise during the 2022 campaign, the quarterback entering his second season with dynamic wide receiver George Pickens as his top target there is much reason for optimism in the Iron City.
Khan added talented pieces along both lines of scrimmage, and in the secondary, both via free agency and the draft. But, it’s the additions of Herbig, Clark, and Jones in front of Pickett that just might unlock the Steelers’ sky-high potential in 2023.
5) Atlanta Falcons
Marquee Additions: DE Calais Campbell, S Jessie Bates, TE Jonnu Smith, LB Kaden Ellis, RB Bijan Robinson, DE Zach Harrison
It’s hard not to love what the Falcons and general manager Terry Fontenot are building.
Atlanta’s offensive skill players; Kyle Pitts, Drake London Bijan Robinson, and Mack Hollins have the potential to be electrifying. Meanwhile, the Falcons’ secondary is suddenly loaded with high end talent, which will prove valuable against some of the NFC’s marquee wide receivers, and allow the pass-rush duo of Campbell and Grady Jarrett time to wreak havoc in opposing backfields.
The biggest question of all remains at quarterback. As multiple executives have wondered aloud in conversations with Heavy, it remains to be seen whether Ridder can maximize Atlanta’s young core. Still, in the most wide open division in football, the youtful explosiveness around Ridder might be enough for Atlanta to be one of the NFL’s biggest surprises in 2023.