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2023 NFL free agency: Bears, Patriots, Saints among teams poised for turnaround after signings/trades

The most potentially seismic stories of NFL free agency are still being worked through -- hello, Lamar and Aaron -- but the teams that have already put themselves in the best position for a turnaround after the first week of acquisitions are starting to come into focus.

Next month's draft will reveal much more. But because we don't yet know which teams will select which quarterbacks, we can't tell if, say, the Carolina Panthers are primed for a surge in Frank Reich's first season as coach, even though we do know they traded for the first overall pick and then signed, among others, Hayden Hurst, Adam Thielen, Vonn Bell and Miles Sanders. It's the same issue we have with the Indianapolis Colts and Houston Texans. They, too, are expected to draft quarterbacks; we just don't know which ones. And with no sure-fire prospects like Trevor Lawrence or Joe Burrow in the class, anyway, projecting whether any of the rookie signal-callers will be able to ignite an immediate revival is impossible.

Still, we scanned the list of teams that had losing records last year for those we think made the moves that will fuel a rebound. That doesn't mean they will find themselves in Las Vegas for Super Bowl LVIII, but it does mean we expect them to miss this list next year. Here are the six we think did the most to help themselves.

Atlanta Falcons
2022 record: 7-10
New Orleans Saints
2022 record: 7-10

In the wake of Tom Brady's retirement, the NFC South is wide open, and New Orleans and Atlanta are moving aggressively to fill Tampa Bay's spot at the top. The Saints' big move, of course, was signing quarterback Derek Carr, which immediately made them favorites in the division. But then they kept receiver Michael Thomas and signed running back/touchdown machine Jamaal Williams.

The Falcons have seemingly decided to pass on the chance to pursue Lamar Jackson, instead sticking with Desmond Ridder and giving themselves a nice fallback option with the signing of Taylor Heinicke. Ridder will benefit from the presence of tight end Jonnu Smith, acquired in a trade from New England. Smith had his best success when he played for Arthur Smith, who was a tight ends coach/offensive coordinator with the Titans before becoming Atlanta's head coach. A pairing of Smith and Kyle Pitts might give opposing defenses fits. The Falcons also signed their superb guard Chris Lindstrom to a contract extension. New defensive coordinator Ryan Nielsen has some new pieces to work with, the biggest of which is safety Jessie Bates III, who joins a group that had just 10 interceptions last season. Bates had a career-high four picks for the Bengals in 2022. The Falcons also signed defensive tackle David Onyemata and linebacker Kaden Elliss.

With the Bucs having to do some salary-cap repairs after loading up for Brady and the Panthers in position to draft a rookie quarterback, this looks like a two-team race for the biggest turnaround in one division. 

Chicago Bears
2022 record: 3-14

The team that won just three games last season already has more talent and a lot of ammunition to keep adding. The first key piece: The Bears have committed to quarterback Justin Fields, who showed growth in the passing game last season, dealing away the No. 1 overall pick in the 2023 NFL Draft rather than using it to add another signal-caller. And as part of the blockbuster trade that sent the choice to the Carolina Panthers, the Bears gave Fields his best NFL weapon yet: D.J. Moore. The veteran wideout figures to be more consistently productive than he was while working with the Panthers' revolving door of quarterbacks, with whom he still managed three 1,000-yard seasons in five years. The Bears also signed tight end Robert Tonyan and running back D'Onta Foreman, who had five 100-yard games after the Panthers traded away Christian McCaffrey last season.

For the defense, the Bears inked linebackers Tremaine Edmunds and T.J. Edwards, both of whom should rarely leave the field. Finally, Chicago is set up for the draft now and for the next few years after the trade with Carolina. The Bears have the ninth overall pick this year, and in the trade, they added a second-rounder this year, a first-rounder in 2024 and a second-rounder in 2025.

Denver Broncos
2022 record: 5-12

The disaster that was Denver's five-win 2022 season has given way to Sean Payton putting his fingerprints all over this roster, and it's hard to imagine the results won't be improved for Russell Wilson. The Broncos added OT Mike McGlinchey and OG Ben Powers to the offensive line and also signed blocking TE Chris Manhertz and fullback Michael Burton, a fairly clear signal that Payton intends to use a run-first offense, which will mark a return to the style in which Wilson enjoyed his greatest success. Backup quarterback Jarrett Stidham is a good fallback plan. Defensive end Zach Allen will be a centerpiece of the D-line.

The most important pickup of the offseason is obvious, though: It's Payton himself. The Broncos are still not in the Chiefs' class, but they should be far more competitive.

New England Patriots
2022 record: 8-9

New England went 8-9 last season, but given this team's history, it felt much worse. And given the rest of the division, it is still possible the Patriots finish last in the AFC East this season. Still, naming Bill O'Brien the offensive coordinator is a big step in the right direction, as is giving Mac Jones a yards-after-catch target like JuJu Smith-Schuster and a big red-zone threat like tight end Mike Gesicki, who could help fix one of the Pats' glaring problems from 2022. And New England may have solved its right tackle issue with the signing of Riley Reiff.

This season has to be about determining if Jones is New England's quarterback of the future. The roster still lacks a true No. 1 receiver, but with the Patriots' moves thus far, they have at least given their third-year signal-caller a better chance than he had in 2022.

New York Jets
2022 record: 7-10

Let's not overthink this. The Jets won seven games and were in the playoff mix until very late in the season despite having one of the worst quarterback situations in the league. This, of course, came on the back of their top-five defense. Now they are on the verge of acquiring an all-time-great QB in Aaron Rodgers. While Rodgers' injury-riddled 2022 campaign was down by his standards, it would have represented a franchise highlight at the position for Gang Green. On top of that, New York added receiver Allen Lazard, a Rodgers favorite, to an offense that already features the reigning Offensive Rookie of the Year in Garrett Wilson and a running back returning from injury (Breece Hall) who might have won that award if he hadn't hurt his knee. You need only to check the social media of this team's bright young stars to know what Rodgers will bring to the Jets -- a confidence and feeling of possibility this franchise hasn't enjoyed in years.

The risk here is obvious: The only way this swing-for-the-fences move is considered a success is if the Jets win the Super Bowl, and they may have Rodgers for only one or two seasons. But Jets fans can dream on this: The last time Rodgers played with a top-five defense in Green Bay, the Packers won the Super Bowl.

Follow Judy Battista on Twitter.

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