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NFC free agency needs: Cowboys, Giants, Packers among teams that must prioritize wide receiver

It's that time of year again: The NFL free agency negotiating window opens at noon ET on Mon., March 13, with contract signings becoming official when the new league year begins at 4 p.m. ET on Wed., March 15. This marks the first phase of player movement during the offseason, as franchises look to address their rosters' most pressing needs. Before the frenzy begins, the Next Gen Stats analytics team delves into the three biggest needs for each of the 32 NFL teams. Today we hit the NFC. (Click here for the AFC rundown.)

NOTE: All cap figures pulled from Over The Cap at 5 p.m. ET on Friday, March 10.

Arizona Cardinals
2022 record: 4-13 · 4th in NFC West
  • Needs: WR, IOL, Edge
  • Cap space: $32,608,138

The top priority for new general manager Monti Ossenfort and new head coach Jonathan Gannon is to support the team's biggest investment, Kyler Murray, who received a five-year extension worth $230.5 million, including $160 million in guarantees, last July. With rumors swirling of a DeAndre Hopkins trade, the release of Chosen Anderson, and only Rondale Moore signed beyond the 2023 season, a long-term option at wide receiver will likely be at the top the team's offseason shopping list -- even if Hopkins is retained for another season at his $30.75 million cap number. Protecting Murray, especially from interior pressure, is also of great importance. The release of veteran center Rodney Hudson leaves a significant hole, exacerbated by interior linemen Will Hernandez, Justin Pugh, Cody Ford, Max Garcia and Billy Price heading to free agency. Injuries plagued the unit all season, with 12 different offensive linemen playing at least 150 offensive snaps in 2022.

Despite many question marks on offense, the defensive-minded Gannon will almost certainly advocate for pass rush support as an immediate need, with the retirement of J.J. Watt, who recorded 50 quarterback pressures in 2022, and the release of Markus Golden (37 pressures in 2022).

Atlanta Falcons
2022 record: 7-10 · 4th in NFC South
  • Needs: QB, Edge, LB
  • Cap space: $62,926,591

GM Terry Fontenot and head coach Arthur Smith enter their third offseason as the franchise's primary decision-makers. In 2021, they retained Matt Ryan for his 14th season. In 2022, they traded Ryan, signed Marcus Mariota and drafted Desmond Ridder. This offseason, following the recent release of Mariota, they'll have to decide if Ridder is the guy, or if they'll double down at the position with either a veteran or 2023 draft pick. The jury is still out on Ridder, who started the team's last four games in 2022. In those contests, Ridder's passing efficiency declined the farther he threw the ball. Ridder’s +1.1 completion percentage over expected on passes thrown under 10 air yards dropped to -3.8 percent on intermediate throws (10-19 air yards) and -4.6 percent on throws beyond 20 air yards. For perspective, Ridder completed only two of his nine deep pass attempts. Whether the Falcons decide to acquire a veteran in free agency or select one with one of their nine draft picks, the quarterback room is almost certain to have a new face come OTAs in May. 

The defense needs significant improvement at multiple positions, particularly along the front seven. Last season, the unit generated pressure on only 22 percent of dropbacks, the second-lowest rate in the league (ahead of only the Bears). A long-standing issue with this roster, the Eagles had more sacks last season (70) than the Falcons have had over the last three combined (68). New defensive coordinator Ryan Nielsen, who replaces retired Dean Pees, comes over from a Saints staff that has placed a premium on edge rushers with early draft picks in recent years (Marcus Davenport in 2018 and Payton Turner in 2021). The Falcons may consider similar plans with the No. 8 overall pick come April. The linebacker position is another area of concern, especially with Rashaan Evans -- who allowed -5.1 fewer receptions in coverage than expected, seventh-best among linebackers with 50-plus targets -- set to become an unrestricted free agent.

Carolina Panthers
2022 record: 7-10 · 2nd in NFC South
  • Needs: QB, WR, TE
  • Cap space: $12,304,306

Owner David Tepper has been searching for a franchise quarterback since buying the team in 2018, bringing in castaways such as Sam Darnold and Baker Mayfield, to no avail. New head coach Frank Reich comes to Carolina fresh off of his own frustrating experience in Indianapolis, cycling through five QBs in five seasons. The Panthers enter the 2023 offseason with Matt Corral and Jacob Eason as the only QBs on the roster. After their bold move to trade with the Bears for the No. 1 overall choice in this year's draft, GM Scott Fitterer and Reich will be able to take their pick of QB prospects. That said, the Panthers will surely still be interested in signing a veteran bridge. In sending D.J. Moore to Chicago as part of the trade, the Panthers immediately need a WR replacement, especially given Panthers receivers finished 29th in the NFL with a -5.0 catch rate over expected. They could also use an influx of talent at the tight end position, given Reich's preference of using heavier personnel. D’Onta Foreman is set for free agency after a breakout season in which he ranked second among running backs with an average of 7.1 yards per rush against light boxes since Week 10 (min. 25 such carries), leaving Carolina in need of a long-term back.

Chicago Bears
2022 record: 3-14 · 4th in NFC North
  • Needs: TE, OL, DL
  • Cap space: $94,660,261 

GM Ryan Poles' second offseason in the role is about providing a proper environment for evaluating whether or not Justin Fields is the long-term answer at quarterback. Netting stud receiver D.J. Moore from the Panthers -- along with the No. 9 overall pick and a second-rounder this year, plus a first-rounder in 2024 and a second-rounder in 2025 -- in exchange for the No. 1 overall pick will go a long way toward doing that. The Panthers relied on Moore a lot: He accounted for 47.5 percent of Carolina's air yards in 2022, the second-highest air yards share in a season since 2016. Fields will also have a full offseason with Chase Claypool, giving him added time and tools to improve the passing attack. But adding another pass-catching tight end couldn't hurt.

There's also the matter of improving the protection up front. Fields can get himself into trouble by holding onto the ball too long -– he averaged the second-longest time to throw last season among QBs with at least 200 pass attempts -– but the offensive line didn't help, as Fields was pressured on a league-high 37.8 percent of his dropbacks. On the other side of the ball, the Bears defense relied on rookies more than any other team in the league, accounting for 29.2 percent of their defensive snaps. The lack of experience was a factor in their putrid pass rush, generating pressure on just 19.4 percent of opposing dropbacks last season, the only defense under 22 percent.

Dallas Cowboys
2022 record: 12-5 · 2nd in NFC North
  • Needs: WR, LB, CB
  • Cap space: $14,754,157

The Cowboys' first move of the offseason was placing the franchise tag on Tony Pollard. It is unlikely they will enter the season devoting over $25 million to their backfield when they are already in the red, making Ezekiel Elliott a prime candidate to be cut, or to have his contract restructured. Starting tight end Dalton Schultz is also an unrestricted free agent, leaving Dak Prescott with a vacuum of weapons outside of star slot receiver CeeDee Lamb. The oft-injured Michael Gallup is still under contract, and the Cowboys have Jalen Tolbert, whom they spent a top-100 pick on last year, but don’t be surprised if they bring in competition to play on the perimeter -- as wide-aligned receivers caught fewer passes than expected for the Cowboys last season. The strength of the Cowboys' defense is the disruptive front, but Dallas needs reinforcements at the second level, with linebacker Leighton Vander Esch being a free agent. Vander Esch allowed just 3.3 yards after the catch per reception when playing zone coverage last season. Dallas will also search for a new outside corner opposite Trevon Diggs. Anthony Brown was the most targeted player in the league over the last two seasons but held his own in coverage. He allowed -13.9 receptions fewer than expected over that time frame, ranking second in the NFL. After Brown sustained a torn Achilles in December, Dallas' CB2 spot became a major liability. Brown is a free agent this offseason, making outside corner a key priority.

Detroit Lions
2022 record: 9-8 · 2nd in NFC North
  • Needs: DT, LB, CB
  • Cap space: $18,254,270

Dan Campbell was able to turn a struggling Lions team at midseason into one of the hottest teams down the stretch, giving Detroit a winning record, and he and GM Brad Holmes will work to maintain that momentum into 2023 despite some roster turnover. The defensive talent is the most glaring issue on this roster heading into 2023. With four defensive linemen, four linebackers and six defensive backs set to become free agents, the Lions have an opportunity to completely overhaul the unit. Improving their run defense is a must after registering a league-low 52.4 percent defensive success rate against the run last season. Defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn put a lot of pressure on his secondary last season, playing man coverage at the second-highest rate in the NFL (44.1 percent). Even with the high volume, the defense allowed 7.6 yards per attempt playing man last season (tied for third-most in the NFL). Former third overall pick Jeff Okudah has been a disappointment three years into his career. Don’t be surprised if the Lions target the position again with one of their two first-round picks in this year's draft.

On offense, running back Jamaal Williams enters free agency after becoming one of the more unlikely players in recent memory to lead the NFL in rushing touchdowns (17). He could be re-signed, but a strong offensive line and diverse run game featuring D'Andre Swift should allow the Lions to find success through a backfield committee.

Green Bay Packers
2022 record: 8-9 · 3rd in NFC North
  • Needs: WR, TE, S
  • Cap space: $24,044,769

Regardless of whether Aaron Rodgers returns or if the team hands the keys to Jordan Love, GM Brian Gutekunst will look to reload his receiving corps to help the passing game. Free agents Robert Tonyan and Marcedes Lewis are the only tight ends who played more than 300 offensive snaps for the team last year. Wide receivers Randall Cobb and Allen Lazard also enter free agency, leaving second-year receivers Christian Watson and Romeo Doubs as the only players in the WR room with over 100 routes run in their careers. On the defensive side of the ball, the back end of their secondary is in flux. Safeties Adrian Amos, who led the team with 934 defensive snaps last season, and Rudy Ford are both free agents, leaving Darnell Savage as the only player on the team to have aligned at safety on more than 20 snaps in 2022. Savage is locked into a fifth-year option and could be gone after next offseason.

Los Angeles Rams
2022 record: 5-12 · 3rd in NFC West
  • Needs: CB, OL, Edge
  • Cap space: -$9,080,552

The Rams already look significantly different than they did a year ago. They released linebackers Bobby Wagner and Leonard Floyd and are reportedly shopping perennial Pro Bowler Jalen Ramsey, perhaps because he was targeted 71 times in zone coverage in 2022, more than any other cornerback. Troy Hill, the other starting CB, is set to hit the open market, making cornerback a major area to address. Matthew Stafford, 35, missed half of the regular season with a spinal cord contusion, and Rams QBs were pressured on 31.9 percent of dropbacks in 2022 (10th-highest in NFL). Adding pass protection is a priority for LA to keep its veteran QB clean. On the flip side, the Rams produced the third-lowest pressure rate in the NFL in 2022 (22.9 percent). A’Shawn Robinson, Greg Gaines, Mike Hoecht and Marquise Copeland accounted for 65.5 percent of the team's QB pressures in 2022, and all are free agents. The Rams are already over the cap and, once again, do not have a draft pick in the first round, so creativity will be part of this offseason. 

EDITOR'S UPDATE: The Rams have agreed to trade Jalen Ramsey to the Miami Dolphins, NFL Network Insider Ian Rapoport reported Sunday, March 12.

Minnesota Vikings
2022 record: 13-4 · 1st in NFC North
  • Needs: LB, CB, WR
  • Cap space: -$7,436,216

The Vikings' defense had a lackluster season, allowing the third-most yards per attempt (7.7) and third-highest completion percentage over expected (+1.4 percent) in 2022. The strength of Minnesota's defense in 2022 was against the run, where the Vikings allowed just +56 rushing yards over expected all season (ninth-fewest in NFL). Cornerbacks Patrick Peterson and Chandon Sullivan are heading to free agency, while Cameron Dantzler and cap casualty Eric Kendricks, who was with the team for eight seasons, were released. The Vikings hope to see the unit improve with the hiring of new defensive coordinator Brian Flores, who brings his blitz-heavy, man coverage scheme to Minnesota. The Vikings also have a massive contract on the horizon for Offensive Player of the Year Justin Jefferson, which will have GM Kwesi Adofo-Mensah doing the math on how he should prioritize his assets. Adam Thielen's release only complicates the future and makes finding a complement to Jefferson a priority.

New Orleans Saints
2022 record: 7-10 · 3rd in NFC North
  • Needs: Edge, DT, RB
  • Cap space: -$25,272,929

The Saints need to surround new quarterback Derek Carr with weapons despite not having much cap space. With the status of Alvin Kamara unknown and Mark Ingram a free agent, the Saints must add to the backfield. They will also want to address a few weak spots in their defense. The defensive line that allowed an average of 3.1 yards after contact per rush when using a stacked box (eight-plus defenders) in 2022 is losing Shy Tuttle, David Onyemata and Marcus Davenport to free agency. Davenport has been a fixture on this Saints line, recording a 15.1 percent QB pressure rate since entering the NFL in 2018 (tied for fourth-highest in the NFL, minimum of 1,000 pass rushes).

New York Giants
2022 record: 9-7-1 · 3rd in NFC East
  • Needs: WR, IOL, CB
  • Cap space: $16,232,801

Giants general manager Joe Schoen was able to sign Daniel Jones to a four-year, $160 million deal, allowing the team to place the non-exclusive franchise tag on Saquon Barkley. Now, New York needs to look for a few interior offensive linemen with starters Nick Gates and Jon Feliciano, who played 353 and 932 offensive snaps in 2022, respectively, both set to hit free agency. The Giants will also prioritize finding a new star receiver, with four wideouts set to become free agents and little semblance of a No. 1 threat currently on the roster. Finding a cornerback who will excel in a Don "Wink" Martindale defense that used man coverage at the highest rate (45.5 percent) in the league in 2022 is also a need.

Philadelphia Eagles
2022 record: 14-3 · 1st in NFC North
  • Needs: DT, CB, RB
  • Cap space: $6,296,787

While the Eagles' defense had success in 2022 by recording 70 sacks and causing pressure on 33.4 percent of dropbacks, the unit will likely undergo changes this offseason. The Eagles retained Brandon Graham on a one-year deal, but other key members of the defensive front, Javon Hargrave and Fletcher Cox, are set for free agency. As for the secondary, Philly allowed a -6.4 completion percentage over expected on passes of 10 or more air yards last season, and though the Eagles can credit impending free agents C.J. Gardner-Johnson and James Bradberry for such success, it might be a challenge for GM Howie Roseman to keep this group together. Not to mention, Darius Slay could also be on his way out.

With running backs Miles Sanders and Boston Scott hitting the market, Philly may choose to move on in favor of someone new who'll pair well with dual-threat QB Jalen Hurts.

San Francisco 49ers
2022 record: 13-4 · 1st in NFC North
  • Needs: S, Edge, OL
  • Cap space: $6,655,041

The 49ers will need to use free agency to retool their roster after trading their top four draft picks in 2023 in packages for Trey Lance and Christian McCaffrey. (However, San Francisco was awarded seven compensatory picks, bringing its total to 11 selections in April's draft.) Those moves may begin at offensive line, where starting right tackle Mike McGlinchey and center Jake Brendel are both slated to hit the open market. The San Francisco ground game generated +470 rushing yards over expected in 2022 (fifth in the NFL) and averaged 1.6 rushing yards before contact per carry (tied for ninth in the NFL). 

In the secondary, safeties Jimmie Ward, Tashaun Gipson and Tarvarius Moore join cornerbacks Emmanuel Moseley (recovering from a torn ACL) and Jason Verrett (recovering from a torn Achilles) as free agents. Gipson, in particular, had a 30.8 percent ballhawk rate, tied for the second-highest among defensive backs in the league (min. 25 targets). Eight defensive linemen played at least 25 percent of all possible snaps for San Francisco, tied for the most in 2022, and eight 49ers defensive linemen, including edge rushers Charles Omenihu and Samson Ebukam, are also set to be free agents.

Seattle Seahawks
2022 record: 9-8 · 2nd in NFC West

Needs: Edge, DT, IOL

Cap space: $30,296,044

The next logical step for GM John Schneider after signing quarterback Geno Smith to a three-year, $105 million deal is to protect that investment. Smith was the third-most pressured quarterback in 2022 (188 pressures), and starting center Kyler Fuller is an unrestricted free agent. Another way to help alleviate pressure is to add more options at receiver, what with speedster Marquise Goodwin also headed for the market. As for the Seahawks' defense, stopping the run will be a priority. The unit allowed +534 rushing yards over expected in 2022 (third-most since the metric was introduced in 2018). Defensive linemen Poona Ford, L.J. Collier and Darryl Johnson are all free agents. The Seahawks need to shore up the trenches on both sides of the ball.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers
2022 record: 8-9 · 1st in NFC South
  • Needs: QB, CB, OT
  • Cap space: -$41,146,621

How will the Bucs replace Tom Brady while operating with the least amount of cap space league-wide? Look for Tampa to add QB talent, whether in competition with or as a backup to 2021 second-round pick Kyle Trask. The Buccaneers saved nearly $10 million by releasing starting left tackle Donovan Smith, but that move also opened up a hole on the offensive line. Even with the need at quarterback and tackle, the real focus for GM Jason Licht and head coach Todd Bowles should be on the other side of the ball. The Bucs have several defensive backs hitting free agency, including Jamel Dean, who allowed only 386 yards as the nearest defender, the fifth-fewest yards among CBs this season (minimum of 60 targets). Others include Sean Murphy-Bunting, Keanu Neal, Logan Ryan and Dee Delaney. On the defensive line, Akiem Hicks, Rakeem Nunez-Roches, William Gholston, Pat O’Connor, Carl Nassib, Genard Avery and Deadrin Senat are also free agents. Look for the team to emphasize the pass rush in free agency and the draft; the Bucs' defense pressured opposing quarterbacks on just 25 percent of dropbacks in 2022 (sixth-lowest rate in NFL) and allowed 21 passing touchdowns when using four or fewer pass rushers (second-most in NFL). The shopping list is long, and the options are limited.

Washington Commanders
2022 record: 8-8-1 · 4th in NFC East
  • Needs: QB, OL, LB
  • Cap space: $15,540,478

With Carson Wentz gone and Taylor Heinicke bound for free agency, Sam Howell and reserve Jake Fromm are the only signal-callers set to be on the roster for 2023, and new offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy will almost certainly look to add to the quarterback room. Whether the Commanders make a play for a veteran or look to April’s draft is anyone’s guess, but it's worth examining the scheme Bieniemy and Andy Reid employed in Kansas City for hints as to what Washington will be seeking in a QB.

No matter who's under center, revamping the offensive line, specifically with the run game in mind, will surely be a top priority. Commanders rushers averaged just 1.1 yards before contact per carry, 27th-best in the NFL. Upgrading soon-to-be free agents Trai Turner, Tyler Larsen and Wes Schweitzer is likely on the docket. And with veteran left tackle Charles Leno and long-time center Chase Roullier looking like potential cap casualties, left tackle, center and right guard could all be manned by new personnel come next season. On defense, the linebacker spot next to Jamin Davis became a turnstile of replacements after the team lost Cole Holcomb for the season in Week 7. With Holcomb among the Commanders headed for the market, veteran journeyman David Mayo is the only other linebacker with significant NFL experience under contract.

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