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5 winners of 2023 NFL free agency: Dallas Cowboys, Chicago Bears take big strides

The 2023 NFL free agency pool was never going to be as deep or exciting as all 32 teams wanted this offseason. With a below-average market of players, trades became just as important as free-agency signings for clubs looking to make big moves.

While there are still a few quality NFL free agents available, the activity has slowed down and many front offices are now focused on the upcoming 2023 NFL Draft. A few more free agents will come off the board in the days to come, but the biggest headliners and transactions are now in the rearview mirror.

Related: Best moves of NFL free agency

It’s now time to evaluate how teams performed in NFL free agency. Going beyond our 2023 NFL free agency team grades, it’s now time to identify the five teams that can truly be classified as offseason winners during this period.

Dallas Cowboys

NFL: Indianapolis Colts at New York Giants
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Credit to Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones for taking a more aggressive all-in approach this spring. Whether he was motivated by the Philadelphia Eagles going to the Super Bowl or felt pressured by a 27-year drought without an NFC Championship Game appearance, the Cowboys’ moves this offseason showcased a very different mindset.

Dallas found a bargain with Stephon Gilmore. One of the best cover cornerbacks in the NFL last season, the Cowboys only gave up a fifth-round pick to secure one of the best No. 2 cornerbacks in football. Now starting opposite of Trevon Diggs, Dallas boasts a championship-caliber player who allowed just an 82.6 passer rating when targeted and allowed just a 63.4 percent reception rate on throws in his direction, per Pro Football Focus.

The decision to cut Ezekiel Elliott, while emotionally challenging for Jones, put Dallas in a position to acquire Brandin Cooks. For the low cost of two Day 3 picks, the Cowboys added the weapon this offense was missing. As noted by Mina Kimes of ESPN, Cooks had more receptions 30-plus yards downfield than the entire Cowboys’ receiving corps last season. He is the perfect No. 2 receiver to complement CeeDee Lamb and that shifts Michael Gallup back to the No. 3 role. With these two moves, the Cowboys are now approaching Super Bowl contender territory.

Related: 2023 NFL offense rankings

Detroit Lions

NFL: Super Bowl LVII-Kansas City Chiefs vs Philadelphia Eagles
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Taking the more traditional route this offseason, the Detroit Lions took advantage of a market in NFL free agency that didn’t yield much overspending. While the pursuit of a Jalen Ramsey trade didn’t work out, Detroit recovered from it with a series of moves that should make it significantly better on both sides of the ball.

We’ll start in the secondary, where the Lions had the most room to improve. Cameron Sutton got off to a slow start after being selected 94th overall in the 2017 NFL Draft. However, he thrived in 2022. Sutton allowed just a 69.6 passer rating in coverage and he proved to be very comfortable stopping the run. In a similar signing, Emmanuel Moseley (63.5 passer rating allowed, 73.5 PFF coverage grade) should operate as a quality outside corner if healthy.

Not to be outdone, Detroit reunited defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn with defensive back Chauncey Gardner-Johnson and it only cost $8 million. Glenn will know exactly how to use Gardner-Johnson’s versatility from their time together in New Orleans. Consider Gardner-Johnson the Swiss Army knife of the Lions’ secondary, which should be greatly improved in 2023.

Related: 2023 NFL Draft order, picks by team

For as much as everyone loved Jamaal Williams, it’s fair to acknowledge that David Montgomery is the better running back. Plus, Detroit is now in a position where it can be more open to what it runs no matter who is in the backfield and this signing provides more flexibility on draft night.

Cleveland Browns

NFL: Detroit Lions at New York Jets
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While restructuring the Deshaun Watson contract will have long-term ramifications, the move allowed the Cleveland Browns to really make much-needed additions to the roster. Once again, the Browns’ front office proved adept at taking advantage of the trade market and finding the right pieces in free agency to address team needs.

Elijah Moore can be a quality No. 2 receiver in Cleveland. Last season with the New York Jets, Moore ranked 98th in target quality rating (3.12) and 98th in catchable target rate (54.6%), per Player Profiler. The quarterback situation kept him from producing, but a 2.14 target separation (12th in NFL) and a 44.2 percent route win rate (25th in NFL) point to him having far more success with a franchise quarterback.

Cleveland also made some quality additions to its defense. Dalvin Tomlinson is exactly the type of defensive tackle that defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz needs and he will improve one of the worst run defenses in football. In addition, Ogbonnia Okoronkwo is an upgrade over Jadeveon Clowney and Juan Thornhill will improve Cleveland’s play at safety. The Browns should be back in the playoffs next season.

Pittsburgh Steelers

NFL: Super Bowl LVII-Kansas City Chiefs vs Philadelphia Eagles
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It’s not always the team with the most money to spend that is declared a winner in NFL free agency. Quite frankly, the Pittsburgh Steelers entered the offseason over the NFL salary cap and had to move things around to make just enough room for a few signings.

Patrick Peterson comes in and provides the No. 1 cornerback that this secondary has really been missing. He’s also a great leader to have around young defensive backs, which should help lead to further improvements at the position. Stronger pass coverage and a reshuffled linebacker corps should combine nicely with an elite pass rush to create a top-10 defense this fall.

We also have to highlight the signing of Isaac Seumalo, the best interior offensive lineman available in NFL free agency. It shores up a huge hole at left guard, meaning better pass protection for Kenny Pickett and more running lanes for Najee Harris. As long as Pittsburgh nails its 2023 draft class, we’d bet on this team making the NFL playoffs.

Chicago Bears

NFL: Chicago Bears Press Conference
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By far the best move of the NFL offseason was Chicago Bears general manager Ryan Poles trading down from No.1 and acquiring DJ Moore, a top-10 pick and additional valuable assets. In an offseason when it seemed like a No. 1 receiver wasn’t available, the Bears found one and Moore’s contract fits even better into the long-term plans Chicago has.

While we didn’t love the Bears overspending on two off-ball linebackers, there’s no denying it filled a need and head coach Matt Eberflus has clear plans with Tremaine Edmunds and T.J. Edwards. Plus, the signing of edge rusher DeMarcus Walker should now put Chicago in a position to draft an offensive tackle at No. 9 overall

Overall, the Bears stand out as one of the most improved teams this offseason. While we wouldn’t count on Chicago challenging for a playoff spot in 2023, there is a clear plan being executed and it should get this franchise back on track.

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