In the NFL, everyone knows that Super Bowls aren't won in the early stages of free agency. However, we've recently seen big early moves help struggling franchises enter the realm of contention.

In 2021, the Cincinnati Bengals reloaded their defense with players like Larry Ogunjobi, Eli Apple, Chidobe Awuzie, Mike Hilton and Trey Hendrickson. They reached Super Bowl LVI. Last offseason, the Jacksonville Jaguars added Zay Jones, Christian Kirk, Evan Engram, Arden Key and Brandon Scherff. They made it to the divisional round.

Before these pivotal offseasons, the 2020 Bengals and 2021 Jaguars had a combined seven wins.

It takes smart drafting, sound player development and good coaching to become a true title contender, but a successful foray into free agency can help. With this in mind, let's dive into the early 2023 moves that could make non-contenders into formidable playoff foes.

We'll look specifically at 2022 non-playoff teams and those who exited in the Wild Card Round and identify the free-agent signings and trades that could make some of them contenders.

Each situation is unique. Teams are listed in alphabetical order.


Carolina Panthers: Trading for the No. 1 Pick

2022 Result: 7-10, missed playoffs

The Carolina Panthers got aggressive in their pursuit of a franchise quarterback. They nabbed the No. 1 pick in April's draft by dealing wideout D.J. Moore, the No. 9 selection, the 61st overall pick, a 2024 first-rounder and a 2025 second-rounder to the Chicago Bears.

The Panthers now have their choice of top QB prospects like Ohio State's C.J. Stroud, Florida's Anthony Richardson, Alabama's Bryce Young and Kentucky's Will Levis.

If Carolina uncovers a quality rookie starter, it can become a contender. This is a squad that came close to winning the NFC South in 2022. It now has an experienced head coach in Frank Reich—who is an improvement over Matt Rhule and provides more long-term stability than interim coach Steve Wilks—and could end up with the best quarterback in the division.

Panthers general manager Scott Fitterer has also done strong work in free agency, adding running back Miles Sanders, tight end Hayden Hurst, wideout Adam Thielen, safety Vonn Bell and seasoned backup quarterback Andy Dalton, among others.

The 2021 New England Patriots went on a free-agent spending spree, adding players like Hunter Henry, Nelson Agholor, Matt Judon, Jonnu Smith and Kyle Van Noy before drafting Mac Jones in Round 1. Jones was a rookie Pro Bowler, and the Patriots made the postseason.

The Panthers are poised to follow a similar formula.

They are putting solid pieces around their incoming quarterback, and the division is up for grabs, especially with Tom Brady now retired. A two- or three-win improvement is realistic, and that could be more than enough to take the NFC South.


Chicago Bears: Building Around Justin Fields

2022 Result: 3-14, missed playoffs

The Bears could be this year's version of the 2021 Bengals or 2022 Jags. It's hard to point to a single move here, though acquiring Moore in the trade with Carolina is a big one.

General manager Ryan Poles committed to Justin Fields when he traded the No. 1 overall pick. That was a logical move, as Fields has shown elite traits, though not the desired consistency of a franchise quarterback.

In 2022, Fields rushed for more than 1,100 yards and posted an 85.2 passer rating, and he was largely carrying the offense and the team by himself. That won't be the case in 2023.

In addition to Moore, Chicago added running back D'Onta Foreman, tight end Robert Tonyan Jr., guard Nate Davis and running back Travis Homer. These are players who will help improve Fields' receiving corps, run support and pass protection.

The Bears also addressed their 29th-ranked defense by adding linebacker T.J. Edwards, linebacker Tremaine Edmunds, defensive tackle Andrew Billings and edge-rusher DeMarcus Walker. Chicago should be able to generate a bit more pressure in the passing game while significantly improving its 31st-ranked run defense.