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The First Read: Five teams that must make a splash in NFL free agency in 2024

We are less than a week away from the start of the NFL free agency period, and it's going to be a wild ride once again. There will be plenty of big-name veterans on the market, like Minnesota quarterback Kirk Cousins, Kansas City defensive tackle Chris Jones, Denver quarterback Russell Wilson and Dallas left tackle Tyron Smith. There will be ample discussion about other high-profile types who likely will be available, such as a certain quarterback in Chicago who could end up being traded (Justin Fields). Several noteworthy running backs will have opportunities to seek employment elsewhere, including the New York Giants' Saquon Barkley, Tennessee's Derrick Henry and the Los Angeles Chargers' Austin Ekeler.

What will be even more interesting will be the level of aggressiveness we see from various general managers once free agency begins. The 2024 salary cap will be a little higher than anticipated, coming in at $255.4 million -- which means franchises that were already swimming in cash will have some extra dollars to throw at prospective targets. If we've learned anything over the past few years, it's that more teams believe it doesn't pay to be passive at this time of year. A team that thinks it's close to competing for a championship had better be ready to do some serious shopping if its budget is in order.

So this latest version of The First Read is going to focus on those teams that must be braced in the starting blocks when free agency begins. There are a number of teams that might believe they can improve over the next few weeks. However, these are the five who most need to make some huge offseason splashes when the new NFL year officially ensues on March 13 (ranked according to who should feel the greatest sense of urgency) ...

Houston Texans
2023 record: 10-7

Forget about the Bengals, Bills and Ravens in the AFC for a second. If there's one team that has the potential to be the biggest threat to the Kansas City Chiefs in the coming years, it's the one that nobody saw coming at this time last year: the Texans. The rapid ascension of quarterback C.J. Stroud put Houston in the position every franchise covets. The Texans can spend as freely as they like, because the dude under center is both effective and incredibly cheap for the next few years, thanks to his rookie contract. The Texans are projected to have just over $70 million cap space -- which ranks as the sixth most in the NFL -- so they had better be ready to do some damage.

A good chunk of that money exists because Houston won the AFC South last year by relying heavily on a lot of veterans who signed one-year contracts. (EDITOR’S UPDATE: The Texans are re-signing TE Dalton Schultz, who agreed to terms on a three-year, $36 million contract on Tuesday.) Some of those players will be moving on to better deals with other franchises, but the Texans also have a much better product to sell now to other free agents they want to pursue. This is a team that is on the rise, both because of Stroud and the surprising success head coach DeMeco Ryans attained in his first season. The next step for the Texans is to build upon those good vibes and sustain what they've created.

"In the end, we're going to do what we think is best for the Houston Texans team," Texans general manager Nick Caserio said at the NFL Scouting Combine. "DeMeco has said this countless times [and] I've expressed this countless times. It's not about one person, it's not about one player. Every year is different. We're not really believers in windows. I'm not really sure what that means. It's about the 2024 season, trying to put the best team together."

The Texans certainly need to find another cornerback to pair with Derek Stingley Jr., which could make a trade for somebody like Kansas City's L'Jarius Sneed an option (the franchise tag has been applied to him, but he's also been given the chance to shop for a team that could trade for him). Houston also needs a disruptive defensive tackle, and Chris Jones could be in play there if he doesn't re-sign with Kansas City. If the Texans want to pursue an edge rusher, they could go after somebody like Minnesota's Danielle Hunter. The Texans also could fill a hole at offensive tackle with somebody like Tyron Smith or find a versatile running back like Saquon Barkley. The point is that Caserio needs to keep the same energy he brought into last year's draft, when he traded up to select edge rusher Will Anderson Jr. with the third overall pick, right after taking Stroud. Caserio wanted to jump-start a new era in Houston with a couple foundational players. He can keep everything rolling by making similarly bold moves in this free-agency period.

Detroit Lions
2023 record: 12-5

Lions head coach Dan Campbell acknowledged that his team's loss to San Francisco in the NFC Championship Game still haunts him. You know what would make that pain a little easier to stomach? Thinking about all the ways the Lions could move forward from that defeat and maintain the momentum Campbell and GM Brad Holmes created within this franchise.

The Lions are projected have just over $51 million in cap space, so the ammunition will be there to make moves. The key, as has been the case with Holmes over the past three years, is to spend judiciously at this time of year. This team went from bottom-dweller to NFC North champion largely because of successful drafting. 

"We always talk about how selective and strategic we do have to be in free agency because you don't really know these players," Holmes told reporters during the combine last week. "You see what you see on film, but like I've told all of you, that's the easy, coherent part. But you don't really know them know them. And so that's why you got to be real careful. When you draft and you know your own guys, you feel a lot more comfortable." 

The Lions had one of the most potent offenses in the league in 2023. Where they can improve dramatically in free agency is on the other side of the football. The only consistent pass rusher up front is end Aidan Hutchinson, so Detroit must find more disruptors in that space. Once again, Chris Jones or Danielle Hunter would be ideal fits for a team that appears to be one or two defensive players away from reaching the Super Bowl. The Lions also need help at cornerback, where they've annually struggled to find consistent answers. A no-brainer would be a player they've already seen seven times over the past four seasons: Chicago's Jaylon Johnson. He turns 25 in April, and there's plenty to like about his skill set and long-term upside. (EDITOR'S UPDATE: The Bears tagged Johnson on Tuesday.) If the Lions want to talk about a trade for L'Jarius Sneed -- who is already 27 -- that could be intriguing, as well. 

It should be said here that Detroit does need to figure out what it's going to do about an extension for quarterback Jared Goff, who is entering the final year of his current contract, in the near future, and the team does have to address some upcoming free agents on the interior offensive line. But defensive improvement is going to be critical for this franchise. Detroit will be one of the top two contenders in the NFC, along with San Francisco, when next season begins. They must do everything possible to ensure they end up in a better place than they did last season.

Chicago Bears
2023 record: 7-10

If there is a team that has the potential to be this year’s version of the 2023 Houston Texans, then it is unquestionably the Bears. GM Ryan Poles has spent the last two years to trying to assemble something that can be recognized as a playoff contender. Making several smart, aggressive moves this offseason will go a long way toward putting his team in that category. The first decision is obvious: trading quarterback Justin Fields. The Bears still don’t know what he can become, but with one year remaining on his rookie contract (not including the fifth-year option), they do know they're nearing the point where they would have to pay him immensely to find out. Moving on from him allows Poles to reset his vision for this franchise with a quarterback he chooses with the first overall pick in the draft -- a player most assume will be USC’s Caleb Williams. Poles also has the opportunity to take another impact player with the ninth overall pick, which makes his free-agency decisions all the more critical. 

Poles wants to be in a position to take what he wants in April, not what he needs, and that means being wise with the $75.5 million of projected cap space he will be working with when free agency begins. You’ve already seen the name Chris Jones mentioned with two teams in this column, and you’ll see it once more with this franchise. The Bears defense improved immensely in the second half of last season. Combining a disruptive force like Jones with a talented edge rusher like Montez Sweat -- who arrived in a midseason trade last year -- would keep that train moving in the right direction. Poles worked in the Chiefs’ front office before taking the Chicago job, so there’s already familiarity there. A less expensive option could be edge rusher Jonathan Greenard, who was one of the more underrated factors in Houston’s rise to division champs last year. 

On the back end, Tampa Bay safety Antoine Winfield Jr. could be a nice replacement for Eddie Jackson, and the Bears need help on the interior of their offensive line (New England guard Michael Onwenu or Miami guard Robert Hunt would make sense). (EDITOR’S UPDATE: The Bucs placed the franchise tag on Antoine Winfield Jr., and the Bears tagged CB Jaylon Johnson.) Let’s also assume Poles wants to find some more weapons to ease the pressure on wide receiver DJ Moore. Less-heralded targets such as Buffalo’s Gabe Davis, Arizona’s Marquise Brown or Detroit’s Josh Reynolds could fit that bill if Poles doesn’t identify a player he really likes with that second first-round pick. Regardless of what he does, it should be a fun offseason in Chicago. The Bears are growing up fast, and a big offseason would increase that rate of maturation.

Atlanta Falcons
2023 record: 7-10

The Falcons don’t need to make several moves to produce an offseason splash. They only have to make one substantial acquisition: a reliable quarterback to guide a team that has struggled under center ever since Matt Ryan left town a couple years ago. Atlanta couldn’t make it work last season with either Taylor Heinicke or Desmond Ridder. Now the Falcons head into the offseason with two viable paths toward correcting all that has ailed them at the position. 

Along with holding the eighth overall pick in this year’s draft, the Falcons are projected to have enough cap space ($37.5 million) to easily pursue an accomplished veteran to lead this team. The name that has come up most frequently over the last couple weeks is Minnesota’s Kirk Cousins, who’s about to become an unrestricted free agent. The Vikings would love to re-sign Cousins. The problem is, they’re not about to obliterate their budget to keep that marriage going. Minnesota has so many other issues to address -- like bolstering the defense and signing wide receiver Justin Jefferson to a massive extension of his own -- that it’s conceivable that they draft a quarterback and go with a cheaper veteran to serve as a bridge. The Falcons, on the other hand, have a much better team to put around whomever ends up playing quarterback. 

Cousins makes sense because he was still playing at a high level before sustaining a torn Achilles in Week 8. His wife, Julie, also grew up in Atlanta, so the location shouldn’t be a tough sell to the family. And there is familiarity with the coaching staff, as head coach Raheem Morris was a defensive backs coach in Washington when Cousins was with that franchise (offensive coordinator Zac Robinson also was a former assistant with the Rams, as was the case with current Vikings head coach Kevin O’Connell, and they run similar offensive systems). There will be other potential suitors for Cousins -- the Steelers and Raiders are just two of the teams in need of a veteran quarterback -- but this feels like a matter of Atlanta having to outbid Minnesota at some point. 

Another option could be a trade for Justin Fields, who is an Atlanta native, but the Falcons don’t have to feel pressured to move on that possibility. The trade market for Fields has reportedly been slow to develop, likely because teams know the Bears want to deal him and there are veteran options that probably make more sense. Regardless of how it plays out, the Falcons have to improve at quarterback. The NFC South remains one of the least competitive divisions in football, which means Atlanta could be a playoff team with a little more consistency under center.

Indianapolis Colts
2023 record: 9-8

The Colts are projected to have $70.3 million in cap space, which is fifth most in the league. That’s a good place to be for a team that came within one game of making the playoffs in 2023, but GM Chris Ballard still plans to be prudent with his spending when the free agency period begins. 

“Everybody gets excited for that (first) week (of free agency) and stamps a future Super Bowl winner off of that,” Ballard said last week at the combine. "But what you're seeing is, alright, you got the A-level players, well what happens with them, they get tagged. So now you got the next level ones that you end up paying A money. If there's one on the market that we think fits us -- and look, it takes two sides here. There's times you'll make an offer, a big offer, to a player and you just don't get him and he goes somewhere else. That's part of it. We'll be as aggressive as we need to be when we think we need to be."

Ballard made it clear that his priority is providing protection for quarterback Anthony Richardson -- who impressed as a rookie despite playing only four games and having his season cut short because of shoulder surgery -- and adding weapons to the offense. Ballard plans on keeping free agent receiver Michael Pittman Jr. (EDITOR'S UPDATE: The Colts have placed the franchise tag on Pittman.), but don’t be surprised if the Colts add another wideout in either free agency or the draft. The Colts need more depth and explosiveness at that position, and a second-tier free agent like Marquise Brown or Gabe Davis could be an option. Ballard also needs to bolster one of the league’s worst defenses, and there could be help coming in the secondary and defensive line. If the Colts want to add a veteran cornerback – and they might lose Kenny Moore II to free agency -- they could look at somebody like L'Jarius Sneed or free agents Jaylon Johnson or Chidobe Awuzie. If they want to improve at safety, then Antoine Winfield, Jr., Geno Stone and Kyle Dugger could be interesting names. (EDITOR'S UPDATE: The Patriots are placing the transition tag on Kyle Dugger.)

Playing in the same division as C.J. Stroud and Jacksonville’s Trevor Lawrence also means the Colts need more juice in their pass rush. They saw Jonathan Greenard in Houston enough to know he could be a viable option in that regard. Ballard knows his franchise needs to keep pace with the Jaguars and Texans, two young teams that won the AFC South in each of the last two seasons. A big offseason makes that possible for Indianapolis.

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