Four Downs: NFC East
by Vincent Verhei
Welcome back to our offseason series of Four Downs. Over the next three weeks, we'll be reviewing each division one-by-one, looking at each team's biggest hole going into free agency as well as the most important players who may be on the market (provided they aren't franchise-tagged or re-signed before March 6).
Biggest Hole: Secondary, as usual
In prior years, we have identified safety or cornerback as Dallas' biggest need in 2012, 2013 (twice), 2014, 2015, and 2017. We also included the secondary in questioning Dallas' "entire defense" in 2014.
Yes, I did copy, paste, and update that paragraph from the predraft version of Four Downs we ran last year, but it's still accurate. The Cowboys' constant failure to find quality players in their defensive backfield is getting ridiculous. Three Dallas cornerbacks -- Anthony Brown, Jourdan Lewis, and Orlando Scandrick -- qualified for Sports Info Solutions' charting tables in 2017 (subscription required), but none made the top 40 in success rate. The Cowboys were 21st in coverage against No. 1 wide receivers, and 23rd against No. 2s. At safety, Jeff Heath was a non-factor in his first year as a full-time starter, with more missed tackles (11) than defeats (six). Byron Jones was in the top ten safeties with 20 defeats, so you'd think there would be at least one secondary spot nailed down for Dallas headed into 2018. However, by the end of the season the Cowboys were regularly pulling Jones off the field for about 25 percent or more of the team's defensive snaps. ESPN's Todd Archer reports that the Cowboys might move Jones back to corner, where he played as a rookie in 2015. That would close one hole for Dallas, but open another.
It's not like Dallas hasn't tried to find defensive backs. Since 2012, they have drafted more than a dozen safeties and corners. Only three of those players, though, are likely to be NFL starters in 2018. Jones is one and Lewis is another; Morris Claiborne, now with the Jets, is the third. The Cowboys also guaranteed $4 million to Nolan Carroll in free agency last year. Carroll rewarded them by starting all of two games before being cut in mid-October. For whatever reason, the Cowboys regime has completely failed to scout, acquire, and develop talent here for the better part of a decade now.
Not much for Dallas to worry about here. Demarcus Lawrence had 14.5 sacks last season, most by any Cowboys player since 2011, and most ever by anyone not named DeMarcus Ware. According to Sports Info Solutions, he led the league with 57.0 pass pressures (subscription required). He'll only be 26 years old in 2018, and is a lock to get the franchise tag. That will guarantee him $17.5 million in 2018, but player and team have both made it clear they'd prefer to reach a long-term deal.
Anthony Hitchens has started each of his 28 games the last two seasons, though he did miss time with knee and groin injuries last year. The team has said they would like to re-sign the 26-year-old as well. Alfred Morris will be a 30-year-old backup running back this year, and the market for 30-year-old backup running backs is dry, but he was productive in Ezekiel Elliott's absence in 2017. He gained 250 yards on 62 carries (a 4.0-yard average) in back-to-back-to-back wins over Washington, the Giants, and Oakland. Jonathan Cooper had his best season in 2017, starting more than nine games for the first time in his career. He had knee surgery after the season, but should be ready for OTAs with whichever team signs him.
New York Giants
Biggest Hole: Inside Linebacker
Usually, when a team finishes 30th in both adjusted sack rate and pressure rate (subscription required), we would say the pass rush is their biggest need. However, Jason Pierre-Paul and Olivier Vernon have a combined cap hit of $34.5 million in 2018. Barring an Osweiler-to-Cleveland type trade where the Giants give up a draft pick just to escape a contract, neither player is going anywhere; New York will simply have to hope new defensive coordinator James Bettcher can coax better production out of them than his predecessor Steve Spagnuolo did.
The bigger question for New York is what they're going to do in the middle of their defense. Bettcher favors a 3-4 base scheme, and even though his defense (like all NFL defenses) will be using a nickel formation more often than not in 2018, even then he'll need a pair of mobile thumpers in the center of the formation. It's not clear whether there's a linebacker on the roster right now who is up to the task. Jonathan Casillas, Kelvin Sheppard, and B.J. Goodson each averaged more than 50 defensive snaps per game in 2017, but none was on the field for more than eight games. Keenan Robinson, Devon Kennard, and Calvin Munson were available as spot starters, but nothing more, and now Casillas and Robinson are entering free agency. The cupboard here is awfully bare. This is what happens when you ignore a position in the draft. Since 2012, the Giants have drafted just one linebacker: Goodson, a fourth-rounder in 2016. They haven't selected a linebacker in the first three rounds of the draft since taking somebody named Clint Sintim in the second round in 2009.
It's worth noting that Bettcher's former team, the Cardinals, used more dime defenses than almost anyone else in recent seasons, and also moved 6-foot-1, 220-pound Deone Bucannon from safety to linebacker. Landon Collins is listed at 6-foot-0 and 222 pounds -- might Bettcher use the Giants' top defender the same way he used Bucannon in the desert?
Justin Pugh and Weston Richburg were theoretically starting linemen for New York in 2017, but injuries limited them to four and eight games, respectively. Jason Fitzgerald at Over The Cap said Pugh would likely get $10 million a year in free agency, and also called Richburg the best available center on the market. D.J. Fluker, who started six games himself, will also be entering free agency. Ross Cockrell had an outstanding year as a nickelback, leading all qualifying corners in both success rate and yards allowed per target, according to Sports Info Solutions (subscription required).
Finally, we should point out that the Giants' leading rusher, Orleans Darkwa, is entering free agency, as is Shane Vereen, who was third on the team in catches last year. This is likely an area where New York would like to upgrade anyway, and could be a case of addition by subtraction.
Biggest Hole: Offensive Line
It's odd, but most recent Super Bowl champions have barely had time to hoist the Lombardi Trophy before they had to fix major problems on their roster for the following season. The 2013 Seahawks won the Super Bowl, but then had to get to work repairing the offensive line. The 2014 Patriots were desperate for cornerbacks a year later. Peyton Manning went and retired for the Broncos, and then the Patriots once again needed defensive help, this time at pass-rusher.
These Philadelphia Eagles, though? This is an awfully solid roster. If anything they should be more talented come Opening Day than they were in the Super Bowl. They're only likely to lose two starters in free agency, one on offense (running back LeGarrette Blount) and one on defense (linebacker Nigel Bradham). They'll get Carson Wentz and Jason Peters back from injury. Plus they'll add whatever talent they can find in free agency and the draft. It's pretty hard to find any cracks in the armor here.
That said, this offensive line's numbers weren't quite as good as their reputation and postseason success would have you believe. They finished 22nd in adjusted line yards, and were also below average in short-yardage success and stuff rate allowed. They were 12th in adjusted sack yards, but that's overselling their pass protection capabilities -- only three offensive lines allowed a higher pressure rate, according to Sports Info Solutions (subscription required).
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Between Peters, Lane Johnson, and Jason Kelce, the Eagles are set at the tackle and center spots for the foreseeable future. With the 32nd pick, they might find a guard to push Stefen Wisniewski or Brandon Brooks. If not, perhaps they could take a running back to replace Blount -- but then again, there's a lot of teams worse off at that position than the Eagles are with a one-two punch of Jay Ajayi and Corey Clement.
The Eagles are in a quite enviable position here where they can take the best player who falls to them -- and even then there might be a better option. Philadelphia has no second- or third-round pick this year due to trades for Wentz and Ronald Darby. No doubt they'll be eager to trade out of the first round and fill what might really be their biggest need: mid-round draft picks for depth.
Between Blount, Darren Sproles, and Kenjon Barner, the Eagles could be facing a significant talent drain at running back. Fortunately for them, the incoming draft class is deep at that position, and they should have little trouble finding a replacement. We mentioned Blount and Bradham, but Patrick Robinson also started eight of the 19 games he played last year (including the playoffs). His loss would also be significant, but the Eagles do have 2017 second-rounder Sidney Jones, who played only one game as a rookie, to step in. Trey Burton's goal-line touchdown pass to Nick Foles in the Super Bowl will go down as one of the great plays in team history, but sentimentality aside, he was still the third tight end last year behind Zach Ertz and Brent Celek.
Biggest Hole: Defensive Line
Washington was a team of extreme strengths and weaknesses along the defensive front. They had the best pressure rate in the league according to Sports Info Solutions (subscription required). That's a credit to the edge rushers, primarily Ryan Kerrigan (37.0 pressures), Preston Smith (31.0), and Junior Galette (25.0). However, they were dead last in adjusted line yards allowed. And the blame for that can be laid at the feet of Stacy McGee, Ziggy Hood, and Matthew Ioannidis.
When evaluating 3-4 defensive linemen, it's less about how many plays they make, and more about where they make them. And Washington's defensive linemen made their plays way too far downfield last year, consistently getting blown off the line of scrimmage. Only 19 defensive linemen in the league made at least 15 run tackles last year and allowed an average gain on those tackles of 3.0 yards or more, and Washington had two of them in Hood and Ioannidis. Hood's stop rate of 52 percent on run tackles was worst among any starting defensive lineman; Ioannidis was sixth-worst at 58 percent. McGee's average run tackle wasn't much better, coming 2.5 yards past the line of scrimmage, though his stop rate of 70 percent was clearly the best of the bunch.
Jonathan Allen, the 17th overall pick in last year's draft, played only five games as a rookie due to a foot injury. If he can get healthy and play up to his draft position, that would go a long way in making Washington a better football team. So would an infusion of youth. Washington has the 13th pick in this year's draft, and may get to choose from (the University of) Washington's Vita Vea, Alabama's Da'Ron Payne, or Florida's Taven Bryan.
Well, here we are, folks. This is really going to happen. Barring something completely insane (the possibility of which we shall discuss shortly), Kirk Cousins will soon be an unrestricted free agent. Wherever you want to slot Cousins on the quarterback totem pole -- and there are certainly plenty of arguments to be had there -- the fact of the matter is that no quarterback in NFL history has ever hit the free market with this combination of health, talent, and track record. Cousins will be just the 12th quarterback on record to switch teams at age 30 or younger after throwing for at least 50 touchdowns in the prior three seasons. Cousins' 81 touchdown throws since 2015 are the highest three-year total in the group, and it's not terribly close.
|50-Plus TD Passes in 3 Years Before Changing Teams, Age 30 or Younger|
|Name||Year||Age||How Acquired||Teams, Prior
|Kirk Cousins||2018||30||Free Agent||WAS||81||???||???|
|Drew Brees||2006||27||Free Agent||SD||62||NO||26|
|Aaron Brooks||2006||30||Free Agent||NO||58||OAK||3|
|Brian Griese||2003||28||Free Agent||DEN||57||MIA||5|
|Trent Dilfer||2000||28||Free Agent||TB||53||BAL||12|
|Kyle Orton||2012||30||Free Agent||DEN/KC||50||DAL||1|
|Jeff George||1997||30||Free Agent||ATL||50||OAK||29|
|Does not include Kyle Orton (2011) or Josh Freeman (2013), who were cut midseason.|
|Blake Bortles (79 TDs) and Tyrod Taylor (51) would also qualify should they switch teams this offseason.|
Also notable is that most of the quarterbacks at the top of that table switched teams via trade. Drew Brees is the exception, but that came under very unusual circumstances. In 2005, Brees had suffered a shoulder injury that some feared was career-ending. In fact, the Dolphins had been ready to sign him at one point, but the team's doctors refused to grant him a clean bill of health, so they traded for Daunte Culpepper instead. This proved to be a mistake. As for the Chargers, they could afford to let a damaged Brees walk away because they had Philip Rivers, who had spent two years on the sidelines after being drafted fourth overall in 2004. There is no such young gun in Washington -- in fact, the Redskins have moved to replace Cousins with someone even older in Alex Smith, who will be 34 this season.
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There has been some chatter that Washington could use the franchise tag on Cousins and attempt to trade him, but that plan doesn't hold up under much scrutiny. First, Cousins could choose not to sign the franchise tag; as long as he refused to do so, he would be eating up $34.5 million of Washington's salary cap space, but Washington would not be allowed to trade him. Even worse, Cousins could sign right away and accept the $34.5 million in guaranteed salary, but then refuse to negotiate a long-term contract with Washington or any other team, torpedoing his trade value and leaving Washington stuck with two highly paid quarterbacks and 51 guys making close to minimum wage. And then Cousins would just hit free agency in 2019 anyway. This whole discussion could be moot, because Sports Illustrated's Albert Breer reports that should Washington slap the tag on Cousins, the quarterback and his agents would immediately file a grievance with the NFL claiming that Washington is violating the spirit of the franchise tag rules.
So Cousins seems destined for free agency. Potential suitors would include, at minimum, the Bills, Broncos, Browns, Cardinals, Jaguars, and Jets. With Sam Bradford, Teddy Bridgewater, and Case Keenum all entering free agency themselves, even the Vikings could be in the hunt. A bidding war the likes of which we have never seen is about to ensue, and in all likelihood Kirk Cousins is about to become the highest-paid player in NFL history. We'd all better start getting used to that fact right now.
As if that weren't enough to talk about, Washington has plenty of other players about to become free agents, including:
- Ryan Grant, the team's second-leading receiver last season;
- Terrelle Pryor, one of the biggest busts of last year's free-agent signings;
- two starters along the offensive line in Shawn Lauvao and Spencer Long;
- middle linebacker Zach Brown;
- starting cornerback and top kickoff returner Bashaud Breeland;
- and placekicker and kickoff man Dustin Hopkins.
Once again, there is very much unknown about this team right now. But one way or another, they are going to look radically different in 2018.