Is Fitzpatrick Washington's Answer at QB? Cowboys, Eagles Need Defense
For this May round of Four Downs, we will be looking at each team's biggest remaining need as well as notable undrafted free agents who will be going to camp with each franchise.
Biggest Need: Safety
The Cowboys could not have expected the quarterback-needy Panthers and Broncos to select standout cornerback prospects Jaycee Horn and Patrick Surtain II eighth and ninth overall before the Cowboys were set to pick at 10. That likely motivated Dallas' decision to trade down and draft Micah Parsons, a player that was closer to "best available" than to a team need. Given their required audible, the Cowboys did a tremendous job of filling their holes. They landed corners Kelvin Joseph and Nahshon Wright in the second and third rounds. They bulked up their defensive line with defensive tackle Osa Odighizuwa and edge rusher Chauncey Golston, also in the third. And in the fourth, they drafted a Day 2 talent in offensive tackle Josh Ball who presumably fell because of off-the-field issues.
If healthy, the Cowboys have a complete roster for 2021, but health motivates the need the team might develop at safety. They added Keanu Neal and Damontae Kazee from the Falcons this offseason, but Neal tore his Achilles in 2018 and ACL in 2019 and Kazee tore his Achilles in 2020. Dallas wants to try Neal at linebacker, in any case. The team will likely have to rely on an incumbent or two at safety. That should be fine for Donovan Wilson, who started 10 games for the team last year, but fourth-round sophomore Reggie Robinson and sixth-round rookie Israel Mukuamu played cornerback in college, and neither has taken a defensive snap in the NFL at their new position. And Darian Thompson is entering his sixth year in the league. He probably would have started more than 11 games the last three seasons if he had a future as a full-time starter.
Notable Undrafted Free Agents
The Cowboys did add an undrafted free agent safety in Tyler Cole from Purdue. They also signed a pair of UDFA tight ends in Nick Eubanks from Michigan and Artayvious Lynn from TCU, addressing another injury-driven potential hole since Blake Jarwin missed the 2020 season with a torn ACL. But their best apparent post-draft addition follows the same playbook as their draft itself. Linebacker Anthony Hines is a former top high school recruit who only briefly played to that potential because of injuries and a 2020 opt-out. That said, Hines' best plays were highlight-worthy, and his quickness and discipline offer him a chance to cover NFL backs and tight ends as an outside linebacker.
NEW YORK GIANTS
Biggest Need: Offensive Line
Analytically inclined Giants fans likely threw a party when general manager and notorious trade-upper Dave Gettleman traded back in the first round and netted a bounty of draft capital. The move was tremendous in a vacuum, but his subsequent selection of wide receiver Kadarius Toney seemed a bit superfluous after the team added Kenny Golladay for big money in free agency. This is a critical year for the Giants' evaluation of quarterback Daniel Jones, yes, but Jones needs better pass protection to help him avoid the sacks and turnovers that have his future with the team in doubt. Last year's No. 4 pick Andrew Thomas will hopefully improve in his second season, but in his first, he blew 6.5% of his pass blocks, the highest rate among tackles with 300 or more pass-block snaps according to Sports Info Solutions charting. Returning 2020 opt-out Nate Solder was barely better (6.3%) when he last played in 2019. And guard Kevin Zeitler left for the Ravens in free agency.
Notable Undrafted Free Agents
The Giants did target their offensive line with two of their three undrafted free agent signings. Jake Burton played mostly right tackle for UCLA, but his size and athleticism offer him a chance to find a place on the team's line even if his shorter arms make him a suboptimal fit for his traditional tackle position. Meanwhile, Florida product Brett Heggie has college experience at center and both guard spots. Clearly Gettleman values positional versatility on his line. Edge rusher Raymond Johnson will likely face stiffer competition for a roster spot after the team drafted Azeez Ojulari and Elerson Smith in the second and fourth rounds, but Johnson outproduced both drafted players with 15 sacks and 33.5 tackles for losses in four seasons at Georgia Southern, although his testing numbers bode poorly for a similar impact at the next level.
Biggest Need: Linebacker
Eagles general manager Howie Roseman seems to have read the division-rival Giants perfectly with a trade-up to the 10th pick and selection of wide receiver DeVonta Smith. It's ironic then that the Cowboys—another division rival and Roseman's trade partner—settled on the draft's top linebacker Micah Parsons and left the Eagles wanting at the position. That may seem strange to hear since Eagles incumbent Alex Singleton and free-agent addition Eric Wilson each accumulated 120 tackles in 2020, but both players were productive because of volume rather than efficiency. In fact, Singleton, Wilson, and middle linebacker T.J. Edwards all finished in the bottom third of linebackers with 25 or more tackles allowing between 18.3% and 19.5% broken tackle rates according to Sports Info Solutions charting. Sophomore Davion Taylor and rookie JaCoby Stevens offer some internal hope at the position, but the former played just 32 defensive snaps in his first season, and the latter is a tweener linebacker/safety whose size spurred his fall to the sixth round. Recent roster management suggests the Eagles do not value the position the way that some teams do, but just once it would be nice to see a plus linebacker play behind the team's consistently excellent defensive line.
Notable Undrafted Free Agents
The Eagles peppered their other roster holes in the undrafted free agency period, signing and wide receivers Trevon Grimes (Florida) and Jhamon Ausbon (Texas A&M), tight end Jack Stoll (Nebraska), and and offensive linemen Kayode Awosika (Buffalo) and Harry Crider (Indiana). But the team's two biggest UDFA signings play at positions that are less obvious needs. Wake Forest quarterback Jamie Newman has a dual-threat potential to rival that of Jalen Hurts and was QBASE's eighth-best quarterback prospect ahead of several drafted players, including third- and fourth-rounders Davis Mills and Ian Book. But he never had the chance to reach his ceiling, transferring from an RPO-heavy scheme at Wake Forest but never playing at Georgia since he opted out of the 2020 season for Covid concerns. In contrast, Iowa State defensive end JaQuan Bailey put too much on tape despite starting all four seasons at Iowa State and setting school records for sacks and tackles for losses. He damaged his stock with poor pass-rushing performances against some of his best competition such as Texas and Oklahoma State, but he has the NFL size and quickness to spark optimism for his development for a team with a history of turning later-round picks into productive starters.
WASHINGTON FOOTBALL TEAM
Biggest Need: Quarterback
Ryan Fitzpatrick is the perfect caretaker quarterback. Not only has he gracefully accepted demotions behind prospects including Jameis Winston, Josh Rosen, and Tua Tagovailoa in recent seasons, he's also a capable passer with above-average DVOA rates in each of his last four seasons. That said, Fitzpatrick will turn 39 years old during the 2021 season. He has now played for nine teams in his 17-year NFL career, but he has never played with Tom Brady to learn the secrets of the TB12 method. His play will almost definitely decline in the next few seasons. Last year's strong performance was fueled in part by the league's best numbers under pressure, which is not usually sustainable for a quarterback who was far from the best in the league when not pressured. And while backup Taylor Heinicke opened some eyes with his gutty playoff performance last season, the 28-year-old has just 121 career pass attempts and would rival Kurt Warner's rags-to-NFL-riches story if he went on to become a successful starting quarterback.
Notable Undrafted Free Agents
Thanks to their 10 draft selections, Washington did not have much left to do in the undrafted free agency period, but their one addition there could prove to be the best of any team. Running back Jaret Patterson likely slid past the draft because of his smaller stature at 5-foot-9 and 195 pounds and small-school pedigree at Buffalo, but Patterson spurred his tremendous college productivity with unrivaled success after contact, a skill that should help him outplay his size at the next level. Patterson earned the eighth-highest BackCAST projection, better than a bunch of drafted prospects at his position including mid-round selections Javonte Williams, Michael Carter, and Trey Sermon. He also landed with the perfect team. Washington demonstrated its creativity in turning college receiving back Antonio Gibson into an early-down standout, and their depth chart is thin at the position since former top prospects Derrius Guice and Bryce Love are no longer with the team.
Portions of this article previously appeared on ESPN+.