Four Downs: NFC East
by Sean McCormick
Biggest Hole: Free Safety
There are two obvious areas for the Cowboys to address, offensive line and safety, and the approach the team takes will reveal a lot about their expectation level for the upcoming season. There are no immediate holes on the offensive line -- it turned in a superlative performance last year, ranking third in Adjusted Line Yards -- but with all five starters above the age of 30, it is only a question of time until the dam begins to break. (You could argue that it started breaking under the pressure of the Minnesota defensive line in the playoffs.) However, there's also a hole at free safety. If the offensive line can turn back time and perform at an elite level again, free safety may be the only hole standing between the Cowboys and a prime place as a Super Bowl contender. Will the club chase after short term success at the expense of positional value by looking at a safety to plug in, or will they add a quality reserve to the offensive line who would be capable of pushing for a starting spot if one of the veterans starts to fade?
If the choice is a safety, there will likely be two radically different players available when it is Dallas' turn to pick. USC's Taylor Mays is an oversized safety who hits like a linebacker but whose draft stock dropped last year as his difficulties in coverage were exposed. In contrast, Texas' Earl Thomas is an undersized playmaker in the Bob Sanders mold. With visions of Roy Williams still firmly in Jerry Jones' mind, expect the Cowboys to go with the local product as they look to upgrade their coverage skills and their overall playmaking in the secondary.
Free Agency Recap
If you are a Cowboys fan and you've been sealed away in a cryogenic chamber since the night before free agency started, don't worry; you haven't missed a thing. Dallas placed prohibitive tenders on Miles Austin, Gerald Sensabaugh, and Marcus Spears, then sat back and watched as other teams fought over the thin free-agent class. To date, the only acquisition is wide receiver Titus Ryan, who spent last season playing for Winnipeg in the CFL and falls strictly under the category of camp body. While there might be a few additions after the team sees how the draft shakes out, expect nothing more than some veteran depth. The starting lineups are essentially set.
New York Giants
Biggest Holes: Middle Linebacker
The release of long-time veteran Antonio Pierce opened up a gaping hole in the middle of the defense that has yet to be addressed. The Giants have consistently been a team that drafts for size/speed combinations and that believes in positional value, going back to the days of George Young and Bill Parcells. With the hiring of Perry Fewell as defensive coordinator, it's not entirely clear if the team will continue the Giants tradition or if they will move to the smaller, rangier linebackers that flourish in a Tampa-2 scheme. Either way, New York needs to add some talent at the middle linebacker spot, where third-year man Bryan Kehl (three career starts) currently sits atop the depth chart.
The team hasn't drafted a linebacker in the first round since Carl Banks in 1984, a streak that may come to an end this April. Alabama's Rolando McClain is the top middle linebacker in this year's draft class, a prospect who compares closely to 49ers stud Patrick Willis. Tom Coughlin and Jerry Reese attended McClain's pro day and came away impressed. At 258 pounds, McClain fits the old-school Giant mold, but does he have the speed to fit in Fewell's scheme? The Giants have an affinity for Big Ten players, and should they pass on McClain (or if he is already gone when the team picks at 15), they could look to add someone like Penn State's Sean Lee or Iowa's Pat Angerer in the middle rounds.
Free Agency Recap
The major addition was Antrel Rolle, whom the Giants scooped up with a five-year, $37-million contract (with $18 million guaranteed) as soon as he hit the open market. In this writer's opinion, Rolle is not worthy of that contract; he is coming off a season where his Stop Rate against both the run (26 percent) and the pass (30 percent) were among the worst in the league. That said, the pickings were particularly slim for teams looking to upgrade their secondaries through free agency, and Rolle was the most talented safety available. The Giants let David Carr move on to San Francisco and replaced him with Manning family caddy Jim Sorgi.
Biggest Hole: Outside Linebacker
There is no question that Will Witherspoon was a luxury at $5 million per season, but that did not make his release any less surprising. Philadelphia's depth at linebacker was tested heavily last season, but the group was surprisingly resilient -- the Eagles stuffed 23 percent of all opponent runs and were sixth-best in the league in surrendering second-level yardage. Still, it seems risky to assume that Stewart Bradley will return to form one year after tearing his ACL, that Akeem Jordan and Moise Fokou will develop, and that Omar Gaither will suffice for depth at all three positions. Chris Gocong, who always seemed an odd fit as a 4-3 SAM (strongside linebacker), seems to have fallen out of favor. There were no attractive options in free agency -- Witherspoon became the top outside linebacker available with his release -- so upgrades will have to come through the draft.
Much like their neighbors to the north, the Eagles simply don't use first-round picks on linebackers. You have to go back to the selection of Jerry Robinson in 1979 to find the last time Philadelphia broke the trend. So it's a good bet that players like Missouri's Sean Witherspoon and Alabama's Ronaldo McClain are not serious considerations early in the draft. TCU's Daryl Washington would be a very natural fit in the second round.
Free Agency Recap
With the trade of Donovan McNabb to Washington for a second-round pick in 2010 and either a third- or fourth-rounder in 2011, the Eagles have shut the window on one of the most sustained periods of success in team history. Or have they? While periods of team success are often tied to a single quarterback, San Francisco demonstrated that it was possible to maintain a high level of play while transitioning from one quarterback to another -- just so long as the new quarterback is the right one. Steve Young was more than capable of picking up where Joe Montana left off, and the 49ers dynasty rolled on for another eight years. In Green Bay, Aaron Rodgers is in good position to continue the success the Packers experienced under Brett Favre for some time. If Kevin Kolb has the goods -- and there are certainly reasons to think he might -- the transition might go very smoothly, as Philadelphia has some dynamic offensive talent for Kolb to work with.
Quarterbacks aside, there was a great deal of coming and going in Philadelphia, as the team parted ways with long-time franchise faces in Brian Westbrook and Shawn Andrews, as well as veterans like Kevin Curtis, Darren Howard, Jason Babin, Reggie Brown and Sean Jones. The Eagles have maintained their competitive edge by cutting players a year too soon rather than a year too late, but even by the team's standards, the turnover was unusually high.
The Eagles didn't simply trim down -- they added players as well. Former Indianapolis corner Marlin Jackson may replace Sheldon Brown, or could move to safety with the Eagles using more of Joselio Hanson instead. Mike Bell was signed to split carries with LeSean McCoy, but McCoy will remain the starter. To address the weakness at left defensive end, the team traded Chris Clemons and a fourth-round draft pick to Seattle for Darryl Tapp.
Biggest Hole: Left tackle
Draft analysts like to say after a team drafts a top offensive lineman that now the team won't have to worry about that position for another ten years. It often doesn't work out that way, but that's exactly what the Redskins got when they selected Chris Samuels with the third pick of the 2000 draft. Samuels missed only four games in his first eight seasons, and he accumulated six Pro Bowl invitations during that time. But in 2008, Samuels began to break down. He missed fifteen games over the last two seasons thanks to a neck and spinal injury that ultimately forced him to announce his retirement in early March, and even when he played, Samuels was largely ineffective.
Washington hasn't selected a tackle prospect in the draft since 2004, a streak that will almost certainly come to an end in April. The only question is whether that pick will be the number four overall. Oklahoma State's Russell Okung is the consensus top tackle prospect in the draft, and there is a good chance he will be there for the Redskins. He compares favorably to D'Brickashaw Ferguson, who went fourth overall in 2006 to the Jets. Like Ferguson, Okung might take a few years to get his strength up before he is ready to be an elite player, but there is no question he would be a major and immediate upgrade. Should Detroit opt for Okung, the Redskins could look at the next tier of tackles, which includes Iowa's Bryan Bulaga, Oklahoma's Trent Williams and Rutgers' Anthony Davis, or they might try to move up into the back end of round one for someone like USC's Charles Brown.
Free Agency Recap
Mike Shanahan's decision to trade for Donovan McNabb draws immediate parallels to the situation he inherited in Denver with John Elway. Like McNabb, Elway was considered a guy who couldn't get his team over the hump, a tremendously talented underachiever who was now on the downside of his career. Elway, of course, went on to win two Super Bowls with Shanahan while directing one of the league's best offenses. It remains to be seen if lightning will strike twice (we have our doubts about just how much of an upgrade the Redskins are really getting), but it's very clear that the acquisition of McNabb will dramatically impact the team's approach to the draft. Any talk of drafting Jimmy Clausen or trading up for Sam Bradford is over, and Russell Okung becomes the prohibitive favorite to be Washington's pick.
After showing tremendous discipline in the first week of free agency, Daniel Snyder broke down and threw some money at a broken-down Larry Johnson. We're not sure if it was Johnson's -19.8% DVOA or his miserable 38 percent Success Rate that won Snyder and new GM Bruce Allen over, but whatever it was, Redskins fans should be glad it isn't in greater supply. In fairness, the three-year, $3.5-million contract is fairly harmless by Redskins standards, and if Johnson continues to fall on his face, there is nothing to stop the team from cutting ties after a single season. Washington also added Ma'ake Kemoeatu to pair with Albert Haynesworth, and the team added Rex Grossman to replace Todd Collins as the primary backup quarterback.