Four Downs: NFC East
by Sean McCormick
Biggest hole: Safety
It was a bit surprising to see defensive coordinator Rob Ryan get the boot with one year still remaining on his contract. Dallas’ defense faltered down the stretch -- they finished the year ranked 23rd in defensive DVOA but 30th in weighted DVOA -- but it’s hard to see how Ryan could have done much better with the collection of spare parts he was forced to utilize over the final month of the season.
Ryan had to do without five defensive starters, and guys like DeMarcus Ware and Gerald Sensabaugh gutted through injuries to stay in the lineup and were unable to perform at their best. But Jerry Jones wanted to hold someone accountable, and so it’s out with Ryan and in with legendary defensive coach Monte Kiffin, who is returning to the NFL after a stint at Southern Cal and bringing a modified version of his old Tampa-2 defense with him. Does Kiffin have the right personnel to run his system? Players like Bruce Carter and Sean Lee look like great scheme fits, and Ware can play in any defense. On the other hand, Kiffin may run into problems implementing his defense with what he has to work with in the secondary.
No team fared worse against tight ends in 2012 than Dallas, and the 28.9% DVOA they allowed to them was in large measure a product of inferior safety play. The aforementioned Sensabaugh played through a hip injury that robbed him of his athleticism late in the year, but he wasn’t performing up to his 2011 standards even when healthy. Part of that could be blamed on the fact that Sensabaugh had to adjust to a steady succession of players starting alongside him. Barry Church, who was the opening day starter, went down in Week 3 with a ruptured Achilles. Danny McCray, a special teams standout, struggled mightily when forced to step in as Church’s backup. Charlie Peprah and Eric Frampton also saw time late in the season, but neither showed much, and the Cowboys are unlikely to bring either back.
Church, who showed flashes as an in-the-box defender, will be back thanks to the four-year extension he signed while on injured reserve. That said, we’re talking about a player with a pretty thin resume and a skill set that meshed better with the old defense than the new one. Dallas is going to be severely inhibited on the free agent market by their gruesome cap situation -- they went into the offseason $18.2 million over the cap -- so they are lucky to find a deep safety group with a number of potentially low-cost veterans who could help. Guys like Chris Clemons and George Wilson are solid options who won’t cost an arm and a leg. If Jerry Jones wants to make a splash, he might even take a run at Charles Woodson, who still has the coverage skills to help address those tight end woes and could provide a one- or two-year solution that would allow the team to draft and groom a replacement.
New York Giants
Biggest Hole: Cornerback
The cornerback group looked like a strength for New York heading into the season, but injuries and ineffective play have cast a huge question mark over this unit. Everything starts with Corey Webster, who is supposed to be the team’s top cover man. He opened the year getting beat by Kevin Ogletree for a 40-yard touchdown, and finished it getting worked over by Joe Flacco in a 33-14 demolition by the Ravens that knocked the Giants out of the playoffs. All told, Webster gave up 10.6 yards per play according to our game charters, which ranked him dead last out of the 89 corners with at least 35 charted targets. Webster turns 31 in March, and he is due to make $7.5 million; if he doesn’t agree to a pay cut, he may be gone, and even if he returns, his rebound may only be a dead cat bounce.
Terrell Thomas, who was supposed to be the other starting corner last year, is attempting to come back from a third ACL reconstruction on his right knee. Thomas never had great lateral quickness to begin with, and it’s likely that the injuries have sapped whatever was left. General manager Jerry Reese is on the record as saying Thomas might need to move to safety, and that’s assuming he sticks on the roster. Thomas restructured his contract and is now playing on a one-year, $700,000 deal, which means that the team will take only a small cap hit if they decide to cut Thomas in training camp. That leaves Prince Amukamara is the most likely candidate to nail down a starting job. The good news is that Amukamara has been an effective player when he’s been in the lineup; the bad news is that he can’t seem to stay on the field. Amukamara has missed twelve games due to injury over his first two pro seasons, and his injuries left the door open for rookie Jayron Hosley to get some starts. The former Virginia Tech Hokie responded by doing his best imitation of burnt toast. Despite the rough start, the team still has high hopes for Hosley, but he may be a better fit in the nickel.
The Giants are hard up against the cap, so they are unlikely to be able to target one of the better free-agent options. Instead, they may have to look for a one-year stopgap like Sheldon Brown or perhaps an underachiever like Antoine Cason, while adding a mid-round pick into the mix come draft time.
Biggest Hole: Cornerback
The Eagles finished the season with the worst pass defense DVOA in the NFL, a feat that barely seems possible considering the talent the front office assembled by trading for Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and signing Nnamdi Asomugha just two seasons ago. As recently as August, the Eagles were essentially willing to give away a Pro Bowl cornerback, sending Asante Samuel packing to Atlanta for a seventh-round pick. Defensive coordinator Juan Castillo’s inability to figure out how to utilize Asomugha cost him his job midway through the season, and successor Todd Bowles’ spectacular flameout -- Philadelphia’s pass defense DVOA was a pedestrian 9.0% through the first eight games and a jaw-dropping 44.5% the rest of the way -- put the finishing touches on Andy Reid’s tenure. (Defensive DVOA, like yards or points allowed, is worse the higher it goes, so that means we estimate the Eagles were more than 44 percent worse than an average pass defense over their last eight games. If they had been that bad all year, it would have been the worst pass defense since at least 1991.)
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Now Rodgers-Cromartie is an unrestricted free agent, and Asomugha, a 32-year-old corner with a rapidly declining skill set, is due to count $15 million against the cap in 2013. He’s a virtual certainty to be released, which will result in a $4 million cap hit. But at least that gets the rest of that $60 million albatross contract off the books.
These departures leave a depth chart with Curtis Marsh and Brandon Hughes on the outside, assuming the team wants to keep Brandon Boykin in the slot. Obviously, that’s not going to cut it, so the question for general manager Howie Roseman and new coach Chip Kelly is whether the team should look for two starting corners or should keep one of their current starters while looking for a cost-effective veteran to man the second spot. They could opt to franchise Rodgers-Cromartie and then sign someone like Leodis McKelvin or Derek Cox, players who are under thirty and who could be had for a reasonable price. If they want to aim a bit higher, the team could try to sign Sean Smith or Aqib Talib, players who will command contracts in the same range as Rodgers-Cromartie, but have the shiny new car smell and no negative performance in Philly yet. Don’t expect Philadelphia to use their first round pick to address the cornerback position. Alabama’s Dee Milliner is generally considered the top prospect, and while he’s certainly an intriguing player, the fourth overall selection may be a little high for him.
Biggest hole: Safety
The Redskins were a middle of the pack defense against the pass for the second year running, but their performance wasn’t even across the board. Washington’s DVOA ranked 16th against number one receivers, 14th against number two receivers, and fifth against other receivers, but 27th against tight ends. Washington was the only team to allow more than nine pass attempts per game to tight ends, and they gave up more yards per game than anyone in the league. Linebackers London Fletcher and Perry Riley were diced up when asked to handle athletic pass catchers like Tony Gonzalez and Jimmy Graham. They were forced into those assignments in part because of the ongoing disaster at safety. The plan heading into the year was for Brandon Meriweather and Tanard Jackson to be the starters, but they ended up never seeing the field together. Jackson was busted for his second illegal substance violation and did not play a down. Meriweather’s season was also a wash, thanks to a succession of knee injuries that limited him to a single appearance in Week 10 against Philadelphia. Plan A never made it off the drawing board.
Plan B, unfortunately for Redskins fans, did. Madieu Williams got the starting nod at free safety, and opposing offenses quickly realized they could beat him deep with double moves, pump fakes, or play-action. Williams did mix in the odd big play, including a game-saving pass breakup in the end zone against Dallas on Thanksgiving, however he didn’t do it nearly often enough to offset his frequent mental lapses. Reed Doughty was marginally better at strong safety, but his limitations in coverage make him more suitable as a situational run defender than a full-time starter. DeJon Gomes and Jordan Pugh spotted Doughty at times and failed to impress when given the opportunity.
It’s possible that Jackson is reinstated by the league and Meriweather returns healthy and in form, in which case the Redskins might simply try pretending that 2012 never happened. It’s more likely, however, that the team will target a coverage specialist. Someone who can hold his own against tight ends while defensive coordinator Jim Haslett sends the house on a blitz. Thanks to the trade with St. Louis that netted Robert Griffin, the Redskins are without a first-round pick, so any potential starter may have to come from the free agent ranks. It’s a strong group of safeties, though top players like Jairus Byrd and Dashon Goldston will price themselves out of consideration. Louis Delmas and Kenny Phillips are two guys who might merit a look.
(This article originally appeared on ESPN Insider. We've corrected a previous error about Washington's second-round pick.)