Four Downs: NFC East
by Mike Ridley
Biggest Hole: Safety
Defending the tight end has been a recurring issue for the Cowboys. Over the last two seasons, Dallas has been last in the league in DVOA against tight ends largely because of the void they have at safety. (DVOA is Football Outsiders' defense-adjusted value over average metric, explained here.)
After releasing veteran Gerald Sensabaugh in March, Dallas was left with a group of safeties that had made a combined 14 starts in the NFL prior to 2013. Will Allen was brought in during free agency to provide leadership opposite of Barry Church but was released after Week 5, playing just 163 ineffective snaps on defense. Matt Johnson was a hopeful starter in training camp, but a stress reaction in his foot caused the 2012 fourth-round pick to be placed on injured reserve in August. That left the Cowboys with third-round draft pick J.J. Wilcox, undrafted rookie free agent Jeff Heath, and special teams standout Danny McCray, who struggled tremendously after being thrust into a starting position in 2012.
Wilcox, who was drafted for his playmaking abilities, had just one pass defended in five games as a starter with a Success Rate against the pass that would have been among the lowest in the league if he had enough targets to qualify. He suffered a sprained knee heading into Week 8, allowing Jeff Heath to take over. Heath played well following initial struggles but his skill set is a better fit as a backup and special teams contributor.
Wilcox, Heath and Johnson should all return as cost-effective options for a Cowboys team that enters the offseason with the worst salary cap situation in the league. Church, the team's leading tackler in 2013, is firmly entrenched as the other starter and will return as well. With Dallas a projected $24 million over the cap, free agency is likely out of play, leaving only the draft to add depth or a new starter.
Ha Ha Clinton-Dix appears to be the best option in the draft. He has the range to cover the deep ball, allowing Church to be the in-the-box defender that suits his 6-foot-2, 218-pounds frame. Should Clinton-Dix be gone by the time the Cowboys pick, Calvin Pryor out of Louisville is another first-round option, and the Cowboys have shown in the past that they don't mind believing in their board over traditional value in the draft.
New York Giants
Biggest Hole: Receiving Threats
Prior to last season, the Giants had fielded one of the most consistent offenses in the league. Since 2008, Big Blue hadn't finished lower than 12th in offensive DVOA, and they climbed amongst the top seven in three of those years. In 2013, the wheels came flying off. The once-potent aerial attack finished 29th in DVOA and the ground game only had Baltimore and Jacksonville's historically bad units to thank for keeping them out of the cellar. When the season mercifully wrapped up, the Giants were the owners of -22.2% offensive DVOA, the worst in the franchise's history.
The offensive line undoubtedly played a role in offense’s struggles, but it’s not the main issue. The team’s Adjusted Sack Rate was significantly higher than previous seasons, but was still better than five playoff teams. The running game was continually hamstrung by a unit that was 30th in Adjusted Line Yards. However, that is only slightly worse than the line’s performance in 2011, when they finished 28th and still won the Super Bowl. The line’s poor play didn’t help any of the Giants’ offensive issues, but good teams can overcome these problems.
The key for getting the Giants back on track will be retooling their receiving corps and tight ends. That starts with replacing Hakeem Nicks, who is all but certain to leave via free agency. Nicks had a down year in 2013, failing to catch a touchdown pass, and hasn't been the same player since his knee injury in 2012. The big name on the wide receiver market is Eric Decker, but signing him doesn't fit New York's modus operandi. James Jones could be enticing, as he has a history with new offensive coordinator Ben McAdoo and would allow Rueben Randle to continue maturing while keeping Victor Cruz in the slot.
In addition to finding Nicks' replacement and adding depth in the receiving corps, the Giants need to find a tight end who can press the defense. They signed Brandon Myers to a one-year deal last offseason, but he failed to produce at the level he had in Oakland. Myers was basically at replacement level, while backup Bear Pascoe was well below, and the Giants' DVOA of -15.6% when targeting tight ends was 31st in the league. Jermichael Finley's athleticism would help add some of the same dynamics Martellus Bennett brought in 2012. If the Giants are unsure of Finley's recovery from spinal fusion surgery, Eric Ebron of North Carolina and Texas Tech's Jace Amaro could both merit looks in the first round.
Biggest Hole: Wide Receiver
The Eagles’ receiving corps was statistically one of the best in football last season. DeSean Jackson led a group that combined for 2,722 yards, 20 touchdowns and 520 DYAR (Defense-adjusted Yards Above Replacement) in Chip Kelly’s quick-tempo scheme. Philadelphia's offensive DVOA of 9.9 percent when throwing to wide receivers was the sixth-best in the league, which helped propel the league’s second-best offense.
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While this wouldn’t seem to allude to a problem, the future for all but Jackson is murky. Jeremy Maclin, who missed all of 2013 with an ACL injury, is a free agent and sure to attract attention from receiver-needy teams. With the success Kelly’s offense had without Maclin, the Eagles may not be inclined to devote the resources necessary to retain him. Riley Cooper became a starter after Maclin went down and promptly doubled his career catches, yards and touchdowns. He is also a free agent and the Eagles seem prepared to let him test the market. Jason Avant is signed through 2014, but with a cap figure of nearly $4 million dollars and the seventh-worst DYAR in the league, the nine-year veteran’s future with the team is far from guaranteed.
Free agency is an avenue that can be explored; Philly has gobs of cap room due to $17 million in cap space carryover. Unfortunately, the wide receivers on the market are underwhelming after Decker, Nicks and Maclin. Luckily for the Eagles, the draft is loaded with pass catchers. Mel Kiper’s latest mock draft has nine receivers going in the first round, with the Eagles taking Odell Beckham Jr. Kelvin Benjamin is also a distinct possibility, as his size, speed and playmaking abilities would easily fill the role Cooper played, should he leave.
Biggest Hole: Linebackers
Washington was an average run defense last season, ranking 17th in Football Outsiders' DVOA ratings, but a deeper look shows their performance was more in spite of their linebacker crew than because of it.
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The Redskins’ run defense relied on its dominant defensive line. It finished 2013 eighth in tackles for a loss and sixth in Adjusted Line Yards, our metric used to determine how much success in the running game (or run defense) comes up front. When runners did clear the trenches, they were usually able to reel off big gains. Washington allowed 53 runs of at least 10 yards, the sixth-highest total in the league.
Adding to Washington’s problem at linebacker is uncertainty. Half of last season’s linebackers are without a contract, including three of last year’s starters. Iron man and defensive captain London Fletcher retired. Pro Bowler Brian Orakpo is a free agent. He is viewed as the best outside linebacker in this year’s market and will have plenty of suitors. Given the importance Jim Haslett places on generating pressure, Orakpo will be atop the Redskins’ priority list. Re-signing him should be a focus for general manager Bruce Allen.
If Orakpo leaves, Washington will have limited options. With no first-round pick as a result of the Robert Griffin trade, they will be unlikely to find an immediate starter in a weak linebacker draft. Ohio State’s Ryan Shazier is a possibility with the 34th pick, but he would be a significant downgrade from Orakpo.
Free agency is a little more promising. Karlos Dansby would be a great fit, but at 32, he offers little more than a stopgap option. Brandon Spikes is also a possibility, although his deficiencies in pass coverage may cause Washington to go another route. Jason Worilds would be a solid option if they find themselves priced out of the Orakpo sweepstakes. The 26-year old is coming off a career-high eight sacks after finally getting regular snaps with the Steelers.
This article previously appeared on ESPN Insider.