Four Downs: NFC East

Four Downs: NFC East
Four Downs: NFC East
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

by Scott Kacsmar

Dallas Cowboys

Biggest Post-Draft Hole: Entire Defense

Despite how the Dallas discussion almost always comes back to quarterback Tony Romo, the Cowboys are fine on offense as long as he's healthy. They drafted Notre Dame's Zack Martin in the first round, giving Dallas three first-round picks on the offensive line with tackle Tyron Smith and last year's pick center Travis Frederick. The skill positions still have Dez Bryant, Jason Witten, DeMarco Murray and don't sleep on Terrance Williams, who had a good year for a rookie wide receiver.

The offense will produce, but can the defense stop anyone? They couldn't last year, ranking 30th in Football Outsiders' DVOA (explained here), and that was even with Jason Hatcher and DeMarcus Ware up front. At age 31, Ware was not his usual dominant self and he missed games due to injury for the first time in his career. Even if Ware was on the downslide, it's still hard to replace a Hall of Fame-caliber player and second-round rookie Demarcus Lawrence is unlikely to look like the original DeMarcus right away. Sean Lee is the best Dallas linebacker, but he's struggled to stay healthy. (And, just after we ran this article on ESPN, he went down for the year with a torn ACL.) Likewise, defensive end Anthony Spencer is recovering from microfracture surgery and his 2014 playing status is in question.

The secondary will be a lot better if cornerback Morris Claiborne plays more like a No. 6 pick in the draft should in his third season, but safety is another big question left unanswered in offseason moves. The Cowboys hope free-agent signing Henry Melton (Chicago) will be the player he was before last year's ACL injury, but overall they did not have the cap room to sign other significant starters in free agency.

Dallas drafted five defenders in the seventh round for plenty of depth, but rarely do those players turn into starters or even important reserves.

Notable Undrafted Free Agent Additions

Even though Dallas had an eventful seventh round, the Cowboys still added 23 undrafted rookie free agents. Quarterback Dustin Vaughan (West Texas A&M) may not have the pedigree of Johnny Manziel, but he destroyed Division II competition with 10,113 yards and 98 touchdowns in the last two seasons alone. If Kyle Orton does decide to retire, Vaughan could ride this shot well into August or beyond. Safety Jeff Heath has had playing time with Dallas as an undrafted free agent, so don't overlook Auburn safety Ryan Smith.

New York Giants

Biggest Post-Draft Hole: Tight End

A significant number of injuries, especially at running back and defensive back, hampered the Giants in 2013, leading to the team's first losing season since 2004. Better luck with health alone will fix many of the roster problems, but the Giants did make sure to enhance the battered offensive line. The offense was responsible for most of the team's struggles and the problem started up front. Eli Manning made a lot of mistakes last year, but he needs better protection to maintain his pocket proficiency. He will now have Geoff Schwartz (Kansas City) at left guard, while second-round rookie Weston Richburg (Colorado State) could get an opportunity to start at center.

Historically, the Giants were very dependent on wide receivers in their passing game under former offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride. Taking over Gilbride's job is Ben McAdoo, who coached tight ends in Green Bay while learning from Mike McCarthy. His offense will probably still favor the wide receivers since the Giants have Victor Cruz, brought back Mario Manningham, saw good progression out of Rueben Randle last year, and drafted Odell Beckham (LSU) 12th overall.

Where the depth chart is not so plentiful is at tight end with Kellen Davis, Larry Donnell, Daniel Fells and Adrien Robinson currently on the roster. They have a combined 145 catches in the NFL and are all better suited to be backups. Manning's done some good things in the past with unheralded tight ends like Jake Ballard and Kevin Boss, but this might be the barest the cupboard has been in his tenure. It will also be the fifth year in a row the Giants have a new leading receiver at tight end.

Notable Undrafted Free Agent Additions

BYU defensive end Eathyn Manumaleuna is the cousin to former NFL tight end Brandon Manumaleuna. He set the school record for games played (54) and scouting reports praise his strength, balance and body control. Safety Thomas Gordon started at strong safety for Michigan and had a 41-inch vertical at his pro day. Xavier Grimble caught 11 touchdowns at tight end for USC. He has the size (6-foot-5, 250 pounds) the Giants like at the position and he has reportedly been studying former great Mark Bavaro on film.

Philadelphia Eagles

Biggest Post-Draft Hole: Defensive Line

In the extremely rare case when a team releases their No. 1 receiver/punt returner after a career year in his prime, that usually becomes the biggest hole on the roster. However, the Eagles are not your ordinary case, and as good as DeSean Jackson can be, coach Chip Kelly seems to have a good grasp for offensive football. It was also a career year for Riley Cooper and an unbelievable one for quarterback Nick Foles. Jeremy Maclin returns from injury to give the receiving corps another legitimate starter and the Eagles drafted Jordan Matthews (Vanderbilt) and Josh Huff (Oregon) for insurance. Some of those short passes Jackson caught can also go to Darren Sproles now. The offense should be fine.

Defense was a bigger problem for the 2013 Eagles. It was evident right from the earliest games, when Philip Rivers and Peyton Manning did whatever they wanted to a suspect secondary without worrying about a pass rush. It continued late in the season, when this defense allowed Matt Cassel to lead Minnesota to a 48-30 win. Backup Kyle Orton nearly led Dallas to the playoffs in Week 17 before throwing that last-minute interception. In the postseason, Drew Brees and the Saints rushed for 185 yards on the road and put the game away with quarterback sneaks right into the heart of the Philadelphia defensive line on way to a game-winning field goal.

Philadelphia tried to address some defensive needs with the signing of safety Malcolm Jenkins and the first-round selection of linebacker Marcus Smith (Louisville), but the defensive line returns the same primary rotation of Fletcher Cox, Cedric Thornton, Bennie Logan and Vinny Curry. That's not likely going to work well against the better offenses. Last season, the Eagles ranked 25th in DVOA when rushing four defenders. If you have to blitz to get pressure, that's a big problem in the NFL.

Notable Undrafted Free Agent Additions

Last season 14 players who entered the league as undrafted rookie free agents played at least one game for Chip Kelly's Eagles. Kicker Carey Spear (Vanderbilt) is unlikely to push Alex Henery, but his nickname "Murderleg" would have fit in well on Buddy Ryan's Eagles teams (classic gangsta rap era). Daytawion Lowe (Oklahoma State) is a free safety who started 39 consecutive games and was Second-Team All Big-12 in 2013.

Washington Redskins

Biggest Post-Draft Hole: Offensive Line

When a team goes from the playoffs to 3-13, there are likely problems on both sides of the ball. Washington fits that bill, but some of its team-building capabilities have been compromised due to the massive amount of resources spent in the 2012 trade to acquire Robert Griffin. When your quarterback is such a prized asset, he must be heavily protected. That's why the biggest hole is offensive line and not a defense that features very little outside of an ideal pass-rushing duo in Ryan Kerrigan and Brian Orakpo. Defensive lineman Jason Hatcher (Dallas) was an adequate signing with the bonus that it hurts the Cowboys, but the secondary is filled with over-the-hill free agents.

There was little to tinker with on offense for Jay Gruden in his NFL debut as head coach. Still, the Redskins made the big move to sign DeSean Jackson and pair him with Pierre Garcon, who led the league with 113 receptions. Jordan Reed certainly looked the part at tight end last season. Alfred Morris is very productive, but he'll have to prove he can get it done without Mike Shanahan's system that has made numerous rags-to-riches stories out of running backs.

For this team to work, Griffin must stay healthy and that has been a problem in his career. His style of play and body frame invites a lot of punishing hits and his inadequate offensive line does few favors in limiting his exposure to them. Trent Williams is a blue-chip piece at left tackle, but the rest of the unit raises questions. Guard Shawn Lauvao comes over from Cleveland, but Football Outsiders game charting marked him with just as many blown blocks (21.5) as Kory Lichtensteiger had a year ago, despite nearly 400 fewer snaps. Tyler Polumbus and Chris Chester combined for 65.5 blown blocks on the right side of the line. Washington drafted tackle Morgan Moses (Virginia) in the second round and guard Spencer Long (Nebraska) in the third round, but it's always difficult to gauge when a rookie will be ready to step into the fire.

Griffin was a fine rookie, but he'll never get back to that level without a better offensive line.

Notable Undrafted Free Agent Additions

Jay Gruden added 11 undrafted rookie free agents to his roster. USC running back Silas Redd probably wishes Mike Shanahan was still the head coach so he'd have a chance to rush for 1,200 yards should Alfred Morris get hurt. Notre Dame quarterback Tommy Rees was signed, but if you've seen him play, you know how far this one's going to go. Cornerback L.J. Jones (Fresno State) had little chance of being drafted after a season-ending knee injury. He can still run a 4.44 forty and it's not like the Redskins are brimming with talent in the secondary.

Portions of this article previously appeared on ESPN Insider.


30 comments, Last at 05 Jun 2014, 10:04pm

23 Re: Four Downs: NFC East

Looks like the point where the guy comes in with "I want my baby back, baby back, baby back, baby back. back ribs (AND BARBEQUE SAUCE)."

3 Re: Four Downs: NFC East

This may be the rare occasion that a Cowboys' defense that ostensibly couldn't get any worse, will somehow manage an encore performance next season. The Detroit Lions of the late Millen era managed to finish 32nd on defense three straight years, so there is precedent for it. And if you look a bit deeper, its no mystery why the cowboys maybe headed down the same path.(at least the lions could fire their gm).

Frankly, the whole nfc east is puzzling, largely because each team has a pretty good qb at the helm, but is overall questionable to awful in all other facets. We know a good qb/passing game go a long way so it's really hard to know what to make of all this. Personally, I see Dallas' chickens finally coming home to roost and the eagles taking a step back with the loss of jackson/ regression in Foles' numbers/ mccoy. That leaves the giants and the skins. I guess I'll take the skins, but it's pretty muddled.

13 Re: Four Downs: NFC East

I'm going Giants. Coughlin is a good coach who usually fields competitive teams. Last year was an aberration and they should be able to rebound from it, despite the talent limitations.

Who, me?

4 Re: Four Downs: NFC East

I'm curious whether we'll see some regression in the Eagles offense overall now that opponents have had a whole offseason to study it. Seems like a new gimmicky (for lack of a better word, not intended to be pejorative) scheme could have exacerbated and prolonged the "backup QB effect" with Foles. With lots of film and time, defenses will be better prepared. Not saying Foles won't continue to be a stud -- just curious to see what happens.

5 Re: Four Downs: NFC East

I agree defense is the biggest hole, but what Foles does next year is also a huge question. Yes, defenses now have a full season of film on him, but he will only be in his 3rd year with approx 1 season's worth of starts if memory serves, so
it's not a given he's hit his ceiling.
Was wr

14 Re: Four Downs: NFC East

That's what people said about Marino after his second season, "and he's only going to get better". Now, he might have gotten better, but he never equaled that kind of production again, and I don't expect Foles to, either.

Who, me?

10 Re: Four Downs: NFC East

It's going to drive me crazy if "teams getting a look at the tape" is blamed for this season's possible upcoming regression - there's a load of obvious factors that are very likely to hamper this offense. First, this article downplays it, but they didn't just lose their best WR (no less the third best WR in the history of the franchise) coming off of a career year, they also lost their stalwart veteran #3 WR in Avant (who had a terrible year in terms of drops and failing to get open, but at least could be relied upon to run the right routes and not make moronic mistakes - can as much be expected for the two rookies? In a system where spacing and analyzing match-ups matters the most, can rookies handle it?)

They are replacing Jackson and Avant with an inconsistent career #2 guy coming off of a serious knee injury and... ? They're hoping one of the rookies develop into a day 1 starter and have zero backup plan. That's not even mentioning that Riley Cooper is coming off of a career year where he came down with more than his share of circus catches - there's no reason to be totally confident he'll repeat 2013's performance. Literally every single wr slot, 1-4, is a question mark and if everything breaks wrong, it's going to be a disaster. It's not hard to imagine the rookies failing to develop into immediate impact starters, Maclin's knee hampering his production and Cooper not being able to produce at a 2013 level, especially with more pressure and responsibility. Yes, having Sproles around helps and Ertz could develop into more of a TE/WR hybrid, but if this offense falls apart it won't be because of "the tape."

Also, factor in their extreme injury luck last year - FO had them as I believe the second least injured team in the league... and their biggest injury (the Vick for Foles swap) actually ended up panning out heavily in their favor. If Vick stays healthy, there's a good chance they don't make the playoffs - look at his DVOA in comparison to Foles! If Maclin or Cooper or, you know, their star RB with a significant injury history go down for the season, I just don't see how they can reproduce anything like 2013's offense. If two WR's get injured (not an unheard occurrence) what the hell is the plan? Damaris Johnson? Who are the backup linemen they brought in to push borderline talents like aging Herremans and near-bust Lane Johnson for playing time? What happens if Peters goes down again? I'll give you that the tape will be able tell them things like "hey, Lane Johnson stinks, we need to attack him nonstop like Dallas did in week 17 and New Orleans did in the playoffs," but that's a talent problem, not a scheme one.

Kelly's system clearly can work at the NFL level, but I don't like almost anything the front office has done during his tenure, especially in regards to building the roster on offense. Also, their terrible defense somehow got worse - that's without even factoring in that Ryans and Cole are at the age where their performance can without warning fall off a cliff....

15 Re: Four Downs: NFC East

I agree with everything chemical burn said. And also, defenses will be ready for them after watching last year's tape.

(Sorry! Couldn't help myself.)

Who, me?

16 Re: Four Downs: NFC East

With the sad state of the defenses on all four teams, this year appears to be shaping up to look like a lot of 38-35 games and four 8-8 records.

Sean Lee's loss makes the Dallas situation more dire, so we can look forward to another slurry of stories about Tony Romo's failure to drag his team out of losses caused by the D's inability to hold leads. OTOH, it's hard to sympathize much with Romo, as he has had ample time to bolt Dallas for more worthy contenders (imagine Romo with the Vikings, Jets, Rams, Chiefs or Cards); he seems content to be the highest-paid UDFA in NFL history playing for an owner who won't get rid of an incompetent GM.

17 Re: Four Downs: NFC East

It's funny - it seems like for years now 9-7 is enough to win this division. And somehow that's enough to get the Giants a pair of titles. But yeah, I think it's another year of three of these teams being between 7-9 & 10-6 with one down at 3-13 or 4-12. Personally, I think this is the year the Giants totally fall apart, but it really could be any of them...

18 Re: Four Downs: NFC East

I seem to be more optimistic about the eagles than most. There are very few scheme creative coaches in the nfl and the eagles landed one. Ok, desean was a loss, but what about next next year and beyond. Since the skins and cowboys can't get out of their own way and the giants are saddled with a very aging core, I actually think the eagles will emerge as class of the division in the coming years.

20 Re: Four Downs: NFC East

I agree Kelly's offensive scheme is very impressive, but there is not a single piece of their roster that is decisively better now than it was last year. RB, maybe I guess? Their defense is a disaster, they had amazing injury luck in 2013 that likely won't be repeated and they drafted several "project" players again this year after last year's big draft project borders on being a bust. Kelly had success with Reid's guys - almost all of the starters brought in under the Kelly regime were disasters: Cary Williams, Patrick Chung, Bradley Fletcher, Lane Johnson. He's got to demonstrate some roster-building acumen before anyone should give him the benefit of the doubt - so far, he's got a promising #2 TE (Ertz) and an injured safety (Wolfe) to his credit. He ditched his best WR because of personality conflicts, which reeks of college-style coach hubris. I just don't think you can jettison excellent players (and Jackson was definitely a Top 10 WR last year) at the NFL level without really good reasons (and the good reason of Jackson's contract wasn't going to be an issue until 2015.)

The defense needed major upgrades at every level and got none. The o-line needed depth and got none. The WR corps lost its #1 and #3 and is planning on relying on an injury-prone #2 and rookies to pick up the slack. They snuck into the playoffs on the last game of the year by lucking into a game versus Kyle Orton. They were the second least-injured team in the league. I just don't see any reason to be confident about their success going forward. QB depth was always a priority with Reid - if a Vick went down there was always a Foles there behind him. Now it's Barkley and the butt fumbler...

22 Re: Four Downs: NFC East

I didn't see Lane Johnson play, but can you really see no hope for him? 1st round busts you can call after year one are usually the ones who don't play at all, at least he was good enough to get on the field, no?

Who, me?

25 Re: Four Downs: NFC East

He was only the field because he was the 4th overall pick and there was no one behind him on the depth chart. I honestly think he's waaaay worse than Danny Watkins ever was and that guy is Reid's most notorious bust. If you watch the week 17 Dallas game, in the second half Kelly actually flips Peters and Mathis to RG and RT because Johnson was getting beat by Ware on literally every single play. Now, those line flips are in their playbook and something they did throughout the season, but they were basically the standard package by the 4th quarter.

I have no idea if there's hope or not for him because I have no idea if Kelly can develop such a raw prospect to play at the NFL level. A lot of people are taking it on faith that he can, but all I see if a dude who came pretty close to getting Foles killed at times. There were a handful of blown assignments where Foles got leveled and I don't think Johnson should be permitted to risk Foles' career while we all find out if Kelly can develop NFL linemen.

It actually really frustrated me how Ben Muth said he was going to be writing about the Eagles and then decided not to because he casually mentioned several times how he thought Johnson was improving but then offered nothing concrete. I was frustrated because from what I saw, teams seemed to realize that he was a weak point who couldn't even handle simple stunts and began attacking him mercilessly. I think there's going to be real trouble if Herreman's age-related decline continues and Johnson doesn't make a massive jump - that side of the line is just going to be helpless...

27 Re: Four Downs: NFC East

That does sound pretty bad. But then again, everyone said after his first season that Jonathan Martin couldn't make the jump in his second year and... no, wait. Wrong story.

Who, me?

28 Re: Four Downs: NFC East

Also, just re-reading your initial comment, it's true most busts never see the field and that's another aspect of why Johnson bothers me in the context of Kelly: most coaches would not have kept him out there, even Danny Watkins got benched and shuffled around on the reg. Now, that either means Kelly can't see how bad Johnson is or is being stubborn about a raw prospect that many wondered could be developed into a real NFL player. Paired with the Djax business and his tendency towards drafting Oregon players, Kelly begins to look a little like a "my guys, my guys, my guys" kinda coach, which works great in college but just awful in the NFL. I mean, one of my biggest annoyances last year was that he refused to name Foles as the starting QB even after a half dozen games and kept intimating that he might bring Vick back because Vick's running fit his system better. It basically took Foles putting up numbers close to Peyton Manning in a historically brilliant season for Kelly to say "ok, you know what, he's the starter."

All that said, Kelly could be a great coach and everything could go swimmingly, I just don't understand why he's earned the benefit of the doubt and blind faith after a 10-6 season and a playoff loss to a wildcard team.

21 Re: Four Downs: NFC East

The Eagles run a 3-4. Smith plays OLB in a 3-4 and will rush the passer. Rushing an OLB in a 3-4 is not blitzing. The article read as though the author was under the impression the Eagles ran a 4-3 and the players he listed were the starters.

24 Re: Four Downs: NFC East

If I thought they were four starters I would have called them starters and not the "primary rotation." Rushing Smith as part of a 3-4 is rushing four and that's something the Eagles were not successful at doing last season. Will he alone make that much more successful in 2014? I'm skeptical.

26 Re: Four Downs: NFC East

I agree - watching Smith's "highlight" reels are totally dispiriting: a fast (but not quick) undersized dude who runs around guys on stunts and delays and who can't be seen shedding a single block? He got his sacks in clumps 2 in a game here, 3 in a game there, against guys who either couldn't handle his speed or were confused by their assignments. Those type of opponents won't exist at the NFL level (except when he gets to go up against Lane Johnson at practice.) It was a positively Vernon Gholston-esque reel. SackSEER doesn't like him, to boot. I'd take a bet right now that he has less than 15 career sacks total with the Eagles and costs them several huge running plays. If they had gotten him in the 4th round, it would have been an intriguing pick, instead a team lacking depth across the board wastes their 1st rounder...

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