Four Downs: NFC East
by Vincent Verhei
In a series of articles over the next few days, Football Outsiders will be looking division-by-division at the biggest hole left on each team's roster after free agency and the 2015 NFL draft.
Biggest Post-Draft Weakness: Safety
It would be nice if Dallas could add a runner to replace DeMarco Murray, but it's clear that you don't need a dominant running back to win a championship in today's NFL. You do, however, need great play from your defense—or at least better play than what the Cowboys got last year, when their defense finished 22nd against the run, the pass, and overall by Football Outsiders' DVOA metric. The additions of free agent Greg Hardy (pending his suspension) and second-round draftee Randy Gregory should boost the pass rush, while first-round cornerback Byron Jones will help Brandon Carr and Orlando Scandrick handle spread formations. At safety, though, the Cowboys are stuck with the eminently mediocre duo of J.J. Wilcox and Barry Church.
Safeties are hard to analyze statistically, because their assignments can vary wildly from team to team. By and large, though, we can say they are asked to prevent opposing offenses from making big plays, and the Cowboys' pair didn't offer much help there, especially in the running game. Church was 25th among safeties in run stops (tackles that stopped an offense from gaining 45 percent of yards to go on first down, 60 percent on second, and 100 percent on third or fourth); Wilcox was 61st. That would be fine if their conservative play was taking away home runs, but Dallas gave up 1.03 Open-Field Yards per carry last year, third-worst in the league. (Open-Field Yards are rushing yards gained at least 10 yards beyond the line of scrimmage.) The Cowboys also struggled to stop deep passes, ranking 20th in pass coverage on throws that traveled at least 16 yards past the line of scrimmage.
Key Undrafted Free Agents: La'el Collins might be the most famous undrafted free agent since Heisman Trophy winning quarterback Jason White went undrafted out of Oklahoma in 2005. (White eventually signed with the Tennessee Titans, but promptly retired due to pre-existing knee injuries.) A left tackle at LSU, he was expected to go in the first round of the draft as a guard, perhaps even as the first offensive lineman off the board. Then word broke that police wanted to question Collins concerning the murder of his ex-girlfriend and her unborn child. Though Collins was never named as a suspect, no team was willing to take a gamble on his legal status, not even a seventh-round flyer. Collins met with police and was not arrested, and still has not been named as a suspect. Collins was then free to sign with any team he chose. League rules dictated that financially, there was little difference where he wound up, so Collins' choice came down to the circumstances available on each club. He chose Dallas, the team with perhaps the league's best offensive line, where he will battle Ronald Leary for a starting guard spot, or perhaps supplant right tackle Doug Free. The bad news for Collins is that he has lost millions of dollars by going undrafted. The good news is that if he is successful in the NFL, he will hit free agency a year earlier than he would have otherwise.
In non-Collins news, the Cowboys added Baylor wide receiver Antwan Goodley, a two-time All-Big 12 player. They also signed several all-name candidates, including Florida Atlantic wide receiver Lucky Whitehead, Houston wide receiver Deontay Greenberry, and Georgia Tech running back Synjyn Days.
New York Giants
Biggest Post-Draft Weakness: Linebacker
The Giants were trampled on the ground last season, finishing 27th in Football Outsiders' DVOA metric for run defense. A look at our front seven statistics shows that aside from a mediocre ability to prevent short-yardage conversions, they struggled in virtually all areas of run defense. They didn’t tackle opponents for a loss very often (27th in Stuff Rate), gave up too many medium-length runs (31st in Second-Level Yards), and were burned by long runs too (29th in Open-Field Yards).
Giants linebackers also failed in pass coverage, ranking 20th in coverage against running backs, 25th against tight ends, and last by a wide margin in passes thrown to the short middle area of the field.
Jacquian Williams, perhaps the team's best linebacker when healthy last year (he missed seven games with a concussion), was not re-signed after the season. That leaves the middle linebacker spot to either Jon Beason, who missed most of 2014 with a toe injury, or Jameel McClain, whose average run tackle last year came 4.2 yards downfield. That ranked 72nd among qualifying linebackers. Both Beason and McClain will be 30 years old by the time the season starts. The top option outside will be J.T. Thomas, who was effective at times for Jacksonville last season, but there's a reason the Giants will be his third team in four years. On the opposite side, possible starters include 2014 fifth-rounder Devon Kennard, longtime backup Mark Herzlich, or new arrival Jonathan Casillas, who played primarily special teams for Tampa Bay and New England the last couple seasons.
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Key Undrafted Free Agents: Maryland linebacker Cole Farrand has a chance to stick around, if only because New York's status at that position is so dire. Purdue running back Akeem Hunt could bring the home run back to a Giants team that ranked 28th in Open-Field Yards last season. He averaged 5.5 yards per rush in his Big Ten career, and also returned a pair of kickoffs for touchdowns. Lineman Brett Jones is not technically a rookie—he was the CFL's Most Outstanding Rookie in 2013, and its Most Outstanding Offensive Lineman last year. He played center in Canada, but will be moving to guard in New York. Richmond wide receiver Ben Edwards was a two-time All-Colonial Athletic Conference first team selection, leading the CAA with 80 receptions as a junior and adding 74 more as a senior. Southern Connecticut State defensive tackle Carlif Taylor was a two-time All-Northeast-10 Conference selection.
Biggest Post-Draft Weakness: Safety
Malcolm Jenkins will return to start at one safety position, but Nate Allen signed with Oakland in free agency. To replace him, the Eagles did… uh… nothing. They did not add a safety in free agency. They did not make a trade. They did not take one in the draft. They didn't even add a pure safety as an undrafted free agent. At the time of this writing, here is a full list of pure safeties on Philadelphia's roster, besides Jenkins:
- Earl Wolff. A fifth-round pick in 2013, he started six games as a rookie and one last year, but at times was a healthy scratch in 2014, and ended the season on injured reserve with a knee injury.
- Chris Prosinski. Jacksonville drafted him in the fourth round in 2011. He started nine games in his first three seasons, then was waived last September and picked up by the Eagles, playing eight games for Philadelphia.
- Chris Maragos. Veteran special-teamer for San Francisco, Seattle, and Philadelphia, he has never started a game in five NFL seasons.
- Jerome Couplin III. An undrafted rookie last season, when he played one game for Buffalo, eight for Detroit, and one for Philadelphia.
- Ed Reynolds. A fifth-round pick out of Stanford last year, he never made the active roster.
Seriously, that's it. As for the rookies, second-round pick Eric Rowe played safety for three years at Utah, but he was a cornerback in his senior season, and both he and Chip Kelly have strongly suggested that that will be his position this fall. Sixth-rounder Randall Evans played both corner and safety in college, as did undrafted free agent Denzel Rice, but it's hard to imagine a sixth-rounder or a UDFA stepping in and starting on opening day. The Eagles gave up a league-high 72 20-yard completions last year, and could be worse in 2015.
Key Undrafted Free Agents: Eliot Shorr-Parks of NJ.com picked out eight undrafted rookies with a chance to make the team, half of them offensive linemen. UNLV guard Brett Boyko is huge—huge, I say—at 6-foot-7 and 301 pounds. He started 43 games at left tackle for the Runnin' Rebels, twice being named second-team All-Mountain West, after playing defensive line and quarterback in high school in Saskatoon. Guard Malcolm Bunche (another monster at 6-foot-6, 320 pounds) started his collegiate career at Miami before finishing at UCLA. He played both left tackle and guard for the Bruins. Guard Cole Manhart was a three-year starter at left tackle for Division II Nebraska-Kearney (go Lopers!), a three-time All-Mid-America Intercollegiate Athletic Association choice, and earned AFCA All-America honors following his junior and senior seasons. Center Mike Coccia started 40 games at center for New Hampshire, earning AP FBS All-America honors his senior season. Shorr-Parks also likes a pair of tight ends, Michigan State's Andrew Gleichert (who can also play fullback) and Texas-El Paso's Eric Tomlinson, along with Texas wide receiver John Harris (68 catches for 1,051 yards and seven touchdowns in his senior year). The most likely defensive player to make the team is the aforementioned Denzel Rice, a two-time All-Big South second-teamer at Coastal Carolina.
Biggest Post-Draft Weakness: Secondary
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Give the Redskins credit here. They recognized a weakness -- the pass defense was dead last in Football Outsiders' DVOA ratings a year ago -- and did all they could find new players to patch that weakness up. Only problem is, there's no guarantee the new players will be an improvement over the guys they've been brought in to replace.
We'll start at safety, where Ryan Clark has retired and Brandon Meriweather was not re-signed after the season. Dashon Goldson arrives from Tampa Bay, where according to Football Outsiders game charting he gave up 10.5 yards per target last season, ranking among the bottom ten safeties in the league. Washington also signed Jeron Johnson, formerly a backup in Seattle. As you're probably aware, backup safeties in Seattle don't get a lot of playing time, and Johnson has only one start in four NFL seasons. He's a complete mystery. All we know for sure is that he's worse than Kam Chancellor and Earl Thomas, and while there's no shame in that, you'd like to see him accomplish something before anointing him a starter.
At cornerback, DeAngelo Hall returns from injury, but he turns 32 this season, he's coming off two Achilles tendon tears, and even in his best years his pass coverage numbers never lived up to his reputation. The other corner will be Chris Culliver, a free-agent signee from San Francisco. Culliver should be Washington's best defensive back if he can stay on the field, but he arrives in D.C. with a criminal record, and he missed all of 2013 with a torn ACL. There is also talk that Hall will be moved to free safety, opening a starting spot for either Bashaud Breeland (64th in adjusted success rate among cornerbacks last season) or David Amerson (75th). (Adjusted success rate, a stat from Football Outsiders game charting, is explained here.)
Key Undrafted Free Agents: Washington signed Washington State quarterback Connor Halliday, who put up video game numbers in Mike Leach's offense (his 714 passes in 2013 were the second-highest total since at least 1956; the top four marks were all set by Leach quarterbacks), but he then abruptly retired on the eve of rookie camp. Georgia quarterback Hutson Mason (21 touchdowns, four interceptions as a senior) was invited to rookie camp on a tryout basis. Diminutive Texas A&M running back Trey Williams (5-foot-7, 195 pounds) averaged 6.6 yards per carry on 204 collegiate rushes, and 24.1 yards on 70 career kickoff returns. Northwestern wide receiver Tony Jones ran a 4.32-second 40-yard dash at the combine. Kicker Ty Long converted 77 percent of his 77 field-goal attempts at Alabama-Birmingham.
Portions of this article originally appeared at ESPN Insider.