Four Downs: NFC East
by Vincent Verhei
Biggest Hole: Secondary
The Cowboys have one of the best offensive situations in the league. They were third in offensive DVOA last season (third in passing, second in rushing), and 10 of their 11 starters on that side of the ball will return in 2017. The defense, however, was just 17th overall (18th passing, eighth rushing), and is likely to see a major talent drain in its backfield. Seven Dallas defensive backs played at least 400 defensive snaps last year, and four of them -- cornerbacks Brandon Carr and Morris Claiborne, and safeties Barry Church and J.J. Wilcox -- are about to hit unrestricted free agency. Carr, who has never missed a start in his nine-year career (four in Kansas City, five in Dallas), is likely the biggest loss. Still, he turns 31 in May, and his charting numbers have been mediocre. Out of 87 qualifying cornerbacks last season, he ranked 45th with 7.1 yards allowed per pass, and 61st with a 49 percent success rate. The year before, he ranked 56th and 65th in the same categories. As for the others: Church has never been more than an average safety, Wilcox started only four of 13 games last year, and Claiborne has missed as many games as he has played in the past four seasons.
How might Dallas replace those losses? They'll likely have to turn to the draft. According to OverTheCap.com, they enter free agency with a league-low $4.3 million in cap space, and even jettisoning Tony Romo would leave them in the bottom five. That means the Cowboys will need a lot of help in the draft, and that's going to be tricky. They don't pick until No. 28, and they don't have a fifth-rounder (though they do have two picks in the seventh round). A Romo trade would likely net a draft pick in return, but if they could include a veteran defensive back in the swap, that could only help.
None of this is anything new, by the way. In prior years, we have identified safety or cornerback as Dallas' biggest need in 2012, 2013 (twice), 2014, and 2015. We also included the secondary in questioning Dallas' "entire defense" in 2014.
Obviously, the most important free agents in Dallas are in the defensive backfield, but we just talked about them for 300 words. Williams was technically a starter on offense, but lost most of his targets to slot receiver Cole Beasley, and the Cowboys have some depth options here with Brice Butler and Lucky Whitehead. Leary is still just 28, and has started 47 of his 48 games in the last four years in Dallas. The La'el Collins acquisition made him expendable, but he'll be a starter for somebody next year. The statuses (stati?) of Sanchez and Moore mean that if the Cowboys do cut or trade Romo, they will need to find a new backup quarterback, or put their faith in Jameill Showers -- and if they had faith in Showers, they probably wouldn't have moved him to defensive back last October.
New York Giants
Biggest Hole: Running Back
Our offensive line stats page includes two stats that attempt to measure what running backs do independent of their offensive lines. The first, second-level yards, measures only those yards running backs gain 5 to 10 yards beyond the line of scrimmage. The second, open-field yards, only count yards gained 11 or more yards downfield. In 2016, the Giants ranked 29th in both categories. They need to find a way to get more big plays in the running game. New York as a team was 26th in rushing DVOA. Neither Rashad Jennings (who was released earlier this month) nor Paul Perkins ranked in the top 20 in rushing DYAR, nor the top 30 in receiving DYAR.
Barring a major trade up the boards, the Giants will miss out on Leonard Fournette and Dalvin Cook, who will both be long gone by the time New York picks at 23. Tennessee's Alvin Kamara could tempt them with his physical gifts and versatility (he sometimes lined up in the slot and at punt returner for the Volunteers), but he also has red flags, including suspensions, arrests, and injuries. The Giants are in the middle of the pack with about $31.5 million in cap space -- they could look at veterans like Latavius Murray, LeGarrette Blount, or Darren McFadden. And there's always Adrian Peterson, who has named the Giants as a team he'd like to play for should he and the Vikings go their separate ways.
One name among New York's impending free agents was much bigger than the rest, but to the surprise of absolutely nobody, the Giants have used the franchise tag on Pierre-Paul, and he's not going anywhere. However, there's still going be some drama between the Giants and the pass-rusher, who was also franchised in 2015 and has made it clear that he will not play on a one-year deal again. The Giants are also losing two players with a combined 27 starts in the middle of the defense that keyed their 2016 playoff run. Kelvin Sheppard is a journeyman who was on his fourth team in five years (and will soon be on his fifth team in six years), but Johnathan Hankins has been a rock for New York, starting each of his 41 games in a Giants uniform the last three seasons.
Biggest Hole: Wide receiver
There were 93 wide receivers last year who got the 50 targets needed to qualify for our wide receiver tables in 2016. Only two teams failed to produce a single wideout who finished with positive DYAR in those tables: the San Francisco 49ers and your Philadelphia Eagles. At least the 49ers receivers can blame some of their struggles on a terrible quarterback (or two). The Eagles' receivers have no such excuse, unless you believe they wasted the second overall pick in last year's draft.
[ad placeholder 3]
Fortunately for Philadelphia, at least their receivers are young -- Jordan Matthews will be just 25 this year, and Dorial Green-Beckham and Nelson Agholor are even younger than that. All three were drafted in the first or second round, and there is still time for one or all of them to fulfill that potential.
With that in mind, the Eagles might best be served by adding a veteran target for Carson Wentz, rather than spending another early pick on a receiver. They don't have a ton of cap space -- just $9.8 million -- but a cheaper option like Robert Woods or Jeremy Kerley might be a big addition that would fit in their budget.
The good news for the Eagles is that they have very few starters entering free agency. The bad news is that they are likely to lose both starting corners. They released Leodis McKelvin a few weeks ago, ensuring he would not return, and Nolan Carroll will probably soon follow him out the door. That's a much bigger loss. Carroll had a tendency to surrender big plays (7.8 yards allowed per pass, 56th among qualifying cornerbacks), but was excellent on a down-by-down basis (59 percent success rate, 11th). As for Bennie Logan, the defensive tackle has started 43 games on the Eagles defensive line in the past three years.
Biggest Hole: Defensive line
Washington's defensive front was often overwhelmed in 2016. It was a big reason the team finished 25th in defensive DVOA, 24th against the pass and 25th against the run. Washington struggled with all areas of run defense, ranking 25th or worse in adjusted line yards, short-yardage runs, stuff rate, and second-level yards. Now, three of their top four defensive linemen are about to be free agents. Chris Baker and Ziggy Hood combined for 30 starts and more than 1,400 snaps last year, with Cullen Jenkins adding 308 snaps off the bench. All will be on the open market shortly.
As of right this second, Washington has $58.9 million in cap space, one of the ten highest totals in the league, but that's misleading -- depending on some tough choices they will have to make with their own free agents (as we shall get to shortly), more than one-third of that space could go to retaining their quarterback. Will they have money left over to go after big free-agent targets like Calais Campbell, Dontari Poe, or Vince Wilfork (assuming Wilfork doesn't retire)? Will they choose to re-sign their own free agents? Will they try to rebuild through the draft, where they have ten picks? It's hard to say. Honestly, there's a lot about Washington that is unknown at this point.
[ad placeholder 4]
Remember Choose Your Own Adventure? Trying to figure out what Washington is going to do with Kirk Cousins is like reading one of those books, only flipping through the pages never seems to result in a happy ending. Charles Robinson of Yahoo! Sports has done a fine job of detailing how Washington's fractured front office has painted itself into a corner, leaving nothing but bad options on the table. Do they use the franchise tag on Cousins, guaranteeing him nearly $24 million in real life money and cap space, only to deal with this same dilemma in one year's time? Do they try a tag-and-trade, perhaps shipping Cousins to San Francisco in exchange for the second overall pick in a draft with a lackluster quarterback class? Do they simply let Cousins walk away, and if so, what do they do with the money they would save? (If this is the option they choose, then you can forget that part where we said the defensive line was the team's biggest need.) It's also possible they could sign Cousins to an extension, but it seems like that would have been done long ago if it was what both parties wanted to do -- and at this point, there seems to be no incentive for Cousins to do so unless Washington overwhelms him with a deal.
On top of that, both of Cousins' top wide receivers are also entering free agency, and DeSean Jackson in particular won't come cheap. Word out of D.C. is that Jackson's price tag will be too high for the team to bring him back, and that Garcon will line up across from Jamison Crowder in 2017 -- but then, word comes that Garcon would be a good fit on some NFC West teams. It bears repeating: honestly, there's a lot about Washington that is unknown at this point.