Four Downs
Offseason analysis of the NFL, division by division

Four Downs: NFC East

by Vincent Verhei

Dallas Cowboys

Biggest Need: Receivers

The Cowboys' receiving options weren't great even before they released Dez Bryant. With Bryant gone and Jason Witten recently retired, the outlook is even more bleak. The top veteran wideouts on Dallas' roster -- Allen Hurns, Terrance Williams, Cole Beasley, and Deonte Thompson -- have just one thousand-yard season between them, and that was by Hurns three years ago in Jacksonville before injuries and circumstance sent him tumbling down the Jaguars' depth chart. Geoff Swaim, the likely starter at tight end with Witten in the TV booth, has all of nine catches in his three NFL seasons. Unless third-round rookie wide receiver Michael Gallup can outplay his draft status, the Cowboys will go into 2018 without a true No. 1 option at receiver.

Notable Undrafted Free Agents: The Cowboys had plenty of space on their roster and added 18 rookies after the draft. The highest-ranked of those players, according to the fine folks at NFL Draft Scout, was San Diego State tight end David Wells. Wells wasn't always healthy when playing for the Aztecs, but as a junior in 2016, he had 25 catches for 294 yards and four touchdowns in 13 games. The veteran tight ends on Dallas' roster -- Geoff Swaim, Rico Gathers, and Blake Jarwin -- are unimpressive. Wells' toughest competition in a fight for playing time will likely come from another rookie, fourth-round draftee Dalton Schulz.

Kameron Kelly, another San Diego State product, played both safety and cornerback in college; the Cowboys need help at both spots. Joel Lanning was the high school football player of the year (and an all-state wrestler as well) in Iowa. He played quarterback for three years at Iowa State, but in his senior season moved to linebacker. That's where he'll play in Dallas, but with 20 touchdowns passing and 17 more rushing on his NCAA resume, he brings the potential for some fun gadget plays. Only one other Dallas UDFA was invited to the scouting combine this year: Louisville edge rusher James Hearns. Hearns is probably best known for surviving a gunshot wound at a party following Lamar Jackson's Heisman Trophy celebration, but he also made a name for himself with 8.0 sacks in 2016 and 7.0 more in 2017.


New York Giants

Biggest Need: Pass-Rusher

The Giants had a very busy offseason. Between free agency and the draft, they added new starters at wide receiver, left tackle, left guard, running back, defensive end, and linebacker. In the process, though, they traded Jason Pierre-Paul to Tampa Bay. The long-term financial benefits of that move are clear -- the trade will save the team nearly $40 million in cap space over the next few seasons -- but in the short term it left New York woefully thin at the league's most important defensive position. Olivier Vernon's 44.0 career sacks are by far the most of any player on the Giants roster. Defensive back William Gay is next with just 7.0 sacks in his 11 NFL seasons. The outlook for Vernon is murky too; he had just 6.5 sacks last year, and with James Bettcher installing a 3-4 base defense, Vernon will be moving to outside linebacker. Incoming rookie Lorenzo Carter had a great performance at the combine, but there is a reason he was available in the third round -- he never had more than 5.0 sacks in a season at Georgia.

Notable Undrafted Free Agents: The Giants signed ten UDFAs. Cornerback Aaron Davis was a three-year starter at Georgia. Nebraska offensive lineman Nick Gates was a two-time all-Big Ten honorable mention. Evan Brown started for years at SMU, two at guard and two at center. Quarterback David Sirk started his collegiate career at Duke, working with Manning Family friend David Cutcliffe, before finishing at East Carolina. He also worked out at tight end leading up to the draft, but his trio of Achilles ruptures in college could limit his NFL hopes.

Philadelphia Eagles

Biggest Need: Special Teams

Nearly every starter on both sides of the ball will return from last year's championship team, and left tackle Jason Peters and quarterback Carson Wentz will also return from injury. If anything, the Eagles should be more talented when they take the field against Atlanta in Week 1 than they were when they beat New England in the Super Bowl. The one clear hole on their roster is at punter, where they do not currently have a player who has ever appeared in a regular-season NFL game. Donnie Jones retired after the Super Bowl, then un-retired, but then the Eagles released him. Perhaps Cam Johnston, a former Aussie rules player who spent 2017 on the Philadelphia practice squad, will join the main roster in 2018. Meanwhile, the Eagles re-signed Darren Sproles to return punts this season, but can they really rely on a returner who turns 35 in June and is coming off a torn ACL?


Notable Undrafted Free Agents: The Eagles won the Super Bowl. They suffered few losses in free agency. They have one of the deepest rosters in the league. So of course they may have found a starting player in Notre Dame running back Josh Adams. Adams fared better in BackCAST than first-rounder Sony Michel. Adams ran for 1,430 yards (6.9 per carry) and nine touchdowns as a junior in 2017; the only question is how much he was helped by running behind a pair of top-ten linemen in Quenton Nelson and Mike McGlinchey. The Eagles didn't add a veteran after losing LeGarrette Blount in free agency, so they've got a clear need for a power runner like Adams.

The Eagles liked South Alabama safety Jeremy Reaves enough to bring him in for an official visit before the draft. He can also play corner and special teams. LSU offensive lineman Toby Weathersby had a fifth-round grade at Philadelphia has a trio of studs at defensive tackle (Fletcher Cox, Tim Jernigan, and Haloti Ngata), but they liked South Florida's Bruce Hector enough to sign him to a $60,000 deal.

Washington Redskins

Biggest Need: Cornerback

Few teams drafted better for need than Washington this year. In the first round they tabbed Alabama defensive tackle Da'Ron Payne to plug their leaky run defense, and in the second they selected LSU running back Derrius Guice to boost their own ground attack. After that, however, they went offensive line, safety, nose tackle, and linebacker, ignoring what might be a looming problem at cornerback this season. Josh Norman is coming off an odd year. Washington didn't give up many yards to opponents' top receivers, and quarterbacks didn't throw Norman's way very often -- but when they did, they averaged 10.5 yards per pass, half a yard more than any other starting cornerback according to Sports Info Solutions charting (subscription required). Norman will be 31 this season, and could be in for a long year if the league realizes how many big plays he can surrender. Speaking of old cornerbacks who give up a lot of big plays, Dallas reject Orlando Scandrick (also age 31) figures to be starting opposite of Norman after Washington lost Bashaud Breeland and Kendall Fuller in the offseason. There's a lot of potential for disaster here.

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Notable Undrafted Free Agents: Safety Quin Blanding won all sorts of accolades at Virginia, including ACC defensive rookie of the year in 2014, and twice made the first-team all-conference team. Indiana wide receiver Simmie Cobbs Jr. fared quite well in Playmaker Score and was expected to go as high as the third round. Washington signed four other UDFA wide receivers: Nebraska's De'Mornay Pierson-El, Colorado's Shay Fields, San Diego State's Mikah Holder, and Alabama's Cam Sims. This does not seem like a ringing endorsement of the wideouts they already had on hand.

Washington signed three other UDFAs who were invited to the scouting combine: Stony Brook offensive tackle Timon Parris, Southern cornerback Danny Johnson, and Iowa center Sean Welsh.

Portions of this article originally appeared at ESPN Insider.


11 comments, Last at 11 May 2018, 2:30pm

1 Re: Four Downs: NFC East

Hardly seems fair to hammer Dallas' receiving corps without even mentioning the Tavon Austin trade. He isn't necessarily a GOOD option, but he is another option that they went out and added.

3 Re: Four Downs: NFC East

The Cowboys… wisely? So confused…

That's probably a bit harsh. The widely criticized Travis Frederick pick sure made them look good.

At what point does OL become a unit of need for Dallas? They still have a very good line for the most part, but it's not the dominant group from two years ago. If their success is based on dominant OL play, shouldn't upgrading the weak parts (and especially adding good depth) be a high priority?

6 Re: Four Downs: NFC East

How could this have been written before the trade? This is a post-draft team needs article, and Austin was traded during draft weekend. He was traded for a pick that the Rams used in this draft!

8 Re: Four Downs: NFC East

You're right. This was written last week, but I forgot the exact timeline of events between now and then. So the real answer is that when I wrote it, Austin had already been traded to the Cowboys, but I found that to be so inconsequential that it wasn't worth mentioning.

5 Re: Four Downs: NFC East

Biggest point for the Eagles from my POV was ignoring OTs early in the draft. A 36 year old Jason Peters was injured for much of last year, and can't have much left in the tank. Yet they passed on Connor Williams in the 2nd, and the dropping Tyrell Crosby in the 4th. They took a guy in the 6th, but that looks to be a depth move.
Perhaps they just have a lot of faith in Vaitai to improve and become a quality starter. Or Peters to bounce back better than ever.

7 Re: Four Downs: NFC East

Dallas had Jason Witten and Martellus Bennett for four seasons I would have like to have seen them utilize them the way New England used their two talented tightends Gronkowski and Hernandez, that lack of innovative play calling/schemes got Bill Callahan the boot. .

9 Re: Four Downs: NFC East

I guess this was written before the Tim Jernigan back hernia injury story came out ( That might have moved DT up the list of needs for the Eagles.