Four Downs
Offseason analysis of the NFL, division by division

Four Downs: NFC East

by Bryan Knowles

Welcome back to our offseason series of Four Downs. Over the next three weeks, we'll be reviewing each division one-by-one, looking at each team's biggest hole going into free agency as well as the most important players who may be on the market (provided they aren't franchise tagged or re-signed before March 5).

Dallas Cowboys

Biggest Hole: Secondary

In prior years, we have identified safety or cornerback as Dallas' biggest need in 2012, 2013 (twice), 2014, 2015, 2017, and 2018. We also included the secondary in questioning Dallas' "entire defense" in 2014.

Writing the Cowboys' biggest hole piece is one of the easiest jobs we have here at Football Outsiders. We have now used that opening paragraph in three straight seasons, and it still rings true -- the Cowboys' defensive backfield has needed major help for years. The good news for Cowboys fans is that 2018 saw Dallas take several strides to fixing their eternal secondary issues. Byron Jones moved back to corner, which better fits his skill set, and sophomore Xavier Woods represents a new day at free safety. That's half the starting secondary sorted, meaning they just need to fix the other half.

Jeff Heath can not tackle. We noted last year in this space that Heath had more missed tackles (11) than defeats (six). The problem got worse in 2018, as Heath's 22 broken tackles were the second-most allowed in the league. Heath just isn't a starting-caliber strong safety; he's a quality special teams player who has been promoted beyond his skill set. Bringing in a new safety -- either strong or free, as Woods would do just fine moving into the strong safety position -- would help a defense that ranked 19th or worse when covering tight ends, running backs, or third wideouts. In addition, cornerback Chidobe Awuzie finished 81st out of 85 qualified cornerbacks in success rate. Replacing either Heath or Awuzie, or preferably both, would help a defense that hasn't finished in the top 10 against the pass since 2007.

Major Free Agents: Jamize Olawale, FB; Cole Beasley, WR; Tavon Austin, WR; Cameron Fleming, T; Demarcus Lawrence, DE; David Irving, DT

Demarcus Lawrence will again be the Cowboys' biggest priority; they were unable to come to a long-term deal last season, and so Lawrence played under the franchise tag. Tagging him again would cost the Cowboys $20.5 million, make him the most expensive defensive end in football, and likely cause him to miss much of the offseason program, with the outside chance of pulling a Le'Veon Bell. Lawrence is the first Cowboys player with double-digit sacks in back-to-back seasons since DeMarcus Ware; it's in their best interest to keep their star pass-rusher happy with a mega contract.

David Irving has only played ten games since 2016, but his raw talent and production when he has been on the field has been stellar. However, Irving has started both of the last two seasons with four-game suspensions, and patience may be running thin. Cole Beasley led Cowboys receivers in targets with 87, stepping up with Dez Bryant and Jason Witten out of town. He likely has another couple of years in the tank, though you have to wonder how much money a team can afford to give a 30-year-old receiver who has never topped 850 yards in a season.

New York Giants

Biggest Hole: Quarterback

It is time to move on from Eli Manning. If we're honest, it was time to move on from Eli Manning before the 2018 season started, and the time to start at least casually looking for a replacement was after the 2014 season, the last time Manning had a positive passing DVOA. Manning will be 38 years old in September, so he's not exactly going to get better. His raw stats actually improved last season, but that came from throwing the ball in garbage time against soft defenders (third-most garbage time attempts in the league, per ESPN) and from throwing dink-and-dunk passes and letting Saquon Barkley or Odell Beckham make plays after the catch (5.6 air yards per completion, 25th in the league). The Giants have made no significant moves to find Manning's heir apparent, resulting in a four-year stretch of middling-to-bad results in the passing game despite the talent at the skill positions.

Part of the Giants' problem is that Manning has never really been terrible for an extended period of time. He has more or less gradually declined from his peak as a good quarterback, down through various flavors of average to the subpar passer he's been over the past couple seasons. Had Manning ever fallen off a cliff and stayed there, it would have been easy to make the move away from him and start planning for the future. Instead, Manning has coasted down from his peak so gradually that it has been easy for the franchise to believe that it would just take the right spark to get him going again -- a better coach, more skill position players, a new offensive line. The truth of the matter is that for all Manning has meant to the franchise, he is an anchor for the passing attack at this point in his career.

Major Free Agents: Jonathan Stewart, RB; Jamon Brown, G; Jon Halapio, C; Landon Collins, S

Landon Collins is the Giants' top priority here. He may well be the best safety available in free agency this season -- he's only 25, has already shown the ability to be a game-changing defensive back, and still has room for improvement in the future. He's a key building block for the Giants' defense, and they need to either work out a long-term deal or franchise him.

After that, the Giants don't have many of their own free agents to re-sign. Halapio looked solid in the first two games of 2018 before missing the rest of the year with a lower leg injury. He could be the Giants' starting center in 2019. Jamon Brown was the Giants' starting right guard for the second half of the season, replacing Patrick Omameh, but the Giants should be looking for an upgrade there anyway. Jonathan Stewart somehow was paid $3 million last season for six carries; the Giants declined to exercise his option for 2019.

Philadelphia Eagles

Biggest Hole: Cornerback

Injuries and ineffectiveness in the secondary let the Eagles down time and time again in 2018. Ronald Darby, a fine if not stellar cornerback, went down with a torn ACL halfway through the season. Jalen Mills struggled mightily, finishing 80th out of 85 qualified cornerbacks in success rate before missing the back half of the season with a foot injury of his own. Sidney Jones was hampered by a hamstring injury, but even when healthy he was a liability in coverage and a poor tackler. Rasul Douglas only got his spot back in the starting lineup after all those injuries played havoc on the lineup, and still finished with only a 47 percent success rate -- more effective than a lot of the other players the Eagles trotted out there, but still only 61st in the league. Only Darby and fourth-round rookie Avonte Maddox had success rates above 50 percent, with Cre'von LeBlanc just tipping that mark in limited action.

Maddox was very good as a rookie. If the Eagles do re-sign Darby, who is a pending free agent, they could probably make do with Darby and Maddox on the outside and LeBlanc manning the slot corner, though they could still use some better depth. If Darby leaves, the Eagles should find a better answer on the outside than the inconsistent Douglas or the oft-injured Jones.

Major Free Agents:Nick Foles, QB; Jay Ajayi, RB; Darren Sproles, RB; Golden Tate, WR; Mike Wallace, WR; Brandon Graham, DE; Haloti Ngata, NT; Jordan Hicks, ILB; Ronald Darby, CB

The Eagles have the second-worst cap situation in the league, per Spotrac; they're $1.7 million over the cap already. As such, their free-agency period is going to be one of triage, figuring out where they can save some cash and which contributors they're going to have to let walk. Graham and Hicks are probably the highest-priority names here; the Eagles are going to have to wait out the initial free-agency splurge and hope that Graham and Hicks will return on team-friendly deals. They'll need a starting running back, too, but they'll likely have to find someone cheaper than Ajayi or Sproles to go alongside Wendell Smallwood.

The biggest name is Foles, who is going to start for someone in 2019. There's been talk of franchising him in order to trade him, but that would require freeing up gobs of cap space by cutting names like Jason Peters or Nelson Agholor. Better to let him walk and take the third-round compensatory pick in 2020.

Washington Redskins

Biggest Need: Quarterback

Saying Alex Smith's future in question is an understatement. Smith not only suffered both compound and spiral fractures in his right leg, but had subsequent infections that required multiple more surgeries to clean up in the aftermath. He's still wearing an external fixator on his leg. Playing in 2019 would be a minor miracle, and it's reasonable to doubt whether he'll be able to take the field in 2020 at age 36.

Washington is wisely assuming Smith won't play next season, but that still leaves them with a significant decision to make. Do they get a temporary replacement for 2019, adding a free agent to Colt McCoy to keep the seat warm for Smith's return? Or do they use a draft pick to try to find a long-term solution for the position? The best option might be to give a quarterback like Teddy Bridgewater -- a veteran who can fill the seat for now, but is still young enough to potentially be a longer-term fix if necessary -- a two-year deal and play the waiting game on Smith.

Major Free Agents: Adrian Peterson, RB; Jamison Crowder, WR; Ty Nsekhe, OT; Preston Smith, EDGE; Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, S

There are few players in the league more dividing than Clinton-Dix; some view him as a defensive playmaker who can anchor a secondary, while others think he doesn't even deserve to be a starter in the NFL. It's a position of need with D.J. Swearinger being cut in December, but Clinton-Dix may end up too pricey for Washington in the long run.

I can't believe I'm saying this about a 34-year-old running back, but Washington should bring back Adrian Peterson. Derrius Guice will be the starter, but Peterson had a frankly stunning revival in Washington, where he proved to be a solid fit in the offense. He shouldn't be in anyone's long-term plans at the moment, but he has shown he can still produce when in the right situation.

Comments

18 comments, Last at 26 Feb 2019, 12:02pm

2 Re: Four Downs: NFC East

I have a perverse desire to see the Redskins pick up Kaepernick to take the starting QB job away from an injured Alex Smith. As the Redskins are the most politically incorrect franchise in the NFL, I'd enjoy watching the heads explode.

7 Re: Four Downs: NFC East

Giants and Redskins have two of the most interesting QB situations this offseason. As an Eagles fan, I hope the Giants roll Eli out there again. Every year he starts, it wastes another year of Saquon and OBJ's talents. I feel sorry for Giants fans who must anguish whenever they see those talents flash, but not be sustainable in that offense. If the Giants want to win, I'd be signing Teddy, and drafting a QB early. Teddy has history with Pat Shurmur's offense, give him a shot and see how he goes.

For the Redskins it's a tough decision. Smith isn't young, nor is he great, and yet he's decently able as an NFL QB.
The final strategy will depends on who they could draft, and I think they are the worst placed of the QB needy teams at #15. Given that, I think they need to make a play in the FA market. Someone from the Nick Foles, Tyrod Taylor, Teddy Bridgewater tier would give them a lower profile rental QB. Ryan Fitzpatrick might be cheaper than those. Ryan Tannehill or Blake Bortles might be available to try too. Maybe Jay could trade with Jon for Derek Carr.

As for Eagles, I think RB is their true weakest spot. Smallwood was OK down the stretch, but he's never going to force a defense to plan around him. Talent infusion is badly needed, from Ajayi, a FA, or the draft. CB definitely performed badly last year. The individual numbers were bad, and as a group they were dysfunctional, but I think Eagles fans are at least clinging to signs of potential. Jones, Douglas and Maddox are all recent draft picks who need guidance (and health). Maddox has seemed the best, but by the playoffs even Maddox was biting on double moves as badly as Jalen Mills used to...I'd be looking at a veteran to patch the holes in the talent. I don't know if the Eagles can afford to bring back Darby. I'm hoping Jason McCourty (a long time Schwartz player), might be available at the right price.

8 Re: Four Downs: NFC East

Foles is going to command a much higher salary than Taylor or Bridgewater, and surely won't be happy with a rental type deal. He's the only current free agent QB that could realistically command long term starter type money, and there are enough desperate team in the bidding (Washington, Miami, Jacksonville) that I think his market should materialize.

Taylor or Bridgewater are the type of guys who could be brought in at low cost to compete with a rookie. Not a disaster if you have to roll with them, some upside there.

Tannehill or Bortles are backup fodder - I don't think it would be palatable to any fan-base to have either as a projected starter at this stage.

Fitzpatrick is in a class of his own. Sign/start him if you want a wild ride that ultimately averages out slightly worse than average.

9 Re: Four Downs: NFC East

"I'd be looking at a veteran to patch the holes in the talent. I don't know if the Eagles can afford to bring back Darby."

I don't think they'll find a veteran DB who can help for less than they'd pay Darby anyway. The Eagles' weakest spot isn't CB, RB, or any other position: it's "salary cap," same as last year. They need to shed salary badly, and unlike last year there's no automatic way to do it. They should probably release Agholor (definitely not worth $10M) and Chris Long might retire, so that'd put them at like, $12M under. After that, to cut salary you're definitely looking at suboptimal choices. Cutting Peters only nets you $8M, and replacing him with Vaitai could easily be more of a step back than you'd think.

But even if you go nutso and toss Agholor, Long retires, and Peters gets cut, that only puts you $20M under. And at that point you're looking at Michael Bennett, who had a solid year last year, or Jernigan, who really struggled last year but still had been playing really well. Neither of those are good choices. And letting Graham go would be a big step back.

But what Bryan forgot to mention in this article is that the big problem with the Eagles salary cap this year isn't even their free agents: it's their impending free agent quarterback. If they plan on keeping Wentz, they need to extend him this year, or else he needs to be franchised next year (and things don't get easier next year anyway).

It's kindof a mess. Last year it was obvious how they were going to slip under the salary cap, with a pretty much identical roster to the previous year, except thinner at CB. This year I'm not feeling anywhere near as good.

13 Re: Four Downs: NFC East

Yes the salary cap is going to be the killer of this team. You're right though, there's not a lot that can be done. Jernigan has a high cap number, and it would be great if he was restructured to free up space. Chris Long and Jason Peters have high numbers and might get pushed out to pasture. I'm guessing they aren't too excited about lowering their 2019 cap number. They already restructured Rodney McLeod which was good. We'll just have to see how much money is left and who the Eagles prioritize to re-sign: Ajayi/FA RB, Tate/Agholor/FA WR, Brandon Graham, Jordan Hicks, Ronald Darby. Surely not all of those positions can be addressed. Then you're asking questions about who the backups are and could the Eagles live with them starting, and who might be available in the draft. Can Howie squeeze a couple more competitive years out with some maneuvering?

And yes, the Wentz salary situation will be very interesting to see unfold.

14 Re: Four Downs: NFC East

Agholor's under contract so it's not about resigning, it's about whether or not to keep him, and that's the absolute easiest question they face. Can't afford $9M on an inconsistent player.

Realistically the only two players the Eagles should be targeting to resign are Graham and Hicks. Darby's a good player but given their cap situation, going lean at CB (again) with Mills/Jones/Maddox/Douglas/LeBlanc is probably the least bad option. Tate and Ajayi are luxuries, they can survive without them. I'll never understand how Graham is continually undervalued (except by those who think sacks are everything, I guess). But I kinda doubt they're going to be able to hold onto him, because I tend to think he feels a bit undervalued.

Jernigan is such a damn tough call. Obviously he was coming back from an injury, so his "meh" performance has a strong question mark. Ideally you'd like to think about actually extending him at this point.

If I go my "least bad" route and figure Graham's gone due to cost, I'd say the offseason goes:

Cut: Agholor, Wisniewski (ugh) (+12M)
Retire: Long (+5.3M)
Restructure: Jernigan (ugh) (+8M)
Resign: Hicks (dunno, -5M hit?)
Lose: Graham, Darby, Ajayi, Tate
Draft: DE, CB, WR/RB, OL, WR/RB, OL

That leaves them with ~$20M space or so to extend Wentz, and grab a veteran DE (or keep Long) and veteran OL (or keep Wisniewski). That leaves the team basically as strong as last year but a little weaker at DE. That's not exactly a *great* place, but it's not the end of the world.

In my mind you don't need to cut Peters, but given that the situation's even *worse* in 2020 (because of Wentz), maybe you release him now, survive with Vaitai, and bank the cash savings to help in 2020.

11 Re: Four Downs: NFC East

I'd be hesitant calling ~any~ team's biggest weakness running back, as running back is not a particularly valuable position anymore. Certainly not impossible, but if you're biggest problem is the lack of a back, you're probably doing alright.

Really, the largest issue the Eagles have is having no salary cap room at all. Yeah, they could use a cornerback, a running back, a guard, maybe a wideout -- but they just don't have the finances to do anything of note, and will instead have to watch a bunch of players leave.

12 Re: Four Downs: NFC East

I agree, hard to say a RB will be the answer to all the problems. It was my instinctual answer because there were many times last season when the line would make some holes but none of the Eagles backs could capitalize. I think the Eagles were forced into more 3rd downs because of the lack of a better back. Doesn't help being in a division with Saquon and Zeke though. The other thing that makes me say RB is that Golden Tate didn't make as big an impact as hoped. Some of that is chemistry reasons, but some of it is scheme as well. Maybe WR is more fungible in the Eagles offense than RB is? I don't really believe it, but it's definitely a closer argument in Pedersen's scheme than other offenses.

And yes, the salary cap constrictions mean that the Eagles are already playing the 2020 compensatory pick game. Quite a few good players will be walking away.

16 Re: Four Downs: NFC East

Eli is a hard QB to evaluate because he does the hard stuff well and screws up the easy stuff. Meaning, he can make tough tight windowed throws, can audible into good plays, can avoid sacks in the pocket. He can also completely misread a coverage, misfire on some of the easiest passes and go long stretches of 3 n outs.

Basically, he's the definition of inconsistency - tantalizing enough to convince a front office that he's only a few pieces way from consistent dominance.

I won't shed too many tears if he makes the Hall of Fame, but it won't be deserved.