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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.