Four Downs: NFC East
All pressure, blown tackle, blown block, and coverage success data comes from Sports Info Solutions charting.
Biggest Need: Offensive line
Any team would struggle after losing a top-10 quarterback such as Dak Prescott to injury, but the Cowboys spiraled last year because that loss coincided with a deterioration of their offensive line. From Prescott's first year in 2016 to 2019, the team finished in the top eight in adjusted line yards every season. Last year, they finished 12th, and star running back Ezekiel Elliott suffered his career worst season by both yards per attempt (4.0) and rushing DVOA (-1.0%).
Some of that line decline was bad luck. Tackles La'el Collins and Tyrone Smith played just two games between them because of hip and neck injuries. They should be back in 2021, and that should allow four-time All-Pro lineman Zack Martin to return to his natural position at right guard, but Smith and Martin are also 30 years old now, and the former has missed time in each of the last five seasons. It may be unrealistic to expect them to play to their prime standards. And both center Joe Looney and right tackle Cameron Erving are free agents. Even assuming he returns to the team with a long-term extension, Prescott may not be a cure-all for the Cowboys offense unless they can add some linemen to return their blocking to its previous elite levels.
Major Free Agents: Dak Prescott, QB; Andy Dalton, QB; Aldon Smith, EDGE; Chidobe Awuzie, CB; Jourdan Lewis, CB; Xavier Woods, S; Joe Looney, C; Cameron Erving, RT; Tyrone Crawford, DE; Sean Lee, LB
Those previous paragraphs will prove to be dumb if the Cowboys lose franchise quarterback Dak Prescott in free agency, and that's a real risk since his 2020 franchise tag escalates his potential second tag in 2021 to $37.7 million, but Prescott finished in the top eight in passing DVOA in both 2019 and 2020 before his injury. The team will likely move heaven and earth to keep him, and that could precipitate the losses of some other impact free agents such as relatively expensive backup quarterback Andy Dalton, the offensive linemen Looney and Erving, and defensive end Tyrone Crawford.
Aldon Smith returned from a four-year NFL absence to near-peak form with five sacks and 36 hurries, eighth-most in football. He could command a decent payday despite his advanced age of 31. A year after losing top cornerback Byron Jones to the Dolphins, the Cowboys have another pair of cornerback starters set to enter free agency in Chidobe Awuzie and Jourdan Lewis. The former will likely earn more as an outside starter, but the latter finished among the top 10 qualifiers allowing 6.2 yards per target with a 60% coverage success rate playing primarily in the slot. The Cowboys may also release linebacker Jaylon Smith for $7.2 million cap savings (post-June 1), although that wouldn't do any favors for their 23rd-ranked DVOA run defense. Smith paced the team's linebackers with an excellent 10.5% blown tackle rate in 2020.
New York Giants
Biggest Need: Edge rusher
As they held consecutive opponents to 20, 17, 17, and 12 points over four straight wins in November and early December, the Giants defense looked like a complete unit that could catapult their one-time 1-7 team to a backdoor NFC East title, but that look proved to be deceiving. That quartet of opponents—Washington, Philadelphia, Cincinnati, and Seattle—uniformly finished in the bottom third of teams in adjusted sack rate on offense. Across their full slate of games, the Giants were pedestrian bringers of defensive pressure with a 6.6% adjusted sack rate (17th) and 24.9% pressure rate (14th). And pending how they handle free agency, the team could fare even worse in that respect in 2021.
General manager Dave Gettleman has become infamous for his seemingly out-of-date fascination with run-stopping defensive tackles, but that surplus of big men worked for the team in 2020 because Leonard Williams can also rush the passer. In fact, Williams more than doubled any of his teammates with 30 hurries last season. He's set to become a free agent, and so too are defensive tackle Dalvin Tomlinson and edge rushers Jabaal Sheard and Kyler Fackrell, three of the Giants' five defenders with between 10 and 14 hurries. Retaining Williams would certainly help, but the Giants could use an impact edge rusher to truly complete their defensive roster.
Major Free Agents: Leonard Williams, DT; Dalvin Tomlinson, DT; Cameron Fleming, RT; Jabaal Sheard, EDGE; Wayne Gallman, RB
Williams may command top dollar on the open market, but with three years of team control remaining for first-round defensive tackle Dexter Lawrence, the Giants could survive his loss or that of fellow free agent defensive tackle Dalvin Tomlinson. And beyond them and the aforementioned Sheard and Fackrell, the Giants' remaining rotational free agents are on offense. The team could lose its entire 2020 depth chart of running backs with Wayne Gallman, Dion Lewis, and Alfred Morris hitting the open market, but that is less scary of a proposition with generational talent Saquon Barkley poised to return from his ACL injury. Really, the Giants' greater concerns are on their offensive line. Right tackle Cameron Fleming is a free agent. And while Nate Solder may offer a direct replacement if he returns from his 2020 opt-out, he may also retire. And frankly, the Giants may wish Solder would with his $16.5-million cap hit and his most recent effort of a 6.3% blown pass block rate, the worst among full-time tackles in 2019.
Biggest Need: Offensive line
It's clear that the Eagles' biggest hole in 2020 was in pass protection. Presumed offensive line starters Brandon Brooks, Lane Johnson, Isaac Seumalo, and Andre Dillard missed a combined 48 games, and the resulting mishmash of elevated backups allowed a league-worst pressure rate of 31.5%. I'm less sure for 2021. All four of those players have several years remaining on long-term contracts. With better injury luck, the Eagles could see a bounce-back in their pass protection to the elite level that enabled their 2017 Super Bowl run. Of course, it may not have been luck at all. Even discounting the 39-year-old Jason Peters—who seems likely to retire for good this offseason—the Eagles have an old line with three projected starters in Brooks, Johnson, and Jason Kelce in their 30s. At this point, they should expect some injuries and use the draft to add a backup plan or two.
In truth, the Eagles will likely choose their biggest hole based on how they handle their $40-plus-million salary cap deficit. The releases of DeSean Jackson and Alshon Jeffery won't undermine the team's offensive efforts, but the release or a trade of Zach Ertz might. At the very least, it would spark some concern for the Eagles' skill positions whose remaining best players—Miles Sanders, Jalen Reagor, John Hightower, Quez Watkins, Travis Fulgham, Greg Ward, J.J. Arcega-Whiteside, and Dallas Goedert—are almost universally young and inexperienced.
Major Free Agents: Jalen Mills, FS; Nickell Robey-Coleman, CB; Jason Peters, LT; Vinny Curry, DE; Duke Riley, LB; Nathan Gerry, LB
Despite their veteran-laden team, the Eagles don't have many starters or even rotation players entering free agency. Outside linebackers Duke Riley and Nathan Gerry will hit the open market, but the team already discovered one replacement in undrafted sophomore Alex Singleton—who nearly halved Riley's 32.3% broken tackle rate with an 18.3% rate as a second-half starter in 2020—and seem comfortable with inexpensive players at the position every year in any case. That makes safety Jalen Mills and slot corner Nickell Robey-Coleman the team's most impactful free agents. Mills was a cornerback himself prior to 2020, but he acquitted himself nicely at the new position and likely earned a contract bigger than his one-year, $4-million deal with the Eagles last season. I'm not sure that will be the case for Robey-Coleman after his disappointing year with 9.7 yards per target and a 40% coverage success rate, but the Eagles may re-sign him anyway since he was much better with 6.5 and 55% rates in 2019; they are also thin at the position behind outside starters Darius Slay and Avonte Maddox. Defensive end Vinny Curry is also a free agent, but he never has lived up to his former second-round draft selection. He had just three sacks and 14 hurries in 11 games in 2020.
Washington Football Team
Biggest Need: Passing game
Depending on how much stock you put in his gutsy 300-yard passing performance in the team's wild-card loss to the eventual Super Bowl champion Buccaneers, Taylor Heinicke may solve Washington's quarterback problem with the two-year, $4.8-million contract he signed in February to return to the team, but Heinicke will enter the 2021 season at 28 years old and with just two career starts across both regular and postseason play. And even if he wins the starting job, Washington will have to address his backups after releasing top 2019 draft pick Dwayne Haskins in December and poised to likely release Alex Smith this offseason. Smith deserved his comeback player award from 2020 just by making it onto the field, but his -39.7% passing DVOA makes his $24.4-million and $26.4-million cap hits the next two years difficult for the team to justify. They could save $13.6 million in cap space if they released him. And even if they plan to start Heinicke, don't be surprised if Washington adds a veteran as insurance or drafts a quarterback with their No. 19 pick.
Whoever plays quarterback, he will benefit if Washington can add some receiving talent. The team landed the best wide receiver value in the 2019 draft with third-rounder Terry McLaurin, who has compiled 255 DYAR in two seasons since, but sixth- and fourth-round selections from the last two seasons Kelvin Harmon and Antonio Gandy-Golden have had their development disrupted by knee and hamstring injuries. And while the inexperienced Cam Sims, Steven Sims, and Isaiah Wright have flashed potential in their stead, the former Sims has been the only one to do so with even neutral efficiency (0.3% DVOA).
Major Free Agents: Brandon Scherff, RG; Ronald Darby, CB; Ryan Kerrigan, EDGE; Kevin Pierre-Louis, LB; Thomas Davis, LB; Dustin Hopkins, K
Brandon Scherff is the league's preeminent free agent guard and one of the most coveted free agents at any position. He anchored the team's pass protection with a 1.0% blown pass block rate that was the best among their guards and tackles. And with Scherff, that protection was much better than the team's 7.3% adjusted sack rate would suggest. Their 23.0% offensive pressure rate was 11th-best in football.
Beyond Scherff, Washington's other impact free agents are all on defense. Linebacker Kevin Pierre-Louis and cornerback Ronald Darby were capable starters in 2020, the former with a 16.3% blown tackle rate and the latter with 7.0 yards per target and a top-12 58% coverage success rate. And pass-rusher Ryan Kerrigan has been a lineup staple for the past decade, but his two-sack Week 1 performance will likely prove to be his Washington swan song. The 32-year-old compiled just 3.5 sacks and 12 hurries over the rest of the season and receded to a rotational role in what may be the most talented defensive line in football.