Will Commanders Ever Find a QB?
NFL Offseason - In these editions of Four Downs, we'll review the biggest hole on each team in the division and then give a short look at each team's major free agents for 2022.
Biggest Need: Cornerback
Without stepping too far into one of the biggest analytical debates of the year, Dallas' defense had problems in coverage. Trevon Diggs, the All-Pro with 11 interceptions, is also the same guy who allowed 11.1 yards per target in SIS charting, a far cry from the 8.6 he allowed in his rookie season. No. 2 corner Anthony Brown was targeted 104 times in 16 starts. Nickel corner Jourdan Lewis also struggled at times. Kelvin Joseph had a decent small sample size and probably is ready to help a bit more.
When you finish No. 1 in defensive DVOA but lose in the wild-card round because your corners can't check the 49ers wideouts on key third downs, that's pointing to some elemental improvement that needs to happen. Teams with defenses this good shouldn't be losing to Jimmy Garoppolo. It's a tough nit to pick, but that's kind of the rub when a team this good disappoints early in the playoffs. It's also hard to imagine the Cowboys finding a bigger solution than spending their late first-round pick on a corner, because they (as usual) are cap-strapped. In-house growth may be necessary.
Major Free Agents: S Jayron Kearse, TE Dalton Schultz, OG Connor Williams, LB Leighton Vander Esch, WR Michael Gallup, ER Randy Gregory
Schultz had a breakout season and is well-positioned to make some money off of it, though he may also wind up getting franchise-tagged if the Cowboys move on from Amari Cooper's big cap hit. Gallup will likely be looking at a one-year deal coming off a late-season ACL tear. Gregory figures to attract some real attention after a six-sack season with a career-high 43 (per SIS) pressures. Kearse already sounds like he's coming back for Year 2. The Cowboys are going to need to move on from Tank Lawrence or Amari Cooper—or work some major restructures—to keep more than a couple of these players.
New York Giants
Biggest Need: Offensive line
Well, here's a preview of the major free agents section: Of the five Giants offensive linemen who played the most snaps last season, the only player who isn't a free agent is left tackle Andrew Thomas. Now the Giants do have some in-house guys who could pick up some slack, but it's leaning heavily into rehab. Matt Peart is coming off a December ACL tear. Ben Bredeson missed time with a hand injury and was a healthy DNP for all of November. Shane Lemieux started nine games in 2020 and missed all but one 2021 start with a torn patellar tendon.
The Giants also have this teeny little problem where they are over the cap and don't have a lot of pre-June 1 routes to create cap space from their big-dollar players outside of releasing Blake Martinez, James Bradberry, and Kyle Rudolph. Martinez and Rudolph aren't must-keeps, but Bradberry wasn't a bad player at all last year and would be a tough loss. In other words, be prepared to see an offensive lineman go to the Giants in the top 10 in the draft, and look for New York to be aggressive in small-stakes free agency as well. Former Bills lineman Ike Boettger could be a good fit with both general manager Joe Schoen and head coach Brian Daboll having Buffalo roots. Schoen mentioned to Peter King that he wanted to get to $40 million in cap space. That sounds wild right now from where the Giants are, but if they want to really churn the roster, they could get there. That would likely involve moving on from Sterling Shepard and possibly even Saquon Barkley.
Major Free Agents: OG Will Hernandez, C Billy Price, LT Nate Solder, LG Matt Skura, TE Evan Engram, ER Lorenzo Carter
Engram is somehow only turning 28 in September even though it feels like he has been around forever. He is someone who simultaneously has a lot of unlocked promise and also someone who has delivered so little on that promise that you can't really count on much. Carter has kind of topped out as a third edge rusher/zone dropper versatility defender, but that kind of player has some value in a league that's leaning more and more heavily into creeper pressures. He could find a decent market for his services.
Biggest Need: Wide receiver
You can blame some of this on Jalen Hurts, and though he played hurt, the Tampa Bay playoff game was not a ringing endorsement of his chances to be a star in this league. But the Eagles had to play DeVonta Smith as a No. 1 receiver from the jump because they had literally no one else. Former sixth-rounder Quez Watkins became the No. 2 receiver by default as Jalen Reagor continued to disappoint. JJ Arcega-Whiteside got hurt yet again. The Eagles didn't have a single wideout finish higher than 32nd in DVOA among qualified receivers.
The NFL draft brings a bevy of first-round wideouts that should be available near the Eagles' three mid-round selections. Ohio State's Garrett Wilson, Arkansas' Treylon Burks, USC's Drake London, Alabama's Jameson Williams, and (also) Ohio State's Chris Olave would be reasonable picks. We have never seen Hurts work with real receiving talent yet outside of Smith, and adding another wideout in the first while bringing in a veteran free agent could be the best way to fully understand how good Hurts could be.
Major Free Agents: CB Steven Nelson, S Anthony Harris, ER Derek Barnett, S Rodney McLeod, RB Jordan Howard
Another spot that's a candidate for a first-round pick is the secondary, where Harris and McLeod are both over 30 and Nelson, 29, was a stop-gap solution signed well after the draft. Barnett has been a reliable source of pressures as a rotational lineman but hasn't turned many of them into sacks and finished with a career-low 2.0 of them in 2021. Howard will probably stay in a small role, as the Eagles definitely seem to be the team that thinks the highest of him at this point.
Biggest Need: Quarterback
Same as it ever was. The Commanders haven't had a qualifying quarterback finish with a positive DVOA since Kirk Cousins in 2016. It continues to be a major problem, and every year they try something new and watch it blow up in their face. They have brought in decent-seeming veteran stopgaps such as Alex Smith, Case Keenum, and Ryan Fitzpatrick. They drafted Dwayne Haskins in the first round. Somehow the end result of all of this was Taylor Heinicke starting 15 games in 2021. As good of a story as he was in the playoffs against Tampa Bay in the 2020 season, Heinicke is not a solution either.
It's hard to imagine the Commanders being involved with any of the major quarterbacks on the market, unless they are the team that's going to pay the Deshaun Watson markup and deal with the PR fallout (and that relies on Watson actually wanting to go there). But this could be a spot for Jimmy Garoppolo. It could be a spot for Jameis Winston. It could be a spot for Kenny Pickett or Malik Willis to be drafted earlier than anticipated. It could be a combination of those things. The former Football Team won't ever be more than a playoff afterthought until they fix this spot.
Major Free Agents: S Bobby McCain, G Brandon Scherff, WR Adam Humphries, OL Cornelius Lucas, TE Ricky Seals-Jones, RB J.D. McKissic
Scherff got the franchise tag last offseason and remains a good bet to be one of the best free agents on the market, but he'll turn 32 next December, hasn't played a full season since 2016, and is purely a short-term solution. His SIS blocking stats have held up well, but Washington got decent play out of Wes Schweitzer and might move on. The Commanders have enough cap space to bring him back, but likely can't do another tag. McKissic is an interesting free agent as one of the best receiving backs on the market. He finished last year concussed, is small, and will be 29 before next season. But he has been extremely prolific over the past three seasons and should be an affordable way to create cheap yards after the catch. Washington reportedly wants to re-sign McKissic.