Free Agency Diary

NFC East Free Agency Preview

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The NFC East was once considered among the strongest divisions in the National Football League, but in recent years — specifically last season — it became a bit of a laughingstock.

The Washington Redskins rose to the top of the division in 2015 — becoming the third different Eastern Division team to win the crown in as many years — but even they were mired in mediocrity for most of the year before stringing together a late-season win streak to finish above .500. They enter the 2016 season as lead dog with a solid core, but they still have a lot to prove, and improve upon, if they hope to repeat atop the East.

While Washington went from worst to first, they had some assistance as the rest of the division spent 2015 in shambles. The Philadelphia Eagles and New York Giants had successful offensive schemes but two of the three worst defenses in the league, and both fired their coaches after the season, turning the reins over to a different commander from the same background. Each new regime is likely to seek some big offseason moves to add some of their own to the talent pool.

Then there were the Dallas Cowboys, who went into the 2015 season as the prohibitive favorite in the East, started 2-0, and then won just two of their final 14 games. Their weaknesses showed through, thanks in large part to the absence of quarterback Tony Romo, who broke his collarbone on two separate occasions. Dallas had other areas of concern as well, but would likely have pulled out the division title anyway, if not for a black hole at the quarterback position with Romo down. With a healthy Romo expected back atop the depth chart, the Cowboys are again the favorite in the East.

But the results of the 2015 season showed that all four teams in what is now one of the league’s weakest divisions, where no team has won back-to-back division titles since Philadelphia won four straight from 2001-2004, have a plethora of needs entering the offseason. Here, we’ll break down what every team is prioritizing entering free agency and what each can do to fill out their roster.

WASHINGTON REDSKINS

Team needs: Defensive tackle, defensive back, running back, center, quarterback

The defending NFC East Champions flirted with having a hole at the game’s most important position, starting quarterback, but reports on Friday afternoon indicated that the Redskins are planning to tag quarterback Kirk Cousins, mitigating one of their biggest needs. However, with Robert Griffin III certain to be cut and Colt McCoy a free agent, they’ll need some insurance. More pressing will be finding some playmakers up front and on the back-end of the defense to bolster a group that has a strong core in the middle at linebacker. With Alfred Morris also a free agent, they’ll likely be in the market for a running back to tandem with Matt Jones, and they could also use some help protecting Cousins and setting the tone for the ground game in the middle of the offensive line. But the Redskins, who have been spending frugally of late after years of recklessness, should have quite a bit of cap space to address those needs.

Top target that would make sense: Muhammad Wilkerson, DE/DT, New York Jets

Wilkerson is one of the top prizes of this year’s free agent crop with a litany of teams expected to pursue him, should the Jets let him get to free agency and not use the franchise tag on him. If he gets to the open market, expect the Redskins to be in hot pursuit, despite being burned by a big money player in a similar position before — hello Albert Haynesworth. Wilkerson is already one of the league’s top defensive linemen, and at 26 he’s just entering his prime. His ability to draw blocks and stop the run would open things up for Ryan Kerrigan and Trent Murphy to do what they do, even better.

A few other targets: Malik Jackson DE/DT, Denver Broncos; Eric Weddle, S, San Diego Chargers; Janoris Jenkins, CB, Los Angeles Rams; Sean Smith, CB, Kansas City Chiefs; Prince Amukamara, CB, New York Giants; Matt Forte, RB, Chicago Bears; Ben Jones, C, Houston Texans.

If Wilkerson doesn’t make it to free agency, Jackson becomes the target du jour of teams looking to fill a gap up front on defense, and he’d be an excellent consolation prize. Washington also needs playmakers in the secondary, proven by their move of DeAngelo Hall to safety last season. Weddle would be the best safety to reside in Washington since the late Sean Taylor. Jenkins, Smith or Amukamara could tandem with Bashaud Breeland, who emerged as a top tier corner last season, to lock down opposing receivers. and Amukamara would bring the added benefit of weakening a division rival while improving themselves. Bringing in Forte, a gifted pass catcher out of the backfield,would provide an excellent complement to incumbent running back Matt Jones. Ben Jones would be a power move to bolster an offensive line that made great strides in 2015.

PHILADELPHIA EAGLES

Team needs: Quarterback, guard, safety, wide receiver, outside linebacker

Like the Redskins, the Eagles have an issue at the league’s most vital position with a decision looming on starting quarterback Sam Bradford. They still seem interested in working out an agreement, however indecision at quarterback could have an extreme effect on the rest of their pursuits, and there are a lot of those. Primary among them will be the interior of the offensive line and keeping whoever is under center upright and healthy. The Eagles are also in line for help at safety alongside Malcolm Jenkins, with last year’s starter there Walter Thurmond set to become a free agent.

Top target that would make sense: Kelechi Osemele, guard, Baltimore Ravens

The Ravens announced on Friday that they’d be using the franchise tag on kicker Justin Tucker, meaning Osemele is in line to become a free agent and he leads a strong group of interior lineman hitting the open market in March. Philadelphia could go bargain shopping and find a good guard, but the Eagles have a decent amount of money to spend and can’t let the potential for a major upgrade up front get away. Putting Osemele between Jason Kelce and Jason Peters, or Kelce and Lane Johnson, would essentially provide a “do not enter” sign on one side of the offensive line.

A few other targets: Chase Daniel, QB, Kansas City Chiefs; Brandon Brooks, G, Houston Texans; George Iloka, SS, Cincinnati Bengals; Anquan Boldin, WR, San Francisco 49ers; Travis Benjamin, WR, Cleveland Browns; Bruce Irvin, LB, Seattle Seahawks

Daniel is a Doug Pederson disciple in Kansas City, and appeared to be closing in on the Chiefs starting quarterback job last offseason before Alex Smith re-emerged and led KC to the playoffs. Pederson bringing him to Philly, to either replace Bradford and compete for the starting job, or as an insurance policy, seems like a no-brainer. Brooks isn’t quite on the level of Osemele, but he’s a very strong fallback candidate to fill one of Philly’s two holes at guard, where they had two guys ranked among the worst in the league in 2015. Pairing Iloka with Malcolm Jenkins would instantly make the Eagles secondary much better, taking pressure off last year’s big addition, corner Byron Maxwell, as well as up-and-comer Eric Rowe. Philadelphia has several young receivers they’ve had high expectations for over the past couple years, but none have become the No. 1 guy they expected. Boldin would be a great fit to tutor the young receivers, while Benjamin could replace Riley Cooper and then some. Irvin may seem like a luxury for a team with a strong stable of linebackers, but you can never have too much talent at that position.

NEW YORK GIANTS

Team needs: Defensive end, offensive line, cornerback, running back, tight end, linebacker

Few teams enter the offseason with as much money to spend as the Giants ($58.6 million in cap space) and they have plenty of needs to spend it on. Priority one for New York is to remake their defensive line, where more than half the position group is eligible for free agency. That’s actually a blessing for the Giants, as few of those players are worth keeping and they’ll have an organic opportunity to rebuild. New York could likewise stand to get better on the back end of the defense. They also need help for Eli Manning and Odell Beckham Jr. on offense, with several means available to provide it.

Top target that would make sense: Olivier Vernon, defensive end, Miami Dolphins

Vernon would be an ideal fit for the Giants to replace defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul, who is likely to depart after a tumultuous end to what was once a strong bond. But with several other teams heavily interested in the 25-year-old Dolphins defensive end, New York will have to pay handsomely to lock Vernon up. But that’s something they’ll simply have to do to keep him away from rivals, including Dallas, another team that is reportedly high on Vernon but that doesn’t have nearly the spending capacity of the Giants this offseason. If New York can nab Vernon and re-sign Robert Ayers, they have the chance to build a potentially potent pass rush in short order.

A few other targets: Chris Long, DE, Los Angeles Rams; Kelechi Osemele, G, Baltimore Ravens; Kelvin Beachum, T, Pittsburgh Steelers; Chris Ivory, RB, New York Jets; Janoris Jenkins, CB, Los Angeles Rams; Dwayne Allen, TE, Indianapolis Colts; Rolando McClain, LB, Dallas Cowboys; James Laurinaitis, LB, Los Angeles Rams

If the Giants strike out on Vernon, or the Dolphins place the franchise tag on him, they could turn their attention to Long, who has a connection with Giants defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo from St. Louis. The Giants threw rookie tackle Erick Flowers into the first last season and got burned badly, as he ranked worst among all tackles in the league according to Pro Football Focus. It’s too soon to give up on Flowers, but he and Justin Pugh need some help, and the Giants need to spend to give it to them. They can outbid many teams including Philly on Osemele and are in position to take the financial risk on Beachum, who is coming off an ACL tear and is a good risk-reward pickup. With Prince Amukamara also a free agent, New York will likely need to make a move to upgrade at cornerback opposite Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, and Jenkins does that and then some. Bringing Ivory across the Metlife Stadium locker room could be a big boost for their running back committee, and Allen would give Manning his best tight end target since Jeremy Shockey. If they can’t retain middle linebacker Jasper Brinkley, taking McClain out from under Dallas’ tree or bringing in Laurinaitis, who, like Long, has a history with Spagnuolo, would be a solid move to anchor the middle of the Giants defense.

DALLAS COWBOYS

Team Needs: Cornerback, defensive end, safety, defensive tackle, linebacker, running back, quarterback

The Cowboys, a team ravaged by injury in 2015, enter the offseason in need of depth, amongst a laundry list of other things. It’s the Dallas defense that needs the most help, with free agents at almost every position, many of them likely to leave the team. The core of the offense is in place, but Dallas could also use an upgrade at running back. And then there’s quarterback, where finding a backup plan for the oft-injured Tony Romo might be priority one for the Cowboys in 2016.

Top target that would make sense: Trumaine Johnson, CB, Los Angeles Rams

The Cowboys have so many needs on defense, it’s hard to pick just one, but the addition of a corner like Johnson would set the ball in motion for a strong offseason in Dallas. The 26-year-old has developed into one of the top all-around corners in the league during his time in St. Louis and still has prime years ahead of him. Teaming him with Orlando Scandrick, Brandon Carr and Byron Jones would give Dallas a top tier cover group, clearing the way to draft Jalen Ramsey at No. 4 to fill out a formidable secondary. They could also move Jones to free safety and fill another need at No. 4. But Johnson, or another corner of his ilk, is a key piece to simplifying their draft strategy.

A few other targets: Sean Smith, CB, Kansas City Chiefs; Janoris Jenkins, CB, Los Angeles Rams; Olivier Vernon, DE, Miami Dolphins; Jaye Howard; Eric Berry, S, Kansas City Chiefs; James Laurinaitis, LB, Los Angeles Rams; Lamar Miller, RB, Miami Dolphins; Alfred Morris, RB, Washington Redskins; Chase Daniel, QB, Kansas City Chiefs.

Smith or Jenkins would be strong fallback options if Dallas is unable to obtain Johnson, allowing them to make the same moves. The Cowboys do have talent up front on defense, but inconsistency has plagued that group, and adding a solid piece like Vernon or Howard would go a long way toward stabilizing their front four. Safety is a spot that could be filled from within, or the draft, but if Berry isn’t franchised by KC, the Cowboys would be insane not to pursue him heavily. Laurinaitis would also be a strong move for the middle of the defense if McClain departs. On offense, Miller should be a prime target for Dallas this offseason, as he’s precisely the type of back they should be seeking to plug in behind their vaunted offensive line. As a fallback, Morris could provide a solid tandem with Darren McFadden. The Cowboys also must prioritize backup quarterback and if Daniel doesn’t get a starting job elsewhere, he’s the cream of the reserve crop.


About Devon Jeffreys

Devon Jeffreys