The gap between the haves and have nots in the NFC East was wide this season, but as the Dallas Cowboys showed in rising from three consecutive seasons at 8-8 to a 12-4 record and division title in 2014, change can happen in an instant with the right moves.
Each NFC East team is faced with several important decisions this offseason as they try to jockey again for position in what is traditionally one of the NFL’s most competitive divisions. Here are some of the choices that could make or break each franchise in 2015.
Dallas: Dez or DeMarco?
After spending three years epitomizing mediocrity, the Cowboys got their act together in 2014 and enjoyed a renaissance that saw them win the NFC East and a playoff game both for the first time since 2009. But the bills for 2014’s revival are about to come due for Jerry Jones, who has several decisions to make that will impact the short- and long-term futures of the franchise.
Chief among those choices is what to do about two stars who are scheduled to become unrestricted free agents: wide receiver Dez Bryant and running back DeMarco Murray.
Murray was a game-changing workhorse for Dallas out of the backfield in 2014, and his presence and production behind the excellent Cowboys offensive line allowed Dallas to finally balance its offense. That, in turn took pressure off quarterback Tony Romo and kept the team’s undermanned defense off the field as much as possible, leading directly to their success. Bryant had yet another outstanding season and was once again Romo’s top receiving target while continuing to grow into one of the NFL’s top wideouts at just 26 years old.
Bryant is almost certain to be re-signed. The only question is whether he is retained on a long-term deal or on a one-year contract via the franchise tag. The guess here is the Cowboys stick Bryant with the tag before the March 2 deadline, then use the added time to hammer out a long-term deal that will keep No. 88 in Big D for a long time.
Murray, on the other hand, is a more difficult decision. Dallas has 15 other unrestricted free agents and five restricted free agents to deal with this offseason, and they’ll also be looking to obtain upgrades to their defensive line and secondary. With that being the case, it doesn’t appear likely that the Cowboys will be able to retain both Bryant and Murray. In fact, while refusing to rule out keeping both players, Jones admitted last week that doing so would be a “challenge.”
Committing a large chunk of guaranteed money to Murray also goes against the conventional wisdom of the modern NFL, where running backs are deemed more replaceable than ever. The Cowboys are also suffering a bit of buyer’s remorse from the last big money deal they gave to a running back, a seven-year, $45 million commitment given to Marion Barber III in 2008 that included $16 million in guaranteed money. After signing that deal, Barber played just 38 more games with the Cowboys over three years, and averaged 57.7 yards per game.
Possible replacements for Murray are plentiful in Dallas. They already have 2013 fifth round pick Joseph Randle waiting in the wings and are also expected to retain restricted free agent change of pace back Lance Dunbar. Additionally, the Cowboys kept 2011 second round pick Ryan Williams on their practice squad all season and signed the once highly-touted Virginia Tech product to a two-year deal after the season. If those options aren’t enough, Dallas could explore selecting a running back in a draft loaded with potential game-breakers at the position. They could also monitor the Adrian Peterson situation and seek to bring Peterson back to his home state of Texas if he is reinstated and the Vikings cut him loose.
But can Jones simply let Dallas’ best franchise running back since Emmitt Smith walk out the door? Murray broke Smith’s single-season team rushing record in Week 17 and led the NFL in carries, rushing yards, yards from scrimmage, yards per game and touchdowns this season while helping Dallas establish a balanced offensive attack that was crucial in getting the franchise to the top of the East and back into Super Bowl contention. Production at the running back position is more replaceable now than when the Cowboys tried to replace Smith with Troy Hambrick back in 2003, but is it worth the risk to try again just as things have finally gotten better in Big D?
New York: Improving The Front Five
The NFL is a copycat league and after watching Dallas improve greatly thanks to committing to an upgrade of their offensive line, many teams are likely to follow suit and prioritize the trenches. For no NFC East team will it be more important to do so than the New York Giants.
The Giants showed over the final month of the season that they have the talent at the skill positions to succeed on offense. Quarterback Eli Manning had one of the best regular seasons of his career throwing for 4,410 yards and 30 touchdowns against just 14 interceptions. At receiver, the Giants have the breakout talent of the year in Odell Beckham Jr., who finished with 91 catches, 1,305 yards and 12 touchdowns despite playing in just 12 games. They’ll also welcome back Victor Cruz in 2015, allowing Rueben Randle, who quietly had a 70-catch, nearly 1,000-yard season of his own, to operate more freely on the outside.
New York also has the makings of a strong running game with last year’s free agent signee Rashad Jennings and 2014 fourth round pick Andre Williams splitting carries. But in order for that running game to succeed and for Manning to continue to play at a high level, the Giants must improve along the offensive line.
In the midst of one of his best seasons as a pro, Manning was under constant siege and was sacked 28 times. Manning has yet to miss a single game since taking over the reins of the Giants in his rookie season, but he just turned 34 and that streak will end if New York doesn’t prioritize protecting its franchise quarterback.
The Giants offensive line was a revolving door this season, mostly due to injury. Last year’s key free agent acquisition Geoff Schwartz played just two games and his absence forced New York to move other members of the line out of position to fill in. A return to health for the guard will be a big part of revamping the Giants up front. New York spent a second round pick last year on center Weston Richburg, but Schwartz’s injury forced them to move Richburg inside to guard, where he struggled. A move back to center, where he will likely supplant 2014 starter J.D. Walton, could behoove both Richburg and the team. At the other guard spot John Jerry, who started all 16 games, is an unrestricted free agent and not likely to be re-signed after performing poorly as a run blocker in 2014.
Outside, the Giants remain committed to left tackle Will Beatty through the 2017 season and Beatty enjoyed a bounce back 2014 season that provided hope for the rest of his contract. On the other side, Justin Pugh, drafted as a guard in the first round of the 2013 draft, played out of position for 14 games at right tackle and struggled. But like Richburg, a move back to his normal position, inside to guard, could benefit both Pugh and team.
If New York makes the aforementioned moves to shore up the inside, that leaves a hole at right tackle that they must address via free agency or the draft. The Giants should also add depth to account for the inevitable injuries that befall offensive linemen, so that they aren’t moving players into positions where they don’t belong in 2015.
How they address those decisions up front will go a long way toward determining the success of their offense next season.
Philadelphia: Who is Chip’s Guy at Quarterback?
The 2014 NFL campaign was a tale of a few seasons for the Philadelphia Eagles.
It began with an outstanding 5-1 start under Nick Foles. Then, a week after throwing 62 passes in a loss to the Arizona Cardinals, Foles suffered a broken collarbone in a Week 9 win over Houston that ended his season early.
In stepped backup Mark Sanchez and the Eagles didn’t miss a beat, winning four of their next five games, including a Thanksgiving Day drubbing of Dallas that had them primed to win the division. But it all came unraveled in December as Sanchez suddenly looked like…well, Mark Sanchez. Philly lost three straight while the Cowboys won three in-a-row, including a head-to-head meeting in Week 15 that saw the Eagles rally from down 21-0 to take a 24-21 lead, then get outscored 17-7 over the final 16 minutes and lose. A loss the following week to the Redskins knocked Philadelphia from playoff contention and created an offseason of indecision in the City of Brotherly Love.
Foles has recovered and will be ready for the 2015 season, but is the starting job still his? Though the Eagles went 6-2 in the seven-and-a-half games Foles played last season, he regressed noticeably as teams were better prepared to face both he and the up-tempo Philadelphia offense.
Foles had just six fewer pass attempts in his injury-shortened 2014 season than he did in the entirety of his 2013 breakout season, but saw his numbers drop dramatically. He failed to complete 60 percent of his passes, threw for 700 fewer yards, had just 13 touchdown passes after connecting for 27 in 2013 and was intercepted 10 times in eight games after throwing just two picks in 2013.
The question facing Chip Kelly and the Philadelphia staff is: which season was the fluke? Did they see enough from Foles in seven-and-a-half games to know either way, despite winning six of those games? If they do decide to move on, is there a viable replacement available?
The answer to that question is unlikely to be Sanchez, who is an unrestricted free agent. In the midst of his midseason rise, many Philadelphia fans were calling for the franchise to extend Sanchez and hand him the reins. But Sanchez’s performance over the final month of the season — during which he averaged just 253 passing yards per game and threw for six touchdowns against five interceptions while the team went 1-3 — squashed much of that talk.
The other options on the free agent market are also less than inspiring, but count on Kelly to be creative in addressing this decision rather than just handing the keys back to Foles. The head coach recently received the keys to the Philadelphia player personnel department and is at the center of the decision-making process in the search for a new general manager. He should work hand-in-hand with his new GM in determining whether Foles is the franchise quarterback he appeared to be at the end of the 2013 season or if the Eagles need to make a move to acquire a new signal-caller via trade or the draft.
Washington: RG III and the quarterback conundrum
Like the Eagles, the Redskins must figure out who their quarterback is before they proceed with their offseason plans. In that regard, 2014 produced more questions than answers.
Robert Griffin III continued to be an enigmatic presence, plagued by injury and inconsistent play for the second straight season after his breakout rookie year. Griffin played in nine games for Washington in 2014, including seven starts and though his efficiency ticked up considerably — he completed better than 68 percent of his passes — that was more of a product of a fool-proof, dink-and-dunk offense than anything Griffin did. He averaged a career-low 188 passing yards per game and threw for just four touchdowns against six interceptions.
What Griffin is as a passer entering his fourth NFL season leaves a lot to be desired, but the other choices for the Redskins at quarterback aren’t necessarily better. Once the apple of Washington fans’ eyes, Kirk Cousins essentially fell off the radar in 2014 and ended the season reportedly demanding a trade if he isn’t named starter for 2015. Quite the statement for a quarterback who has thrown 16 interceptions and just 14 touchdown passes in 11 games over the last two seasons. The Redskins were 1-7 in games he started.
Then there’s the curious case of Colt McCoy, who, at age 28, enjoyed a bit of a career renaissance in Washington before having his season cut short by a neck injury.
After relieving Cousins and helping the Redskins rally to a Week 7 win over the Titans, McCoy got his first start since 2011 in Week 8 against Dallas on Monday Night Football and played the best game of his career, on the road, in his home state, completing 25-of-30 passes for 299 yards in a 20-17 upset victory for Washington over the then 6-1 Cowboys.
It was one of the only memorable moments in an otherwise forgettable season for the Redskins, so you could be pardoned if you judge McCoy on that game alone and think he should be Washington’s quarterback going forward. But the truth is, once his performance was on tape and teams were game-planning to face him, McCoy went back to being Colt McCoy. He played well the following week (392 yards, three touchdowns) in a shootout loss to the Colts, but the Indianapolis defense isn’t much of a test. That came the following week in St. Louis, where he threw for just 199 yards and was picked off twice in a 24-0 shutout loss. He went on to play just one quarter against the Giants the following week before the neck injury shut down his season.
McCoy, an unrestricted free agent, is likely to get a job somewhere in 2015. It probably won’t be a starting job, but a chance to compete for one isn’t out of the question. Count me among those who believe it shouldn’t be in Washington, unless the team is truly committed to moving on from Griffin.
That’s the big decision facing the Redskins this offseason. Washington has a lot of talent on their offense, particularly at the receiver spot, but they won’t get anywhere until they decide what they’re doing with RG III. Deciding to retain McCoy and having him compete with Griffin would just be more of the same, and they’d likely continue to suffer because of it. They need to either commit to Griffin as the 2015 starter or cut him loose and start over.
All teams: How to Get Better on Defense:
All four NFC East squads have the makings of outstanding offenses, but it’s their deficiencies on the other side of the ball that will likely leave them short of their peak potential if they don’t improve.
After deploying a historically bad defense in 2013, the Cowboys made substantial strides on that side of the ball in 2014. The progress was due in large part to the team’s philosophy shift to clock control, which kept the defense off the field as much as possible, however there were a few bright spots for Dallas on defense. Tyrone Crawford and Jeremy Mincey emerged along the defensive line and rookie defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence finished the season strong. Twice-retired Rolando McClain was perhaps the team’s best defensive player, and though he dealt with myriad injuries in the second half of the season, the Cowboys would be wise to retain the unrestricted free agent linebacker.
Dallas will be strong at linebacker in 2015 with the return of Sean Lee from injury, the emergence of Anthony Hitchens and by retaining some mix of free agents McClain, Justin Durant and Bruce Carter. But the Cowboys must upgrade along the defensive line and at cornerback, two areas that plagued them in the playoff loss to the Packers. Dallas failed to get enough pressure on a gimpy Aaron Rodgers and suffered the consequences.
Could the Cowboys use the possible savings from letting DeMarco Murray walk to go after a big ticket pass rusher like Ndamukong Suh or Jason Pierre-Paul? It’s possible but not likely because they also need to get better at cornerback. Corner Sterling Moore was abused by Packers rookie receiver Davante Adams in the divisional playoff game and Brandon Carr could also be headed out of town as a cut, leaving Dallas in need of a rebuild at the position around Orlando Scandrick and disappointing 2012 first round draft pick Morris Claiborne. How the Cowboys address those needs on defense will likely have a bigger impact on their chances to repeat atop the NFC East than whether Murray stays or goes.
Like Dallas, Philadelphia’s defense is weakest in the secondary, as evidenced by Tony Romo and Dez Bryant’s destruction of Philly in the Week 15 game that sent the Eagles spiraling out of the playoff picture. The Philadelphia defense allowed the fifth most yards per game (375.6) in the NFL this season, one big reason why they failed to repeat as NFC East Champions.
Bradley Fletcher, who Bryant torched in that Week 15 game, is an unrestricted free agent and has no business being retained. On the other side, Cary Williams is in the last year of his contract with a cap hit of $8.1 million, $7 million of which can be saved by cutting him. Moving on from both corners, as well as unrestricted free agent safety Nate Allen, and rebuilding the secondary from scratch would be a wise choice for Philadelphia if they hope to have any chance of stopping the great receiving groups in the division.
The Eagles had one of the NFL’s best defensive fronts in 2014, led by 3-4 outside linebacker Connor Barwin, who finished fourth in the NFL in sacks. As a team, Philly was third in the NFL in sacks. Going into next season, only two members of the Eagles front seven are free agents, inside linebacker Casey Matthews, who started 11 games this season in place of an injured DeMeco Ryans and reserve outside linebacker Brandon Graham. But the Eagles do have some issues to work out. The injury prone Ryans, who suffered his second Achilles tear in five seasons, is a candidate to be cut, though Kelly said after the season that he wants Ryans to return. Philly will also be looking to reduce the massive $11.6 million cap hit due to Trent Cole in order to upgrade the secondary and perhaps replace Ryans.
The only NFC East defense worse than Philadelphia in terms of yards allowed per game was the Giants, who ranked 29th in the NFL (375.8 yds/g). New York already parted ways with defensive coordinator Perry Fewell and brought back long-time DC Steve Spagnuolo, one of the architects of the defense that led the Giants to Super Bowl XLII and capped the season by limiting the record-breaking offense of the previously unbeaten New England Patriots to win the Lombardi Trophy.
Now New York has a long list of decisions to make this offseason in terms of defensive personnel. Defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul and safety Antrel Rolle are both free agents the Giants desperately need to retain. Cornerback Walter Thurmond, one of the team’s most ballyhooed free agent signings last offseason, is also back on the market after playing just two games in 2014 due to injury. Re-signing Thurmond and Rolle would solidify the team’s already strong secondary.
But after retaining their own free agents, look for the Giants to prioritize adding an impact linebacker or two. Doing so could be a make or break proposition for New York’s chances to bounce back. Their biggest decision likely comes down to what to do with veteran Jon Beason, who had another injury plagued season after signing a three-year deal last offseason. The Giants will be hard-pressed to depend on the injury-prone Beason in the middle as he is now on the other side of age 30. Jacquian Williams and Mark Herzlich are both free agents but project to be depth/reserve players if they are retained at all. The emergence of rookie Devon Kennard on the strong side will help, and Jameel McClain is likely to be back, though I’d look for New York to seek an upgrade on the weak side and push the versatile McClain back into the swing role he thrives in.
The Redskins have the most work to do of any team in the division on the defensive side of the ball, starting with hiring a new defensive coordinator after the team parted ways with Jim Haslett at the end of the season. Many names have been bandied about in Washington since, and seven candidates have interviewed, including former Cowboys head coach Wade Phillips, Washington’s own DB coach Raheem Morris, former Arizona Cardinals DC Clancy Pendergast and former 49ers DC Vic Fangio, who turned down the job to join the Chicago Bears as their DC. There is still no clear cut frontrunner for the Redskins job.
Once they land on a coordinator, Washington must decide what to do about unrestricted free agent linebacker Brian Orakpo. When healthy, Orakpo is a game-changer for the defense, as evidenced by his performance while missing just one game in 2013. But two years after missing all but two games due to a torn left pectoral muscle, Orakpo tore his right pectoral midway through the 2014 season and missed the final nine games. It was Orakpo’s third pectoral injury in the last four seasons, and given his history and age (he will turn 29 this summer) it might be wise for the Redskins to move on.
Washington appears to already have two building blocks at linebacker in Ryan Kerrigan outside and Keenan Robinson inside, so whether the new coordinator sticks with the 3-4 or goes to a 4-3 might be a determining factor in Orakpo’s future with the team.
Up front, the Skins have a ton of money committed to defensive ends Stephen Bowen and Jason Hatcher, and defensive tackle Barry Cofield, and the group proved strong against the run in 2014. But putting pressure on the quarterback was an issue for Washington aside from the outstanding play of Kerrigan. Defensive end Jarvis Jenkins, who started 14 games at DE, is an unrestricted free agent and Washington would be wise to upgrade with a pass rusher at that spot to complement Kerrigan.
The Skins’ back end of the secondary is in flux as Ryan Clark, who started 15 games at free safety and Brandon Meriweather, who started 10 games at strong safety, are both unrestricted free agents. Washington will likely look to upgrade at both positions. The cornerback position is in good shape as 2014 fourth round pick Bashaud Breeland looks like a keeper, DeAngelo Hall will be returning from a ruptured Achilles and David Amerson, entering his third NFL season, could benefit from less pressure as third corner. Regardless, it will be an uphill climb for whoever is hired as defensive coordinator to implement a new scheme and find the right personnel to execute it successfully in year one. Washington is probably in for a slow build on that end rather than a quick turnaround.
All four teams in the division bear watching this offseason as, from the slight tweaks to the impact signings, there is never a dull moment in the NFC East.
Buccaneers admit mistake, boot Aguayo
Source: Mike Florio of ProFootballTalk
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Did Bucs put too much pressure on Aguayo?
Source: Mike Florio of ProFootballTalk
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Broncos holding their breath on Derek Wolfe
Source: Mike Florio of ProFootballTalk
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