Just how unexpected was the Giants' Super Bowl run? Well, heading into the playoffs, you could have labeled the NFC East as the league's most disappointing division in 2011. Philadelphia was supposed to contend for a title, with at least Dallas and the Giants fighting for playoff positioning.
Instead, the division came down to a Week 17 battle between the 8-7 Cowboys and the 8-7 Giants.
The NFC East may take an overall leap forward in 2012, but a lot of the division's future success is contingent on how this free agency period goes. Here's a look at how the NFC East teams stand heading into March:
• Players Dallas needs back: Holland; Robinson
Robinson has said multiple times that he'd love to stay in Dallas and his emergence in 2011 was one of the Cowboys' best stories. The question is: Can Dallas pay him? If Robinson hits the open market, he almost certainly will find more money than the Cowboys want, or can afford, to give him.
Re-signing Holland would not do much to excite Cowboys fans, but he was steady in 10 starts last season and could help Dallas maintain some depth up front.
• Players Dallas should let walk: Ball; Brooking; Bennett; Spencer
Dallas reportedly is talking about using the franchise tag (approximately $9 million) on Spencer. At least in my humble opinion, that would be a mistake. It's true that Spencer was very good against the run in 2011 and has 21.5 sacks in five years. But with DeMarcus Ware patrolling the other side of Dallas' D, the player in Spencer's spot should be dominating. Spencer has stayed pretty steady but has not improved much.
No one in Dallas would cry much over the losses of Ball, Brooking and Bennett. The third member of that trio might be the trickiest to replace, but he understandably wants a shot to be a No. 1 tight end.
• Outlook: What to do with Robinson and Spencer are going to be Dallas' two biggest conundrums. It wouldn't be a surprise at all if both end up back in Dallas, but the money has to be right for the 'Boys.
New York Giants
• Key free agents: TEs Jake Ballard/Bear Pascoe (exclusive rights), DT Rocky Bernard, LB Chase Blackburn, S Deon Grant, WR Mario Manningham, OL Kareem McKenzie, DB Aaron Ross, DE Dave Tollefson, P Steve Weatherford
• Players New York needs back: Ballard; Blackburn; Grant; Manningham; Tollefson; Weatherford
Yes, a punter made the list. If you saw Weatherford put the Patriots in a few deep holes in the Super Bowl, you'll understand why.
The rest of these guys run the gamut from vital (Grant) to quality role players (Tollefson). Manningham probably will be priced out of New York -- his Super Bowl performance likely bumped his future salary beyond where the Giants can go for their No. 3 guy. If they can convince him to stay, though, it would be huge. New York's offense needs at least three reliable receivers.
Blackburn came out of nowhere to play a huge role down the stretch. He's a smart linebacker who would help the team's depth. Grant, meanwhile, would be borderline irreplaceable in the locker room. Has he lost a couple of steps? Sure. But New York uses him in such a way that he can still be very effective.
• Players New York should let walk: McKenzie; Ross
Ross may come down to two factors: Money and the team's trust in Prince Amukamara. If Ross is looking for a hefty, long-term deal, it would not behoove the Giants to retain him with Amukamara waiting in the wings.
McKenzie has started every game on the Giants' offensive line for the past two seasons. He's just not that good anymore. He gave up nine sacks this season and an egregious 58 QB pressures. New York has to get better up front and bringing McKenzie back would not cut it.
• Outlook: While the core of the Giants' title team is set to come back in 2012, the team does have a few important members of that squad set to test the free-agency waters. Prioritizing the most valuable players will set the stage for New York's offseason.
• Players Philadelphia needs back: Jackson; Landri; Mathis
Jackson is stealing all the headlines right now, as he approaches free agency. Will the Eagles use the franchise tag on him? And, if so, would they then try to trade him? For all the drama on and off the field, Jackson is a major part of the Eagles' offense, one that could not be replaced immediately if he left.
Landri turned in an underrated season in minimal playing time at defensive tackle. Both he and Dixon could be back with Philadelphia in 2012.
Mathis might have been the Eagles' best offensive lineman in his first season with the team, even surpassing Jason Peters. He did terrific work from the right guard spot, especially considering that the two guys to his right, Jason Kelce and Danny Watkins, struggled so mightily at times.
• Players Philadelphia should let walk: Brown, Laws, Smith, Young
No one in the Brown-Smith-Young trio should raise any eyebrows. Heck, the Eagles tried to trade Brown to Detroit in October. Young definitely did not wow anyone in his limited time at QB -- Philly's better off just handing Mike Kafka the backup job.
Laws did not do anything all that well (or that poorly, for that matter). It won't be a huge blow to lose him, especially if Landri and Dixon wind up returning to the Eagles.
• Outlook: The Jackson saga will be the story to watch in the coming weeks. If Philadelphia reverses course and lets Jackson get away, it would significantly impact not only the Eagles' plans but also the entire free-agent market.
• Key free agents: DE Adam Carriker, TE Fred Davis, LB London Fletcher, K Graham Gano (exclusive rights), QB Rex Grossman, RB Tim Hightower, S LaRon Landry, LB Rocky McIntosh, OL Will Montgomery, WR Donte Stallworth
• Players Washington needs back: Davis; Fletcher
It is getting more and more likely that Davis receives the franchise tag. That's not something often bestowed on tight end, but Davis is coming off his best season and appears primed to become a serious weapon.
Fletcher had 166 tackles and was the unquestioned leader of Washington's defense last season. He's getting up there in years (he will be 37 in May), but his production on the field in 2011 showed that he can still make plays. Losing him would force the Redskins to fill a major hole in the middle of their D.
One dark horse you might be able to put on this list: Hightower. He was en route to a solid 2011 before he got hurt, and he is familiar with Mike Shanahan's unique one-cut running game. Pair him with Roy Helu next year and the Redskins might be on to something.
• Players Washington should let walk: Grossman, Landry, Montgomery, Stallworth
Can anyone really say bringing Grossman back would help Washington get better in 2012? If the Redskins do re-sign their much-maligned QB, it would be because he is familiar with the offense and could play a stopgap role while Washington grooms a potential quarterback of the future. Even if that's the scenario, there might be better options available.
Landry has missed 15 games over the past two seasons, and this January reportedly eschewed the recommendations of Redskins doctors to have Achilles surgery in favor of treating the injury with stem-cell treatments. Washington should just move on -- there's no use shelling out a contract for a guy carrying this big of an injury risk.
Montgomery's a versatile guy, which likely means he'll be back with Washington in 2012. Counting on him to do more than he did last season, though, would be a mistake. • Outlook: Quarterback remains the Redskins' ultimate concern, so Grossman's status will be something to watch. Washington does potentially have a ton of money to spend -- the Redskins are projected to be about $25 million under the salary cap. Whether that's good or bad news depends on how smartly Washington uses that cash.