Were it not for the injury-plagued NFC North, little would have stood in the way of this division being the league's worst last season. Washington fell apart after a thrilling 2012 run, New York flopped behind Eli Manning
's omnipresent turnover woes, Dallas kept on finding incredible ways to lose key games and the East champion Eagles
bowed out in Round 1 of the playoffs.
Will the 2014 season bring better days for the NFC East? Or will cap woes and roster holes prove too much to overcome?
The division's free agency primer:
• Key free agents: DT Jason Hatcher, LB Ernie Sims, LB Anthony Spencer, G Brian Waters, DT Jairus Wynn; RB Phillip Tanner (RFA)
• Players Dallas needs back: Hatcher, Waters (if he's interested).
Hatcher's inclusion here makes life a little difficult in Dallas. He is coming off a career-best season (11.0 sacks) and will be 32 in July, meaning this could be his last opportunity to cash in as a free agent. The Cowboys, meanwhile, are estimated to be $22 million or so over the projected 2014 cap ... so ... where's the money for Hatcher?
Waters turns 37 next week and finished 2013 on I.R. Still, he was a valuable interior lineman when he was on the field -- if he's willing to give it one more go, the Cowboys ought to lock him up for another season.
Teams rarely swipe restricted free agents away from the opposition, which means Tanner probably will be a Cowboy again in 2014.
• Players Dallas should let walk: Sims, Spencer.
After using the franchise tag on Spencer each of the past two offseasons, the Cowboys should be prepared to move on, though they might be able to bring the DE back on a one-year deal if they want after he missed almost all of 2013 with a knee injury. Given how well George Selvie played in Spencer's stead, the cash-strapped Cowboys would be better served using the money elsewhere.
And no one in Dallas will lose any sleep if Sims departs. True to form on his career, he's been injury-prone and inconsistent here.
• Outlook: Good luck figuring out what the Cowboys are doing financially. Already in a hole for 2014, they handed kicker Dan Bailey a $22.5 million extension rather than offer him a one-year tender as a restricted free agent. They'll need just about everyone who's able to restructure their contracts in order to generate any wiggle room.
The main concerns appear to be on defense, where the Cowboys must upgrade in the secondary and along the D-line (especially if Hatcher leaves). They also could stand to improve at linebacker after Justin Durant struggled in his first season over from Detroit.
This is going to take some serious work.
BURKE: Potential salary cap casualties
• Key free agents: LB Jon Beason, OL Kevin Boothe, S Stevie Brown, RB Andre Brown, RB Peyton Hillis, DT Linval Joseph, CB Trumaine McBride, S Ryan Mundy, TE Brandon Myers, WR Hakeem Nicks, LB Keith Rivers, CB Terrell Thomas, DE Justin Tuck; FB Henry Hynoski (RFA), LB Mark Herzlich (RFA)
• Players New York needs back: Beason, Boothe, A. Brown, Joseph, McBride, Tuck.
A lot to pick through here, so let's start with the biggest name: Tuck. He finished his contract year in style, upping his sack total to 11 while really helping carry the Giants' defense down the stretch. That might be problematic for the franchise now that he's a free agent -- one determined not to give New York any breaks with his contract. The Giants began preparing for life after Tuck by drafting Damontre Moore last April, but is he ready for a much larger role?
Beason may be the real No. 1 focus for the Giants. He looked revitalized after the Giants traded for him last October, and he more than earned another opportunity to stick in their starting lineup. Removing Beason's presence from the middle of this 4-3 defense would force New York to scan free agency or the draft for a replacement.
Joseph was a standout up front -- at just 25 years old and with teams around the league always in need of big bodies up front, the market could price him out of New York's range. There might be a big drop-off, however, from Joseph to 2013 second-rounder Johnathan Hankins.
The rest of the players listed as must-keeps would help round out a thin depth chart and should be reasonably priced. That includes McBride, who wound up starting 10 games last season; and Brown, who has been impressive out of the backfield when healthy.
• Players New York should let walk: Hillis, Myers, Nicks, Rivers.
Nicks is the big ticket in this category. The Giants still have Victor Cruz and Rueben Randle at WR, so the need to retain him falls far shy of desperation level. That's especially true after Nicks failed to find the end zone in 2013, in spite of 56 receptions. Hard to say exactly what his market will be, but the Giants' other needs should keep them from chasing him.
Myers caught 47 passes and scored four times in 2013, but this team needs more in all areas from its No. 1 TE. Hillis and Rivers both served functional roles in 2013, yet neither is close to irreplaceable.
• Outlook: Do the Giants actually have any players under contract for next season? They have 24 guys set to be unrestricted free agents, plus another three RFAs. All this for a team that's projected to have some (not a lot) of cap space -- $13-14 million. The run game could get a boost with David Wilson back. Elsewhere, the challenge will be getting younger and more cohesive without being able to break the bank.
• Key free agents: S Nate Allen, S Kurt Coleman, WR Riley Cooper, P Donnie Jones, WR Jeremy Maclin, DE Cedric Thornton, QB Michael Vick; DE Cedric Thornton (ERFA)
• Players Philadelphia needs back: Allen, Jones, Maclin, Thornton.
Essentially, the call here is for Allen over Coleman and for Maclin over Cooper. That's oversimplifying, so the Eagles might have more wiggle room at the safety and WR spots, but if push comes to shove don't be surprised if they choose to use their dough in this manner.
Allen finally stepped up in 2013 after several ho-hum seasons. Even if the safety position was far from a strong spot for the Eagles regardless, it may be hard to throw in the towel on Allen now after he showed some ability while starting all 16 games.
Maclin has a chance to be a dynamic presence in Chip Kelly's offense -- we never saw that in 2013 due to a season-ending injury during camp. His setback forced Cooper into the lineup, and the controversial receiver found a groove with Nick Foles as the season progressed, so Philadelphia may try to retain him at the right price. Maclin provides much more of an upside, though.
Jones was brilliant, averaging 44.9 yards per punt, and is a no-brainer keep if he wants to stay. Thornton is an exclusive-rights free agent, meaning there's little chance he departs.
• Players Philadelphia should let walk: Coleman, Cooper, Vick.
The flip side of the Allen and Maclin arguments are here: Coleman has value because of his versatility as a special-teamer and even fill-in corner; Cooper caught 47 passes and scored eight times. Philadelphia would not be too upset to hang onto either guy.
Vick's one of the real mysteries of this offseason. Does he want to stay with the Eagles as the likely backup for Foles? Would he be able to compete for a starting job elsewhere? The latter probably will be the case, and there's no reason for Philadelphia to enter any sort of bidding war.
• Outlook: The Eagles are projected to have about $21 million in cap space, giving them the ability to focus on the players they would like to retain and also save some money to upgrade the secondary. Finding one or two more pieces to help round out Chip Kelly's offense certainly would make Foles' life easier in 2014.
BURKE: Free agents bound to be overpaid
• Key free agents: TE Fred Davis, CB DeAngelo Hall, S Brandon Meriweather, WR Santana Moss, WR Josh Morgan, LB Brian Orakpo, LB Perry Riley, CB Josh Wilson
• Players Washington needs back: Meriweather, Orakpo, Riley.
As the Redskins plan to continue on with their 3-4 defense, letting Orakpo walk would be a confounding move. He recorded another 10 sacks last season and remains a force off the edge. Pretty much everything -- including the franchise tag -- could be in play here.
Meriweather may have played himself into another contract with a decent 2013. Washington has to come up with some answers at safety whether he is back or not, but the task would be easier if Meriweather returns to provide a little depth.
Riley made less than $1.5 million last season yet led Washington in tackles. He could cash in as an unrestricted free agent, so the price tag here could wind up being the deciding factor. All things being equal, the Redskins would be smart to hold onto him, especially after he was such a breakthrough performer last season.
• Players Washington should let walk: Davis, Hall, Moss.
Yes, DeAngelo Hall. Washington apparently has decided against bidding him farewell, as contract talks reportedly are underway. Working in his favor: He led the secondary-challenged team with four interceptions and might be able to shift back to safety at some point in the near future.
On the flip side, there's a decent chance Washington winds up handing him more than he would be worth on the open market. This team may not be in a position to hand away talent -- a similar argument to the pro-Meriweather camp. At some point, however, there must be a sustained push to get younger and faster in a division that's increasingly more wide open offensively. A multi-year deal for Hall might leave Washington looking for a way out before long.
Davis and Moss have outlived their usefulness here.
• Outlook: Washington has its full cap space back after two years of NFL-mandated reductions there -- the franchise is projected to have $26 million or so available under the cap, as of early February. The lack of a first-round pick (again) will hurt and could force the team to invest a healthy dose of that cash into free agency. The Redskins certainly have never been shy about spending.
They need to do something, because the depth chart is a bit of a mess. More talent is needed around Robert Griffin III on offense and at least a handful of defensive starters could be replaced without anyone batting an eyelid. London Fletcher's retirement deprives this team of a noted leader, too, even if his game had slipped in recent seasons.
Also lingering: Kirk Cousins' trade status. Washington may still try to move him this offseason in an attempt to improve elsewhere.
BURKE & FARRAR: Free agency previews by division