Off-season Primer: NFC East
The NFC East is set up for an intriguing off-season, but what that means exactly remains to be seen.
Giants GM Jerry Reese already revealed that he plans to play it close to the vest this offseason: "We are not going to go out and spend a huge amount like we did this past offseason in free agency," he said, via NJ.com. New Washington GM Scot McCloughan has made it no secret that he plans to build through the draft, rather than follow the free-spending ways of his predecessors.
Over in Dallas and Philadelphia, the current focus is internal: Dez Bryant and DeMarco Murray decisions loom for Jerry Jones' club; Jeremy Maclin is set to hit free agency in Philadelphia, as LeSean McCoy's contract becomes more cumbersome.
Out of necessity, if nothing else, all four of the NFC East's teams will dip into free agency at some point. The Cowboys, after all, were one friendly replay from a berth in the NFC championship game, and the Eagles and Giants (to a lesser extent, perhaps) believe they are built to win now. Letting those windows close without so much as a peep would be a mistake.
So, we wait. For now, here's a look at what may be ahead for the NFC East this offseason:
• Key free agents: WR Cole Beasley (RFA), WR Dez Bryant, LB Bruce Carter, OT Doug Free, DT Nick Hayden, G Ronald Leary (exclusive rights), LB Rolando McClain, DT Henry Melton, CB Sterling Moore, RB DeMarco Murray, DE George Selvie, DE Anthony Spencer
• Players team needs to bring back: Beasley, Bryant, Free, Leary, McClain, Murray, either Hayden or Melton.
Yes, both Bryant and Murray make the list, which could be problematic for the Cowboys. Can they afford to pay both players? Financially, it may be possible—the Cowboys currently sit somewhere between $7 and $10 million under next season's projected cap (numbers via Sportrac and OvertheCap) and have the means to find upwards of $20 million more with internal moves, including a potential restructuring of Tony Romo's contract.
Even so, both Bryant and Murray will be hunting deals on par with the highest-paid players at their respective positions. In Bryant's case, that money sits in the $11 million–$16 million range; for Murray, it's around $9 million per year, if Adrian Peterson's massive salary ($14 million-plus per season) is excluded.
"Obviously, I think they want me here," Murray said this week, according to ESPN.com. "I want to be here. ... I think both sides want to be here, so I think we'll see where it goes."
Given the shelf life of NFL running backs, this likely will be Murray's only legitimate chance to cash in with a mega-deal. Bryant, 26, may have more luck in that regard, but that hardly means he will hand back money this time around.
The perception of late is that RBs are interchangeable, a concept that's really only true for teams not possessing one of the league's elite talents. The Steelers showed that they cannot swap in someone for Le'Veon Bell. Seattle would have been far less formidable minus Marshawn Lynch. Murray accounted for 2,261 of the Cowboys' 6,362 yards from scrimmage during the regular season.
Elsewhere, decisions loom on Melton and Free, whose options for next season must be picked up by Feb. 15. Odds are that they will not be, meaning both can test free agency. Retaining Leary and Free would allow the Cowboys to keep their dominant O-line together for another season.
Melton finished the year injured after playing fewer than 440 snaps, so he's not worth the $8 million he could have coming to him. Allowing he and Hayden to walk simultaneously, though, would set Dallas back up front; same goes for the duo of Selvie and Spence at DE.
• Positions team needs to improve: CB, DE, DT, LB, OT (if Free leaves), RB (if Murray leaves)
Rod Marinelli did borderline miraculous work with the Dallas defense in 2014. Giving him more talent to work with across the board would make his job much easier. There are a lot of unknowns on that side of the football right now: three LBs, three D-linemen and Moore are all impending free agents, plus Sean Lee is attempting to get back from the knee injury that cost him his entire season.
Running back will turn into a depth-chart chasm in the event Murray exits. Dallas could use its Round 1 draft pick there.
New York Giants
Key free agents: S Stevie Brown, TE Larry Donnell (exclusive rights), TE Daniel Fells, FB Henry Hynoski, WR Jerrell Jernigan, DT Mike Patterson, DE Jason Pierre-Paul, S Antrel Rolle, CB Walter Thurmond, LB Jacquian Williams
• Players team needs to bring back: Donnell (exclusive rights), Pierre-Paul, Rolle, Thurmond
The Giants are going to have to gamble in the Pierre-Paul situation, one way or another. Either they fork over a boatload of money before free agency (the franchise tag would cost around $15 million) for a player who has been a little up and down, or they let Pierre-Paul dive into free agency in the hope that he finds a thin market.
Their utter lack of fallback options might force their hand toward door No. 1, no matter the cost. Pierre-Paul led the team with 12.5 sacks last season (9.0 coming over a meaningless final five weeks) and is a potential centerpiece for a defense trying to find its footing.
Rolle and Thurmond will not receive the same attention as their contracts tick toward expiration, but keeping them is in the Giants' best interest. Thurmond would be tough to lose, mainly because New York has yet to really see his talents on display after swiping him for a one-year, $3 million deal last offseason. He played just twice before tearing his pec and hitting injured reserve.
While the 32-year-old Rolle is on the downside of his lengthy career, he has served as a steadying hand in the secondary since 2010.
The Giants passing on Donnell would be a stunner. The exclusive-rights tender would cost less than $600K, a frugal investment for a 6-foot-6 TE coming off a 63-catch, six-TD season.
• Positions team needs to improve: DE, DT, G, LB, OT, RB, S
Like their rivals in Dallas, the Giants are in the market for several contributors on defense—with or without Pierre-Paul's return. They have tried to duct tape together a linebacking corps for several seasons now, so start there: Jon Beason could be a cap casualty (he's due $6 million for 2015), Williams and Spencer Paysinger are headed toward free agency.
Except some shuffling along the O-line, assuming Geoff Schwartz returns from injury to play guard. Such a scenario would allow the Giants to slide Weston Richburg to center and Justin Pugh to guard, opening up a RT spot.
Don't rule out the Giants using a high draft selection at a skill position again, one year after scoring Odell Beckham Jr. Not only is Victor Cruz coming back from his serious injury, the RB spot was rather humdrum between Rashad Jennings and Andre Williams.
• Players team needs to bring back: Maclin, Thornton.
A case can be made that Maclin is as important to the Eagles as Dez Bryant is to the Cowboys. Maclin is by far his team's most dangerous threat at the wide receiver position, in a Chip Kelly-led offense that values yards after the catch. Losing him this offseason, on the heels of booting DeSean Jackson last summer, would force Philadelphia to either draft a Round 1 receiver or spend significant money in free agency replacing Maclin.
There is some speculation that Philadelphia could find itself in a Bryant-Murray-like predicament with Maclin and McCoy—the latter's contract carries a cap number of nearly $12 million next season.
"Do I want LeSean back? Yeah. Do I want Jeremy back? Yeah," Kelly said after the Eagles concluded their season. But is that the reality? I don’t know. I don’t know what’s going to happen."
The decision between their star running back and wide receiver probably will wait for another day. The Eagles cannot let Maclin go.
Thornton's status as a restricted free agent gives Philadelphia more wiggle room there, provided it at least slaps a contract tender on him. The Fletcher Cox-Bennie Logan-Thornton line has begun emerging as one of the NFL's best, so a multi-year deal could be in order for Thornton.
The remaining wild card in the Eagles' FA group: Graham. After four season spent trying to find a comfort zone, Graham reemerged with 5.5 sacks and a team-leading 39 hurries. Pro Football Focus graded him out as the team's second most-effective defender overall, behind only Cox. That production might price him out of the Eagles' range.
• Players team needs to bring back: CB, LB depth, QB, S, WR
Nick Foles? Mark Sanchez? Marcus Mariota? What is Chip Kelly going to do at quarterback? Well, to steal George Costanza's assessment of George Steinbrenner: "What's he going to do? That's exactly the point. Nobody knows what this guy is capable of!"
A Foles-Sanchez pairing might be fine for another year, and might be more than fine if 2013 Foles shows his face again. As of this moment, however, the future of Philadelphia's QBs is very much up in the air.
And the issue may be moot if the Eagles cannot fix their secondary. The league's 31st-ranked pass defense has openings for multiple cornerbacks and at least one safety (Allen is likely gone).
Key free agents: S Ryan Clark, K Kai Forbath (RFA), RB Roy Helu, S Duke Ihenacho (RFA), DE Jarvis Jenkins, QB Colt McCoy, S Brandon Meriweather, OLB Brian Orakpo, TE Niles Paul, OT Tyler Polumbus, WR Santana Moss.
• Players team needs to bring back: None.
Realistically, Washington figures to re-sign at least a handful of these players—Ihenacho can compete for a safety job, Forbath can do the same at kicker, Paul has value as a No. 2 or No. 3 tight end and McCoy earned another look somewhere.
If the goal is to turn this franchise into a playoff contender in the immediate future, though, is anyone on that list irreplaceable? Not quite. Orakpo is without question closest to that designation, and he has spent the majority of two of the past three seasons on injured reserve. An edge player-rich draft approaches, so the money Orakpo will want off a half-sack season does not add up to his return.
Clark started 15 games at safety last season, Meriweather 10. Neither was all that effective, with Meriweather missing six outings due to a combination of injuries and (another) suspension. The safety spots will be addressed in short order by the Redskins' new front office.
Jenkins, 26, has offered enough glimpses at a brighter future that Washington may try to keep him in the fold. But how badly would he be missed if he was gone?
• Players team needs to bring back: G, OLB, OT, RB depth, S
If it stays put at No. 5 in this year's draft, Washington could have a choice between every available offensive lineman, safety Landon Collins and myriad outside edge rushers. Barring a trade down or a curveball pick—both always possible—at least one of those boxes ought to be checked early on April 30.
Listing OLB as a need is counterintuitive to suggesting that Washington let Orakpo leave, but GM Scot McCloughan can address multiple positions with the money he'd have to give Orakpo to stay. Even in Rounds 2 or 3, finding someone to pair with Ryan Kerrigan off the edge will be very much within the realm of possibilities.
Washington did just re-sign OT Tyler Polumbus, maintaining some depth up front. More is needed, and G Chris Chester could be a cap casualty ($4 million savings if released this offseason).