The NFC East was arguably the worst division in the NFL a year ago. Due to a mixture of injuries and inept coaching, the once-proud division fell behind the pack in the NFL’s more-balanced conference.
With four of the league’s most powerful ownership groups, all with not only Super Bowl aspirations but expectations, the East should be a big player in free agency in 2016. As is the trend in football the ability to have an elite passer and rush the passer is central in all decisions. No division is a better example of that than this one, and those questions linger for NFC East GMs.
Here’s a look at some key needs in the NFC East that could be addressed through free agency.
Needs: Defensive line, offensive line, running back, quarterback
Possible targets: Olivier Vernon, Alex Mack, Doug Martin, Matt Forte
The Redskins' first off-season decision is easy and already done. Robert Griffin is owed more than $16 million in 2016, which is why team president Bruce Allen has already stated RG3 won’t be back.
Now the biggest decision the Redskins face is what to do with Kirk Cousins. Cousins would command big money on the open market, so the organization has decided to tag him. But which tag—the franchise or the transition—is still up in the air in advance of the deadline on Tuesday.
The franchise tag pays players the average of the top five players at their position, while the transition tag pays the average of the top 10. The risk with the latter is it doesn't protect Washington as well from another team signing him out from under their noses, but it would save them a little over $2 million.
That money could be immediately redirected to the defensive line, where they could very well be without three of their six dress-roster lineman. Terrance Knighton and Kedric Golston will test free agency. Couple that with the fact that Jason Hatcher and his $8.7-million cap hold may retire, so much of their off-season from a budgetary and roster construction stand point will be impacted by that decision.
Needs: Quarterback, wide receivers
Possible targets: Marvin Jones, Travis Benjamin
The Eagles are currently negotiating with Sam Bradford so it is likely he’ll return to the organization. The main question is for how long and at what price. A franchise tag would be punitive given Bradford can’t stay healthy and is far from a top-five QB in the NFL, but putting the tag on him will pay him like one.
All that said, Bradford is a former No. 1–overall draft pick who finished the year with six TD passes in his final four games. So Bradford’s representation’s evaluation of his value will likely be much different from the Eagles'.
The other issue is finding someone for Bradford to throw to. Riley Cooper was released last month, which leaves them very thin at the WR position. With Jeremy Maclin and DeSean Jackson being shipped out the previous two off-seasons Philadelphia has quickly gone from the league’s most explosive aerial attack to a pitiful one. Their top three remaining wide receivers in Nelson Agholor, Josh Huff and Jordan Matthews, who have a combined total 38 career starts.
Needs: Defensive line
Possible targets: Olivier Vernon, Malik Jackson, Tamba Hali
When the Giants won their two Super Bowls under Tom Coughlin it was because of their relentless and deep group of pass rushers, and the 2015 Broncos are proof that the championship formula hasn’t changed much in recent years. Now that Coughlin has moved on, the Giants have to find a way to rediscover that winning formula via free agency.
The G-men ranked 30th in the NFL with 23 sacks in 2015—only better than Buffalo and Atlanta—and they'll have work to do just to re-sign heir own defensive-line free agents Robert Ayers and Jason Pierre Paul. With 9.5 sacks last season, Ayers may be priced out of the Giants' budget. Also, there's a chance that due to his severely injured hand due to a July 4 fireworks accident the Giants are not interested in the player or the headache JPP has become.
Even if they can keep those guys, they’ll need to augment that group with competition. Miami's Olivier Vernon would be a perfect fit. What's more, they own the No. 10–overall pick in this April’s draft, which is rich in elite pass rushers.
Needs: Running back, defensive line, backup quarterback, safety
Possible targets: Matt Forte, Robert Griffin III, Eric Weddle
The Cowboys elected to let DeMarco Murray walk in free agency a year ago. Now the injury-prone Darren McFadden is the only back with playing experience left on the active roster. McFadden did rush for over 1,000 yards in his first season as a Cowboy, but realistically how long can he continue to be an every-down back even if he is able to repeat that performance in 2016? Matt Forte was rumoured to be a trade-deadline option for Dallas, but with transformational backs like Ezekiel Elliott and Derrick Henry in the draft Dallas might not address this need via free agency.
An even bigger need might be defensive line. D-lineman Jeremy Mincey and Jack Crawford are free agents. Randy Gregory was recently suspended four games due to the use of a banned recreational substance. The organization also has to make a decision on Greg Hardy, which is complicated with the public scrutiny and declining play he brought to the team last year.
All this and DeMarcus Lawrence, the Cowboys' leading pass rusher in 2015 with eight sacks, just underwent back surgery.
The multiple areas of need may distract Dallas from taking advantage of the rare opportunity of drafting fourth overall in April and selecting a future franchise QB.
With multiple key areas of need, the Cowboys may forgo the opportunity to pick a future-franchise quarterback when they draft fourth overall in April. That means that if and when they become available, native Texans Robert Griffin III and Johnny Manziel will be linked with big D.