The NFL offseason has officially arrived, and that means, odds are, the NFC East is setting up to deliver a different division winner than the one it saw take the throne the previous season. For while the Dallas Cowboys can be viewed as favorites to possibly repeat after going 12-5 overall and finishing with an undefeated 6-0 record inside of the division, the reality is it's insanely difficult to go repeat in the NFC East. None of the four teams has achieved the feat since the Philadelphia Eagles in 2001 through 2004 -- the crown making its rounds perennially ever since.
And as the Cowboys get to work on trying to buck those odds, the Eagles join the New York Giants and Washington Commanders in putting together a plan to keep them from doing so. And it all begins with each of the four teams identifying their top needs ahead of free agency and the 2022 NFL Draft.
Note: Salary cap figures courtesy of OverTheCap.com
Top 5 needs (unranked): OL, LB, S, TE, K
Having squandered a shot at making a deep playoff run with a roster that was absolutely loaded on both offense and defense, but seeing both Kellen Moore and Dan Quinn stay put, the Cowboys enter the offseason with a long list of very talented free agents, and they can't keep them all. Assuming they don't make the mistake of creating a need at the EDGE by moving on from All-Pro pass rusher DeMarcus Lawrence (something not currently in the plans) and are able to retain Randy Gregory -- be it with a franchise tag, transition tag or new deal -- they'll have a chance to focus on the biggest need in Dallas: fixing the offensive line.
It's a unit that wildly underperformed in 2021, Zack Martin notwithstanding, and the experiment at left guard (i.e., Connor McGovern versus Connor Williams) only revealed new issues, along with the uneven play of center Tyler Biadasz. Toss in the durability issues of Tyron Smith and, well, there's not going to be a return to offensive dominance if Dak Prescott can't get time in the pocket. A major upgrade is needed at LG as Williams heads to free agency, and also at center, as well as adding depth at tackle.
And while you're looking at the offensive side of the ball, keep in mind you'll likely lose Dalton Schultz to big money somewhere else while Blake Jarwin's durability is now in question and as backup Sean McKeon still works to prove himself. So yes, there's a need at tight end as well, and that's beginning to feel like a familiar need for the Cowboys in the post-Jason Witten era.
Flip to the defensive side of the ball, and it's to-be-determined what former fourth-round pick Jabril Cox will be after suffering a torn ACL as a rookie, so launch the contingency plan to find a dynamic tandem at LB for all-world talent Micah Parsons, and that plan shouldn't be to re-sign Leighton Vander Esch with the goal of keeping him in heavy rotation. Things get a bit easier this time around at safety, assuming the Cowboys can retain breakout veteran Jayron Kearse and possibly Malik Hooker before touching the position again in the draft, but let's also not forget there were games that could've been won by the kicker, but weren't.
So while bringing in competition for Greg Zuerlein in February is great, it needs to be someone who can truly challenge for the role long-term, and not just as a veiled threat after a season that saw him help cost the team wins. The team is in the red regarding its salary cap, but can free up nearly $50 million with restructures on Lawrence, Prescott, Amari Cooper and Ezekiel Elliott/Zack Martin to put it well in the green to begin what might be the final offseason in Dallas for Mike McCarthy.
Estimated current cap space (top 51): -$21.45 million
CBS draft projections: Logan Hall - DL (Ryan Wilson and Chris Trapasso), Trevor Penning - OL (Josh Edwards), Kenyon Green - OL (Kyle Stackpole)
Top 5 needs (unranked): S, LB, EDGE, CB, WR
It was an impressive mid-season turnaround for the Eagles in their first season under new head coach Nick Sirianni -- one that saw them make the playoffs and show promise for the future with Jalen Hurts under center. Presuming no unexpected about-face on Hurts, the Eagles can enjoy having no need atop the QB totem and focus their efforts on surrounding him with talent. They were able to finesse the Indianapolis Colts into giving up draft collateral in exchange for Carson Wentz, and while Wentz might be on his way out of Indy, the Eagles have that much more firepower to bolster a defense that wasn't the team's Achilles heel in 2021, but did leave meat on the bone.
They received a strong season from Pro Bowl cornerback Darius Slay, and Rodney McLeod mostly didn't disappoint, but there's work to be done in the secondary. As a unit, only Slay (three) and McLeod (two) produced more than one interception in a 17-game season. For contrast, Cowboys cornerback Trevon Diggs had an NFL record-tying 11 of his own, and that's only one fewer than the entire Eagles team produced (12).
In all, the Cowboys had five different players with more than one interception, and the Eagles would love to get in on that party, but it begins with finding a dominant complement to Slay at cornerback -- something that could push Avonte Maddox to taking another leap forward -- and more firepower at both safety and linebacker, the latter also needing more production in the realm of sacks. T.J. Edwards delivered a robust 130 combined tackles on the season, but no Eagles linebacker finished with more than one sack in 2021 or more than one INT (as noted), and that simply won't do.
If any or all of the Cowboys, Commanders and Giants can get their offenses firing on all cylinders [again], the Eagles defense will be tested from front to back, and adding more weapons to aid Javon Hargrave and Josh Sweat in the trenches will go a long way in helping them pass any test thrown their way; keeping in mind Hargrave is 29 years old and was recently restructured, contractually, and his potential cap savings in 2023 could mean Philly should locate a possible successor there anyway (assuming it doesn't restructure him again this offseason).
Toss in some added offensive boom in finding another impact receiver who can consistently find the end zone to make it that much more difficult to defend former Heisman-winner DeVonta Smith (and tight end Dallas Goedert) -- Quez Watkins showing promise but having only one receiving TD in Year 3 -- and the Eagles will be on track to reacquire the NFC East throne. They're a good position regarding the NFL salary cap and could easily flip switches to be that much more of a player in free agency, so watch out for the Eagles to do more than a few things this offseason.
Estimated current cap space (top 51): $21.03 million
CBS draft projections: Jermaine Johnson II - EDGE (Ryan Wilson), Tyler Linderbaum - OL (Chris Trapasso), George Karlaftis - EDGE (Josh Edwards and Kyle Stackpole)
Top 5 needs (unranked): QB, OL, WR, LB, CB
It's one of the worst-kept secret in the NFL that the Commanders need to locate a true franchise quarterback. They saw potential in Taylor Heinicke in 2020 that led to a contract extension in the offseason to follow, but not to the point where they were willing to award him the crown as QB1 after parting ways with Alex Smith. They instead brought in Ryan Fitzpatrick to take the lead, but an injury derailed that plan and Heinicke went on to have a mostly forgettable season in 2021. He finished with 15 interceptions to only 20 passing touchdowns, and even the presence of an all-world receiver like Terry McLaurin didn't solve the issue.
The Commanders have no choice but to use their first pick in the draft at QB, unless they sell the farm in free agency to land a player like Russell Wilson -- who has a no-trade clause and would first want to join them, followed by the Seattle Seahawks being willing to reboot their entire franchise by trading him. Whomever is under center for Washington in 2022 needs to understand the value of protecting him (hint: upgrade an offensive line that waved goodbye to both Trent Williams and Morgan Moses), and then grasp the concept of just how explosive McLaurin is (hint: get him the ball), as much as the Commanders need to understand they need another impact receiver to play opposite their star wideout.
There's a massive production decline from WR2 onward, to the point running back J.D. McKissic was the second-best receiver on the team in 2021 with just 397 receiving yards and two receiving TDs. That simply will not cut it, and especially when the team's defense hasn't done much recently to offset such a cavernous offensive need/failing. The defense allowed an average of 25.5 points per game (25th in NFL) last season and a large reason for that was the absence of Chase Young, true enough, but the glaring need at linebacker isn't going away -- nor is the one at cornerback.
When completely healthy, the Commanders have one of the most fearsome defensive fronts in all of football, but they can't win every down so, sooner or later, the beleaguered secondary is going to have to be better than it has been. The future of safety Landon Collins is in question when factoring in both his cap situation and the fact he's not a fan of taking on linebacker duties, something head coach Ron Rivera wants to see happen. The addition of William Jackson III one offseason ago was with the goal of upgrading the secondary, but more is needed.
Estimated current cap space (top 51): $31.90 million
CBS draft projections: Matt Corral - QB (Ryan Wilson), Malik Willis - QB (Chris Trapasso and Josh Edwards), Kenny Pickett - QB (Kyle Stackpole)
New York Giants
Top 5 needs (unranked): QB, OL, TE, LB, EDGE,
To Daniel Jones or not to Daniel Jones, that is the question. The Giants are expecting a swift turnaround in 2022 after seeing Dave Gettleman retire from his GM position and then firing Joe Judge after only two seasons as head coach. The hiring of former Buffalo Bills offensive coordinator Brian Daboll was in large part with the development of Jones in mind, considering the QB is entering the most pivotal season of his NFL career and one that will decide if he or someone else is the starting quarterback for Big Blue in the seasons to follow. But the fact there's such a gargantuan question mark hovering over the most important position on the team is troublesome, and the Giants need to find a contingency plan in the event Jones isn't what they desperately hope him to be.
That doesn't mean they should ditch him for another in free agency, but it certainly bears considering if they can find a potential successor in the NFL draft and on a rookie contract, no less. To be fair, though, not all of the question marks surrounding Jones are actually attributable to Jones, and you can look at the offensive line to quickly realize what a key reason for his struggles were and continue to be. The Giants simply haven't invested the energy needed on the O-line to keep Jones from being pressured on every other play, and until that's resolved, they're basically asking him to continuously produce while constantly under pressure.
It's a position they should address both in free agency and in the draft alike, sparing no expense, and showing Jones they're not simply talking about their belief in him but that they're also taking measures to allow him to make good on said belief. Once that's position is bolstered, it's about demanding his offensive weapons step up like they're paid to -- e.g., Kenny Golladay. In the first year of Golladay's mega deal signed last offseason, he's repaying them with belly lint. Golladay was nothing short of disappointing in 2021 (521 receiving yards and no touchdowns), leaving the team needing more weaponry at receiver/tight end to try and offset his lack of production.
It's too soon to move on from Golladay and, honestly, the Giants can only hope he improves greatly in Year 2 to go along with what could be a breakout year for Kadarius Toney after an impressive rookie campaign that was up and down at times but showed what he can do at the NFL level. It'll be difficult to lock in on adding another top flight WR anyway, considering the dire need at tight end, where Evan Engram is setting up to hit the open market. Sure, Kyle Rudolph is also on the roster for 2022, but he's 33 years old and reeled in just 257 receiving yards and one touchdown in 13 starts, and that's not going to cut it for a unit that strikes fear in the hearts of no defensive coordinator.
If the Giants can get the offense on track, it'll help a defensive group that itself needs work at the edge and linebacker positions alike, but Big Blue is off to a great start in doing a clean sweep at GM and HC. All it needs to do now is keep the good times rolling this offseason with more positive trajectory, which involves doing some very real salary cap magic as well, hoping to make the playoffs for only the second time since winning the Super Bowl more than a decade ago.
Estimated current cap space (top 51): -$12.02 million
CBS draft projections: Charles Cross - OL (Ryan Wilson and Josh Edwards), Kayvon Thibodeaux - EDGE (Chris Trapasso), Kyle Hamilton - S (Kyle Stackpole)