- NFC: NORTH
- AFC: NORTH
Our Roster Reset series takes a division-by-division look at where things stand across the league heading into the 2020 NFL Draft. Gennaro Filice examines the current makeup of the NFC East below.
Forever adored by TV executives and franchise-value assessors, the NFC East routinely draws the ire of unaffiliated football fans, even when the division’s at its best. So last season, when the NFC East comfortably finished behind all other divisions in winning percentage (.375, 24-40) and point differential (-135), the vultures feasted like never before. And actually, those closing figures weren’t even as bad as they could’ve been. At the outset of December, the East was so comically inept that the 3-9 Redskins were still alive in the division race. Seriously. The NFC East saved face a bit when the Eagles won their last four games of the regular season to give the division champion a winning record at 9-7, but this was still the only division without a single double-digit-game winner.
Not surprisingly, the NFC East experienced comprehensive coaching turnover this offseason, with Dallas, New York and Washington all making a change at the top and Philadelphia clearing out multiple assistants, including the offensive coordinator. Clearly, heading toward the 2020 season, this is a division in transition.
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As the only team returning the same triumvirate at quarterback, head coach and general manager, the Eagles are the height of stability in today’s NFC East. That said, this roster sure feels a lot less complete than it did last offseason, when Philly opened the draft with a luxury pick in the very first round. One long, draining, injury-riddled season later, the Eagles head into the 2020 draft with major question marks at wide receiver and in the back two levels of the defense.
Meanwhile, in Dallas, Jerry Jones finally pulled the plug on his Jason Garrett project — handing Mike McCarthy the coaching reins — but the Cowboys owner continues to drag his feet on the Dak Prescott front. You have to believe Jones and Co. will eventually lock up the 26-year-old quarterback on a long-term deal, but they already cost themselves a healthy chunk of change by not taking care of this business last offseason. Defensively, the ‘Boys suffered some costly attrition in free agency, and the coordinator switch from Rod Marinelli to Mike Nolan represents a significant scheme change.
The Joe Judge era in New York began with an introductory press conference that had fans and journos lining up to run through a wall for the first-time head coach. Can the no-nonsense Belichick disciple reinvigorate a banner franchise that’s logged just one winning campaign in the past seven seasons?
And then there’s Washington, where owner Daniel Snyder didn’t just make a coaching change but also dismissed his right-hand man, Bruce Allen — a move Redskins fans felt was LONG overdue. Is this a new day for the long-downtrodden franchise? Well, the quarterback situation remains murky, and the star left tackle still wants nothing to do with the team, so …
In summation, whether you revere or revile the NFC East, it is infused with undeniable intrigue this offseason, as no division is in a greater state of flux.
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BIGGEST ADDITION: Darius Slay, cornerback.
Old Team: Detroit Lions. New Team: Philadelphia Eagles.
"It’s hard when you’re watching games and the ball is getting thrown over your head."
That was Howie Roseman on a conference call with reporters last month, giving them the straight dope on last season’s Eagles defense. But really, this has to be a familiar gripe for the general manager, as the cornerback position has been an Achilles’ heel for years in Philadelphia. Ballhawking extraordinaire Asante Samuel made three straight Pro Bowls for the Eagles from 2008 through 2010. Over the past decade, though, the team has cycled through a painful string of free agency busts and draft duds. Remember Nnamdi Asomugha’s five-year, $60 million "Dream Team" contract? He was released after just two seasons. Free-agent signee Byron Maxwell didn’t even make it that far with Philly, as he was traded after the first season of a six-year, $63 million deal. And while the Eagles haven’t spent a first-round pick on a cornerback since Lito Sheppard in 2002, they’ve piled up a motley crew of Day 2 misses over the years: Curtis Marsh, Eric Rowe, Sidney Jones and Rasul Douglas.
So, can "Big Play" Slay end Philly’s positional plague? The Eagles sent Detroit a third- and fifth-round pick in exchange for Slay, then gave the 29-year-old cornerback a three-year, $50 million contract extension. Slay is reunited with the coach who drafted him, former Lions head man/current Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz, and the veteran CB’s presence should allow Schwartz to employ more man coverage. Traveling with opposing WR1s is an ability Slay takes great pride in.
BIGGEST LOSS: Byron Jones, cornerback.
Old Team: Dallas Cowboys. New Team: Miami Dolphins.
While Travis Frederick’s abrupt retirement is a legitimate hit to Dallas’ O-line, the Cowboys still have Tyron Smith, Zack Martin and La’el Collins spread across the front from edge to edge. The unit will survive. Meanwhile, the Jones-less secondary currently looks like this: CB1 Chidobe Awuzie, CB2 Anthony Brown, NB Jourdan Lewis, SS Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, FS Xavier Woods. That’s the kind of defensive backfield that could force the ‘Boys to use their only top-50 pick (No. 17) on a cornerback. Replacing Jones won’t be easy, though. The freakish athlete and former safety, who’s now the highest-paid cornerback in the NFL, established himself as a premier cover man over the past two seasons. Ohio State’s Jeff Okudah is universally considered the top cornerback in this draft, but he’ll be long gone by the time Dallas comes on the board. Could Florida’s CJ Henderson — this class’ CB2, according to resident draftniks Daniel Jeremiah and Bucky Brooks — be an option at No. 17? Well, it doesn’t help that the CB-starved Falcons are sitting right in front of the ‘Boys at No. 16. Safety could also be a consideration, although that position group lacks a true first-round lock. Alabama’s Xavier McKinney is a hybrid type who’s quite comfy in the box, while LSU’s Grant Delpit offers more range in the back end. Antoine Winfield Jr. offers enticing playmaking ability, but he’s more of a second-round projection due to durability and size concerns.
SLEEPER ADDITION: James Bradberry, cornerback.
Old Team: Carolina Panthers. New Team: New York Giants.
James Bradberry shadows in 2019 pic.twitter.com/BJeoY1ayti
Bradberry’s a long 6-foot-1 with Inspector Gadget arms. And at 212 pounds, he’s thick, physical and a more-than-willing tackler. He’s plenty athletic, though not a true burner, which gets him beat down the sideline every so often. All in all, though, he offers the kind of physical profile NFL teams desire in 2020. With the Giants expected to incorporate more man-to-man coverage under new defensive coordinator Patrick Graham, Bradberry could quickly become the unit’s centerpiece.
Dallas Cowboys: As discussed above, in the wake of Byron Jones’ relocation to South Beach, Dallas’ secondary is littered with question marks. Yet, the first-round pick could actually go to another defensive need: finding an edge rusher opposite DeMarcus Lawrence. I don’t blame the ‘Boys for allowing Robert Quinn to walk in free agency — the 29-year-old broke the bank after a renaissance season, signing a five-year, $70 million deal with the Bears — but Dallas still needs to replace his 11.5 sacks. Who are the leading candidates to fill the void? Tyrone Crawford, a 30-year-old fresh off season-ending hip surgery whose best quality might be his inside-outside versatility? Randy Gregory, who missed the entire 2019 season while serving a fourth league suspension? Aldon Smith, who hasn’t played an NFL snap since 2015, thanks to a series of off-field issues? You have to think the Joneses will look to boost this aspect of the defense in the draft, and one player who’s routinely mocked to the Cowboys is explosive LSU product K’Lavon Chaisson. Here’s the problem: The league-wide demand for edge rushers significantly outweighs the supply in this particular draft class. So it’s not hard to imagine the raw but enticing Chaisson getting pushed up the board. If he’s gone, does Penn State’s Yetur Gross-Matos provide enough value at No. 17? One middle-round need on the other side of the ball: slot receiver. Like Quinn, Randall Cobb enjoyed a resurgent 2019 season in Dallas and then cashed in on the open market.
New York Giants: Considering this division’s most ubiquitous draft trope of 2020 — Dave Gettleman has NEVER traded down!!!! — the smart money’s on the Giants making the No. 4 selection on April 23. So what do they do? Yes, New York could snatch up defensive chameleon Isaiah Simmons. That’d be splashy and fun. But they could also take a crack at answering the most hotly debated draft question this side of the quarterback position: Who is the top offensive tackle? Ask four different evaluators and you could get four different answers. Jedrick Wills Jr., Tristan Wirfs, Andrew Thomas and Mekhi Becton all have fan clubs. But Gettleman and Co. will almost certainly have their pick of the litter. And tackle isn’t the only position of need on the offensive line; center has been a problem spot since Weston Richburg left in free agency two offseasons ago. Big Blue’s early second-round pick (No. 36) could go to one of this class’ stout pivots: Michigan’s Cesar Ruiz, LSU’s Lloyd Cushenberry or Temple’s Matt Hennessy. Long story short: Gettleman needs to throw some serious draft capital at the offensive line in order to protect his bold investments at running back (Saquon Barkley was taken second overall in 2018) and quarterback (Daniel Jones went sixth in ’19).
Philadelphia Eagles: Although the team lost a fine player and leader in Malcolm Jenkins to free agency, the Eagles did beef up the defense with some key acquisitions last month. In addition to the Darius Slay trade discussed above, Roseman gave Fletcher Cox a premium DT running mate in emerging game wrecker Javon Hargrave and also signed experienced slot corner Nickell Robey-Coleman. But all’s quiet on the offensive front — and no position screams for attention louder than wide receiver. Alshon Jeffery and DeSean Jackson are clearly past their prime, and both finished last season on injured reserve. 2019 second-rounder J.J. Arcega-Whiteside posted a grand total of 10 catches in Year 1. Shoot, by the end of last season, Carson Wentz’s most reliable receiver was converted quarterback Greg Ward. So it should come as no surprise that the mock majority has Philly scooping up a receiver with the 21st overall pick. Who might that receiver be? The Big Three at the position — Jerry Jeudy, CeeDee Lamb and Henry Ruggs III — will likely be gone by then. Justin Jefferson is a name that’s been routinely connected to the Eagles, but will he be available? Mr. Move The Sticks has the LSU product as his No. 14 player in the entire class. Tee Higgins? Naw, seems like Philly’s receiving corps needs more juice, as opposed to another contested-catch guy. Jalen Reagor? Denzel Mims? KJ Hamler?
Washington Redskins: Alright, enough with the smoke screens. Chase Young just has to be the pick at No. 2, right? A Tua Tagovailoa curveball — either via the Redskins themselves or another team trading into the slot — feels less likely by the day. The coronavirus pandemic has significantly impacted the pre-draft process, which only adds to the uncertainty surrounding players with existing health concerns. Tagovailoa’s gone under the knife three times in the past two years: once on each ankle and most recently on his hip. But enough about Tua. Let’s talk about Young, the player who’ll almost certainly be there for the Redskins’ taking, with the universal assumption that Cincinnati will snag Joe Burrow at No. 1. Not only is Young widely considered the top overall player in the Class of 2020, but his selection would give the Redskins a true area of strength on the defensive line. Think about the kind of havoc Washington would wreak by adding Young to a front that already features four-time Pro Bowler Ryan Kerrigan, a trio of recently selected first-rounders (Montez Sweat, Daron Payne and Jonathan Allen) and the underrated Matt Ioannidis. Ron Rivera and Jack Del Rio are salivating. Of course, the offense — which averaged an NFL-worst 16.6 points per game last season — is rife with questions. With a new regime in place, is Dwayne Haskins really competing with Kyle Allen? Who will either quarterback throw to besides Terry McLaurin? And if the Trent Williams relationship is indeed broken beyond repair, can the Redskins find a trade to replenish their Day 2 draft stock (currently limited to one third-round pick)?
Follow Gennaro Filice on Twitter @GennaroFilice.
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