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Four Downs: NFC East | Football Outsiders

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Dallas Cowboys

Biggest Need: Secondary

It is inconceivable that the Cowboys would let the 26-year-old helmsman of the No. 2 DVOA offense and No. 5 DVOA pass offense leave in free agency. Assuming they retain Dak Prescott either with a big contract or a franchise tag, then Dallas should turn their attention to their defensive secondary. The Cowboys underwhelmed with the No. 23 DVOA pass defense, and while their 6.8% adjusted sack rate was just 19th in the league, their 33.2% defensive pressure rate was sixth-best according to Sports Info Solutions. The Steelers were within a percentage point of the Cowboys with a 33.9% defensive pressure rate, but they led football with 54 sacks, 15 more than the Cowboys. The major difference was that the Steelers had quality coverage on the back end with three qualified cornerbacks in the top 32 in coverage success rate. Byron Jones led the Cowboys’ qualified corners with a 54% coverage success rate (36th), and he is a free agent. So too are safeties Darian Thompson and Jeff Heath. Keeping Jones and/or upgrading at cornerback and safety would eliminate the major weakness of the Cowboys defense and would likely make star defenders DeMarcus Lawrence, Leighton Vander Esch, and Jaylon Smith even more effective.

Major Free Agents: Dak Prescott, QB; Amari Cooper, WR; Randall Cobb, WR; Tavon Austin, WR; Jason Witten, TE; Robert Quinn, DE; Michael Bennett, DE; Maliek Collins, DT; Byron Jones, CB; Kai Forbath, K

I suspect the Cowboys have procrastinated in Prescott’s contract talks because of uncertainty of his responsibility for the team’s offensive success. The Cowboys had the No. 2 offensive line in both adjusted line yards (4.91) and adjusted sack rate (4.3%). Some fans may attribute the Cowboys’ 8.8 yards per play-action pass, seventh in the NFL, to opponent fears of Ezekiel Elliott in the running game. But Prescott finished even higher in the rankings with an average of 7.6 yards on non-play action passes, second best in football. He and the offensive line share blame for a middling pressure rate (29.7%) and Prescott deserves some of the credit for avoiding sacks. And he maintained a near 3-to-1 touchdown-to-interception ratio despite his aggressive play — his 2.1 ALEX on third downs was ahead of noted “throw caution to the winds” advocate Jameis Winston (2.0). This is a situation the Cowboys shouldn’t overthink. Prescott finished first with 1,546 passing DYAR and sixth with 27.2% passing DVOA. They should loosen their purse strings for him, even if it costs them the ability to keep free-agent skill players Amari Cooper, Randall Cobb, and Jason Witten. Michael Gallup’s 13.6% receiving DVOA fell short of Cooper’s 22.4%, but it was still top-20 in football. He can be the team’s new No. 1 receiver if they lose Cooper.

Even with secondary improvements, the Cowboys may fail to fully translate last season’s defensive pressure into sacks and turnovers with linemen Robert Quinn, Michael Bennett, and Maliek Collins all becoming free agents. Quinn had 34 defensive pressures and led the team with 13 quarterback hits. But the team will have an opportunity to improve on its No. 30-ranked DVOA special teams. New special teams coordinator John Fassel will likely have an almost entirely new unit with primary returner Tavon Austin and kicker Kai Forbath among many other players set to become free agents.

New York Giants

Biggest Need: Offensive Line

Daniel Jones handled pressure poorly in 2019, throwing for just 4.7 yards per attempt while hurried or hit (based on Sportradar charting) and fumbling 18 times, the most by any player in football in 17 years. Without pressure, Jones teased his potential as a franchise quarterback, throwing for 7.2 yards per attempt and 21 touchdowns against just 10 interceptions. That split was magnified for Jones in his rookie season since the Giants allowed pressure 33.4% of the time, sixth most in the league according to Sports Info Solutions. And while Jones likely wanted to hand off and check down to star running back Saquon Barkley to ease some of his burden, even Barkley couldn’t overcome an offensive line that offered him just 3.95 adjusted line yards. That was just 25th-best in football, and it contributed to Barkley’s pedestrian rate of 0.3% rushing DVOA in his sophomore season.

The Giants astutely prioritized the offensive line over the last two years, signing Nate Solder and Mike Remmers, trading for Kevin Zeitler, and drafting Will Hernandez with the 34th pick in 2019. Those players just haven’t performed to expectations, in particular Solder, who, according to Sports Info Solutions, blew the most pass blocks in football (37) in 2019, the second year of his four-year contract with $34.8 million of guaranteed money. With their quarterback position presumably set, the Giants may choose to draft one of the top offensive tackles like Alabama’s Jedrick Wills or Georgia’s Andrew Thomas to either take Solder’s left tackle job or to start at right tackle in place of the free agent Remmers.

Major Free Agents: Eli Manning, QB (retired); Mike Remmers, RT; Leonard Williams, DE; Markus Golden, OLB; Michael Thomas, FS

Apart from a few stray Solders (age 31), Zeitlers (29), and Golden Tates (31), the Giants have a young roster well aligned with their rebuild. That doesn’t lead to a bunch of free-agent decisions. The team had already moved on from Manning, who subsequently retired in January. Their right tackle Remmers is a free agent, and they may try to keep him or spend big to replace him even if they also invest in a tackle in the draft. Their defense is more of a question mark. Linebacker Markus Golden and defensive end Leonard Williams led the team with 45 and 31 pass pressures, respectively, and are their two prominent defensive free agents. Golden was the better player in 2019, but it wouldn’t be surprising to see the team prioritize Williams this offseason since he is 25 years old (three years younger than Golden) and since the team traded two draft picks for him in the middle of last year’s losing season. You try explaining sunk costs to general manager Dave Gettleman.

Philadelphia Eagles

Biggest Need: Linebacker

Despite a bevy of injuries, the Eagles finished 20th or better in pass offense, run offense, pass defense, run defense, and special teams DVOA, as well as adjusted line yards on offense and defense, adjusted sack rate on offense and defense, and pressure rate on offense and defense. They could lose a number of free agents this offseason, including prominent offensive players Jason Peters, Jordan Howard, and Nelson Agholor, but they have internal options to replace all three of them. If they can enjoy better health — in particular with quarterback Carson Wentz — they only have one glaring hole at linebacker.

Nigel Bradham has anchored the middle of the Eagles’ defense for each of the last four seasons, but a $9.8-million salary cap hit for 2020 makes the 30-year-old linebacker a candidate to be released. And with Kamu Grugier-Hill also set to become a free agent from a defense that even with those players allowed an 11.8% broken tackle rate that was sixth-worst in football, look for the Eagles to target linebackers in either the draft or free agency.

Major Free Agents: Jordan Howard, RB; Nelson Agholor, WR; Jason Peters, LT; Halapoulivaati Vaitai, G; Kamu Grugier-Hill, OLB; Ronald Darby, CB; Jalen Mills, CB; Rodney McLeod, S

Peters’, Howard’s, and Agholor’s potential internal replacements are the team’s first, second, and third picks from the 2019 draft. Miles Sanders has already proven himself capable of starting at running back, producing 135 combined DYAR, although skewed more toward receiving (122) than rushing (13). But neither Andre Dillard nor J.J. Arcega-Whiteside exceled in limited playing time in their rookie seasons. Dillard blew 7.8% of his combined pass and run blocks, the worst rate among offensive linemen with 300 or more snaps. And Arcega-Whiteside contributed a -12.3% DVOA on his 22 targets. Those underwhelming numbers may prompt the Eagles to make alternate plans at those positions, especially at wide receiver, where presumptive starters DeSean Jackson and Alshon Jeffery are a combined 63 years old.

The team’s other major free agency concern is in the secondary, where Ronald Darby, Jalen Mills, and Rodney McLeod have all reached the ends of their contracts. Avonte Maddox and Rasul Douglas provide some security for the potential losses at cornerback — they actually outperformed Darby and Mills with 58% and 57% coverage success rates versus 46% and 48% in 2019. But the unit could become perilously thin if they lose any players and star safety Malcolm Jenkins holds out, which he has indicated he plans to do if the team does not give him a new contract.

Washington Redskins

Biggest Need: Skill Positions

Ron Rivera’s Redskins are in a similar position to Joe Judge’s Giants, already transitioned to a potential franchise quarterback but with a roster bereft of talent around him. Apart from a gem of a third-round draft pick in rookie Terry McLaurin, the Redskins had little receiving talent.

Excluding McLaurin, Washington’s receivers (at all positions) combined for -120 DYAR and -16.6% DVOA in 2019, both of which would have been the worst in football (Obviously, all team’s numbers here would look worse if you ignored their most valuable receivers). And things are poised to get worse before they get better. Receiving back Chris Thompson is a free agent, and even if Derrius Guice or Bryce Love can make it back to the field from their myriad injury issues, neither has a college track record of impact receiving. Wideout Paul Richardson was released last week. Tight end Jordan Reed may be a cap casualty, as well, after concussions derailed a once-promising career. And while neither Trey Quinn nor Kelvin Harmon were major investments as Day 3 picks in the last two drafts, neither player’s performance has suggested future breakout seasons, with negative DVOA numbers in 2019. Unless the team has confidence that it can repeat the success it had with McLaurin on Day 2, the Redskins will likely want to invest a significant draft pick or significant money in free agency in receivers who can make Haskins’ life easier.

Major Free Agents: Case Keenum, QB; Colt McCoy, QB; Chris Thompson, RB; Brandon Scherff, G; Ereck Flowers, G; Donald Penn, T; Jon Bostic, ILB

Pass protection may not be as dire a concern for the Redskins as it is for the Giants, but it could trend that way with both guards Brandon Scherff and Ereck Flowers as well as tackle Donald Penn set to become free agents. Scherff is the standout player of that bunch, earning three Pro Bowl selections in his first five seasons, including in 2019. But Flowers also came much closer to finally fulfilling the potential that made him a top-10 overall draft selection. He blew just 1.8% of his pass and run blocks in 2019 after blowing 2.6% across his previous three seasons. The Redskins will likely make efforts to keep those players or invest heavily to replace them, although making up with franchise left tackle Trent Williams — who held out and did not play in 2019 — could offset some potential losses.

Temporary 2019 starting quarterbacks Case Keenum and Colt McCoy are also free agents, but the team will likely let them walk now that it has transitioned to Haskins and will hopefully see Alex Smith return to back him up. Linebacker Jon Bostic is the team’s only free agent defensive starter. Bostic was surprisingly productive with 105 combined tackles and 14 defeats, but the team will likely hand his job back to Reuben Foster if Foster can make a healthy recovery after tearing multiple knee ligaments in last year’s OTAs. Cornerback Josh Norman, who had been benched by the end of the year, has been released.


https://www.footballoutsiders.com/four-downs/2020/four-downs-nfc-east

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