Not every need can be met via the draft. So what's a team to do? Thankfully, the free agency period will be here soon. To help get you ready for the opening of the NFL's annual talent marketplace on March 11, Elliot Harrison is taking a division-by-division look at all 32 squads' biggest priorities, continuing with the NFC East below.
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Top priority in free agency: Defensive line.
When it comes to free agency, no position group is more pressing for the Cowboys than the defensive line. Jason Hatcher is set to become an unrestricted free agent. Meanwhile, DeMarcus Ware's future with the franchise is suddenly in question, with the team asking him to take a pay cut. Last year, the Cowboys played with Hatcher, an injured Ware and a bunch of has-beens/never-weres. OK, Dallas did find a decent player in George Selvie at left defensive end -- the spot that was supposed to be filled by the overweight, overpaid and injured Anthony Spencer. Speaking of Spencer, he's also headed for free agency. Given the Cowboys' tight cap situation, there's a chance Hatcher, Ware and Spencer all part ways with the team. If that happens, Dallas might field the NFL's worst defensive line in 2014. My prediction: Spencer walks, and the Cowboys either re-sign Hatcher and release Ware or restructure Ware and let Hatcher go to the highest bidder. Fresh off a career year, Hatcher has already indicated that there won't be any type of hometown discount in the Big D. The ideal scenario: The Cowboys figure out a way to keep Ware and Hatcher, then nab a young developmental defensive lineman in Round 1 of the 2014 NFL Draft. (Hey, a team can dream, right?) Dallas' defense was an embarrassment last season -- ranking dead last in yardage by a healthy margin -- and the Cowboys must address questions up front if they want to avoid an encore performance in the fall.
Other areas of interest: Safety, offensive guard, linebacker.
New York Giants
Top priority in free agency: Linebacker.
As of the writing of this blurb, the Giants' projected linebacker triumvirate consisted of ... Marcus Dowtin, Mark Herzlich and Spencer Paysinger. That trio accounted for 118 tackles, one sack and one takeaway for New York in 2013 -- that's combined. Clearly, something has to be done -- like signing Jon Beason to a long-term deal. There will be plenty of linebackers to be had on the open market, although the best ones are more suited to playing outside in a 3-4 scheme, which doesn't benefit Big Blue. Still, that doesn't mean the Giants shouldn't at least give this area a look-see. If none of the outside 'backers in the marketplace suit their needs and the LB focus shifts to May's draft, then expect the front office to search for secondary help. The Giants will have more available funds than most initially anticipated (somewhere in the neighborhood of $20 million). What they won't have is David Diehl, who announced his retirement in January. Consequently, the offensive front needs some attention.
Other areas of interest: Defensive back, offensive line, running back.
Top priority in free agency: Safety.
Much like Chicago and division rival Washington, Philadelphia isn't going to improve on defense without better safety production. While playing NFL matchmaker in a previous column, I listed Philadelphia as a logical landing spot for Jairus Byrd. That was two weeks ago. What's happened since? Well, the Eagles went on a spending spree to keep the offense intact. Philly locked up offensive linemen Jason Kelce and Jason Peters with long-term deals, and also re-signed receivers Jeremy Maclin and Riley Cooper. The latter received a five-year, $25 million deal despite the fact that he could be a No. 3 receiver with Maclin back in the fold. But stopping the pass has to be as important as throwing it. The Eagles must upgrade the back end of the defense. Last season, opposing QBs feasted on Philly's lackluster safeties -- mostly Nate Allen and Patrick Chung -- posting a triple-digit quarterback rating when targeting the position. Yeah, I'd say this calls for great change. Chip Kelly still looks to have the best team in a weak division, but the coach needs to shore up the problems that led Philadelphia to finish dead last in pass defense last season. The Eagles will still have some money to spend. Will they be in the market for a high-cost free agent like Byrd? That remains to be seen, especially considering Kelly appears to be the kind of guy who likes to concentrate on developing and retaining his own players.
Other areas of interest: Defensive line, cornerback, outside linebacker.
Top priority in free agency: Safety.
Yes, safety is certainly a soft spot throughout this division. But while Philly overcame poor safety play to succeed in 2013, Washington most definitely did not. This position, in general, has significantly evolved in recent years. Heavy hitters used to be desirable; now it's ideal to have a pair of safeties who can roam and man up on a tight end of Jimmy Graham's ilk. The Redskins' safeties didn't do much of either last season. Now, considering this team won a grand total of three games in 2013, its problems ran much deeper than the last line of defense. Still, enhancing this area through free agency will make the front seven look much better while also providing DeAngelo Hall and David Amerson some help in the back end. Not to mention, improved safety play would provide defensive coordinator Jim Haslett the confidence to take some shots as a defensive play-caller, opening up the blitz package. The Redskins have yet to really see what they have in Phillip Thomas. The fourth-round pick from last year suffered a Lisfranc injury in the preseason opener and missed the entire season. I had a great conversation with Thomas when he was going through the pre-draft process, and the receptive youngster was fully confident in making an impact at the NFL level. He might be a starter in 2014, but still, Washington must infuse the position with a proven commodity or two. Remember, the Redskins don't have a first-round pick -- thanks to the Robert Griffin III trade -- but they should have almost $30 million to spend this offseason. How about grabbing a guy like Byrd, T.J. Ward or Donte Whitner?
Other areas of interest: Defensive line, wide receiver, offensive guard.