Our Roster Reset series takes a division-by-division look at where things stand across the league heading into the 2019 NFL Draft. Jeremy Bergman examines the current makeup of the NFC East below.
The NFC East is in flux. What's new? For the 14th consecutive year, a different team in the league's most TV-friendly octant won the division. It makes sense. Rents are soaring in metropoles like New York, D.C., Dallas and Philly. It's hard to stay in the penthouse for long.
The Super Bowl LII champion Eagles learned that the hard way in 2018, struggling through Carson Wentz's injuries and a Lombardi hangover that took half a season to get over. Philly only looked Super Bowl-bound again when Big (Game) Nick Foles re-entered the starting lineup. But now Foles has flown south with the geese, and Philly is set to move on with the MVP-caliber, IR-acquainted Wentz for the foreseeable future. The Eagles still have the best situation in the division, from general manager Howie Roseman on down, and though they might be favorites to win the NFC East in 2019, they can't claim to be division champions heading into the new campaign.
That's the domain of the Cowboys, who surged through the conference with a dominant last half, thanks to an at-the-time-ridiculed trade for Amari Cooper. It looked as if Dallas was mortgaging its future by surrendering a first-round pick -- potentially a high one -- for the receiver, and that might still be true. But the addition of Cooper jump-started Dallas' one-dimensional offense and propelled the 'Boys to their first playoff victory in four years. If recent history is any indication, Dallas is due for a downturn. The Cowboys have alternated playoff seasons for the past five years, and no NFC East team has gone back-to-back since Andy Reid's Eagles won four straight division titles in the early aughts. But before Dallas can even think about January football, it needs to ensure its stars will have stars on their helmets for 2019 and beyond.
The Giants sent their biggest star packing this offseason when they rid themselves, in their minds, of Odell Beckham Jr., who gets to join an organization on the rise in Cleveland (more on that below). The move was an indication of a greater identity crisis taking hold in East Rutherford. New York's honchos insist Big Blue can win while rebuilding and keep Eli Manning under center all the while. The rest of the Giants' offseason will provide a hint as to whether that's truly the plan.
Identity crises are nothing new for the Redskins, who are stuck between a rock and Alex Smith's boondoggle of a contract. The injured Smith, who likely won't play in 2019 and might never play again, will be the highest-paid player on Washington's roster this season. Again, the 'Skins are hamstrung by an aggressively large contract not paying out in wins or, in this case, availability. Washington, which struggles with injuries and on-field mediocrity every year, is at risk of suffering from the same ills again in 2019.
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By biggest, do we mean "largest contract signed" or "most impactful on-field acquisition" or "most outsized body-mass index"? My editors did not outline this. So, I'll take it to mean a mix of the first two definitions. Whether Washington's signing of Collins for $84 million total (and $45 million in guarantees) over six years was the right move for the team or for the safety is not the issue at hand here; D.C. needed help in the secondary, and Collins has a sincere reverence for Redskins great Sean Taylor, so it can be seen as a personnel and personal match. But the move was BIG because it helped Washington and hurt/embarrassed one of its rivals at the exact same time. The Giants were supposed to franchise tag Collins on a tender worth $11.15 million for safeties. Desiring an extension instead of a tag, Collins was not expected to immediately sign the tender, but that's not the point. Instead of even handing him the tag, New York let Collins hit free agency, where he was quickly scooped up by the division-rival Redskins, who made him the highest-paid safety in the league ($14M per). Washington saw value in the three-time Pro Bowl safety where the Giants did not. New York thinks it replaced Collins with Jabrill Peppers, whom they acquired from Cleveland in the OBJ trade and whom Big Blue brass will argue is a cheaper, rangier option with higher upside. But letting Collins Amtrak down to a hated division rival without a fight was a questionable move by New York.
Speaking of questionable moves ... Forget the division -- there might not be a bigger loss in the entire league this offseason than that of Beckham. The Giants shocked the football world when they traded the transcendent wide receiver to the Browns. It was considerably surprising because Beckham carries a $16 million dead-money hit on New York's cap in 2019. New York has since "replaced" OBJ with slot man and YAC-god Golden Tate. If Tate is to be the No. 1 WR in NY, then the Giants are paying out roughly $31 million for him to fill in Beckham's production, which at his peak was over 100 receiving yards per game. The Giants will say this is for the best over time, that the future of the franchise rests on the legs of Saquon Barkley and the arm of the franchise-quarterback-to-be-named-later, both of whom deserve to be the focal point of the offense, and not on the gluey gloves of an eccentric wide receiver with special field-stretching capabilities and a penchant for sideline hysterics. Ten years from now, New York's front office might be proven right. But Beckham's absence will linger over this franchise until the Giants emerge from their rebuild as winners. That is, unless the Browns win a Super Bowl first with OBJ on the field -- then the swap will haunt the G-Men for all eternity.
Philly's low-risk, high-reward trade for Howard came more than two weeks after the start of free agency, on a nondescript Thursday evening, when some Eagles fans might have actually been snoozin'. A small-potatoes acquisition that just might've filled one of the only holes on Philadelphia's roster, it was the very definition of a sleeper pickup. The Eagles were held back by a lack of balance on offense last season. With Jay Ajayi and Darren Sproles sidelined with injuries, Philadelphia averaged just 98.1 rushing YPG and 3.9 YPC (28th and 30th in NFL). That was a far cry from 2017, when a Super Bowl-winning trio of Ajayi, LeGarrette Blount and Corey Clement guided Philly's running game to 132.2 YPG (third) and 4.5 YPC (tied for third). Howard, who is third in the NFL in rushing since entering the league in 2016 (behind only Ezekiel Elliott and Todd Gurley), has the potential to be the lead back that Ajayi, still a free agent, could not be last year. Even better for Roseman and Co., Howard costs just $2 million in 2019, after which his contract is up. It's a prove-it year for a 24-year-old running back with high upside. Plus, if Howard performs well and Philly lets him hit free agency after the year, the Eagles can recoup a compensatory pick.
Dallas Cowboys: It's big decision(s) time in Big D. The Cowboys have a slew of contract extensions to work on, with nearly every one of their above-the-fold playmakers. DeMarcus Lawrence, currently on his second franchise tag, wants to be the highest-paid edge rusher in football. According to NFL Network Insider Ian Rapoport, though, talks are at an "impasse" as Lawrence holds off getting shoulder surgery. (UPDATE: Lawrence agreed to a five-year deal worth more than $100 million with Dallas on Friday, per Rapoport.) Starting quarterback Dak Prescott's rookie deal is up at the end of the 2019 season, and Dallas has to decide whether to pay him like a franchise starter. Ezekiel Elliott could have his fifth-year option picked up to extend his deal through 2020, unless the Cowboys strike a team-friendly extension beforehand. And then there's Amari Cooper, for whom Dallas traded a first-round pick and who is entering the fifth year of his rookie deal. Aside from Lawrence's new deal, none of these contract situations look to be resolved before the draft later this month, where the Cowboysdon't currently hold a pick until Day 2. And we thought "Who shot J.R.?" was the biggest question to ever hang over Dallas ...
New York Giants: One of the most important drafts in franchise history, that's what's next. New York's selection of Offensive Rookie of the Year Saquon Barkley with the second overall pick last year was lambasted by some, given that Manning was thought to be aging out of the starting QB job and Sam Darnold, Josh Allen and Josh Rosen were still on the board. If the Giants don't acquire the right franchise signal-caller in this year's draft, then WFAN callers will rise from the sofas, storm the Meadowlands and call for GM Dave Gettleman's head. The OBJ trade netted New York a second first-round pick (No. 17) to go with the sixth and 37th overall selections, giving Gettleman an arsenal of valuable picks to use to trade up into the top five for a quarterback, if he so desires. Big Blue could also use them to swing a trade for Rosen, whom the Cardinals could sell off in between the first and sixth overall picks (if they take Kyler Murray No. 1 overall, as has been rumored). New York has a lot of holes to fill -- right tackle, edge rusher, wide receiver, etc. -- but the success of the organization's offseason and Gettleman's tenure will be judged squarely on their ability to acquire a successor to Eli.
Philadelphia Eagles: Having escaped from cap hell and filled needs at defensive line and running back, Philly can kick back and focus on building depth and a future through the draft. The Eagles have three selections in the first 57 picks and could use them to choose an eventual successor to Jason Peters at tackle or an immediate replacement for Jordan Hicks in the linebacking corps. Philly should also keep an eye on an extension for Wentz, whom the Eagles might want to pay before Prescott, Jared Goff and Patrick Mahomes get their franchise deals.
Washington Redskins: The 'Skins will have to decide whether their future at the QB position is in this upcoming draft. Washington sits at No. 15, which is probably too late for Murray or Dwayne Haskins, but could be the sweet spot for Drew Lock or Daniel Jones. D.C.'s decision makers have sounded confident that either Case Keenum or Colt McCoy can get the job done under center this year, but I'm not so sure they actually believe that. Washington should also be in the market for a young receiver and edge rusher to replace the production of Jamison Crowder and Preston Smith, respectively.