Free Agency Primer: NFC East
Will the 2014 season bring better days for the NFC East? Or will cap woes and roster holes prove too much to overcome?
The division’s free agency primer:
• Key free agents: DT Jason Hatcher, LB Ernie Sims, LB Anthony Spencer, G Brian Waters, DT Jairus Wynn; RB Phillip Tanner (RFA)
• Players Dallas needs back: Hatcher, Waters (if he’s interested).
Hatcher’s inclusion here makes life a little difficult in Dallas. He is coming off a career-best season (11.0 sacks) and will be 32 in July, meaning this could be his last opportunity to cash in as a free agent. The Cowboys, meanwhile, are estimated to be $22 million or so over the projected 2014 cap … so … where’s the money for Hatcher?
Waters turns 37 next week and finished 2013 on I.R. Still, he was a valuable interior lineman when he was on the field — if he’s willing to give it one more go, the Cowboys ought to lock him up for another season.
Teams rarely swipe restricted free agents away from the opposition, which means Tanner probably will be a Cowboy again in 2014.
• Players Dallas should let walk: Sims, Spencer.
After using the franchise tag on Spencer each of the past two offseasons, the Cowboys should be prepared to move on, though they might be able to bring the DE back on a one-year deal if they want after he missed almost all of 2013 with a knee injury. Given how well George Selvie played in Spencer’s stead, the cash-strapped Cowboys would be better served using the money elsewhere.
And no one in Dallas will lose any sleep if Sims departs. True to form on his career, he’s been injury-prone and inconsistent here.
• Outlook: Good luck figuring out what the Cowboys are doing financially. Already in a hole for 2014, they handed kicker Dan Bailey a $22.5 million extension rather than offer him a one-year tender as a restricted free agent. They’ll need just about everyone who’s able to restructure their contracts in order to generate any wiggle room.
The main concerns appear to be on defense, where the Cowboys must upgrade in the secondary and along the D-line (especially if Hatcher leaves). They also could stand to improve at linebacker after Justin Durant struggled in his first season over from Detroit.
This is going to take some serious work.
New York Giants
• Key free agents: LB Jon Beason, OL Kevin Boothe, S Stevie Brown, RB Andre Brown, RB Peyton Hillis, DT Linval Joseph, CB Trumaine McBride, S Ryan Mundy, TE Brandon Myers, WR Hakeem Nicks, LB Keith Rivers, CB Terrell Thomas, DE Justin Tuck; FB Henry Hynoski (RFA), LB Mark Herzlich (RFA)
• Players New York needs back: Beason, Boothe, A. Brown, Joseph, McBride, Tuck.
A lot to pick through here, so let’s start with the biggest name: Tuck. He finished his contract year in style, upping his sack total to 11 while really helping carry the Giants’ defense down the stretch. That might be problematic for the franchise now that he’s a free agent — one determined not to give New York any breaks with his contract. The Giants began preparing for life after Tuck by drafting Damontre Moore last April, but is he ready for a much larger role?
Beason may be the real No. 1 focus for the Giants. He looked revitalized after the Giants traded for him last October, and he more than earned another opportunity to stick in their starting lineup. Removing Beason’s presence from the middle of this 4-3 defense would force New York to scan free agency or the draft for a replacement.
Joseph was a standout up front — at just 25 years old and with teams around the league always in need of big bodies up front, the market could price him out of New York’s range. There might be a big drop-off, however, from Joseph to 2013 second-rounder Johnathan Hankins.
The rest of the players listed as must-keeps would help round out a thin depth chart and should be reasonably priced. That includes McBride, who wound up starting 10 games last season; and Brown, who has been impressive out of the backfield when healthy.
• Players New York should let walk: Hillis, Myers, Nicks, Rivers.
Nicks is the big ticket in this category. The Giants still have Victor Cruz and Rueben Randle at WR, so the need to retain him falls far shy of desperation level. That’s especially true after Nicks failed to find the end zone in 2013, in spite of 56 receptions. Hard to say exactly what his market will be, but the Giants’ other needs should keep them from chasing him.
Myers caught 47 passes and scored four times in 2013, but this team needs more in all areas from its No. 1 TE. Hillis and Rivers both served functional roles in 2013, yet neither is close to irreplaceable.
• Outlook: Do the Giants actually have any players under contract for next season? They have 24 guys set to be unrestricted free agents, plus another three RFAs. All this for a team that’s projected to have some (not a lot) of cap space — $13-14 million. The run game could get a boost with David Wilson back. Elsewhere, the challenge will be getting younger and more cohesive without being able to break the bank.