There was no division worse than the NFC East in 2021. That the 6-10 Giants were still in contention for the division title until the very last game of the NFL season pretty much says it all.
It doesn’t have to be that way again in 2021. All four teams — well, realistically three since the Eagles are in a full-on rebuild — can make moves this offseason to take the loose reins of the division from Washington. The Cowboys were the favorite heading into 2020, the Eagles weren’t far behind and the Giants, as they have been for a while, were an afterthought.
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That wasn’t quite how it played out, but the pecking order should (or could) look different in 2021. Strangely, all of the quarterback situations are murky as of this writing outside of the Giants, who return Daniel Jones. Dak Prescott will be a free agent, Carson Wentz is traded and replaced by the unproven Jalen Hurts, and it’s not yet known who will play QB for Washington.
Last year, the Eagles were the only team with a returning coach. This year, the Eagles are the only team without a returning coach.
But, again, the division was bad enough last year that anyone winning it in 2021 shouldn’t be completely ruled out.
Here are three ways each team can become the division favorite this offseason:
(Estimated cap space is per Over the Cap)
COWBOYS (Est. cap space: $19.3M)
1. Re-sign Dak Prescott: This simple move alone might be enough to make the Cowboys the favorite. He’s head and shoulders above every other quarterback in this division, and that would only change if Washington somehow pulled off a trade for Deshaun Watson, which seems highly unlikely. Maybe they’ll franchise tag him again, but either way the best path forward for Dallas remains an obvious one.
2. Invest heavily in the defense: The Cowboys defense was god-awful in 2020 and they should be devoting most of their non-Prescott resources to improving it. They have enough cap space (and can clear more with restructures) to find key improvements in the secondary and pass rush. They also have the 10th overall pick and should be able to snag a cornerback like Alabama’s Patrick Surtain or Virginia Tech’s Caleb Farley.
3. Draft a left tackle: Tyron Smith only played two games last year and it’s time for the Cowboys to plan for life at left tackle after he retires. Drafting an offensive tackle early would protect them in case he’s not himself in 2021 either.
EAGLES (Est. cap space: -43.18M)
1. Find bargain free agents: Howie Roseman has A LOT of work ahead of him getting the Eagles out of cap hell. He already cut DeSean Jackson, and Alshon Jeffery and Malik Jackson will follow soon. Zach Ertz will almost certainly be traded. Derek Barnett could be traded or extended. The Eagles will not be players for any free agents of note this offseason. But this will be a unique offseason due to the declining cap where plenty of players (both cap casualties and otherwise) will be available at bargain one-year deals. The Eagles can find help at key positions (cornerback, linebacker, wide receiver) at reasonable cost.
2. Draft Ja’Marr Chase: If the Eagles want to win this year (it’s probably not a major concern in 2021, really) then drafting a legitimate No. 1 wide receiver like Chase, who was more dominant than Justin Jefferson at LSU two years ago, makes a lot of sense. Jalen Reagor doesn’t look like a No. 1 receiver at this stage.
3. Upgrade the secondary: The Eagles have a solid No. 1 cornerback in Darius Slay, but the rest of the secondary is full of question marks. The Cowboys should continue to have a top-notch combo of quarterback and weapons, and the Giants and Washington are expected to invest to improve in those areas in 2021. The Eagles aren’t well suited to stop the pass right now.
GIANTS (Est. cap space: $906,453)
1. Load up on weapons: As in more than one. If Daniel Jones is the quarterback, his supporting cast is still not good enough. Not close. The Giants need to find a No. 1-caliber wide receiver in free agency and/or the NFL Draft, and shouldn’t be afraid to over-invest in adding other weapons too. They won’t have issue clearing enough cap to pursue a high-end wideout, and can augment that player (Corey Davis? Curtis Samuel?) by drafting someone like Alabama’s Jaylen Waddle, DeVonta Smith or Florida tight end Kyle Pitts with the 11th pick.
2. Upgrade at RT and/or LG: Right now the Giants’ top option at right tackle will be second-year Matt Peart, and at left guard it’s either Shane Lemieux or Will Hernandez. None of those three showed enough to have absolute confidence in their future as starters, though Peart did show some promise as a rookie. Still, whether it’s via signing a veteran at one or both spots, or drafting player(s) at those positions, the Giants need to upgrade their offensive line where possible. This group was graded as the worst pass-blocking group in the NFL by Pro Football Focus in 2020.
3. Find pass rushers: Defensive coordinator Patrick Graham showed he can get creative enough without elite pass rushers to still generate pass rush, which is how the Giants somehow managed 40 sacks last season. But the current group of outside linebackers is … a disaster. Lorenzo Carter and Oshane Ximines are both unproven and coming off significant injuries. Sixth- and seventh-round picks Carter Coughlin and Cam Brown aren’t good enough (yet) to be relied upon as starters. Kyler Fackrell is a free agent. If the Giants invest at wide receiver, they can still get a lower cost veteran to lead the edge group (perhaps Melvin Ingram, Justin Houston or someone of that ilk) and add a rookie on Day 2 of the NFL Draft.
WASHINGTON (Est. cap space: $32.6M)
1. Get a quality, veteran quarterback: Who that might be is unclear. But if Washington fancies themselves contenders, getting Sam Darnold or who ever is left in the draft at pick No. 19 (Kyle Trask?) is not going to get them to the postseason. Alex Smith probably won’t either. A lot of who Washington can realistically bring in depends on how things play out in other situations. If the 49ers get someone else, Jimmy Garoppolo would be intriguing. If Derek Carr is made available, he’s worth pursuing. Marcus Mariota might be good enough. Maybe even Ryan Fitzpatrick or Jameis Winston as a one-year stopgap. None of those options are amazing, but Washington has a good enough roster to make it work around them.
2. Re-sign Brandon Scherff (and upgrade the O-Line): Scherff is one of the NFL’s best interior offensive linemen and Washington should make every effort to bring him back, even if it means franchise tagging him. They also should have enough money to pursue top free agent offensive tackles, including Panthers’ Taylor Moton (who Ron Rivera knows well) if he actually hits the open market.
3. Add more weaponry: Washington is in decent shape with running back Antonio Gibson, wide receiver Terry McLaurin and tight end Logan Thomas in the fold. But the rest of the group is uninspiring. This is a deep free agent and draft class of receivers, so it shouldn’t be hard to rustle up some upgrades.
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