- Steve Muench, Scouts Inc.
The deadline for underclassmen to declare for the draft is less than a week away and we are three months from the start of free agency, but it's never too early to start examining teams' potential needs and possible fits for the 2014 draft. Adjustments can always be made along the way.
Here's an early look at the NFC East, where Washington is one of the more intriguing teams heading into the offseason. The Redskins have just hired Cincinnati Bengals offensive coordinator Jay Gruden as head coach and are without a first-round pick coming off a 3-13 season.
There are plenty of plotlines when it comes to the other three teams too. Can Dallas find the players it needs to strengthen the defense and get back into the playoffs? Can a Giants organization that has seen quarterback Eli Manning's numbers regress over the past two seasons and has several decisions to make in free agency make the right moves to regain its Super Bowl-contender status? Can the Eagles build on a strong start under first-year coach Chip Kelly and take the next step in Year 2?
As usual, all draft-eligible non-seniors are denoted with an asterisk.
Draft Position: T-No. 16 overall (to be determined via coin flip with the Ravens)
Needs: Defensive end, defensive tackle, safety
Only two teams gave up more passing yards per game than Dallas, and no team recorded fewer sacks per passing attempt. DeMarcus Ware turns 32 in July, missed three games with a quad injury and recorded a career-low six sacks after moving from 3-4 outside linebacker to 4-3 defensive end under defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin. Anthony Spencer underwent surgery on his left knee during the 2013 offseason, played in one game and then had season-ending surgery on the same knee. He isn't under contract for next year.
Only five teams allowed more rushing yards per game, and Dallas didn't have the personnel at defensive tackle to make a smooth transition from a base three-man front to Kiffin's four-man front. Jason Hatcher turns 32 in July and isn't under contract for next year.
No team surrendered more 20-plus-yard passing plays than Dallas, a disturbing statistic considering Kiffin's scheme is designed to take away big plays. The absence of a consistent pass rush and players adjusting to the scheme played roles, but the Cowboys need to address the safety position. They cut 2013 free-agent signing Will Allen after he struggled, and raw 2013 third-round pick J.J. Wilcox didn't do enough as a rookie to prevent them from bringing in a safety capable of competing for a starting role. Plus their safeties combined to intercept just three passes last year.
DEs: Oregon State's Scott Crichton, Texas' Jackson Jeffcoat, Southern Cal's Devon Kennard
DTs: Notre Dame's Stephon Tuitt*, Minnesota's Ra'Shede Hageman, LSU's Anthony Johnson*
Safeties: Alabama's Ha Ha Clinton-Dix*, LSU's Craig Loston, Stanford's Ed Reynolds
The Giants need to improve their ground game and protect Manning better. Addressing the interior offensive line should help. Offensive guard Chris Snee turns 32 this month, and center David Baas turns 33 in September. Both have had problems staying healthy and are cap casualty candidates if they don't retire. Center Jim Cordle is coming off a season-ending knee injury. David Diehl and Kevin Boothe can play multiple positions, but both are on the wrong side of 30. All three are scheduled to hit the free agent market.
Left offensive tackle Will Beatty broke his leg in the season finale and struggled at times plus Diehl may not be back, so the Giants could target an offensive tackle in the first round.
Improving the pass rush is important, but getting Manning back on track is imperative, so receiver gets the nod for the third need. Hakeem Nicks is expected to leave via free agency, and Louis Murphy isn't under contract for next year. While 2012 second-round pick Rueben Randle has flashed, he's inconsistent.
OL: Alabama's Cyrus Kouandjio* (OT), Stanford's David Yankey* (G), Arkansas' Travis Swanson (C)
TEs: Washington's Austin Seferian-Jenkins*, Texas Tech's Jace Amaro*, Iowa's C.J. Fiedorowicz
WRs: Vanderbilt's Jordan Matthews, Penn State's Allen Robinson*, Clemson's Martavis Bryant*
Dallas is the only team that averaged fewer sacks per passing attempt than the Eagles, and adding an outside linebacker is the best way to improve the pass rush. Trent Cole played well after moving from defensive end and 2013 free-agent signing Connor Barwin is a steady starter, but Cole is 31 years old and Barwin isn't a great pass-rusher. A first-round pick in 2010, Brandon Graham has been a disappointment.
No team gave up more passing yards per game, and addressing the secondary, starting with cornerback, is as important as fixing the pass rush. Brandon Boykin is an excellent slot corner, but the Eagles need someone to push 2013 free-agent signings Bradley Fletcher and Cary Williams on the outside. Fletcher doesn't make enough big plays, and Williams has been too inconsistent, especially considering how much they are paying him.
Philadelphia has decisions to make at safety, where Nate Allen, Kurt Coleman and Colt Anderson aren't under contract for next year. 2013 free-agent signing Patrick Chung lost his starting job to 2013 fifth-round pick Earl Wolff, and both missed time with injuries.
OLBs: Stanford's Trent Murphy, South Florida's Aaron Lynch*, Virginia Tech's James Gayle
DBs: Oklahoma State's Justin Gilbert, Michigan State's Darqueze Dennard, Florida's Loucheiz Purifoy*
Safeties: Alabama's Ha Ha Clinton-Dix*, Kansas State's Ty Zimmerman, Michigan State's Isaiah Lewis
Draft Position: No. 34 overall (first-round pick traded to St. Louis)
Needs: Defensive back, linebacker, defensive line
Washington has needs at receiver and along the offensive line, but strengthening the defense should be the priority. It needs to address all three levels, starting with the secondary.
At safety, Brandon Meriweather turns 30 this year, has had problems staying healthy and has a reputation for getting flagged for personal fouls. Reed Doughty is 31 years old and is not under contract for next year. Corners DeAngelo Hall, Josh Wilson and E.J. Biggers aren't under contract either.
The way the Redskins address the front seven depends on whom they hire to run the defense and whether they stay with a base 3-4 or transition to a base 4-3. Regardless of the front, there should be plenty of change at linebacker, as no fewer than seven players are scheduled to hit the free-agent market, including inside linebacker London Fletcher, who is expected to retire and whose experience and leadership will be tough to replace.
The other notable free-agent linebacker is Brian Orakpo, who will get plenty of interest on the market. Orakpo and Ryan Kerrigan are capable of lining up at defensive end in a four-man front, so he could stay even if Washington transitions to a new scheme. The team also needs to strengthen the run defense and get stronger up front.
DBs: Baylor's Ahmad Dixon (DS), Ohio State's Bradley Roby* (DC), Virginia Tech's Kyle Fuller
LBs: Michigan State's Max Bullough (ILB), Wisconsin's Chris Borland (ILB), Arizona State's Chris Young (OLB)
DL: Penn State's Daquan Jones (DT), Connecticut's Shamar Stephen (DT), Virginia's Brent Urban (DT/DE)
The deadline for underclassmen to declare for the draft is less than a week away and we are three months from the start of free agency, but it's never too early to start examining teams' potential needs and possible fits for the 2014 draft.