Fifth of an eight-part series
With the NFL draft coming up April 26-28, we examine each team's personnel and identify its top three needs going into the draft, subject to any free-agent signings it may make before then.
Overview: The Cowboys have been active in free agency, despite receiving word of a $10 million salary-cap punishment for contractual moves made during the uncapped season in 2010. Despite this, the team has added CB Brandon Carr, S Brodney Pool, OGs Nate Livings and Mackenzy Bernadeau and ILB Dan Connor, all of whom will compete for starting jobs. That has minimized some of the team’s immediate needs, which now makes the draft more of a crapshoot. They can trade up or, more likely, down from their first pick at No. 14. Always active on Draft Day, Jerry Jones seeks to angle and maneuver to land the players he and his staff most hotly desire. The team has all of its original picks, plus a compensatory pick (fourth round, No. 135 overall) that it cannot trade.
Need No. 1: Nose tackle/defensive end
Despite the team having one of the best pass rushers in the NFL in DeMarcus Ware and using the franchise tag on his bookend, OLB Anthony Spencer, the team needs to find more pressure defenders. That could come in the form of a stand-up linebacker, a down lineman or a hybrid of the two. The more likely option would be a 3-4 defensive end, although it’s very possible the team could seek a nose tackle, which would allow defensive coordinator Rob Ryan to move Jay Ratliff to a DE spot, where his size is more ideal. Another thing that having a bigger nose tackle would help is shielding what is likely to be a younger pair of inside linebackers, as vets Keith Brooking and Bradie James might not return.
Need No. 2: Wide receiver
The loss of WR Laurent Robinson (11 TDs) shouldn’t be overlooked. He rescued the Cowboys after joining the team in Week Two as a great yards-after-the-catch option outside the team’s Big Three. Thirty-two of the team’s 33 TD passes went to four players — Dez Bryant, Jason Witten, Miles Austin and Robinson. There is no player on the roster who projects to fill that spot by himself, so don’t rule out a second- or third-round pick used on a wideout. Austin can kick inside to the slot, so an outside vertical threat makes a lot of sense.
Need No. 3: Defensive back
The secondary is likely to be addressed in some form, but it’s not clear where the bigger need lies. At corner, there is talent with Carr, Mike Jenkins and Orlando Scandrick, but little additional depth. At safety, Pool helps, but Gerald Sensabaugh is hardly an inspiring starting partner. But is safety a primary position in Ryan’s defense? We will find out. The Cowboys almost certainly will pluck a player who helps the back end in some form, likely one who has a little versatility and also can play a heavy dose of man defense.
New York Giants
Overview: The team has been relatively quiet in free agency, as expected, following its Super Bowl victory, filling only one considerable need at tight end (signing Martellus Bennett) after Travis Beckum and Jake Ballard suffered torn ACLs in Super Bowl XLVI. But even with little movement so far and rings soon to be placed on their fingers, the Giants have some needs. They were only 9-7 in the regular season and were outscored by opponents, barely making the playoffs they dominated. They’re in good shape with picks, owning all their original selections plus a compensatory pick at the end of the fourth round.
Need No. 1: Offensive tackle
The Giants have allowed ORT Kareem McKenzie to test the market and don’t appear likely to re-sign him at this point. They have a potential in-house solution in Dave Diehl, who has played every spot on the line other than center; he can kick from left guard (where he started the season) or left tackle (where he ended it) over to the right side, and the Giants probably would be fine. But that’s assuming OLT Will Beatty’s eye is fully healed — he has been cleared to start working again after having surgery to repair a detached retina in late November — and that his back problems don’t act up. The third tackle is untested 2011 fourth-rounder James Brewer, and he’s an unknown at this point. The team needs another tackle on the roster and could take one high. They value this position.
Need No. 2: Defensive line
Seems foolish, right? The team with maybe the best defensive line in football might be seeking … a defensive lineman? It’s the way the Giants do business: They draft talented players who fill tough-to-find positions. They could take a rush end and have him be groomed to one day replace Osi Umenyiora, or they could draft an inside player, which would give them a terrific young nucleus with Chris Canty, Linval Joseph and Marvin Austin. Don’t rule either out.
Need No. 3: Wide receiver
The loss of WR Mario Manningham opens up an opportunity for last year’s third-rounder, Jerrel Jernigan, to step up. By the end of the season, Jernigan started to slow flashes — as a returner. He didn’t catch a single pass, though, so projecting him to make up for Manningham’s 523 yards (and, for that matter, his playoff heroics) is a bit of a reach. Ramses Barden keeps hanging around, as does Domenik Hixon, but neither can be counted on. The Giants need another option, despite the fantastic starting duo of Hakeem Nicks and Victor Cruz.
Overview: This offseason has paled in volume comparatively to last year’s post-lockout movement, but that makes sense. One, the team’s 8-8 season that followed last year's big splash in free agency was considered a disaster. And two, there are not a lot of glaring needs now. The addition of MLB DeMeco Ryans appears to be a possible steal as a great glue guy in the middle of the defense. But there will be some noise from the Eagles, who own an extra second-round pick (plus three sixth-rounders) and always are willing trade partners on draft weekend. The injury to All-Pro OLT Jason Peters certainly throws a wrench into the team's plans.
Need No. 1: Defensive tackle
Despite the fact that the Eagles have used high draft picks and spent big free-agent money in recent years on the defensive line, they always seek talent and depth here. More so than a pass-rushing end, the team could use a quick, penetrating tackle to play the gaps for the team’s upfield, attacking scheme. Andy Reid values building a team from the inside out, and he knows that the more defensive talent he has, the easier it will be for coordinator Juan Castillo to do his job. The theory makes some sense: build a strong, deep defensive line and suddenly the back seven will look a lot better. Plus, what’s the point in trading for Ryans if he doesn’t have gifted players shielding blockers in front of him? If they get that player, Ryans will have 150 tackles if he’s healthy.
Need No. 2: Quarterback
This is going to surprise some people. Yes, Michael Vick is the starter. Yes, Trent Edwards was signed and Mike Kafka, a 2010 fourth-rounder, remains on the roster. Yes, the depth at running back, tight end and offensive tackle must be bolstered. But Reid has been sniffing around college quarterbacks this offseason, meeting with Robert Griffin III at the NFL Scouting Combine and having a private workout for Ryan Tannehill. It’s nearly certain the Eagles will draft neither, but Reid is on the prowl. He knows he is financially committed in earnest to Vick for only one more season, after which the team can sever ties without much collateral damage. Edwards is a mere placeholder, and Kafka might have done enough to win over the offensive staff, most importantly Reid. Do not be stunned if they draft a QB relatively high up with an eye on the future.
Need No. 3: Running back
Safety appears the more uncertain position, with FS Nate Allen needing to prove himself, Kurt Coleman and Jaiquawn Jarrett battling at strong safety and little depth behind them. But Allen and Jarrett were second-rounders the past two seasons, making the likelihood of the Eagles taking another safety high in the draft somewhat low. Instead, don't be shocked if they provide insurance for RB LeSean McCoy, who had a ton of carries last season and has no established backup. The Eagles tend to favor quicker backs who can make people miss and contribute in the passing game, but it would not be stunning if they opted for more of an inside-the-tackles option to take a little of the load off of McCoy. His rookie contract is due to expire after the 2012 season, although an extension appears likely at any point. Dion Lewis appears to be best as a third option.
Overview: The team made its draft splash when it sent a ransom of draft picks to the Rams to move up four slots in Round One. The prize: likely Baylor’s Robert Griffin III, unless the Colts pull a stunner and veer away from Andrew Luck. But Redskins fans had better get comfortable with the afterglow of Griffin for a while. They will have to wait about 30 hours between picks from Griffin at No. 2 to their next choice in the third round (No. 69 overall). They also have two fourth-rounders, a fifth-rounder and a seventh-round pick.
Need No. 1: Quarterback
Let’s not get cute here. The biggest need will be solved by Griffin, and the early trade gives the staff the rare edge of being able to start game-planning, scheming and thinking of ways to take advantage of Griffin’s rare skill set. Duly noted, this is still Mike Shanahan’s offense, the same one he has run for years. But it will be tailored in ways that will highlight Griffin’s strengths (athleticism, arm strength, playmaking outside the pocket) and help minimize his weaknesses. He still must show he can work from under center, make complex reads coming from a spread attack and improve his accuracy and arm mechanics. But the Redskins are thrilled with the idea of landing what they believe will be their franchise quarterback.
Need No. 2: Offensive right tackle
Right tackle stands as a big need with Jammal Brown (hip) an unknown quantity at this point. Although Shanahan believes Brown will be ready for OTAs, he is no sure thing; he hasn’t played that well in two seasons in D.C. The team seeks athletic, zone-blocking big men, even on the right side. The draft class has a little depth to it, so there’s a chance the Redskins can find someone in the third or fourth rounds to fill this void.
Need No. 3: Safety
The team’s safety solutions are a bit flimsy at this point, with Patriots and Bears cast-off Brandon Meriweather and Vikings injury-reject and converted CB Cedric Griffin as possible starters. Not exactly comforting. Reed Doughty and DeJon Gomes are good backups, but that’s where they should remain. The team really does need a talented player in the back half who can cover space, replace some of LaRon Landry’s physicality (for all of his shortcomings, he could lay the wood in the box) and make a play or two when passes are up for grabs.