During a time in which the sports world has stopped, the NFL has reminded us that the world keeps turning. Free agency hit the league with a force this week as star players like Tom Brady, Deandre Hopkins and Stefon Diggs, to name only a few, electrified headlines. The NFC East was not without its fair share of changes and updates of its own.
Let’s start with the Dallas Cowboys because the approval of the new CBA over the weekend put Jerry Jones’ team in a particular bind. Because the new CBA was approved, albeit narrowly, teams were not allowed to use both their franchise and transition tags this offseason. It was anticipated that Dallas would use its franchise tag on quarterback Dak Prescott and its transition tag to keep wide receiver Amari Cooper, but that proved to be no longer possible. Instead, on Monday, Dallas announced that it would use its exclusive franchise tag on Prescott.
The exclusive tag is important because it means that no other team is allowed to sign Prescott, effectively binding the QB to Dallas for at least the 2020 season. The tag will cost around $33 million and both sides have until July 15 to agree to a long-term deal.
The tag effectively buys Dallas time to work out a long-term deal with Prescott, a franchise quarterback who it wants to keep around for the foreseeable future. Reports have suggested that Prescott would prefer a shorter contract so that he can cash in sooner, resulting in differences in opinion on both sides.
I do not think things will get too contentious between the Cowboys and Prescott because I think both parties ultimately want the same thing: to bring a Super Bowl to Dallas. But it appears that each side has different ways of wanting to reach that goal, which may prove tricky down the road.
Dallas does have reason to celebrate though because it managed to hold on to four-time Pro Bowler Amari Cooper despite not being able to use the transition tag. Cooper signed a five-year, $100 million deal with the Cowboys despite reportedly being offered more money by the conference-rival Washington Redskins. The deal makes Cooper the second-highest paid receiver in the league.
Speaking of the Redskins, Cooper started what turned out to be a growing list of players who Washington was unable to lock down in free agency. Cooper re-signed with Dallas and tight end Austin Hooper signed with the Cleveland Browns. The Redskins entered free agency in pursuit of an offensive weapon to join wide receiver Terry McLaurin, who quarterback Dwayne Haskins Jr. could pinpoint as a reliable target. The Redskins’ inability to pick up a strong offensive weapon so far has some questioning whether top-tier talent wants to play with the former Buckeye. I don’t think Haskins is keeping players away though.
For starters, the young QB entered his professional career in a rocky way. He did not play in a game until Case Keenum went down with an injury and he had to transition between coaches Jay Gruden and Bill Callahan mid-season. He looked stronger as the season progressed, matching New York Giants quarterback Daniel Jones reception-for-reception in Week 16 before having to leave the game early due to injury.
I think the Redskins, aside from their aggressive pursuit of Cooper, are simply playing free agency conservatively and not offering players an exorbitant amount of money. They have made numerous smaller moves instead of a few splashy transactions. According to Over the Cap, Washington has about $38 million in cap space, which puts them at 10th in the league overall. New head coach Ron Rivera, though, has never expressed a desire to be aggressive in the offseason. “I don’t want to fill in all the holes with [free agents] because then you’re not going after the high quality guys, because you can only spend so much money,” he said at last month’s NFL Combine.
Let’s take a deeper look into how each NFC East team has approached this past week of free agency.
We’ll stick with Washington while we’re on the subject. Instead of talking about who hasn’t signed with the Redskins though, let’s focus on who has.
Shortly after losing offensive lineman Ereck Flowers, the Redskins re-signed linebacker Jon Bostic to a two-year contract worth around $5-6.6 million. He started all 16 games last season and became a leader on defense in the process. Washington also brought back DB Kendall Fuller on a four-year deal - a versatile player who they are excited to have back on the team. Fuller was drafted in the third round of the 2016 draft and was traded to the Kansas City Chiefs in the deal that brought QB Alex Smith to Washington.
The defensive moves continued as the Redskins signed Bears LB Kevin Pierre-Louis, who was a fourth-round draft pick by the Seattle Seahawks in 2014. Shortly after, the team signed LB Thomas Davis. The soon-to-be 37-year-old played with the Carolina Panthers from 2005-2018 and will therefore be reuniting with Rivera in Washington.
Then, the Redskins moved on to the safety position, signing former Pittsburgh Steeler Sean Davis to a one-year deal worth up to $5 million.
While Washington has clearly invested in its defense, the big remaining question is who will play back-up to, or compete with, Haskins at the quarterback position. Names like Cam Newton and Jameis Winston have been thrown around, but it remains to be seen how Rivera wants to re-shape the Washington offense.
For the Eagles, talk has been dominated by Malcolm Jenkins and Darius Slay, and rightfully so.
Philadelphia opted to “turn the page” on Jenkins, deciding that it would not pick up his contract option for 2020 that was due on March 18. The Eagles gain $4.8 million in cap space, but make no mistake, losing the veteran safety will leave a big hole for them on defense. Jenkins served as the captain of the team and was incredibly valuable to the organization. It appears that both sides were not able to agree on a deal though. Jenkins wanted a long-term contract, and given the fact that he will turn 33 this season, the Eagles did not want to make a lengthy investment.
This is a tough decision to make if you’re the Eagles but it just might make them a stronger team down the road. Jenkins posted a sentimental message on Twitter thanking Philly fans.
Then, in a splashy move, the Eagles acquired cornerback Darius Slay from the Detroit Lions for two 2020 draft picks: a third round and fifth-round selection. Slay signed a three-year, $50 million extension that includes $30 million guaranteed, making him the highest paid cornerback in the NFL on an annual basis. The Eagles will still have eight picks in the draft after the Slay trade.
Acquiring Slay is a high-risk, high-reward move and it’s too early to tell if the risk will be worth it. The Eagles still have eight picks to work with in the draft, but this prevents them from being as flexible as they could have been, especially when it comes to trying to draft a top receiver.
Remember that the Eagles have only made 10 picks in the last two years, which is the fewest in the NFL. They need to get younger, and yet they just gave up two picks for a 29-year-old cornerback.
We touched on the Cowboys in the introduction to this week’s notebook already so we’ll just add a little more of an update here. The matchup of Cooper and Slay in two games this coming season has many excited as it should be fun to watch them both compete head-to-head.
With the main part of free agency behind us, the Cowboys will join every other team in bargain hunting free agents to fill positions of need. Acquiring a wide receiver is still a big focus for them as their reported interested in Emmanuel Sanders and Randall Cobb suggests they are still looking.
Also, look out for the Cowboys to sign a defensive end to bookend DeMarcus Lawrence and to fill the safety position - something Dallas has needed to do for some time now.