After what was perceived as a slow start, the Dallas Cowboys jumped into the free agency pool in a meaningful way on day 2. Their fans breathed a collective sigh of relief as they finally landed their primary free agent target – cornerback Brandon Carr – late Wednesday afternoon. Carr got a hefty 5-year, $50.1 million deal but at 25 years old (he turns 26 on May 19th), he is set to become a force in the Cowboys’ secondary for quite a few years.
This immediately makes the Cowboys defense better. They replace the aging and of late often-burned Terence Newman who was released on Tuesday freeing up over $6 million dollars in cap space and allowing them to land Carr. They will team Carr with Mike Jenkins at the other corner and slide Orlando Scandrick in as the slot corner. They still don’t have much depth and are therefore vulnerable to injury but the starting group got an upgrade.
Furthermore, it completely changes their focus for the upcoming draft. Most mock drafts had the Cowboys selecting a cornerback at #14 – someone like Alabama’s Dre Kirkpatrick or North Alabama’s Janoris Jenkins. Although not impossible, that is now highly unlikely as the Cowboys have bigger needs at other positions now. It puts players like guard David DeCastro from Stanford back on the radar. Or, they could stay on the defensive side of the ball and draft a defensive lineman like Memphis’ Dontari Poe or a pass rushing linebacker like North Carolina’s Quinton Coples. But, there is a ton of “football time” between now and the April draft so that is a subject for a later article.
For now, with a flurry of activity, let’s review what the entire NFC East Division has done in free agency and gauge who has improved their status the most. One disclaimer – much of the moves have come fast and furious so by the time this hits the website, there could be additional moves not mentioned here. But, here goes.
The bottom-dwelling ‘Skins had the most room to improve but there is little debate that they have made the most dramatic moves. Although not technically part of free agency, the trade they pulled off with St. Louis last Friday night is worth mentioning. In order to move up to the #2 slot, they agreed to send their #6 pick in Round 1 and their 2nd round pick this year plus their first round pick for the next two years to St. Louis. They are widely expected to select RGIII with that pick and obtain their long sought “franchise QB”. He still has to prove himself in real NFL action, but there is little doubt he’s a talent and will make them better (think Cam Newton 2011).
The Redskins followed that move by immediately signing WR Pierre Garcon from Indianapolis once the free agency perior started. And then, hours later signing WR Josh Morgan. Garcon battled Reggie Wayne in Indianapolis for catches but is a definite upgrade to an unimpressive group of receivers beyond Santana Moss. Morgan is more of a project but is largely believed to have huge upside coming off a season-ending broken leg last October.
In a less splashy move, Washington also re-signed their own DE Adam Carriker to keep the core of a very solid defense intact.
Big questions remain around LB London Fletcher who they’ve said they want to re-sign but no deal has been done yet. They also let last year’s free agent S Oshiomogho Atogwe go and don’t expect to bring back LaRon Landry leaving the safety position a real need.
Grade To Date: A (But the cost is only worth it if RGIII has the career and immediate impact everyone expects)
As mentioned, CB Brandon Carr was their #1 target after releasing Newman. It took over 24 hours of negotiations but the Cowboys got their man. In addition to filling that critical need, the Cowboys signed QB Kyle Orton to replace the retiring Jon Kitna. This is a hugely positive move. The Cowboys tried to claim Orton off of waivers last season but were beaten out by Kansas City. This puts the backup role to Romo in good hands if Tony gets injured. But, the team was not done there. They replaced an oft injured but effective FB Tony Fiammetta with ex-Houston Texan FB Lawrence Vickers. Time will tell, but he is expected to be a viable replacement for Fiammetta and ensures that DeMarco Murray has a fullback opening holes for him in 2012. Fans saw just how important that was when Fiammetta went down with an injury and Murray’s production dropped noticeably. Lastly, the Cowboys signed some offensive line depth with G Mackenzy Bernadeau from Carolina. Largely a backup at Carolina, his agent says he was brought in to be a starter but he will have to earn that spot. A good move in light of the need for quality depth along the interior line.
The Cowboys used the franchise tag on OLB Anthony Spencer preventing him from testing free agency but that means they likely overpaid for what he has been able to deliver to date. Spencer is solid but has never blossomed into the pass-rushing complement to DeMarcus Ware the team had hoped for. He benefitted greatly from the fact that he was “better than any of the affordable alternatives out there” so hopefully he plays in 2012 like it is a contract year. Because it is.
Losses to free agency: Laurent Robinson signed with Jacksonville (great season and chemistry with Romo, but in the big picture a #3 receiver that can likely be replaced more easily than most fans are willing to believe) and Martellus Bennett signed with division rival New York Giants (won’t be missed that much in the passing game, but remains to be seen how much they miss his blocking skills – not an issue if they are able to plug a capable TE in at some point).
Grade To Date: B+ (filled their greatest need but questions remain along the interior O-Line as well as at LB and Safety)
NEW YORK GIANTS
Pretty quiet so far for the Super Bowl Champs. They signed the under achieving TE Martellus Bennett from the Cowboys but only to a 1-year deal. That speaks volumes that the Giants see him as an experiment they hope pays off and not a free agent “gem”. Time will tell if he ends up haunting us or at least gets noticed in games like he struggled to do with the Cowboys.
The Giants did use their franchise tag on P Steve Weatherford who is solid. And, they re-signed CB Terrell Thomas who was injured all last year with a torn ACL but is expected to return to top form. They also signed two other cornerbacks coming off of their injured reserve list from last year – Michael Coe and Justin Tryon. Good depth at corner but nothing here to get too excited about. They also re-signed WR Domenik Hixon but are expected to let Super Bowl hero Mario Manningham go to another team. Brandon Jacobs also became a salary cap casualty. So, there has really been more lost than gained so far although they likely aren’t done yet.
Grade To Date: C (yawn, so far)
The only team quieter than the Giants so far is the Philadelphia Eagles. They quieted the cancer that DeSean Jackson represents for now by signing him to a 5-year deal after earlier placing the franchise tag on him. They have also extended the deals of DE Trent Cole and T Todd Herremans and traded T Winston Justice to Indianapolis. They also released one-time starting center Jamaal Jackson so O-Line depth is now an issue for the Eagles (welcome to our world).
On the positive front, they did re-sign DT Antonio Dixon which is generally viewed as a good move. However, their biggest need – generally agreed to be linebacker – has yet to be addressed.
Grade To Date: D (mostly cap-related moves; keeping DJax was important but only pays out if he gets back to the kind of production he had before a very weak 2011).
More to come for sure, but clearly the Cowboys have done well so far and have not allowed themselves to be distracted by the salary-cap penalty fiasco. Fans have to be fairly happy about what they’ve pulled off so far.