After an offseason marked by injury woes, rumors of Tom Coughlin’s not-so-secure job security, a contractual dispute with Osi Umenyiora and another nondescript, trademark Jerry Reese free agency period, the Giants shocked most preseason prognosticators in 2011 by winning the NFC East with a 9-7 record.
The “Dream team” Philadelphia Eagles were everyone’s preseason darlings, bolstered by the additions of highly-coveted cornerbacks Nnamdi Asomugha and Dominique Rodgers Cromartie, defensive linemen Cullen Jenkins and Jason Babin, and running back Ronnie Brown, among others. The Cowboys, meanwhile, were the trendy pick for a second place finish and a wildcard playoff spot, a belief grounded mostly in the hopes that Jason Garrett, in his first full year as head coach, could push the right buttons and harness that team’s big-time potential into a deep playoff run—that he could, you know, do everything that Wade Phillips couldn’t do.
None of that proved to be true, as we all now know. Ironically, it was the Rex Grossman/John Beck-led Redskins that gave Big Blue the most trouble last season. The Giants won three out of four against Dallas and Philadelphia, in no small part because of their well-thought-out—albeit quite unpopular—offseason blue print. The old adage “Super Bowls aren’t won in March” never rang more true than for the 2011 Giants, who watched several key contributors from their Super Bowl XLII championship squad walk—including Steve Smith and Kevin Boss—and appeared to fall short of atoning for those losses.
This year’s free agency period has a similar feel to it, what with Mario Manningham and Brandon Jacobs joining the San Francisco 49ers and no major free agent acquisitions to show for. The only difference is that, unlike last season, the media wouldn’t dare heap scorn upon a general manager who employed a similar strategy last season and, well, we all know how that turned out.
The Giants made a few small, but potentially significant, free agent moves, including signing tight end Martellus Bennett and offensive tackle Sean Locklear. Needs were filled in last week’s draft, with speedy running back David Wilson, wide receiver Rueben Randle, and offensive tackle Brandon Moseley set to contribute right away, if need be, for Jacobs, Manningham, and Kareem McKenzie.
But, much like last season, Reese’s minor offseason transactions failed to grab headlines. Philadelphia and Dallas, meanwhile, took center stage once again with their offseason moves.
Philadelphia got help where it needed it most: on defense. It added two-time Pro Bowl linebacker DeMeco Ryans in free agency, and was the consensus A-grade draft hero last weekend, trading up for Mississippi State defensive tackle Fletcher Cox in the first round, and landing California linebacker Mychal Kendricks and Marshall defensive end Vinny Curry with its two second round picks.
The Cowboys also upgraded on defense, most notably when they traded up for blue chip LSU cornerback Morris Claiborne, who will be paired with new free agent signee Brandon Carr, one of the better young cover corners in the league.
Even Washington took a major step in the right direction after a disappointing 2011 season, mortgaging three first round picks—three!—for former Baylor quarterback Robert Griffin III.
With full minicamps set to begin in just over a month, it’s highly unlikely that we will witness any other major offseason transactions—or at least anything that will have a major impact on the 2012 NFC East race. Now that most, if not all, of the big name free agents have either stayed at home or found new homes, I will pick out each team’s biggest-impact offseason move, the one potential game-changer that—when postseason football arrives—we can look back and point to as the reason for that team’s success.
Washington Redskins: Robert Griffin III
Three first round picks and a second round pick is quite the bounty—are we not allowed to use that word anymore?—for a quarterback with durability issues and no more than one good year under his belt. That said, it was one really, really good year, and RGIII is the perfect fit for Mike Shanahan in the nation’s capitol. Even if he’s not a first year Pro Bowler, anything is better than a Rex Grossman-John Beck platoon, especially in a division when you have to face Eli Manning, Michael Vick and Tony Romo twice each year.
RGIII has drawn comparisons with Vick, but they’re two completely different players. Sure, they’re both mobile. But Griffin is a passer by trade who can run—and boy, can he run—if need be, but who prefers to do most of his damage from the pocket. Unfortunately for the Heisman Trophy winner, he will have few weapons at his disposal. Running back Roy Helu showed promise as a rookie last season and should get the brunt of the workload in year two, and wideout Pierre Garcon, formerly of the Indianapolis Colts, was a nice pickup. But that’s not near enough for Griffin to make a run at a division crown in his first year under center.
So for those Washington fans looking for immediate results, remember to temper your expectations. RGIII is a Pro Bowl-caliber player, the type of uplifting personality that can revive the Redskins and the city of Washington from its post-Joe Gibbs doldrums. Results will come, it’s just going to take some time.
Philadelphia Eagles: DeMeco Ryans
Ryans left Houston as the franchise’s all-time leader in tackles (637) and was a key cog in its defensive revival under first-year coordinator Wade Phillips in 2011. He recorded at least 85 solo tackles in his first four seasons before missing most of 2010 after tearing his Achilles. His tackle numbers fell in 2011, mostly because the Texans switched to a 3-4 scheme, which meant that Ryans—normally accustomed to swallowing up ballcarriers and occupying the middle of the defense—was joined by another middle linebacker for the first time in his career.
Philadelphia defensive coordinator Juan Castillo prefers the 4-3, so expect Ryans return to his do-it-all, tackling machine-self. More importantly, the 27-year-old solidifies the Eagles linebacking corps, its biggest weakness last season.
Although the Eagles got off to a 4-8 start—much of that due to poor defense—they rallied to an 8-8 finish with wins over Miami, New York (Jets), Dallas and Washington. Philadelphia gave up no more than 20 points in those final four games, an indication that their offseason acquisitions began to acclimate themselves to Castillo’s scheme. With Ryans in the fold in 2012, that defense has the potential to be one of the NFC’s best.
Dallas Cowboys: Morris Claiborne
The Cowboys ranked 23rd in average pass yards allowed per game last season with 244.1, so it was no surprise that secondary help was priority No. 1 at last week’s draft. But it was a surprise that Dallas traded up for the consensus best defensive prospect in this year’s class, Claiborne. Slightly overshadowed by his less skilled but more exciting teammate Tyrann Mathieu, Claiborne was as lockdown as you can be at the college level, continually forcing opposing quarterbacks to throw away from his side of the field.
His wonderlic score of four is a concern, not least because he reportedly stopped taking the test after 15 questions. It was also a “concern” for Patrick Peterson, last year’s first round pick of the Arizona Cardinals, and he was one of the league’s best defensive rookies. Claiborne and Brandon Carr will form one of the NFC’s best cornerback tandems—music to the ears of Rob Ryan, who needs elite cornerback play to facilitate his overload blitz schemes.
With Claiborne and Carr set to step in as starters, Dallas has the perfect antidote for the division’s cadre of high-tier qbs, a huge upgrade from the Terrance Newman-Michael Jenkins duo of years past. The Cowboys’ secondary will make huge strides during year two of the Ryan regime.
New York Giants: David Wilson
Reese somewhat unexpectedly did something completely un-Reeseian (not sure if that’s a word), taking need over value in the first round. Wilson was an extremely productive college player—his nine-touchdowns and 1,709 receiving yards attest to that—and was near the top of a weak running back draft class, but could the Giants have traded down? Taken him in round two? That, we will never know. What we do know is that Wilson fills an immediate need, not only because Brandon Jacobs bolted for San Francisco but, with Ahmad Bradshaw’s declining health, Big Blue’s rushing attack needed some new legs.
Wilson cannot replace Jacobs, nor is it likely that he will ever be an every-down bellcow back in this league, but he gives the Giants the kind of home run threat out of the backfield that it hasn’t had in quite some time. Wilson is an explosive runner, the type of player who can score every time he touches the ball. So expect offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride to get him the ball in space as much as possible, including screen passes and reverses.
The former Virginia Tech star could have an immediate impact, especially if Bradshaw’s injury problems resurface early in the season. He could also contribute on special teams, where the Giants have lacked an explosive kick/punt returner in recent years. Wilson may not be the ideal first-round pick, but he has the potential to be a star down the road and, if Bradshaw continues to wear down, could be getting the brunt of the workload before we know it.