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Quiet NFC East won't stay that way

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John Czarnecki

John Czarnecki has been the editorial consultant for "FOX NFL Sunday" since its 1994 inception. This season marks Czarnecki's 32nd year covering the NFL. He is one of 44 selectors to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

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With the exception of the Giants, the NFC East has been relatively quiet in the opening days of NFL free agency. To the casual fan, many believed that the Cowboys and Redskins, two of the sport’s richest franchises, would duplicate the payroll competition of the Yankees and Red Sox as the NFL moved into the virgin territory of an uncapped season.

Yes, the Cowboys are restricted somewhat – they cannot offer a free-agent a salary above $5.8 million for this season because they finished among the final eight playoff teams – but the real shocker is that the new combo of Mike Shanahan and Bruce Allen has actually curtailed the previous personnel whims of Redskins owner Dan Snyder. But give Snyder credit; that’s why he hired these experienced football men, right? And there are few general managers more cognizant of the almighty player dollar than Allen.

Yes, both the Redskins and Eagles had interest in Julius Peppers, but they removed themselves from the chase of the former Carolina defensive end at around $10 million over the next three seasons, not the $13.5 million (and $20 million guaranteed this season) he eventually received from the free-spending Chicago Bears, an adjective rarely associated with the George Halas franchise. The Bears are desperate, knowing that Minnesota and Green Bay remain loaded with talent.

Cowboys owner Jerry Jones has insisted from the outset that he planned to sit back and watch free agency unfold without chasing after players. There was a different approach in Dallas when Bill Parcells was coaching there, but now that Jones is back in total control the Cowboys will wait until the dust settles a bit before making any major moves. It’s like the Cowboys are really on a budget even though there’s no cap.

Cowboys at a glance

 
Dallas Cowboys
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So as we run through the mighty East and talk about specific needs and what could happen, let’s start with Dallas. Jones is right in that his club is in relatively good shape, although there has to be a worry about left tackle Flozell Adams for the long haul and there is a definite need for a ball-hawking safety. With all the money invested in QB Tony Romo, the offensive line does need some attention. The top four offensive tackles in the draft figure to be gone by the time Dallas uses the 27th pick in the first round. Heck, there could be six offensive linemen taken before that spot.

Honestly, though, there weren’t any viable left tackle options in free agency other than Chad Clifton, and he re-signed with the Packers after talking with the Redskins. Last year the Cowboys had their sights on Max Unger in the draft, but lost out to the Seahawks. This time around the Cowboys could trade up in the first round if a quality offensive tackle slips like Michael Oher did last April to Baltimore, who grabbed him with the No. 23 overall selection.

In the old days, the Cowboys would have made a play for Saints free safety Darren Sharper, who recently had left knee surgery. But that isn’t going to happen and the Steelers re-signed Ryan Clark, the best young player available at the position. Right now, the Cowboys definitely need a proven kicker and they are supposed to make a run at 42-year-old Matt Stover, who was put on the streets by the Colts. Stover, though, has talked about retirement since his wife and three children remained in Baltimore last season while he kicked for the Colts.

Giants at a glance

 
New York Giants
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The Giants finished 8-8 last season and missed the playoffs for the first time under GM Jerry Reese, who believes he filled his biggest defensive need with the free-agent signing of Cardinals safety Antrel Rolle, paying him $37 million over four years -- or a package right behind Pittsburgh’s Troy Polamalu, the game’s best. Now, Rolle doesn’t possess the great Polamalu burst, but he’s a huge upgrade for the Giants, who simply were burned deep constantly last season once safety Kenny Phillips was lost with a knee injury. Phillips, who had microfracture surgery, is scheduled to begin running at the end of the month. Rolle is insurance should Phillips not return as his old self, but the Giants still need safety Michael Johnson to improve, too.

But the Giants have other significant needs on defense, one that is void of leadership and also minus linebacker Antonio Pierce. They are hoping that Jonathan Goff will take Pierce’s spot in the middle with last year’s big signing bust Michael Boley on the weak side and Clint Sintim on the strong side. Most mock drafts have the Giants taking a defensive lineman, but Florida linebacker Brandon Spikes or Missouri LB Sean Weatherspoon make a lot more sense to me. The Giants could also trade pass rusher Osi Umenyiora, who failed to play the run last season. Coach Tom Coughlin refused to promise Osi he would be a starter this season and told him he had to work harder.

The Giants like their young receivers and believe that both Brandon Jacobs and Ahmad Bradshaw will return fit from offseason operations. The Giants do need a backup quarterback to Eli Manning, but they don’t seem to be in a hurry to sign anyone right now after taking a pass on Jim Sorgi.

Eagles at a glance

 
Philadelphia Eagles
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The Eagles had a need for both Peppers and Rolle on their defense, especially with safety Quintin Mickel regressing last season. Some say that happened because Brian Dawkins wasn’t around anymore. With Howie Roseman taking over for Tom Heckert, the Eagles still are focusing on their own players and have re-signed receiver Jason Avant and fullback Leonard Weaver. Still, there remains a dramatic need for a free safety while there are concerns about both cornerbacks Sheldon Brown and Asante Samuel, who didn’t play the run very well last season.

Yes, the defense should have middle linebacker Stewart Bradley back this season, but there’s still a big need for a stout defensive end opposite Pro Bowler Trent Cole. There are a lot of veteran pass-rusher types available at defensive end, but the Eagles have plenty of younger players who fit the same role.

To me, Brian Westbrook was their MVP in recent years on offense and they still need to replace him. Chester Taylor would have been a perfect fit, but the Bears signed the Vikings’ No. 2 runner, who is also a very good receiver.

Still, the big question in Philadelphia is what does Andy Reid do with Donovan McNabb? There is really no great market for Michael Vick right now, but there would be for McNabb and that compensation could help the Eagles retool. You see, the Eagles still have concerns on the offensive line with center Jamaal Jackson (torn ACL) probably not ready for next September and the recurring back injury for RT Shawn Andrews. The Eagles can’t really afford to stand pat.

Redskins at a glance

 
Washington Redskins
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The Redskins released 10 veterans last weekend, plus left tackle Chris Samuels, a six-time Pro Bowler, was forced to retire. They made a solid move in signing Vikings backup guard Artis Hicks, who could end up being a starter, but they lost out on Green Bay's Chad Clifton, who would have been a major upgrade. The next month will be critical to the Shanahan-Jason Campbell relationship. The Redskins tagged Campbell with a first-round compensation pick, meaning they do like him. But does Shanny like him enough to pass on a quarterback in the first round and simply draft Oklahoma State offensive tackle Russell Okung or some other offensive lineman?

The Redskins definitely have holes on their offensive line, plus the only running back remaining is Clinton Portis, who missed the last half of the season due to a concussion. Shanahan has publicly supported Portis, but we all know he traded him away from Denver for Champ Bailey years ago. It’s pretty amazing to consider that the Redskins potentially may have to fill holes at quarterback, running back and offensive tackle. They don’t have enough draft picks to do that, and there’s no guarantees that Shanahan will strike it rich with a middle to late round running back that was his preferred style while with the Broncos.
Tagged: Bears, Bengals, Cowboys, Broncos, Packers, Colts, Vikings, Giants, Eagles, Seahawks, Redskins, Panthers, Ravens, Cardinals, Steelers, Michael Vick, Chad Clifton, Donovan McNabb, Brian Dawkins, Matt Stover, Clinton Portis, Julius Peppers, Brian Westbrook, Antonio Pierce, Osi Umenyiora, Troy Polamalu, Asante Samuel, Eli Manning, Jason Campbell, Antrel Rolle, Brandon Jacobs, Michael Boley, Jason Avant, Michael Johnson, Kenny Phillips, Michael Johnson, Michael Oher, Clint Sintim, Max Unger

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