It’s been a strange offseason around the NFL; 2022 will either be remembered as a crazy outlier when more big name players — especially starting quarterbacks — changed teams than ever before or since...or it will be remembered as the year when the NFL finally embraced player trades as part and parcel of roster building, ushering in a new era of front office wheeling and dealing.
Washington’s front office made its own small contribution to the melee by trading for former Colts & Eagles QB Carson Wentz earlier this month. To a lesser extent, the team made waves when RB J.D. McKissic reversed course and returned to DC after briefly teasing the Buffalo Bills front office with a commitment that didn’t make it as far as signing on the bottom line.
Elsewhere in the division, the Cowboys double-dipped into the offseason headline party by trading away their putative #1 receiver, Amari Cooper. Another Dallas player, Randy Gregory, made headlines similar to those made by McKissic, except that the oft-troubled edge rusher did so on a much bigger contract, and he spurned his current team to go play with Russell Wilson in the Mile High City. While Washington’s headlines were made by acquiring or retaining a pair of offensive weapons, the Cowboys did so by waving goodbye to two players who were integral to their 2021 playoff team.
The only other real “splash” move came from Philadelphia, who added pass rusher Haasan Reddick in free agency. The Giants new GM, Joe Shoen, has had an austere free agency period as he attempts to clean up the roster and salary cap mess left behind by his predecessor, Dave Gettleman.
Daily update on the Giants' incredible shrinking cap space: They're down to $2M after the Justin Ellis contract was processed. These VSB deals have been trimming $222,500 off the cap, so they should be down to $1.8M after Richie James' contract is processed.— Dan Duggan (@DDuggan21) March 26, 2022
While the teams in the division have clearly made a few headlines this offseason, I think it’s fair to say that the NFC East has been marked more by its collective quiet approach to free agency than by the few headline-grabbing moves that have occurred. Certainly, there hasn’t been anything as dramatic as the Browns trading for Deshaun Watson or the Dolphins trading for Tyreek Hill.
One thing I noticed about this offseason is that, aside from the Wentz trade, most of the player signings by the Commanders in 2022 have not only been relatively low-dollar ‘depth’ signings, but the team has largely been “running it back” by re-signing its own players as opposed to targeting free agents from other teams.
Wondering if I was imagining something that wasn’t real, I decided to compare the number of its own free agents re-signed by the Washington front office this offseason in to our division rivals. The results were perhaps unsurprising, but they showed a stark contrast between the good guys and the bad guys.
As you can see, Washington has re-signed 20 of its own free agents this offseason (including RFAs and ERFAs). The next-closest in the division is the Cowboys, who have signed 13 players. Jerry Jones is probably the most consistent GM in the division when it comes to retaining his own players from season to season. The Eagles have brought back 9 players; the Giants just 7.
There are some reasons for what the Commanders have done, of course.
Firstly, Washington’s approach under Ron Rivera since his arrival in 2020 has been to sign a lot of players to short one- and two-year contracts, so the team had only 35 players under contract in January. In short, we had a lot more roster spots to fill. So far, the Washington front office seems to be continuing this propensity towards shorter contracts, creating maximum roster flexibility.
A second factor is that Washington has the fewest draft picks in the division, with 6. The Giants and Cowboys have 9 picks each (including #5 and #7 overall for New York). The Eagles have a whopping 10 total picks, with 3 in the first round (picks 15, 16, and 19). With fewer draft picks, the Commanders have to have more roster holes plugged before the draft begins on 28 April in Las Vegas.
I believe a third factor is at play as well. The Commanders are currently projected to receive two compensatory picks in the 2023 draft for losing Brandon Scherff and Tim Settle in free agency. It appears that the team has been careful not to jeopardize those expected draft picks; they have focused on re-signing their own players (who do not count in the comp pick formula) and a player cut by another team in Andrew Norwell (who also doesn’t count towards the comp pick formula). The other signing from another team, Efe Obada, is likely to be under the estimated $3m APY threshold to qualify as a compensatory free agent. I expect at least one or two signings to take place after the cutoff date of May 2nd. Any free agents signed after that date don’t count in the comp pick formula, no matter what the circumstances.
Interestingly, Washington is not the only team in the division that is currently projected to get comp picks next year. In fact, the Cowboys “lead” the division here, with three projected picks, but of course, that is also a dubious distinction, because it is a sign that they have lost the most free agent talent. The 5th round pick they got in trade for Amari Cooper probably hasn’t taken much of the sting out of losing a top wide receiver and a top edge rusher from last year’s roster, not to mention having to release their starting right tackle, La’el Collins due to salary cap issues. The Giants are also currently on the board for a projected 5th rounder and 7th rounder.
Source: Over the Cap
Washington’s key losses are not all reflected in the Compensatory Draft Pick calculation, however, because the front office made other important roster decisions to save cap space.
- The team cut starting LG Ereck Flowers, saving $10m, and replaced him with Andrew Norwell, who signed for 2 years/$10m, with a cap hit of $2.78m in ‘22.
- The Commanders also released hybrid S/LB Landon Collins with a post-June 1st designation, clearing $11.88m in cap space that will be available after the end of May.
- Washington also cut rotational DL Matt Ioannidis, who was slated to have a cap hit in excess of $8m in 2022. The team has added some DL depth since by inking a contract with DE Efe Obada, who played with the Bills last season. While not an apples-for-apples replacement for IoanMan, both Obada and 3rd year DE James Smith-Williams have the flexibility to line up as interior pass rushers, which may help cover for the loss of #98. The terms of Obada’s contract have not yet been announced, but he earned $1.5m with Buffalo last season, and is not expected to be very expensive in 2022.
Let’s compare some of the key additions and losses for the four teams in the division.
(note: Herbig was actually re-signed by the Eagles, but I’m too lazy to re-make the visual)
This is not intended to be a comprehensive list; rather it is intended to show the “headline” players movements that have happened in free agency thus far.
What leaps out at me is that none of the 4 teams has obviously gotten better in free agency. Washington, Dallas, Philly and New York all appear to have lost more from their rosters than they’ve gained to date, though the Commanders, at least, seem to have solved their #1 issue, which was to get a quarterback with talent and upside who could start from Day 1.
The other three teams — and especially the Giants and Eagles, with 5 first-round picks between them — have clear advantages in the draft, but Washington (so far) is the only team in the division that has improved its starting quarterback situation from 2021, and as we all know, in the NFL, that’s more critical than improvement at any other position.
Still, this chart makes it appear as though there’s been a talent drain from the NFC East — a division that couldn’t afford to lose talent. I feel as though, to date, when you consider players signed and players lost, the Commanders have less net talent lost than the other teams in the division, while the Cowboys have had the worst of it, and the Giants have seen losses from what was already one of the worst rosters in the NFL. But the Giants, Eagles and Cowboys have the means to make up that difference in April’s draft, when Washington will be without its 3rd & 5th round picks.
Right now, I see the Eagles as having the best chance of any team in the division to head into 2022 with a significantly better roster than it fielded in 2021.
There’s a long way to go before training camp rosters are finalized; 34 drafted rookies are expected to be added to these four rosters — and free agency isn’t over. What seems clear, however, is that, so far, the NFC East front offices have seen more talent going out the doors than coming in.
The next five weeks should be both interesting and crucial.