Three of the teams in our division traded up in the first round of the NFL draft on Thursday night. Technically, the Washington Redskins did it last month, but you get the idea. The Redskins moved up to get quarterback Robert Griffin III. The Dallas Cowboys moved up to draft cornerback Morris Claiborne. The Philadelphia Eagles moved up three spots to take defensive tackle Fletcher Cox, whom they felt was a key missing piece for their defense. The only NFC East team that didn't trade up in the first round was the Super Bowl champion New York Giants. And it makes sense, when you think about it, because those other three teams were making the moves they thought they needed to make to catch the Giants.
By following a flawed, fitful 9-7 season with a dazzling, dominating Super Bowl run, the Giants have had a profound dual effect on their division rivals. They have convinced the other three teams in the NFC East that the division title is not only attainable, but that it carries with it the potential for the ultimate reward.
It appears attainable, you see, by virtue of simple math. The Eagles and the Cowboys each finished 8-8 last year, just one game behind the Giants in the division race. Had the Cowboys won the final game of the season in the Meadowlands, they'd have been in the postseason and the Giants would not. Had the Eagles won just one more game against an NFC West team, it could have been them making that Super Bowl run. And while the Redskins won only five games, they did beat the Giants twice, and in rather convincing fashion. Each of the Giants' three division rivals came out of the 2011 season with reason to believe they weren't too far away from the playoffs in their own right.
I think this explains, in part at least, the behavior we saw in the first round. The Redskins made their huge deal with the Rams to get the No. 2 pick because they couldn't stomach the idea of being without a franchise quarterback any longer. Eli Manning was a key reason the Giants were able to cash in their division title with a second Super Bowl win in five years, and the Redskins know they need an Eli of their own. Convinced Griffin can be that, they have decided he's worth not having another first-round pick until 2015.
The Cowboys, with myriad needs across their roster, traded their first-round pick and their second-round pick for the No. 6 pick in this year's draft and took Claiborne, who addresses their biggest 2011 weakness. And losing the second-rounder (and spending the first-rounder on a position they'd already addressed in free agency) hinders their ability to address other weaknesses, they don't care. They may well have been a Morris Claiborne away from that ninth win last year, and last year convinced them they don't need to be a 14-win team to have a shot at a title.
The Eagles believe, to this day, that last year's roster should have been good enough to win at least nine or 10 games and edge the Giants for the division title. They believe that, if the Giants had lost to the Jets in Week 16 and left the door open for them to win the division, that they could have been the NFC team no one wanted to play in the playoffs even though they'd barely got in. They had fewer needs this offseason, but one was to beef up the middle of their defense. Cox does that and also offers pass-rushing ability from a defensive tackle spot. The Eagles thought they might have to move up as high as No. 6 to take him, but once he dropped to 12, they were more than happy to give up a fourth-rounder and a seventh-rounder to move up three spots and take him. He could be enough to push them past the Giants and into a playoff run of their own.
This is the motivation the non-Giant teams in the NFC East had -- that if they could take just one little step forward, they could surpass last year's division winners and take their own shot in the NFL's postseason tournament. There's no guarantee they're right, of course. Last year was the only 16-game season in history in which the NFC East champion didn't have at least 10 wins, and it's unlikely it can be won again with merely nine. But by sneaking in at the end with such a thin resume and then making the run they made in spite of nearly missing the playoffs altogether, the Giants gave their division rivals hope. And that hope made them all aggressive when they saw chances to fix their biggest problems in the first round of the draft.