NFC East: Antoine Cason
Cap status: Some last-minute contract restructuring Monday got the Cowboys under the 2013 cap. They're not far enough under to operate very deftly in free agency, so don't expect any big splashes from them in the first wave, but they still have the ability to extend Tony Romo's deal or make some more cuts if they find someone they really want to fit into their budget.
Strategy: They should work on the offensive line, which was atrocious in 2012. But after signing two free-agent guards last year and giving center Phil Costa a two-year extension this year, the Cowboys may put off addressing that need until the draft. I'd expect them to be active on the veteran safety market, as they have question marks at that position, and there appears to be enough free-agent inventory that costs for safeties should be kept low. Depth on the defensive line and at running back will be important as well, as the defense is changing to a 4-3 alignment and DeMarco Murray's backup, Felix Jones, appears set to hit the market. Expect the Cowboys to bargain-hunt at positions that haven't traditionally cost too much.
Cap status: After Sunday night's agreement with defensive lineman Cullen Jenkins, the Giants remain around $7 million under the cap. Enough to get them in compliance and work on deals for their own free agents but likely not enough to make them players for too much outside help.
Strategy: For the Giants, the focus is in house. They'd like to bring back guard Kevin Boothe, tight end Martellus Bennett and of course restricted free-agent wide receiver Victor Cruz. They can tender Cruz and keep him, but they'd prefer to get a long-term deal done soon if possible so the headache goes away. As for Boothe and Bennett, if they'll sign for the Giants' number, they'll be Giants. If they want to try to cash in on the market, the Giants likely will look in other directions. They appear set to let valuable safety Kenny Phillips depart after his injury-wrecked season, so they'll look to address that position as well as linebacker, running back and offensive line. Don't be surprised if Jenkins isn't their last defensive line move, either. They do like to have depth there.
Cap status: The Eagles have about $34 million in salary-cap room and are likely to add $11 million more with the expected release of cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha on Tuesday. They will be able to get any player they want to get, most likely.
Strategy: The Eagles' management figures that whoever remains in place from two summers ago knows all about how badly the last big experiment with free agency went, so don't expect to see a frenzy like the one it created on the market in 2011. But the Eagles have many needs -- cornerback, safety, linebacker, nose tackle, a right guard or tackle, maybe a big wide receiver. They will be active because they must. As for strategy, though, I'd expect them to target younger free agents who can help them build the roster long term, not just help them contend in 2013. The moves the team has made since firing longtime coach Andy Reid and hiring Kelly indicate that Kelly plans to be in Philadelphia for a long time and is thinking about what can make his team competitive for years to come, not just right away.
Cap status: Cutting veteran cornerback DeAngelo Hall saved the Redskins $8 million in cap room Monday. That and the contract restructure of defensive end Adam Carriker helps the Redskins address the significant cap problems they're still having as a result of the $36 million in penalties the league imposed on them a year ago. More cuts and restructures are likely on the way.
Strategy: The free-agent strategy since Allen and Shanahan came on the scene has been consistent. The Redskins like to target players in the 26-, 27-year-old range who have shown encouraging flashes but not necessarily yet proved all they have to prove in the league. They like hungry guys, and as they continue to build around second-year quarterback Robert Griffin III, they will continue to try to employ this strategy. Perhaps you heard reports this past weekend of the Redskins' interest in cornerbacks like Derek Cox (26, coming off injury) and Antoine Cason (also 26). As they did with Pierre Garcon at wide receiver last year, the Redskins will target guys who might not be at the top of the market but fit what they want to do both schematically and economically.
» Draft Watch: Biggest needs (2/17) | Busts/gems (2/24) | Schemes, themes (3/3) | Recent history (3/10) | Needs revisited (3/17) | Under-the-radar needs (3/26) | History in that spot (3/31) | Draft approach (4/7) | Decision-makers (4/14) | Dream scenario/Plan B (4/21)
Each week leading up to the NFL draft (April 22-24), the ESPN.com blog network will take a division-by-division look at key aspects of the draft. Today's topic: History in that spot.
My colleague Mike Sando from the NFC West bureau has done some outstanding research on this very topic. Over the past 15 years, he's discovered that running backs have been quite popular at No. 27. From 1995-09, there were four running backs taken, three wide receivers and three offensive linemen. True to form, the Colts selected Donald Brown at No. 27 overall in '09 and there's a good chance he'll start for the next six or seven seasons.
In '08, the Chargers selected cornerback Antoine Cason at No. 27. He's had four interceptions and 10 pass breakups in his first two seasons. Teams at the bottom of the first round love it when cornerbacks slip a little bit. That's why I keep saying the Cowboys will keep a close eye on Rutgers cornerback Devin McCourty. And remember, you heard it here first. In '07, I took at trip to Tulsa, Okla., to do a story on a former team roper named Robert Meachem. He'd become a star receiver at Tennessee and the Saints selected him at No. 27 . Meachem was a huge disappointment in his rookie season, reporting to work out of shape. But now he's a key member of the Saints' elite corps of receivers. So in the past three years, you've seen teams connect on those late first-round picks.
New York Giants
Most people believe the Giants need to draft a linebacker in the first round. And as Sando's research indicates, that's been a very popular position at the No. 15 spot, where the Giants will be. In the past 15 drafts, teams have selected five linebackers at No. 15. Will Alabama's Rolando McClain still be available? We're about to find out. The Steelers selected Florida State linebacker Lawrence Timmons at No. 15 overall in '07 and I'd say that's worked out pretty well. The Chiefs took offensive tackle Branden Albert out of Virginia in '08 and last year the Texans went with former USC linebacker Brian Cushing. That's two excellent linebackers at No. 15 in the past three years. Bodes pretty well for Giants fans.
For whatever reason, there's been an inordinate number of defensive backs taken at No. 24 overall. And it wouldn't surprise me to see the Eagles continue that trend. The team could take a safety or cornerback and feel pretty good about it in my mind. The Eagles have a lot of practice selecting in this range, so they won't get caught off guard. Last year, the Falcons took defensive tackle Peria Jerry out of Ole Miss in the No. 24 hole. And in '08, the Titans selected running back Chris Johnson, now the most prolific runner in the league. In '07, the Patriots drafted Miami safety Brandon Meriweather and turned him into a pretty versatile player. And how can anyone forget the No. 24 pick in the '05 draft? It was the ultimate green room debacle, Cal quarterback Aaron Rodgers. That's obviously worked out pretty well for the Packers.
There's no real consensus at the No. 4 pick over the past 15 drafts. But there's only been one quarterback taken No. 4 overall -- if you can believe that. The position is so valuable that the top player at that position (Sam Bradford this year) is almost always gone by No. 4. Last season, the Seahawks played it really safe with Wake Forest linebacker Aaron Curry, who's going to be an excellent player in the league for years to come. The Raiders selected Arkansas running back Darren McFadden No. 4 overall in '08 and you can't say that's really panned out for them. Of course, nothing they've done the past decade has really panned out for them. The Bucs took Clemson defensive end Gaines Adams No. 4 overall in '07 and we all know that his life ended tragically this past January. In '06, the Jets found an excellent left tackle in D'Brickashaw Ferguson of Virginia. The Redskins would be wise to follow the Jets' lead in three weeks. In '05, the Bears went with Texas running back Cedric Benson. But I wouldn't worry about the Redskins taking a running back at No. 4. There's no one good enough to tempt them at that spot. Shanahan would rather go with the old warhorses, Clinton Portis and Larry Johnson.