Commentary

NFC East shows signs of life

Redskins' ability to afford DeSean Jackson indicates division is on mend

Originally Published: April 6, 2014
By John Clayton | ESPN.com

Regardless of whether you like the Washington Redskins' signing of DeSean Jackson, the fact they could do it is significant.

In 2012 and 2013, the Redskins were penalized $36 million of cap room for overspending with contracts in an uncapped year, a penalty I still struggle to understand. They haven't been the only NFC East team with cap issues. The Dallas Cowboys lost $10 million of cap room for the same reason, and the New York Giants were tight against the cap while trying to keep their Super Bowl core group together. Only the Philadelphia Eagles had avoided a recent trip into cap purgatory.

As of Sunday afternoon, the Redskins had added 12 unrestricted free agents worth $79.8 million of contracts, plus the Jackson contract, which voids to a three-year, $24 million deal. The Giants have added a dozen unrestricted free agents with contracts worth $78.4 million.

This is all integral to the competitive nature of the division. Historically, the NFC East draws the best ratings and secures some of the best television spots. The Cowboys, Giants, Redskins and Eagles are among the best draws in sports.

But last year, the NFC East hit rock bottom. The Denver Broncos, Kansas City Chiefs and San Diego Chargers parlayed having the NFC East teams on their schedule into three AFC West playoff berths. Those three teams went 11-1 against the NFC East.

The Redskins deserve a lot of credit for not restructuring too many contracts during their two years of cap penalties, which would have eaten up cap room for this and future years. This gave them the flexibility to add much-needed depth this year and get something done with Jackson.

[+] EnlargeDeSean Jackson
Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post/Getty ImagesIn terms of balance within the division, DeSean Jackson's move from the Eagles to Washington is good for the NFC East.

The addition of Jackson might be one of the most significant move of the offseason. Giving Robert Griffin III an 82-catch, 1,300-plus-yard receiver could return the Redskins to the top of a division they won in 2012. The Eagles were sitting in the spot of clear NFC East favorite prior to the Jackson release, but now they have to worry more about the Redskins and Giants.

The Giants needed room to add quality and depth to their offensive line and linebacking corps, and were able to work on things this offseason.

How all of this affects the Cowboys is unknown. Their cap problems forced them to replace their entire starting defensive line over the past year. They cut Miles Austin and have been prudent in free agency.

Regardless, the NFC East is bouncing back from a couple of tough years.

From the inbox

Q: What happened to Tajh Boyd? Last year's draft scenarios had him going in the first or second round, and now the highest I see him going is the sixth.

Bill in Stafford, Va.

A: Boyd has looked raw during workouts. He's got a strong arm and is a great athlete, but he looks like a quarterback who will need some time to fit into the league. When I watched him at the scouting combine, his release point was all over the place. There is no question he's going to be drafted, but it might not be in the first three rounds.

Q: Considering Zach Miller took a pay cut when restructuring his contract, would the Seahawks consider asking Percy Harvin to restructure his deal to make cap room for the good of the team? I know Miller's hands were sort of tied because he was on the verge of being cut. Knowing how relatively little he contributed and how the team is struggling to keep its talent because of cap limitations, it would be a human thing to do if he could pitch in a little, a la Larry Fitzgerald. I'm sure more players besides Golden Tate are a little bitter about the amount of his contract, though they probably wouldn't admit it. This could help there, too. Is that insane to even think that?

Brigitte in Woodinville, Wash.

A: I can't see that happening. First of all, asking him to redo his contract would anger him. As we found out in Minnesota, if you break Harvin's trust, it's hard to get him to buy into the program. Harvin is one of the most talented receivers in the game. That put him in the position to be one of the seven receivers who are making more than $10 million a year. The Seahawks have enough room to handle their business. If they think Harvin isn't worth his contract, they can make adjustments in Year 3 or 4.

Q: Alex Smith has quietly put together a few very solid seasons and now has a plus-34 TD-to-INT count. I know several factors have to go right, but I believe that if he remains healthy (no given) and stays with a coach such as Andy Reid (or Jim Harbaugh), we will see his stats increase. So here is my question: If Smith lasts another 10 years, produces comparable stats to last year on average and wins at a rate similar to the last three years, does he build a Hall of Fame case? He would have approximately 50,000 yards, 300 TDs, 150 INTs and a won-loss record around 150-100. I guess this basically asks, "Does longevity as a top -- but not elite -- QB plus long-term success equate to Hall of Fame?"

Jonathan in Sugar Land, Texas

A: Long-term success helps a player get to the Hall of Fame, but it's still a matter of where that player ranks in relationship to the other players at his position. Smith would need to play at a Pro Bowl level. We both agree that he is not elite, and you need to be elite to make it to the Hall of Fame as a quarterback. But we both agree he's a good quarterback who is getting better. Having Reid as his coach should help him over the next several years. The great part for Smith is that he has rebuilt his career with the help of Harbaugh and Reid.

Q: I appreciate the work that the NFL is doing to address the complaints of fans regarding officiating, but I think it is approaching this from the wrong angle. The NFL is worried about refs getting the call wrong and wanting to address it after the fact. The consistent theme among ESPN analysts regarding how difficult it is to officiate a live football game seems to be, "It's not as easy as watching it on live TV." This is true, and fans should ease off a bit on refs regarding blown calls. However, why isn't a ref assigned to watch the game live? Take the second-most senior official present, put him in a booth and give him the nicest TV money can buy. Then set him up with a great feed of that particular game, perhaps from the NFL Network (finally a use for it!). He sees a call that needs to be made, so he signals one of the refs on the field, they throw a flag, and the penalty is assessed. The point is, why aren't NFL refs posting a man to watch the game from a booth?

Alex in Madison, Wis.

A: The NFL does have a replay official and a communicator in the booth. They may not have the status of a referee, but they have a view of all the shots and can assist in helping the refs make the decision. Watch how this will work this year with Dean Blandino's office in New York helping those who are at the game. You might like it. Now, two sets of eyes will look at the replay and help the ref make a decision within 60 seconds of putting his head under the hood. If this works, I can see a situation in which the league won't have the ref make the decision. That would streamline the process even more and produce better decisions. Seeing the way baseball is struggling with replay at the beginning of the season makes the NFL process look solid.

Q: What's your take on Sam Bradford? After four years, I just do not see him as the Rams' answer for a franchise QB. He is highly inaccurate when under pressure, can't stay healthy and cannot elevate the talent around him. I would love to see St. Louis draft Blake Bortles or another QB that would give it a fighting chance. Sam just does not appear to me to be a Super Bowl QB. What do you think?

Jody in Putman, Conn.

A: I believe in him. He's had some unfortunate years. He didn't have much help with pass-catchers his first three years. Josh McDaniels' year as offensive coordinator got Bradford beat up. Last year Bradford suffered an unfortunate knee injury. He just needs to stay healthy, and I think it will happen this season. If it doesn't work out, then next year they might have to explore the quarterback market. I'd stick by him.

Q: Instead of an 18-game season, which nobody (besides the owners) seems to want, why can't the league make the season longer with each team getting two bye weeks? One of the only problems of the NFL is the season is so short compared to the other leagues. I know this won't get the owners as much money as an 18-game season would, but they could push for more TV money since the season will be longer, which in turn means more weeks of games. They could still get rid of two weeks of preseason games and add the extra two playoff teams.

Jason in Tampa, Fla.

A: That might extend the season, but it would reduce the quality of each week. Look what happens when four to six teams are on byes. Often during those weeks, it's hard to find good matchups. Let's say you have six teams from the NFC on byes in a week. The NFC is the better conference, and you have better teams sitting out. Some of those AFC games might not be as appealing. And that's with one bye week. If you add a second bye week, it would further weaken the product on Sundays.

John Clayton

NFL senior writer

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