For any team to win a division, advance to the playoffs, etc., that team not only needs to play well, but also needs to hope its division foes don't improve so much they leapfrog to the top of the standings.
Such is the case with the Dallas Cowboys. In wake of the team's 2009 NFC East crown, the Cowboys are spending their offseason planning modest tweaks to the roster, while other teams are engaging in massive overhauls.
All three of the team's NFC East foes are expected to undergo more significant facelifts. As the division's rosters currently are constructed, Dallas is the most talented team overall, but an aggressive owner whose staff puts together a sensible plan for offseason spending can make a significant jump. Rumors abound as to which players might end up with which teams. The following are free agents who the Cowboys (and their fans) should hope do not end up with the New York Giants, Philadelphia Eagles and Washington Redskins.
New York Giants
Biggest needs: Middle linebacker, defensive tackle
Keep them away from: San Diego DT Ian Scott, Miami NT Jason Ferguson; Arizona LB Karlos Dansby, Tampa Bay LB Barrett Ruud
Ferguson, the ex-Cowboy, is better-suited to playing the nose tackle spot in a 3-4 alignment, but both he and Scott are enormous space-eaters who can collapse the pocket, occupy blockers and allow linebackers to run free to make plays. Ferguson, at 36, is seven years older than Scott, and will be more expensive, and there are questions about how much he has left. But if New York can't re-sign free agent DT Fred Robbins, the Giants could do a lot worse than Ferguson and/or Scott, each of whom would be an improvement over 2009 free agent Rocky Bernard.
The Cardinals have no interest in letting Dansby walk, but might have no choice. They declined to designate him as the team's franchise player, and if he gets a mega-bucks offer elsewhere, he's gone. He has been linked to the Giants, Eagles and Redskins, and his decision based more on money than on joining a winner. Ruud is one of the best linebackers in football that most fans have never heard of. In his five NFL seasons, all with the Buccaneers, he has quietly collected 467 tackles. After the Giants declined to bring back Antonio Pierce, they need a physical presence inside. Dansby is a little more athletic, but Ruud is a more physical inside run-stuffer.
Biggest needs: Defensive end, free safety
Keep them away from: Carolina DE Julius Peppers; St. Louis FS Oshiomogho Atogwe, Pittsburgh FS Ryan Clark
Trent Cole is a solid-but-undersized pass-rusher, but it is widely believed the Eagles will make a big push for Peppers. There are questions about Peppers' drive and priorities (many feel he cares only about money and personal statistics), but the fact is that he remains one of the NFL's most dangerous pass rushers. His singular combination of size, speed and wingspan makes him a unique threat coming off the edge — imagine what he could do in the Eagles' blitz-happy defensive schemes.
Atogwe is one of the few bright spots on an otherwise dreadful St. Louis team. In five years with the Rams, he has 317 tackles, and more importantly, 19 interceptions (one of which he returned for a touchdown). Atogwe is a versatile player who can play either safety spot. Clark is a very smart, efficient player who has been overshadowed in Pittsburgh by Troy Polamalu. In eight NFL seasons, Clark has 431 tackles, and signing with the Eagles would mark his third stop in the NFC East (he played in Washington after playing his first two season with the Giants).
Biggest needs: Offensive tackle, offensive guard
Keep them away from: Green Bay OT Chad Clifton, San Francisco OT Tony Pashos; New England OG Logan Mankins, Philadelphia OG Max Jean-Gilles
Critics keep saying the Redskins need a new quarterback, but when given time to throw, Jason Campbell has a strong, accurate arm and has shown the ability to make plays. He had the best statistical of his career in 2009, despite the fact that he spent most of the season running for his life.
Offensive tackle might be the thinnest position in free agency this year. Clifton is solid but far from overpowering, and at 33 is older than any player in whom a rebuilding team should invest major money. Pashos isn't as polished a blocker, but at 29, the 6-6, 326-pounder has more years ahead of him. Pashos also is stronger and a little more mobile, which would make him a better fit in Mike Shanahan's blocking scheme.
At just 27, Makins is considered one of the league's stars at his position, but chances are the Patriots won't let him out of New England. If he is allowed to walk, he would be a perfect fit on just about any line — he's smart, strong, mobile and durable, and excels in run blocking and in pass protection.
Jean-Gilles is surprisingly quick for a player of his massive (6-3, 358) size, but has been inconsistent and injury-prone; he played in 25 games over the last two years, after playing in just four games in his first two seasons.
Playing keep-away in the NFC East
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