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NFC East: Cowboys' Longterm Picture Looks Clearer Than Rivals'


DeMarcus Ware is still the best player on this Dallas defense – I think most would agree with that assessment.

The Cowboys' extension of linebacker Sean Lee on Wednesday night sends a pretty clear message, though. Ware is entering into the tail end of his career, and the plan is for Lee to be the team's defensive cornerstone for the coming years.

Ideally, guys like Bruce Carter and Morris Claiborne will live up to the hopes the Cowboys have set for them and join Lee as team building blocks. Right now, we know that Lee and cornerback Brandon Carr will be mainstay starters, barring something unforeseen.

Which got me thinking: how does that apply to the NFC East, and how do the Cowboys fit within that? The NFL is all about winning, and winning as quickly as possible. You're rarely going to hear a player or coach speculate more than a week into the future – unless it's a situation like Lee or Tony Romo signing a new contract.

That doesn't mean you don't build for the future, though.

Earlier this year, Romo signed on until 2020 with a much-discussed $100 million contract. That's a long time for a quarterback who is already 33 at the start of this season, but it's safe to say Romo will be under center in Dallas for a while.

Lee just turned 27 a month ago and has the potential to be one of the league's best interior linebackers if he stays healthy.

Those are both pretty good starting points, and it gets even better if the Cowboys manage to hold onto key pieces like Carter and Dez Bryant.

It's a type of stability that seems to be lacking around the NFC East. Take a look around the division, and you'll have a hard time finding stalwarts with longterm futures secured.

The obvious counter argument to that is the Washington Redskins, who struck rookie gold twice last year in drafting quarterback Robert Griffin III and running back Alfred Morris.

The problem with that is, thanks to the new CBA, both players are on rookie contracts, which only secure their services through the 2015 season. The Redskins are bound to hold on to one or both of them, but it will be interesting to see the respective price tags if the pair maintain their rookie success.

The two names that stand out on the Washington defense are probably Pro Bowl linebackers Brian Orakpo and Ryan Kerrigan. The two should combine to make a devastating pass rush in 2013, but Orakpo is a free agent after the season. Kerrigan's contract is up the year after that.

The Redskins have talent, but they're going to have to pay to keep it around.

Somewhat surprisingly, the longterm future in New York looks similarly hazy. The Giants just signed wide receiver Victor Cruz to a six-year extension that may help determine the price tag for Bryant.

Other than that, there are question marks to go around. Two-time Pro Bowl defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul is a bargain at the $1.1 million salary he's making right now.  But he won't come so cheap when his contract expires in two years. The same goes for receiver Hakeem Nicks who might be out the door following this season now that the Giants have invested in Cruz.

Something is even going to have to be done about Eli Manning. It doesn't feel like that long ago when the two-time Super Bowl champion signed a six-year contract extension, but he's already halfway through it. Manning's contract expires after 2015, when he'll be only 35 years old. It seems like a likely bet the Giants will try to extend him, but for what cost?

In Philadelphia, it's a safe bet LeSean McCoy will be toting the rock for a few years to come, and he'll have guard Evan Mathis to run behind through at least 2016. Tight end Brent Celek and wide receiver DeSean Jackson become free agents in 2017.

The Eagles' defense also has two longterm pieces, with two-time Pro Bowl outside linebacker Trent Cole signed through the 2017 season, while fellow linebacker Connor Barwin signed a six-year contract in free agency this offseason.

What about quarterback, though? Michael Vick, who just won the starting job, is only signed through 2013. Nick Foles still has three years left on his rookie contract, but he just ceded the starting spot in an open competition. Rookie Matt Barkley is signed with the squad through the 2016 season, but he has yet to throw a pass in a real NFL game.

It feels weird to look as far ahead as 2018 or 2010 when the 2013 season is two weeks away, but it's a necessary distraction.

There's no telling what the next month is going to bring as far was wins, losses or injuries – let alone the next six years. But for the time being, Lee's extension gives a good deal of clarity to the Cowboys' longterm future.

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