Dallas Cowboys: Brandon Jacobs

Cowboys run D to be tested too

November, 23, 2013
IRVING, Texas -- The Dallas Cowboys have offered up little resistance with their pass defense. They are allowing 313 yards per game through the air, worst in the league.

Eli Manning started it all off with 450 yards passing in the season opener with four touchdown passes. He was intercepted three times, but he has had his way with the Cowboys at times in his career.

But part of the Giants’ resurgence lately has not been with Manning leading the way. It’s been with a ball control offense. On a conference call Wednesday Giants coach Tom Coughlin made note of how much the Giants have run the ball in their four-game winning streak: 31, 32, 38 and 24 times.

“That’s what they used to do, run the ball and then play-action to pass it,” defensive tackle Nick Hayden said. “They’re just trying to get back to it and being balanced instead of just throwing the ball the whole time.”

It’s not that the Giants have run it great. They are averaging fewer than 3 yards per carry, but Andre Brown, Brandon Jacobs and Peyton Hillis can be bruising backs. The Cowboys have faced mostly shiftier backs in LeSean McCoy, Reggie Bush and Jamaal Charles.

“Just harder to bring down guys and they can break a lot of tackles,” Hayden said. “We’ve got to be more physical.”

And as bad as the pass defense has been, the Cowboys allowed the New Orleans Saints to rush for 242 yards in their last game.

“We just got the details, be where we’re supposed to be at when we’re supposed to be there,” defensive tackle Jason Hatcher said. “We’ve been playing with a lot of guys, just here and there filling guys in. We’ve been banged up, but I’m not the guy to make excuses. We’ve got to do better. We just have to go out here and concentrate on it and take it one step at a time and we’ll be OK.”

Eight in the Box: Key offseasons

May, 10, 2013
NFC Eight in the Box: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

A look at a key player from each NFC East team who needs to show something in offseason sessions:

Dallas Cowboys: DT Jay Ratliff

He missed 10 games in 2012 due to injury. He cursed out the team's owner after a game. He got busted for driving under the influence mere weeks after friend and defensive linemate Jerry Brown was killed in an accident for which friend and defensive linemate Josh Brent is facing intoxication manslaughter charges. He costs $4.072 million against the salary cap for a team that struggled all offseason to find cap room. It's kind of a miracle Ratliff is still on the roster. One of the reasons the Cowboys decided to switch to a 4-3 defensive alignment was their belief that Ratliff would thrive as one of two defensive tackles in Monte Kiffin's defense, and in order to overcome all of the good reasons they have to get rid of him, Ratliff could stand to look as healthy and dominant as possible this offseason on that defensive line.

New York Giants: RB David Wilson

The Giants let Brandon Jacobs leave as a free agent last offseason and released Ahmad Bradshaw this offseason, which means their running game has been completely overhauled. Wilson, their 2012 first-round draft pick, needs to be a big part of what that running game becomes this year. He showed last season that he has a quick burst and big-play capability, and he became a force on kick returns. Wilson should get the opportunity this offseason to show that he can handle the responsibilities of a No. 1 feature running back. With the Giants, those responsibilities include blitz pickup and pass-protection duties. If Wilson shows advancement in those areas and the ability to handle regular carries, he could keep Andre Brown in a goal-line role and decrease the team's need to find a third-down back with Bradshaw-like blocking ability. If not, the Giants could be tinkering with their run game all year.

Philadelphia Eagles: QB Michael Vick

Vick is the clear favorite to win the Eagles' starting quarterback job. He has considerably more NFL experience and more 2013 upside than any of his challengers. He still has the arm strength, the speed and the athleticism to offer the Eagles something at the quarterback position that no other team in the league has -- the stuff that has made coach after coach dream of what's possible since he was lighting it up at Virginia Tech. However, Vick will turn 33 next month and also has a well-established reputation as an injury-prone, turnover-prone risk-taker who holds the ball way too long and doesn't read defenses effectively. New Eagles coach Chip Kelly has said he needs a quarterback who can make quick decisions and unload the ball in a hurry. Vick will surely get the chance to show he can do that, and it's possible a scaled-down offense that leans more on the run game than Andy Reid's did will help. But if Vick struggles in the preseason with his decision-making and timing, he could lose the job to Nick Foles or Matt Barkley or Dennis Dixon. And if that happens, he could lose his roster spot, too.

Washington Redskins: LB Brian Orakpo

After a second consecutive season ended early due to a pectoral muscle injury, the Redskins' 2009 first-round pick finds himself having to prove something that was never an issue in his first two seasons -- that he can stay healthy. By now, Orakpo was supposed to have established himself as a disruptive pass-rushing force on par with the best in the league. He hasn't been able to do that, in large part because of those injuries. He has one year left on his contract, and there has been talk that he could get an extension prior to the start of the season, which is an appealing idea to the Redskins since they likely could get him at something of a discount due to the injuries. But if he struggles with health or effectiveness in the preseason, that's liable to make the Redskins think twice about a preseason extension, and to turn 2013 into a make-or-break year for Orakpo.

Other Side: Ohm Youngmisuk of ESPN New York

September, 4, 2012

Ohm Youngmisuk of ESPN New York covers the Giants, and with the Cowboys taking on Big Blue on Wednesday night he answered some questions in our weekly Opposing Voice series.

Q: How healthy is Hakeem Nicks? Will he make an impact in this game?

Hakeem actually didn't do much in practice on Sunday and Monday, which kind of gave a lot of us a bit of a pause. He has not suffered any setbacks and I think the Giants are just being extra cautious with their top receiver. I think Nicks is healthy but he may need some time to get his legs and wind and adjust to live action. He barely played in the preseason and has only been practicing for a little bit. While his timing with Eli Manning may be a tad off early, I don't think it will take the two long to get back on the same page.

Q: Sean Locklear will start at left tackle on Wednesday night. Tells us something about him.

Locklear will start at left tackle. Will Beatty has been slowed by a back injury and Locklear has impressed the coaching staff stepping in for Beatty. Locklear has started 82 times in his career, most of them in Seattle at right tackle. In 2005, he started at right tackle in helping the Seahawks reach the Super Bowl. But he has starting experience at left tackle, starting three games there for the Redskins last year. Offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride says the team has not skipped a beat with Locklear in there at left tackle.

Q: Of the corners, who covers Dez Bryant?

We'll have to see where Dez lines up. Usually the Giants do not move Corey Webster around to shadow the top receiver. Often, they keep him on the same side. So with that said, Michael Coe will start opposite Webster. It will be interesting to see who the Cowboys throw to Coe's side. As for the slot receiver, the Giants may use S Antrel Rolle there again like they did some last year. Rookie Jayron Hosley and rookie safety Will Hill also might see time as the nickel cornerback.

Q: The Giants are a mentally tough team. Why is that?

I think that has a lot to do with the head coach and their captains. Tom Coughlin is a tough-minded coach. Manning is the leader and he is often unflappable. With Justin Tuck leading the defense, the Giants have strong-minded leaders who have pretty much seen everything.

Q: Brandon Jacobs is gone, but does that mean the run game is going to slow down?

Rookie David Wilson actually might give the running game a jolt of energy. He has been exciting in the preseason but I don't know how many touches he will get. He has to earn the trust of the coaching staff but he's the type of back that can bust a big play on any carry. Ahmad Bradshaw remains the starter, and really the running game's success is going to depend on whether the offensive line can open some holes.

NFC East Top 20: No. 20 Ahmad Bradshaw

August, 16, 2012
With 20 days to go until the regular-season opener between the Giants and the Cowboys, I have decided to embark on a treacherous quest: To rank the top 20 players in the NFC East -- one per day, in reverse order, with the top player revealed on the day before the start of the season. You're going to love this feature and you're going to hate it. You're going to disagree and debate and argue and yell, and it's going to be awesome.

The rankings are mine alone. They reflect my opinion based on a number of factors -- career accomplishments, 2011 performance, performance relative to others at the same position, value to the team ... you name it. I used a number of sources to help form my opinion, but in the end that's what it is -- my opinion, which I expect to differ from yours and those of many others.

You want clues to try and figure out who's on it? The list includes seven New York Giants, six Philadelphia Eagles, five Dallas Cowboys and two Washington Redskins. It includes five defensive linemen, four wide receivers, three quarterbacks, three linebackers, two running backs, two offensive linemen and one tight end. (Jason Peters, though I consider him the division's best offensive lineman, is not on it since he's out for the year with an Achilles injury.)

It starts today, with one of the two running backs, and ends on Sept. 4, the day before that Cowboys-Giants game. In the meantime, let's have some fun with it.

No. 20 -- Ahmad Bradshaw, Giants RB

The Giants' running back is often underappreciated for his overall body of work. Not only is he an effective power runner when healthy, he's a vital part of the Giants' passing game as a receiver and a blocker. There's no running back in the league who picks up the blitz better than Bradshaw does, and prior to the recurrence of his foot injuries last season, he was the target of a higher percentage of his team's screen passes than any other player in the league. Pro Football Focus ranked him as the best overall running back in the NFC East and the eighth-best in the league. His grade as a runner was only 24th, but he ranked as the second-best blocking back in the league behind Buffalo's Fred Jackson.

Bradshaw's numbers have not ranked with those of the top backs in the league, in part because of those foot injuries of the past few years and in part because he's generally been in some sort of time-share situation in New York. But with Brandon Jacobs gone and Bradshaw's feet feeling (he says) better than they have in years, he's poised to be the unquestioned lead back with the Giants and challenge his career-best numbers from 2010. That year, he carried the ball 276 times for 1,235 yards and eight touchdowns and caught 47 passes for 314 more yards.

Bradshaw is tough. He plays through pain. He's motivated and eager to seize the role of No. 1 running back. He's only 26 years old, and if those feet hold up, there's little reason to think big things can't be in store. Bradshaw does all of the little things you need your running back to do, and he does them as well as anyone. All that remains is for his stats to catch up with his ability. Assuming the Giants' offensive line can block the run better than it did in 2011 (which really shouldn't be very difficult), I believe 2012 is the year in which that happens.

ALBANY, N.Y. -- On his first day at training camp, Martellus Bennett expressed his hatred for the Dallas Cowboys... and everybody else who isn't a Giant.

"I just want to kick those guys' asses," Bennett said when asked about playing the Cowboys shortly after arriving to Giants camp. "That is what it is all about. I mean we are cool but we ain't that cool, know what I am saying? I kind of got some ill feelings towards them overall. It is a game, I kind of hate everybody, honestly, in the NFL."

"I have ill feelings toward everybody," Bennett later clarified. "It is not just Dallas. Pretty much anybody who doesn't play with us, I pretty much don't like 'em. I don't like a lot of people. I am kind of an (expletive) but it is cool."

Read the rest of the story here.

NFC East: More or Less

June, 20, 2012
AFC More or Less: East | West | North | South NFC: East | West | North | South

After running the numbers, ESPN.com pro football writer John Clayton arrived at a win total for every team in the division for 2012. Is the figure too high, too low or spot-on?

PHILADELPHIA EAGLES: As disappointing as last year's Eagles were, they managed to win eight games. Upgrades to the linebacker corps, a tightening-up of the coverage schemes and an improved comfort level in the new defense all stand as reasons to believe that things will be better in Philadelphia this year. They appear to be loaded with top athletic talent at every position, and on paper (yes, we've heard those words before) they look like the best team in the division and one of the best in the league. After last year, I am far from sold, and I think a lot of this uncertainty rides on quarterback Michael Vick and his ability to limit the turnovers that were so costly during September's slow start.

As for the schedule breakdown, Clayton has the Eagles going 4-2 in the division. They were 5-1 in the division last year, and I don't see any good reason to think they should do much worse. I guess the Redskins should be better, but it's hard to see how the Cowboys (who weren't in either game) or the Giants will be much tougher to beat than they were a year ago. And out of the division, Clayton has the Eagles 6-4. Tough road trips to Pittsburgh, New Orleans and Arizona loom, but road games in Cleveland and Tampa Bay don't look so tough.

More or less? You guys know I don't like to make predictions this early, but because I must, I'm saying Clayton's number for the Eagles turns out to be a bit low.

NEW YORK GIANTS: This would, of course, match the Giants' win total from last year, when they became the first team to win the NFC East and the Super Bowl with fewer than 10 wins in a non-shortened regular season. It also would be one fewer than their win total from 2010, when they missed the playoffs. With Eli Manning at quarterback, Hakeem Nicks and Victor Cruz back at wide receiver and all of those great pass-rushers back for another year, the Giants are strong where it counts, and that's the reason for their year-to-year consistency. But within the confines of the 2011 regular season, they were anything but consistent. They looked terrible twice against the Redskins but beat the Cowboys twice when it counted, then of course got on that January roll that carried them to their second championship in five years.

Clayton has the Giants 3-3 in the division, which is a fair expectation. (I mean, we can't assume they'll beat the Redskins until we see it, right?) And he has them 6-4 outside the division, where they play at San Francisco (they were 1-1 there last year, of course, in two very close games), and have back-to-back trips to Atlanta and Baltimore in December. Free agency ate at their depth, and the Giants will need to do some work to replace the production of important 2011 pieces such as Mario Manningham and Brandon Jacobs. I guess the question is whether they'll be the playoff-tough team we saw in late December and the postseason or the team that struggled so badly in November against the tough part of its schedule.

More or less? From this far out, this just doesn't strike me as a Giants team that should win as many games as it won last year. For that reason, I say John's nine-win figure is a bit high. But I fully acknowledge the folly of picking against the Giants.

DALLAS COWBOYS: The Cowboys' defense -- particularly their secondary -- imploded completely during the final month of the season, and that and the two losses to the Giants were the reasons they finished 8-8 and missed last year's playoffs. They attacked the secondary by signing Brandon Carr and trading up to draft Morris Claiborne, and they added an inside linebacker in Dan Connor. But the rest of the team looks basically the same -- a potentially elite offense with Tony Romo throwing to Miles Austin and Dez Bryant and handing off to DeMarco Murray, but the same old questions in the middle of the offensive line and on defense.

Clayton has the Cowboys going 3-3 in the division, which again seems fair for a team that looks to be around the middle of the league pack. And with out-of-division games against the Bears, Falcons, Ravens, Steelers and Saints, it's not hard to imagine that a 6-4 record outside the NFC East is possible. If the upgrades at cornerback really do help the pass rush and put less pressure on the safeties, the Cowboys could make a leap. The Romo-led offense should score more than enough points. I just don't feel as though this Dallas team has elevated itself to the top echelon of the league's defenses.

More or less? Clayton's number seems about right to me. I don't think the Cowboys will go 0-2 against the Giants again.

WASHINGTON REDSKINS: The Redskins' biggest need was, of course, quarterback, and they dealt four high draft picks to get one. Robert Griffin III carries the hopes of a desperate fan base and the promise of being better than Rex Grossman, even as a rookie. The Redskins also outfitted him with a pair of new free-agent wide receivers, Pierre Garcon and Josh Morgan, and will team him with a young defense. Will it be enough to vault Washington into actual playoff contention? Clayton thinks no. And in fairness, as great as Griffin projects to be, he is a rookie, and rookies tend to struggle. Questions remain in the running game, on the offensive line, at receiver and in the secondary. There's more work to be done in Washington before the Redskins can threaten to reach the playoffs, most likely.

As for the breakdown, Clayton has the Redskins at 2-4 in the division, which is what they were last year, and 4-6 outside of it. They feel as though they should have won both of the Cowboys games, and it's not ridiculous to think they can win one this year, but regardless of the joke I made earlier, it's hard to imagine them beating the Super Bowl champs twice in the same year again. I just don't think their non-division schedule looks all that terrifying. A road game in Pittsburgh and home games against the Ravens and Falcons, sure. But I think the opener in New Orleans looks ripe for a fired-up team with a new quarterback, what with the Saints' coaches all suspended and especially if the Jonathan Vilma suspension holds up. It's not too hard to squint and find five or six potential non-division wins if the Redskins play slightly better than they did last year.

More or less? I think the Redskins will win more than six. But again, it's June, and I reserve the right to make my real predictions at the proper time.

NFC East: What to watch for in OTAs

May, 21, 2012
John Clayton has a preview of some of the hot issues teams face as organized team activities (or OTAs) begin this week. The only NFC East mentions in his piece are about the Philadelphia Eagles, and they are this one:
The Eagles signed Demetress Bell to replace left tackle Jason Peters, who is out for the season after tearing his Achilles twice. Bell was previously Peters' replacement in Buffalo but didn't stand out.

and this one:
Dream Team, take two: The Eagles were the winners of the 2011 offseason but losers when they underachieved last season and didn't make the playoffs. The key to OTAs is seeing whether they are going in the right direction on defense. Last year, they brought in man-to-man specialists Nnamdi Asomugha and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and played them in zone. Andy Reid brought in secondary coach Todd Bowles to help defensive coordinator Juan Castillo sort out the plan in the secondary and see whether the Eagles can match up better with the talent on hand.

And yeah, as was the case when the 2011 season started, I think it's fair to say the Eagles will be the most compelling national story out of our division. Much is expected, and given the way they flopped last year, they'll be under even more scrutiny this year.

But we deal with all four teams equally here, so playing off of John's column, I figured it'd be a good idea to pick something to watch for each of our other three teams this week. Remember that these offseason workouts are voluntary, so not all of the players we're looking at will necessarily be on the field. The Redskins' OTAs begin today, the Eagles and Cowboys start theirs Tuesday and the Giants get on the field Wednesday.

Dallas Cowboys

Lining up the line: The injury that will keep free-agent guard Mackenzy Bernadeau out for the spring and summer deprives the Cowboys of a chance they were expecting to see Bernadeau at center. It also removes him temporarily from the offseason competition for one of the guard spots, and will give players such as David Arkin, Bill Nagy, Nate Livings and Kevin Kowalski a head-start on him as they get an early chance to show the coaches what they can do.

New York Giants

The replacements: The Giants have to figure some things out on the line as well, and they'll take a look this offseason at whether Will Beatty is making progress as the starting left tackle and whether veteran David Diehl is the solution at right tackle with Kareem McKenzie gone. But they also want to see whether first-round pick David Wilson can replace running back Brandon Jacobs, whether second-round pick Rueben Randle can emerge from the crowd hoping to replace wide receiver Mario Manningham, and whether Terrell Thomas and/or Prince Amukamara is healthy enough to replace cornerback Aaron Ross.

Washington Redskins

Here, catch! We know rookie Robert Griffin III is the guy who'll be throwing the ball for the Redskins -- now and, ideally, for the long-term future. But Washington still needs to sort out who's going to catch it. Free-agent signees Pierre Garcon and Josh Morgan are obviously going to get the first shot at prominent roles in the receiving corps, and the coaching staff remains excited about 2011 rookie Leonard Hankerson. But veteran Santana Moss will also push for a role, and there are several holdovers at the wide receiver spot who will look to catch the coaches' attention this offseason so as not to get lost in the shuffle. And that doesn't even take into account tight end Fred Davis, who was the Redskins' best receiver last year.

NFC East position battles to watch

May, 11, 2012
So John Clayton has this piece on the 10 best position battles brewing this summer between rookies and veterans in the NFL. I scrolled through it, thinking it would provide me with some material for a late-Friday afternoon post, and to my shock and dismay there wasn't one NFC East mention in the whole thing. Come on, John! Help a guy out, will ya?

Anyway, it got me thinking: There must be some interesting position battles to keep an eye on throughout the offseason and training camps in our division, right? I mean, some situations where things aren't yet set in stone? There are, and here's one for each team.

Dallas Cowboys' inside linebackers: Sean Lee is set at one of these spots, but the other will be interesting to watch. The team drafted Bruce Carter in the second round in 2011, and they believe he's part of their future on defense. But he was coming off an injury when they drafted him and played in just 10 games as a rookie, and they can't be sure he'll be ready to hold down a starter's spot full-time in 2012. So they went out on the free-agent market and signed Dan Connor, formerly of the Carolina Panthers, to start next to Lee while Carter continues to acclimate himself to the pro game. The interesting aspect of this will be how good Carter looks in training camp and whether he can play well enough to demand to take reps and snaps away from Connor. The veteran, Connor, will start with the job, but Carter is the future there, and it's just a question of when he's ready.

New York Giants running backs: Ahmad Bradshaw is the unquestioned veteran starter, but he doesn't come without questions. Foot injuries have limited him over the past several seasons, and his good friend and veteran safety net, Brandon Jacobs, is off to San Francisco to play for the 49ers. Assuming Bradshaw won't be able to make it through the season fully healthy on a starter's workload, there are going to be plenty of snaps to go around. The question is how many of those snaps first-round pick David Wilson can steal from holdover youngsters like D.J. Ware, Da'Rel Scott and Andre Brown (who's suspended for the first four games for drugs).

Philadelphia Eagles safeties: The team wants Nate Allen and Jaiquawn Jarrett, its second-round picks from the 2010 and 2011 drafts, respectively, to be the starters. Of the two, they're more confident about Allen, who's had some injury issues but played well when healthy last season. They have him penciled in as a starter. Whether Jarrett can fight off Kurt Coleman for the other starting spot is one of the training-camp questions the Eagles will face. It's also possible they'll add a free-agent veteran to the mix, but they'd rather get the production they need from their young guys if they can.

Washington Redskins secondary: There are currently 15 defensive backs listed on the Redskins' roster, and it's safe to assume they can't all make the team. The question is which of them will play. Josh Wilson and DeAngelo Hall would appear to be set as the starting cornerbacks, but the team did sign free agent Cedric Griffin, and intriguing undrafted free-agent cornerback Chase Minnifield will be a name to watch in the summer. The more interesting questions are at safety, where the Redskins lost starters LaRon Landry and O.J. Atowge and things are wide open. The guy they like the best for the future is 2011 draft pick DeJon Gomes, but while they view him as a starter at some point, they don't know yet whether that point is this year. Their free-agent safety signing list is a fascinating one, including Brandon Meriweather, Madieu Williams and Tanard Jackson, any of whom c0uld emerge as a starter. Griffin also might have been brought in with an eye toward playing him at safety, and Reed Doughty was a valuable injury fill-in last season and could get a shot at more playing time in this crowded field. The Redskins appear to be installing an all-out competition for safety roles, and from here it's impossible to know who will play well enough to nail them down.

How the NFC East fared

April, 26, 2012
IRVING, Texas – It was a big day in the NFC East with the Cowboys making the boldest move by trading up to the sixth spot in the first round to draft cornerback Morris Claiborne.

As expected, Washington added quarterback Robert Griffin III with the second overall pick, but not expected was Philadelphia being able to land defensive end Fletcher Cox, which gives the Eagles another pass rusher to add to Jason Babin, Trent Cole and Cullen Jenkins.

Oh, the defending Super Bowl champs New York Giants added Virginia Tech running back David Wilson.

Griffin was the sure-fire second pick in the draft all along behind Andrew Luck and the Redskins are hoping he fills a piece of the puzzle that coach Mike Shanahan has not been able to land. Griffin is an electrifying playmaker and should be able to thrive with the way Shanahan likes to move the quarterback outside the pocket.

The Eagles coveted Cox and were glad to see him available with the No. 11 pick. He can hold the fort when Philadelphia spreads the field with its defensive ends and provide some interior pass rush. The Eagles appear to be doing what the Giants do with pass rushers: get a lot of them.

The Giants needed a running back to pair with Ahmad Bradshaw after losing Brandon Jacobs. Wilson had 1,709 yards at Virginia Tech and was the third running back taken in the first round behind Trent Richardson (Cleveland, No. 3) and Doug Martin (Tampa Bay, No. 30).

NFC East: Free-agency primer

March, 9, 2012
AFC Free-Agency Primer: East | West | North | South NFC: East | West | North | South

Free agency begins Tuesday at 4 p.m. ET

Dallas Cowboys

Key free agents: WR Laurent Robinson, S Abram Elam, LB Keith Brooking, LB Anthony Spencer (franchise)

Where they stand: Dallas needs serious help in the secondary and will have to decide whether it wants Elam back at safety while it pursues at least one cornerback. The Cowboys are expected to release Terence Newman, and they could look to add depth at that position and a new starter. Franchising Spencer indicates that while they would like to improve their pass rush, they won't be players in the Mario Williams market. Expect their free-agent focus to be on defensive backs and possibly some upgrades on the interior of the offensive line. They would like Robinson back as their No. 3 receiver, but if he's going to get No. 2 receiver-type offers, they'll likely let him walk.

What to expect: The top two cornerback targets are likely Kansas City's Brandon Carr and Tennessee's Cortland Finnegan. You can't rule out Dallas making a play for Saints guard Carl Nicks, who'd be a huge help to their offensive line. But someone like Baltimore's Ben Grubbs is likely to be more attainable financially. What the Cowboys really need on the line is a center, but it's not a great market for those unless they can get their hands on Houston's Chris Myers. The Cowboys likely will hunt for some second-tier safeties and inside linebackers to add depth, then target defensive back again early in the draft.

New York Giants

Key free agents: WR Mario Manningham, OT Kareem McKenzie, CB Aaron Ross, CB Terrell Thomas, LB Jonathan Goff, P Steve Weatherford (franchise).

Where they stand: The Super Bowl champs must get their own cap situation in order first, as they project to be about $7.25 million over the projected cap. That may mean tough cuts of people like Brandon Jacobs or David Diehl, or it may just mean some contract restructuring (like the big one they apparently just did with Eli Manning). Regardless, don't expect the Giants to spend big to keep Manningham or Ross. They're likely to bring back Thomas on a team-favorable deal as a result of the knee injury that cost him the entire 2011 season, and they'll probably let McKenzie walk and try to replace him internally (which favors Diehl's chances of sticking around).

What to expect: Just like last year, don't expect the Giants to be big-game hunters. They like to grow their own replacements. If Manningham leaves, they won't go after the top wide receivers but might try to find a bargain or two to supplement the young players from whom they're expecting more production next season. They could find a midlevel safety if they don't bring back Deon Grant, and if Jacobs leaves they'll probably bring in a veteran running back or two to compete in training camp with their youngsters. They liked Ronnie Brown last year as a possible Ahmad Bradshaw replacement when Bradshaw was a pending free agent, so there's a name to watch for if you want one.

Philadelphia Eagles

Key free agents: G Evan Mathis, DT Trevor Laws, DT Antonio Dixon (restricted), WR DeSean Jackson (franchise), QB Vince Young

Where they stand: Other than Mathis, whom they're working to try and re-sign before he his the market, the Eagles don't have many internal free-agent issues to worry about. They franchised Jackson because they're not ready to give him a long-term deal just yet. He's a candidate for a trade, but it would have to be a very nice offer. If they traded him, they'd hunt for a wide receiver, but they may do so anyway -- just at a lower level (think Plaxico Burress). The interior of the defensive line is in fairly good hands with Cullen Jenkins and Mike Patterson as starters, but they could stand to add depth to that rotation. And while they signed Trent Edwards a couple of weeks ago, they'll keep looking for a better veteran backup quarterback option with Young sure to be gone.

What to expect: Do not -- I repeat, do not -- expect the Eagles to be the same kind of player they were in free agency a year ago. Andy Reid made it very clear several times during the 2011 offseason and season that last year was unique, and the Eagles don't like to do business that way in general. They do need linebackers, and they have the cap room to play on guys like Stephen Tulloch or Curtis Lofton or even, if they wanted to get really nutty, London Fletcher. But while you can expect them to add a veteran or two at the position, don't be surprised if they sit out the higher-priced auctions this time around.

Washington Redskins

Key free agents: S LaRon Landry, LB London Fletcher, DE Adam Carriker, TE Fred Davis (franchise), QB Rex Grossman

Where they stand: Mike Shanahan said in December that Fletcher was a priority, but he remains unsigned with less than a week to go before free agency. Presumably, they'd still like to lock him up before he hits the market. If they can't, they'll have to replace a major on-field and off-field presence. Carriker is likely to be back, but the Fletcher situation has to be settled first. Landry likely is gone unless he wants to take a low-base, high-incentive deal to stay. The Redskins are sick of not knowing whether he'll be able to take the field from week to week. Grossman could return, but only as a backup to whatever quarterback upgrade they find.

What to expect: The Redskins could have more than $40 million in cap room with which to maneuver in free agency, and they're going to need it. They need a quarterback, of course, and if they can't make the trade with the Rams to move up to No. 2 in the draft and pick Robert Griffin III, they'll look at Peyton Manning and Kyle Orton and possibly Matt Flynn, though he doesn't appear to be high on their list. What Shanahan really wants is a true playmaking No. 1 wide receiver, which is why the Redskins have their eyes on Vincent Jackson and Marques Colston, who are at the very top end of that market. They'll be able to outbid almost anyone for those guys if they want to, but they may have to get quarterback figured out first if they want to persuade one of them to take their offer over similar ones. They'll also hunt for help on the offensive line and in the secondary, as they need depth in both places.

Leading Questions: NFC East

February, 16, 2012
With the offseason in full swing, let’s take a look at one major question facing each NFC East team as they begin preparations for the 2012 season:


Do they have too much work to do?

It's possible that we expect too much from the Cowboys. Their skill-position talent on offense makes them an easy team to like going into the season. Few teams are as good as they are at quarterback and wide receiver, and if DeMarco Murray comes back healthy, they look pretty good at running back, too.

But the offseason needs for the Cowboys are myriad. They need guards and a center. They need cornerbacks and safeties. They need a pass-rushing outside linebacker to complement DeMarcus Ware. They could stand to beef up on the defensive line.

That's a lot of needs, and it's fair to wonder whether they'll be able to fill them all adequately and construct a 2012 contender. That they were a contender (heck, a leader) in the NFC East right up until the end of the 2011 season leads one to believe they necessarily should be thought of as one again for 2012. But the division was, for the first time ever, won with only nine wins. And the way the Cowboys played defense and protected Tony Romo during their 1-4 finish was more alarming than the 7-4 record was encouraging.


What to do with Osi Umenyiora?

The Giants have other issues, sure. They need to work on the offensive line. They need to find a tight end. They need to make individual decisions on players like Brandon Jacobs and Mario Manningham. But for a team that believes the pass rush is the cornerstone of good defense, the Osi question is a fair one on which to focus right now.

Last summer, when he had two years left on his contract, Umenyiora was obviously unhappy. He sat out training camp practices. He sought (and received) permission to find a team willing to trade for him. He called GM Jerry Reese a liar in a sworn affidavit as part of one of the lockout lawsuits. The Giants never blinked, and in the end Umenyiora returned and became a major contributor to their Super Bowl run.

Now, he has one year left on the contract he hates, and the Giants must decide what to do. Sign him long term, as he wants? Trade him now, while his value is high coming off the Super Bowl and his postseason performance? Or stand pat again and force him to play out his contract, running the risk that he'll be more resolute in his protests and holdouts this time around?

The emergence of Jason Pierre-Paul at defensive end opposite Justin Tuck gives the Giants leverage, but at the same time, they were much better when all three of those guys were healthy and in the lineup together.


Is a full offseason really what they need?

Last August, after the lockout ended, the Eagles signed a bunch of free agents to play for a revamped coaching staff with a lot of new ideas about how to play defense and offensive line. The party line in Philadelphia now is that this was all too much too soon, and that the Eagles' 3-6 start was due in large part to the inability of all of these new pieces to get on the same page in the absence of an offseason program.

They played well at the end of the season, they point out. Heck, they played well at the beginning of the season, too -- they just couldn't hold a lead. So we'll see whether a real offseason of OTAs and minicamps all spring and summer helps everyone relax and get the most out of a talented roster.

We'll see whether it helps quarterback Michael Vick better handle the new responsibilities he took on in 2011, such as changing the protection at the line of scrimmage. We'll see whether the sting of 2011's disappointment can propel the Eagles to great things in 2012, or if it's all a bunch of hooey and they were never that good in the first place.


Who's the quarterback?

Rex Grossman can't come back as anything other than the backup, and John Beck ... well, just ... no.

The Redskins have many needs, but none as big as this one. Picking sixth in the draft, they'll need to trade up (and outbid other teams to do so) if they want Robert Griffin III, who's the best all-around option and a potential franchise quarterback.

But if trading up means dealing away multiple first-round picks and making it difficult for them to address areas such as wide receiver, offensive line and the secondary, it might not be the wisest course of action. That would necessitate a free-agent pursuit of someone like Kyle Orton, Matt Flynn or -- if they can be convinced he's fully healthy -- Peyton Manning.

Redskins fans aren't likely to be happy with an imperfect, short-term solution. But only one team is going to get Griffin, and if the Redskins are not that team, they need to spend their resources on a No. 1 receiver and help for the line.

They have about $47 million in cap room and the ability to fill enough holes that plugging in a healthy Manning could make them a 2012 contender. And if that's the way they go, there's always a Matt Barkley or Landry Jones-type option next year.

Grudge match: Cowboys-Giants keys

December, 31, 2011

Cowboys OT Doug Free vs. Giants DE Jason Pierre-Paul: This was a matchup in Week 14 that I thought the Cowboys would be okay in, but boy, was I wrong. Free usually plays well against athletes more than power players. I was surprised how much snap that Pierre-Paul had in his upper body and the way he was able to control Free with his hands. Pierre-Paul was a raw rusher technique-wise, but this season he has developed moves and a game. There is more than just explosiveness to his game and Free now understands that.

Scout's Eye
What Free is going to have to do is get on Pierre-Paul quickly and not allow him to get up the field and in position to get around the corner. On the safety that Free gave up, he wasn’t nearly quick enough getting out of his stance. The problem is when you are on the road, hearing for the offensive linemen is strained. Free will have to look inside and watch Costa to see him snap the ball, taking his eyes off Pierre-Paul and then adjust back to the outside. I believe that the Cowboys are not going to put Free in many one-on-one situations unless they can help it but when you do that, tackles sometimes get messed up in the positioning of the extra blocker and it hurts how they pass set.

I am sure that we will see a tight end to his side to make him rush wider. In the games I studied, defensive coordinator Perry Fewell moved Pierre-Paul around to create matchup problems in the three-man line. The Cowboys cannot allow Pierre-Paul to be a factor in this game like he was in the Giants' victory the last time these two teams met.

Cowboys CBs vs. Giants WRs Victor Cruz and Hakeem Nicks: As dangerous as Pierre-Paul is on the defensive side of the ball, the Giants have two weapons in Cruz and Nicks that can be just as much of a game changer. Cruz and Nicks can make any secondary look bad with their ability to make plays down the field. In my view, Nicks is to the Giants what Bryant is to the Cowboys, a big bodied receiver that can catch the ball all over the field. He is a force in the red zone and you have to deal with him in the open field when trying to get him on the ground. I know that he has had some bad drops this season, but against the Cowboys, I guarantee that will not happen. He has secure hands and is an outstanding route runner.

Victor Cruz is also a special player. Give the Giants scouting department a lot of credit for finding this player because he is fearless in the way he plays. He, like Nicks, can get deep on the vertical routes but he can also punish you with the way he runs routes on third down. Cruz likes to work the middle of the field and is always around the sticks. He lines up on the outside but where he does damage is from the slot.

Where he will challenge the Cowboys safeties is with his vertical speed. There is no doubt in my mind that the Giants will take some shots down the field on Newman and see if Elam or Sensabaugh can cover some ground from the middle of the field. In the last meeting, big plays were the difference in the game. Cruz and Nicks will make plays, but they can’t be the back-breaking ones.

Cowboys run defense vs. Giants RBs Ahmad Bradshaw and Brandon Jacobs: When the media had a chance to visit with Rob Ryan on Friday, he was pressed on the question of what the Giants were able to do last time these two teams met when it came to their ability to run the ball. You could hear it in Ryan’s voice the concern that he had with the situation and not allowing it to happen again. Last week again, Ryan challenged his run defense to play better against the Eagles and LeSean McCoy and they did.

The one common thread that I have noticed when they have played good run defense is the ability to stay square across the line and not get turned or moved off their spot. When Kenyon Coleman, Marcus Spears and Jason Hatcher are playing with their hands and getting off blocks, you can really tell the difference in the running game. Guys like Jay Ratliff and Sean Lissemore have also done a nice job of staying square and making plays at the line. Both these Giants backs are power players. Bradshaw is more physical than Jacobs but it always seems like Jacobs saves his best work for the Cowboys. T

here will be times where offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride will go away from the run and put the ball totally in Manning’s hands which I don’t understand. A physical Giants rushing attack will hurt the Cowboys in that it will slow down the pass rush. If you remember last time when the Giants were able to run the ball, the Cowboys struggled to get bodies home. Ryan and this defense cannot allow the Giants to beat them up and create other opportunities to make life easier for Manning. If the Cowboys are to win this game, they will need to match how physical these Giants running backs are.

Scout's Eye: Cowboys-Giants preview

December, 30, 2011

Scout's Eye
As many ups and downs as the Dallas Cowboys have had this season, the goal of an NFC East championship -- and a playoff berth -- remains in reach. That means the possibility of reaching the Super Bowl is still in play, and that's all you can ask for.

Recent playoff history has proven that if you're in, then you have a shot to win it all. Are the Cowboys good enough to make a serious run? With the way that Tony Romo is currently playing, there is that possibility.

But first there's a little thing about beating the New York Giants --a team that has similar and -- at some positions -- better talent than the Cowboys.

Expect a healthy dose of JPP, Tuck from Giants

When I break down these games, I always try to look at the areas where the Cowboys can get an edge but also where they might run into trouble. To me, both teams are going to have matchup problems.

The area that could give the Cowboys the biggest problem is Doug Free against Giants DE Jason Pierre-Paul. If Free was playing at a level like he was in 2010, I'd say this matchup had a great chance of being a wash. Pierre-Paul has gone from a raw rookie pass rusher to a dominant force on the outside and off the edge.

In Week 14, I really believed Free would be able to handle Pierre-Paul because he was more of an athletic pass rusher than a power player. I was mistaken. Pierre-Paul plays with some snap in his upper body and some first step explosiveness, and he was able to get his hands inside Free several times to control him as a blocker. In studying the game in the lab, it appeared that Free was surprised not only how JPP played him, but also the power in which he played him.

With Free there is been technique issues on a weekly basis. But in talking with members of the front office, they'll offer that the lack of a full offseason in the weight room has affected Free as a player. I fully expect Jason Garrett and this offensive staff to give Free help in this game, whether that is making him rush wider with a tight end to that side or chip him with Jones and Morris.

The problem with helping a tackle is that whomever helps -- the back or tight end -- gets in the way of the tackle trying to execute the block. The Cowboys leave their tackles on an island quite a bit so working with extra blockers is something to keep an eye on.

On the other side, Justin Tuck can present problems not only as a pass rusher but also defending the run, where he's been outstanding. Tuck is one of those players that is very smart and crafty, playing well with his hands, and he's able to extend on the blocker and fight down the line of scrimmage. Where Tuck is also dangerous is when he stands up like an inside linebacker and they use him in games or stunts with the other rushers. Where Tyron Smith has to be careful is if you go hard at Tuck, he'll jump around the block and cause you to overextend and miss.

Another matchup to watch is guard Derrick Dockery against defensive tackle Chris Canty. When you study the Giants, Canty is doing a much better job of showing up at key times in making stops. Dockery hasn't seen action since Week 2, but played very well to his credit.

If the Cowboys are going to win, the left side of their offensive line is going to have to do an outstanding job of controlling Canty and JPP to that side.

Cowboys should exploit Giants secondary ...

If the Cowboys have an advantage in this game, it's going to be against the Giants' cornerbacks. There are plays to be made against Corey Webster and Aaron Ross down the field. Webster is the more aggressive of the two.

In the nickel, the Giants will use Prince Amukamara, who hasn’t lived up to his first-round billing. Teams have been able to take advantage of how cautious he has played. Safety Kenny Phillips didn’t play the last time these two teams met, and that will be a boost for the Giants. He is good against the run and pass. His backup, Deon Grant, will make mistakes in coverage. So if Grant does get on the field, look for the Cowboys to try and take advantage.

The Redskins had success against the Giants secondary when they got in bunch formations and ran routes from that. Look to see if the Cowboys use their receivers and Jason Witten in those types of looks to try and confuse them in coverage.

... But look for Giants to do same vs. Cowboys secondary

As the Cowboys can cause problems with their receivers, so can the Giants when they're on offense. In Week 14, the Giants caused plenty of confusion for the Cowboys scheme-wise. Hakeem Nicks is an outstanding receiver, and some of the drops he had against the Redskins and Jets will not happen. He's a Cowboys-killer in the way he plays.

I've said this before about Nicks: He's the Giants version of Dez Bryant. He is a physical body that makes plays all over the field. Despite his drops, I still feel his hands are outstanding and his footwork and body control is even better. Nicks has no fear on where to run routes and he will make defenders pay for having to cover him. He can be a dominant player in the red zone with his body position and his leaping ability.

To me, however, the most dangerous player is Victor Cruz. He has special skills and is a matchup nightmare because he'll line up anywhere in the formation. Like Nicks, Cruz will take his route inside, catch the ball in traffic and take a big hit. When the Giants need to convert on third down, he is usually the man running the route that gets them the first. Manning has a great deal of confidence in him and will do everything in his power to get him the ball on the move. Cruz has the speed and the quickness to get down the field on vertical routes and will make big plays in this way.

In studying the Giants' last two games, they have made more of an effort to attempt more vertical throws. There is no doubt in my mind they'll take shots down the field against Terence Newman and these safeties.

Giants starting offensive line is healthy, intact

The Giants' offensive line was a mess three weeks ago with guard Kevin Boothe playing center and Mitch Petrus taking his spot at guard. After reviewing their win vs. the Cowboys, that group was the reason why the Giants won. Manning wasn't sacked, and they were able to run the ball with Brandon Jacobs and Ahmad Bradshaw.

This time around, the Giants have their starting group in place with David Baas at center and Boothe at guard. LT David Diehl has had many a battle with DeMarcus Ware, and Kareem McKenzie is on the right side.

What helps this line is Manning’s ability to get rid of the ball quickly, which he was able to do last time. Where the Giants have struggled is when teams make them move their feet in pass protection. McKenzie struggles with this more than Diehl.

If you want me to pick a weak spot, it's at center with Baas. In several games, he's not been able to handle the cut off or reach blocks, and he's struggled in the passing game. Boothe was outstanding against Jay Ratliff in the first meeting, which really surprised me.

Ratliff can not have an off game this time around, or that will be a huge problem for the Cowboys. As banged up as he was last week, Ratliff played well against the Eagles, who are much better at center.

If you don't punish Bradshaw, he'll punish you

When the Giants run the ball on offense, it’s usually with Bradshaw. I know that Jacobs had a huge game last time, but Bradshaw is a real difference-maker for this team. He is a physical back that is difficult to get on the ground. He doesn’t have the elusive moves of a LeSean McCoy, but he has a low center of gravity and will try to punish tacklers. If you don't hit him hard, Bradshaw will run over you.

Final keys to the game

This game can go in two different directions for me. If the Cowboys can't block this Giants front, then there will be huge problems. But if they give Romo time, there are plays to be made against this secondary.

Defensively, the Cowboys cannot allow Manning to feel comfortable throwing the ball. The Cowboys' run defense was solid against the Eagles last week, and Rob Ryan needs that to carry over. But they have to pressure Manning. Of the top quarterbacks in the league, Manning struggles with pressure the most.

The Cowboys defense has to take advantage when he makes mistakes, and we all know that he will.

Josh Brent excited to be back

December, 30, 2011
IRVING, Texas -- Officially Josh Brent is listed as questionable for Sunday’s game at the New York Giants, but the backup nose tackle said he will play.

With the way Brandon Jacobs ran against the Cowboys in the first meeting, having Brent’s bulk (320 pounds) will be a plus.

Brent suffered a sprained medial collateral ligament and some kneecap damage while blocking on the field goal unit against Miami on Thanksgiving.

“I pushed it through rehab and I pushed it every day I stepped on the field,” Brent said. “Otherwise you’re not going to know if you’re able to go in the game.”

In Brent’s four-game absence the Cowboys allowed three teams to rush for more than 100 yards (Arizona, the Giants and Philadelphia). The Eagles ran for 239 yards in the first meeting of the year when Brent was inactive.

“I’m just relieved and happy to be able to come back and play this season,” Brent said. “We have an opportunity to do something special, making it to the playoffs and it’s in our hands.”

Rob Ryan has no grudge against Brandon Jacobs

December, 30, 2011

IRVING, Texas – Rob Ryan swears that bears no ill will toward Brandon Jacobs despite the Giants running back’s rather rude postgame conversation with the Dallas defensive coordinator’s twin brother.

Jacobs and Jets head coach Rex Ryan had a heated, face-to-face discussion after the Giants’ win over their New York rivals last week. It reportedly started with Jacobs telling the guarantee-happy Jets coach, “Time to shut up, fat boy.”

A couple of days before the Cowboys and Giants play for the NFC East title, Rob Ryan basically shrugged when asked about the confrontation. He’s much more concerned with figuring out how to stop Jacobs, who had his lone 100-yard game of the season in the Giants’ Dec. 11 win at Cowboys Stadium, than sticking up for his brother.

“I’m sure it wasn’t just a one-sided thing,” Rob Ryan said. “I don’t want to talk about it. I have great respect for both of them. Obviously blood on one of them with Rex. But this Jacobs kid ran for [101] yards on us. He is a grown man. I look at him. He is gigantic. He has great size and things.

“Let’s be honest those are two guys that love their team, that love who they are. They’re vocal leaders of their groups. Sometimes people bang heads. That is life. I’m sure you guys have your altercations too.”

Ryan found the thought of a family grudge against Jacobs humorous, as if anybody needed additional motivation with the division title and NFC’s final playoff berth on the line.

“Hell, this is a championship game, guys,” Ryan said. “You think that kid is losing any sleep over that incident? Hell, no, he’s looking to take on us, trying to beat us.”