Dallas Cowboys: Jason Peters

Best case/worst case: DeMarcus Lawrence

July, 11, 2014
Jul 11
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IRVING, Texas -- In order to break out of their 8-8 doldrums, the Dallas Cowboys will need a lot to go right in 2014.

This week we take a best-case, worst-case look at five offensive and defensive players that will go a long way in shaping the Cowboys’ season.

DeMarcus Lawrence

Best case: He is DeMarcus Ware, circa 2005

[+] EnlargeDeMarcus Lawrence
Matthew Emmons/USA TODAY SportsThe Cowboys have high hopes for rookie DeMarcus Lawrence.
For nine years, Ware was everything the Cowboys hoped he would be. He put up 119 sacks, a franchise record. He went to the Pro Bowl seven times. But Ware needed time to grow in his rookie year in 2005. He finished his rookie year with eight sacks, with his best game coming in Week 16 when he had a three-sack effort against Carolina. The Cowboys would love to get eight sacks from Lawrence as a rookie. Jeff McLane of the Philadelphia Inquirer studied the last 32 edge rushers taken in the first round and saw they averaged 3.7 sacks per season. Lawrence was a second-round draft pick (albeit two spots from the first round). He will be given a chance to play a lot as a rookie. The Cowboys made a lot of additions to their defensive line in the offseason, but Lawrence is the lone true right defensive end. That distinction was why they gave up their third-round pick to get him in a trade with the Washington Redskins. He looks the part, with long arms and decent speed. He does not possess Ware’s athleticism (few do) but he if he can get eight sacks, the Cowboys' defensive line will be better than many believe and the Cowboys will have their pass-rusher of the present and the future.

Worst case: He is chewed up by left tackles

Rookies at any position need time. Rookie pass-rushers, as we established in the best-case scenario, need time. Lawrence will be tested in training camp by going against Tyron Smith in practice, but there has to be a hope his confidence doesn’t get damaged if Smith chews him up in the summer. If he can hold his own, then maybe that will build his confidence in getting ready to go against tackles like Jason Peters, Joe Staley and Russell Okung. The Cowboys’ approach to the defensive line this offseason has been to bring a lot of numbers. Lawrence, however, can bring the most quality, especially if Henry Melton is not fully healthy. If Lawrence doesn’t work out – or needs the normal amount of time to adjust to the NFL – then the Cowboys will have to go with quantity and throw everybody at the position from Jeremy Mincey to Tyrone Crawford to Anthony Spencer, who is coming back from microfracture surgery. The Cowboys don’t need Lawrence to lead the defense in sacks in 2014, but he must contribute more than 3.7 sacks.

Tyron Smith will cash in big time

February, 26, 2014
Feb 26
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IRVING, Texas -- Jason Peters already had the highest average-per-year salary for left tackles before signing a four-year extension with the Philadelphia Eagles on Wednesday.

Smith
Entering the final year of his deal, Peters will now earn $51.3 million over the next five years with $19.55 million guaranteed, according to ESPN's Adam Schefter.

What does it mean for Dallas Cowboys left tackle Tyron Smith?

Not as much as you would think, in my opinion.

Smith's deal should be much bigger than this whenever the Cowboys decide to sign their Pro Bowl left tackle to an extension. The Cowboys hold a fifth-year option on Smith's contract, which they must exercise by this spring.

The option is new to the collective bargaining agreement and will bring a whole slew of questions for teams and agents as they attempt to work out new deals.

The contract that Smith might be closer to matching is the seven-year, $84 million deal Joe Thomas received from the Cleveland Browns in 2011. That deal included $44 million in guaranteed money. Thomas, who many consider the best tackle in football, was 26 when he signed.

Smith does not turn 24 until Dec. 12. He is coming off his first Pro Bowl appearance. He had his best season. He has fully acclimated to the left tackle spot after playing right tackle as a rookie in 2011. It is rare to find a player of Smith's age and ability who is closing in on free agency. He was 20 when the Cowboys picked him ninth overall.

Smith could be so good that he cashes in twice. Peters is 32 and received an extension that averages $10.26 million. Depending on the length of the deal Smith signs with the Cowboys, he could receive a second bite at the free-agent apple in his early 30s. Tackles can play well into their 30s. Flozell Adams was making Pro Bowls in his 30s while with the Cowboys.

Tyron Smith named second-team All-Pro

January, 3, 2014
Jan 3
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IRVING, Texas -- Last week Dallas Cowboys left tackle Tyron Smith was named to the Pro Bowl for the first time in his career. On Friday, he was named second-team All Pro by the Associated Press.

Smith
Joe Thomas of the Cleveland Browns and Jason Peters of the Philadelphia Eagles were named to the first team. San Francisco’s Joe Staley was the other second-team tackle.

Smith was playing as well as any tackle in football late in the season. He allowed only one sack all season and the Cowboys averaged 5.3 yards per carry on 53 runs behind their left tackle, which was seventh-best in the NFL.

A first-round pick in 2011, Smith has missed only one game in his career. He is signed through 2014, however, the Cowboys have an option for 2015 they need to exercise by the spring. The Cowboys want to sign him to a long-term contract at some point.

The Cowboys have not had a first-team All-Pro offensive lineman since Leonard Davis and Flozell Adams in 2007.

Only 23 years old, Smith still has plenty of chances to make the first team.

Eight in the Box: Returning from injury

May, 17, 2013
5/17/13
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NFC Eight in the Box: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

A look at key players for each NFC East team who are coming back from injuries:

Dallas Cowboys: LB Sean Lee

Lee has been a breakout defensive star for the Cowboys the past two seasons, but he hasn't been able to stay healthy. A wrist injury limited him after a raging hot start in 2011, and after another hot start in 2012 he injured a toe in Week 7 and missed the remainder of the season. The Cowboys' defense is different when Lee is on the field and at his instinctive, playmaking best, and it misses him terribly when he's not. Now set to play the middle linebacker position in Dallas' new 4-3 defensive alignment, Lee is more important than ever to the every-down success of the defense. We easily could have picked running back DeMarco Murray or even perpetually nicked-up wide receiver Miles Austin for this exercise, but the Cowboys' biggest question marks lie on defense, where six starters missed time last year because of injury. Improved health on defense is the surest way for the Cowboys as a whole to improve in 2013, and Lee is right in the middle of it all.

New York Giants: WR Hakeem Nicks

Nicks broke a bone in his foot during minicamp last year, and while he made it back in time for the start of the season, he was not himself all year. Foot and knee problems cost him three games and limited him to 692 yards and three touchdowns on 53 catches (10 catches and 199 yards of which came in a Week 2 game for which he was named NFC Offensive Player of the Week). Without his top wide receiver healthy for much of the year, Giants quarterback Eli Manning was unable to duplicate the Super Bowl-winning magic of the previous season. With Nicks hobbled, defenses were often able to focus more on Victor Cruz, whose production dropped from the previous year's dazzling yardage numbers. Nicks is a vital part of the Giants' passing game, which is the vital part of their offense. When he's at his best, he's among the top all-around wide receivers in the league. He needs to stay healthy for the Giants to function at peak levels.

Philadelphia Eagles: LT Jason Peters

Peters tore his right Achilles tendon twice during the 2012 offseason and was obviously unable to play at all as a result. He was the first of three Eagles starting offensive linemen to land on injured reserve last year, but after the year he had in 2011, his was the absence they had the greatest difficulty overcoming. Peters was essential to the Eagles offense in 2011 as a multi-level blocker who could take out his man at the line and then get upfield quickly and block a linebacker or a safety as well. Without him, the run game suffered, the screen game suffered, and quarterback Michael Vick's ability to succeed when he extended plays suffered. The Eagles need Todd Herremans and Jason Kelce back on the offensive line, and they need first-round pick Lane Johnson to play well at right tackle. But the most important offensive line recovery is that of Peters, who brings something to the equation no one else brings. He needs not only to be healthy, but to play like his old, spry self.

Washington Redskins: QB Robert Griffin III

If you've been living in a cave without access to TV or the Internet for the past six months, it will come as news to you that Griffin tore his ACL in the Redskins' playoff game (yes, they made the playoffs) and had reconstructive surgery in January. While the Redskins believe they have a capable backup in Kirk Cousins, much of their 2012 success was because of Griffin's unique talents and abilities. Even if Griffin is back to 100 percent, the Redskins probably will take greater care with how they use him in the read-option this year. But the threat he poses to defenses as a runner and a passer is not something Cousins or very many other quarterbacks in the league can replicate. The Redskins must be careful not to rush Griffin back from his injury, as he's their franchise quarterback and vital to the long-term success and health of the team. But their 2013 fortunes are tightly tied to the timing and extent of his recovery.

NFC East draft analysis

April, 29, 2013
4/29/13
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NFC draft analysis: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

The draft started off heavy in the NFC East, as the three teams with first-round picks this year used them on offensive linemen. And while there were a few little surprises and treats along the way, it never really got hot. All four of the division's teams had workmanlike drafts that balanced need and value and didn't stray into any of the juicy storylines. No Manti Te'o, Geno Smith or Tyrann Mathieu for us.

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Chuck Cooperstein, Matt Mosley and Glenn "Stretch" Smith discuss the Cowboys' draft picks and who was influencing Jerry Jones' decisions.

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There was a trade-down in the first round, as the Dallas Cowboys moved out of a No. 18 spot they didn't like and still managed to get their first-round offensive lineman, while adding a third-rounder to the mix. There were two trade-ups in the fourth round, as the Philadelphia Eagles and the New York Giants maneuvered to add quarterbacks in surprising moves. And there were the Washington Redskins, without a first-rounder but fine with it because they have Robert Griffin III, who waited it out and got two talented safeties in the late rounds for a secondary that needs rebuilding.

We'll be breaking this all down for days and weeks and months, but here's a quick early look at the way the 2013 draft went in the NFC East.

BEST MOVE

In the absence of any earth-shaking moves in the early rounds by NFC East teams, I'm going to have to go with the Eagles taking tackle Lane Johnson at No. 4. They probably could have traded down and out of the pick, but this was a draft in which six offensive linemen went in the first 11 picks, and the value of the third-best tackle with the fourth pick was worth hanging in there. After what happened to their offensive line with injuries in 2012, the Eagles were wise to load up there, taking an athletic player who can start at right tackle right away and maybe move to left tackle down the road once Jason Peters is done. It also helps that Johnson is the kind of lineman who can move. If Chip Kelly plans to run a lot of read-option, or even a lot of bubble screens, Johnson's ability to get out and block at the second level is going to be a big help.

Also considered: The Eagles' trade-up for quarterback Matt Barkley at the top of the fourth round. ... The Redskins' getting two quality safeties in the fourth and sixth rounds in Phillip Thomas and Bacarri Rambo. ... The Cowboys trading down in the first round and getting wide receiver Terrance Williams with the third-round pick they added in that deal.

RISKIEST MOVE

[+] Enlarge
Thomas Campbell/US PresswireDamontre Moore put up impressive numbers at Texas A&M, but he has to disspell concerns over his work ethic and attitude at the next level.
There weren't any real big risks taken by NFC East teams with their most valuable picks in the first and second rounds, I didn't think. So I'm going with defensive end Damontre Moore, who went to the Giants in the third round. Moore is a big-time talent with big-time production numbers in college -- 12.5 sacks last year, 26.5 over the past three. But there are good reasons a player as good as he is was still there at pick No. 81, and in Moore's case those reasons include a marijuana bust and a reputation as a young man who struggles with attitude and work ethic.

Now, Moore is just 20 years old, and it's wrong to assume anyone that age will always be what he has been so far. But Moore is the player from this draft whose job it is to bolster the future of the Giants' pass rush with Osi Umenyiora gone and Justin Tuck aging. If he's a solid citizen and produces the way he did at Texas A&M, he's going to be a steal. If he's an attitude case who doesn't take to coaching and causes problems, the Giants are going to have to keep looking for long-term solutions at defensive end in the next several drafts. A third-round pick isn't too much to risk on a player with Moore's potential, but it's a pick with which the Giants could have found help elsewhere. So if he does flop, they will regret it.

MOST SURPRISING MOVE

The Eagles pulled the surprise of Day 3, moving up three spots to the top of the fourth round, where they selected USC quarterback Matt Barkley. Most analysts were convinced Kelly would seek a fast, athletic, running quarterback when he finally pulled the trigger on that position, but Barkley was a pro-style pocket passer at USC and doesn't fit the "system" everyone seems to be assuming Kelly is determined to run now that he's in the pros. As you know if you read this blog regularly, I think that's hogwash and that Kelly is smart enough to know that the best way to coach is to find talented players and figure out the best way to coach them -- not come wading in with your own "system" and only look for players who fit it.

Kelly knows Barkley from coaching against him in college, and Barkley is a guy who a year ago was thought of as a possible No. 1 overall pick. If 2012 was just a bad year for him and he ends up being a good NFL quarterback, nobody's going to care that he can't run the read-option. For a fourth-round pick and a seventh-round pick, which is what it cost the Eagles to move up and take him, it's a worthwhile risk. And it leaves Kelly with a lot of options at the most important position on his team as he begins his first offseason as an NFL coach.

The Giants pulled a surprise of their own later in the round, trading up six picks to select Syracuse quarterback Ryan Nassib to develop behind Eli Manning. The 32-year-old Manning hasn't missed a game since 2004, so it's unlikely Nassib sees the field anytime soon. But the Giants decided it was time to start thinking down the road at the position.

FILE IT AWAY

I liked the Cowboys' first round more than most people did, because I thought they absolutely needed to come out of that round with an offensive lineman, and they did. And while Travis Frederick may have been a reach at 31, reaching for an offensive lineman wasn't a bad move for this particular team in a draft in which eight offensive linemen went in the top 20 picks. They traded down from 18 and got the pick that netted Frederick and the third-round pick that netted wide receiver Terrance Williams, and they like that pair better than they liked what was available to them at 18.

But they won't have to look far to remember what might have been. The Giants took Syracuse offensive lineman Justin Pugh at 19, which means the Cowboys could have stayed put and picked up a better-regarded lineman than Frederick (though, obviously, not also get Williams in the third). If Pugh turns out to be a great player for the Giants and Frederick flops in Dallas, the Cowboys could end up regretting the Day 1 trade-down in the long run.

NFC East gets wise, looks to the line

April, 26, 2013
4/26/13
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Justin Pugh, Lane Johnson & Travis FrederickAP Photo, Getty ImagesThe NFC East added offensive linemen Justin Pugh, Lane Johnson and Travis Frederick.

NEW YORK -- Three NFC East teams picked in the first round of the NFL draft Thursday night, and the combined weight of the three players they picked is 922 pounds. Finally, they're paying attention to what's important.

Yes, the Philadelphia Eagles, New York Giants and Dallas Cowboys each picked an offensive lineman in this year's first round. And while that had something to do with the oddity of a first round that included one quarterback, no running backs and nine offensive lineman, it also says a lot about how badly this division as a whole needs to address this long-neglected need.

Tackle Lane Johnson, tackle/guard Justin Pugh and center/guard Travis Frederick, the 2013 first-round picks of the Eagles, Giants and Cowboys, are no cosmic coincidence. They are medicine, ordered with a purpose by teams that have figured out where they're lacking and that they all need to muscle up in the short-term and long-term.

I am of the belief -- and have written at length on this blog -- that one of the main reasons the NFC East is in a down cycle is division-wide offensive line decay. And yes, the division is down. Over the past three seasons, the division's combined record is 97-101 (yes, counting postseason and the Super Bowl). No NFC East team has won 11 games since 2009, which was also the last year in which it fielded more than one playoff team. Two years ago, the Giants won the division with a 9-7 record. This past year, the Washington Redskins won it at 10-6. Bleh.

The NFC East has superstar talent at quarterback and running back and wide receiver and pass-rusher. But with the exception of a magical six-game run the Giants made at the end of the 2011 season, excellence has eluded its once-feared teams. And the consistent issue that seems to be holding them back is the offensive line. To wit:

The Giants have basically been getting by with an aging, patchwork group. Former second-round pick Will Beatty emerged as a star last year when finally healthy, but veterans Chris Snee and David Diehl are fading and Kevin Boothe and David Baas aren't special. Until Thursday night, the Giants hadn't taken a first-round lineman since Luke Petitgout in 1999. You can try and hit on free agents and second- and third-rounders for a while, but eventually you need to add some top-end talent to the mix. Enter Pugh, a college tackle who may project as a pro guard and offers versatility in the short-term and a possible long-term answer at any one of several positions.

The Eagles had a fine line in 2011, but four of their five starters missed significant time due to injury in 2012, and they finished 4-12 and changed head coaches. Enter Johnson, this year's No. 4 overall pick, who likely starts at right tackle right away, moving Todd Herremans inside to guard and serving as an eventual replacement for left tackle Jason Peters.

The Cowboys' neglect of the offensive line had reached epidemic proportions before they took tackle Tyron Smith in the first round in 2011, and if you watched them last year you came away thinking they needed to upgrade every one of the starting line positions but his. Enter Frederick, who was a surprise first-rounder, but not as much of a reach as he initially looked. With four tackles and the top two guards gone in the top 11 picks, the Cowboys decided to trade down from 18 and get the guy they wanted at the tail end of the first round. Quibble if you want with the return they got on their trade. And sure, maybe Frederick would have been there when they picked again Friday night at 47. But (a) maybe not, since offensive lineman are going faster than ever and (b) so what? The Cowboys' short-term and long-term needs at offensive line were significant enough that they needed to come away from this year's first round with an upgrade. Frederick is almost certain to be an upgrade over one or more of Phil Costa, Nate Livings and Mackenzy Bernadeau, and the Cowboys were absolutely right to make this need a priority on this night.

The Redskins' line played fine in 2012 and has a superstar in left tackle Trent Williams. But a lot of its success has to do with the help it gets from its mobile quarterback. The Redskins remain unsettled at right tackle. They didn't have a first-round pick this year as a result of last year's deal for Robert Griffin III, but don't be surprised if they too look to address the line once they start picking Friday and Saturday.

This seems obvious, of course. It's a long-held NFL adage that the best way to build teams is through the lines. Consistent, reliable offensive line play helps you control games and maximize your skill-position talent. Deficient line play helps you squander your skill-position talent, or worse, make it more susceptible to injury. But while it may seem obvious from the outside, the NFC East's teams have let the line play lapse. Thursday was a clear sign that they have realized this and plan to address it moving forward. I don't think these three will be the last offensive linemen taken by NFC East teams in this year's draft, but each is vital to the division's effort to regain its status as one of the toughest in the NFL. Because thanks to the decay of its offensive lines over the past few years, the fact is that it has not been.

Eight in the Box: Ideal first rounds

April, 19, 2013
4/19/13
11:46
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NFC Eight in the Box: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

What would be the ideal first-round scenario for the Cowboys in next week's NFL draft?

Dallas Cowboys

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Arlington and Texas A&M product Luke Joeckel, the potential No. 1 overall pick in the NFL draft, joins Ian Fitzsimmons and Richard Durrett to discuss the draft, coaches and advice from his dad.

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Because of the perceived lack of top-level skill-position talent in this year's draft, a lot of the mock drafts and projections have the top offensive linemen going off the board early. Mel Kiper Jr.'s latest mock Insider, for example, has six offensive linemen going in the top 12 picks, which means well before the Cowboys pick at 18 and probably too early for them to make a sensible trade-up to grab someone like Alabama guard Chance Warmack or North Carolina guard Jonathan Cooper. This would be unfortunate and far from ideal for the Cowboys, but history offers hope. The last time six of the first 17 picks in the draft were offensive linemen was 1966, when there were only 15 teams in the league. Only three times since then -- 1977, 1985 and 2008 -- have as many as five offensive linemen been picked in the top 17. The Cowboys probably can't expect any of the top three tackles to fall to them, but their ideal first-round situation would be for Warmack, Cooper or even Alabama tackle D.J. Fluker to fall to 18 and allow them to shore up their most significant area of short-term and long-term need. If only one of those guys is still available by 14, the Cowboys should look into trading up to get him.

To see the ideal first-round scenario for the other NFC East teams, click here.

Draft look-ahead: Dallas Cowboys

March, 22, 2013
3/22/13
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Over at our NFL Draft blog, Steve Muench is taking a look at the way the offseason activity so far in the NFC East has affected the way each team may approach next month's draft. Let's take a team-by-team spin through Steve's evaluation along with a list of each team's draft picks, per the official draft order the league released Thursday.

DALLAS COWBOYS (6 picks -- Nos. 18, 47, 80, 114, 151, 185)

Steve's take: "Dallas taking Alabama G Chance Warmack or North Carolina G Jonathan Cooper with the 18th overall pick makes sense from both a value and need standpoint... But don't be surprised to see the Cowboys go in another direction and take a different Tar Heel at No. 18. They need talent and depth at defensive tackle to make a successful transition to a base four-man front, and North Carolina DT Sylvester Williams can provide both with his quick feet and hands, agility and range."

My take: By now I'm kind of all-in on this. I think not coming out of the first round with a new starter on the offensive line would be franchise negligence by the Cowboys. And the way their offseason has gone so far, with pretty much all of their available resources committed to franchising defensive end Anthony Spencer, only strengthens that belief.

We've got new NFL mock drafts

February, 7, 2013
2/07/13
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Both Todd McShay Insider and Mel Kiper Jr. Insider have new mock drafts out today, and here's a look at who they project for each NFC East team in the first round. (Remember, the Redskins don't have a first-round pick this year).

4. Philadelphia Eagles

McShay: Luke Joeckel, OT, Texas A&M

Kiper: Dee Milliner, CB, Alabama

In Mel's mock, Joeckel is gone at No. 1 to Andy Reid and the Chiefs. But if he's there at 4, I think he makes a ton of sense for the Eagles as a right-now right tackle (with Todd Herremans moving to guard) or a right-now left tackle (if Jason Peters can't make it all the way back from injury) or a critical building block for the future. With Joeckel and Star Lotulelei off the board in Mel's mock, Milliner makes sense as the Eagles look to rebuild the secondary. And I still think West Virginia QB Geno Smith gets heard from up here before this is all said and done.

18. Dallas Cowboys

McShay: Sheldon Richardson, DT, Missouri

Kiper: Chance Warmack, G, Alabama

Can't go wrong either way, can the Cowboys, picking offensive line or defensive line here. Warmack at 18 would be incredibly tempting for a team that has huge weaknesses on the interior of its offensive line.

19. New York Giants

McShay: Alec Ogletree, LB, Georgia

Kiper: Zach Ertz, TE, Stanford

All due respect to Todd, and while I agree with the assessment of need, I will believe the Giants are taking a linebacker in the first round when it is announced and not one second before. Mel's prediction of a potentially elite passing-game weapon at tight end feels more like Jerry Reese's speed.

Eagles' offensive line is completely toast

November, 8, 2012
11/08/12
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The Philadelphia Eagles made it official Wednesday, putting right tackle Todd Herremans on season-ending injured reserve with the ankle injury he suffered in Monday night's loss to the Saints in New Orleans. That means the Eagles right now are without four of the five players they planned to use this year as starting offensive linemen. All-Pro left tackle Jason Peters tore his Achilles tendon twice in the offseason and is unlikely to play this year. Center Jason Kelce tore knee ligaments in Week 2 and is out for the season. Right guard Danny Watkins has missed the past two games and remains out with an ankle injury. And now Herremans is down for the season.

Left guard Evan Mathis is looking around wondering where everybody went.

In all seriousness, this is the kind of thing that really starts to convince you there's no chance for the Eagles to turn this season around. You can talk all you want about how Michael Vick needs to play better or they need to run the ball more with LeSean McCoy, but there's simply no way for an offense to work if the offensive line isn't right. And there's simply no way for any NFL team to lose four starting offensive linemen and not struggle offensively.

Part of the problem is that Demetress Bell, the talented but disappointing tackle they signed right after Peters got hurt, has been a total flop. But even if Bell had locked down left tackle, the entire right side of the line from center over would be on the shelf right now. King Dunlap, Dallas Reynolds and Dennis Kelly haven't been awful in and of themselves as replacements, but a line needs to play together in order to be effective, and if you watched the Eagles on Monday night you saw a line that can't handle its joint assignments in pass protection or really in the run game.

This was supposed to have been a strength for the Eagles this year, but it's now fallen completely apart to an extent they could not have possibly imagined. And it's the single greatest impediment to the miracle comeback they'll need to make in the second half of the season to save Andy Reid's job as head coach.

Cowboys in better shape than Eagles

November, 8, 2012
11/08/12
11:14
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Jason Garrett/Andy ReidAP Photo/Getty ImagesJason Garrett and Andy Reid's teams are both 3-5, but it's Garrett who's in a stronger long-term position with his team.

Back in August, when they looked ahead to their Week 10 matchup against each other, the Dallas Cowboys and the Philadelphia Eagles probably envisioned two rivals in the thick of a race for the postseason, hooking up in a game packed with glorious import.

Sunday's game in Philadelphia is not that. It is a game between two 3-5 teams ranked near the bottom of the league in scoring offense that have combined to win exactly one game since September. Let's just say the first-place Giants aren't going to be glued to their televisions sweating this one out.

The winner of the Cowboys-Eagles game on Sunday may plausibly be able to convince itself its season is not over, although the road back to contention will remain difficult. The loser will have the same record as the Redskins and probably will be thinking about offseason plans. But just because both of these teams are in the same leaky Week 10 boat doesn't mean they share a long-range outlook. I don't think either will rebound and reach this year's playoffs, but in the short term and beyond, the Cowboys are the team in considerably better shape. Here's a look at the reasons why:
    [+] EnlargeRomo
    Josh D. Weiss/US PresswireThe Cowboys are trying to sign Tony Romo to a contract extension, despite the quarterback's uneven play lately.

  • Quarterback: Tony Romo is not having his best season, this is true. He's thrown a league-leading 13 interceptions against just 10 touchdowns, and his passer rating is just 82.2. He's never finished lower than 90 in a season in that category. After he had his best statistical season in 2011, more was expected, and disappointment is understandable. But Romo still has more of a track record as a top NFL quarterback than the Eagles' Michael Vick does, and the Cowboys are trying to sign him to a long-term contract. Management and the players believe in Romo and are prepared to move into the future with him as their quarterback. The Eagles, assuming they don't make a miracle recovery, are likely to opt out of Vick's contract at the end of this season and rebuild with rookie Nick Foles or look for someone else. The Cowboys have far greater stability at the most important position.
  • Head coach job status: Obviously, the Eagles' Andy Reid is a better and more accomplished head coach than the Cowboys' Jason Garrett. But his situation is a far greater fiasco. Regardless of any outside perceptions or assumptions, Cowboys owner Jerry Jones has expressed nothing but strong support for Garrett as his head coach. So unless the players choose to read and get caught up in all the Sean Payton speculation, they don't have reason to wonder who's going to be coaching them next year. By contrast, Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie gave Reid an apparent ultimatum before the season to finish over .500 or lose his job. The players know all about that, and Reid is obviously much more uncomfortable and (justifiably) worried about his job status than Garrett is about his. It's an inescapable issue that hovers over the Eagles right now, and it has to be affecting players. If you don't feel like your coach is going to be around next year, you necessarily have to wonder whether you will be, too.
  • The offensive line: The Cowboys' offensive line isn't about to win any awards, and it obviously will need upgrades in key places in the offseason. But within the context of 2012, it is showing improvement week over week. The Eagles' line keeps losing starters to injury and disintegrating. The Cowboys also have a franchise left tackle in Tyron Smith around whom they can build. The Eagles don't know whether or when they'll get franchise left tackle Jason Peters back from his Achilles injuries, or whehter he'll be the same player he was before he got hurt. The Eagles' offensive line schemes are specifically tied to the teachings of second-year line coach Howard Mudd, and (see last paragraph) there's no guarantee he's back next year, which means they might need to reconstruct the line in the mold of a new coach. There's more uncertainty in an area that is vital to any kind of success, as the Eagles have seen this season. The Cowboys' line is a mess, but with Smith at left tackle and Bill Callahan coaching it, it at least can see the path forward.
  • Defensive identity: The Cowboys' defense is one of the toughest in the NFL this year under second-year coordinator Rob Ryan. Led by DeMarcus Ware, Anthony Spencer and Jason Hatcher up front and with Brandon Carr and Morris Claiborne doing what they were brought in to do at cornerback most weeks, Dallas knows what it wants to do and is doing it consistently. The Eagles' defense is on its third coordinator in the past two years and seems unable to get everyone on the same page from quarter to quarter, let alone from game to game. The pass rush has vanished, the coverage schemes are unreliable and the firing of coordinator Juan Castillo for Todd Bowles preceded their worst two defensive games of the year. The Eagles are going to have major decisions to make about their defensive schemes and personnel once this season ends.
  • The schedule: After Sunday, five of the Cowboys' remaining seven games will be at home, and only one (Week 15 versus Pittsburgh) will be against a team that currently has a winning record. The Eagles also face only one winning team (Week 17 at the Giants), but four of their final seven games are road games and four are division games. If you believe either of these teams can make a run, or that the Giants may yet come back to the pack, the Cowboys' remaining schedule appears more favorable. So their short-term outlook is better, too, for all of those other reasons and this one.

Sunday's matchup may look like a game between two teams with nothing going on. But everything is relative, and in the big picture it's actually a game between two teams moving in somewhat opposite directions. And the Cowboys are the team that looks as though it's trending up.

The Other Side: Philly Inquirer's Jeff McLane

November, 8, 2012
11/08/12
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IRVING, Texas -- For this week’s version of The Other Side, we check in with Jeff McLane from the Philadelphia Inquirer.

Archer - Some people here are saying Jason Garrett is in trouble especially with the Sean Payton news. How much trouble is Andy Reid in and could Payton be an option there?

McLane -- He's in a boatload of trouble. Owner Jeffrey Lurie said before the season that the Eagles needed to show "substantial improvement" from last season's 8-8 record for Reid to return for a 15th season. With the Eagles 3-5, Reid would have to finish at least 7-1, maybe 6-2, and make the playoffs to survive. That is a tall order considering how horrendous the team has looked during a four-game losing streak. As for Payton, I think there's a 1-2 percent chance he ends up in Philly should Reid get fired. Most likely, he's stays in New Orleans, and if he goes anywhere it's clear Dallas would be No. 1 on his list. Payton has ties to the Eagles and the area, and Lurie would be a fool not to consider the Saints coach, but it's probably a long shot.

TA -- Tony Romo has not put up good numbers this year. Neither has Vick. The Cowboys offensive line isn't very good. Neither is Philly's. Is there a correlation?

JM -- You bet. The Eagles offensive line has been the Achilles heel of the offense all season long. There have been significant injuries -- Jason Peters, Jason Kelce and Todd Herremans are all lost for the season -- but the Eagles failed to stock the line with competent reserves and have paid the price. Vick hasn't been sharp by any means. But he's been hit far too many times and has had little time to throw and it's affected his decision-making.

TA -- How much longer before Nick Foles gets on the field?

JM -- If the Eagles keep on losing Foles will have to get on the field at some point. If they lose the next two and fall to 3-7, it might be time to play the rookie. If they hang around and win a few more over the next month and are, say, 5-8, with three to go, you might see Foles at that point. Reid would have an obligation to show the organization what Foles could do as a starter and whether he was a legitimate option next season.

TA -- It's been a rough start for Todd Bowles, the former Dallas assistant. He's been a 3-4 guy in the past, now he's running this defense. Any long-term hopes for him?

JM -- Bowles was thrown into a difficult situation replacing Juan Castillo two weeks ago. He has never been a coordinator in the NFL before, was taking over a defense in disarray and had to face Matt Ryan and Drew Brees in his first two games. Andy Reid has touted Bowles as a head coaching candidate, but it's hard to see him being a candidate for the Eagles' job -- or any job for that matter -- if the defense continues to look this sloppy.

TA -- We'll keep it light on the last one. Mat McBriar is the Cowboys' best punter, great guy. How's he doing up there?

JM -- He's been OK as a punter. He's still got enough leg, but he's booted a few too many into the end zone and a few too many line drives. As for McBriar the person, we've already found out he's a fine bloke. He's living downtown, so I've tried to give him some dining -- and drinking -- options when he's hungry or looking to have a Foster's.

2012 NFC East predictions: Giants repeat

August, 30, 2012
8/30/12
1:11
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You asked for it, you got it. Our season predictions roll out today, and I hereby present to you that for which you have been asking me since before the draft: My predictions for the NFC East. Now, as you read these, I will go hide for five days and wait for it all to blow over. See ya.

1. New York Giants (12-4)

I'm not buying the tough-schedule stuff. We don't know which teams are going to be good. No one thought having the 49ers on your schedule last year was going to be tough. I say the Giants have the coach, the quarterback, the wide receivers and the defensive line to beat anyone in the league in any given week. Will they look worse at times than they should? Of course. Could they go through another brutal stretch like the one that nearly sank them last November? Anything's possible. But what the Giants showed us all last season is that they have as much ability to handle and rebound from adversity as any team in the league. And on the presumption that every team will have to handle adversity at some point, I'm casting my lot with the team that handles it best.

For me, this came down to a choice between the Giants and the Eagles, and in the end I went with Eli Manning, who plays every game, over Michael Vick, who's in danger of being knocked out for a month on every play. When I went through the schedules, I had the Giants and Eagles tied at 11-4 going into the final week. And while I know full well that the Eagles have had the Giants' number over the past four years in the head-to-head matchups, I'll take the defending champs at home for all the marbles.

2. Philadelphia Eagles (11-5)

Top to bottom, the most deep and talented roster in the division. If Vick is healthy and on the field for all 16 games, they could be the best team in the league. I think their defense will play better this year with DeMeco Ryans in the middle of it. I think their defensive line gives the Giants' defensive line a run for its money as the best in the league, and that it probably has more depth. I love LeSean McCoy and Jeremy Maclin and what I think DeSean Jackson can do if he really is more focused and serious this year. (We'll see on that.) I think they have, easily, the best offensive line in the division, in spite of the absence of star left tackle Jason Peters. I just feel like the gap between best-case and worst-case scenarios at the quarterback position is significant enough to merit a slight downgrade in preseason predictions. I still have the Eagles making the NFC playoff field as a wild card, and one no one would want to play if they go in healthy.

3. Dallas Cowboys (8-8)

Just too flimsy in too many spots for me, this year's Cowboys. I like what they're building on defense, and you know I like their skill-position players on offense, including (heck, maybe especially) DeMarco Murray. But all of those guys, including Tony Romo, come with a history of health question marks, and there's very little behind them in terms of proven talent. There's also very little in front of them in terms of offensive line, and I think that has a way of wearing down and frustrating players like Romo, Murray, Miles Austin, Dez Bryant and Jason Witten even if they manage to perform in spite of it. On defense, yes, they should be much improved at cornerback. And I think they look really good at linebacker, too. But I have to see what they bring up front in terms of a pass rush this year to complement DeMarcus Ware before I believe it. They seem to think being better at cornerback will help the pass rush. I think that works better in the other direction (See: Giants, New York). But we'll see. Overall, I think this is a team looking more down the road than it is at 2012, and I think if you see guys like Murray, Sean Lee, Morris Claiborne and of course Bryant take big steps toward stardom this year, that's about the best for which Cowboys fans can hope.

4. Washington Redskins (8-8)

No, I don't have RG3 fever. I like rookie quarterback Robert Griffin III, and I think he's going to be a very good player. I also like wide receiver Pierre Garcon and tight end Fred Davis, and I think they'll find something at running back. But the reason this prediction is so much more optimistic than a lot of what you're seeing on the Redskins right now is that I really like their defensive front seven. I mean, a lot. With Brian Orakpo and Ryan Kerrigan as the pass-rushing outside linebackers and London Fletcher and Perry Riley as the inside guys playing behind a deep, huge, strong rotation of defensive linemen led by Barry Cofield, Stephen Bowen, Adam Carriker and Jarvis Jenkins, I think this is a defense that will put pressure on quarterbacks, physically beat up offensive lines and be strong against the run as well. What holds me back from liking them even more is that there are questions in the secondary, especially at cornerback. But the Redskins don't isolate their corners in coverage very much, and I think they can do some things with their safeties and linebackers to minimize the exposure. They should give up some big plays, but I think they're going to be physically very tough for people to handle this year, and I think they'll surprise a lot of people. I have them beating each of the other three teams in the division once.

So there you go. One year after no one in the NFC East won 10 games, this year no one finishes under .500. Maybe I'm nuts. Maybe preseason football has finally got to me. But I thought a lot about this and looked at it a lot of different ways. And I put it off as long as I could, in spite of all of your requests. Now that it's here, I hope you have enjoyed my division prediction. Check out my picks for the rest of the league, as well as those of all of our other fine NFL scribes, on our NFL page today.

NFC East Top 20: No. 13 Tyron Smith

August, 23, 2012
8/23/12
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In the final 20 days before the start of the regular season, we are counting down the top 20 players in the NFC East. For a full explanation, see this post.

No. 13 -- Tyron Smith, Cowboys OT

Smith
Smith is the youngest player on our list and one of the youngest in the entire league. He doesn't even turn 22 until December, and he's only had one year as an NFL player. But what a year it was. The Cowboys' starting right tackle for the entire 2011 season, Smith ranked as Pro Football Focus' fifth-best tackle, equally tough in the run and pass games. What makes Smith so good is his innate physical strength and ability to eliminate a defender from the play once he gets his hands on him. If you can't get past Smith on your first move, he simply has you beaten. And he showed throughout the year that the speed of the NFL game was not too much for him.

Smith moves to left tackle this season, and there's little doubt he can handle the assignment. Once he gets used to the difference in the footwork and hand placement, which is what he was working on in training camp this year, it's not going to be difficult for him to apply the same strength and athleticism that served him so well on the right side to protecting Tony Romo from the league's top pass-rushers. He has been working against DeMarcus Ware in practice every day, after all.

Some will wonder about Smith's ranking on this list in the absence of the division's other brilliantly talented young left tackle, Washington's Trent Williams. Anyone who reads this blog regularly knows I'm a fan of Williams and his potential to be one of the best in the league at his position. But I would submit that neither of his pro seasons so far has risen to the elite level of Smith's first year in the league. I have no problem believing that Williams has the ability to surpass Smith on this and other lists. But at this point, with Philadelphia's Jason Peters out for the year, Smith is the best offensive lineman in the NFC East and one of its best players at any position.

Rankings so far:

14. Brian Orakpo, LB, Redskins

15. Jason Witten, TE, Cowboys

16. Dez Bryant, WR, Cowboys

17. DeSean Jackson, WR, Eagles

18. Osi Umenyiora, DE, Giants

19. Evan Mathis, G, Eagles

20. Ahmad Bradshaw, RB, Giants

NFC East teams must look to the lines

August, 20, 2012
8/20/12
12:30
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allas Cowboys Jason O. Watson/US PresswireLike its NFC East rivals, Dallas is shuffling and searching for ways to solidify its offensive line.
The NFC East leads the league in hype. The huge media markets in which the teams play, the history of success, the rivalries ... all of it combines to create a perception that the NFC East is the best, most competitive and toughest division in the NFL. That the defending Super Bowl champion New York Giants play in it -- and are not the clear-cut favorites to win it again this season -- only adds to the perception, as does the growing excitement over an NFL regular-season opener between the Giants and the Dallas Cowboys 16 nights from tonight.

But while Giants-Cowboys is fun, and each of those teams has something pretty intense going with the division's other two teams -- the Giants' recent struggles with the Philadelphia Eagles and the Cowboys' longstanding rivalry with the Washington Redskins -- the stats don't back up the NFC East as the league's toughest division anymore. The division is, by many measures, coming off its worst season ever. Last season was the first regular season in NFC East history in which no team won at least 10 games. Only the Giants finished over .500, and they gave up more points than they scored. Their Super Bowl run might have saved the division's honor, but it also disguised the troubling fact that the NFC East is no longer the Beast it used to be.

A large part of the reason for this, I believe, is the state of the division's offensive lines. We all know offensive line play is important, but in the NFC East these days, concern about the lines affects too many things. Teams that are strong on the line can control games. Teams that aren't cannot. Eli Manning and the Giants have been talking for months about wanting to not have to come back in the fourth quarter as much as they did last season, and the best way to avoid that is to control games from the start. Given the issues with their offensive line, they could find that a challenge once again.

But they're not alone. As we look ahead to 2012 and start assessing everyone's biggest questions, offensive line stands out as an issue for each of the NFC East's four teams. To wit:

  • Giants left tackle Will Beatty is unproven and can't get healthy, and they're thin at tackle in general. Additionally, David Baas was a disappointment in his first season in New York, and they haven't seen Kevin Boothe as a full-season starter yet. The Giants finished 32nd in the league last season in rushing offense because of a line that couldn't get any push. Pro Football Focus graded them the 29th-best run-blocking team in the league, and the worst pass-blocking team in the league. Good for them for overcoming it all and winning the Super Bowl, but it remains an issue insufficiently addressed.
  • The Cowboys' offensive line has been the dominant story of their training camp -- specifically their struggles at center, where Phil Costa has been banged up and the potential backups and replacements for him have had trouble snapping the ball to the quarterback. The Cowboys also are trying to find guards who can protect Tony Romo against the interior pass rush better than they did last season. And starting tackles Tyron Smith and Doug Free have had to switch sides because of Free's struggles on the left last season. PFF had Dallas as the 15th-best pass-blocking team in 2011 and the 11th-best run blocking one, so it could be worse. But they need everyone healthy and playing together to see if they have a chance.
  • The Redskins likely were planning to use some of the $18 million in salary cap money the league took from them on the eve of free agency to upgrade the offensive line. But they couldn't, obviously, so they're still dealing with Jammal Brown's hip injury, Kory Lichtensteiger's knee injury and Will Montgomery's limitations as a center in their zone-blocking run scheme. The Redskins ranked 26th in pass blocking and 30th in run blocking last season according to those PFF grades, and they also made no significant change or improvement.
  • After a rocky start, the Eagles had a good season on the line in 2011. They ranked second in the league in run-blocking and 14th in pass-blocking. But they also lost left tackle Jason Peters, their best lineman and one of the best in the league, to an Achilles injury in the offseason. As good as the other four starters on their line are, the Eagles could struggle to replace what Peters gave them last season, and so far they have not figured out whether Demetress Bell or King Dunlap replaces him as the starter.

The NFC has no shortage of star power. It has three great quarterbacks and one, Washington rookie Robert Griffin III, who's getting as much hype as any of the other three these days. It has some of the great wide receivers in the league in veterans such as Hakeem Nicks, Miles Austin and DeSean Jackson as well as rising stars such as Victor Cruz, Dez Bryant and Jeremy Maclin. The Eagles' LeSean McCoy ranks with the game's great running backs. And on defense, of course, the division is known for its great pass-rushers. Each team can rattle off names that give opposing quarterbacks heartburn. DeMarcus Ware. Jason Pierre-Paul. Justin Tuck. Trent Cole. Jason Babin. Brian Orakpo.

All of that makes the NFC East very exciting. But very often in the NFL, excitement and hype can conceal issues of quality. And if the NFC East really wants to be the best division in football again, it's not the quarterbacks or the wide receivers or even the pass-rushers that will bring it there. The NFC East's teams all need to start paying more attention to their offensive lines, because as those continue to erode, so will the division's annual claim to Beastliness.

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