Dallas Cowboys: Jeremy Maclin

IRVING, Texas -- With free agency on the horizon, Philadelphia Eagles wide receiver Jeremy Maclinmissed the 2013 season with a torn anterior cruciate ligament, ruining his bid to cash in on a big-time contract in 2014.

Spencer
Maclin re-signed with the Eagles last week on a one-year deal worth $6 million of which $3.5 million is guaranteed.

"I think I made the best decision for my situation, I really do," Maclin said.

What does Maclin have to do with the Dallas Cowboys? It got me to thinking about Anthony Spencer.

Spencer played 34 snaps in 2013 before undergoing microfracture surgery on his knee. Like Maclin, he was set to be an unrestricted free agent after the Cowboys placed the franchise tag on him in 2012 and ’13, paying him roughly $19 million. The knee injury ruined Spencer’s ability to find a long-term deal.

So would it be in Spencer’s best interest to return to the Cowboys on a one-year deal for a third straight season, albeit at much lower price?

His agent, Jordan Woy, said Spencer should be ready to go in training camp or the preseason games. It would seem to make sense for Spencer to remain with the Cowboys since their athletic training staff knows him best and knows where he is exactly in his rehab. The coaches know him best as well and would know when he would need rest to make it through a season after such a tricky surgery.

Maclin is 26 and returning to form after an ACL tear nowadays is much more commonplace. Spencer turned 30 in January and microfracture surgeries do not guarantee success, although the Cowboys have worked a few players back into the mix from it in the past.

As with everything, it will come down to opportunity and price. Spencer might find it better to go to a 3-4 team to play outside linebacker instead of defensive end in a 4-3 to bet on himself on a one-year deal and the Cowboys might want to get younger.

But a one-year deal would make sense for the Cowboys to have some cushion along the defensive line and make sense for Spencer in hopes to find a better deal in 2015.

Eight in the Box: Playing for a contract

June, 1, 2013
6/01/13
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NFC Eight in the Box: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

A look at a player entering a contract year on each NFC East team who must deliver in 2013.

Dallas Cowboys: Playing on a one-year franchise player deal for the second season in a row, defensive end Anthony Spencer is key to the Cowboys' transition to a 4-3 defensive front. He and fellow pass-rusher DeMarcus Ware will switch from the 3-4 outside linebacker position they've always played to a 4-3 defensive end position that will put them closer to the offensive line and likely require them to be more physical in their efforts to get to the quarterback. Spencer took a huge step forward in 2012 as a pass-rusher and was, for much of the season, the best player on the Cowboys' defense. He had 11 sacks, and his previous career high had been six. If he can make the transition to his new position and follow his best season with another excellent one, he'll likely be able to get the long-term deal he seeks. If he can't, the Cowboys will be looking for a new pass-rush anchor next offseason.

New York Giants: Sticking with the pass-rush theme, defensive end Justin Tuck is the Giants player under the most pressure this season to perform the way he used to perform. After racking up 11.5 sacks in 2010, Tuck has collected just nine, total, in the past two regular seasons. The Giants' pass rush took a step backward last season and lost Osi Umenyiora to free agency. They'll replace Umenyiora by moving Mathias Kiwanuka back up to the line from the linebacker spot he played the past two seasons, but their pass rush would function best with Tuck and Jason Pierre-Paul as dominant bookend starters. Another lackluster season could mean the end of Tuck's decorated career with the Giants. A return to early-career form could transform the Giants back into a championship contender.

Philadelphia Eagles: Wide receiver Jeremy Maclin, the Eagles' 2009 first-round pick, has averaged 65 receptions, 863 yards and 6.5 touchdowns in his first four seasons in the NFL. His numbers are actually pretty consistent, year to year. But what the Eagles had in mind when they drafted Maclin was a No. 1 wide receiver. And while he's flashed that ability at times, he hasn't been able to maintain that level or develop his game. The Eagles have fellow wideout DeSean Jackson signed long term, but they will have the money and the cap space to sign Maclin next offseason if they choose to do so. Whether they will want to depends on how Maclin plays in the new Chip Kelly offense and, likely, whether he looks as though he can be counted on to carry the load as a true No. 1.

Washington Redskins: I still think it's possible linebacker Brian Orakpo gets his contract extended before the season starts, but if he doesn't, he'll enter the season carrying the pressure of a contract year along with the pressure of having to kick-start the Redskins' pass rush. A pectoral muscle injury in Week 2 ended Orakpo's season, and fellow outside linebacker Ryan Kerrigan struggled without Orakpo on the other side to draw the attention of opposing blockers. The Redskins' 3-4 defense is designed around the idea of former first-rounders Orakpo and Kerrigan getting to the quarterback. They need Orakpo to stay healthy and to produce like one of the best pass-rushers in the league.

On Miles Austin's value

May, 30, 2013
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I get a lot of questions about Dallas Cowboys wide receiver Miles Austin. It seems every time a receiver of any note is potentially available, fans want to know whether the Cowboys will or should sign him to replace Austin. I usually respond with a question, specifically, "What does everybody dislike so much about Miles Austin?"

Austin
Todd Archer feels the same way, and has this piece on ESPNDallas.com to remind everyone of how valuable Austin still is to the Cowboys' offense, even with the emergence of Dez Bryant as a star and the drafting of Terrance Williams in the third round in April:
Dig deeper into what Austin did last year when he caught 66 passes for 943 yards and six touchdowns.

He outperformed the leading wide receivers on 16 other teams in catches, yards or touchdowns, including pass-catchers in Arizona (Larry Fitzgerald), Baltimore (Anquan Boldin), Seattle (Sidney Rice), Washington (Josh Morgan) and Pittsburgh (Mike Wallace, Antonio Brown). Aside from Arizona, there is not a poor quarterback throwing to anyone in that bunch.

In a division with Bryant, Victor Cruz, Hakeem Nicks, Jeremy Maclin and DeSean Jackson, Austin had the fourth-most catches and touchdowns and was third in yards. And he put up those numbers on an offense that had Jason Witten set an NFL record for catches in a season by a tight end (110) and Bryant explode for 92 catches for 1,382 yards and 12 touchdowns.

The knocks on Austin seem to be that he's always got some kind of nagging injury that either keeps him from playing or limits his production, and that he hasn't lived up to his brilliant 2009 numbers. Valid points both, but sometimes I think we have to step back and think about what our expectations for these guys really are and what they should be. Austin remains one of the Cowboys' starting wide receivers. Even if Williams comes quickly, the best arrangement for the Dallas offense when it goes to three wide receivers will be Bryant and deep-threat Williams on the outside with the versatile Austin moving inside to play the slot. Austin can play anywhere, and produces better than your average No. 2 wide receiver. I think it's probably a good idea for fans to remember he is still a very valuable guy, and stop rushing to get rid of him.

Debate time: Best NFC East WR tandems

May, 8, 2013
5/08/13
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This came up in the chat Tuesday, and I figured it was worth a post in which you guys could bat it around and argue with each other: Who's got the best wide receivers in the NFC East at the moment? There is a poll over here in which you can vote on which team has the best starting duo.

SportsNation

Which NFC East team has the best starting WR duo?

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    40%
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    38%
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    13%
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    9%

Discuss (Total votes: 15,796)

We did this a couple of years ago, I remember, and I picked the Giants' guys over the Eagles' guys and got some heat for it. I think at the time I was still projecting Steve Smith as the No. 2 in New York behind Hakeem Nicks. So while I think the past two years have supported my pick, I admit I didn't see Victor Cruz factoring into this debate to the extent that he has.

At this point, with Jackson and Maclin having failed to live up to those 2011 expectations, I think the Cowboys' tandem is the Giants' chief competition. The way Dez Bryant came on last year makes you think he might be about to live up to his incredible potential and become one of the dominant receivers in the league. This would make Miles Austin as good a No. 2 receiver as there is anywhere in the league, except in East Rutherford, where Cruz is a ridiculously productive No. 2 when Nicks is healthy.

PODCAST
Ed Werder joins Fitzsimmons & Durrett to discuss potential past conflicts between Jason Garrett and Tony Romo regarding Romo's involvement in the offense and what changes will be made in the 2013 season.

Listen Listen
And that's the crux of it, right? If Nicks were healthy, I'd still vote for him and Cruz over Bryant and Austin, though I say it's close and Bryant right now is the best of the four. Nicks was not healthy last season, and has not shown much of an ability to stay healthy for a full season. So you have to downgrade him a little bit, which tightens the competition. I believe he's a more complete wide receiver (again, when healthy) than Bryant is at this point in their careers, but I think Bryant's game-breaking ability and the mismatches he creates in the secondary offer him the opportunity to be the better player long-term. Whether he cashes in on that opportunity, obviously, remains to be seen.

The Redskins are here too, of course, though I struggle to tell you for certain which of their wideouts is the No. 2 behind Pierre Garcon. In the poll, I went with Josh Morgan, though it could have been Leonard Hankerson or even Santana Moss, who's more of a slot receiver. I think the questions about No. 2, and the questions about the health of Garcon's foot, push them to fourth in this debate, even behind the Eagles' guys. But obviously, based on last season, you'd take Garcon over Jackson or Maclin.

So fire away. Duke it out. Have at it. These tend to be fun.

Eight in the Box: WR status check

March, 30, 2013
3/30/13
10:00
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NFC Eight in the Box: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

How do the Cowboys look at wide receiver and what still needs to be done?

Dallas Cowboys: Dez Bryant broke out in a huge way in the second half of his third NFL season and finished the year with 92 catches for 1,382 yards and 12 touchdowns. If he can keep himself in one piece, he's one of the top wideouts in the league. Miles Austin is the perfect complement on the other side -- good enough that defenses have to pay attention to him but not the kind of guy who's going to complain if Bryant gets more catches. Austin has to keep his hamstrings healthy, and if he does the Cowboys have a top one-two wide receiver combo. Dwayne Harris came on strong last year as a No. 3 wide receiver, and guys such as Cole Beasley and Danny Coale could provide intriguing depth. Dallas could look to add a veteran wide receiver to its mix heading into training camp in case the young guys don't produce, but it's not a high-priority issue.

To see what the other NFC East teams look like at WR, click here.

Fantasy fix: Start your Cowboys

November, 30, 2012
11/30/12
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Because we all spend way too much time each week working on our fantasy teams anyway, here at the NFC East blog we like to take one post a week and focus it entirely on fantasy football. This is that post. It shows where our division's key players fall in this week's rankings by ESPN.com's fantasy football experts. Click on the position to see the full rankings for that position.

QUARTERBACKS

T5. Robert Griffin III, Washington Redskins vs. New York Giants (Mon.)

9. Tony Romo, Dallas Cowboys vs. Philadelphia Eagles

10. Eli Manning, Giants at Washington (Mon.)

I honestly think Romo's too low. The past two quarterbacks to play the Eagles have won NFC Offensive Player of the Week awards. Romo himself was 19-for-26 for 209 yards and two touchdowns against the Eagles three weeks ago, but Philadelphia's pass defense has reached new depths since then. They're literally not covering anyone. On the flip side, neither Nick Foles nor Michael Vick is in this week's top 25. Vick looks to be out again with a concussion, and Foles isn't doing anything in his stead.

RUNNING BACKS

9. Alfred Morris, Redskins vs. Giants (Mon.)

13. Ahmad Bradshaw, Giants at Washington (Mon.)

14. Bryce Brown, Eagles at Dallas

T27. Felix Jones, Cowboys vs. Eagles

41. David Wilson, Giants at Washington (Mon.)

43. DeMarco Murray, Cowboys vs. Eagles

I picked up Wilson in a league in which I've already secured a playoff spot, but I didn't do it because I expect him to assume Andre Brown's touchdown-maker role. I did it because of the reasonable chance he's the Giants' starting running back in at least one of the next four games. If you're desperate, you could use him this week on the off chance he breaks a big one, but Bradshaw's likely to get those goal-line carries Brown was getting, as long as he stays healthy. Speaking of healthy, it appears Murray might play Sunday night, but that situation is murky enough that I might stay away from it and just play the Cowboys passing-game guys this week against Philly. Especially since you might not know Murray's status until after all of the early games are over.

WIDE RECEIVERS

8. Dez Bryant, Cowboys vs. Eagles

T9. Victor Cruz, Giants at Washington (Mon.)

11. Hakeem Nicks, Giants at Washington (Mon.)

24. Pierre Garcon, Redskins vs. Giants (Mon.)

28. Miles Austin, Cowboys vs. Eagles

39. Jeremy Maclin, Eagles at Dallas

46. Santana Moss, Redskins vs. Giants (Mon.)

Nicks and Cruz are every-week musts, and the matchup against the Redskins' pass defense is enticing. But man, those Redskins have a way of giving the Giants' passing offense fits. Other than the one big play that won the Giants the Week 7 game, Manning hasn't thrown a touchdown pass against Washington over the past two seasons. Austin's low ranking is health-related, I have to assume. Ed Werder has been reporting this week that Austin will play, and if he does I would start him. Garcon as a low WR2/high WR3 in 12-team leagues seems about right, especially with 10 days' rest.

TIGHT ENDS

3. Jason Witten, Cowboys vs. Eagles

12. Martellus Bennett, Giants at Washington (Mon.)

22. Brent Celek, Eagles at Dallas

25. Logan Paulsen, Redskins vs. Giants (Mon.)

Starting to feel redundant, but yeah, Witten. If I'm trying to make the fantasy playoffs and I can start a guy who's going to be running pass routes against the Eagles, I'm going to start him.

KICKERS

1. Lawrence Tynes, Giants at Washington (Mon.)

9. Dan Bailey, Cowboys vs. Eagles

T17. Kai Forbath, Redskins vs. Giants (Mon.)

All of the division's kickers have been good, including unranked Alex Henery of Philadelphia. Tynes' team gives him the most chances, though.

TEAM DEFENSE

9. Cowboys vs. Eagles

16. Giants at Washington (Mon.)

24. Redskins vs. Giants (Mon.)

T27. Eagles at Dallas

Yeah, Cowboys are the only NFC East defense I'd start this week. But I'd feel pretty good about doing it.
After a review of the Cowboys victory over the Philadelphia Eagles we review with our Random Thoughts.

1. Morris Claiborne was penalized for two defensive offsides, which everyone thought was inexcusable for a cornerback. Well the Cowboys do lead the NFL with 12 defensive offsides, which is bad in itself, Green Bay is second with 11, but Claiborne isn't the only cornerback with an defensive offsides this season. Patrick Peterson, Danieal Manning, Antonio Cromartie and Tarell Brown are just some of the cornerbacks who have been flagged for the same thing. Now when you see the names you think these men are pressing the receivers at the line of scrimmage. Claiborne was doing that on Sunday against the Eagles receivers. He needed to be aware of his placement on the field and he'll improve on that this week against Cleveland.

2. We're starting to wonder if DeMarco Murray will comeback, if at all this month. Jerry Jones said on his radio show today he's not sure when the starting running back will return. Murray could play Sunday against Cleveland but the team might hold him out and let him go Thanksgiving Day against Washington. Here's the but, why would they? The Cowboys will play two games in five days and saving Murray for the Dec. 2 contest against Philadelphia might serve the team better. Todd Archer and I have this debate regarding Murray's playing status every week. I think whenever he's healthy to play, let him play. Archer feels bring him back in December. I'm starting to agree.

3. The Cowboys playoff picture is getting settled more and more thanks to some injured quarterbacks. Alex Smith (San Francisco) and Jay Cutler (Chicago) might not play this week with concussions and there's no telling when they will return. It puts both these teams at risk for losses and the Cowboys, with their easy schedule, might take advantage with some losses to the top teams in the division.

4. One thing we liked from the Eagles game was how the Cowboys knocked Michael Vick around. But it was safety Charlie Peprah, who started in the nickle defense for the first time this season, who popped a leaping Jeremy Maclin early in the game that set the tone. It continued when Jay Ratliff slammed Vick's head into the ground on a knockdown and ended when Ernie Sims pushed the quarterback down after he let the ball go. Vick's head hit the grass hard after the push from Sims. It wasn't a dirty hit by any means and Sims helped Vick up to his feet. But it was the end of Vick's day. The Cowboys need more hits like this going forward.

5. Jerry Jones didn't want to rule out a return of Dez Bryant to punt returns, but he's just being nice. Dwayne Harris deserves the gig full-time. Harris is good at securing the ball and making the correct reads on his returns. On his 78-yard punt return for a touchdown, it was perfectly block and he wasn't even touched. Sometimes Bryant tries to make something happen when there's nothing there. Harris just catches the ball and runs to where he's supposed to go. Harris is averaging 18.9 yards per return and we expect that number to increase as the season goes along.

Morris Claiborne faces another tough test

November, 7, 2012
11/07/12
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IRVING, Texas -- Cowboys rookie cornerback Morris Claiborne was targeted six times Sunday night against the Atlanta Falcons and had five passes completed on him while also recording one pass breakup. Claiborne almost had an interception but lost the ball as he came down to the ground.

It was tough test for Claiborne, who faced one of the NFC's best tandems in Julio Jones and Roddy White. Claiborne was beaten on a 38-yard pass play by Jones in the first quarter.

"I felt like it went pretty well," Claiborne said of his performance. "I gave up a couple of plays, but I mean, it's the NFL, guys are going to catch balls on you. I felt like, overall, I played pretty good."

On Sunday afternoon, Claiborne will take on a similar pair of wide receivers in DeSean Jackson and Jeremy Maclin. Jackson and Maclin are fast and stretch defenses deep. The Falcons exploited the Cowboys' zone defense with completions over the middle.

The Eagles might do the same, especially if they're trying to get rid of the ball quickly to protect quarterback Michael Vick, who is getting beaten up in the pocket because of an inconsistent offensive line.

"They got some speed on their side of the ball," Claiborne said. "They got some guys who can go out there and go get it. Vick is the type of quarterback who can get them the ball."

All-NFC East Team: Week 1 Update

September, 12, 2012
9/12/12
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One of the in-season features I really liked last year was our weekly, running All-Division Team, where we'd pick the best player at each starting position in the division and continue to update it as the weeks went along. Over the course of the year, some things changed from week to week (I could never seem to figure out cornerback, mainly because very few NFC East cornerbacks were having good years) and some players solidified their positions with consistent excellence (LeSean McCoy jumps to mind).

Anyway, it's back. We'll do this every Wednesday. And while it is meant to be an All-Star team based on cumulative season performance to date, each team has so far played only one game. So for this week only, yes, this All-Division Team is based only on the performances of the past week. This week's team includes nine Eagles (they did play very well on defense), seven Redskins, five Cowboys, five Giants, one DeMarco, one DeMarcus, one DeMeco and a Dominique.

I'll give you the team and then offer some comments at the end. Enjoy.

Quarterback: Robert Griffin III, Washington Redskins

Running back: DeMarco Murray, Dallas Cowboys

Wide receiver: Kevin Ogletree, Cowboys; Jeremy Maclin, Philadelphia Eagles

Tight end: Martellus Bennett, New York Giants

Fullback: Darrel Young, Redskins

Left tackle: Trent Williams, Redskins

Left guard: Evan Mathis, Eagles

Center: Jason Kelce, Eagles

Right guard: Chris Snee, Giants

Right tackle: Todd Herremans, Eagles

Defensive end: Jason Pierre-Paul, Giants; Jason Hatcher, Cowboys

Defensive tackle: Rocky Bernard, Giants; Fletcher Cox, Eagles

Outside linebacker: Ryan Kerrigan, Redskins; DeMarcus Ware, Cowboys

Inside linebacker: Sean Lee, Cowboys; DeMeco Ryans, Eagles

Cornerback: Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, Eagles; Josh Wilson, Redskins

Safety: Kurt Coleman, Eagles; Antrel Rolle, Giants

Kicker: Billy Cundiff, Redskins

Punter: Chas Henry, Eagles

Kick returner: Brandon Banks, Redskins

Punt returner: Brandon Banks, Redskins
  • Quarterback was obviously very close between Griffin and the Cowboys' Tony Romo, who both had excellent games in big road victories. Griffin edged out Romo because of his rushing yards and a little bit of added degree of difficulty for the venue in which he won. Both quarterbacks excelled at keeping plays alive and finding success downfield in difficult circumstances. Each handled the rush well. Could have flipped a coin.
  • Maclin was a close call over Washington's Pierre Garcon for that receiver spot, but Maclin played more and caught more passes, so he got the nod.
  • Bennett might or might not continue to catch passes for the Giants, but regardless of whether he does, he's going to merit a look here each week. That guy can seriously block.
  • Williams' and Kelce's were the only performances among the offensive linemen that I thought were particularly strong. The other three offensive linemen were kind of best-of-a-bad-bunch selections on a week in which none of the lines played very well. The Eagles' linemen do stand out at bit when you watch the games back, though. I wonder how much of that is the difference between Howard Mudd's blocking schemes, which require linemen to push upfield and establish new blocking points, and a more standard scheme. Washington's line played okay, and I thought about Will Montgomery at center over Kelce.
  • Defensive end was tricky. Pierre-Paul didn't get a sack, but he was clearly the most disruptive player among the 4-3 ends this week and required an overload of attention from the Cowboys. Hatcher gets the other spot over Jason Babin, which I admit is rare -- a 3-4 end beating out a 4-3 end on a team like this. But that word "disruptive" again is the best to describe Hatcher's night against the Giants.
  • Ditto Kerrigan at outside linebacker. What a game he had.
  • Rolle played the run very well, which is something the Dallas safeties didn't do in the same game. Now, maybe they weren't asked to. I understand that's possible. But Rolle's individual performance deserves the recognition.
  • Fine debut for Cundiff, who showed on kickoffs why they got him. Six of his nine kickoffs were touchbacks.

So that's the first one of these. I welcome your thoughts.

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 teams must look to the lines

August, 20, 2012
8/20/12
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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.

Facemask costs Anthony Spencer $7,500

December, 28, 2011
12/28/11
3:41
PM ET
IRVING, Texas -- Anthony Spencer was fined $7,500 for a first-quarter face mask penalty of Philadelphia quarterback Michael Vick, according to a source, but no word has come down yet on whether he was fined for an unnecessary roughness penalty in the second quarter.

On the first drive of the game, Spencer grabbed Vick’s facemask but the quarterback was able to scramble free for a 28-yard completion to the Dallas 26. The penalty moved the ball to the Cowboys 13 and Philadelphia scored two plays later.

Spencer’s unnecessary roughness penalty came after Jeremy Maclin made an 18-yard catch and was on the ground. That moved the ball to the Dallas 9, but Philadelphia fumbled on the next play.

Scout's Eye: Cowboys-Eagles review

December, 27, 2011
12/27/11
4:41
PM ET
There was going to be two ways that Jason Garrett and the Cowboys were going to play this game against the Eagles on Christmas Eve:

Scout's Eye
* If the New York Jets had beaten the New York Giants earlier in the day, then it was going to be all hands on deck to try and win the NFC East divisional title.

* If the Giants won, it'd be a meaningless game and Garrett would need to manage the game to try and protect players injured players such as Felix Jones, Jay Ratliff and DeMarcus Ware before this week's showdown vs. the Giants.

What Garrett didn’t count on was quarterback Tony Romo getting injured. What surprised me the most about the way that Garrett played this game was the amount of snaps that he gave to Ware and Ratliff. I was convinced Jones, Ratliff and Ware wouldn't play much, but it didn’t work out that way. To their credit, Ware and Ratliff were the best players on defense.

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Cowboys' ends limit McCoy's effectiveness this time


I felt Eagles RB LeSean McCoy would cause the most problems on offense, both in the running and passing games. When the Cowboys and Eagles met in Week 8, the Cowboys' front seven -- particularly DEs Marcus Spears, Kenyon Coleman and Jason Hatcher -- played poorly. They couldn’t get off blocks and did nothing to hold the point of attack.

In Saturday's game, the Cowboys' ends did a much better job of not getting pushed around, allowing the linebackers to flow and make plays. Spears had several plays where he was square to the line of scrimmage and was able to stack the blockers, which gave McCoy no room to run. Where the Cowboys' defense was outstanding was playing backside technique and not allowing McCoy to make that stop-start cut which hurt them last time.

Newman, Cowboys' secondary struggle yet again


In the first half, there were once again problems in the secondary with coverage. On the first drive of the game, the Cowboys were able to get pressure on Michael Vick.

With Anthony Spencer flushing Vick to his left, Spencer grabbed a hold of Vick’s facemask while trying to get him to the ground. Down the field, Mike Jenkins lost contact with receiver Riley Cooper as he started up the field. Gerald Sensabaugh tried to get over to help, but was left backpedaling while trying to locate the ball as it floated over his head. Safety Abram Elam also tried to get over to help, but he badly misplayed the ball as well. The result: Cooper caught the ball with three defenders within two yards of him.

There were several plays in this game where Terence Newman was not near good enough. In the second quarter, Newman misplayed a ball on second-and-10 after Marcus Spears made a nice square tackle on first down against McCoy.

When you study Vick, the one place that he loves to throw the ball is the middle of the field. On this particular play, receiver DeSean Jackson drove on a crossing route against Newman in man coverage. When Jackson broke inside, Newman lost contact with him and then tried to undercut the route but was a step late. Ware was able to get pressure on Vick, but not enough to affect the throw. Vick ripped it down the middle of the field to Jackson with Newman in chase position, giving up a catch and the first down.

On the Eagles TD with 10 seconds left in the half, Newman and Jenkins were playing in-and-out coverage on Jeremy Maclin from the 6. Newman was on the inside and Jenkins on the outside as Maclin started his route up the field and then inside. Newman passed Jackson inside to Sensabaugh from the slot and turned his attention to Maclin on the outside. Jenkins saw Maclin start inside but Newman didn’t react quick enough to pick him up. As Maclin got away from Jenkins and cleared Newman, Vick saw Newman not react and fired the ball to the middle of the end zone for a TD.

In the third quarter, the Eagles dialed up a screen pass to tight end Brent Celek. Where the Eagles are dangerous is that they'll throw a screen at any point on the field. On this play, Newman was once again trying to cover Maclin down the field but misplayed his route and got turned around and had his back to the screen. As Newman is hand fighting with Maclin, Celek ran right by him and up the field for a big play. If Newman hadn’t got in such bad position on the route, he could have made the tackle, keeping Celek from getting down the field.

Cowboys' offensive line failed to protect Romo


This game was going to be a struggle for the Cowboys' offensive line to provide protection, with or without Romo in the lineup. Romo doesn't have Vick's mobility, but he has been able to buy second and third chances with his legs the last several weeks. That's why the offense has been so productive.

The challenge for the line this week was to block defensive ends Jason Babin and Trent Cole. Once again, the line struggled most with protection as a result of not picking up the twist stunt. On the play that Romo was injured, the Eagles used a blitz that they've run in several games this season.

With the Cowboys facing a third-and-4, the Eagles blitzed Matthews in the front side “A” gap, which was picked up by Phil Costa. Patterson hit the “B” gap, which was blocked by Kyle Kosier. Jason Babin was lined up on the outside shoulder of Tyron Smith, started into the line then looped all the way behind his teammates hitting the gaps. Smith tried to crash down inside to wad up the rushers, but Babin made it clean all the way through the center box while Costa was still locked up on his man.

Kosier saw what was happening and tried to work inside to block Babin but went to the ground. Babin had a free run at Romo, who was trying to get the ball to Miles Austin on a crossing route. The problem with this play is that Austin and Dez Bryant were trying to cross by each other with one of them not running the route deep enough, causing both receivers to not get to their spot cleanly. Romo had Babin in his face to the point that his hand hit Babin’s helmet. In all discussions that I have had with members of the front office, Romo should be ready to play against the Giants on Sunday.

Scout's Eye: Cowboys-Eagles preview

December, 23, 2011
12/23/11
11:42
AM ET

Scout's Eye
When Jason Garrett's Cowboys met at Valley Ranch this week, all they had to do to be reminded of what these Philadelphia Eagles did to them in Week 8 is sit down in their meeting rooms and study the tape of the total domination to understand what they will be up against this weekend.

The Cowboys have faced some quality opponents, but when you study the Eagles you see nothing like the other teams in the league with what you have to deal with from an offensive standpoint. There were days when I was in Green Bay and playing the '90s Cowboys when you went into a game against them trying to figure out how you were going to stop Emmitt Smith from running the ball or Jay Novacek on third downs or Michael Irvin on the slant. Just when you thought that you had one of those areas taken care of, the other players would find a way to take the game from you. This Eagles offense puts a lot of those same thoughts in my mind that I experienced against those Cowboys teams.

In the last meeting between these two teams, Rob Ryan and his staff made the decision to not allow these Eagles wide receivers to make any vertical plays down the field. Safeties Abram Elam and Gerald Sensabaugh, as Ryan put it, played "503 yards deep" from the line of scrimmage. The problem with this decision for Ryan was with his safeties so deep, he opened up the middle of the field.

Then to compound the problem, he lost Sean Lee in the game -- the only linebacker that was athletic enough to make a play in the middle of the field. This was a horrible situation for Ryan because it meant that he had to rely on Keith Brooking and Bradie James, who were exposed in coverage and in the running game. With the deep safeties, it allowed tight end Brent Celek and wide receivers Jeremy Maclin and DeSean Jackson to work crossing routes inside.

When I have studied Vick his last four games, the one area that he likes to attack is the middle of the field. Matter of fact, his best and worst throws come when he is working the middle of the field. Vick just looks more comfortable throwing to targets right in front of him, but like I mentioned he will make mistakes trying to fit ball down the middle against safeties.

McCoy looms as multi-dimensional threat


The deep safeties also hurt Ryan in the running game dealing with LeSean McCoy.

There are three areas that McCoy can hurt your defense.

[+] EnlargeLeSean McCoy
AP Photo/Matt SlocumExpect LeSean McCoy to give Sean Lee and the Cowboys defense the most fits.
The first one is on the stretch play when you have the offensive line with full flow running with defenders and he takes the ball all the way to the edge and around the corner. The Cowboys got gashed in the last meeting by the down blocking by tackles Jason Peters and Todd Herremans, who were able to set the edge allowing the ball to get outside. Watch how Marcus Spears, Jason Hatcher and Kenyon Coleman play in this contest, because if the Eagles are running the ball well on the edges, it's probably because the defensive ends are not doing their jobs getting off blocks.

The second way that McCoy hurts you is with the sprint draw. Teams have various ways they run the draw, but the Eagles take full advantage of the ball-handling skill of Vick. Teams try so hard to get up the field and attack the Eagles before they get going that it leaves lanes in the defense. As the defense is coming up the field, Vick does an outstanding job of tucking the ball into McCoy and letting him use his vision and quickness to get the ball up the field past the oncoming defenders.

The final way that McCoy can hurt you is as a pass catcher, whether that is in the flat or more impressively in the screen game. The Eagles love to run screens and they will do them from anywhere on the field. The Eagles are the most dangerous when they get into the red zone and once again try to take advantage of defenders getting up the field. The Eagles will throw wide receiver screens to Jackson, they will use Celek in a delay screen where he blocks for two or three counts, then works his way to the outside in the open field, but the player that gives defenses the most trouble is McCoy. He catches the ball so well on the move and when he gets one-on-one, he can break anyone down. The problem for Ryan is that he doesn't really know when offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg is going to use these screens, but he knows they will.

The Eagles' struggles this season have been with their offensive line. Against the Cowboys in the last meeting, I felt like that they were better than the Dallas front seven. There were too many plays where the Cowboys didn't do a good enough job of getting off blocks allowing the Eagles to control the game upfront.

The best offensive lineman for the Eagles is Peters at left tackle. In the games I was able to study, Peters more than has held his own, whereas earlier in the season, he didn't appear to move all that well. I thought he moved way too slow with his feet, but that has changed.

Teams have taken advantage of the Eagles inside with guards Evan Mathis and Danny Watkins. Rookie center Jason Kelce will get overpowered at the point of attack. The mobility of Vick and the quickness of McCoy really assist this offensive line in overcoming a great deal of their shortcomings.

Smith handles Babin once more


The last time that these two clubs met, there was a great deal of pressure on Eagles defensive coordinator Juan Castillo because of the direction that the defense was going. Losses were mounting and the players that were brought in had yet to truly play as a collective unit.

[+] EnlargeTony Romo
AP Photo/Matt SlocumJason Babin will play wide on the outside shoulders of the tackles seeking to add to his league-leading sack total.
The buzzword that you will hear in all the pregame shows will be how the Eagles play this defensive alignment of a "Wide 9," which is simply, defensive ends Trent Cole and Jason Babin play wide on the outside shoulder of the tackles Doug Free and Tyron Smith. At times they will be a full man removed from the tackle. When you play this type of scheme, you are asking your ends to get up the field as quickly as possible to disrupt the running game but more importantly cause problems in the passing game. Pass rush is where the Eagles cause the most problems.

Usually your best pass rusher will rush from the offensive left hand side, but the Eagles' best rusher comes from the offensive right. The Green Bay Packers are the same way with Clay Matthews rushing from the offensive right.

Babin, who has a league-leading 18 sacks, is as explosive as any rusher Smith will face all season. As a matter of fact, Babin was the rusher who gave Smith the most trouble with his inside move. Talking to Smith, he now understands what he is up against and I think he is better for it.

Babin is unique with this move because he is able to do it at the depth and level of the quarterback's drop. He has a real feel for how to push up the field and get all of the weight of the tackle on his outside foot then quickly duck underneath. Smith really struggled when Babin used this technique on him.

At the other end is Trent Cole against Free. There should be serious cause for concern here because of the struggles that Free has had with technique this season. Cole is a better run player than Babin.

The Eagles are at their best in run defense when the ball goes wide and they are able to handle the play. It is when teams have run the ball at them that they have had their struggles. I thought the Seahawks did a real nice job with this in the regard that they physically came off the ball, getting hats on hats and making the Eagles fight blocks then have to deal with Marshawn Lynch.

The Eagles' weakness on defense is at linebacker. In studying Akeem Jordan, Jamar Chaney, Brian Rolle and Casey Matthews, I didn't feel like they did a good enough job of taking on blocks. With the injury to Felix Jones, I would not be one bit surprised to see Jason Garrett try to attack this Eagles defense with fullback Tony Fiammetta, Jones and Sammy Morris going straight ahead.

Teams have had also had success running the ball with misdirection plays. By that, I mean starting flow one way and getting the defense to react then bringing the ball backside with an H-blocker or fullback. If Jones was healthy, this is something you might see more of.

In the secondary, Nnamdi Asomugha and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie are the corners with Joselio Hanson as the nickel. Asomugha will play the slot. The last time that these two teams met, he covered Jason Witten when he was in line and in the slot.

Something else to watch for is that Castillo has gone back to some of the old exotic blitz schemes that former defensive coordinator Jim Johnson used. In the Jets and Dolphins games, Castillo used two down linemen and had Cole, Babin and Matthews standing up in the middle of the defense. The Cowboys have had their troubles with blitz pickups when teams put pressure in the middle of the pocket with twist stunts.

Two things must happen this week: the Cowboys receivers must find a way to win on the outside and the offensive line must be able to pick up blitzes in the middle of Eagles defense. If they struggle in either area, you will see sacks much like Mark Sanchez and Matt Moore suffered in their games against the Eagles.

Other side: Inquirer's Jeff McLane

December, 22, 2011
12/22/11
9:40
AM ET
IRVING, Texas -- It's a little later than normal, but we bring you Jeff McLane of the Philadelphia Inquirer with all that you need to know about the Eagles in this week's version of The Other Side:

Archer - What's the vibe in Philly this week? There is a feeling down here that the Eagles are dangerous and could end up winning this division after all.

McLane - The Eagles certainly can't think they're going to win the NFC East because not only does a lot have to happen for that to occur, but they really don't even deserve to be in this spot. And that's probably beneficial to how they'll play Saturday if the Jets beat the Giants and they're still alive. They really aren't taking themselves seriously and thus they don't have much to lose, which is probably why the Cowboys sound a little nervous.

Archer - Say the Eagles fall flat in their final two games, is there any real possibility that Andy Reid could be in jeopardy?

McLane - There's a possibility but all signs point to Reid returning for his 14th season. He still has two years left on his contract - at $5 million per - so the Eagles aren't likely to eat that. And the front office probably feels he deserves one more shot to finally win a Super Bowl. Michael Vick will definitely be back for one more reason and a regime change at this point would probably make little sense.

Archer - For all of the talk about Jeremy Maclin and DeSean Jackson in the passing game, Brent Celek has become the go-to guy. Is that because of the attention to the guys on the outside?

McLane - There are a number of reasons Celek's numbers are up. Vick, for one, is throwing the ball to him a little more and some of that has to do with the attention Jackson and Maclin are drawing. And two, Celek isn't dropping as many balls thrown in his direction as he was last season.

Archer -Jason Babin has been a terror with 18 sacks. Is it simply a case of Jim Washburn knowing how to use him best?

McLane - Babin, a speed rusher, is tailor made for Washburn's wide-nine. He's also a little too focused on getting sacks at the expense of the run. But that's what Washburn asks out of his ends. Having Trent Cole, who does make more of an effort at stopping the run, on the other side of the defensive line has also benefitted Babin.

Archer - I know it's a QB league, but how good has LeSean McCoy been this year? Twenty touchdowns is just ridiculous

McLane - He's been excellent. Some people like to say he's just a system running back, but that is just plain ignorance. McCoy, on many occasions, has simply made something when there really wasn't anything there. He's a superstar in waiting and may already be at that level.

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