Dallas Cowboys: Kenny Phillips

Eight in the Box: Offseason regret

July, 12, 2013
7/12/13
4:53
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NFC Eight in the Box: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

A look at the one move each team in the NFC East needed to make but didn't.

Dallas Cowboys: Upgrade at right tackle. The Cowboys believe they improved their offensive line with the first-round draft selection of center Travis Frederick, and they may be right. But the problem is the line needed more help than that. Instead of getting the disappointing Doug Free to take a pay cut and stay, the Cowboys could have explored other options, such as using another early-round pick on a tackle or signing one of the veterans (Tyson Clabo, Eric Winston) who were cut during free agency. Cap issues were one factor, but basically the Cowboys seemed content with the idea of a right tackle platoon or training camp competition between Free and Jermey Parnell. They claim the platoon of that pair worked well late last season, but it's likely the right tackle's play looked good only in comparison to Free's terrible first-half performance.

New York Giants: Anything of consequence at linebacker. Sure, they brought back Keith Rivers. Yawn. And they signed Dan Connor. Double yawn. And they took a chance on Aaron Curry, who was once one of the top prospects in the league but has already washed out with two teams. Interesting, but certainly not a confidence-boosting sign. Mathias Kiwanuka, who was one of their starting linebackers the past two years, will move back up to defensive end to help replace Osi Umenyiora, who left as a free agent. And there are some young guys the Giants brought in as rookies two years ago who may be good enough to play or start. The Giants feel they got stronger up front at defensive tackle and never mind spending on defensive backs, but the middle of the field remains a weakness for them against offenses that are willing to exploit it. Some guys are going to have to outperform expectations at linebacker in 2013.

Philadelphia Eagles: Spend some money on the secondary. The Eagles were the only NFC East team that had cap room to burn. Even though they needed to improve all four starting positions in the secondary, they chose to go the economic route, bringing in uninspiring cornerbacks Bradley Fletcher and Cary Williams and safety Patrick Chung. Former Giant Kenny Phillips is a premium talent at safety, but they got him inexpensively as well, and the reason is a chronic knee problem that could keep him from ever playing for them. New coach Chip Kelly was looking for physical cornerbacks with the ability to tackle, which is fine, and I can understand that the Eagles felt burned by the way the Nnamdi Asomugha and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie moves of two years ago worked out. But the moves at defensive back feel like half-measures, and you get the feeling they'll be looking to upgrade the same spots next year. This was a team that should have at least looked into trading for Darrelle Revis, though it would have been hard to justify giving up the No. 4 overall pick in the draft for him.

Washington Redskins: Get Pierre Garcon's foot fixed. This one is on Garcon, of course. The team can't force a player to have surgery if he doesn't want to have surgery. Garcon did have a procedure to repair a shoulder problem, which is good, but it was the torn ligament in his foot that bothered him last season, cost him six games and is at risk of flaring up again if rest didn't cure it completely. Garcon was a hugely valuable part of the Redskins' offense as Robert Griffin III's No. 1 wide receiver. Everyone has heard that the Redskins were 9-1 in regular-season games in which Garcon played. The Redskins' cap problems prevented them from improving the secondary or the offensive line and from keeping special-teams captain Lorenzo Alexander. But when they look back on this offseason, their biggest regret may be that Garcon didn't get the foot surgery he needed.
NFC Eight in the Box: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

How does each NFC East team look in the secondary, and what still needs to be done?

Dallas Cowboys: Last offseason, the Cowboys used premium resources to acquire Brandon Carr in free agency and Morris Claiborne in the draft so they could be better equipped to play man coverage on the outside. Then this offseason, they went out and hired Cover 2 guru Monte Kiffin as their defensive coordinator. Kiffin supposedly will incorporate more man coverage into his play calls, but Carr and Claiborne are not ideal players for Cover 2, which will be Dallas’ base coverage. Still, these two, along with nickelback Orlando Scandrick and fourth-round pick B.W. Webb, give the Cowboys an excellent set of cornerbacks overall. Scheme notwithstanding, Claiborne should be much improved in his second season. Safety is another story though. This position was a huge weakness in 2012. Free-agent signee Will Allen is penciled in to start opposite Barry Church, who is highly unproven. The Cowboys used a third-round pick on J.J. Wilcox, but Allen is not starting material and Wilcox is extremely raw. Wilcox has a ton of ability and should be an immediate standout on special teams, but trusting him to read quarterbacks and route combinations as a rookie could be a disaster. To me, safety remains an immediate weakness for Dallas.

New York Giants: There isn’t a lot of change here from 2012 -- and that isn’t really a good thing. Gone is Kenny Phillips and in are Aaron Ross and Ryan Mundy, but this is a franchise that relies on its defensive line to make the defense go -- and the line does look impressive. Safety Stevie Brown made a lot of plays last season and will be asked to replace Phillips on more of a full-time basis alongside Antrel Rolle, whose best trait is probably his overall versatility. At cornerback, the Giants are counting on Prince Amukamara and Jayron Hosley to take noticeable steps forward in their young careers, especially from an overall consistency standpoint. Terrell Thomas returns from yet another major injury and Ross will provide corner depth, but Corey Webster is the player New York absolutely needs to play like he did earlier in his career. In 2012, Webster struggled mightily and Hosley was often beaten, which obviously is a huge concern.

Philadelphia Eagles: The Eagles gave their secondary a total overhaul this offseason. While there was talent in this group a year ago, it collectively made a ton of mistakes and just allowed far too many big plays. Simply said, the Eagles’ secondary was dreadful in 2012. One carryover is Brandon Boykin, who played well as a rookie and should be the ideal nickel cornerback going forward. The starters at corner, Bradley Fletcher and Cary Williams, have plenty of questions around them. I don’t see either player as close to being a true No. 1 cornerback, but if they can show some consistency it will be an improvement for Philadelphia at the position. At safety, the Eagles signed Kenny Phillips from the Giants, an excellent move and a massive upgrade if he stays healthy. They also inked Patrick Chung away from the Patriots. There is much more uncertainty around Chung, who has never stepped up as many expected he would have by now. Earl Wolff, Nate Allen, Kurt Coleman and Curtis Marsh provide the Eagles with young talented depth, but while the secondary has been totally reshuffled, the starters here are far from sure things. But like the rest of Philadelphia’s secondary in 2012, Allen and Coleman had a rough go of it last season.

Washington Redskins: Probably the biggest need area for this team heading into this offseason was the secondary. In free agency, the Redskins added E.J. Biggers, who should be a very solid all-around third cornerback. In the draft, Washington addressed its secondary in a big way, using a second-round pick on David Amerson, a fourth-rounder on Phillip Thomas and a sixth-rounder on Bacarri Rambo. Right now, the starters are DeAngelo Hall and Josh Wilson at cornerback and Brandon Meriweather and Reed Doughty at safety. Surely the Redskins would love for Amerson, Thomas and Rambo all to challenge for starting spots right out of the gate, but rookie cover men often struggle. Still, Doughty is very average. Meriweather is returning from injury and has been highly inconsistent and untrustworthy, while Hall is one of the more overrated players in the NFL, who can look great one week and terrible the next. Wilson might be the best member of Washington’s secondary, which is an indictment of the status of this unit overall. The Redskins have, however, added young talent, and the return from injury of Brian Orakpo, their only truly top-notch pass-rusher, also should help the cover men a great deal.

Eight in the Box: Rookie eye-catchers

June, 7, 2013
6/07/13
6:00
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NFC Eight in the Box: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

A first-year player from each NFC East team who has turned heads in OTAs/minicamps.

Dallas Cowboys: Travis Frederick

The team's much-criticized first-round pick is getting first-team reps at center and looks likely to open training camp as the starter at that critical position. I don't know that he's necessarily "turned heads" with his performance in spring workouts, but it says a lot that the team threw him right in at center (the position he played in college) and seems willing to play around more with the guard positions. It's still possible that Phil Costa goes back to center and Frederick either wins one of the guard spots or opens the season as a backup. But given the Cowboys' offensive line issues last year and the fact that they used their first-round pick on Frederick, it's no surprise they want to try to get as much as they can out of him as soon as possible.

New York Giants: Damontre Moore

The Giants drafted Moore because of his collegiate accomplishments as a pass-rusher, thinking the productivity he showed at Texas A&M was a sign he could produce at a high level early on in the NFL. Moore is only 20 years old, but he's shown an ability to get off quickly at the snap, and his instincts for the defensive end position jump out at the coaching staff. Some guys come into the league with an innate ability to get to the quarterback, and Moore could be such a guy for the Giants. Osi Umenyiora is off to Atlanta and Jason Pierre-Paul had back surgery this week. Defensive ends will have opportunities to show what they can do this summer in Giants training camp. The Giants would love to see positive early signs from Moore.

Philadelphia Eagles: Earl Wolff

As we've discussed, it's hard to evaluate the secondary in these noncontact drills, and especially the safeties, for whom hitting is such a big part of the game. But Wolff was running with the first-team defense in Thursday's practices, alongside Patrick Chung at safety and with Cary Williams and Bradley Fletcher at cornerback. Coach Chip Kelly keeps insisting there's nothing to be read into position groups this time of year, but it's clear that opportunity exists for reps in the Eagles' secondary. Kenny Phillips' knee already has cost him on-field practice time, which means Wolff could get a chance to play his way into a significant role as a first-year player once the pads go on.

Washington Redskins: Jordan Reed

The rookie tight end has been working on the side with quarterback Robert Griffin III and other injured players who can't go through full-team drills so far in OTAs, but multiple reports say his athleticism has stood out when catching Griffin's passes. The Redskins drafted Reed to fill a "move" tight end role, which means he'll be expected to be more of a receiver than a traditional tight end. Although he may need work and time to learn the position and the responsibilities that go along with it at the professional level, the Redskins picked him for his upside, which apparently isn't hard to notice when you watch him run, jump and catch.

Kiper: Late-round steal for Cowboys

May, 2, 2013
5/02/13
9:53
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As he continues his review of last week's NFL draft, Mel Kiper Jr. has a list Insider of players taken in rounds 4 through 7 who he thinks could make an impact this season. One Dallas Cowboys pick was mentioned.

Dallas Cowboys

-Joseph Randle, RB, fifth round: Mel calls him the second-most talented running back on the Cowboys' roster after injury-prone starter DeMarco Murray. If that's not a recipe for touches ...
IRVING, Texas – First-round picks have to be the cornerstones of NFL rosters. The majority have to be more than one-contract players. If not, it generally means they didn't live up to expectations.

PODCAST
ESPN Insider Ed Werder joins Fitzsimmons & Durrett to discuss the Cowboys, the NFL draft and much more.

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With 2008 first-rounder Mike Jenkins gone off to Oakland and Felix Jones all but gone to anywhere else but here, the Cowboys have not extended the contract of one of their first-round picks before it expired since DeMarcus Ware, one of their two first-round picks in 2005.

Through a quirk in the system, Marcus Spears (2005) was a restricted free agent in 2010 and was kept for a year, but only because the price was right and cheaper than the guys who backed him up. He ultimately re-signed after the 2011 lockout ended and was cut this offseason after the second year of the current deal. Bobby Carpenter (2006) was traded to St. Louis in the final year of his deal.

The 2007 pick, Anthony Spencer, is on the team, but his deal expired after 2011 and the Cowboys have kept him with the franchise tag the last two years. In 2012 they did it because they weren’t sure how much they loved him. They did it this offseason because they didn’t feel like they could lose him. It is possible Spencer could sign a new deal this offseason, but there doesn’t seem to be any rush on that done.

The Cowboys had six first-round picks from 2005-08 and have extended one before that player’s deal expired. How does that compare with the rest of the NFC East?

The New York Giants had three and extended one (Mathias Kiwanuka, 2006) and let two walk (Aaron Ross, Kenny Phillips). Philadelphia had two and extended one (Mike Patterson, 2005), but that was in the second year of his deal and he didn’t become a dominant player. Brodrick Bunkley (2006) was traded by the Eagles before his deal was up. Washington had two and kept Carlos Rogers (2005) for a year the same way the Cowboys kept Spears, but then he signed with San Francisco in 2012. LaRon Landry (2007) walked after his rookie deal was up with the Redskins.

For the Cowboys, the next first-rounder to come due will be Dez Bryant, their top pick in 2010, whose contract is up after the 2014 season. Will Bryant cash in on a big deal before his contract expires?

Eight in the Box: FA winners or losers?

March, 22, 2013
3/22/13
12:00
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» NFC Eight in the Box: East | West | North | South » AFC: East | West | North | South

A look at whether each NFC East team has been a winner or a loser in free agency:

Dallas Cowboys: Loser. The only significant free-agent move the Cowboys have made is the franchising of Anthony Spencer, who will be one of the starting defensive ends in their new 4-3 defensive alignment. Even if you like that move, you have to acknowledge that its $10.6 million cost has worked as a detriment for a team that had no cap room to start with. The Cowboys still need a lot of help on the offensive line and at safety but have been unable to maneuver around the cap. Their inability so far to reach agreement on a long-term deal with quarterback Tony Romo -- a move that would reduce his 2013 cap cost -- has also deprived them of the ability to address needs so far. The Cowboys haven't lost any significant pieces in free agency, but a lack of flexibility compounded by $5 million in leftover cap penalties has kept them from adding where they need to add.

New York Giants: Winner. I mean, not in the same way that teams like the Seahawks or the Chiefs have been winners, but in their own, Giant-like way. Replacing tight end Martellus Bennett with Brandon Myers at low cost, re-signing left tackle Will Beatty before the market opened, signing Keith Rivers and Dan Connor at linebacker ... nothing that's going to knock your socks off, but some targeted, low-financial-impact moves designed to keep the program winning. The Giants still could turn out to be losers if they don't do at least some work on the offensive line. And I think it's possible they'll end up missing safety Kenny Phillips more than they think. But to this point, they're operating their offseason the way they like to operate it. Low-key but productive.

Philadelphia Eagles: Winner. Again, we're operating on a curve here. This division in general has not been the league's most exciting since the start of the free-agency period. But the Eagles have added two starting safeties (Patrick Chung and Phillips, on a low-risk/high-reward deal), two starting cornerbacks (Cary Williams and Bradley Fletcher), pass-rusher Connor Barwin, a versatile fullback/tight end type in James Casey and a big, 24-year-old wide receiver in Arrelious Benn. The Eagles still have plenty of cap room with which to pursue the right tackle they need, and they've addressed enough positions to allow them flexibility with the No. 4 pick in next month's draft. No one can predict how their new additions will play, but they do seem to have targeted and acquired the players they wanted.

Washington Redskins: Loser. They've actually done well to hold together as much of their division-champion team as they have, considering the $18 million in cap penalties they're still dealing with this year. But they had to cut cornerback DeAngelo Hall, lost special-teams captain Lorenzo Alexander, and have yet to re-sign tight end Fred Davis. More importantly, though, they still have major needs in the secondary and have been unable to land the free safety or the starting cornerback they need. E.J. Biggers is probably better as a No. 3 cornerback, though at this point he may project as one of their starters. The good thing is that the safety and cornerback market still has lots of options, and the prices aren't going up. But the Redskins have no first-round pick next month, so they have some challenges ahead.
Heading into the weekend, the Cowboys lost three free agents and haven't signed any.

The Cowboys did a lot to get under the salary cap. Currently they're $175,000 under the $123 million limit.

When you look at the rest of the NFC East, the Cowboys are getting left behind.

The Philadelphia Eagles signed eight players, New York Giants inked four and the Washington Redskins one in free agency. It's interesting the Redskins have signed anyone given their own salary cap issues.

When you look at all the signings, the best one, from within the division, comes from the Eagles, who signed cornerback Cary Williams from the Baltimore Ravens.

Last season, Williams was tied for the team-lead with four interceptions and he led the Ravens with 17 pass breakups.

It seems the Eagles are determined to upgrade a secondary that allowed 7.6 yards per game, since they added safety Kenny Phillips and cornerback Bradley Fletcher.

The Cowboys' upgrades will come from the injured players who missed a bulk of the season -- such as Sean Lee, Bruce Carter and Jay Ratliff -- and the NFL Draft.

Waiting out the defensive backs market

March, 13, 2013
3/13/13
10:03
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The main reason Tuesday night was so quiet in the NFC East in free agency was the relative lack of salary cap space among the division's teams. But another reason was that all four have significant needs in the secondary, and defensive backs aren't really signing anywhere just yet.

It's simple supply and demand -- so many veteran cornerbacks and safeties have been released in the past couple of weeks that the market is now flooded. When supply goes up, prices go down, and that could mean the defensive backs on the market aren't finding the deals for which they'd hoped. Assuming that's the case, it would be good news for the teams in the NFC East, all of whom are in the market for at least some help in the secondary:

[+] EnlargeAntoine Winfield
Tom Dahlin/Getty ImagesA glut of veterans like Minnesota cornerback Antoine Winfield, 26, has created a buyer's market for teams seeking secondary help.
The Dallas Cowboys have their starting cornerbacks, but have a need at safety after releasing Gerald Sensabaugh. The Cowboys are dealing with $5 million worth of those same cap penalties the Redskins have, and will need to create room and find a bargain if they're to address the position. Every day that goes by without a flurry of big safety signings is good news for the Giants and the Cowboys.

You want names? They are too many to list here. Check out ESPN.com's free agency tracker if you want wish lists for these teams at cornerback Insider or at safety Insider. As you can see, plenty of interesting choices across the spectra of talent, age and versatility. One of the reasons the defensive backs market is likely slow to rev up is because of the big names that have landed on it in recent days. If you were a team making plans to pursue a free-agent defensive back and then, over a 48-hour stretch, guys like Hall, Nnamdi Asomugha and Antoine Winfield became available, you'd have to at least press pause and evaluate, no?

Whatever the reason, the slow-developing, supply-choked market for cornerbacks and safeties is good for teams in the market for help at those positions. The NFC East has four such teams. So while I understand it's a fan's job to panic when your team doesn't sign anyone on the first day of free agency, I ask you to take a deep breath and consider that, in this case, that might turn out to be a good thing.

NFC East free-agency primer

March, 12, 2013
3/12/13
2:30
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» NFC Free Agency: East | West | North | South » AFC: East | West | North | South

Dallas Cowboys
GENERAL MANAGER: Jerry Jones
HEAD COACH: Jason Garrett

Cap status: Some last-minute contract restructuring Monday got the Cowboys under the 2013 cap. They're not far enough under to operate very deftly in free agency, so don't expect any big splashes from them in the first wave, but they still have the ability to extend Tony Romo's deal or make some more cuts if they find someone they really want to fit into their budget.

Strategy: They should work on the offensive line, which was atrocious in 2012. But after signing two free-agent guards last year and giving center Phil Costa a two-year extension this year, the Cowboys may put off addressing that need until the draft. I'd expect them to be active on the veteran safety market, as they have question marks at that position, and there appears to be enough free-agent inventory that costs for safeties should be kept low. Depth on the defensive line and at running back will be important as well, as the defense is changing to a 4-3 alignment and DeMarco Murray's backup, Felix Jones, appears set to hit the market. Expect the Cowboys to bargain-hunt at positions that haven't traditionally cost too much.

New York Giants
GENERAL MANAGER: Jerry Reese
HEAD COACH: Tom Coughlin

Cap status: After Sunday night's agreement with defensive lineman Cullen Jenkins, the Giants remain around $7 million under the cap. Enough to get them in compliance and work on deals for their own free agents but likely not enough to make them players for too much outside help.

Strategy: For the Giants, the focus is in house. They'd like to bring back guard Kevin Boothe, tight end Martellus Bennett and of course restricted free-agent wide receiver Victor Cruz. They can tender Cruz and keep him, but they'd prefer to get a long-term deal done soon if possible so the headache goes away. As for Boothe and Bennett, if they'll sign for the Giants' number, they'll be Giants. If they want to try to cash in on the market, the Giants likely will look in other directions. They appear set to let valuable safety Kenny Phillips depart after his injury-wrecked season, so they'll look to address that position as well as linebacker, running back and offensive line. Don't be surprised if Jenkins isn't their last defensive line move, either. They do like to have depth there.

Philadelphia Eagles
GENERAL MANAGER: Howie Roseman
HEAD COACH: Chip Kelly

Cap status: The Eagles have about $34 million in salary-cap room and are likely to add $11 million more with the expected release of cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha on Tuesday. They will be able to get any player they want to get, most likely.

Strategy: The Eagles' management figures that whoever remains in place from two summers ago knows all about how badly the last big experiment with free agency went, so don't expect to see a frenzy like the one it created on the market in 2011. But the Eagles have many needs -- cornerback, safety, linebacker, nose tackle, a right guard or tackle, maybe a big wide receiver. They will be active because they must. As for strategy, though, I'd expect them to target younger free agents who can help them build the roster long term, not just help them contend in 2013. The moves the team has made since firing longtime coach Andy Reid and hiring Kelly indicate that Kelly plans to be in Philadelphia for a long time and is thinking about what can make his team competitive for years to come, not just right away.

Washington Redskins
GENERAL MANAGER: Bruce Allen
HEAD COACH: Mike Shanahan

Cap status: Cutting veteran cornerback DeAngelo Hall saved the Redskins $8 million in cap room Monday. That and the contract restructure of defensive end Adam Carriker helps the Redskins address the significant cap problems they're still having as a result of the $36 million in penalties the league imposed on them a year ago. More cuts and restructures are likely on the way.

Strategy: The free-agent strategy since Allen and Shanahan came on the scene has been consistent. The Redskins like to target players in the 26-, 27-year-old range who have shown encouraging flashes but not necessarily yet proved all they have to prove in the league. They like hungry guys, and as they continue to build around second-year quarterback Robert Griffin III, they will continue to try to employ this strategy. Perhaps you heard reports this past weekend of the Redskins' interest in cornerbacks like Derek Cox (26, coming off injury) and Antoine Cason (also 26). As they did with Pierre Garcon at wide receiver last year, the Redskins will target guys who might not be at the top of the market but fit what they want to do both schematically and economically.

Eight in the Box: Top offseason targets

March, 8, 2013
3/08/13
11:33
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» NFC Eight in the Box: East | West | North | South » AFC: East | West | North | South

Welcome to Eight in the Box, an NFL Nation feature that will appear each Friday during the offseason. This week's topic: Who should be the primary target (including trades) for each team when free agency begins?

Dallas Cowboys: Louis Vasquez, G, Chargers. Cap-space problems likely price the Cowboys out of the top offensive line names available, but the line is their most desperate need and Vasquez is much more than a fallback option. Pro Football Focus ranked him as the eighth-best right guard in the league last year -- better than either of the midrange free-agent guards the Cowboys signed last year -- and he doesn't turn 26 for another month. He's the kind of free agent in whom it makes sense to invest -- a guy who's proven he can play in the league but is still hungry to prove more and young enough that they'd have him in his prime. I do still believe the Cowboys need to address the offensive line in the draft, but there's nothing wrong with a smart upgrade like this in the meantime to augment that plan.

New York Giants: Dannell Ellerbe, LB, Ravens. Yes, the Super Bowl champs will try to keep him. No, the Giants don't prioritize the linebacker position. If you're asking me if this is a player the Giants will sign, I'd have to say no. But what we're asking today is which player they should sign, and Ellerbe is a perfect fit. He's only 27 and has leadership experience and a championship ring earned while filling in for Ray Lewis this past year. The Giants' defense has drifted in and out too much the past few years in terms of focus and intensity, and Ellerbe would help with that from a position at which the Giants always seem to have a need.

Philadelphia Eagles: Kenny Phillips, S, Giants. So much uncertainty in the secondary, where the Eagles could be looking for four new starters. Phillips is as versatile a safety as there is on the market and would allow them to go in any number of directions with their cornerbacks or their other safety. He can cover. He can move up in the box and play the run. He's got Super Bowl experience. And if you're the Eagles or an Eagles fan, wouldn't it be fun to sign him away from the Giants and play him against them twice a year? Phillips has had some knee problems, which is his only red flag. If he checks out medically, then as a player who doesn't turn 27 until November he's a big-time answer for the Eagles at a position that has been driving them crazy since they let Brian Dawkins leave.

Washington Redskins: Ryan Harris, OT, Texans. Cap constraints will prevent the Redskins from dreaming big free-agent dreams, and I am fully aware that their greatest need is on defense in the secondary. But they need a right tackle as well, and Harris and Mike Shanahan know each other well from their days together in Denver in 2007 and 2008. Harris turns 28 on Monday and has zone-blocking, run-game experience. Best of all, he's not likely to cost much. If Shanahan liked Harris early in his career and still sees something, Harris could be an easy answer at an important position and allow the Texans to commit greater resources to the secondary and other needs.
I never feel comfortable predicting with any certainty what the Dallas Cowboys are going to do, but I consider it unlikely that they designate Anthony Spencer as their franchise player before today's 4 p.m. ET deadline. Franchising Spencer would cost the Cowboys $10.6 million this year, since it'd be the second year in a row in which he played under the franchise player designation, and they'd have to clear about $6 million more in cap room in the next six hours just to do it. And if they did it (say, by finalizing a Tony Romo contract extension), they really wouldn't be able to do much else once free agency started next Tuesday. So I do not expect the Cowboys to franchise Spencer or anyone else by the deadline.

In fact, I don't expect any team in the NFC East to use the franchise tag this year. To wit:

New York Giants: They could use it on safety Kenny Phillips ($6.916 million) or tight end Martellus Bennett ($6.066 million), but I doubt they'll do it for either. They simply don't value the tight end position enough to pay Bennett that much money this season. They like him and could bring him back on a deal that features a lower 2013 base salary, but they don't have the cap room or the inclination to lock him in for a year at the franchise number. As for Phillips, you know I think they should keep him. And they might, but again, on a longer deal at their price. I think they'll let the franchise deadline go by and continue to try and use Phillips' knee problems and Stevie Brown's high 2012 interception total as leverage against Phillips in their negotiations -- and let him walk if he's determined to get more than they want to give him.

Philadelphia Eagles: No way they're using a $10.854 million franchise tag on cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie. Even if they want him back, they'll be able to get him for less. And he's not a guy they can't afford to lose. The Eagles have the cap room to do whatever they want, but they don't have many free agents, and the ones they do have aren't so essential as to merit a franchise designation.

Washington Redskins: I think they'd like to tag tight end Fred Davis but can't afford it because of their cap problems. Linebacker/special teams ace Lorenzo Alexander ($9.619 million), guard Kory Lichtensteiger ($9.828 million) and cornerback Cedric Griffin are all guys they'd like to have back, but not at those prices.

NFC East wrap: The year of RG III

December, 29, 2012
12/29/12
10:00
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NFC Season Wraps: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Five things to know and my 2012 all-division team:

Division MVP: Interesting word, "value." The Washington Redskins decided that fixing their problem at quarterback by drafting Robert Griffin III was worth three first-round picks and a second-round pick. That's the "value" they assigned to Griffin as their short-term and long-term solution at the game's most critical position -- willingly not having another first-round pick until 2015. The first-year result is the current six-game winning streak that has delivered the Redskins' first winning season since 2007 and a shot Sunday night at their first division title since 1999.

[+] EnlargeRobert Griffin III
Jonathan Newton/Getty ImagesThe Redskins paid a steep price to acquire Robert Griffin III, but the move has paid off handsomely.
A number of things have gone right to help the Redskins to this point, but at the center of it all has been Griffin, who has delivered big plays with his arm and his legs, has thrown just five interceptions and piloted a Redskins offense that has the most rushing yards and the fewest turnovers in the league through 16 weeks. In their wildest dreams, the Redskins couldn't have imagined Griffin performing at this level in his first year, but the fact that he has is the biggest reason they're where they are at this point. Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo is having a big year, as are Cowboys wide receiver Dez Bryant and Redskins rookie running back Alfred Morris. But the award is for the Most "Valuable" Player, and the upgrade Griffin has provided for the Redskins at the most important position on the field has a value that surpasses anything anyone else in the NFC East has provided this year.

Biggest disappointment: This one isn't hard. The 2011 Philadelphia Eagles were a disappointment. That word isn't strong enough to describe what the 2012 Eagles turned out to be. They went into training camp with Super Bowl expectations and a chip on their collective shoulder after last year's flop, and they out-flopped even themselves. There was promise in their 3-1 start, in spite of the turnovers and the fact that they were barely winning. The defense was playing well, Michael Vick was leading them from behind in the fourth quarter and it made some level of sense to believe that they would play better and start winning more comfortably.

Instead, it went the other way. The eight-game losing streak that followed that 3-1 start doomed the Eagles to a sub-.500 season, and the 11 losses they already have with one game to go ties the most Andy Reid has ever had as a head coach. (He lost 11 in his first season there.) Injuries were a huge part of this, as 10 of the Eagles' Week 1 starters on offense have had to miss at least one game and the offensive line hasn't been together all year. But the problems go much deeper, and center on a poorly constructed roster that failed to adequately address holes at positions such as safety and a dysfunctional coaching staff mismanaged by the man in charge. Reid appears certain to pay with his job for failing to make good on his mulligan, and big changes are around the corner in Philadelphia.

No defense: The NFC East hasn't had a repeat champion since the Eagles won it back-to-back in 2003-04, and it won't have one this year either. The New York Giants opened November with three more wins than any other team in the division, but their collapse following a 6-2 start has eliminated them from the division race with a week to go. The winner of Sunday night's game between the Redskins and the Dallas Cowboys will be division champs. If it's Dallas, it'll be the team's second title in four years and would be the second year in a row (and ever) that the division didn't produce at least one 10-win team. If it's Washington, it'll be its first division title in 13 years and would mean four different division champs in four years. This may not be the dominant, monster, "Beast" division it's been in some years past, but the intensity of the rivalries and the closeness of the quality of the four teams keep it the league's most competitive and entertaining year in and year out.

Each NFC East team had a turn in the spotlight this year. The Cowboys flashed greatness in their nationally televised victory over the defending Super Bowl champion Giants in the season opener. The Eagles got out to that 3-1 start. The Giants at one point stood 6-2, and their victories over San Francisco and Green Bay had folks talking about them as the best team in the league. The Redskins are on a six-game winning streak right now and one of the hottest stories in sports. Say what you will about this division or any of its teams, but you can't say it's not fun.

Better "corner" the market: Looking ahead to the 2013 offseason, expect each of the NFC East's teams to make the secondary a high priority. The Cowboys like their corners, and they may be OK at safety if Barry Church comes back healthy, but they'll probably lose Mike Jenkins to free agency and could look to maintain their depth back there. The Giants need to figure out whether this is just a bad year for Corey Webster or if he's a player in decline, and at safety there are questions about Kenny Phillips' long-term status with the team after his injury-plagued season. The Redskins need all kinds of help in the secondary, where Josh Wilson has been fairly consistent but not great at corner, DeAngelo Hall is clearly in decline and they're getting by with backups at safety. And the Eagles have to figure out whether to keep one, both or neither of their veteran cornerbacks and whether it's time to cut bait with safety Nate Allen.

This division includes the No. 21, No. 28 and No. 30 pass defenses in the NFL, and the only NFC East team in the top half in the league in that category (Philadelphia, No. 11) has major question marks at cornerback and especially safety. Once known for its fearsome pass rushes, the NFC East learned this year that you can't always count on even that to be consistent, and it's time for this division's teams to prioritize their last lines of defense.

[+] EnlargeJason Garrett
AP Photo/Tom UhlmanJason Garrett's Cowboys, winners of five of their past seven, can win the NFC East with a victory over the archrival Redskins on Sunday.
The men in charge: You can expect wholesale coaching staff changes in Philadelphia, of course. But what of the division's other three teams, at least one and likely two of which won't make the playoffs? Head coaches Tom Coughlin and Mike Shanahan are clearly safe in New York and Washington, and Jason Garrett appears safe as well in Dallas after a year in which he's admirably led the Cowboys through injury and off-field tragedy into another Week 17 division title game. But that doesn't mean there can't or won't be changes at the coordinator level.

Dallas defensive coordinator Rob Ryan and Washington offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan are both whispered about when head-coaching jobs come up, and the success of Griffin and the Redskins' offensive system could make Kyle Shanahan an especially hot candidate this offseason. Would he jump ship, or stay to see things through and possibly succeed his father down the road in D.C.? Redskins fans clamor for the head of defensive coordinator Jim Haslett, and I guess you never know, but I think Haslett's got this Washington defense overachieving, and I've heard nothing to indicate that the team is dissatisfied with the job he's doing. As for the Giants' Kevin Gilbride and Perry Fewell ... Fewell's no longer the head-coaching candidate he used to be for some reason, so it's likely a matter of whether they want to keep those guys around. The Giants tend to value organizational stability, and Gilbride and Fewell were coaching in and winning a Super Bowl less than 11 months ago, so it's hard to imagine they're in trouble. But I think the Giants are surprised at the way the last couple of weeks have gone, and I doubt they've seriously considered yet whether changes on the staff are warranted or necessary.

ALL-DIVISION TEAM

We do this every week, so you're used to a lot of these names in a lot of these places. There are some close calls, including at quarterback, where the Cowboys' Romo is as hot as anyone in the league and has thrown just three interceptions in his past eight games after throwing 13 in his first seven. Romo is third in the league in passing yards, and his responsible play and leadership are central reasons for the Cowboys' second-half surge. And if he beats Griffin and Washington on Sunday night, you can make the argument that he deserves the spot. I think it's that close right now. But Griffin's had the more consistent season and, as detailed above, the more dramatic impact. So he holds the spot.

The only other very tough call is at fullback, where Darrel Young and the Giants' Henry Hynoski are both excellent and worthy. Hynoski, for me, has been the slightly better blocker, but the Giants' recent struggles have hurt his case and Young, who actually touches the ball every now and then, takes the spot away from him. ... Kicker is a good race, as all four have had good seasons. And yes, I know Kai Forbath hasn't missed, but he's kicked barely half as many as Dan Bailey has. ... Philadelphia's Brandon Graham has made a strong case at defensive end with his second-half play, but Jason Hatcher's been a rock all season as a 3-4 end for Dallas. ... Dez Bryant and Alfred Morris are no-brainers as the division's best wide receiver and running back. What kind of odds could you have got on that in early September?

Final Word: NFC East

December, 15, 2012
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NFC Final Word: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Five nuggets of knowledge about Week 15:

Home-field disadvantage? The Atlanta Falcons are 6-0 at home this season, have won 10 straight home games overall, and are 32-7 in the Georgia Dome over the past five seasons. So the fact that they are playing at home this week should help them, right? Well, maybe not. Their opponent is the New York Giants, who not only beat the Falcons in a playoff game in New Jersey in January but have won seven straight games against the Falcons in Atlanta. The most recent of those games was a 31-10 victory on Oct. 15, 2007, but the Falcons have not won a home game against the Giants since Oct. 1, 1978, when they were able to hold Giants quarterback Joe Pisarcik to 86 yards on 7-of-21 passing and win on a 9-yard touchdown run by Haskel Stanback in the fourth quarter. Yeah, that's right. You know where to come for your Haskel Stanback notes.

[+] EnlargeJones
Brad Barr/US PresswireTackling explosive Atlanta WR Julio Jones after he touches the ball will certainly be a point of emphasis for the Giants on Sunday.
Keep 'em in front of you: In their playoff victory in January, the Giants held Falcons wide receivers to a total of just 47 yards after the catch -- a figure that accounted for 23.6 percent of Matt Ryan's passing yards in that game. So far this season, according to ESPN Stats & Information, only 39 percent of Giants opponents' receiving yards have come after the catch, which is the second-lowest such figure in the league. However, the possibility that cornerback Prince Amukamara and safety Kenny Phillips could miss the game due to injuries could hurt the Giants' ability to prevent big plays after the Falcons catch the ball.

Uncommon streakers: The Washington Redskins have won four games in a row and are trying for their first five-game winning streak since the 2005 season. They visit the Cleveland Browns, who have won three games in a row and are trying for their first four-game winning streak since the final four weeks of the 2009 season.

Getting to 300: Dallas Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo is averaging 347.3 passing yards in home games this season, the best such mark in the NFL according to ESPN Stats & Info. He has passed for at least 300 yards in each of his past five home games. However, Sunday's opponent is the Pittsburgh Steelers, who have allowed fewer than 300 yards in eight straight games. That's the longest such streak since the 2008 Steelers went 14 straight games without allowing 300 yards. Playing without injured cornerback Ike Taylor could affect that, but Romo's top receiver, Dez Bryant, has a broken finger, which could impact Romo's 300-yard streak.

Season of giving? The Steelers lead the NFL with 16 turnovers in the past four weeks. This should be good news for the Cowboys, but the Cowboys have struggled this year to take the ball away from opponents. Only five teams -- Miami, Pittsburgh, Kansas City, Indianapolis and Philadelphia -- have fewer takeaways this season than the Cowboys' 14.

*Bonus playoff-picture note* The 11-2 Falcons are playing for something. They can clinch a first-round bye in the NFC playoffs with a win or a tie and loss by either the Packers or the 49ers. And if the Falcons win and the Packers and 49ers both lose, the Falcons would clinch home-field advantage throughout the NFC playoffs. No NFC East team can clinch a playoff spot this week.

All-NFC East Team: Week 15 update

December, 12, 2012
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For a while, the quarterback position on the All-NFC East team has looked like a boat race, with Redskins rookie Robert Griffin III the clear winner of the spot. But Griffin hurt his knee Sunday, and if he has to miss a few games, he could be caught. Both Tony Romo and Eli Manning are hot and have big numbers (though Griffin's remarkably small number in the interception category is a big part of his lead.)

The disclaimer that no one will read: This is an All-Division Team based on overall season performance to date. It is not -- repeat, NOT -- simply a list of the players who performed the best in this past week. That's why Nick Foles isn't on it.

Just a few changes this week -- one on the offensive line, a couple at kicker and punter and the rest in the secondary, where I admit I'm at a loss. More explanation after the list itself.

Quarterback: Robert Griffin III, Washington Redskins (Last week: Griffin)

Running back: Alfred Morris, Redskins (Morris)

Wide receiver: Dez Bryant, Dallas Cowboys; Victor Cruz, New York Giants; (Bryant, Cruz)

Tight end: Jason Witten, Cowboys (Witten)

Fullback: Henry Hynoski, Giants (Hynoski)

Tackle: Trent Williams, Redskins; Will Beatty, Giants (Williams, Beatty)

Guard: Evan Mathis, Philadelphia Eagles; Chris Chester, Redskins (Mathis, Chris Snee)

Center: Will Montgomery, Redskins (Montgomery)

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

Defensive tackle: Barry Cofield, Redskins; Fletcher Cox, Eagles (Cofield, Cox)

Outside linebacker: DeMarcus Ware, Anthony Spencer, Cowboys (Ware, Spencer)

Inside linebacker: DeMeco Ryans, Eagles; Perry Riley, Redskins (Ryans, Riley)

Cornerback: Prince Amukamara, Giants; Brandon Carr, Cowboys (Amukamara, Morris Claiborne)

Safety: Antrel Rolle, Stevie Brown, Giants (Rolle, Kenny Phillips)

Kicker: Dan Bailey, Cowboys (Lawrence Tynes)

Punter: Sav Rocca, Redskins (Brian Moorman)

Kick returner: David Wilson, Giants (Wilson)

Punt returner: Dwayne Harris, Cowboys (Harris)
  • Did you know this division doesn't have one single cornerback ranked in Pro Football Focus' top 50 for the season? This is what I'm working with, folks. Their highest-ranked NFC East corners are Orlando Scandrick (52), Brandon Boykin (54) and Cedric Griffin (63). So you tell me. I gave Claiborne's spot to Carr this week because I think they're pretty close and Carr's had a couple of game-changing plays the last couple of weeks. But these spots could belong to guys like Josh Wilson and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie just as easily. This is two years now, and no one in this division plays this position consistently well.
  • Safety's a problem, too, and with the best one in the division (Phillips) in and out due to injury, his spot goes to his real-life replacement, who has seven interceptions.
  • That second guard spot is a mishmash, with Chester, Snee, Nate Livings and Kevin Boothe all getting consideration. Snee has the track record, Chester's had the more consistent season. Slightly.
  • And no, Redskins fans, I'm not "ignoring" Darrel Young at fullback. For the millionth time, both Young and Hynoski are having excellent seasons. It's a tough call, every week. But Hynoski's on the field more, and while he doesn't catch or carry the ball once or twice a week like Young does, he's been the slightly better blocker. And that's the important part of their jobs. I'd love to see both guys go to the Pro Bowl. I can't put them both on this team, though. Maybe if one of them learned to play cornerback. There are spots open there.
  • Tynes is out at kicker. The only question was his replacement, and Bailey, Alex Henery and Kai Forbath all made good cases. I went with Bailey, who hasn't missed from inside 50 and has made more (2) from 50-plus than any of the others have. Forbath is perfect since joining the Redskins, and he's made some huge kicks, including this week and on Thanksgiving. But he's got 14 field goals to Bailey's 25 (and Tynes' 33 and Henery's 23). Didn't seem right. Henery is the best of the bunch on kickoffs, statistically. Good year for kickers in the NFC East.
  • Moorman's also out at punter after that debacle Sunday. Our old friend Rocca returns, though you know Steve Weatherford got a long look.
  • And yes, David Wilson's kick return for a touchdown would have won him the kick-returner spot for the rest of the season, but he already had it.

Your thoughts?

All-NFC East Team: Week 14 update

December, 5, 2012
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Certain things creep up on you when you do an exercise like this one every week. You really have to look at it fresh, or else you might miss a trend.

Did you know, for instance, that Tony Romo leads this division in passing yards this year, and by quite a lot -- 490 more than Eli Manning and 1,000 more than All-Division Team QB Robert Griffin III? Romo has a higher passer rating than Manning and more touchdowns. He also leads the division with 15 interceptions, but he's only thrown two in his last five games.

That's not enough to give Romo the spot ahead of Griffin, who makes up yardage and touchdown differentials with his rushing numbers and who's only thrown four interceptions all year. But it was enough to make me stop and think about it, which I do each week at each of these positions. Just because there are few, if any, changes in a given week doesn't mean I'm copy/pasting this thing from the week before. There's a lot of jockeying for position underneath the starter line.

Anyway, the disclaimer that no one will read: This is an All-Division Team based on overall season performance to date. It is not -- repeat, NOT -- simply a list of the players who performed the best in this past week. That's why Pierre Garcon isn't on it.

This week's team includes only one change from last week, and it's at the very exciting position of defensive tackle. But I have some thoughts on a few of the positions that I'll share with you after you look at the team.

Quarterback: Robert Griffin III, Washington Redskins (Last week: Griffin)

Running back: Alfred Morris, Redskins (Morris)

Wide receiver: Victor Cruz, New York Giants; Dez Bryant, Dallas Cowboys (Cruz, Bryant)

Tight end: Jason Witten, Cowboys (Witten)

Fullback: Henry Hynoski, Giants (Hynoski)

Tackle: Trent Williams, Redskins; Will Beatty, Giants (Williams, Beatty)

Guard: Evan Mathis, Philadelphia Eagles; Chris Snee, Giants (Mathis, Snee)

Center: Will Montgomery, Redskins (Montgomery)

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

Defensive tackle: Barry Cofield, Redskins; Fletcher Cox, Eagles (Cofield, Linval Joseph)

Outside linebacker: DeMarcus Ware, Anthony Spencer, Cowboys (Ware, Spencer)

Inside linebacker: DeMeco Ryans, Eagles; Perry Riley, Redskins (Ryans, Riley)

Cornerback: Prince Amukamara, Giants; Morris Claiborne, Cowboys (Amukamara, Claiborne)

Safety: Antrel Rolle, Kenny Phillips, Giants (Rolle, Phillips)

Kicker: Lawrence Tynes, Giants (Tynes)

Punter: Brian Moorman, Cowboys (Moorman)

Kick returner: David Wilson, Giants (Wilson)

Punt returner: Dwayne Harris, Cowboys (Harris)
  • After a year and three quarters of doing the team with a left and right tackle and a left and right guard, I have decided to just pick the best two tackles and guards in the division regardless of where they line up. For the past few weeks, we'd been putting Beatty at right tackle on this team even though he plays left for the Giants, since there weren't any good choices at right tackle and Beatty's been excellent. This new way makes it a lot easier. Beatty and Williams are the two best tackles in the division, so they get the spots.
  • One of the reasons I decided to do this was Cowboys left guard Nate Livings, who is playing very well while the Cowboys' line struggles through a rough season. For a while, I considered using Mathis and Livings as my guards this week, but in the end Snee kept his spot, though it's close between the two of them.
  • Redskins cornerback Josh Wilson, who's occupied that Claiborne spot for much of this season, played very well Monday night against the Giants and nearly go this spot back. But Claiborne also played well, and scored a touchdown, and you know how I struggle at cornerback. I'm like a coach here. Gonna leave Claiborne in there, be patient with him and see how he handles it.
  • The change at defensive tackle was the return of Cox to a starting spot ahead of Joseph, who's had one all year but has been slipping in recent weeks. That position's a tough one, at which almost everyone wears down. And Cox is banged up and didn't play as much Sunday as he normally does. But I think his overall body of work this year edges out Joseph's at this point. First half of the season, Joseph was the No. 1 at this position in the division. At this point, I think that honor goes to Cofield.
  • Redskins fans get mad about fullback, and trust me, I think Darrel Young is a great player. But while Hynoski doesn't touch the ball the couple or three times a game that Young does, he's a road-grader of a blocker in the run game, and Young only plays 3/4 as many snaps as Hynoski does. It's close, and they're both great, but overall I think Hynoski's been the better player in 2012. I like both players a lot. Wish one of them played cornerback or safety, so I could put them both on the team.
  • No one returned a kick or a punt for a touchdown in this division in 2011, but after Damaris Johnson took a punt back for Philly on Sunday, two players have done so this year. I said forever that the first player to run one back would get the spot, and Harris was the first. After Johnson scored, though, I had to think about it. Overall, Harris' stats on punt returns allow him to keep the job.
  • And I almost put Alex Henery in at kicker, but Tynes still has him 32-22 in field goals and I can't forget that I saw Henery miss an extra point.

As always, I welcome your thoughts.

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