Dallas Cowboys: Nnamdi Asomugha

Eight in the Box: Offseason regret

July, 12, 2013
7/12/13
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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.

Waiting out the defensive backs market

March, 13, 2013
3/13/13
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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
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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: Biggest cap casualty

February, 22, 2013
2/22/13
12:34
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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 will be each team’s biggest salary-cap casualty this offseason?

Dallas Cowboys: Offensive tackle Doug Free. The performance issues are obvious with Free. He struggled massively in 2012, and Jermey Parnell gives Dallas a replacement with experience within the system. Free’s 2013 cap number is $10.02 million, but the Cowboys can shed $7 million of that by releasing him under the post-June 1 designation. At more than $20 million over the cap and with Anthony Spencer set to hit the open market in free agency, the Cowboys have substantial work to do to put themselves in a position to retain the talented pass-rusher. Restructuring the deals of other high-paid veterans could aid the effort to accomplish that, and releasing Free would relieve the team of some of its cap congestion.

New York Giants: Cornerback Corey Webster. The Giants have already parted ways with a number of key veterans, led by running back Ahmad Bradshaw, whose toughness was roundly respected in the locker room. But the difficult reality of releasing Bradshaw is partially alleviated because of the promise shown by David Wilson during his rookie season in 2012. Webster, 30, is no longer the player he was when he signed a lucrative contract in 2008, and his $7 million base salary for 2013 is too rich to hang on to. Trouble is, the Giants lack substantial cornerback depth behind Webster and will need to address that position this offseason. The team needs the cap room to pay left tackle Will Beatty and work toward extensions with receivers Hakeem Nicks and restricted free agent Victor Cruz.

Philadelphia Eagles: Cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha. The Eagles are in really good shape from a salary-cap perspective, with big money already cleared by the release of left tackle Demetress Bell and recent reworking of quarterback Michael Vick's deal. But as ESPN's NFL Insider Adam Schefter reported on Friday morning, Asomugha will need to revamp his deal, or he will be released. He’s on the books for $15 million for 2013, only $4 million of which is guaranteed. Given his struggles during his first two seasons with the Eagles, Asomugha isn’t worth the hefty price tag he currently owns. Regardless of Asomugha's future, the secondary will be an area of emphasis for the Eagles this offseason.

Washington Redskins: Cornerback DeAngelo Hall. Hall has said he is willing to explore the possibility of tweaking his current deal, which includes $16.5 million over the final two years. That’s probably the only way he’ll stay with the Redskins, as it’s far too much to pay the 29-year-old, who had his share of struggles in 2012. Lump receiver Santana Moss ($4.15 million salary in 2013) into the same boat, as he’ll likely need to restructure his deal to return. The Redskins have endured salary-cap penalties in recent seasons and need to continue to clear space to be able to retain their own free agents and be players on the open market. Removing Hall from the books is one way to kick-start that process.

Eagles are a study in 'miscalculation'

November, 6, 2012
11/06/12
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Amid all of the perfectly justified rip jobs and sky-is-falling coverage of the Philadelphia Eagles' latest loss, this short item by Jeff McLane caught my eye. He's got someone with the Eagles telling him Andy Reid's bye-week firing of defensive coordinator Juan Castillo was a "miscalculation." This comes as neither news nor a surprise to anyone who's been tracking the Eagles over the past two seasons, during which it appears "miscalculation" has been the hallmark of the front office's game plan.

Yeah, when you watch the Eagles play, it's easy to get caught up in the on-field, in-game issues. Why don't they run the ball more? Why can't Michael Vick make pre-snap reads? Have they quit on Andy Reid? Stuff like that. But I think if you look back over the past two years, it's easy to see that the flaws with this team are flaws of construction, and that the miscalculations are myriad and extensive. A partial list, in no particular order:

    [+] EnlargeMichael Vick
    AP Photo/Brian GarfinkelSigning QB Michael Vick to a $100 million contract appears to be a costly move for the Eagles.
  • Deciding on Vick as a $100 million franchise quarterback based on the spectacular aspect of the way he played in 2010, ignoring the likelihood that his issues reading the field, making audibles and adjusting on the fly were too ingrained to overcome in his 30s. And no, it's not that they should have kept Kevin Kolb or that they didn't get great value for him in the trade. It's just that tying so much of their 2011-12 success to Vick is going to set them back as they head into 2013 and beyond. And the bust potential that Vick came with at the time of the contract was high enough to make it a questionable decision at best.
  • Signing Nnamdi Asomugha on the presumption that he'd play like a top shutdown cornerback, then playing him in zone coverage for his first year because they didn't have the guts to move Asante Samuel. This resulted in their having to trade Samuel for nearly nothing a year later, and Asomugha has struggled at times this year in one-on-one coverage against speedy wideouts.
  • Drafting Danny Watkins in the first round after hiring Howard Mudd to run the offensive line. Mudd found Jason Kelce in the sixth round, identified him as the type of guy who could play his scheme and quickly molded him into a top NFL center. Surely, he could have found a guard in the fifth or seventh that fit his profile and done the same with him, and the Eagles could have used that first-rounder on something more immediately helpful. And no, the Eagles could not have imagined the extent to which injuries would ravage their offensive line this season, but it does seem as though they could have found backup players better suited to adapt quickly to Mudd's blocking schemes. Perhaps if they hadn't been so focused on bringing in high-profile, ultimately useless skill-position backups like Vince Young and Ronnie Brown last year, this could have been more of a point of emphasis.
  • Designing a defense predicated on the down linemen selling out for sacks, then failing in 2011 to support the defensive line with anything resembling adequate linebacker play.
  • In 2012, after bolstering the linebacker corps, failing to adjust anything about the defensive line scheme even though the whole league knew they'd be selling out for sacks on every play. The extent to which opposing offensive coordinators have appeared to be ahead of Castillo, Todd Bowles, Jim Washburn or whoever's been in charge of setting up the Eagles' defense on a given week this year is staggering.
  • Making Castillo the defensive coordinator in the first place, then of course firing him during the bye week just because they felt like they had to do something.

Look, I understand this is an exercise in second-guessing. I fell for it, as did a lot of the people who have been writing about this Eagles team for the past two years. Philadelphia's roster-construction efforts the past two springs and summers looked good as they were going on, and I for one failed to spot the number of flaws that have ultimately manifested themselves. The very good lesson, for those of us who write the NFL, is as usual about waiting for the games to be played before making broad conclusions about how they will go.

As we look back on it now, though, not much the Eagles have done in assembling their roster over the past couple of years has worked. There's the occasional DeMeco Ryans or Fletcher Cox, sure. The DeSean Jackson contract is a good one for them, and I don't think it was necessarily wrong for them to spend resources this past offseason locking up cornerstone pieces like Trent Cole, LeSean McCoy and Todd Herremans for the long-term. But in terms of building a Super Bowl contender in the short term, Reid and the rest of the people who run the Eagles have failed spectacularly. The product they've put on the field simply isn't as good as they believed it to be, and they are likely to pay for their run of miscalculations with their jobs.

NFC East Stock Watch

September, 11, 2012
9/11/12
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FALLING

[+] EnlargeKevin Ogletree
AP Photo/Julio CortezThe New York Giants secondary allowed the Cowboys and receier Kevin Ogletree to have a field day.
1. Giants' secondary. Tony Romo had a field day in last Wednesday's opener, consistently finding open receivers in the New York Giants' defensive backfield. It wasn't Miles Austin and Dez Bryant doing all the damage, as Laurent Robinson Kevin Ogletree had the biggest statistical day and scored two touchdowns. And it wasn't just backup cornerbacks Michael Coe and Justin Tryon getting burned, as Corey Webster was the victim on two of the most important plays. The Giants could get a boost this weekend if Prince Amukamara returns from injury, but he's far from proven as an NFL cornerback and they will need to play better overall on the back end going forward.

2. Michael Vick, Philadelphia Eagles quarterback. Yes, they won. Yes, Vick engineered the game-winning drive (something he didn't do all of last year). But four interceptions in the season opener after an offseason in which you promised everyone from King of Prussia on up to the Mars Rover that you were a new man? It's possible Vick was rusty, but if that's the case he's going to have to shake off the rust extremely soon and show proof of his offseason claims about a newfound devotion to study and detail. We didn't see much of that Sunday.

3. Roy Helu and Evan Royster, Washington Redskins running backs. This is more about the "rising" of rookie sixth-round pick Alfred Morris, who was Washington's starting running back and carried the ball 28 times for 96 yards and two touchdowns. No other Redskins running back got more than two carries in the game. And while Helu still looks as though he could be an option here and there on third downs and in the passing game, for right now this appears to be Morris' job. The Redskins have health concerns about the other two backs, and Morris has played well enough to earn the carries.

RISING

1. Cowboys' defense. The Dallas Cowboys believe they would have won the NFC East last year if they'd been able to cover receivers better, so they spent the bulk of their offseason resources on cornerbacks Brandon Carr and Morris Claiborne. In the season opener against the Giants, the performance of the Dallas secondary was critical. Not only did they get the Giants' excellent receivers covered with the combination of Carr, Claiborne and Orlando Scandrick, but safeties Barry Church and Gerald Sensabaugh both looked quick and aggressive and made smart plays on the ball. The return of cornerback Mike Jenkins from injury, which could come as soon as this Sunday's game in Seattle, will only deepen a position group that the Cowboys believe they have turned from a crippling weakness into a strength.

2. Redskins' secondary. Lost amid the RG3 hype Sunday was the way the Washington Redskins' defensive backs performed, largely in man coverage. The Redskins don't usually like to isolate their cornerbacks on opposing wide receivers, but a sudden lack of depth at safety and the importance of devoting extra coverage to Saints tight end Jimmy Graham made it a necessity. Josh Wilson, Cedric Griffin and DeAngelo Hall were up to the task and covered the New Orleans receivers well all day while the linebackers and safeties did their best to try and slow down Graham. A perceived weakness of the team in the preseason, the secondary deserves praise for its effort in the opener.

3. Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, Eagles cornerback. The Eagles' defense was strong overall, and the performances of linebackers DeMeco Ryans and Mychal Kendricks as well as safeties Nate Allen and Kurt Coleman are all worthy of mention. But Rodgers-Cromartie is a player on whom lots of folks have their eye in Philadelphia this year. Playing the outside cornerback spot opposite Nnamdi Asomugha, Rodgers-Cromartie is going to be tested by opposing quarterbacks. The two interceptions he made Sunday should make them at least think twice.

The NFC East: Living in the nickel

August, 9, 2012
8/09/12
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One big reason cornerback Terrell Thomas is important to the New York Giants is that the Giants really like to use defensive backs. The Giants learned earlier this week that Thomas' latest knee injury would not require surgery and that he should be able to play for them this year. This is good news, because with Aaron Ross having left via free agency and second-year cornerback Prince Amukamara still developing, the Giants need Thomas. Not just as the starter opposite Corey Webster, but in the nickel and dime defensive packages they used more than any other team in the league last year.

According to ESPN Stats & Information, the Giants used five or more defensive backs on 734 defensive snaps last year -- more than any other team in the league. That number accounted for 68.5 percent of their 1,072 defensive snaps. Only the Green Bay Packers went with five or more defensive backs on a higher percentage of their plays -- 69.0 percent, or 724 of 1,049.

I know this because our NFC North blogger, Kevin Seifert, recently did a post about how often the NFC North's teams were in nickel or dime packages last year, and he passed along the chart he got from ESPN Stats & Info showing how often each team in the league went with extra defensive backs. That's how things work on the ESPN.com NFL blog network. We're a team. A brotherhood. Eight pistons firing as one. It's really quite beautiful to watch sometimes.

Anyway, I looked at the chart and noticed that the NFC East's teams basically lived in nickel and dime defenses. Well, three of them at least. The Giants ranked second in the league in percentage of plays with five or more defensive backs. The Dallas Cowboys were fifth, at 59.5 percent. The Philadelphia Eagles ranked eighth, at 56.8 percent. And the Washington Redskins were the exception, ranking 24th at 43.9 percent.

The Redskins had injury issues at safety, didn't like the job Kevin Barnes was doing as their inside corner and have very good linebackers that they don't like to take off the field. But the other three teams in our division ... they love them some nickel.

Back to the Giants for a second. Just because they used extra defensive backs this much last year doesn't automatically mean they'll do it again. They're deeper and stronger at linebacker this year, and they didn't re-sign veteran safety Deon Grant. That means, if they go to those three-safety looks they've run the past couple of years, the third safety would have to be someone like Tyler Sash or Will Hill. With Thomas currently on the shelf, there's a chance they could ask safety Antrel Rolle to play the nickel corner position, but that's not ideal. Michael Coe is likely the next corner off the bench if Amukamara is pressed into a starting role, and while he's looked good in camp, he lacks experience. The Giants liked linebacker Jacquian Williams in coverage late last year and in the postseason, and it's possible they could design more packages this year that use just four defensive backs, since their 2012 strengths may lie elsewhere.

The Cowboys' ideal plan is to start Brandon Carr and Morris Claiborne at cornerback with Orlando Scandrick and Mike Jenkins backing them up. Scandrick is good in the nickel spot, and overall this plan would give them enough depth to go to the nickel as often as they like. The issue right now, of course, is that Jenkins and Claiborne are hurt, and even if they expect those guys back for the start of the season, they're probably not getting to practice those nickel looks as much as they'd like to. Or at least, not with the personnel they'd prefer to use.

As for the Eagles, they're similar to the Giants in that they're stronger at linebacker this year and subtracted one of last year's starting corners when they traded Asante Samuel. With Nnamdi Asomugha and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie as the starters, the nickel spot right now is likely to fall either to veteran Joselio Hanson or (more likely) rookie Brandon Boykin. Curtis Marsh has been getting a lot of work in camp and is the first option off the bench should one of the outside guys get hurt. And undrafted rookie Cliff Harris has a chance to make the team and add depth. Given the responsibility the Eagles' linebackers have for run support and gap control in the Wide 9, it's likely the Eagles will lean on their defensive backs as much as they did last year, and play as much nickel.

A lot of this depends on opponents, too. The Giants, Eagles and Cowboys all like to throw the ball a lot, so when they play each other they structure their defenses to stop the pass. And having teams like the Packers, Saints, Falcons, Steelers and Lions on the schedule, as NFC East teams do this year, can make teams go to the nickel more. But if we're basing it on last year alone, our teams like to use extra defensive backs as much as anyone in the entire league.
OXNARD, Calif. -- Rob Ryan is talking really big about Brandon Carr, the Cowboys’ new $50 million cornerback.

“He was the best player in free agency by far, not even close,” Ryan said.

Yes, Ryan clarified, the best player in free agency. Not just the best corner.

That means Ryan considers Carr, who hopes to make his first Pro Bowl in his fifth NFL season, a better player than Peyton Manning, Mario Williams, Carl Nicks and Mike Wallace among others.

Of course, Ryan’s boasts about his personnel should be taken with a whole salt shaker after last year, when he bragged about having the best defensive talent in the NFL and delivered mediocre results. There is no question, however, that the Cowboys like what they’ve seen from Carr in his first five practices after signing a five-year deal.

“This guy has been everything we expected,” Ryan said. “He’s a leader, he helps the other guys around him and the other thing is he’s a tough kid. He’s given us everything we wanted as a team. We need smart and tough, and that’s exactly what he is, and he’s competitive. You see him knocking receivers off the line of scrimmage.

“This guy’s not nervous about playing under the big lights. He’s here in Dallas. It is a different world here. Everything you do is scrutinized, but this guy won’t flinch. I can promise you that.”

Ryan suddenly flipped the politically correct switch when asked whether Carr ranked among the best corners in the league, saying he doesn’t see every corner. Ryan also didn’t bite when asked whether Carr is the best corner he coached, which would put Carr above big-dollar Eagles corner Nnamdi Asomugha.

“I don’t like comparing everybody else, because all I do is get ripped on anyways,” said Ryan, still smarting from the backlash of bragging that Dallas had two receivers better than Detroit’s Calvin Johnson a couple days before Megatron scored two fourth-quarter touchdowns in the Lions’ comeback at Cowboys Stadium. “(Expletive), I thought our receivers were better than somebody’s.

“I’m not going to say that, but I know one thing: He’s a great football player. So whatever great is, he’s just as great as anybody else’s.”

NFC East: What to watch for in OTAs

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

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

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

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

Dallas Cowboys

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

New York Giants

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

Washington Redskins

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

Sources: Cowboys to host Brandon Carr

March, 13, 2012
3/13/12
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IRVING, Texas – The Cowboys are wasting little time in getting involved in signing one of the premiere free-agent cornerbacks just moments after officially releasing Terence Newman.

According to sources, the Cowboys will meet with Brandon Carr tonight with the intent on signing him to a lucrative contract.

Carr, 25, had four of his eight career interceptions in 2011 for Kansas City. He has started 64 straight games since the Chiefs took him in the fifth round of the 2008 draft. In addition to the four picks, the Kansas City coaches credited him with 58 tackles and 13 pass deflections.

It is the second attempt the Cowboys will have at landing a top free-agent cornerback in less than a year. The Cowboys wanted to sign Nnamdi Asomugha last summer when free agency began after the lockout ended, but he ended up with Philadelphia.

So long, Terence Newman

March, 13, 2012
3/13/12
3:02
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We've known for months that, when the time came, the ax wouldn't hurdle Terence Newman, and it didn't. The Dallas Cowboys have released the beleaguered cornerback who became the symbol of their second-half defensive problems, according to Todd Archer and Calvin Watkins.

Newman
Newman
The move saves the Cowboys either $4 million or $6 million against the salary cap, depending on the official timing of it and whether the NFL's 31 other owners decide two years from now that they didn't agree with it. (Yeah, I made that last part up.) The Cowboys also cut kicker David Buehler (which they announced, unlike the Newman move, and remains a secret for some reason) and, according to Todd and Calvin, restructured the contracts of cornerback Orlando Scandrick and tackle Doug Free. The Scandrick restructure converts $5.9 million of his $7.1 million base salary into bonus money. Similar deal with Free, as they convert $4.8 million of his $6 million base salary into bonus money.

All of the moves are designed for the salary cap, which the Cowboys need after the league docked them $10 million worth of cap room over the next two years for violating a handshake agreement the teams made to not spend too much during a supposedly uncapped season in 2010. Todd and Calvin calculate that Tuesday's moves cleared $15.82 million in 2012 cap room. Dallas is expected to be aggressive in free agency in spite of the sanctions, and it needs help at cornerback, safety and on the offensive line. Expect it to be mentioned in pursuit of the top cornerbacks on the market, such as Brandon Carr and Cortland Finnegan, once free agency opens at 4 p.m. ET.

Newman played well at the start of this season upon his return from injury, but he slowed down severely as the season went along. He gained an unfortunate sort of national notoriety in the season finale that decided the division title, when two Giants fullbacks were able to hurdle him while he tried to tackle them. The Cowboys were looking to upgrade from Newman last summer and likely would have cut him had they succeeded in signing Nnamdi Asomugha. But they held onto Newman instead, and the defense suffered for it.

Fixing the Cowboys: Pass rush and protection

January, 19, 2012
1/19/12
12:45
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Fixing Cowboys
IRVING, Texas -- I would like to thank my warmup acts -- Tim MacMahon, Calvin Watkins and Bryan Broaddus -- for their solutions on how to fix the Cowboys.

The salary cap will not be an issue. The Cowboys have said they will be able to do whatever they want in free agency, despite the dead money that lingers. By the time free agency begins, they could have around $20 million in room.

That’s plenty.

I’m looking at the four teams that are playing this weekend in the conference championship games as prime examples of how to structure your team.

Baltimore, New England, San Francisco and the New York Giants offer the Cowboys a blueprint of what works.

[+] EnlargeAnthony Spencer
AP Photo/Tony GutierrezAnthony Spencer has been solid against the run but does not get to the quarterback enough.
The NFL is not about running the ball and stopping the run anymore. Those are tired clichés. It’s protecting the passer, especially up the middle, and rushing the passer.

So while we can all say the Cowboys need to get better in the secondary, I’ll go with improving the pass rush first. DeMarcus Ware needs some help. Jay Ratliff needs some help.

The Giants have pass rushers all along their defensive front, from Jason Pierre-Paul to Justin Tuck to Osi Umenyiora. San Francisco has pass rushers in Justin Smith and Aldon Smith. Baltimore gets pressure from more than Terrell Suggs.

Go get a pass rusher -- make that two.

Let’s look at a team that lost last week: Houston. The Texans drafted J.J. Watt and Brooks Read, and Wade Phillips’ defense attacked the passer. Too often we have used the excuse that defensive ends in a 3-4 are just space eaters. Smith proves that wrong. So does Watt. They can be disruptive.

To come up with draft names at this point is somewhat silly, but at No. 14 the Cowboys need to get that 3-4 defensive end or outside linebacker, especially if they deem the Anthony Spencer experiment over. Spencer will be a free agent, and while he is solid against the run, he does not get to the quarterback enough.

My first two picks go to defensive end and outside linebacker.

What about cornerback? I’ll use San Francisco as an example again. Carlos Rogers was the epitome of “just a guy” when he played for Washington. He goes to the 49ers with that great front seven and makes the Pro Bowl. The Giants’ secondary is playing a lot better now that the pass rush has improved.

A terrific pass rush can offset some deficiencies in the secondary. We saw that in 2009 with the Cowboys.

If you want a cornerback, be wise. There is not a Jonathan Joseph or Nnamdi Asomugha available this year. Kansas City’s Brandon Carr offers some intrigue but he might get overpaid this year.

Next up is the offensive line.

[+] EnlargeCarl Nicks
Jeff Hanisch/US PresswireThe Saints' Carl Nicks, a veteran who has multiple Pro Bowls to his credit, could be an attractive option for the Cowboys if he is available in free agency.
This is where MacMahon got something right in targeting New Orleans guard Carl Nicks in free agency. He must’ve been reading the blog last week when I made the suggestion. We have to suppose Nicks will be available and doesn’t re-sign with the Saints before the market opens in March. I’ll take my chances on a 26-year-old free agent with multiple Pro Bowls to his credit.

Interior offensive line play is huge. New England protects Tom Brady with Logan Mankins and Brian Waters. Baltimore does it with Ben Grubbs, who is also set to be a free agent, and Marshal Yanda. San Francisco has a first-rounder in Mike Iupati inside. The Giants have Chris Snee.

Too often last season Tony Romo was left dodging traffic up the middle, and quarterbacks just can’t survive there. So why not take a guard with the first-rounder? I’m not sure Stanford’s David DeCastro can come in and duplicate what Tyron Smith did at right tackle as a rookie. Unless they are special, most rookie linemen need time to adapt to the speed and power of the NFL.

Give me Nicks, a stronger, more veteran center, and new coach Bill Callahan, and the line will be better in 2012.

Plus, to me, the defense needs more work. They have to come away with at least three impact players in the draft and/or free agency.

If they can do that, they can jump into the NFC mix next season.

Cowboys regular-season wrap-up

January, 4, 2012
1/04/12
3:28
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» NFC Wrap-ups: East | West | North | South » AFC: East | West | North | South

Arrow indicates direction team is trending.

Final Power Ranking: 13
Preseason Power Ranking: 14

[+] EnlargeDeMarco Murray
Stew Milne/US PresswireDeMarco Murray averaged 5.5 yards per carry before he was lost to a season-ending injury.
Biggest surprise: Laurent Robinson. Signed as an afterthought by a team that didn't have a No. 3 wide receiver and wasn't sure it needed one, Robinson became a star in the passing game for quarterback Tony Romo. He caught 54 passes for 858 yards and tied for fourth in the league with 11 touchdown catches. With Miles Austin hurt for much of the season and second-year wideout Dez Bryant still developing amid a slew of off-field issues, Robinson was a big reason the Cowboys found themselves in the division race at all.

Biggest disappointment: The 1-4 finish. Even after crushing early-season losses to the Jets, Lions and Patriots -- each a game the Cowboys should have won -- Dallas stood at 7-4 and in position to take control of the NFC East with the Giants going through a second-half fade. But they gave away the game against Arizona with poor late clock management and a bizarre sequence on which head coach Jason Garrett iced his own rookie kicker, and from there it was a mess. Two losses to the Giants in the final four games sealed the Cowboys' fate, and the only game they won in their final five was against a Tampa Bay Buccaneers team that had quit on its coach. The defense collapsed late in the season and must be addressed, and the offensive line had a hard time protecting Romo. This was a system failure, and there are multiple personnel issues that have to be handled in advance of next season if they want to make sure it doesn't happen again.

Biggest need: The Cowboys need to get better in the secondary, which is weird because they addressed that last year by signing two free-agent safeties. But they knew Terence Newman wasn't going to be good enough at cornerback, which is why they tried to sign Nnamdi Asomugha, and they were right. Mike Jenkins played well but can't stay healthy. And while they signed Orlando Scandrick in the hope that he could take over for Newman as a starter next year, he doesn't necessarily look ready for a role like that. Cornerback, then, is a major need, and it wouldn't hurt if they did something about the pass rush. Anthony Spencer is a free agent at the outside linebacker spot opposite DeMarcus Ware, and Spencer does not appear to be the long-term answer.

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Team MVP: DeMarco Murray. Yes, Romo had a great year and put up huge numbers. But he was also directly responsible for at least two of the early-season losses. And when you lose the division by one game, that has to matter. The Cowboys were at their very best when they were running the ball with Murray, their powerful rookie running back who ran for 897 yards in spite of not getting the starter's job until Oct. 23 and suffering a season-ending injury on Dec. 11. The Cowboys went 5-2 in the games that Murray both started and finished, and that's why I'm putting him here ahead of both Romo and Ware, each of whom had great years but vanished a bit when it counted.

Better, right? The trend arrow points up because the Cowboys won two more games in 2011 than they did in 2010. But the season left a bitter taste in the mouths of many fans and a lot of questions about the future. Is Garrett as talented a coach as Jerry Jones says he believes him to be, and will he get better and correct his mistakes as he gains more experience? Did Rob Ryan as coordinator really improve the defense, and can it take the next step if he gets a few more pieces in place before next year? Did Romo really learn from his early-season mistakes? He threw only three interceptions in the team's final nine games and may have taken a big step in his own career in spite of the fact that the defense and the offensive line crumbled around him. Will he continue to be a responsible and effective leader in 2012? The Cowboys appear to be in better shape than they were at this time last year, but it's hard to really see it through the disappointment of the final month.

Scout's Eye: Cowboys-Eagles preview

December, 23, 2011
12/23/11
11:42
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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.

Would Nnamdi Asomugha have made difference?

December, 14, 2011
12/14/11
3:51
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IRVING, Texas -- The Cowboys did not hide their interest in adding cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha as a free agent in the early part of the 2011 training camp.

Asomugha ended up signing a five-year, $60 million deal, with $25 million guaranteed, the Philadelphia Eagles after the Cowboys were unwilling to go that high.

“It was an opportunity to improve ourselves if it worked out,” executive vice president Stephen Jones said. “But it didn’t work out.”

The Cowboys have allowed a 100-yard receiver in four straight games and have been burned by less-than-stellar quarterbacks such as Washington’s Rex Grossman, Miami’s Matt Moore and Arizona’s Kevin Kolb in important moments before a start-to-finish whipping by the New York Giants’ Eli Manning on Sunday.

While he is not having the Pro Bowl type of season he had in Oakland, would Asomugha have upgraded a secondary that has struggled lately?

“I don’t know,” Jones said. “It’s not over yet. We’ve got to play the Buccaneers. We control our own destiny if we win the rest of our games and we will see. A fair question.”

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