Dallas Cowboys: Trent cole

Could Eagles make a play for Ware?

March, 11, 2014
Mar 11
6:26
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IRVING, Texas -- It was not surprising that the Dallas Cowboys parted ways with DeMarcus Ware, but it's still strange to believe he will no longer be with the club that drafted him in 2005.

But could the Cowboys end up seeing Ware twice a year?

ESPN NFL analyst Louis Riddick wonders if Ware could end up with the Philadelphia Eagles.



Now wouldn't that be a kick to the Cowboys and their fans to see Ware end up in Philadelphia?

The Eagles play a 3-4, which might be a better fit for Ware than playing defensive end in a 4-3. They have Trent Cole playing outside linebacker and he had eight sacks in 2013, but he seems to be more of a defensive end playing outside linebacker than a true outside linebacker.

Cole has been solid. Ware has been special.

According to a source close to Ware, the seven-time Pro Bowler will be selective in where he looks and would like to make a decision quickly. The Eagles have cap space. They have a team that looks to be on the rise with Chip Kelly.

It might be something to keep watching.

Extra study time for Tony Romo

October, 17, 2013
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IRVING, Texas -- Tony Romo has a 6-5 record against the Philadelphia Eagles as the Dallas Cowboys’ starting quarterback with a 3-2 record at Lincoln Financial Field.

Romo
“Some good, some bad,” Romo said of his memories of playing the Eagles. “It’s going to be a tough environment to play in. They’re playing good football right now, and we got to play a good game to win.”

Despite the 11 starts against Philadelphia he has spent more time looking at the defense than he has in the past. The Eagles have switched to a 3-4 scheme and have new and old faces in new spots. Trent Cole is now an outside linebacker instead of a defensive end. Cornerbacks Bradley Fletcher and Cary Williams are new. Nate Allen is starting at safety again, but he’s next to Patrick Chung.

“Some of the film you watch to make it just feel like it’s like you’ve played them a number of times,” Romo said. “Just by seeing it once or even twice sometimes isn’t enough. You need to put yourself there in that situation and pretend you’re on the field and see how the movements are going and what the look is taking shape and then you have to go back and do it again to really find the nuances. I think that’s what you have to do against a new team and a new system.”

New jobs for Cowboys' Ware, Spencer

July, 2, 2013
7/02/13
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ESPNDallas.com's position series takes a look today at defensive end, which is a whole new thing this year as the Dallas Cowboys transition from a 3-4 defensive front to a 4-3. The starters are DeMarcus Ware and Anthony Spencer, who were the pass-rushing outside linebackers in the 3-4 but now will line up exclusively with their hands on the ground and rush the passer from the line of scrimmage.

Spencer
Ware
In many ways, as Tim MacMahon writes, the change is likely to simplify things for Ware and Spencer, as they'll no longer have to worry about complexity of scheme or coverage responsibilities and can focus simply on getting to the quarterback. But there are questions:
On the flip side, opposing offenses won’t have to wonder where Ware or Spencer are coming from. Wade Phillips and Ryan were able to occasionally get them unblocked or matched up one-on-one against a tight end or running back with scheme deception.

Another question: Will tangling with offensive tackles every down take a toll on Ware or Spencer?

PODCAST
Nate Newton joins Fitzsimmons and Durrett to discuss the state of the Cowboys as they prepare for training camp in a couple of weeks.

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It's this last that I think bears examination. Ware and Spencer are skilled enough pass-rushers (Ware is an all-time great) that I think they'll be able to pile up sacks even though opposing defenses can see where they are before the snap. The question is whether either or both can handle the physical demands of lining up right in the faces of the league's biggest, strongest, most athletic offensive tackles on every play without wearing down over the course of the season. This has already been an issue for Ware at the end of the past two seasons when he was standing up and moving around the front. And while the nagging injuries of 2011 and 2012 are not guaranteed to repeat themselves in 2013, the new arrangement isn't going to make them easier to avoid.

The Philadelphia Eagles' Trent Cole, who is making the opposite move this season, raised this issue when I spoke to him about his switch during Eagles minicamp. He said the 4-3 defensive end path is "a lot tougher way to go" physically, and he's not the only person to whom I've spoken this offseason who's wondering how Spencer and Ware will handle it. Again, not that they can't handle playing it -- just whether it might take too much of a toll on them physically. The answer may be that there's nothing to worry about, but it's certainly something worth watching during the first year of the 4-3 in Dallas.

In the same piece, Tim mentions the team's high hopes for Tyrone Crawford as the successor to Spencer, who's not likely to be a Cowboy beyond this season. Crawford, of course, needs to show something in his backup role this year for the team to head into 2014 super-comfortable with such an arrangement.

Eagles are a study in 'miscalculation'

November, 6, 2012
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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.

Other Side: Baltimore Sun's Aaron Wilson

October, 11, 2012
10/11/12
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IRVING, Texas – For this week’s episode of The Other Side we check in with Aaron Wilson of the Baltimore Sun for his thoughts on the Baltimore Ravens as they prepare to get ready for Sunday’s game against the Dallas Cowboys.

Archer: Aside from last week's game at KC, it appears as if the Ravens have an offense that can take pressure off the defense. People always ask this nebulous question about the "next step," but has Joe Flacco taken the next step? If so, why? How?

Wilson: What has changed about Joe Flacco is he's been granted greater command of the offense in terms of ability to audible and they implemented a no-huddle offense and have emphasized the shotgun formation, all things he did more of in college at Delaware. His deep-ball accuracy still isn't excellent, but it's much improved. He still has a tendency to stare down his primary read, which is what's happened on virtually all of his four interceptions. While Flacco has definitely improved overall, he still has a tendency to have inconsistency, on the road particularly, and will get into cold streaks where his fundamentals lapse. In Philadelphia, the pass rush of Trent Cole and Jason Babin affected him to the point where he was throwing off his back foot. Flacco seems to still be in the very good category with all the skills and capability to be great and is knocking on the door of getting to that point. He's just not totally there yet despite better personnel outside than he's had in the past. This isn't on Flacco, but his offensive tackle tandem of Michael Oher and Kelechi Osemele are holding back the offense a bit. They gave up a total of four sacks and eight quarterback pressures to Kansas City Chiefs edge rushers Tamba Hali and Justin Houston. That could be a problem obviously against DeMarcus Ware and Anthony Spencer.

TA: Are we seeing a different Ravens defense? The Chiefs ran all over them. Is Ray Lewis slowing down finally? How much do they miss Terrell Suggs?

AW: The defense is much different, and not in a good way. Traditionally stingy against the run, they were gashed by Jamaal Charles for 125 yards in the first half primarily through the use of the zone stretch play. Dean Pees' halftime adjustment of walking up the linebackers and shifting the defensive linemen wider was an effective strategy as Charles had only 15 yards on 10 carries after halftime. However, middle linebacker Ray Lewis looked slow in his reactions and got stuck to blocks. He had one hard hit, but that was in the fourth quarter on Cyrus Gray. Lewis has had some solid games this year, but he's also 37 years old. And it shows. Although he's lighter at 235 pounds, he's not as explosive as he used to be and doesn't get enough depth on his pass drops, which makes him vulnerable to tight ends' patterns. As tough and smart and great a tackler as Lewis is, he's been getting overpowered at times at the point of attack and beaten to the outside by faster runners like Charles and Trent Richardson. Terrell Suggs is definitely missed. The Ravens had no sacks against the Chiefs. Pees creates pressure by blitzing primarily. Other than Pro Bowl defensive tackle Haloti Ngata, one of the most disruptive interior forces in the game, hardly anyone is defeating blocks and getting to the quarterback. Ngata is commanding double-team attention regularly and still getting penetration. Without Suggs, this has become a bend-but-don't-break defense that still excels at getting turnovers and being stout in the red zone.

TA: The Cowboys took Felix Jones in 2008. The Ravens took Ray Rice. Clearly the Ravens made out on that one, but just how vital is Rice to that offense?

AW: Ray Rice is the centerpiece of the offense even though the Ravens are transitioning to a passing outfit. Rice is a dynamic open-field runner who plays bigger than 5-foot-8, 212 pounds. He's also a dangerous receiver out of the backfield and has good hands. This guy is tough, durable and fast. The Ravens are trying to preserve him as much as possible and not wear him out, but he rarely takes a hard hit because he's elusive.

TA: Jason Garrett nearly got the Baltimore job a few years ago. Any idea how close he came to getting it over John Harbaugh?

AW: The Ravens offered Garrett the job, showed his wife the local real estate listings and it was his for the taking with a fairly high salary offer. However, he declined the offer and it seemed like his tour of interviews was just him going through the motions and he had an arrangement or understanding all along with owner Jerry Jones to become the Cowboys' new head coach. The sense many got from Garrett during his visit is that he wasn't enthralled with the idea of coming to Baltimore. John Harbaugh wasn't the Ravens' first choice, but he impressed owner Steve Bisciotti and general manager Ozzie Newsome during the interview process and was vouched for by Andy Reid and Bill Belichick. They liked his personality and leadership qualities and unconventional special-teams background. He was unproven then and had never been a head coach before, but he has made the playoffs every year and won at least one playoff game and made two AFC championship game appearances. Harbaugh had to win over a tough locker room at first, too. The Ravens are happy with how things worked out, but they definitely respect Garrett and held a high opinion of him to give him that offer before later hiring Harbaugh.

TA: The Ravens haven't lost at home in a long time. Is it the team? Is it the venue?

AW: It's loud at M&T Bank Stadium, and the Ravens just seem to play with more confidence at home. On the road, they aren't the same team. They use the no-huddle less. The defense seems more vulnerable. At home, Joe Flacco has been markedly more accurate and efficient. Like most good NFL teams, they seem to thrive on a home-field advantage. It's a matter of intangibles, but the numbers don't lie since they've won 15 games in a row at home, including the postseason.

Final Word: NFC East

September, 7, 2012
9/07/12
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NFC Final Word: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Five nuggets of knowledge about Week 1:

Don't let them in the game: The Philadelphia Eagles should have no trouble with the Browns in Cleveland, but to a certain extent that appears to be up to them. According to ESPN Stats & Information, the Eagles ranked second in the league last year with 84 offensive plays of 20 or more yards, fourth in the league in total yards and fifth in yards per play. They were also eighth in total defense. So why were they 8-8? Their 38 turnovers were the second-most in the NFL. And nine of those turnovers were in the red zone. No other team in the league had more than five red-zone turnovers. If you want to lose to inferior teams, turnovers are the surest way. Watch the turnovers in Cleveland. If the Eagles commit a lot of them, the game could be much closer than most expect it to be. Working in Philadelphia's favor is that the Browns forced only 20 turnovers in 2011. Only seven teams forced fewer.

[+] EnlargeTrent Cole
AP Photo/Brian GarfinkelIf Trent Cole outplays Joe Thomas, the Eagles will be well positioned
to defeat the Browns on Sunday.
Marquee matchup: One of the Cleveland Browns' strengths is left tackle Joe Thomas, who was the No. 3 overall pick in the 2007 draft. He'll go up against Eagles defensive end Trent Cole, who has the third-most sacks in the NFL (63) since 2006, in a matchup that could go a long way toward deciding the game.

Road favorites? The Eagles should not be at a disadvantage just because the Browns are the home team in Sunday's game. Since this new incarnation of the Browns entered the league in 1999, it is 1-12 in season-opening games. The second-worst record in season openers over that same period of time is 4-9, shared by the Raiders and Chiefs.

Blowing in the Brees: If the Washington Redskins can hold New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees without a touchdown pass, they'll have pulled off some trick. Brees has thrown at least one touchdown pass in each of his previous 43 games. That's the second-longest streak in NFL history behind the 47-game streak authored by Johnny Unitas from 1956-60. The Redskins will play this game without starting strong safety Brandon Meriweather, who is out with a knee injury, and safety Tanard Jackson, who is suspended for the year for violating the league's drug policy. They would do well to find a way to get some pressure on Brees.

Dome sweet dome: The Redskins are 6-1 all-time at the Louisiana Superdome, and while their most recent game there was in 2006, that record stands as a testament to the fact that the Redskins used to be one of the league's best teams and the Saints one of the league's worst. According to ESPN Stats & Information, Washington's .857 winning percentage at the Superdome is the highest in history for any team that has played at least five games there. Something has got to give, though. The Saints were 8-0 at home last year, and their 41.1 points per game and 492.6 yards per game there were the second-highest such home totals in NFL history.

NFC East Top 20: No. 1 Eli Manning

September, 4, 2012
9/04/12
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In the final 20 days before the start of the regular season, we are counting down the top 20 players in the NFC East. For a full explanation, see this post. And if you want to read any of the other posts that have run since we started this series, you can find them all here, in this link.

No. 1 -- Eli Manning, Giants QB

Manning
This wasn't easy, and the fact that it wasn't easy to pick a two-time Super Bowl MVP quarterback as the best player in the division says a ton about the rest of the players in the division. It was a very tough, close call between Manning and Cowboys linebacker DeMarcus Ware for this spot, and I gave more than a passing thought to Eagles running back LeSean McCoy, who finished third.

But in the end, Manning deserves the spot. He's earned it by performing with incredible consistency at a high level and in the biggest of spots. He ranks behind only Peyton Manning, Drew Brees, Tom Brady and Matt Hasselbeck in passing yards among active quarterbacks, and each of those players has at least a three-year head start on him. He's fifth (behind those same four guys) in touchdown passes among active quarterbacks. Only Peyton Manning, Brady, Brees and Ben Roethlisberger among active quarterbacks have engineered more game-winning drives, and only Peyton Manning and Brady have more comeback victories.

So Eli is a top-level quarterback in terms of production (and in spite of a stubborn, lingering reputation to the contrary), but what truly sets him apart as a great player is the way he's performed during the two Super Bowl title runs the Giants have made with him under center. He has a 61.5 career completion percentage, a 17-to-8 touchdown-to-interception ratio in his 11 career playoff games and has led the team from behind to beat Bill Belichick, Brady and the New England Patriots in two separate Super Bowls. He's the unquestioned leader of his team, the calming influence which Giants players know they can count on in tough times, a key to his team's uncanny ability to handle adversity and a proven champion without whose individual performance those Super Bowl titles would not have been possible. The best quarterback in the NFC East is the most clutch quarterback in the NFL right now and is the division's best player.

The rest of the rankings:

2. DeMarcus Ware, LB, Cowboys
3. LeSean McCoy, RB, Eagles RB
4. Trent Cole, DE, Eagles DE
5. Jason Pierre-Paul, DE, Giants
6. Hakeem Nicks, WR, Giants
7. Tony Romo, QB, Cowboys
8. Justin Tuck, DE, Giants
9. Jason Babin, DE, Eagles
10. Victor Cruz, WR, Giants
11. London Fletcher, LB, Redskins
12. Michael Vick, QB, Eagles
13. Tyron Smith, T, Cowboys
14. Brian Orakpo, LB, Redskins
15. Jason Witten, TE, Cowboys
16. Dez Bryant, WR, Cowboys
17. DeSean Jackson, WR, Eagles
18. Osi Umenyiora, DE, Giants
19. Evan Mathis, G, Eagles
20. Ahmad Bradshaw, RB, Giants

NFC East Top 20: No. 2 DeMarcus Ware

September, 3, 2012
9/03/12
11:40
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In the final 20 days before the start of the regular season, we are counting down the top 20 players in the NFC East. For a full explanation, see this post.

No. 2 -- DeMarcus Ware, Cowboys LB

Ware
A six-time Pro Bowler who's led the league in sacks twice, Ware is universally regarded as one of the very best defensive players in the NFL. There are plenty of people who call him the best. He is fifth among active players in sacks and 29th in league history already at the age of 30. His lowest sack total of the past six years is the 11 he posted in 2009. He led the league with 20 the year before that and 15 the year after, and his 19.5 in 2011 would have led the league in almost any other year. He enters each season a threat to break the all-time single-season sacks record. He's as good at hunting down quarterbacks as any player in the league.

Sacks are his game, but they're not his whole game. Ware is smart and fast and athletic enough to make a decision on the fly to change course and run down a running back. He can play either side of the field and get into the backfield just as quickly. He is constantly double-teamed, which is a testament to his own remarkable ability as well as the fact that the Cowboys have yet to establish a consistent pass-rushing threat other than him. But he's handled that responsibility every year and hasn't allowed it to affect his production. He's a classy professional who sets a strong example for younger Cowboy players who revere him.

Ware is a superstar in his prime and shows no signs of slowing down. He is one of the headline players who help this star-studded division retain its reputation as one of the toughest in which to play year after year.

Rankings so far:

3. LeSean McCoy, Eagles
4. Trent Cole, DE, Eagles
5. Jason Pierre-Paul, DE, Giants
6. Hakeem Nicks, WR, Giants
7. Tony Romo, QB, Cowboys
8. Justin Tuck, DE, Giants
9. Jason Babin, DE, Eagles
10. Victor Cruz, WR, Giants
11. London Fletcher, LB, Redskins
12. Michael Vick, QB, Eagles
13. Tyron Smith, T, Cowboys
14. Brian Orakpo, LB, Redskins
15. Jason Witten, TE, Cowboys
16. Dez Bryant, WR, Cowboys
17. DeSean Jackson, WR, Eagles
18. Osi Umenyiora, DE, Giants
19. Evan Mathis, G, Eagles
20. Ahmad Bradshaw, RB, Giants

NFC East Top 20: No. 3 LeSean McCoy

September, 2, 2012
9/02/12
1:20
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In the final 20 days before the start of the regular season, we are counting down the top 20 players in the NFC East. For a full explanation, see this post.

No. 3 -- LeSean McCoy, Eagles RB

McCoy
Amid the quarterbacks and pass-rushers who dominate the top part of our list we find a running back -- the best in the division and one who may be on the verge of becoming the best in the entire league. After rushing for 1,080 yards in 2010 in his second year in the league, McCoy rushed for 1,309 in the 15 games he played in 2011 to rank fourth in the NFL. He also ran for 17 touchdowns and caught three more in 2011, establishing himself as the top scoring threat on the Eagles' high-powered offense.

McCoy has shown an ability to be a workhorse back, a goal-line back and a receiving back. His 78 catches led the Eagles in 2010, and while his total dropped to a more reasonable 48 in 2011, he's obviously a help to the passing game as well as the run game. His speed and vision make him a dangerous threat when he gets the ball in his hands and has space in which to operate. He's the complete package in an era that is seeing the running back position become more specialized. It says a lot that the only criticism Eagles fans have of McCoy is that the team needs to give him the ball more often.

McCoy is poised for even greater things. He just turned 24 years old in July, making him one of the youngest stars on this list. He was already one of its brightest.

Rankings so far:

4. Trent Cole, DE, Eagles
5. Jason Pierre-Paul, DE, Giants
6. Hakeem Nicks, WR, Giants
7. Tony Romo, QB, Cowboys
8. Justin Tuck, DE, Giants
9. Jason Babin, DE, Eagles
10. Victor Cruz, WR, Giants
11. London Fletcher, LB, Redskins
12. Michael Vick, QB, Eagles
13. Tyron Smith, T, Cowboys
14. Brian Orakpo, LB, Redskins
15. Jason Witten, TE, Cowboys
16. Dez Bryant, WR, Cowboys
17. DeSean Jackson, WR, Eagles
18. Osi Umenyiora, DE, Giants
19. Evan Mathis, G, Eagles
20. Ahmad Bradshaw, RB, Giants

NFC East Top 20: No. 4 Trent Cole

September, 1, 2012
9/01/12
11:12
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In the final 20 days before the start of the regular season, we are counting down the top 20 players in the NFC East. For a full explanation, see this post.

No. 4 -- Trent Cole, Eagles DE

Cole
Quick quiz: Cole entered the league the same year as Justin Tuck. Who has more sacks? The answer is Cole, and it's not even close. Cole has 68 sacks in his seven-year career, which is good for 10th among active players. Tuck has 45.5. Cole's only one behind Tuck's teammate, Osi Umenyiora, who has 69 and began his career two years earlier. He doesn't have the Subway endorsement deal or the two Super Bowl titles, and I'm sure he'd trade all of his sacks for the latter. But those numbers help to illustrate that Cole is a much better player than his rather low national profile tends to indicate.

Cole is the Eagles' do-everything defensive end, kind of like Tuck is for the Giants. While teammate Jason Babin was hanging out with the league sack leaders last year, Cole got his 11, reaching double digits for the third year in a row. He also plays the run very well, shows a variety of ways of getting to the passer from the outside or, when needed, the inside. And because opposing offensive coordinators don't care about headlines or national profiles and know who the scariest player is on the defense, Cole found himself fighting through double-teams more often than his teammate on the other side of the line. His Pro Football Focus grade last year ranked him the No. 1 4-3 defensive end in the entire league, first in the pass rush and 10th against the run.

Cole is a quiet star, but make no mistake about it -- he is a star. In a division loaded with some of the top pass-rushers in the league, he deserves to be ranked here, behind only the very best and ahead of some of his better-known rivals.

Rankings so far:

5. Jason Pierre-Paul, DE, Giants
6. Hakeem Nicks, WR, Giants
7. Tony Romo, QB, Cowboys
8. Justin Tuck, DE, Giants
9. Jason Babin, DE, Eagles
10. Victor Cruz, WR, Giants
11. London Fletcher, LB, Redskins
12. Michael Vick, QB, Eagles
13. Tyron Smith, T, Cowboys
14. Brian Orakpo, LB, Redskins
15. Jason Witten, TE, Cowboys
16. Dez Bryant, WR, Cowboys
17. DeSean Jackson, WR, Eagles
18. Osi Umenyiora, DE, Giants
19. Evan Mathis, G, Eagles
20. Ahmad Bradshaw, RB, Giants

NFC East teams must look to the lines

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

NFC East: State of the pass rushes

May, 18, 2012
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Jason Pierre-Paul, DeMarcus Ware and Jason BabinGetty Images, US PresswireJason Pierre-Paul, DeMarcus Ware and Jason Babin had 54 of the NFC East's 181 sacks in 2011.

The 2011 season was not the most, well, beastly season in NFC East history. It was the first time in a full, 16-game season that no team in the division won at least 10 games, and for much of the year the talk around the division was that it wasn't what it used to be.

Buncha baloney if you ask me. Even forgetting for a second that an NFC East team won the Super Bowl, this division still does one very important thing better than any other: rush the passer. The NFC East's 181 sacks led all NFL divisions in 2011, and by quite a bit. (The AFC North, which had three playoff teams, was second with 160). The Eagles tied for the league lead with 50. The Giants tied for third with 48. The Cowboys tied for seventh with 42, and the Redskins tied for 10th with 41.

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Which team in the NFC East has the best pass rush?

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    47%
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    16%
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    24%
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    13%

Discuss (Total votes: 29,232)

Look deeper, into the film-based, number-crunching stats from Pro Football Focus -- stats that take into account more than just sacks when evaluating the extent to which teams rushed, hassled and affected opposing quarterbacks, and the division still rules. The Eagles rank No. 1 in PFF's 2011 team rankings, the Cowboys No. 3, the Giants No. 6 and the Redskins No. 9. No division prizes this critical aspect of the game more than the NFC East does, and it shows up in the numbers.

So, as we slug our way through a slow news month in the NFC East, I thought it'd be a good idea to check in on the pass rushes of our four teams and see how they're doing -- what they've done to get better or worse, what their 2012 prospects look like from this far out and yes, how they rank against each other. You guys asked for more polls, and I promised I'd listen, so there's one right here for you to vote on. After you finish reading, of course. I'm addressing them in order of how many sacks they got in 2011, in case you're wondering how I decided. Seemed fair.

Philadelphia Eagles

Key contributors: DE Trent Cole, DE Jason Babin, DT Cullen Jenkins. PFF ranked Cole the No. 1 overall 4-3 defensive end in the league last year. Babin ranked 10th overall and third in pass rush, finishing third in the league with 18 sacks. Jenkins ranked as the No. 4 pass-rushing defensive tackle, and Derek Landri was No. 10. Defensive line coach Jim Washburn and defensive coordinator Juan Castillo, each of whom is entering his second season in his current position with the Eagles, believe the front four is responsible for the pass rush. And while they got a lot of publicity for how wide they like to line up their defensive ends, they like to get pressure from the defensive tackles as well.

Newcomer: DT Fletcher Cox. The Eagles traded up in the first round to pick Cox because they believed he could be an impact pass-rusher from one of those interior spots right away. They need to toughen up against the run, and that will have to be part of Cox's game. But what appealed to them was his ability to get to the passer. Rookie linebacker Mychal Kendricks could conceivably factor in here too, but the Eagles don't ask their linebackers to rush very much in the new scheme.

Stock watch: UP. The addition of Cox, as well as the possible return to full health of Mike Patterson and 2010 first-round pick Brandon Graham, give the Eagles incredible depth at a position at which they were already very strong in 2011. It's possible they'll rush the passer even better in 2012.

New York Giants

Key contributors: DE Jason Pierre-Paul, DE Justin Tuck, DE Osi Umenyiora, DE/LB Mathias Kiwanuka. No one's roster goes as deep as the Giants' does in terms of star-caliber defensive ends. Pierre-Paul was fourth in the league with 16.5 sacks in just his second NFL season. Umenyiora had nine in just nine games. Tuck turned it on at the end and in the playoffs, and Kiwanuka is a defensive end playing linebacker. The Giants believe a strong pass rush is their heritage and their key to being an annual contender.

Newcomer: DT Marvin Austin. The Giants didn't really bring in anyone this offseason who looks like a 2012 pass-rush contributor, but their 2011 second-round pick missed all of last season due to injury, so we'll call him a newcomer. The Giants would like to get more help from inside. Linval Joseph was their best pass-rushing defensive tackle in 2011, according to PFF's rankings. A healthy Austin could be a difference-maker.

Stock watch: DOWN. Not by much, but a little, because of the loss of reliable, underrated reserve DE Dave Tollefson. If Tuck and Umenyiora have injury problems again, or if Umenyiora holds out, they could get kind of thin at defensive end pretty quickly without Tollefson there to fill in this time. Now, this is the Giants, and they'll probably figure it out. The addition of linebacker Keith Rivers could allow them to move Kiwanuka back to end in case of injury. But it's worth pointing out that they did lose a somewhat important piece of the pass rush and didn't replace him.

Dallas Cowboys

Key contributors: LB DeMarcus Ware, LB Anthony Spencer, DE Jason Hatcher, NT Jay Ratliff. There's no one like Ware, who rang up another 19.5 sacks in 2011. That's nearly half the team total, and the conventional wisdom says he needs more help. But PFF ranked Spencer its 11th-best 3-4 outside linebacker in the pass rush and Hatcher as its eighth-best 3-4 pass-rushing defensive end. Add in Ratliff, who can generate pressure up the middle, and the Cowboys look better in this area than we tend to think.

Newcomer: DE Tyrone Crawford. Dallas' third-round pick is looked at by many as a project, but as one that can eventually help with the pass rush whether he ends up as a 3-4 end or standing up as an outside linebacker. Whether he can help in 2012 remains a question, but the Cowboys didn't see a first-round or second-round pass-rusher they liked better than Spencer, so they focused on the secondary instead and picked up some down-the-road guys for the pass rush.

Stock watch: EVEN. They're bringing back basically the same group, and while there's a theory that the improvements at defensive back will help the pass rush by giving it extra time to get sacks, we have yet to see that in action. Spencer must play with more aggressiveness if this unit is to take a step forward into the upper tier with the Eagles and Giants.

Washington Redskins

Key contributors: LB Brian Orakpo, LB Ryan Kerrigan, DE Stephen Bowen. The Redskins' pass rush is all about those young outside linebackers, and they are fearsome. But with only 16.5 sacks between them in 2011, their numbers have a ways to go to get into the big-time stratosphere we're talking about in the NFC East. PFF did rank Orakpo fifth and Kerrigan ninth among pass-rushing 3-4 OLBs in 2011, so they do a lot of things well in that area. Bowen had six sacks and DE Adam Carriker came up with 5.5.

Newcomer: DE Jarvis Jenkins. Just as we did with the Giants, we'll go with a 2011 second-round pick who missed his rookie season due to injury. Jenkins may not be a pass-rusher, but adding him to the defensive line rotation could help free up more room for the linebackers and maybe help the other linemen get to the passer more often as well.

Stock watch: EVEN. This is really all about how much and how quickly Orakpo and especially Kerrigan continue to develop as elite pass-rushers. They've both shown flashes of incredible raw ability, and they have to continue to hone their craft so they can play at the level of the other pass-rushers in their division. Ware, Cole, Pierre-Paul and the rest of these guys are setting a high bar, and the Redskins know they have to have their own pass-rush monsters if they want to hang with them year in and year out.

Does Dwight Freeney fit in the NFC East?

March, 10, 2012
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Peyton Manning may not be the only superstar mainstay the Indianapolis Colts can no longer afford. Adam Schefter is reporting that the Colts are entertaining trade offers for defensive end Dwight Freeney, one of the dominant NFL pass-rushers of the past half-decade. It's not a slam-dunk that they can deal Freeney, as he's 32 years old and scheduled to make about $14 million this year. But he's a big enough name that it's worth imagining whether he'd fit with the teams about which we care.

Freeney
Freeney is a 4-3 defensive end, and the only two teams in the NFC East that play 4-3 defenses are set at defensive end. Sure, if the New York Giants traded Osi Umenyiora, they might look to replace him, but they have their own salary-cap issues and it's unlikely they'd look for an expensive 32-year-old replacement when they could just slide Mathias Kiwanuka back up front to supplement Justin Tuck and Jason Pierre-Paul. The Philadelphia Eagles start Trent Cole and Jason Babin at end and have some depth, including the ability to play defensive tackle Cullen Jenkins there. The Eagles' needs on defense are at linebacker and safety, and maybe in the middle of the line.

The Washington Redskins and Dallas Cowboys are 3-4 defense teams, and the Redskins like their young outside linebacker pass-rush duo of Ryan Kerrigan and Brian Orakpo. That leaves Dallas, which needs pass-rush help but may not be a fit. I doubt it's reasonable to acquire Freeney in the hopes of making him either a 3-4 defensive end or a standup outside linebacker. Guys have done it, but at this point in Freeney's career it's hard to know whether he could make the transition. Plus, the Cowboys just franchised outside linebacker Anthony Spencer, which likely limits their ability to pursue expensive pass-rushers on the free agent or trade market.

So maybe Dallas kicks the tires on Freeney if they have some creative idea about how to use him, but the likelihood is that the Colts don't have an NFC East suitor for him.

Cowboys must rebuild Doug Free

February, 24, 2012
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INDIANAPOLIS -- The Cowboys’ decision to move Tyron Smith to left tackle in 2012 is something that was in the plans when they selected him in the first round last year, but it is not the cure-all for the offensive line.

There is no doubt Doug Free struggled last season. He was not as comfortable as he was for whatever the reason: the lockout forced a short camp, the pressures of a $32 million extension, the loss of technique and the loss of confidence.

But playing right tackle is no easy thing, especially in the NFC East.

Washington can throw Ryan Kerrigan (7.5 sacks in 2011) and Brian Orakpo (nine sacks) at either tackle. Philadelphia can throw Trent Cole (11 sacks) and Jason Babin (18 sacks) at either tackle. The New York Giants can throw Jason Pierre-Paul (16.5 sacks), Justin Tuck (five sacks) or Osi Umenyiora (nine sacks) at either tackle.

Outside the division, the Cowboys have to contend with Pittsburgh’s James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley. Baltimore moves Terrell Suggs all over the field. Chicago does the same with Julius Peppers.

The adjustment to the right side should not take Free too long. He broke into the lineup there in 2009 after Marc Colombo suffered a broken ankle and showed the Cowboys he can play. The Cowboys felt comfortable enough the next year to let Flozell Adams leave via free agency and slide Free to left tackle. After the lockout ended the Cowboys gave Free the contract.

To me, the switch is more about Smith’s ability than Free’s lack of it but one of the top jobs facing new offensive line coach/offensive coordinator Bill Callahan is rebuilding Free.

Mel Kiper: Cowboys' draft a C-plus

January, 12, 2012
1/12/12
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IRVING, Texas -- In April, ESPN draft guru Mel Kiper gave the Cowboys a B-minus for their draft. Now that the season has ended, Kiper has downgraded it to a C-plus.

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Deion Sanders doesn't hold back when calling out the 2011 Dallas Cowboys and their shortcomings.

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You have to be an insider to read all of the grades here, but here’s what he wrote about the Cowboys:
Summary: I said then that I liked the conviction Dallas had to get younger on the offensive line, stay at No. 9 and take Tyron Smith, even though that was no home run in terms of value. Still, that pick turned into a win for the Cowboys. Smith, who started all season as a 20-year-old, played on the right side, but all indications are he could develop into a blindside tackle if they find it necessary to move him there. The grade rises if he can. Right now, a right tackle isn't your goal with a lineman taken at No. 9 overall. Bruce Carter’s NFL script is still unwritten, but DeMarco Murray obviously was a great value in the third before he went down for the year. Murray's injury, incidentally, is why it's hard to ever say a great running back out of the third round is a "steal" -- RBs land in the third because you expect them to get hurt. It's just reality. There isn't much else here so far. Dwayne Harris flashed in the preseason but wasn't a factor. Aside from Smith, the best rookie was kicker Dan Bailey, but alas, he wasn't drafted and thus can't be factored in here.

My take: I would’ve kept it at a B-minus maybe even given it a B because you knew going into the season that Carter was facing a redshirt season because of the knee injury. Murray changed the Cowboys season and he didn’t suffer the type of injury that labels guys as “injury prone.” This was a fractured ankle. He’s largely right about the rest of the draft class, but Bill Nagy was a starter before he got hurt. Now, did he earn the starting spot or was it a case of him being the best of a “meh” lot?

I think too much is put into the left and right tackle breakdown. Look at the six games the Cowboys play against NFC East foes: the left and right tackle have to block some hellacious pass rushers. Washington has Ryan Kerrigan and Brian Orakpo. The Giants have Jason Pierre-Paul, Justin Tuck and Osi Umenyiora. The Eagles have Trent Cole and Jason Babin. You better have top-flight tackles on both sides to exist.

By some accounts, Smith was among the best tackles in the game as a rookie. That seems like pretty good value at the No. 9 pick.

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