New York Giants: Doug Free

Possible Giants' run game targets

January, 23, 2015
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One of the New York Giants' top priorities this offseason will be to improve their run game, and they're likely to address it in free agency. But while many of you want to talk about which running backs the Giants will target, I think you may be missing the point. The Giants like running backs Rashad Jennings and Andre Williams. And while they may go out and look for a veteran running back who can augment that pair and possibly help in the passing game, their primary focus is to improve the run-blocking effectiveness of their offensive line.

While the Giants plan to have Will Beatty back as their starting left tackle, Weston Richburg back as either a guard or (they hope) their starting center, Geoff Schwartz healthy and back to play one of the guard spots and Justin Pugh back as either a guard or right tackle, don't be surprised if the Giants add multiple pieces on their offensive line. Part of their issue there the past couple of years has been a lack of depth, and they don't want to keep getting caught short on the line.

With that in mind, here's a very short, partial list of potential offensive line targets in free agency:

Joe Barksdale, Rams tackle: This is a 6-foot-5, 326-pound giant who just turned 27 three weeks ago. He graded out as Pro Football Focus' No. 10 tackle (and No. 3 right tackle) in run-blocking in 2014. If the Giants' plan is to get a mauling right tackle who would allow them to move Pugh inside to a guard spot, this is a guy to watch -- assuming the Rams let him hit the market, which is no certainty.

Bryan Bulaga, Packers tackle: Grades out better in pass protection, but he's no slouch as a run-blocker. Former first-round pick turns 26 in March and could leave Green Bay if the bidding for his services gets out of their preferred price range.

Doug Free, Cowboys tackle: He has rebounded from a rotten 2012 with two strong seasons at right tackle for Dallas, and was a big part of the league's No. 2 rush offense in 2014. But Free is 31 and therefore a bit older than the Giants' preferred free agents tend to be.

Orlando Franklin, Broncos guard: He has played tackle and guard in his career, and the Giants like that versatility in their linemen. Franklin is 27 years old, which makes him appealing as well.

Mike Iupati, 49ers guard: Turns 28 in May. Graded out as PFF's No. 2 run-blocking guard in 2014. Likely to be in demand.

Clint Boling, Bengals guard: He is quite young, as his 26th birthday is not until May. At 6-foot-5, 310, he's a bit smaller than those first two guards I listed.

NFC East teams must look to the lines

August, 20, 2012
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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 Stock Watch

November, 22, 2011
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NFC Stock Watch: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

FALLING

1. Giants' offensive line. It hasn't really been any good all year, but now it has begun to cost them games. The Giants were absolutely manhandled up front by the Eagles' defense Sunday night, unable to find anything at all in the run game or give Eli Manning enough time to throw. Brandon Jacobs is getting booed by the home fans, but he can't make the holes himself. The Giants look like a team that will continue to be in every game they play, including the tough ones, but it's going to be difficult for them to put together a winning streak against their schedule if they can't win those physical battles in the trenches.

2. Cowboys' secondary. They hung on to beat Washington, but Rex Grossman had a pretty good day against them. They miss cornerback Mike Jenkins, and if the injury to safety Gerald Sensabaugh is serious enough to linger, they'll have a tough time patching it together in time for Thursday's game. The good news for Dallas is that its offense is good enough to outscore teams, and its next two opponents aren't big-time passing teams. But the Cowboys' defense did show some cracks Sunday, especially on the back end.

3. Redskins' running game clarity. Actually, it seems kind of clear to all involved that rookie Roy Helu is the team's best back. But Mike Shanahan keeps giving Ryan Torain the starts and bringing in Helu later. Shanahan said this week that part of the reason for that is not wanting to give the rookie too much too soon -- a strategy that speaks to where Shanahan and the Redskins are right now as a franchise. They're thinking long-term, and they don't want to overload Helu mentally or beat him up physically if he's part of the long-term plans. So while it may feel frustrating right now, it's all designed to make things better in the long run.

RISING

[+] EnlargeTony Romo
Brad Mills/US PresswireTony Romo is playing consistent football through 11 weeks.
1. Tony Romo, Cowboys quarterback. This was a game in which a number of things that had been going right for the Cowboys did not. They didn't dominate physically in the run game as they have been lately. They didn't make the stops they needed to make on defense. And yet, rather than forcing things the way he was when he was making so many costly mistakes earlier in the season, Romo was smart and efficient and deliberate and made all of the throws he needed to make to deliver a division win. He's in the middle of an excellent season.

2. Vince Young, Eagles quarterback. Man, did he look shaky for the first three quarters. He even looked shaky at times on that game-winning drive. But he made the plays he needed to make to deliver a win. And even if Michael Vick comes back healthy this week and Young doesn't start another game all year, he showed teams he added a win to his record as an NFL quarterback, which now stands at 31-17. That's Young's biggest selling point -- not the relative prettiness of his passes -- and if he wants to go find a starting job somewhere next year, that win is one more thing he can try to sell.

3. Eagles' and Cowboys' offensive lines. Maligned for much of the season as a weak spot, the Eagles' line has actually consistently ranked among the best run-blocking lines in the league. On Sunday night, it also gave Young the time he needed to make plays. Their playoff chances are, at best, on life support, but their physicality up front on both sides of the ball is going to make them a tough team to play the rest of the way. As for Dallas, it is still shaky at center, and Doug Free isn't having a very good year. But the return of Montrae Holland to play left guard has really helped solidify things for them in the middle, and there's reason to think they'll continue to improve as the year progresses.

Power Rankings: Top 10 left tackles

June, 14, 2011
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Power Rankings Left TacklesESPN.com IllustrationOur bloggers say Joe Thomas and Jake Long are the NFL's best left tackles by a wide margin.
ESPN.com ranks the NFL’s top 10 at left tackle, one of the most important positions in the league. Next week: Top up-and-coming assistants.

Take a quarter out of your pocket and look at its width. That’s basically the difference between the top two left tackles in the ESPN.com Power Rankings.

Cleveland’s Joe Thomas received 76 points from our eight-person panel of voters. Miami’s Jake Long received 75. That put them way ahead of the rest of our top 10 list of the NFL's best blindside pass protectors.

Our panel of division bloggers gave Thomas five first-place votes, and Long received three.

“It was pretty much a coin flip for me,’’ said NFC East blogger Dan Graziano.

If Graziano’s quarter had landed on the other side, we might have had a different outcome. I think the same can be said for some of the other voters. I gave Thomas my top vote only after some strong consideration for Long.

But let’s cut to the chase and point out the man who ultimately decided this election. It’s AFC South blogger Paul Kuharsky. Every other voter had Thomas and Long in the top two spots. Kuharsky threw things off a bit by putting Long at No. 1 and Tennessee’s Michael Roos at No. 2. He had Thomas at No. 3.

Let’s turn to Kuharsky for his rationale.

“I've seen Long more, which helped him,’’ Kuharsky said. “Also, frankly, I knew there could be close to a consensus for Thomas. He's very good. But we're not talking Orlando Pace or Jonathan Ogden. The groundswell for Thomas as top left tackle is, in my eyes, more a media creation than the view of players, scouts and coaches. I wanted to note and reflect that.’’

Point taken, and I agree that we’re not talking the same level as Pace and Ogden -- at least not yet. Thomas and Long are young and it’s too early to put them in the category of surefire Hall of Famers. But, aided largely by Kuharsky, Roos did finish No. 6 overall.

Ryan Clady, Jordan Gross and D'Brickashaw Ferguson rounded out our top five at Nos. 3, 4 and 5 respectively. After Roos, the rest of the top 10 was filled out by Jason Peters (No. 7), Marcus McNeill and Donald Penn, who tied for No. 8, and Matt Light at No. 10.

Let’s work our way back toward the top, with one more quick stop at Roos. I had him at No. 8 on my ballot, and James Walker and Kevin Seifert didn’t even vote for him. I’ve had a couple of scouts tell me Roos is a good left tackle, but seemed to take a step backward last season.

Kuharsky heard otherwise.

“I've had a coach and two scouts tell me Roos is as good or better than Thomas and Long,’’ Kuharsky said. “I obviously see Roos a lot and think he's quite good, certainly better than he wound up here.’’

Roos or ruse? Take your pick, but let’s head right back to the top of the voting and back to the argument between Thomas and Long. They were drafted one year apart with Thomas entering the league in 2007 and Long coming in for the 2008 season. Each has made it to the Pro Bowl in every season played.

Kuharsky mentioned the “media creation’’ about Thomas. In Cleveland? That’s not where you usually turn to find guys to top Power Rankings, so our vote has to say something pretty strong about Thomas. Let’s turn to the guy who covers Thomas.

"Thomas has always been focused on doing his job,’’ Walker said. “You can't tell whether the Browns are 16-0 or 0-16 with the way he plays, and that's why he's been to four straight Pro Bowls. The NFL has gone the way of speed pass-rushers, and Thomas is the prototype to combat that. He’s lean with very good feet and agility, but still strong enough to dominate in the running game. There’s really no weakness in his game.”

None of our panelists saw a weakness in Long’s game.

“I thought Long's run-blocking ability put him a little bit ahead of Thomas,’’ Grazianzo said. “I think he's shown improvement every year and is likely to pass Thomas soon if he hasn't already (and for me, these lists are about which guy I'd pick right now, so a guy I think is going to get better is going to get a long look from me). And he earned a bonus point or two from me for playing the last six games of 2010 in a shoulder harness and still being incredible.’’

The best news is, these guys are so young we can have this same argument every year for the next decade. Now, let’s move on to some other notes about the voting in the Power Rankings for left tackles.

Turn off the Light. As we mentioned, Light came in at No. 10. That surprised me a bit because he’s a big name with three Super Bowl championships and three Pro Bowl selections. I had Light at No. 6 and Walker had him at No. 4. But Light didn’t even appear on four ballots, including the one from AFC East representative Tim Graham.

“Matt Light is a quality player, but Stats Inc. blamed him for 10 sacks allowed and four penalties last season, more in each category than his previous two seasons combined,’’ Graham said. “I've always thought Light got more recognition simply from being Tom Brady's left tackle. Once you name the three or four elite tackles and you rack your brain for the next group, it's easy to understand people sorting through the great quarterbacks and asking, 'Who is so-and-so's left tackle?' Light made the Pro Bowl last year, but as an alternate. Light's reputation also is enhanced by his involvement in the union and being a truly rare species: the gregarious Patriot.’’

Also-rans. Andrew Whitworth, Chad Clifton, Doug Free, Russell Okung and Jeff Backus didn’t make the top 10, but each received votes.

“I don't think there are 10 elite or even complete left tackles in the NFL,’’ NFC West blogger Mike Sando said. “I list Okung on a very short list of players with the talent and makeup to be elite at that position. Okung hasn't played enough to this point, but I think he'll join that group this season. Listing someone with considerably less ability was the alternative.’’

The longest shot. Somewhere, former Tampa Bay general manager Bruce Allen and coach Jon Gruden are smiling at Penn’s name appearing on this list. It’s true, they headed the regime that signed Penn as a free agent in 2007 after he was cut by Minnesota in 2006. Then again, they were also the ones who signed Luke Petitgout, and Penn only got a chance to play because Petitgout turned out to be washed up. I used to subscribe to the theory that you needed to use a first-round pick to get a good left tackle. But Penn has shown that’s not necessary. In his case, he simply made the most of his shot at playing time and turned it into a $48 million contract as training camp started last year.

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