Wednesday, September 7, 2011
Offensive line issues persist in NFC East
By Dan Graziano
So when I put together the first All-NFC East team this week and saw that there were New York Giants in four of the five first-team offensive line spots, I smiled, knowing my Giants fans would gleefully point this out to me, and you guys didn't disappoint. But facts are facts, and at those four spots the Giants either have (in the case of right guard and right tackle) the best player or (in the case of left guard and center) the best of a mediocre lot. (To be fair, it could be a lot about which we just don't know much. Evan Mathis could well turn out to be the best left guard in the division -- I just haven't see him there enough to know.)
But while the Giants should feel good about their line relative to the rest of their division, that says a lot about the serious concerns the other teams have on their lines with only four days left until the start of the season.
In Dallas Wednesday, right tackle and first-round pick Tyron Smith injured his knee and will be out of action 2-to-4 weeks. Smith was one of two rookies slated to start on the offensive line in Sunday night's opener and now will be replaced by the team's only backup tackle, Jermey Parnell. Rookie Bill Nagy is still expected to start at left guard with second-year man (and first-year starter) Phil Costa at center.
And in Philadelphia Wednesday, the Eagles apparently demoted their first-round pick, Danny Watkins, and elevated the newly signed Kyle DeVan to the position of starting right guard. Watkins struggled in August and was a big reason why Eagles quarterback Michael Vick was insufficiently protected in the team's second and third preseason games. In the past couple of weeks, the Eagles moved Todd Herremans from left guard to right tackle because of their injuries on the right side, made Mathis the starting left guard and elected to go with rookie Jason Kelce as the starting center over veteran Jamaal Jackson. "Upheaval" isn't an unfair word to apply here.
The Redskins feel good about their line, but it's loaded with guys who have to prove they can perform consistently as week-to-week starters. And even the Giants have a question mark at left tackle, where Will Beatty enters his first year as a full-time starter.
But the O-line situations in Philadelphia and Dallas, where hopes are high for playoff contention with high-scoring offenses, are worrisome and illustrate a key point about what to expect for the early part of this NFL season. Had 2011 been a normal year with no lockout and regular spring minicamps and OTAs, these teams could have sorted out many of their offensive line issues in May and June.
By now, the Cowboys and Eagles could have convinced themselves and their fans that the rookies were reliable players. They might have performed better in preseason games, inspiring more confidence, since they'd have been better trained before those games began. Players like Watkins and Kelce and Nagy and Smith will be better in a few months than they are now, but they're not as good now as they would have been if they'd been practicing since May.
Instead, we're entering an NFL season whose first month or so will be a continuation of the offseason in terms of teaching and learning and developing and putting lineups together. There are many teams -- the Eagles and Cowboys included -- who have new coordinators or new coaches or tons of new faces in new places and haven't had enough time to put everything together yet. The key for teams like this, who are likely to be better in November than they are in September, is how well they weather the early challenges. Do they squeak out a couple of tougher-than-they-should-be wins? Do they bounce back well from tough losses to teams they think they should have beaten? There are very few teams, if any, that are as prepared as they'd like to be for this season. The story of the early part of 2011 will be about that, in large part. The offensive line issues in the NFC East are but one example.