NFC East: 2012 nfl training camp

What I'll be watching: Bears-Giants

August, 24, 2012
8/24/12
3:16
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The New York Giants play their third preseason game of 2012 at 8 p.m. on Friday night against the Chicago Bears in East Rutherford, N.J. With a scant 12 days before the regular-season opener against the Cowboys, here's what I'll be watching ...

Most closely: The offensive line in the run game. Everybody wants to see rookie running back David Wilson, and so do I, but I'm more interested to watch how the line blocks for him. I remain of the belief that last season's running-game woes for the Giants were a line problem and not a running backs problem, and the two preseason games so far have looked the same, with the line getting pushed back and unable to open holes for the backs. Wilson needs space in which to work if he's going to show off that explosiveness that made him a first-round pick. He could ascend to the backup role behind Ahmad Bradshaw, and he should get plenty of snaps tonight to show whether he's worthy of more carries. But he'll need at least some help from the big folks in front of him.

On the other side of the ball: I assume the Giants will put Corey Webster on Brandon Marshall, but who knows? Maybe the hazing of Prince Amukamara's not done yet and they'll leave him out there on Marshall in the hope that Jay Cutler can make him look bad. In all seriousness, Amukamara is going to get picked on by Cutler, even if he's covering Alshon Jeffrey or some other non-Marshall receiver. While Terrell Thomas is still recovering from his knee problems, Amukamara is a starting cornerback for the Giants, and I'm interested to see how he's handling that responsibility and all of the struggles he's had on and off the field this preseason.

If I think of it: Back to the line for a second, I'm interested to see how Sean Locklear does at left tackle filling in for Will Beatty, since it appears as though he's going to have to do that plenty. I'm interested to see whether Eli Manning mixes it up this time and throws to some No. 3 wide receiver candidates after throwing it to Victor Cruz all night last Saturday. With Michael Boley still out with a hamstring injury, we'll get to see more of Keith Rivers and the other linebackers. I'll miss watching Jayron Hosley, who's out with turf toe, but am interested to see how the return game looks in his absence.
I readily admit that I very often simply cannot understand the thought processes of professional athletes. Today's example has to do with the New York Giants and soft-spoken second-year cornerback Prince Amukamara. We have a story here from the New York Daily News in which teammates are saying, on the record, that the guy has to express more confidence in himself and his abilities:
"I think he's doing pretty good," Justin Tuck said. "Obviously you would like to see him be a little bit more vocal, a little bit more -- as the young kids say -- 'swag.'"

"He's got to," Corey Webster added. "It's a cornerback thing. We're going out there every play alone. D-linemen have linebackers behind them. Linebackers have safeties behind them. Most of the time (at corner) it's just you out there, so you've got to have that kind of arrogance, the kind of confidence to go out and get that job done."
I mean, you can't make a guy be something he's not. If Amukamara's not the kind of guy to call attention to himself and tell everybody he thinks he's great, or act on the field the way Webster thinks he has to act in order to succeed, I'm not sure there's a way to change that. Amukamara strikes me as a thoughtful, self-assured young man, but yes, a little bit quiet and maybe even introverted. He was successful enough in college to make him a first-round draft pick, and I can't imagine, if he flops at the NFL level, personality would be the central reason.

Amukamara's having a hard enough time, after an injury-plagued rookie season, adjusting to NFL life as a starting cornerback in place of the injured Terrell Thomas. He's been picked on in games by opposing quarterbacks, and that will continue until he shows he can cover at this level. I'm not sure he has to cover anyone with "swagger," but he has to do so effectively in order for offenses to stop targeting him. Takes longer for some people than it does for others. Takes a while with any cornerback, really. But I don't see how it helps a guy who's being picked on by opposing offenses to also be picked on in his own locker room. Kind of goes against what I thought the Giants were all about, actually.

Bottom line, here's my thought on all of this, and the Giants are welcome to take it any way they like: If you want a guy to have confidence in himself, the next time you have one of your gigantic defensive lineman throw him over his shoulder, carry him down the hallway and dunk him in a tub full of ice-cold water, maybe don't put the whole thing on YouTube. Just a thought, is all.

What Jason Witten's absence means

August, 23, 2012
8/23/12
3:58
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video
Some things don't demand much further explanation. For instance, if I say to you, "Tony Romo and the Dallas Cowboys would really miss tight end Jason Witten if his spleen injury keeps him out of the season opener 13 days from now against the New York Giants," you'd take that on faith. Of course they'd miss him. Witten is one of Romo's most consistently reliable targets and has been a vital part of the Cowboys' offense for years.

But our man Tim MacMahon out there at ESPNDallas.com has an interesting and somewhat detailed explanation of just how a Witten absence would affect things for the Cowboys, and specifically coach and offensive play-caller Jason Garrett:
Garrett loves operating out of two- and three- tight end sets. According to Football Outsiders, the Cowboys used more than one tight end on 53 percent of their offensive snaps last season, the third-highest rate in the NFL.

The Cowboys were especially effective with one running back and two tight ends on the field, a personnel package that can be used in a variety of formations because of Witten's versatility. They averaged 7.0 yards per play with "12" personnel last season, their best of any package they used at least 5 percent of the time.

How often can they do that against the Giants if Witten is in street clothes and Martellus Bennett is on the opposite sideline?

Fair point, Tim. The solution is likely, as Tim points out later in his post, to use that "21" personnel formation, which is one tight end and two running backs. They did sign fullback Lawrence Vickers to block for DeMarco Murray, so it's not as though they're not planning to go with that kind of alignment at all this season. My guess is they'll probably go to it far more than the 13 percent of the time they apparently did in 2011, whether Witten's on the field or not.

But that doesn't change the fact that Witten's absence (especially with Bennett, the blocking tight end, having left via free agency) will inhibit Garrett's ability to run his offense the way he would prefer. And I think, after last season, all Cowboys fans can agree that they don't want Garrett less comfortable calling plays.
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.
If you live within 100 miles of where I live, you're well aware that the New York Giants' preseason game Saturday is against the New York Jets. They play every year in preseason, which is sensible because it eliminates a trip for each of them. But this year, I don't know if you've heard, the Jets have Tim Tebow on their team. Yeah, I know. It's hard to find any information about it. I had to dig and dig.

[+] EnlargeEli Manning
Al Bello/Getty ImagesEli Manning has delivered peace of mind and titles to the Giants, while the Jets endure a media circus.
Anyway, as a result of the foolish acquisition of Tebow to cast a massive, undeserving shadow over their already-insecure young starting quarterback, Mark Sanchez, the Jets have become a full-blown circus this offseason. Every move Tebow makes, shirtless or otherwise, is the topic of relentless debate. The media have been charting and reporting on each throw Tebow and Sanchez have made during training camp practices, in spite of the team's denial that they're in a competition with each other. The public appetite for Tebow is insatiable -- he's a ratings-driver and a page-views-driver -- and so the coverage has consumed the Jets' preparations for their 2012 season. We all knew it would. The Jets were either too ignorant to believe it, or too arrogant to care.

Either way, my point here on the NFC East blog about all of this is that one look at what the Jets are going through should make the Giants and their fans grateful for Eli Manning. Sure, his two Super Bowl titles have made them grateful enough already, but the Giants' proximity to the Jets' situation underlines the dramatic difference between the peace of mind Manning offers the Giants, and the sheer insanity that can envelop your franchise when you're unsettled at quarterback.

We've discussed this many times. If you get your quarterback situation right, you are set up. You're a perennial playoff team and, if the guy's got the right stuff, a championship contender. If you get quarterback wrong, you're flailing. Nothing else seems to work. You can't get your feet set and run the rest of your organization, because the most important part of it is a question mark.

The Giants have Manning, a former No. 1 overall pick who's been everything they could have imagined and more. The Jets have Sanchez, who was the No. 5 pick in the draft and has actually had some success at the NFL level, but they've mismanaged him horribly. After reaching the AFC Championship Game in each of his first two seasons, Sanchez saw his team allow his offensive line, running game and wide receiving corps to erode. Then, when blame for a disappointing third season was falling on his shoulders, they brought in a backup quarterback whose cult following is intense enough to make him the focal point of a team whether he's playing or not.

So as a result either of Sanchez not being as good as they'd hoped or their own mismanagement of him, the Jets have a murky mess at quarterback. And as a result of Manning being everything they'd hoped and their own development of him and the group around him, the Giants have one of the most solid and reliable quarterbacks in the league. It really can be that simple. And when you watch the Giants and the Jets play Saturday, if you're a Giants fan, you're going to be looking at Tebow and Sanchez and thinking, "I'm glad that's not my team." It's worth looking at Manning as the reason you're glad the Giants are.

Asomugha back at practice for Eagles

August, 16, 2012
8/16/12
12:05
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The Philadelphia Eagles received good injury news Thursday with the return of star cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha to the practice field. Asomugha cut his lip and injured his neck in a collision with safety Nate Allen in practice this week and was examined for concussion symptoms. But having found none, Eagles coach Andy Reid said, the team will return Asomugha to practice and proceed apace.

This continues a run of fairly good injury luck for the Eagles, who have suffered a large number of injuries during this training camp but don't expect any of them to threaten the regular season. Defensive end Jason Babin (calf) and backup quarterback Mike Kafka (hand) aren't likely to play until the final preseason game at the earliest, but the Eagles believe each will be back by the Sept. 9 opener in Cleveland. Other injuries, such as those to Trent Cole and Cullen Jenkins, are expected to resolve themselves sooner.

Of course, it hasn't been a totally injury-free offseason for the Eagles, who lost starting left tackle Jason Peters to an Achilles' tendon injury months ago. That left tackle spot remains unsettled, as Peters' replacement Demetress Bell struggled in the preseason opener, and has for the moment been demoted to the second-team offense while King Dunlap works with the first-teamers.

The injuries have given the Eagles a chance to try out their depth at places like defensive line, where they believe they have as many as eight or nine high-quality options. But a team with hopes as high as Philadelphia's this season needs its stars on the field. The return of Asomugha so soon after such a scary injury is an encouraging turn of events for the Eagles as they hope to get off to a good start and erase the memories of last September.
The New York Giants announced Monday afternoon, via Twitter, that star wide receiver Hakeem Nicks has passed his physical and has been removed from the physically unable to perform list. Per league rules, Nicks must sit out three days of padded practices and will be eligible to practice in full Friday with the rest of his team.

Nicks
Friday will make 12 weeks since the team announced that Nicks had broken a bone in his foot, and at that time 12 weeks was the estimated recovery period they gave. So this is all as expected. I can't imagine they'd play him in Saturday night's preseason game against the Jets after only one day of practice, but it's possible he could be ready for one or both of their final two preseason games, and the fact that he'll be returning to practice a little less than three weeks before the season opener indicates that he'll almost certainly be ready for that, barring further setbacks.

Further setbacks can't be ruled out. Nicks has had a bit of an issue with injuries during his brief NFL career so far. It's really the only possible knock on him as a player. Because he's had some foot and leg problems, the Giants would be wise to ease him back in, especially with so much time still left before the season. Nicks isn't the kind of player who needs the practice time to get up to speed on the offense or in tune with quarterback Eli Manning. He's fine on both of those counts. The most important thing the Giants can do with him now is managing his continued recovery as carefully as possible to avoid any new issue that might threaten his availability for the season. And I'm sure they feel the same way.
The big question of the day was whether the Dallas Cowboys would or should sign free-agent wide receiver Plaxico Burress. This all sprouted from an ESPNDallas.com report Thursday that said the team had had "preliminary discussions" with Burress' agent. Adam Schefter addressed this on SportsCenter, and while he did allow that he's surprised that Burress hasn't signed anywhere yet, he said, "it would be an even bigger surprise if he ended up in Dallas with the Cowboys. The Cowboys are trying to groom their young wide receivers, and if they wanted to sign Plaxico Burress, they probably would have done it by now."

So there you go. If you don't believe me, believe Adam. Burress isn't what the Cowboys are about right now. As you know from reading Camp Confidential earlier today (as I'm sure you all did), the Cowboys are trying to build their football program for the future. Burress isn't a good enough player at this point in his career that it's worth (a) the baggage he brings or (b) costing the young receivers reps and setting back their development another year. The Cowboys will be fine without Burress, and even if they do have an injury to Miles Austin or Dez Bryant, there's nothing in Burress' recent history to indicate he'd be a significantly better option that Kevin Ogletree or anyone else the Cowboys currently have. I'm sorry. I know he's a big name, but this isn't 2006.

If I were Burress and his agent, I would also be surprised and disappointed that Randy Moss and Terrell Owens have been able to get jobs and I haven't. And if Burress' agent is trying to drum up interest in his client, good for him. That's his job. But like Adam, I would be surprised if the Cowboys reciprocated his interest. And I think they're wise not to.
OXNARD, Calif. -- Much was made last year of the performance of Dallas Cowboys fullback Tony Fiammetta in connection with the breakout performance of running back DeMarco Murray. But the Cowboys let Fiammetta go this offseason and replaced him with veteran fullback Lawrence Vickers, who blocked for Arian Foster and Ben Tate last year in Houston and for Peyton Hillis the year before that in Cleveland. Vickers is a remarkably fun guy to talk to -- enthusiastic and engaging -- and here's what he told me about Murray when I spoke with him after Cowboys practice Monday:

[+] EnlargeLawrence Vickers
AP Photo/Paul SpinelliFullback Lawrence Vickers will be paving the way for DeMarco Murray this season.
"First of all, he's ambitious. And he's coming in to work. He's got that hard-nosed mentality, but he loves the game. And when you want to be great and you have ambition and goals and dreams and all those things, there's only one way to get there -- work, work, work. And that's what he wants to do. When it's his time to go, he wants to get in there. Everything he's doing, he's trying to do it to the best of his ability."

Vickers said his most important jobs as the fullback in the Cowboys' offense are "to lead by example and to be the eyes of the running back." Then he tried to demonstrate by standing in front of me with his back turned and asking if I could see anything. I could not. I am 5-foot-9, 190 pounds. Vickers is 6-0, 250. More relevantly. Murray is 6-0, 215 and likely cannot see around Vickers, either.

"He has to trust in me in order to go where I'm going," Vickers said. "You have to trust in me that I'm going to go to the right place, because you're following me. We have to be able to trust each other, and that just comes from repetition."

Murray obviously trusted Fiammetta with a great deal of success, so it's not as though running behind a fullback is some kind of new concept for him. But to those who have asked me whether there's anything to fear about Murray switching from Fiammetta to Vickers my answer is: If you met Lawrence Vickers, you wouldn't have to ask.

"I've got no complaints there," Murray told me. "He's a great guy, a great blocker, a smart guy and he gets after it."

Talking to Vickers fired me up. I wanted to go try to run through a defensive line. Fortunately for me, the opportunity did not readily present itself. If it had, I'd have asked Vickers to block for me. He'd probably have done it. He's a different sort of guy. I mentioned to him that the fullback position wasn't really a glory position in the NFL, and he agreed. He just doesn't care.

"I love it," Vickers said. "Because it's a job everybody can't do. So when you're doing something everybody can't do, and you're making it look good, that says a lot about you as a person. I don't need the glory, because at the end of the day, when those guys get in that end zone, when those guys go over to Hawaii, when those guys get in that Hall of Fame ... Emmitt Smith said it best: 'Couldn't do nothing without my fullback.' Not that my guys have to say that about me, but knowing that I was a part of that is enough for me."
OXNARD, Calif. -- I was going to start off writing about the Dallas Cowboys' center position, but it's such a beautiful night here I just feel too good to start off with a negative. So we'll get to center, but I'm going to start with the defensive line.

I was critical of the Cowboys' draft in general, and my feelings on third-round pick Tyrone Crawford were that they'd picked a guy who couldn't help them this year -- a project defensive end for a 3-4 defense when they'd already traded their second-round pick and still had 2012 needs to address. But watching Crawford practice -- watching him in drills against the likes of Tyron Smith -- it's easy to see how the Cowboys could indeed find a role for him this year as a situational pass-rusher in nickel or dime packages. I asked Cowboys coach Jason Garrett about Crawford and this year, and this is what he told me:

[+] EnlargeTyrone Crawford
AP Photo/Tony GutierrezThird-round pick Tyrone Crawford has impressed during training camp.
"The vision we had for him in Year 1 was, 'Come in here and be a contributor as a pass-rush guy, and then we feel like you can be big enough to play the five-technique in our base defense.' We loved his relentless nature. Passionate kid still learning the game of football. His body's going to get bigger. He's going to get stronger. He has position traits to be a starter in the future, and right now he can have a role for us because we potentially like how he can rush the passer in a third-down situation."

Crawford is listed at 285 pounds, and most of the rest of the defensive linemen on the Cowboys' roster exceed 300. So they will need to see him bulk up before he can be a starter for them. But rushing the passer is a lot about speed, instinct and determination, and Crawford doesn't need to bulk up in order to deliver in that aspect of the game. So keep an eye out for how they deploy him on third downs. Could be that I was (hope you're sitting down!) wrong about that one.

Some other things I saw/heard/noticed/surmised during my second and final day at Cowboys training camp:

  • As great as the Cowboys' skill-position players are, they're going to have a hard time being productive if the center can't get the ball to the quarterback. And the Cowboys' centers... well, they struggle with that. Starter Phil Costa had trouble with it last year. The guys they thought would push Costa for the job this camp -- Mackenzy Bernadeau, Bill Nagy and Kevin Kowalski -- are all hurt. David Arkin, a guard who's never played center before, has been getting snaps there, but he was so bad Tuesday that they had to take him out of his spot as the second-team center, replace him with Harland Gunn (another guard they're trying out at center) and use Costa, the starter, as the third-team center. It was, to use a highly technical football term, not good. Bernadeau did do some work early in position drills and could start practicing later in the week, but Kowalski and Nagy don't look as though they'll factor into this mix in the preseason. Cowboys player personnel director Stephen Jones acknowledged after the practice that it was ugly, but he said he has high hopes for Bernadeau as a real option and that they weren't yet in the market for a free-agent center.
  • Bernadeau and Gunn stayed after practice to work on snaps on the side.
  • Fifth-round pick Danny Coale did a lot of work in individual wide receiver drills as well as punt return drills, though he was still held out of 11-on-11s as he recovers from his injury. He also could return to practice later in the week. Garrett didn't list him among the No. 3 wide receiver candidates earlier in the day, but it's possible he could work his way into the mix as the year goes along.
  • The guys Garrett did list were Kevin Ogletree, Andre Holmes and Dwayne Harris. He was making a point that Miles Austin's ability to play an inside slot position as well as play on the outside gives the Cowboys leeway when picking their No. 3, as they don't need it to be one or the other. He said they look at Ogletree and Harris as guys who can play both inside and outside while Holmes profiles more as an outside guy.
  • Austin, incidentally, is still out with a hamstring injury, but this is not being deemed serious because it's not as though Austin has a history of missing time with hamstring injuries. Wait. What? Oh.
  • After briefly leaving camp and coming back at the team's request, Cole Beasley continued to look good as a wide receiver and catching punts. Not sure if he can push himself into the mix, but he's playing very well.
  • DeMarco Murray looks fantastic, running with vision and power and showing no signs of the ankle injury that ended his 2011 season early.
  • And yeah, I could gush some more about how good Dez Bryant looks, but I feel like I've done enough of that. Just... I mean... if you don't want to draft him for your fantasy team, I'll be happy to scoop him up one pick later, is all I'm saying.
  • I head home to New Jersey on Wednesday, but Cowboys Camp Confidential is scheduled to run Friday and I have a bunch more stuff from Cowboys camp to share with you over the coming days and probably into next week. If the posts are a little light tomorrow, you'll know my plane doesn't have WiFi.
The funeral for Garrett Reid, the oldest son of Philadelphia Eagles coach Andy Reid, was held Tuesday and attended by NFL dignitaries from all over the country. Speaking to reporters at the funeral, Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie called it "a combination of tremendous grief and tremendous love." Lurie also said he thought that Reid, who's been away from the team since the news of his son's death broke Sunday morning, would be on the sideline coaching the Eagles on Thursday night in their preseason opener. Per the Philadelphia Inquirer:
Reid
Reid
Lurie, who teared up speaking of the team's love for its coach, said that as far as the Eagles are concerned, Andy Reid can stay away from football as long as he wants, "but that's not what he wants, he wants to get right back in there." Lurie said "all indications are" that Reid will be on the sideline Thursday night when the Eagles open their preseason at home against the Steelers.

I can't say whether it'd be a surprise to see Reid back coaching so soon after suffering the most devastating loss imaginable. I have no idea what the man must be feeling, and as I've said a few times here in the past couple of days, I hope like hell I never do. All we can do is guess, and I guess it would be tempting to get back to work and have something on which to focus your mind and your energy. On the flip side, I don't think anybody would blame Reid if he decided he could never go to work again. Situations like this require people to make their own, intensely personal decisions about what to do and how to conduct themselves, and if Reid thinks it's the right thing to do to return to coaching as early as Thursday, I'm sure he'll be met with nothing but love and support from his players, his bosses and the fans in attendance at Lincoln Financial Field.
New York Giants wide receiver Hakeem Nicks was running routes at practice way back east in Albany on Tuesday, the latest step along the road to his recovery from the foot injury that's kept him out of action since the spring. Nicks told reporters at Giants training camp that he was still on track to be ready in time for the Sept. 5 opener against the Dallas Cowboys (which is 29 days from today, but who's counting).

Nicks
"Definitely still on target, no setbacks," Nicks said, according to quotes e-mailed to me by the team's media relations department. "Everything is going well. I've been running every day. No setbacks. Feeling good. Getting back."

Nicks said he had no idea whether he'd be able to participate in a practice while the team was still in Albany or whether he'd play in any preseason games. The Giants open their preseason schedule Friday in Jacksonville, and he obviously won't play in that game.

"My main concern is making sure that when I do step on the field that I'm healthy, and I'm 100 percent," Nicks said. "That's our whole focus right now -- need to make sure we're taking the right steps to make it that way."

So that's for everyone who's been asking for Nicks updates. Seems as though he's still on the original timetable that had him getting back around mid-August. And since he knows the quarterback and the offense as well as anyone on the roster, I don't see why there'd be any reason to rush him back any sooner than that.

On Eagles backup running backs

August, 7, 2012
8/07/12
1:13
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I get questions about who will back up LeSean McCoy as running back for the Philadelphia Eagles. The two-part answer is (a) Dion Lewis and (b) yes, if McCoy had to miss time they'd be in big trouble. But there is a lot of interest around two rookie running backs in Eagles camp -- seventh-round draft pick Bryce Brown and undrafted free agent Chris Polk. It's possible only one makes the team. It's possible one or both someday overtakes Lewis for the backup role. Lots of things are possible.

When I was there last week, Brown looked like the better runner and Polk the better pass protector. To read Sheil Kapadia, Polk is an otherworldly pass protector:
During this afternoon's session, the undrafted free agent out of Washington sent cornerback Brandon Hughes flying on a blitz pickup that drew perhaps the loudest ovation of the day.

"I actually messed up on that play, because I went to the wrong side," Polk said. "But I knew he was coming so I just had to get back there quick. I don't want the quarterback getting hit on my behalf, so that's something I try to hang my hat on."

Earlier in practice, during one-on-one blitz pickup drills, Polk (5-11, 215) stoned free safety Phillip Thomas, eventually pinning him to the ground.

Given Polk's skill set and the Eagles' current roster makeup, let's think outside the box for a moment: Could he be this team's answer at fullback?

It's an interesting idea, but I can't speak to how realistic it is. What's more interesting to me is the importance the Eagles place on pass protection when determining the roles of their running backs. If the backup's more significant role is to protect the quarterback because they'd have to throw a lot more with McCoy out, that's the kind of thing that could swing things in Polk's favor.
Claiborne
Claiborne
The news out of Dallas Cowboys camp on Morris Claiborne's knee Saturday was relatively good. Ed Werder reports that the injury is a "minor" sprain of the MCL and that Claiborne is likely to miss only a few practices. Obviously, it could be worse. The M could be an A, for instance, and the sprain could be a tear. The Cowboys are breathing easier as a result of the diagnosis, I'm sure. But this is still a knee injury and mildly alarming development that should prompt the Cowboys to be extremely careful with their first-round pick going forward.

The Cowboys have a ton invested in Claiborne. They spent big money in free agency on cornerback Brandon Carr and then used their first-round pick and their second-round pick to draft Claiborne because they believed (correctly) that cornerback was that big a weakness for them in 2011. As a result, however, of spending all of those resources on cornerbacks, they ignored needs at safety and on the offensive and defensive lines and upset incumbent cornerback Mike Jenkins, who responded by asking to be traded and sitting out much of the offseason program.

None of that will matter too much in the long run as long as Claiborne is as good as they believe he will be. But this is a young man who already missed the offseason practices while recovering from wrist surgery and now will be missing training camp and possibly a preseason game with a knee injury. Even if these medical issues are just bumps in the road and not a sign of a fragile player, he's still missing important time in his rookie development. And given how much they're counting on him to be excellent from day one, that's not good news.

Reports from camp last week indicated that receiver Dez Bryant was having his way with the rookie. That's to be expected, but it serves as a reminder of how much rookies in this league have to learn, and how vital these August practices are in learning them. As long as Claiborne's only out a few days, the Cowboys should have little to worry about. But they'd do well to make sure and manage him so that it doesn't become more serious than that.
BETHLEHEM, Pa. -- I often get asked about the Philadelphia Eagles and the salary cap. In spite of all they spent on free agents last year, all of the new contracts they gave out to their own players this offseason and the acquisition of middle linebacker DeMeco Ryans, who didn't fit under the Houston Texans' salary cap, the Eagles are still about $14.5 million under for 2012.

"Some of the things we do, I don't know how we pull them off," cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha, the major prize of that 2011 free-agent spree, told me after Eagles practice Thursday.

It is hard to figure, and I often hear from Giants fans asking me how the Eagles are always under the cap while their team always seems to be right up against it. So, when I spoke with Eagles GM Howie Roseman on Thursday morning, I asked.

[+] EnlargePhiladelphia Eagles running back LeSean McCoy
Kevin Hoffman-US PRESSWIREThe Eagles could be a contender for years to come with several key young stars, like RB LeSean McCoy, signed to team-friendly contracts.
Part of what's going on in Philadelphia is that they've more or less overhauled the roster in the past four years. Roseman pointed out to me that the Eagles played in the NFC Championship Game in January of 2009, and he rattled off some of the names of the players on that team. Donovan McNabb was the quarterback. Brian Westbrook was the running back. Tra Thomas and Jon Runyan were the tackles, Jamaal Jackson the center, Nick Cole one of the guards, L.J. Smith the tight end and Kevin Curtis a starting wide receiver. That's just the offensive side of the ball, and none of those guys is still on the team. Of that team's 11 defensive starters, Trent Cole and Mike Patterson are the only ones on the current roster.

"You either have to rebuild or retool on the fly," Roseman said. "At that moment, we knew that our players were getting up in age and that we had to retool. So we wanted to start building a core group going forward. Obviously, we want to have a great year, but we also want to set it up so that we have a chance every year, like we did in the early part of the decade. And part of that is keeping your talent together, guys you think are really good players and guys you want to have around for a long period of time."

So the current Eagles roster is built mainly of young players whose salaries have been easily controlled to this point. Clearing out older players and replacing them with younger ones is the best way to stay under the salary cap. But as young Eagles stars like Cole, LeSean McCoy and DeSean Jackson have emerged as some of the better players in the league at their positions, the team has been conscious of working to keep them under control. All three of those players signed relatively team-friendly long-term deals this offseason while the team did little in free agency and unloaded the big salary of veteran cornerback Asante Samuel.

But the main reason the Eagles are still so far under the cap is that they know this can't last forever. The ability to roll over cap room from one year to the next is about to start mattering to them.

"I think the flattening of the cap going forward is going to catch up with every team and your priorities are really going to come into play," Roseman said. "If you look at us next year, basically the room that we're under the cap now matches the room that we're over the cap next year. And then the cap is flat again in 2014. So we have an opportunity to keep the team together, but we have to make sure we have the right group."

The Eagles can operate with a long-term focus because they have an owner, Jeffrey Lurie, who appreciates how successful they've been with Andy Reid as head coach and the rest of the current leadership group in place. In today's win-now-or-else NFL, the people who run the Eagles work for an owner whose priority is for his team to be good every year, and with a coach who shares the same priorities.

"Andy's unbelievable in the aspect that he's got one eye on the future at all times," Roseman said. "It seems to me a unique quality that someone can be so focused on winning a world championship right at this moment, but if you tell him, 'Hey coach, this guy may not be better this year, but he'll set us up going forward,' he gets all that. So that's incredibly supportive, and then Jeffrey wants to have a sustained run of success. He doesn't want to be a one-and-done team, and frankly neither do I. We want to set it up so we have a core in place for a run and so that you don't put all your eggs in one basket for one year."

The Eagles believe they are set up in that way. They like the team they have in 2012 and believe it to be capable of very big things. But they also believe they're set up to be capable of big things every year for years to come. As starved as Philadelphia is for its first Super Bowl title, the people running the team are level-headed enough to keep in mind that there's no way to ensure such a thing and that all they can do is put themselves in position to contend for it every year.

"Going forward, it will be a challenge," Roseman said. "I think it's going to be a challenge for a lot of teams, because the cap is going to be flat and salaries continue to rise. So you're going to have to make hard decisions, but it's a good problem to have when you're making decisions on talented guys. We're just happy that the guys we had an opportunity to lock up are going to be here for a while."

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