NFC East: Anquan Boldin
Nearly a third of the league inquired about receiver DeSean Jackson, but not all the teams are known. Two of those teams reportedly have fallen out of the race for Jackson -- and both have coaches who previously worked with him (Andy Reid in Kansas City and Marty Mornhinweg with the New York Jets). The assumption is that this sends up red flags about Jackson; that’s not necessarily the case.
And it’s hard to get a good feel on who is really interested. Oakland and Washington definitely are, though to what extent remains to be seen. Jackson arrives in Washington Monday and will visit Tuesday. Thus far, it’s his only reported visit.
San Francisco’s name came up when Jackson was on the trade block and the 49ers had expressed interest in free-agent wide receiver Golden Tate, among others, before he signed with Detroit. So it would make sense that they’d at least inquire about Jackson. Tampa Bay has said they'd take a look, though it was a rather tepid endorsement.
Here’s a little handicap of some teams that have expressed interest or reportedly want to get in the race:
Cap space: Approximately $7 million
Why he’d consider: It’s a premier market in a premier conference. Oh, and they get to play the Eagles twice a year. The Redskins would have a lot of speed offensively with Jackson, Pierre Garcon, Andre Roberts and Jordan Reed and would be a major threat down the field. Add to it an athletic quarterback who can extend plays and the off-schedule explosions would increase. Robert Griffin III’s deep-ball ability will be important -- and his ability to extend plays. Jackson’s agent, Joel Segal, has definitely taken quarterback play into consideration in the past with his receivers. If Jackson is forced to take a one-year, prove-it deal, this especially would be a factor.
Why he wouldn’t: Because other teams can offer more. Washington can’t compete if Jackson’s strong desire is to return to the West Coast and play for the team he grew up rooting for (Oakland). If they want a more proven coach, San Francisco and Tampa Bay have to be a consideration (if the Bucs are strongly interested, which is debatable). And if San Francisco truly is interested, then the 49ers clearly would offer him a better chance for team success. The Redskins still have other needs to address so they can only spend so much, and it's hard to gauge how aggressive they'll be. But the fact that they have the first visit says something.
Cap space: Approximately $13 million
Why he’d consider: They have more cap room than most teams, so they could offer the sort of contract that could get it done now -- if they wanted to go that high. They need what Jackson provides (though many teams do).
Why he wouldn’t: The Bills aren’t a marquee team and their quarterback situation is questionable. EJ Manuel started 10 games as a rookie and showed flashes, but remains unproven. That has to be a strong consideration. None of their receivers had more than 597 yards last season, so how secure could you be? They have a good young talent in Robert Woods, a solid receiver in Stevie Johnson (nagging injuries, however) and a fast young guy in Marquise Goodwin. But that’s not exactly a Hall of Fame trio. The draft has to be an attractive option, so that could limit what the Bills would be willing to offer.
Cap space: Approximately $15 million
Why he’d consider: Because the Raiders were his favorite team growing up and he played college ball at nearby Cal. Jackson is a West Coast kid, and if his desire to return there is strong, then it will be hard to top. The Raiders need help at receiver so Jackson would fill a big hole. Also, the Raiders have more money than the other teams reportedly interested thus far.
Why he wouldn’t: The Raiders have a wait-and-see approach going on and, while they’d like him, they won’t overspend. So if another team is more aggressive, then Jackson could end up elsewhere. Also, other than going back to California, the Raiders aren’t exactly an attractive franchise. Their coach, Dennis Allen, will enter the season on the hot seat and their quarterback, Matt Schaub, is not known for throwing deep all that often. At this point, it’s uncertain if he remains a quality starting quarterback.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Cap space: Approximately $12 million
Why he’d consider: They have a potentially strong structure with new coach Lovie Smith. He’s a proven coach in the first year of his regime so he’ll be around several years at least. The Bucs have another explosive receiver to pair with Jackson in Vincent Jackson. Both are dangerous down the field. Oh, yeah, and they have the cap room to absorb a bigger contract.
Why he wouldn’t: Smith’s history suggests building around the run game and the defense. Also, they have a journeyman starting quarterback in Josh McCown and a second-year guy in Mike Glennon, whom the new coach did not draft (and replaced right away). So there are questions at this spot. Their interest is said to be lukewarm, so it’s hard to imagine them overspending for Jackson.
San Francisco 49ers
Cap space: Approximately $4 million
Why he’d consider: It’s the best team, it’s near where he played college ball and it puts him back on the West Coast. They need a receiver who can stretch the field to pair with Anquan Boldin, Michael Crabtree and tight end Vernon Davis. Jackson would provide that and then some. They also have a big-armed quarterback in Colin Kaepernick who can let Jackson run under the ball and remind everyone of his explosiveness. Unlike Washington, the 49ers also have a defense that plays at a championship level, so if Jackson wants to produce and win, this could be the stop.
Why he wouldn’t: The 49ers were reportedly interested in pursuing a trade, according to Pro Football Talk. But their cap number isn’t high and they already have talent at receiver. They could opt for the draft, which is deep at this position and has a few players with Jackson-like qualities (though no one can match his acceleration on deep balls). Hard to know what the reported friction with the 49ers between general manager Trent Baalke and coach Jim Harbaugh means for the future of either person and, subsequently, a guy like Jackson.
No offense: The Redskins’ offense was unable to do much of anything against San Francisco, which entered this weekend with the NFL’s seventh-rated defense. It’s the only team Washington has faced that currently has a defense ranked among the top half in the NFL. The Redskins couldn’t do much of anything. They ran for 100 yards on 27 carries; they had 90 net yards passing and 190 yards overall. They averaged 3.3 yards per play. This was definitely a bad matchup for them because the 49ers have an excellent front seven and speed at the linebacker position. It was a complete breakdown by the entire offense. Eight of their 12 drives lasted four plays or fewer, and it’s a huge reason why San Francisco’s average starting field position was its own 43-yard line. The Redskins started nine drives inside their 25-yard line; the Niners started one drive inside their 25.
That means, barring a tie, when they meet Sunday at Lambeau Field, one of these teams will be in an 0-2 hole to start this season.
“It’s not about, does it make or break your season,” Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III said this week.
ESPN Packers reporter Rob Demovsky and ESPN Redskins reporter John Keim break down the key elements to this matchup.
Demovsky: John, let’s get right to perhaps the most closely watched knee rehabilitation in recent NFL history. You’ve watched Griffin’s every move in his comeback from the knee injury. You have chronicled practically every step he has made since, and by now, you’ve dissected the film of Monday night’s loss to the Philadelphia Eagles. What limitations, if any, did he play with?
Keim: Griffin did not look the same and showed the effects of not playing in a game in the preseason -- and of recovering from major knee surgery in January. Was his knee 100 percent? Everyone says it is, including the doctors. But his game was not 100 percent, as should be expected. Jon Gruden pointed it out a few times on Monday night, showing how Griffin wasn’t always transferring his weight onto his front leg when he threw. In some cases, the line was getting shoved back and provided him no chance to step into a throw. But it was evident early, even when he had that room. It seemed like his reactions in the pocket, especially early, were not where he would want them to be. He also made the worst passing decision of his career, throwing an interception into triple coverage to a receiver who never even appeared open. He finished strong, though most of the passes he completed during this stretch were short throws. Still, he showed a better rhythm. It’s going to take him a few games.
The Packers just played a mobile quarterback; how did they take away Colin Kaepernick's legs -- and how did it leave them vulnerable to the pass?
Demovsky: The Packers did a good job limiting Kaepernick’s running opportunities by playing a lot of zone coverage. That kept the defenders’ eyes on the quarterback, and they rarely had their backs turned to him. However, that meant they couldn’t play as much press coverage as they normally would, and the result was that they gave up massive amounts of yardage to receiver Anquan Boldin, who caught 13 passes for 208 yards, and allowed Kaepernick to throw for 412 yards. Now, it should be noted that the Packers were missing two key players in the secondary, safety Morgan Burnett and cornerback Casey Hayward, who both missed the game because of hamstring injuries.
How much, if anything, do you think Redskins can learn from watching the way Kaepernick and the 49ers attacked the Packers?
Keim: I’m sure there is a lot to learn, but I wouldn’t be surprised if they anticipate different looks in the secondary because of who might be back for Green Bay and because Griffin needs to prove himself as a dynamic threat again. Until he does, I wouldn’t be surprised to see teams play him more aggressively, or at least without as much fear. I’m not sure how long that will last; until he makes them pay, I suppose. But I also think what Washington needs to do more than learning from Green Bay's game is learn from its own. The Redskins killed themselves with penalties and poor decision-making. That meant their bread-and-butter run game could never get going, and their offense sputtered until it was 33-7.
Are Burnett and Hayward expected to play Sunday? If so, how big a difference will that make for the Packers?
Demovsky: Hayward won’t play. He already has been ruled out and is likely to miss at least another game or two. This is the second time he pulled the same hamstring. The first time, he missed a month. He reinjured it Aug. 23, and if it’s as severe, he could be out for a while. Last season, his six interceptions were huge for the defense. Burnett’s injury didn’t seem as bad, and it was somewhat surprising that he missed the 49ers’ game. The Packers hope he can play, because their safety play with M.D. Jennings and Jerron McMillian was subpar at San Francisco.
Speaking of the secondary, the Redskins were 30th in the NFL last season in passing yards allowed. Are there any signs that will improve this season? I would think Aaron Rodgers would be licking his chops to play against this defense.
Keim: It’s debatable how much they’ve improved. Long term? I think they’ll be helped because two rookies -- starting free safety Bacarri Rambo and cornerback David Amerson -- are playing key roles. Rambo’s big issue is tackling, mostly in the open field. His coverage has mostly been fine, but I don’t think he’s been challenged in a way that Rodgers could on Sunday. I like Amerson’s future, if he remains disciplined with his technique. He’s a better tackler than anticipated. But Washington has issues at strong safety because of Brandon Meriweather's constant injury issues (missed Monday with a groin injury). The Redskins used a cornerback who had never played safety before in his place (E.J. Biggers), and he struggled. Their corners, DeAngelo Hall and Josh Wilson, do some good things but are not top-line starters. What this group needs more than anything is a better pass rush.
Speaking of the rush, how is the Green Bay offensive line holding up without Bryan Bulaga, and where is it susceptible?
Demovsky: Perhaps surprisingly, Green Bay's young tackles, rookie David Bakhtiari on the left side and second-year man Don Barclay on the right, held up well against the 49ers. Aldon Smith beat Bakhtiari a couple of times for sacks, but Smith does that to a lot of tackles. It’s why he had 19.5 sacks last season. But other than those two plays, Bakhtiari’s first start went fine. Barclay is much improved over last season, when he filled in for Bulaga the final six games. As a unit, the run blocking needs to get much better. Eddie Lacy didn’t have much running room, and when he did, there were penalties -- three of them on left guard Josh Sitton, who is normally pretty clean -- that wiped away the Packers' longest rushes of the game.
Looking at the big picture, one of these teams is going to be 0-2 after this game (barring a tie). If that’s the Redskins, how devastating would that be for them? I know they finished strong last season, but I’m sure they don’t want to put themselves in a hole again.
Keim: It’s a hole they could dig out of with games against the Detroit Lions at home and on the road against the Oakland Raiders in the following two weeks before their bye. But I don’t think any team wants to start off 0-2, especially one that has designs on accomplishing grand things in the postseason, which, if healthy, the Redskins should have. I also think it would depend on how they look against Green Bay. If they play well and lose a close game, it still suggests they’re on a certain path (no moral victories, but more about being headed in the right direction). If it’s an ugly game like it was for nearly three quarters Monday? Then it suggests other issues. That would be difficult for them to swallow. But the one thing I’ve seen with this group, last season and in the previous few, is that they are resilient. Their mindset is a good one for a 16-game season.
I would think if there’s any formula for stopping the Green Bay offense, everyone would use it. But is there a theme to when teams are able to slow this attack?
Demovsky: For about the past year and a half, teams have played the Packers predominantly one way -- keep both safeties back and dare them to run the ball. That’s why they drafted Lacy in the second round. The hope is that teams will start respecting the Packers’ running game and bring a safety in the box to stop it. That would give Rodgers more open space to throw in the secondary. Lacy did not get off to a strong start against the 49ers, but he did have one impressive series late in the game in which he gained 26 yards on five carries. Problem was, he couldn’t get much else done the rest of the game.
The issue that complicates all of these matters is the contract of quarterback Eli Manning, who is scheduled to cost the Giants $20.85 million against this year's cap, $20.4 million against next year's, and $19.75 million against the 2015 cap. The Giants are perfectly happy to commit such a large percentage of their cap to a quarterback who wins them a Super Bowl every four or five years, and justifiably so. Manning's deal is not out of line or regrettable. But it is an issue around which the Giants find themselves needing to work, and it is going to force some tough decisions in the next couple of years.
There's a real dichotomy developing between the teams that commit huge cap numbers to their established veteran quarterbacks (Giants, Broncos, Saints, Cowboys, Ravens, Packers ... Lions, I guess, now) and the newly minted contenders whose quarterback costs are low. Teams such as the 49ers, Seahawks and Redskins have some of the most talented quarterbacks in the league locked up for a small fraction of their cap costs. Colin Kaepernick is costing San Francisco $1.398 million against this year's cap and $1.63 million against next year's. Russell Wilson's cap cost to the Seahawks over the next three years is scheduled to average $817,302 per season. Robert Griffin III costs the Redskins about $4.8 million against this year's cap, about $5.76 million against next year's -- big numbers compared to Kaepernick and Wilson, but nothing compared to Manning and Drew Brees.
This is why the Seahawks can trade a first-round pick for Percy Harvin and sign him, why the 49ers can counter with an Anquan Boldin pickup, why the Redskins will be able to be active in free agency next year when their cap penalties are behind them. Having a franchise quarterback who costs less than 1 percent of the salary cap, as Wilson costs the Seahawks, is like finding free money when you're competing for players against a team whose quarterback costs 17 percent of the salary cap, as Manning costs the Giants. There's no quarterback in the league with a higher 2013 cap cost than Manning's. Tony Romo of the Dallas Cowboys is the only one who currently has a higher projected 2014 cap cost than Manning's. Romo, Brees and Peyton Manning are the only ones currently scheduled to cost more against the cap in 2015.
Such is the Giants' financial reality. Manning deserves his contract. They've built the team around him and he has rewarded them with remarkable durability, unassailable character and championship performance. But the fact of his contract means they have less money with which to build the rest of their roster, and that this annual cap crunch they face is going to remain an issue as long as Manning is their man.
There is relief to be had next year with the expiration of contracts such as Justin Tuck's and David Diehl's. But players such as Chris Snee, David Baas, Mathias Kiwanuka and Antrel Rolle carry massive 2014 cap numbers and probably all can't be kept. Each is a significant starter and would have to be replaced while Nicks and Pierre-Paul are lining up for their big paydays. The Giants have paid good money for defensive backs, believing the secondary to be a priority position. Can they continue to do that, or do they need to go cheap at cornerback and/or safety? How badly do they need Damontre Moore to develop as a pass-rusher so they can save money there in the coming years? Can they rebuild the offensive line on the cheap? They won't be able to answer all of those questions exactly the way they want to, and the decisions they make aren't going to come with much margin of error.
Again, they're not alone. Not even in their own division. The Cowboys deal with this same problem all the time, often as a result of decisions far worse than the one the Giants made to commit to Eli Manning. This isn't a criticism of the team, just a warning to its fans that things are going to continue to be tricky in the coming offseasons, and the Giants are going to have to rely more than ever on their ability to draft and develop players to fill gaps they can't afford to fill because of cap concerns.
Cruz should be flattered, honestly. He might not have ended up with the contract he wanted from the Giants, but the deal he got is significant. And because they know they can't pay everyone they want to pay, the Giants didn't offer it lightly. Cruz can take the Giants at their word when they say they value him and want him to be a part of their long-term plan. The deal they gave him proves it. They won't be able to make good on that promise to everyone.
Dig deeper into what Austin did last year when he caught 66 passes for 943 yards and six touchdowns.
He outperformed the leading wide receivers on 16 other teams in catches, yards or touchdowns, including pass-catchers in Arizona (Larry Fitzgerald), Baltimore (Anquan Boldin), Seattle (Sidney Rice), Washington (Josh Morgan) and Pittsburgh (Mike Wallace, Antonio Brown). Aside from Arizona, there is not a poor quarterback throwing to anyone in that bunch.
In a division with Bryant, Victor Cruz, Hakeem Nicks, Jeremy Maclin and DeSean Jackson, Austin had the fourth-most catches and touchdowns and was third in yards. And he put up those numbers on an offense that had Jason Witten set an NFL record for catches in a season by a tight end (110) and Bryant explode for 92 catches for 1,382 yards and 12 touchdowns.
The knocks on Austin seem to be that he's always got some kind of nagging injury that either keeps him from playing or limits his production, and that he hasn't lived up to his brilliant 2009 numbers. Valid points both, but sometimes I think we have to step back and think about what our expectations for these guys really are and what they should be. Austin remains one of the Cowboys' starting wide receivers. Even if Williams comes quickly, the best arrangement for the Dallas offense when it goes to three wide receivers will be Bryant and deep-threat Williams on the outside with the versatile Austin moving inside to play the slot. Austin can play anywhere, and produces better than your average No. 2 wide receiver. I think it's probably a good idea for fans to remember he is still a very valuable guy, and stop rushing to get rid of him.
Feeling good: The game is at FedEx Field, which matters. The Ravens are 27-4 at home and 18-17 on the road the past four seasons. Even with key defensive players such as Ray Lewis, Lardarius Webb and probably Terrell Suggs out with injuries, the Ravens would seem a far more daunting opponent if the game were being held 33 miles up the road in Baltimore. The Ravens' defense isn't what it used to be. Baltimore allows 125.8 rushing yards per game, while the Redskins' rush offense is the best in the league at 167.2 yards per game. Most people expect the Redskins to confuse the Ravens' defense with their pistol formation and read-option plays behind fantastic rookie quarterback Robert Griffin III, and that's entirely possible. But they're also pretty good when they just line up and run it between the tackles with rookie running back Alfred Morris.
Cause for concern: I don't like the secondary matchups for the Redskins, particularly with cornerback Cedric Griffin starting a four-game suspension this week. The Ravens' receivers are either fast enough (Torrey Smith) or savvy enough (Anquan Boldin) to win consistently against what's left of the Washington defensive backs, and it's easy to see this being a nice rebound game for Baltimore quarterback Joe Flacco after a tough game last week against the Steelers.
Then, the mistakes started rolling in. An illegal use of the hands penalty on Kenyon Coleman on third-and-two led to the game-tying touchdown. A Tyron Smith holding penalty on the ensuing drive cost them 10 yards in Baltimore territory, and three plays later Tony Romo threw a bad-decision interception under pressure. They struggled to cover Anquan Boldin as the Ravens marched down the field. They were called for two penalties on a play that ended up being a 19-yard Torrey Smith touchdown catch. And to top it all off, rookie cornerback Morris Claiborne, their first-round pick from April's draft, injured himself on that play and limped off to the locker room.
A promising start has indeed turned ugly, and the Cowboys trail the Ravens 17-10 at the half.
There are positives signs, of course, and the most positive is the Cowboys have been a physically dominating team on offense this afternoon. That has not been the case, really, in any of their games this year, and if they can avoid becoming flustered and stick with their run-heavy game plan they certainly retain a chance to win. The penalties have to stop, though, because the Cowboys' loss of momentum in the second quarter appeared to be a direct result of the unforced errors that cost them yards.
If you turn the ball over nine times in your first two games but win them both, your defense must be doing something right. Such is the case with the Philadelphia Eagles, whose defense is playing at a much higher level than it was at this time last season. Whether it's the addition of DeMeco Ryans at middle linebacker or the depth and energy brought in by all of the rookies who are seeing significant time, the Eagles' defense has a different feel about it this year. In this week's Blogger Blitz video, I talk about how different it felt in the Eagles' locker room Sunday, with players talking about specific defensive schemes and the success they did or didn't have with them as opposed to saying things like, "We need somebody to step up."
For example, an energized cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha said the plan the Eagles made last week was for him to cover Baltimore receiver Anquan Boldin and for Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie to cover Torrey Smith, who's a faster straight-line runner while Boldin is a little more shifty. The Eagles settled on those matchups but also decided that, when Boldin went inside, they'd leave him to rookie Brandon Boykin because they wanted to keep Boykin on the slot receiver. Now, that did leave Asomugha on Jacoby Jones, who beat him for a touchdown and nearly beat him for another. And that's something to watch going forward -- whether high-end speed guys are tough matchups for Asomugha at this stage in his career. But I don't recall one time last season when an Eagles defensive player talked so enthusiastically about the way he was working and planning in conjunction with his coaches and teammates in advance of the game. Not to say it wasn't happening, but everyone seems more engaged this season.
Because Asomugha is my example, of course I think it's possible that new secondary coach Todd Bowles is a part of this new vibe. And certainly, everybody has to be more comfortable in Juan Castillo's second season as defensive coordinator, if only because that seems less weird this season. It's a combination of many factors that has the Eagles playing very tight defense so far, and if the offense ever gets its ball-security act together, the Eagles could be one of the better teams in the league.
Playing for the Detroit Lions was something that Foote had always dreamed about -- until it actually happened. He wasn't a great fit in Jim Schwartz's 4-3 scheme. In Pittsburgh, he was excellent in the 3-4 scheme. He's starting to show a little age but he's capable of starting for another two seasons or so.
Redskins linebackers coach Lou Spanos coached Foote in Pittsburgh, so there's a familiarity in place. It sounds like the Cardinals will be the Redskins' biggest competitors for Foote. And after losing Karlos Dansby, Antrel Rolle (released) and Anquan Boldin (traded), the Cardinals are suddenly in a desperate situation.
The Redskins have taken a methodical approach to free agency (by their standards). We'll keep you posted if anything transpires over the weekend.
Boldin has been an incredibly productive receiver in the league -- as evidenced by his five 1,000-yard seasons. The Cowboys' Roy Williams is still sitting on a single 1,000-yard season. And Dallas had to give up a first, third and sixth-round pick to land him during the '08 season.
Can you imagine Miles Austin lining up across from Boldin in the Cowboys' offense? OK, stop doing that to yourself.
Casey from West Liberty, W.Va., is concerned about the Cowboys' WR situation: Please tell me that Dallas is considering other options at wide receiver aside from Roy Williams at this point. You've got to think that if you can get Anquan Boldin for a second rounder at this point you pull the trigger, don't you?
Mosley: So we're back around to Boldin trade scenarios? I'd missed those days so much. I think the Cowboys would be better off adding a wide receiver via the draft. It looks like second-year player Kevin Ogletree could develop into a No. 2 or 3 receiver if he's given enough attention. That's why I don't think the Cowboys need to select someone such as Golden Tate at No. 27 overall. Let's remember that Miles Austin and Ogletree were both undrafted. And Patrick Crayton has had a very nice career after being selected in the seventh round. There's no pressure to send a second-round pick to the Cardinals for Boldin. He wants to be a No. 1 receiver. That's not going to happen in Dallas, where Austin's quickly become the main man. And you also have the highest paid No. 2 receiver in the game in Williams.
Mike from Richmond, Va., has a question about the Skins' RBs situation: So I hear Thomas Jones is going to be released. Do you think this is someone the Redskins would be interested in? Everyone is saying how much Shanny likes LT. I would think Jones would still have more in the tank. Thoughts?
Mosley: Everyone who's saying that Mike Shanahan loves LaDainian Tomlinson is exactly right, Mike. I think the coach has immense respect for Tomlinson after being battered by the running back in the AFC West. As AFC West blogger Bill Williamson told me this past week, Shanahan always covets players who have stuck it to him in the past. That said, I think you're correct to say that Jones has more left in the tank. He's arrived at that magic age where his skills begin to decline, but he could still be effective as a complementary back. Would he be happy splitting carries with Clinton Portis in Washington? Well, he may not have a choice. Honestly, I think Chester Taylor might be a better fit than Jones in Washington.
Joseph from Bloomer, Wis., wants to talk about the Eagles' plans for free agency: Matt, what do you think the chances are that the Eagles make a big splash in free agency this offseason? Do they make a serious run for Julius Peppers? What about Darren Sproles? (I know there's more serious needs than RB, but he might fit in nicely.) Is there someone else on their radar that we're not hearing about? Do they go after someone big or do they stick with their usual M.O. and try to build through the draft? And how do you see the potential uncapped year affecting how the Eagles go about business? It seems like the majority of teams are going to do the opposite of what most initially expected and limit their spending as opposed to going all "NY Yankees" on the league. Thanks for the excellent offseason coverage!
Mosley: New general manager Howie Roseman opted not to speak with the media during the combine, so I can only go on what I'm hearing from other folks from the organization. I'd be surprised if the Eagles threw a bunch of money at Peppers. They know what it's like to sink a ton of money into an elite pass-rusher and basically come up empty. (See Jevon Kearse). There's a concern from people who've been around Peppers that he doesn't truly love the game. Something tells me that Andy Reid and president Joe Banner, the true power brokers, aren't looking to get into business with a guy like Peppers. I think it's more likely the Eagles will look for a pass-rusher in the draft. But I'd try to find a starting safety via a trade or free agency. It's a lot to ask of a rookie to step in and start at safety. Just ask Macho Harris about that. Even if you select someone like Taylor Mays or Nate Allen, it's not like you feel great at the position immediately. As long as you don't have to spend wildly, I'd go after someone like Darren Sharper from the Saints. He's getting older, but he's still a highly productive player. I've read the stuff about how Tracy Porter was the key to that secondary, but you'd be crazy to think the Saints would've made it to the Super Bowl without Sharper.
|Quarterbacks Donovan McNabb and Jason Campbell lead the two most overrated teams in the Beast.|
Posted by ESPN.com's Matt Mosley
It's much too early to make any sweeping statements about the '09 season, but I'm planning to do it anyway. The NFC East is overrated.
I know the division is still showing up atop ESPN.com's Power Rankings -- now syndicated in more than 100 nations -- but that will soon change. The NFC North, commonly referred to as the Favre Division, is on pace to overtake the Beast by next Tuesday -- especially if John "The Professor" Clayton continues to rank the mighty New York Giants sixth overall.
As a former power rankings panelist, I believe the Giants are the best team in the league heading into Week 4. But after that, all bets are off. The Cowboys are 2-1, but our four distinguished voters don't even have them in the top half of the league (No. 17). And only by the grace of God and Clayton did the Redskins end up at No. 26 overall. They deserved much worse after their performance in Detroit.
Now let's take a look at all four teams to see where we may have overrated them. We'll assign them an overrated score on a 1-10 scale. The teams with the highest scores are the most overrated. If you're confused by this ranking system, please skip to the next blog entry:
Anyone who says they have the Eagles figured out is not being truthful: Seriously, how in the world are we supposed to have any feel for this team? They opened by destroying Jake Delhomme's fake elbow and the rest of the Panthers. Now that the Panthers are 0-3, that win doesn't seem quite as impressive. And the Eagles' defense, an alleged strength after Week 1, was awful against the high-flying Saints. The Eagles bounced back with a dominating performance against the Chiefs, but that's a team most teams should dominate.
Eagles coach Andy Reid has brought in the prototypical Wildcat quarterback in Michael Vick, but the formation had nothing to do with the Eagles' win over the Chiefs. The Eagles have an aging star quarterback recovering from a cracked rib and an aging star running back trying to bounce back from an ankle injury. There are simply too many uncertainties in Philly to make any logical guess as to where this team is headed. Reid made the mistake of banking on the highly unpredictable Shawn Andrews to start at right tackle. That's already backfired and I'm not convinced Winston Justice is the answer. Some of us thought the Eagles might have one of the better offensive lines in football heading into the season. That doesn't appear to be the case now.
Overrated factor: 7
I'm pretty sure the Cowboys' pass rush is overrated: The Cowboys are about to face one of the worst 3-0 teams (Denver Broncos) since the merger. After wins over Denver and Kansas City, Dallas will head into a bye with a nice-looking 4-1 record. But there are still some flaws that have emerged. A year removed from leading the league in sacks, the Cowboys were shut out the first two games. They had three sacks in the Monday night win over the Panthers, but two of them came after the game had already been decided.
The Cowboys won't win many games scoring 14 points on offense, although they pulled it off against Carolina. Offensive coordinator Jason Garrett seems to be realizing that this team has a new identity. In the post-T.O. era, the Cowboys' best chance for success is in a run-based offense. When Marion Barber, Felix Jones and Tashard Choice are all healthy, the Cowboys potentially have the most dangerous running attack in the league. Unfortunately, Jones and Barber appear to be injury prone at this point in their careers. This may sound crazy, but I think the Cowboys are actually the most underrated team in the division right now. Our power rankings specialists put them at No. 17, which seems ridiculously low.
If this team can find anyone to rush the quarterback opposite DeMarcus Ware (hello, Anthony Spencer?), the Cowboys could get on a roll.
Overrated factor: 3
Why do we always fall for the Skins' offseason tricks? Most of us had the Redskins finishing fourth in the division, but a few brave souls (Mort) felt like they belonged in the playoff conversation. The signing of All-Pro defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth was supposed to make this an intimidating defense. But when Lions rookie Matt Stafford calmly picks your defense apart in a 99-yard drive early in a game, you have some problems.
Redskins owner Dan Snyder spent an enormous amount of money on Haynesworth and cornerback DeAngelo Hall in the offseason, but he neglected other areas. Take the offensive line for instance. The Skins brought in Derrick Dockery to address one of the guard spots and they plucked Mike Williams from the Duke weight loss program. The Skins' other starting guard, Randy Thomas, is already out for the season with a triceps injury and he's been replaced by a former third-round pick who appears to be nothing more than a stopgap.
Throw in the team's embattled head coach/quarterback guru Jim Zorn and you have the recipe for a 6-10 season.
Overrated factor: 9.3
At least the Giants are pulling their weight. Unlike some other coaches in the Beast, Tom Coughlin never makes excuses for his team. This a locker room that has battled through a lot of adversity over the past couple years and it seems to inspire the team rather than bring it down. Losing safety Kenny Phillips to a season-ending knee injury is a big deal because he was on his way to becoming a star, but this team will recover.
Eli Manning's also gaining confidence in his young receivers each week. We spent a large portion of the offseason tracking rumors about Anquan Boldin and Braylon Edwards, but the Giants are getting it done with in-house players. Steve Smith and Mario Manningham have already made some clutch plays this season. I think beating the Cowboys in a close game in front of more than 100,000 fans is something that gave this team a huge boost.
The Giants have definitely replaced the Eagles as the Beast's flagship team. And I don't see that changing any time soon.
Overrated factor: 3.2
Posted by ESPN.com's Matt Mosley
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2. The Skins' red-zone offense: How awful was that? The Redskins moved the ball up and down the field, but they kept settling for short field goals. They're very lucky the Rams had a turnover in the fourth quarter -- or they probably lose that game. Coach Jim Zorn tried to show confidence in his offense by going for it on fourth-and-1 late in the game. They rewarded him by getting stuffed. And don't blame this one on Jason Campbell. There were two touchdowns dropped in the end zone. You have to put points on the board to beat most of the teams in the league. Good thing the Redskins were playing the Rams.
3. The Eagles' D: It's tough to single out an individual when an entire unit plays so poorly. You knew Drew Brees was going to live off the three-step drop -- yet there was almost no resistance offered. A week after causing seven turnovers by the Panthers, the Eagles' defense didn't have a chance against the Saints. This was a really big spot for the defense, too, because of the loss of Donovan McNabb. Just a poor overall effort. And let's give the special teams a mention for its horrid play. The Ellis Hobbs fumble at the start of the second half on a kickoff return pretty much set the tone.
Of the 32 articles I did about each team's biggest weakness, this one was the last I wrote. I just couldn't really come up with much. That doesn't mean the Eagles are far and away the top team in the league right now, but they are the team with fewest holes.
However, adding an established wideout such as Anquan Boldin or another star of a similar pedigree would have made an excellent team even better.
Obviously, DeSean Jackson was a pleasant surprise in his rookie year, pretty much asserting himself as Donovan McNabb's go-to guy -- if this team has such a thing. He is a big play waiting to happen and is terrific with the ball in his hands, but he also isn't the most polished or mature player around. He is undersized and doesn't play big, and he managed only two touchdown grabs last year. Jackson isn't a big-time red zone threat and probably will never be a No. 1 wideout in this league.
|Tom Hauck/Getty Images|
|Eagles wide receiver DeSean Jackson was the No. 1 target for Donovan McNabb last season.|
Jeremy Maclin is a terrific prospect I am very high on. Sooner rather than later, he should become Philadelphia's best wideout. But my problem here is that he is somewhat similar to Jackson and Curtis in that he isn't a real developed route-runner and does most of his best work after the catch. Maclin is well built, though, and will go over the middle, showing the toughness you like to see. He will be fine, but having the top three wideouts with mostly the same strengths and weaknesses is a curious approach. That being said, passing on Maclin on draft day would have been foolish.
Hank Baskett, Reggie Brown and Jason Avant are dissimilar to the three mentioned above, but putting them on the field over one of the more explosive guys doesn't make a ton of sense either. Of the three, I prefer Avant due to his sticky hands and overall reliability, but how much action will any of the three get?
The Eagles are strong. The offensive line should be improved and their running back depth is excellent -- assuming Brian Westbrook comes back to full strength. The Eagles' wide receiver position is also improved from a year ago, when the Eagles made it to the NFC Championship Game. But to me, adding an established player like Boldin would have been the best approach for a team this close.
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Posted by ESPN.com's Matt Mosley
Thanks once again for planning your weekend around the Mailbag. It's a labor of love -- especially for those of you who read the whole thing. I've been asked to limit the Bag to 3,000 words this weekend. We have lots of ground to cover, so let's cut the monologue short and go right to your questions.
RodeoJones000 left this question in the "comments" section Friday afternoon: Matt, thanks for the blog. It's the first thing (and usually the second through 12th thing) I check online each day. In regards to Westbrook, assuming it's not as serious as some are implying, do you think this could actually be a blessing in disguise for Philly? Westbrook gets another thing done to help ensure his heath, and he gets to rest up for the season. And [LeSean] McCoy then gets to spend training camp running with the first team and learning the offense. Again, this is assuming Westbrook's procedure was just a simple "cleaning" and not a sign of something serious.
And also regarding Westbrook, do you think the Eagles go out and sign someone as insurance just in case he's hurt more than he's saying? If so, any idea who?
Mosley: RodeoJones, we really appreciate your efforts. You doubled our numbers last week with all those clicks. And, no, I don't think it's necessarily a good thing for Westbrook to go through yet another surgery. No matter what spin the Eagles on it, Westbrook's been cut on twice this offseason. And he's nearing that stage of his career when running backs often seen their numbers start to fall off. McCoy would've received plenty of reps whether or not Westbrook was out. And none of the guys out there really do much for me. The Giants have an embarrassment of riches at tailback, but they probably don't want Danny Ware turning into the next Ryan Grant. Lorenzo Booker's still on the roster, but he hasn't been able to get on the field. And that was the case for him in Miami, too. As NFC Beast senior correspondent Sal Paolantonio wrote Thursday, Edgerrin James and Rudi Johnson are names to consider. I don't think James really fits what the Eagles are trying to do. Johnson might be a little better fit. And Warrick Dunn might be a better fit than either one of those guys.
Pete R. is worried about Cowboys offensive coordinator Jason Garrett: I'm wondering if Garrett did the right thing staying in Dallas. If they do well, Phillips gets the credit. If they do poorly, most likely they'll both get the axe. I can't see Jerry Jones deciding that after a bad season, he needs to get rid of Wade, but keep his OC. Should Jason have pursued the opportunities that were out there last year?
Mosley: Garrett did pursue the opportunities that were out there after the '08 season. But he did turn down the opportunity to coach the Ravens or Falcons following the '07 campaign. I wouldn't worry about Garrett too much. He's the highest paid assistant coach in football at $3 million last time I checked. And if the Cowboys' offense succeeds without T.O., Garrett's star will be on the rise again. In fact, he'd probably receive more credit than Phillips. If the Cowboys have another poor season, neither guy will be back.
Gilldog41 says it's foolish to be concerned about the Cowboys' secondary: Matt, you ranked the Cowboys' secondary third in the NFC East? They were fifth in pass defense in the NFL and [Terence] Newman wasn't healthy until midseason and he's the best corner in the NFC. [Orlando] Scandrick and [Mike] Jenkins are going to be better than [Anthony] Henry. [Gerald] Sensabaugh will be better than Roy Williams/Pat Watkins/Keith Davis. And Ken Hamlin couldn't play any worse than he did last year. I'm loving their secondary right now. Its comical when fans are concerned about Dallas' secondary.
Mosley: When healthy, Newman is an elite corner. But he's struggled with injuries for two years running and he's in his early 30s. The Cowboys have asked Newman to back off some of his workouts this offseason in an effort to keep him fresh for the season. He's a finely tuned machine, but if one little thing goes wrong, he tends to break down all over. And I think you can make the argument that Corey Webster and Asante Samuel are both better corners than Newman right now. I agree that Sensabaugh's an upgrade, but it has to concern you a little bit that he was allowed to hit the free-agent market. He's an amazing athlete, but I'm not convinced he's the long-term solution. I expect Hamlin to improve this season, in part, because he'll trust Sensabaugh.
Bcohn17 has asked to make a statement: Matt, I just want to thank you for not having my account shut down for all the [grief] I give you. It can't be easy satisfying such voracious fans that are all in competition.That's it...no questions from me.
Mosley: Bcohn, I finally figured out how to pull the plug on your account. Consider this your final comment -- in this mailbag.
Skflogan has a question about the position battle going on at right tackle for the Redskins: With Jon Jansen gone, do you think that anyone that we have will be a good fit? To tell the truth, I'm not sold on [Stephon] Heyer. All signs point to him being the starter since that's what they had planned for last year.
Mosley: It's Heyer's job to lose, Skflogan. I think the Mike Williams comeback story is pretty compelling, but there's no way (in my mind) that he'll be in game shape early in the season. I think his best-case scenario is to make the team as a backup. And don't forget about Jeremy Bridges. He's a guy who's had some off-field issues, but he still has some ability. If Heyer falters, Bridges might be the guy waiting in the wings. Too many of you have bitten hook, line and sinker on this Williams story line. There's almost no way he sees the field in '09.
MJC121 wants to discuss a certain Cowboys wide receiver: Mr. Mosley, I want to know the role of WR Miles Austin this season. He showed signs of greatness last year. Is he going to be a major target for [Tony] Romo this year? And if he is, what kind of impact does he bring to an already diverse offense?
Mosley: At this point, Austin's actually Romo's favo
rite receiver. I'm serious. The two bonded big time in last year's training camp, and Romo has a lot of confidence in him. Romo and Roy Williams still don't appear to be on the same page in the OTAs I've observed. And Williams' insistence on talking about how Romo and him have "broken down boundaries" is sort of embarrassing. There's a chance that Austin is one of the Beast's breakout stars in '09. I had a chance to talk to him for a little while Friday. Everyone keeps asking him if he's going to be the No. 2 receiver. And you can tell it sort of frustrates him. In his mind, he has a chance to be the No. 1 receiver.
ProbablyJason is making things personal: Personal questions on the life of a blogger: Ever gotten to sit down with any of the owners? If so, who's the chillest to be around? Does the new Cowboys Stadium blow everything away or is it pretty standard, just really big? Did you go to school for journalism? Ever think you'd get such a cool job at ESPN?
Mosley: PJ, I've had the opportunity to sit down with several owners over the past seven or eight years. My first NFL gig was covering the Cowboys for the Dallas Morning News/Dallasnews.com, so I've had a chance to spend a lot of time with Jerry Jones over the years. I don't know if I'd call him the "chillest" owner I've been around, but he's had a pretty remarkable career. In my mind, his best trait is his thick skin. He never takes anything personal. and that's why we've continued to have a solid rapport over the years. I've had good visits with Dan Snyder, the late Lamar Hunt and Dan Rooney over the years. I have a tremendous amount of respect for the way Mr. Rooney approaches things. Cowboys Stadium is the biggest venue I've ever been in. Until you see it close, it's impossible to describe the size. I certainly wouldn't call it "pretty standard." It's about what you'd expect from Jones...I only took one journalism class at Baylor (Gould's travels), but I did a lot of writing in my English and History courses. I majored in speech communications with a minor in history. I actually attended law school, but decided pretty quickly that I didn't want to be a lawyer. Most of my professors supported that decision. I never really thought about working for ESPN.com. I grew up in the Dallas area, so the Dallas Morning News was my dream job. But my editor at the DMN took a job with ESPN.com -- and he took me with him. OK, that's enough personal stuff for one mailbag.
Jwuer has a Giants question -- thank goodness: Matt, I hope I can get a question in. I've never been able to. The Giants have something new in their WR corps that they have not had in the past, and it seems to be overlooked by the "No Plax/No Toomer" crowd. They have a ton more speed in their WR group this year. Hixon, Smith, Manningham are all quick guys and Nicks seems to have quick game speed. Do you think [Kevin] Gilbride will be able to effectively deploy this new explosive combination, and will Eli [Manning]be able to be accurate enough to deal with it? Also, do you see [Sinorice] Moss being a Giant at the end of training camp?
Mosley: Jwuer, congrats on your first mailbag appearance. Something you'll be able to tell the grandkids about. Regarding your question, I'm not sure it's breaking news that the Giants have some speed. Manningham, Moss and Hixon were all on the roster last year. I wouldn't put Steve Smith in the "speed" category. He's able to get open because of his route-running and he certainly has good hands. But no matter what he says, he doesn't have the speed to play wideout at this level. Nicks will remind you of Anquan Boldin. Big, thick guy who will do a nice job of running after the catch. He'll also work the middle of the field. So I don't think the departure of Burress means a whole new emphasis on speed. I think what will happen, though, is Manning will have an entire offseason to work exclusively with these guys. Manningham might be the biggest wild card of all the guys. I think the Giants love his potential, but they don't trust him yet. And you're right to ask about Moss. This is sink or swim season for him. He's obviously limited because of his lack of size. If he doesn't shine in preseason, it wouldn't surprise me to see him get cut. I think Smith and Hixon will start. And Nicks might crack the starting lineup midway through the season. Sorry we waited so long to talk Giants. That's my fault.
Jiggybree wants to go back to Westbrook: Are the Eagles hiding the fact that Westbrook's injury is more serious then originally thought? If so, will they look to the free agent market for a replacement, with so many veterans available? (IE- E.James, R.Johnson, W.Dunn)
Mosley: When you isolate the surgery that Westbrook had to remove bone spurs in his right ankle, it's not that serious. And no, I don't think the Eagles have a huge secret with Westbrook that they're "hiding." But the problem is that Westbrook's had a history of knee and ankle injuries. Those things add up. If he didn't have an history of ankle issues, we wouldn't give the bone spurs surgery a lot of attention. But this is a guy who makes his living on being able to cut on a dime and make people miss. We've seen what Westbrook looks like when he's not quite right (see '08), and it's sort of naive to believe that separate knee and ankle surgeries in the same offseason aren't cause for concern. And, yes, I think the Eagles need insurance at tailback. They need an instinctive runner who will perform well in the team's zone-blocking scheme. As I said earlier, I don't think James is the right fit at all. If you determine that Dunn still has a little something left, that's the direction I'd go. Rudi Johnson needs a fresh start, but I'm not sure Philly's a great fit for him either, Truthfully, there's no one out there who excites me. I'd give it some time and see what happens in the other training camps.
OK, we've surpassed 2,100 words. Alarms going off in Bristol. Thanks for your time.