NFC East: Antonio Dixon

Eagles' 'Dream Team' being dismantled

February, 25, 2013

The Philadelphia Eagles announced Monday that they have released defensive tackle Cullen Jenkins, who was one of the significant free agents they signed in their famous 2011 offseason spending spree. Jenkins was set to cost $5.5 million against the salary cap this year and leaves just $1.5 million in "dead money," so he clears some room for the Eagles under the cap. But the Eagles already were projected to be under the cap, so the move likely is about not wanting to pay a 32-year-old defensive lineman that much money at a time when a new coach and defensive coordinator are coming in and changing the plan drastically on defense.

It also is not likely the last such move the Eagles will make. Cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha, who was thought to be the prize of that year's free-agent class, is carrying a huge cap number for 2013 after two mostly disappointing seasons in Philadelphia. If he doesn't agree to a pay cut, Asomugha is likely to be released as well. Whether the Eagles need cap room or not, the Jenkins move shows they're willing to make veteran cuts for other reasons.

Cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, who was acquired via trade that same offseason, is an unrestricted free agent, and it remains to be seen whether the Eagles will try to bring him back. It's unlikely they'll get themselves into a bidding war to keep him if he hits the open market.

Perhaps the least heralded of the 2011 acquisitions has been the best. Guard Evan Mathis, who signed a new free-agent contract with the Eagles last offseason after a superb first season in Philadelphia, was an afterthought amid the big signings and trades in August of '11, but it's entirely possible that when the dust settles on this offseason's moves, he'll be the only one left standing. Defensive end Jason Babin was released during the 2012 season.

Jenkins likely could have made the switch from 4-3 defensive tackle to 3-4 defensive end in the scheme the Eagles appear to be installing. He had experience playing in a 3-4 in Green Bay prior to his time in Philadelphia. But the Eagles have other options for those spots, including Mike Patterson and 2012 first-round pick Fletcher Cox, and likely decided Jenkins was a luxury.

Because I know people will ask, yes, I think Jenkins is still a good player who can help someone. And I think he'd be a fine fit for the New York Giants or the Dallas Cowboys, who run 4-3 defenses and could use someone of Jenkins' versatility and pass-rush ability. Whether those teams will agree with me remains to be seen, but, yes, I think he could help either of them.

UPDATE (4:32 p.m. ET): The Eagles announced later Monday that they also have released Patterson, which saves another $3 million in cap room and obviously eliminates him as a replacement option for Jenkins. The Eagles' starting defensive line at this point projects to be Cox, Cedric Thornton and Antonio Dixon, although they're likely to look for upgrades in free agency and in the draft.

Could Eagles run a 3-4 defense?

January, 16, 2013
Jeff McLane of the Philadelphia Inquirer has a lot of good background information on the Philadelphia Eagles' hiring of Chip Kelly as their new head coach, including this:

Kelly favors an aggressive, attacking-style defense and will likely change the Eagles' scheme from a 4-3 to a 3-4, a source familiar with the coach's thinking said.

Well, that's interesting, no? And the way the Eagles played defense this year, it's hard to argue against change, even if it's for change's sake. But my first reaction is that I don't think the Eagles have the personnel to make this switch, and that it would require an even more drastic defensive rebuild than the one that faces them now.

Right now, they need to fix the secondary, but they have an excellent, deep, athletic 4-3 defensive line as well as a couple of good linebackers in DeMeco Ryans and Mychal Kendricks. If they switch to a 3-4, they need to evaluate what they have at all three levels of the defense, and here's what I think they'd find at the first two:

Defensive line: It's easy to see Fletcher Cox and Cullen Jenkins as good 3-4 defensive ends, but the Eagles would need a nose tackle. It's possible Antonio Dixon could be that, or they could draft Utah's Star Lotulelei with the No. 4 pick, but it would become a significant area of need if the Eagles did in fact make the switch.

Linebackers: Personally, I like the idea of Brandon Graham as a stand-up outside linebacker and I think Kendricks fits the mold of a fly-around inside linebacker in a 3-4, assuming he develops some. But I don't see Trent Cole making the transition to stand-up outside linebacker very smoothly. And Ryans, who was Philly's best defensive player in 2012, was just traded from Houston a year ago because he didn't fit anymore after the Texans switched to a 3-4, and the Eagles saw him as a prototypical middle linebacker in a 4-3.

The problem here, as Matt Williamson of Scouts Inc. said when I asked him about this, is that a switch to a 3-4 doesn't really benefit any of the Eagles' current defensive players. Sure, some of them (such as Cox and Graham) could make transitions, but it's hard to see how any of them would thrive as a result of the change. And if that's the case, that means the Eagles are going to spend this offseason and likely the next one trying to figure out which pieces fit and which spots require them to find replacements. Seems like a major project that would require time and patience, and that's not always something NFL fans and franchises are willing or able to offer.

Who will run the Eagles' D? NFL Network raised the names of Georgia's Todd Grantham and Florida's Dan Quinn as potential defensive coordinators under Kelly, and Adam Schefter says he's heard both as possibilities. Whoever it is will have a significant responsibility to rescue a defense that flopped more or less completely in 2012, and his ability to do that will go a long way toward determining whether Kelly's tenure in Philadelphia is a success.

On the Eagles' defense and 'risk'

September, 5, 2012
Because it can't just be Cowboys-Giants all day here on the NFC East blog ...

We did a post Tuesday on the Philadelphia Eagles being the second-youngest team in the NFL, which was a surprising bit of information unearthed by Eagles blogger Jimmy Kempski. Well, Marcus Hayes of the Philadelphia Daily News has some issues with the decision to go young in a couple of key spots on defense -- specifically at defensive tackle, where the team eschewed run-stuffer Antonio Dixon in favor of a leaner Cedric Thornton and rookie Fletcher Cox, and at nickel cornerback, where veteran Joselio Hanson lost his spot to rookie Brandon Boykin.
Hayes: Neither of these moves is likely to keep the Eagles from the Super Bowl. Any team that is a fourth tackle or third cornerback away from being the best in the league is not close to being the best in the league. But, depending on how their replacements play, either could cost the Birds a win. Maybe two. That is the price of saving money. The price of developing youth.

It's an interesting column, and it gets to the issue of the Eagles' current "Wide 9" defensive philosophy, which relies on aggressive pressure from the four defensive linemen and asks the linebackers to maintain gap responsibilities to limit the run game. Having watched the Eagles play this style of defense last year and this preseason, it appears to me that it invites a certain level of risk of the big play. There are going to be times when the run defense breaks down because the line overpursued and a linebacker was a step slow. And when that happens, the result is going to be a long gain in the middle of the field. The result is going to be the kind of play that makes the defense look very bad.

But the Eagles appear willing to take that risk, because the reward is (ideally) that they will pressure quarterbacks like no other team. They tied for the league lead with 50 sacks last year and would like to ring up even more in 2012. Their belief is that, if they are always in the quarterback's face, hitting him, harassing him, making him move in the pocket, forcing him to make decisions more quickly than he wants to make them, that they will succeed in the long run. And the big play they give up in the running game will have been worth it because, over the course of games and weeks and months, they'll be wearing down quarterbacks and forcing them into enough mistakes to overcome it.

That's the way I read it, at least. I think Marcus' point is well taken. I think the Eagles are inviting a lot of risk by structuring their defense as they have -- based on speed and youth and question marks in the middle of the field. But I think they've thought it through and are willing to take on risk if it means they'll be the best team in the league at getting to the quarterback. I think there's a fair amount of logic behind that plan. I think they see the Giants having success with it, and I think there are worse models to copy.

Whether it works or not could help decide the future of the franchise, as Marcus states in his conclusion. But along the way, if nothing else, it promises to be very exciting to watch.
Click here for a complete list of Philadelphia Eagles roster moves.

Most significant move: Mike Kafka went into training camp as the favorite to be the backup quarterback behind Michael Vick. But a combination of events led to Kafka's release Friday. First, he broke his hand in the first preseason game. Second, rookie Nick Foles impressed enough that the Eagles are now comfortable with him as their No. 2 quarterback. And third, Trent Edwards played well enough to convince the Eagles to keep him as a backup quarterback over Kafka. Backup quarterback is a significant position for the Eagles, as Vick has a history of missing games due to injury and there exists a strong chance that Foles and/or Edwards will have to start games for them this season. ... The answer to which defensive lineman had to go was defensive tackle Antonio Dixon, who was the final cut announced by the team shortly before 8 p.m. ET. That means Cedric Thornton and Darryl Tapp are still on the team, and the Eagles as of now have 10 defensive linemen.

Onward and upward: Nickel cornerback Joselio Hanson was cut on this day last year, too, but was immediately brought back at a lower salary. This year, that does not seem likely to happen. This time, it appears rookie Brandon Boykin beat out Hanson for the nickel corner spot, in part because he played well there and in part because of his usefulness as a returner and special-teams player. Hanson didn't have a great year in 2011, but he looked like a good nickel corner as recently as 2010 and likely could help someone. I wonder whether the Giants take a look, given their issues with health at cornerback.

What's next: Having cut both O.J. Atogwe (who couldn't stay healthy) and undrafted rookie Phillip Thomas, the Eagles are thin at safety. The only current backup to the starters is still-unproven Jaiquawn Jarrett, and even if they believed him capable, they'd want at least one more. Look for the Eagles to troll the list of other cuts to see whether there's someone out there who can help them beef up their bench a bit in the secondary.

UPDATE: Shortly after the cut deadline, the Eagles announced they'd acquired safety David Sims from the Browns for a conditional 2013 draft pick and released offensive lineman Julian Vandervelde.

Observation deck: Jets-Eagles

August, 30, 2012
Stop for a second. Take a deep breath. Now exhale, all the way. That's it. We're done with preseason football until 2013. Doesn't it feel awesome?

The NFC East's preseason finale was a 28-10 Eagles' exhibition victory over the New York Jets on Thursday night. None of the starters played, which didn't help the game's entertainment value, but kept any of them from getting hurt, which was the point. Those who did play obviously had their eye on Friday's 9 p.m. ET final roster cut deadline, and some of them were holding their final auditions for spots. These are their stories:
  • Trent Edwards, who was dropped by the Bills and Jaguars in 2010 and didn't play in the NFL last year, was an afterthought when training camp began. But he got a lot more preseason reps than expected after presumptive backup quarterback Mike Kafka broke his hand in the first game, and he played very well. Edwards played the final three quarters Thursday (after rookie Nick Foles, who's probably No. 2 behind Michael Vick after his own very strong preseason) and was 22-for-32 for 197 yards and two touchdowns. The Eagles plan to keep only three of their quarterbacks, and with Vick and Foles both locks, that means it's a choice between Edwards and Kafka for the No. 3 spot. This is Kafka's third year in the system, and if the decision is to be based on more than just this preseason, he still has to have the edge. But if they saw enough from Edwards that they think he could run their offense if Vick went down, he could surprise. He definitely looks as though he can run the offense, but he has been playing against backups, obviously. And his reputation in Buffalo was as a "Captain Checkdown" type who didn't make it through progressions. First-team defenses play with more speed and could bring that back out if he were to appear in a real game. Worth considering.
  • Jaiquawn Jarrett played well at safety, and he looks safe as the backup to Nate Allen at strong safety. I think Jarrett has very good physical ability, and in a game like this that doesn't feature any game-planning, a player like Jarrett can look very good, seeking out ballcarriers and delivering big hits without getting tripped up by complex scheme or communication issues. But that's okay. Jarrett needed to show something, and he did. O.J. Atowge, on the other hand, who is slated to be Kurt Coleman's backup at free safety, got hurt again and will have an MRI on his hamstring Friday morning. Atogwe couldn't stay healthy with the Redskins last year either, and it's possible the Eagles will be hunting for safety help after the cuts come in Friday night.
  • I think Bryce Brown has shown enough to make the team as the No. 3 running back ahead of Chris Polk. I also think Polk has shown enough that some other team will pick him up and the Eagles won't be able to get him on the practice squad.
  • Brandon Graham and the defensive linemen getting called for offsides is something I think you should get used to. The Eagles want their defensive linemen to be hyper-aggressive, so they'll be offsides a lot. And some of them (Graham included) are quick enough off the ball to trick officials (replacement or otherwise) into thinking they're offsides even sometimes when they're not.
  • It was interesting that defensive tackle Antonio Dixon didn't play. It was also interesting that -- in his postgame news conference -- Eagles coach Andy Reid said he'd "seen enough of" Dixon. Couple of different ways to read that, and a few of them make you think Dixon is the odd man out when the tough defensive line cuts come Friday night. I have to think they've at least looked into trading Darryl Tapp and his $2.6 million salary. But whether they can pull that off or not, Dixon can't be having a restful night's sleep.
  • I liked Mardy Gilyard as a college player. I liked him in training camp when I was at Lehigh this summer. I liked him last night, when he doubled back and caught that duck Edwards threw into the end zone before anyone else saw it for a duck. With Damaris Johnson likely ahead of him as a receiver and a special teamer, I can't see how Gilyard makes the team. But maybe another team saw something they liked.
  • Something to remember: Derek Landri and Joselio Hanson were among last season's "final" roster cuts, and both ended up back on the team. So some of Friday's moves will be procedural. The Eagles have some high-level decisions to make and will be cutting some good players.
The Philadelphia Eagles on Monday put defensive tackle Mike Patterson on the reserve/non-football illness list as he continues his recovery from offseason brain surgery. That delays their decision on Patterson until at least Week 7 of the regular season and answers one of the questions regarding their numbers game at defensive line, where they may have too many quality players to keep. But it doesn't answer them all. As Bob Grotz writes here, there are still decisions to make in advance of Friday's roster cutdown deadline, and one of those decisions could end up being a trade or release of defensive end Darryl Tapp:
"There's going to be a job somewhere," Tapp said with a grin. "We're all focused on getting better right here."

Tapp is one of six defensive ends with a strong case to make the Eagles' roster. Trent Cole, Jason Babin, Brandon Graham and Vinny Curry are locks, and Philip Hunt has played too well in preseason to cut. They also have a glut of defensive tackles, even if you don't count Patterson. Cullen Jenkins, Fletcher Cox and Derek Landri are all pretty sure things, and Cedric Thornton has outplayed Antonio Dixon so far in camp. Based on performance, Dixon could be the most likely defensive lineman cut, but he does still have potential to be a prolific run-stuffer even if he doesn't contribute what the others contribute to the pass rush.

So that's 11 guys, and they can't keep more than 10 and probably have to get to nine. Jenkins' ability to play end as well as tackle means they could ditch or trade Tapp if they wanted to, and they'd get some cap relief from his $2.6 million salary, which obviously matters. I would think they could find a market for him if they decide he's not going to make their team.
Good morning. Hope everyone made it through those nasty northeast storms okay. Kids thought the lightning was awesome. Wife, not so much. But it's all good. Kids like the links, too.

Washington Redskins

Jammal Brown continues to seek a treatment that will help him get back on the field quickly and avoid surgery. But the Redskins' right tackle isn't having a lot of luck fixing that troublesome hip of his. And until he's 100 percent reliably healthy, the Redskins are likely to go with others at the position. Read into that what you will with regard to Brown and his chances of making the roster.

You've likely heard of the league-wide trend of teams transitioning to the use of iPads to replace the old, traditional, clunky playbooks. Stephen Whyno takes a look at what life is like among the Redskins with that new technology. Makes nothing but sense to me. I have to believe textbooks are on their way out, too, for the same reason. You know, those things so many of you should be reading all day while you're on here instead?

Dallas Cowboys

Jason Garrett called Jason Witten's spleen injury "very serious," and that Witten would have to be "still and idle" for a week to 10 days. And while he would not entertain questions about Witten's availability for the season opener 20 days from now, Garrett did say Witten would miss the remainder of the preseason. Which, again, certainly calls into question his ability to play in a real game one week after the final preseason game.

The good news out of Cowboys camp is that rookie cornerback Morris Claiborne is expected to play in Saturday's preseason game against the Chargers. Claiborne missed the preseason opener with a knee injury, and the Cowboys are eager to see what their first-round pick has to offer in live action.

New York Giants

The Giants like to use Kenny Phillips deep, where he's as good as anyone in the league. Phillips says he'd like to move up a bit every now and then, maybe snag a couple more interceptions, show he's good at more than just that center-field role. Coincidentally, Phillips is in the final year of his contract, and interception numbers can make a free-agent safety look good. I'm not saying, I'm just saying. There's little reason for me to believe the Giants have any interest in changing Phillips' role in their defense, where he's one of the most important and reliable pieces.

For all of the excitement about first-round pick David Wilson, it's worth remembering that he's still behind veteran D.J. Ware in line for carries and the role of Ahmad Bradshaw's backup. Ware looks good so far in camp, even if there are still a few things he needs to work on if he wants to hold off the rookie and secure that job.

Philadelphia Eagles

Les Bowen has a breakdown of the decisions looming about the Eagles' 53-man roster. And with Cedric Thornton and Phillip Hunt both making the case to stay, there's a feeling developing that the final defensive line spot could come down to Antonio Dixon versus Darryl Tapp. If that happens, it could make sense for them to try to trade Tapp and his $2.6 million salary. Long way to go yet, of course.

Oh, and if there's one team in the league you're 100 percent sure would be intrigued about the idea of an Olympic sprinter that was interested in playing in the NFL, which team would it be? Yeah, that's right.
The guys at the Birds 24/7 blog are playing at 53-man roster projections these days, and after Thursday night's preseason opener it's worth asking how many of their excellent defensive linemen the Philadelphia Eagles are planning to take. Sheil Kapadia has them keeping 11, one of which is not Mike Patterson, whom he projects on the PUP list as he continues to recover from offseason brain surgery. Tim MacManus has them keeping 10, with Antonio Dixon the odd man out. But as Tim admits in his post, that seems less likely after Dixon was one of the starters Thursday night.

There are three more preseason games and weeks of practice still to go, and the Eagles will have time and a lot more basis for making these decisions. What's clear is that they are very strong and very deep on the defensive line. Assuming Jason Babin, Trent Cole and Cullen Jenkins all make it back from their various soft-tissue injuries in time for the regular season, first-round picks like Brandon Graham and Fletcher Cox could find themselves coming off the bench. Andy Reid told me when I was at their camp last week that the plan is to rotate eight defensive linemen and "throw fastballs at the offensive line" by making sure the four they have out there at any given time are as fresh as possible. Thursday offered at least some evidence that the plan can work.

I'm intrigued by the idea Tim raises of trading Darryl Tapp and his $2.6 million salary. The Eagles are projecting themselves to be over next year's cap by roughly as much as they're under this year's, so a little extra room (you can roll it over from year to year) might not be a bad thing -- assuming Tapp is the odd man out or all else is equal.
As Reuben Frank of reported Tuesday, Philadelphia Eagles defensive end Jason Babin has a strained calf muscle and could miss the entire preseason. Now, if he can get back in time for the regular season, this isn't devastating. Babin's role in the defense isn't overly complicated -- he lines up wide and tries to sack the quarterback -- and so the missed practice time isn't going to be a major issue for him. They will want and need him back, of course, but they won't rush him and risk further injury.

In the meantime, Sheil Kapadia writes that defensive tackle Cullen Jenkins and defensive end Brandon Graham have been getting the reps at left defensive end in place of Babin. Two different cases that speak to the type of depth the Eagles have on their defensive line.

Graham is the most interesting potential beneficiary of Babin's missed practice time. The Eagles' first-round draft pick in 2010, Graham has been kept off the field by injuries for nearly all of his brief career. If he is finally healthy, more time with the first team defensive line should give him a chance to show what he can do and give the Eagles a chance to figure out what they can expect to get from him as part of their defensive line rotation once Babin returns. He was believed to be the most polished pass-rusher in that year's draft, and while others have clearly surpassed him while he's sat out injured, there's no reason to believe he can't contribute if he can stay on the field.

Jenkins is, of course, one of the Eagles' starting defensive tackles. But his remarkable versatility is one of the main reasons the Eagles signed him as a free agent last year. During his time in Green Bay, Jenkins played defensive tackle and end in a 4-3 as well as defensive end and even some outside linebacker in a 3-4. If Graham can't handle the work of being Babin's replacement and rookie Vinny Curry isn't ready for those reps, the Eagles can feel very good about sliding Jenkins outside and replacing him inside with someone like Antonio Dixon, Derek Landri, Fletcher Cox, etc. The Eagles' depth on the defensive line, even with defensive tackle Mike Patterson still recovering from offseason brain surgery, is one of the strengths of their roster.

Eagles Camp Watch

July, 24, 2012
NFC Camp Watch: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South Dates

Three thoughts as training camps open around the NFL:

One thing of which I'm certain: The Eagles will dazzle in camp. You're going to hear and see a lot of stuff about how great quarterback Michael Vick looks, how focused DeSean Jackson is now with the contract stuff behind him, how healthy and explosive Jeremy Maclin looks. You're going to hear and see a lot about how much depth there is on the defensive line and how the defense is so good it's making it tough on all of those offensive stars to shine. Camp practices will feature breathtaking catches and interceptions, lightning-quick LeSean McCoy runs and reports of Vick doing near-impossible things at the quarterback position. The Eagles don't just look good on paper -- they look good in practice.

The question about the Eagles this year isn't about the caliber of talent on the roster -- it's about whether they can make good on that talent this year. And we won't know that until the regular season gets under way and we find out whether they can stop the run better, turn the ball over less and play tougher in the fourth quarter than they did in 2011. One thing of which I am certain, however, is that training camp will do nothing to tamp down expectations for this year's Eagles. They will spend the coming weeks looking exciting and getting their fans even more excited for the season than they are now.

One thing that might happen: Two rookies could win themselves a job as defensive starters. The camp-opening news that defensive tackle Mike Patterson is still recovering from his offseason brain surgery and isn't yet cleared to practice opens up an opportunity for first-round pick Fletcher Cox at that position. The Eagles do have some veteran depth at that spot, and Antonio Dixon and Derek Landri won't be easy competition. But the Eagles moved up in the draft to select Cox because they believe he fits their scheme well and can help generate pressure on the quarterback right away, and he should get enough reps with the first team to get a shot at starting Week 1.

Second-round pick Mychal Kendricks has more than just a chance to be the starting strongside linebacker. He's already working as the starter at that position and would need to play and practice poorly this preseason to lose the spot. The Eagles like Kendricks for his speed, which is a must for a linebacker playing behind the "Wide 9" defensive line alignment the Eagles use because he needs to cover as much ground as possible. He also could be an asset in blitz packages on the rare occasions when the Eagles use those. He's a rookie, so you never know, but the Eagles are proceeding as though he's going to be one of their starting linebackers. An Eagles team with Super Bowl aspirations could well come out of camp with two rookies starting on defense.

One thing we won't see: Asante Samuel. The veteran cornerback was known for livening up camp practices with his relentless and loud trash talk. The Eagles traded Samuel to the Falcons just before the draft in April, and practices will be a little bit quieter for his absence. The real impact, though, will be on the coverage schemes the team implements this summer. The conventional wisdom around the Eagles now says that they played a lot of zone last year to try to minimize the impact of Samuel's deficiencies in man coverage, and that with him gone they can use starting cornerbacks Nnamdi Asomugha and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie in man coverage, which is their strength.

That puts a lot of pressure on those two starting cornerbacks, of course, to deliver on the promise of the 2011 offseason in which they both arrived. But it's what they want, and the Eagles expect them to thrive in their return to their old, more comfortable roles. So if you show up to Eagles training camp and you're watching the defensive backs, don't expect to see a lot of zone.
Good morning, and welcome to a week for which we've been waiting quite a long time. The Eagles' rookies reported for training camp Sunday, and by the end of this week each of our teams will have held at least one training-camp practice. I begin my tour of the division's four camps with a stop in Albany to see the Super Bowl champion Giants on Friday and Saturday. It is a sign that the long, dull summer is nearing an end and that real NFL football looms around the next couple of corners. You are welcome to be excited. And to enjoy your links.

Philadelphia Eagles

The Eagles had hoped to have defensive tackle Mike Patterson back for the start of camp, but his recovery from January brain surgery is being watched closely by doctors, who have recommended he skip training camp and possibly sit out a few months for the sake of his own health. Obviously, the team wouldn't rush him anyway, since we're talking about potential brain injury here, but the Eagles have the luxury of being loaded at defensive tackle and can start Antonio Dixon, Derek Landri or first-round draft pick Fletcher Cox in Patterson's place.

Michael Vick isn't backing off last week's comments about the Eagles' potential to build a dynasty. Heck, he's not backing off of Vince Young's ill-advised "Dream Team" comment from last summer. Hey, look, you guys know how I feel about this, but I also think it's good that a team and its leaders don't care what the outside world thinks. Vick gets points for that. And while the only thing that matters now is whether he delivers on the big talk, he seems to know that, too.

Washington Redskins

One of the areas on which we'll have our eye when the Redskins open camp later this week is the tight end position. Mark Maske breaks down the questions facing Fred Davis, Chris Cooley and Niles Paul.

Another such area is the wide receiver position, where the Redskins have a few guys coming off of injuries and looking to use the coming weeks to show how healthy they are and convince the coaches they can be starters. Rich Campbell breaks down the questions facing Santana Moss, Leonard Hankerson and Josh Morgan.

Dallas Cowboys

Tony Romo made it clear last week that he was standing behind troubled receiver Dez Bryant and would do what he could to support him. Tim MacMahon thinks that should put to rest any questions about Romo as the Cowboys' team leader. The Romo-Bryant relationship is an interesting one. Bryant speaks of Romo in reverent tones, as though he'd follow him anywhere. Romo seems to understand the way the young players in the locker room view him, and that a guy like Bryant wants and needs to be led by him.

Tom Orsborn, taking his cue from Michael Irvin, thinks the Cowboys' priority needs to be helping Bryant, not deciding whether to cut ties with him just yet. Hmmm. Interesting take. Feels familiar ...

New York Giants

Veteran safety Deon Grant told his hometown paper he expects to re-sign with the Giants at some point during training camp. We have discussed this possibility here, and it obviously makes sense. The question is not whether the Giants would like to have Grant back, since they like him a great deal, but rather what role they have for him in their 2012 defense.

And no, this isn't about football, but I got a kick out of's interview with Michael Boley about his Call of Duty obsession. I guess who among us hasn't played a video game until the sun came up, and sometimes it's fun to see these guys as great big kids.
Whenever I do this, I think of Strong Bad. No one ever did it better than him. But we try nonetheless.

Matt from RI/Mass area had two questions, but the one you guys will care about had to do with Philadelphia Eagles defensive tackles. Matt thinks the team has several players who could fit the description of "starter" at that position and wonders whether, "with this lineup, there might not be a true starter or even a true consistent player at the position for three downs, or even two out of the three every series."

Dan Graziano: I agree, Matt, with your premise. As you noted, I listed Cullen Jenkins and Mike Patterson as the projected starters at defensive tackle when we looked at the Eagles' defensive line in our position-by-position series. And I think Jenkins is the No. 1 guy there. But the Eagles would prefer and plan to use a rotation at defensive tackle, with guys like Fletcher Cox, Antonio Dixon and Derek Landri working there as well. Defensive line coach Jim Washburn loves the depth he has on the line this year, and plans to take full advantage of it by rotating guys in to keep them all fresh. I think you will see a lot of substituting at those positions. In answer to your other question, no, no relation to Steven Graziano.

Jug from Seattle asks whether Washington Redskins safety Brandon Meriweather's April arrest on drunk driving charges could cause him to miss time, and who would step in at strong safety if it did.

DG: If it's Meriweather's first violation, it should not cause him to miss any time. DUIs are, I believe, covered under the substance abuse policy and not the Roger Goodell-run discipline policy, and there are specific guidelines for punishments that can and cannot be imposed. For instance, New York Giants lineman David Diehl was arrested on DUI charges this offseason as well, but it's been reported that he's not facing a suspension, just likely a fine. As for replacements, my guess is Reed Doughty would be the short-term fill-in if one were needed.

Mark from Fort Worth Texas asks whether I think Dallas Cowboys first-round draft pick Morris Claiborne will be able to hold up at the NFL level and generate turnovers.

DG: I do, Mark, yes. The criticism I had of the Claiborne trade was that I thought the Cowboys had enough needs on defense that they should have drafted two players with their first two picks rather than just one. But the player they picked is, I believe, going to be excellent. We can't know for sure how he'll react to the speed of the NFL game, and the adversity he'll face when he realizes (as all NFL rookies do) that he's not the most talented guy on the field anymore. Every player who's ever been great in the NFL has had to adapt to the immense skill level of the players around them in the pros, and Claiborne is no exception. But as long as he's the kind of guy who understands that and is willing to work to overcome it (which he so far seems to be), then yes, I believe his ball skills and his speed and his coverage instincts will translate well to the NFL level. I think he's going to be a great player, and I would not be surprised if he developed quickly. Might see some growing pains early in the season, but my sense is that, by December, people will be talking about this guy as a star.

And finally, Scot from Philadelphia was in the chat Tuesday (Thanks, Scot!) and noticed that my answer to a question about who was the best player in the division was Cowboys linebacker DeMarcus Ware. Scott asks, "if you are basing it on last year alone wouldn't you have to rank Giants defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul ahead of him?"

DG: I mean, (a) not necessarily and (b) why on earth would we base it on last year alone? Pierre-Paul was fantastic last season, and sure, you could argue that he had a better season than Ware had. But you could also argue that he didn't, since Ware had 19.5 sacks to Pierre-Paul's 16.5. Also, as great as Pierre-Paul was, he was playing on the same team as Justin Tuck and Osi Umenyiora, a couple of guys that get a fair amount of attention from opposing blockers. Very often, the second-best sack threat on the Cowboys after Ware is the possibility that the quarterback just falls down on his own. So Ware sees more double-teams. But the best answer is that Ware's done it for years. He's averaged 14.2 sacks per year over the last seven seasons, and has totaled 35 over the past two. I think the world of Pierre-Paul, and I believe he has the ability to be as good as any defensive player in the game. But if you asked him whether he's better right now than Ware is, I believe Pierre-Paul would laugh. Ware is the player he aspires to be. He could get there. He could be even better. But I don't think one year is enough to change the pecking order in the division.

Hey, folks. I'm on vacation. No mailbag next week. Nothing from me next week, actually. Be back soon enough, and I'll catch you then.
Our position-by-position analysis of the teams in the NFC East takes a look at the part of the Philadelphia Eagles' roster that's generating the most buzz in NFL circles this offseason -- that very deep defensive line.

Projected starters: DE Trent Cole, DT Cullen Jenkins, DT Mike Patterson, DE Jason Babin

[+] EnlargeJason Babin
Drew Hallowell/Philadelphia Eagles/Getty ImagesJason Babin (93) and fellow end Trent Cole combined for 29 sacks in 2011 for Philadelphia.
Reserves: DT Fletcher Cox, DE Darryl Tapp, DE Brandon Graham, DT Antonio Dixon, DT Derek Landri, DE Vinny Curry, DE Phillip Hunt, DT Cedric Thornton, DE Maurice Fountain

Potential strength: The pass rush, from all angles. Starting ends Babin and Cole had 18 and 11 sacks, respectively, in 2011 as the Eagles tied for the league lead with 50. Jenkins added 5.5 of his own, playing mainly inside but also showing the ability to move outside and play end when it was called for. Adding 2010 first-round pick Graham (assuming he's finally healthy) and 2012 first-round pick Cox to the rotation should make the pass rush even tougher, as each of those players was selected mainly due to his ability to get to the quarterback. And Curry projects as a pass-rusher as well, though it's unclear how soon he'll be able to contribute. Assuming health, Dixon should be in position to make an impact this year. Defensive line coach Jim Washburn has a ton of talent through which to sort as he determines which players are on the field in various situations.

Potential weakness: Even though they improved in this area as the year went along, the Eagles still ended the year ranked just 16th in the NFL in fewest rush yards allowed. They should get some help in this area from an improved linebacker corps. And Washburn's "Wide 9" scheme does appear to leave itself vulnerable to the run. But the Eagles must be tougher up the middle if they're to be the elite defense they believe they can be. Cox was drafted to help with the pass rush but will need to show strength against the run if he's to factor into the rotation with regularity. I projected Patterson as the starter next to Jenkins because the Eagles like him against the run, but he's coming back from brain surgery, and even if he's 100 percent he could certainly lose that spot to Cox or Dixon if either outperforms him in training camp.

Keep an eye on: Graham. This guy was the No. 13 overall pick in the 2010 draft. The Eagles traded up to get him. And while it's tempting to label him a bust (especially since they really could have used No. 14 pick Earl Thomas or No. 15 pick Jason Pierre-Paul last season), the fact is that injuries have kept him off the field and we don't actually know what he can do yet. The Eagles were running a different defense in 2010 when they drafted him, so it's possible he might not fit into Washburn's scheme neatly. But if all he needs to be is a pure pass-rusher, then his raw athleticism could be an asset. Again, assuming he can get on the field.

The weekly "Blogger Blitz" videos are up, and mine this week discusses the extent to which the Philadelphia Eagles have focused their offseason efforts on solidifying the middle of their defense. In spite of several moves they've already made at defensive tackle and the move to acquire a middle linebacker, the Eagles still could take a big defensive tackle in the first round of the draft two weeks from Thursday night.
So I was sitting here on Twitter, trolling for news, answering your questions and getting a kick out of the fact that Justin Tuck was watching (and tweeting about) the same "Big Bang Theory" rerun as me when it occurred to me that it was almost time to turn in and get some sleep. Before I did that, I just wanted to ask one question.

How was your day ...

Philadelphia Eagles?

"Surprising." You guys know I didn't think the Eagles intended to sign DeSean Jackson to a long-term contract, so when the news broke Wednesday afternoon that they had, I was stunned. It's a good deal for the Eagles, as almost all of the $15 million in guaranteed money is concentrated in the first two years and it saves them $6.6 million against this year's salary cap. And Jackson's happy because he's making a ton more than he did last season. The issue now is whether his production will rise along with his happiness. (And how long he'll stay happy, considering what other receivers are getting on the open market.) They signed Trent Cole to a four-year contract extension, and in the wake of the Jackson news the Philadelphia Inquirer reported that they were working on a new deal for running back LeSean McCoy.

The Eagles seem determined to take care of their own roster before dipping into the free-agent pool, so they're making little moves, too. Antonio Dixon signed his restricted free-agent tender, and Winston Justice got traded to the Colts in a deal that saw the teams swap sixth-round draft picks. That last was a salary dump, but it was one they needed to make. Guard Evan Mathis remains unsigned and is drawing interest elsewhere, but the Eagles still believe they have a good chance to bring him back.

One weird thing did happen. Late in the afternoon, Tampa Bay Buccaneers defensive tackle Gerald McCoy sent out a tweet in which he apologized to Bucs fans for being unable to lure free-agent linebacker Curtis Lofton to Tampa and said Lofton was going to sign with the Eagles. The Eagles quickly denied any contact with Lofton, and McCoy retracted his tweet. So it's tough to say what's going on there, but it bears watching. The Eagles need linebacker help, but the linebacker market is slow, so they can wait it out.

Dallas Cowboys?

"Outstanding." They got their top-choice cornerback, agreeing with Brandon Carr on a five-year, $50.1 million contract. They got their veteran, starter-quality backup quarterback, agreeing on a three-year deal with Kyle Orton. They added guard Mackenzy Bernadeau to their interior offensive line mix, where they needed (and still could use more) help. And they signed fullback Lawrence Vickers to replace Tony Fiammetta, who seems to want to go see what he can get on the market. According to, they have visits scheduled in the coming days with free-agent safety Brodney Pool and free-agent guard Nate Livings, so they're still hard at work trying to fill needs. The names may not be the splashiest, but the Cowboys have been down those roads before, and this measured, focused, need-based approach looks like the right way for them to go. A lot of money for Carr, yes, but they desperately needed a top free-agent cornerback, and that's what they're going for this year.

Many Cowboys fans were upset to lose wide receiver Laurent Robinson, who came out of nowhere to catch 11 touchdown passes from Tony Romo in 2011. But the Cowboys were never going to pay him anything close to what the Jaguars ended up paying him ($32.5 million for five years), and they shouldn't have paid their No. 3 wide receiver that much. They were prepared to go without Robinson last year. He was a bonus, a lottery ticket that hit. They'll be fine with what they have at receiver, and they can fill in Robinson's spot the same way they did last year, when they sifted through a bunch of decent-looking candidates and came up with Robinson. Don't sweat that loss, Cowboys fans. The team has bigger worries and bigger needs.

New York Giants?

"A success." They flew former Cowboys tight end Martellus Bennett in late Tuesday night, and they signed him Wednesday to a one-year, $2.5 million contract. They obviously see something they like in Bennett and believe that the coaching staff and quarterback Eli Manning can bring the best out of him, and they targeted and got him. They also got him on a very low-risk deal that will allow them to go in a different direction if he disappoints and their injured tight ends are healthy enough to return at the end of the season. Cowboys fans seem sure he will disappoint, and he very well may. But he's only 25 and he's got a ton of physical ability, so the Giants think maybe they're getting a guy right before he really takes off. The Giants also retained backup quarterback David Carr, which they wanted to do. What they'll do next I do not know. They need offensive line help and could use a veteran running back to replace Brandon Jacobs, but they'll be patient and target specific guys they like, because that's the way they operate. It seems to work for them.

Washington Redskins?

"Quieter." After racing out of the free-agent gates and signing two wide receivers before the sun went down on Tuesday, the Redskins made very little news Wednesday. Their trade with the Rams for the No. 2 pick in the draft became official, and we learned that they will host former Giants cornerback Aaron Ross for a free-agent visit Thursday in the hopes of adding him to their cornerback mix. They still haven't locked up Eddie Royal, who seemed poised to become their third free-agent wide receiver signing last night, and he's on his way to talk to the Chargers. And they have a visit set up with safety Brandon Meriweather. But the most-asked question about the Redskins is where they stand with free-agent linebacker London Fletcher, who was called a "top priority" in December by Mike Shanahan but remains unsigned. It's possible that this is where the salary-cap sanctions hurt the Redskins. Having lost $18 million in cap room this year (and $18 million next year) for violating the other owners' sense of spending propriety during the uncapped 2010 season, the Redskins might find a Fletcher signing trickier than, say, a Pierre Garcon signing. Garcon is 25, and they can spread out his contract and the resulting cap hit over five years. Fletcher is 36, and any deal with him is much more likely to be front-loaded. That doesn't mean they can't bring him back, but it could make it a little more difficult. Just a theory I heard from someone I talked to today.

My day was excellent, and I enjoyed spending it here and on Twitter with you. Much more to come Thursday and beyond.



Sunday, 1/25