NFC East: Asante Samuel

It isn't surprising that Eagles defensive end Trent Cole landed at No. 78 among defensive players on ESPN's NFL Rank Project. The question is whether Eagles outside linebacker Trent Cole will be as significant a playmaker now that he has moved in Billy Davis' modified 3-4 scheme.

According to ESPN Stats & Information, Cole recorded a sack every 75.3 snaps played from 2008-2011. That was ninth among players with at least 2,000 snaps played. Cole made two Pro Bowls during those years. Last season, as the Eagles tumbled to 4-12, Cole registered a career-worst three sacks -- one for every 232 snaps he played.

In Davis' scheme, Cole will rush the passer sometimes. He will also have to drop back into coverage more often. It is a tough transition for a 30-year-old player, but Cole said he feels he is in shape and can do it.

The bigger question, perhaps, is whether any other Eagles defenders will crack ESPN's Top 100. Former Eagles cornerback Asante Samuel, now with Atlanta, was ranked No. 80.

Eagles are a study in 'miscalculation'

November, 6, 2012
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Amid all of the perfectly justified rip jobs and sky-is-falling coverage of the Philadelphia Eagles' latest loss, this short item by Jeff McLane caught my eye. He's got someone with the Eagles telling him Andy Reid's bye-week firing of defensive coordinator Juan Castillo was a "miscalculation." This comes as neither news nor a surprise to anyone who's been tracking the Eagles over the past two seasons, during which it appears "miscalculation" has been the hallmark of the front office's game plan.

Yeah, when you watch the Eagles play, it's easy to get caught up in the on-field, in-game issues. Why don't they run the ball more? Why can't Michael Vick make pre-snap reads? Have they quit on Andy Reid? Stuff like that. But I think if you look back over the past two years, it's easy to see that the flaws with this team are flaws of construction, and that the miscalculations are myriad and extensive. A partial list, in no particular order:

    [+] EnlargeMichael Vick
    AP Photo/Brian GarfinkelSigning QB Michael Vick to a $100 million contract appears to be a costly move for the Eagles.
  • Deciding on Vick as a $100 million franchise quarterback based on the spectacular aspect of the way he played in 2010, ignoring the likelihood that his issues reading the field, making audibles and adjusting on the fly were too ingrained to overcome in his 30s. And no, it's not that they should have kept Kevin Kolb or that they didn't get great value for him in the trade. It's just that tying so much of their 2011-12 success to Vick is going to set them back as they head into 2013 and beyond. And the bust potential that Vick came with at the time of the contract was high enough to make it a questionable decision at best.
  • Signing Nnamdi Asomugha on the presumption that he'd play like a top shutdown cornerback, then playing him in zone coverage for his first year because they didn't have the guts to move Asante Samuel. This resulted in their having to trade Samuel for nearly nothing a year later, and Asomugha has struggled at times this year in one-on-one coverage against speedy wideouts.
  • Drafting Danny Watkins in the first round after hiring Howard Mudd to run the offensive line. Mudd found Jason Kelce in the sixth round, identified him as the type of guy who could play his scheme and quickly molded him into a top NFL center. Surely, he could have found a guard in the fifth or seventh that fit his profile and done the same with him, and the Eagles could have used that first-rounder on something more immediately helpful. And no, the Eagles could not have imagined the extent to which injuries would ravage their offensive line this season, but it does seem as though they could have found backup players better suited to adapt quickly to Mudd's blocking schemes. Perhaps if they hadn't been so focused on bringing in high-profile, ultimately useless skill-position backups like Vince Young and Ronnie Brown last year, this could have been more of a point of emphasis.
  • Designing a defense predicated on the down linemen selling out for sacks, then failing in 2011 to support the defensive line with anything resembling adequate linebacker play.
  • In 2012, after bolstering the linebacker corps, failing to adjust anything about the defensive line scheme even though the whole league knew they'd be selling out for sacks on every play. The extent to which opposing offensive coordinators have appeared to be ahead of Castillo, Todd Bowles, Jim Washburn or whoever's been in charge of setting up the Eagles' defense on a given week this year is staggering.
  • Making Castillo the defensive coordinator in the first place, then of course firing him during the bye week just because they felt like they had to do something.

Look, I understand this is an exercise in second-guessing. I fell for it, as did a lot of the people who have been writing about this Eagles team for the past two years. Philadelphia's roster-construction efforts the past two springs and summers looked good as they were going on, and I for one failed to spot the number of flaws that have ultimately manifested themselves. The very good lesson, for those of us who write the NFL, is as usual about waiting for the games to be played before making broad conclusions about how they will go.

As we look back on it now, though, not much the Eagles have done in assembling their roster over the past couple of years has worked. There's the occasional DeMeco Ryans or Fletcher Cox, sure. The DeSean Jackson contract is a good one for them, and I don't think it was necessarily wrong for them to spend resources this past offseason locking up cornerstone pieces like Trent Cole, LeSean McCoy and Todd Herremans for the long-term. But in terms of building a Super Bowl contender in the short term, Reid and the rest of the people who run the Eagles have failed spectacularly. The product they've put on the field simply isn't as good as they believed it to be, and they are likely to pay for their run of miscalculations with their jobs.

Asante Samuel ready for Philly return

October, 25, 2012
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So, as you'll surely remember, just before the draft in April, the Philadelphia Eagles traded cornerback Asante Samuel to the Atlanta Falcons for a seventh-round draft pick. They did not do this because they didn't like Samuel, or because they didn't think he'd play well this year. They did it because they determined that they needed his salary off their books and because they believed they'd be fine with Nnamdi Asomugha and Dominique-Rodgers Cromartie as their starting cornerbacks. They didn't think at all of what a pain in the neck those two names are to type next to each other all the time. They just went ahead and made the deal, without any of concern for those of us who write blog entries about them.

Samuel
Anyway, Samuel was much more offended by the whole thing than anyone else was. And as the Falcons prepare to play the Eagles in Philadelphia on Sunday, he's pretty fired up. Per the Philadelphia Inquirer:
"They better cheer for me," Samuel said to reporters in Atlanta. "They're going to cheer for me or we're going to have a problem right there in Lincoln Financial [Field]. All you all fans, all I did for you all, you all better cheer for me. Deuce here. Got nothing but love for you all."

Samuel returns with the undefeated Falcons. It was pointed out to the cornerback during a four-minute interview the struggles the 3-3 Eagles have had on defense this season.

"It’s kind of hard when 22 ain't there," Samuel said, referring to his jersey number. "Twenty-two keep things going for you. You just to deal with it. You make you bed. You got to deal with it."

I guess no one pointed out that the Eagles are actually one game better at this point in the season than they were after six games last year with Samuel on the team. It doesn't appear as though his absence ranks among their most troublesome issues.

But as we discuss here all the time, players do what they need to do to get fired up. And any player who's ever been traded, whether he's talked about it or not, gets excited to play his old team for the first time and try to show them they made a mistake. You'd better believe Samuel will be jumping a route here and there and trying to take a Michael Vick interception back for a touchdown Sunday. And if he does, you'd better believe he'll have plenty to say about it after the game.

The NFC East: Living in the nickel

August, 9, 2012
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One big reason cornerback Terrell Thomas is important to the New York Giants is that the Giants really like to use defensive backs. The Giants learned earlier this week that Thomas' latest knee injury would not require surgery and that he should be able to play for them this year. This is good news, because with Aaron Ross having left via free agency and second-year cornerback Prince Amukamara still developing, the Giants need Thomas. Not just as the starter opposite Corey Webster, but in the nickel and dime defensive packages they used more than any other team in the league last year.

According to ESPN Stats & Information, the Giants used five or more defensive backs on 734 defensive snaps last year -- more than any other team in the league. That number accounted for 68.5 percent of their 1,072 defensive snaps. Only the Green Bay Packers went with five or more defensive backs on a higher percentage of their plays -- 69.0 percent, or 724 of 1,049.

I know this because our NFC North blogger, Kevin Seifert, recently did a post about how often the NFC North's teams were in nickel or dime packages last year, and he passed along the chart he got from ESPN Stats & Info showing how often each team in the league went with extra defensive backs. That's how things work on the ESPN.com NFL blog network. We're a team. A brotherhood. Eight pistons firing as one. It's really quite beautiful to watch sometimes.

Anyway, I looked at the chart and noticed that the NFC East's teams basically lived in nickel and dime defenses. Well, three of them at least. The Giants ranked second in the league in percentage of plays with five or more defensive backs. The Dallas Cowboys were fifth, at 59.5 percent. The Philadelphia Eagles ranked eighth, at 56.8 percent. And the Washington Redskins were the exception, ranking 24th at 43.9 percent.

The Redskins had injury issues at safety, didn't like the job Kevin Barnes was doing as their inside corner and have very good linebackers that they don't like to take off the field. But the other three teams in our division ... they love them some nickel.

Back to the Giants for a second. Just because they used extra defensive backs this much last year doesn't automatically mean they'll do it again. They're deeper and stronger at linebacker this year, and they didn't re-sign veteran safety Deon Grant. That means, if they go to those three-safety looks they've run the past couple of years, the third safety would have to be someone like Tyler Sash or Will Hill. With Thomas currently on the shelf, there's a chance they could ask safety Antrel Rolle to play the nickel corner position, but that's not ideal. Michael Coe is likely the next corner off the bench if Amukamara is pressed into a starting role, and while he's looked good in camp, he lacks experience. The Giants liked linebacker Jacquian Williams in coverage late last year and in the postseason, and it's possible they could design more packages this year that use just four defensive backs, since their 2012 strengths may lie elsewhere.

The Cowboys' ideal plan is to start Brandon Carr and Morris Claiborne at cornerback with Orlando Scandrick and Mike Jenkins backing them up. Scandrick is good in the nickel spot, and overall this plan would give them enough depth to go to the nickel as often as they like. The issue right now, of course, is that Jenkins and Claiborne are hurt, and even if they expect those guys back for the start of the season, they're probably not getting to practice those nickel looks as much as they'd like to. Or at least, not with the personnel they'd prefer to use.

As for the Eagles, they're similar to the Giants in that they're stronger at linebacker this year and subtracted one of last year's starting corners when they traded Asante Samuel. With Nnamdi Asomugha and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie as the starters, the nickel spot right now is likely to fall either to veteran Joselio Hanson or (more likely) rookie Brandon Boykin. Curtis Marsh has been getting a lot of work in camp and is the first option off the bench should one of the outside guys get hurt. And undrafted rookie Cliff Harris has a chance to make the team and add depth. Given the responsibility the Eagles' linebackers have for run support and gap control in the Wide 9, it's likely the Eagles will lean on their defensive backs as much as they did last year, and play as much nickel.

A lot of this depends on opponents, too. The Giants, Eagles and Cowboys all like to throw the ball a lot, so when they play each other they structure their defenses to stop the pass. And having teams like the Packers, Saints, Falcons, Steelers and Lions on the schedule, as NFC East teams do this year, can make teams go to the nickel more. But if we're basing it on last year alone, our teams like to use extra defensive backs as much as anyone in the entire league.

Asomugha on comfort and coverages

August, 3, 2012
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BETHLEHEM, Pa. -- Nnamdi Asomugha is aware that his first year with the Philadelphia Eagles wasn't up to your expectations. It wasn't up to his, either. Even forgetting his own individual performance, the team went 8-8. Asomugha didn't pick the Eagles from among a crowd of frothing, free-spending suitors so he could finish .500. He could have stayed with the Oakland Raiders and done that.

[+] EnlargeNnamdi Asomugha
Drew Hallowell/Getty ImagesThe Eagles plan to employ more press man coverage on defense this season, which is what Nnamdi Asomugha is used to from his days with the Raiders.
But as he looks ahead to his second year in Philadelphia, Asomugha has reason to think things can be different. He likes the look and feel of the team in training camp better than he did a year ago, when everything and everybody seemed to have been thrown together all of a sudden. And he feels better about the change in the coverages he's going to be asked to play in 2012 as well. First-year Eagles defensive coordinator Juan Castillo used a lot of zone coverage last season, and this year they're going to be more of a press man coverage defense. That's what Asomugha played in Oakland, and that's what makes him and fellow starter Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie most comfortable.

"Look, a corner that's playing for Al Davis, he's in man. He's pressing," Asomugha told me after Thursday's practice. And Dominique, even, in Arizona, was doing that. So when you get two guys that did that a lot, you want to keep that going. Now, there are still a lot of zone concepts. He's still got me going inside a lot in dimes and in some nickels. But it's a different feel than it was last year. Last year, going into it, it was completely new. This year, going into it, I've got that fire that I was in last year under my belt. So the learning curve isn't steep at all."

Part of the issue last year was that Asante Samuel was still a part of the Eagles' cornerback corps and still a starter. Samuel is not a man-press corner, and so schemes had to be adjusted to account for that. And he was starting on the outside, so Rodgers-Cromartie had to work inside or ride the bench. The Eagles traded Samuel to the Falcons to make room on their payroll as well as in their defensive backfield for the things they were planning to do in 2012. The Eagles people with whom I spoke this week at camp all seem to believe Samuel will have a very good year in Atlanta. They just didn't think he fit in Philadelphia anymore.

Now, it's Asomugha and Rodgers-Cromartie at the cornerback spots, and many eyes will be on them as the defense looks to improve over last year's early-season struggles. A happy Asomugha should help with that, though he disputes the notion that he was unhappy playing so much zone in 2011.

"I wasn't unhappy with it at all," Asomugha said. "If Juan sees something and wants me to be in there and he wants to maximize my potential and not just keep me on the outside, I'm with him 100 percent. So I definitely wasn't unhappy with it. It was just, there isn't a comfort level when you don't know what you're doing. I think confidence comes from knowing exactly what you're doing and being the best at that."

The Eagles signed Asomugha to be the best corner in the league. And the expectations for him in 2012 are that he will play to that level. It's all set up for him to show why he was worth all of that fuss last July.

Checking in on Asante Samuel

July, 30, 2012
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Over at the NFC South blog, Pat Yasinskas has done a post updating the progress of former Philadelphia Eagles cornerback Asante Samuel. The Eagles traded Samuel to the Falcons just before the draft for a seventh-round draft pick, and many Eagles fans bemoaned the deal because of how little they got in return. It was the kind of deal that made you think the Eagles believed Samuel to be done as a player, and a few weeks back Jeff McLane of the Philadelphia Inquirer wrote that Eagles coach Andy Reid believed Samuel was in "steep decline."

Samuel
Pat spoke with Falcons coach Mike Smith and GM Thomas Dimitroff about Samuel and they said they're happy with him. Not a huge shock, since what are they going to say in the first week of camp? "The guy's a bum, I'm sorry we traded for him?" But Smith talked in detail about the kind of player Samuel is -- a cornerback who can match receivers' ability to play in space. And I think that's a pretty fair assessment. If they'd brought him in to be a shutdown, man-coverage corner, I think it'd be fair to say they'd made a mistake. But they didn't. They already had Brent Grimes and Dunta Robinson on their roster, and they likely can use Samuel in situations that play to his strengths. And he does have several.

I don't think, based on everything I was being told at the time, that "steep decline" was the driving reason for the Eagles' decision to trade Samuel. I think it was a money issue (i.e., they wanted to get rid of his salary so they could sign their younger players long-term) and a scheme issue (i.e., they wanted to be able to play their corners in man coverage more this season and couldn't do that as long as Samuel was one of the starters). Like Pat, I would not be surprised to see Samuel do well in Atlanta. If he does, I would not automatically believe that means the Eagles made a mistake. The Eagles didn't think they could use him anymore, especially at his price. The Falcons saw a guy who fits what they want to do. It's entirely possible it could work out well both ways.

Wandering Nnamdi Asomugha

July, 27, 2012
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Saw this story in this morning's Philadelphia Inqurier on Nnamdi Asomugha working the slot corner position Thursday in Philadelphia Eagles practice, and I'm sure my first thought was probably the same as yours: Didn't they trade Asante Samuel so they could play Asomugha on the outside? Here's what Jeff McLane (and Asomugha) had to say about the situation Thursday, and then we'll talk this over:
For one, it established Curtis Marsh as the third outside cornerback entering camp. But more important, it signaled that defensive coordinator Juan Castillo intends to use Asomugha much as he did last year -- as a roving defender.

"I think a lot of the time I'll be outside," Asomugha said Thursday. "But there are times we can have another guy outside and try to take advantage of other things on the inside. I think Juan is totally comfortable doing that, fine doing that. It's gotten better through the offseason."

I'm not reading a whole lot into this one just yet. If I had to guess (which I do, until I get down there Wednesday and start asking people), I'd guess it's at least as much about getting Marsh reps on the outside as it is getting Asomugha reps inside. Marsh looks like the first option on the outside if Asomugha or fellow starter Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie were to get hurt, and I'm sure they'd like to know what they have there in case that were to happen.

But I also think it's important to remember something about the motivation behind the Samuel trade. First, they did it because they were loaded at cornerback, Samuel makes a ton of money and they had/have a lot of their own young players they wanted to sign to long-term deals. But scheme-wise, I don't think they traded Samuel so they could play Asomugha on the outside. I think they traded him so they could play less of the zone coverage at which Asomugha bristled during his first season in Philadelphia. The thinking is that Samuel's deficiencies as a press-man cornerback forced the Eagles to play more zone to cover it up, and that got Asomugha out of his comfort zone. Even if he's in the slot, I expect you'll see Asomugha play more man coverage this season. And I think that's the scheme priority in the secondary.

Eagles Camp Watch

July, 24, 2012
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» 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.
Jeff McLane, the Philadelphia Eagles beat writer for the Inquirer, has been "emptying his notebook" over the past couple of days of some interesting tidbits regarding the team. Today's edition includes an item on the team's cornerback situation, and it's one of particular interest to those who still wonder why the Eagles traded Asante Samuel for a seventh-round draft pick:
[+] EnlargeAsante Samuel
AP Photo/John AmisIt appears the Falcons will be getting a motivated Asante Samuel, who was acquired for a seventh-round draft pick.
The Eagles are banking on Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie having a little extra to play for and that he'll be at least the equal of Asante Samuel, who was jettisoned in the offseason. I'm split on the Samuel move. Reid thought he was in steep decline and that his style no longer suited the scheme. The latter may be true, but I think Samuel is still better than his replacement. DRC has exceptional physical skills. He's a bit of a flake, but that can sometimes be a good thing. Can he sustain a steady dose of attention, though, with Nnamdi Asomugha playing his opposite? Asomugha was not consistent last season, but quarterbacks were still shy about throwing in his direction. If you had a choice between the two, who would you attack? The Eagles' backup plan, should DRC falter, is Curtis Marsh. The idea is that Marsh would replace DRC should the team decide not to bring the vet back for 2013. But Marsh could be ready this season, if necessary. The Eagles were already slipping him onto the first team for a few snaps during the spring, giving him a taste of the action. Marsh, like Asomugha and DRC, is a man-press corner. He's not as long as the other two, but he's long enough as the Eagles complete their shift away from short outside corners.

Coach Andy Reid would obviously know better than I would, but I don't know what indication there was in 2011 that Samuel was in decline. No, he wasn't perfect, but it's not as though he ever was. Much of the chatter out of Philadelphia this offseason has indicated that the team played zone coverages last year in part because Samuel was a weak man-press corner who made his name on big plays but wasn't much in coverage or tackling. But Samuel has always been that, and there's nothing to show he played any worse in 2011 than he had at any other time in his career. In fact, he was the most effective cornerback the Eagles had last year.

Now, you can postulate that the reason for that is that Asomugha was a poor fit in zone coverage and Rodgers-Cromartie didn't see the field consistently enough, and you may be right. The Eagles' secondary may be better this year with those two starting and playing man-press coverage. But I don't anticipate that Samuel's going to have a bad year for the Falcons. And in fact, stuff like this is going to fire him up. Here's Samuel's tweet (@pick_six22) from just before 3 pm ET on Friday:
I just finished reading the story on coach Andy Reid! All I can say is WoW! #fueltothefire #riseup

As I wrote at the time, I understand why the Eagles traded Samuel and why they couldn't get more than a seventh-rounder for him. He makes a lot of money and doesn't fit what they want to do on defense. But just as the Eagles may have benefited from that as the reason the Houston Texans were willing to trade them DeMeco Ryans, the Falcons might end up with a steal in Samuel, who is 31 years old and doesn't appear -- to these eyes at least -- to be finished as a player.
It's the weekend mailbag, where you guys send in questions and I do my best to answer them. It's a tradition that predates us all. Well, I guess not really, since it's on the Internet, and I don't think I have too many readers that the Internet predates. But you get the idea. I'll stop now. Questions.

Tom from Danbury, Conn. believes people are "overlooking" something about last year's New York Giants -- namely the run of injuries they had during the season, and the fact that their late-season and postseason turnaround coincided with the sudden health of folks like Osi Umenyiora and Justin Tuck. He writes that once "other units that were hit hard by injury (O-Line, Secondary) began to gel in their new configurations, the Giants were a much different (and better) animal."

Dan Graziano: No one's overlooking that, Tom. It's been written and analyzed and discussed a billion times over the past six months, to the point where it's become conventional wisdom. We assume it's a fact that the Giants had rotten luck for the first few months of the season and, once that abated, we finally saw the "real" Giants. But I've been thinking about this a lot lately, and I'd like to play devil's advocate. Yes, the Giants had a lot of injuries. They lost starters in the preseason and kept losing them as the year went along. But they're hardly the only team to which that happened. And it's not as though nothing went right for them during those first few months. The performances by Victor Cruz and Jason Pierre-Paul were of incomprehensibly unpredictable caliber. Corey Webster had a career year. Aaron Ross had a career year. Eli Manning had a career year behind an offensive line that played very poorly. Michael Boley played better than he had in prior Giants seasons. Mathias Kiwanuka was outstanding in a new position. It's not as though the first three months of the season were some brutal slog through impossible circumstances. The Giants had just as much go well during that time as they had go poorly. Yet, they were still streaky. I think it's possible that the January Giants were the "real" Giants. But I also think it's possible that the November Giants were the "real" Giants. I think the "real" Giants of the past three seasons are a team that can play like one of the very best in the league, but can also go through very bad stretches. And I guarantee you the people running and coaching the team would prefer a little more consistency between September and January than this group has tended to show. I'll judge them on everything they do, not just the good and not just the bad. To pretend the Giants are not a complex and unpredictable "animal" is to kid yourself.


Matt in San Diego wants to know why Philadelphia Eagles defensive coordinator Juan Castillo doesn't use more man coverage, that seems to be the strength of cornerbacks Nnamdi Asomugha and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie.

DG: Castillo's decision to employ Asomugha as a zone corner early last season has been universally panned, and for good reason. Asomugha didn't play it well, and he didn't seem to like playing it. My belief is that the Eagles played zone last season, in part because Asante Samuel's strength was not man coverage and they didn't want to over-expose him. With Samuel gone, I believe you will see Asomugha and Rodgers-Cromartie play a lot more man coverage in 2012.


Jack from Winston-Salem, N.C. says he knows it's "fashionable" to blame the Dallas Cowboys' defense for last season's collapse, but wonders why no one blames the offense. Jack thinks the offense was "inept" in the first 10 games, and would have won the division if it had scored just one more red-zone touchdown along the way.

DG: Interesting. The 2011 Cowboys' offense finished 11th in the league in yards and 15th in points. The defense finished 14th in fewest yards allowed and 16th in fewest points allowed. Those numbers make Dallas look like just about the most average team ever, across the board. The issue is the 29.25 points they allowed per game in their final four losses (which came in their final five games). The Cowboys' overall defensive numbers are helped by the fact that the defense played pretty well in the early part of the season, and collapsed as the season went along. So while the offense kind of is what it is (and was better when DeMarco Murray was a healthy starting running back) the defensive failures stood out at the end of the season, when they gave away the division lead in ugly fashion. To put it in modern sports-talk terms, it's a "clutch" issue. The defense vanished during the part of the season when it was needed most.


Greg from Greenbelt, Md. asks about new Washington Redskins receivers coach Ike Hilliard. Greg points out that there's been a lot of attention on new secondary coach Raheem Morris, but little on Hilliard, and wants to know what I saw and heard about Hilliard at minicamp this month.

DG: It's a good question, Greg. Obviously, Morris gets the attention because his last job was as a head coach. But Hilliard's position group is a critical one as well, and I promise I will pay extra attention to him when I visit training camp next month. I do remember Santana Moss saying nice things about Hilliard while I was there, but I did not hear anything to indicate any major changes in approach in terms of coaching the wide receivers. It's a good idea to file away, and I will remember that it's something in which folks are interested.

Enjoy the rest of your weekends.
Yes, the NFC East position series rolls on, a fine way to pass a slow offseason Friday. We're doing cornerbacks today, and this stop takes a look at those of the Philadelphia Eagles.

Projected starters: Nnamdi Asomugha, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie

Reserves: Joselio Hanson, Brandon Boykin, Brandon Hughes, Curtis Marsh, Trevard Lindley, Cliff Harris

[+] EnlargeNnamdi Asomugha
Drew Hallowell/Getty ImagesEagles cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha is at his best in man coverage.
Potential strength: Asomugha was signed as a marquee free agent last year, and should be one of the strengths of the entire team. As you know if you watched, he obviously had his moments, but he also had some rough spots. The conventional wisdom is that the Eagles played too much zone coverage last season, and that went away from Asomugha's strengths in an effort to minimize Asante Samuel's weakness. But with Samuel gone, it's possible the Eagles will play more man coverage, where Asomugha shines. With a full year in his new surroundings behind him, and assuming the coverage schemes are tweaked to make him more comfortable and use him the way he should be used, Asomugha should find himself in position to re-establish himself as one of the league's elite cornerbacks.

Potential weakness: The departure of Samuel not only eats at the team's depth at the position, it deprives them of the cornerback who actually played the best for them last season. Samuel's playmaking was an asset, and it remains to be seen whether Rodgers-Cromartie, whom they got in return for Kevin Kolb last year and is earning rave offseason reviews, can be the same kind of player. But the big question is that the nickel corner spot, where Hanson wasn't as good last season as he'd been the year before, and now faces a challenge from the rookie Boykin. With Samuel gone and Hanson a question mark, have the Eagles left themselves too thin at a critical position?

Keep an eye on: Harris. He was looked at as a first-round talent during a brilliant 2010 season at Oregon, but his 2011 season disappeared in a haze of suspensions and legal troubles. So he wasn't drafted, but the Eagles took a shot on him as an undrafted free agent. If he can keep himself out of trouble and focus on football, he could turn out to be a huge steal. He was an elite playmaker at a top college program just two years ago. And if not, no harm done. Lots of upside with this young man, and he's a guy to watch. ("Guy to Watch!")
Nnamdi AsomughaRich Schultz /Getty ImagesThe Eagles will be counting on Nnamdi Asomugha to be a shutdown CB again in 2012.
The Philadelphia Eagles' Michael Vick is under the most pressure of any player in the NFC East this year -- and the most pressure of any quarterback in the entire NFL. I have written this many times and will continue to write it because I believe it sincerely. Everything is in place for Vick to have a big year with the Eagles, and if he fails -- if he's as sloppy with turnovers as he was this past September, say, or if he breaks his ribs in the first quarter of a game and doesn't tell anyone until after the game is lost -- blame will smother him, and the Eagles will enter the next offseason re-evaluating their plans at quarterback.

But none of this means that Vick is alone in this predicament. He is, in fact, surrounded by people in similar circumstances. Coming off their 2011 flop, the Eagles have a slew of players on their roster with a great deal to prove in 2012. So in the interest of fairness, and not harping on the same guy over and over again, I present the five non-Vick Eagles with the most to prove this year:

5. DeMeco Ryans, MLB. Ryans comes with a great résumé and all kinds of stirring testimonials about what a great player and leader he was with the Texans before his 2010 injury. But he also comes with questions such as: Is he fully recovered from that injury? Can he still be a three-down middle linebacker, as the Eagles need him to be? Why did the Texans trade him for so little? The likely answers to those questions are yes, yes and because they totally changed their defense, and he no longer fit. But Eagles fans don't go in for promises. They're going to need to see Ryans perform the way they've been told he can -- on the field and in the locker room. My money says he'll do it, but if he does not, he'll be the target of criticism and scorn.

4. Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, CB. A year ago, they traded backup quarterback Kevin Kolb for him, and now they don't appear to have a backup quarterback. A couple of months ago, they traded starting cornerback Asante Samuel in part because they believed Rodgers-Cromartie was capable of being a starter. But Samuel is a very good player and had fans, and no matter how much financial sense that deal made, the Eagles still dealt him for a seventh-round pick in an obvious dump. Rodgers-Cromartie will be eligible for free agency at the end of this season, so he's already playing under that pressure. But if he doesn't play well, people are going to be asking a lot of questions about why they dumped Samuel just before a win-now season.

3. Brandon Graham, DE. He was the Eagles' first-round pick in 2010. They traded up to take him, thinking they were getting a disruptive pass-rusher who could step in right away and make a difference. Instead, he got hurt and has had trouble seeing the field consistently. Through no fault of Graham's, the New York Giants took Jason Pierre-Paul two picks later, and he has already become one of the best pass-rushers in the league. This continues to hang over the Eagles' heads, as they have so far received almost nothing from Graham. He will have to push for playing time behind starting defensive ends Trent Cole and Jason Babin, but in today's NFL there's obviously room for a third pass-rusher to make an impact. Graham has to stay healthy and make himself a factor in that rotation, or he's going to be carrying the "bust" label around Philadelphia for a long time.

[+] EnlargeDeSean Jackson
Drew Hallowell/Philadelphia Eagles/Getty ImagesDeSean Jackson has shown the ability to be one of the NFL's top big-play threats.
2. DeSean Jackson, WR. The dazzling dual threat of 2008-10 seems a distant memory. Jackson is no longer a feared return man, and he disappeared too many times in the offense last year. He has admitted on several occasions that his contract situation bothered him and distracted him from performing the way he and the Eagles believe he should perform. But the contract issue is settled now, as Jackson is signed long-term. And whether or not they use him on punt returns the way they used to, the Eagles need Jackson to be the game-breaking wide receiver he appeared to be for most of his first three seasons in the league. It's not enough for him to be a downfield decoy who holds safeties back and opens up opportunities for Vick in the middle of the field. Jackson has to do a better job of getting open and allowing Vick chances to get the ball to him. Because as we all know, once Jackson has the ball, incredible things can happen.

1. Nnamdi Asomugha, CB. The words "Dream Team" will stand forever as an ironic reminder of the failed 2011 season. Asomugha wasn't the one who foolishly uttered them (that was Vince Young, who's long gone), but he is the symbol of the high-hopes offseason the Eagles had in 2011. The biggest name among the free agents they brought in for what they hoped would be a Super Bowl run last year, Asomugha struggled in a new scheme and on a new coast. He was brought in not to be merely good but rather to be one of the best shutdown corners in the league. That is the standard at which he must perform in 2012, or he'll have to carry the label of free-agent bust in a town that doesn't take kindly to them.

What these players all have going for them is that they're very talented and well-coached and surrounded by talent all over the field. But in some ways, that only adds to the pressure they face. This is a big and important year in Philadelphia, and much is expected. There's more than enough pressure to go around.
[+] EnlargeNnamdi Asomugha
Drew Hallowell/Getty ImagesCornerback Nnamdi Asomugha says the Eagles are primed to make noise in the 2012 season.
Jeff McLane had a nice Sunday feature on Philadelphia Eagles cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha, who says he wanted to come to Philadelphia last year because he knew how hungry the place was for a championship and he wanted to be part of bringing one to it. Asomugha admits that his first season with the Eagles wasn't up to his standards, and he's thought a lot about why that is -- specifically, how much of what he was asked to do was different from what he did in Oakland. And he believes this year will be better, for himself and for the team. But I think what's interesting is the stuff in the story about Asomugha continuing to learn and understand the nature of the Philadelphia sports fan and community, and to continue to appreciate that playing in Philly isn't just about playing well:
"The reason why I liked it to an extent was there was accountability," Asomugha said. "Whereas in [Oakland], 8-8 was, 'Shoot, we reached 8-8!'"

Asomugha has good reason to believe things can be different this year, including the trade that sent Asante Samuel to Atlanta and should allow him and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie to play more man-press coverage in 2012:
During workouts this spring, Asomugha has been huddling up the cornerbacks and repeating the mantra, "Last year was about growth. This year is about showing what we've become."

"I think about how much sweeter it's going to be now," Asomugha said, "when we do it after what we went through."

Asmougha, the transplanted West Coaster, could have been speaking for Eagles fans who haven't experienced a championship for 52 years. He may not be from here, or even fit in, but if he delivers, the fans will love him for it.

Yes, I agree with Jeff's conclusion: The players and coaches who deliver the Eagles' first Super Bowl title will be all-time legends in the town, the way the members of the 2004 Red Sox will forever be revered in Boston or the members of the 1994 Rangers will never have to pay for a meal in New York. The idea of being one of those players would have to be enticing to anyone who has an appreciation for the drama inherent in professional sports, and Asomugha is the sort of man who appreciates his place in the larger picture.
Mike JenkinsEd Mulholland/US PresswireMike Jenkins isn't happy with his contract or his new role as No. 3 cornerback on the team.
Dallas Cowboys coach Jason Garrett said Wednesday the team isn't going to trade disgruntled cornerback Mike Jenkins. We didn't post on it here because we already knew this. Everybody already knew it. Even Jenkins, though he's let it be known he's unhappy with his contract and his new role as the team's No. 3 cornerback and would like to be traded, probably knew it too. He'd have to be blind not to.

Jenkins isn't making so much money that the Cowboys would want to dump him like the Eagles did with Asante Samuel. He's too good for them to trade for a late-round draft pick and not quite good enough to convince a team to offer an early-round pick. The result is that the team, as it tends to in NFL contract situations, holds all of the cards and is required to make no move at all in response to Jenkins' decision to skip offseason workouts. If he wants to stay home, he stays home. If he wants to skip mandatory workouts next month or part of training camp, they can fine him. If he wanted to sit out a whole season, they'd just run Brandon Carr, Morris Claiborne and Orlando Scandrick out there and take their chances. They're better with Jenkins in that mix and would like to have him, but they're not desperate enough to even consider granting him his wish.

Jenkins finds himself in NFL contract limbo, and if he's looking for a sympathetic shoulder on which to cry he doesn't even have to look outside his own division. The New York Giants' Osi Umenyiora is basically in the same situation -- he's unhappy with his contract, he isn't thrilled to be the No. 3 defensive end on his team, and he would rather play elsewhere. But he isn't getting traded either, because (stop me if this sounds familiar) he's affordable, he's too good to trade for peanuts, and he isn't going to bring back a first-round or second-round pick in a deal. The Giants are better off keeping an unhappy Umenyiora around than trading him for pennies on the dollar. It's the decision they made when he raised the same fuss a year ago, and they got 12.5 sacks out of him in 13 games (counting postseason) for their patience.

[+] EnlargeOsi Umenyiora
AP Photo/Evan VucciOsi Umenyiora did not attend the team's first organized team activity of the season on Wednesday.
If either Jenkins or Umenyiora really wanted to push this, there are two somewhat extreme ways they could go. The first is that they could sit out the meaningful stuff, like training camp and regular-season games. If they prove that they're willing to do that, then circumstances could, theoretically, improve their leverage. Say Jenkins is sitting at home in late August and Claiborne gets hurt, or Umenyiora is sitting at home Week 2 and Justin Tuck gets hurt. In cases like those, the need for the player may become great enough to warrant a new deal. But that's a big risk to take because injuries are unpredictable, and in the meantime the player has allowed the team the chance to get used to life without him.

The second option in this case is to make a nuisance of yourself -- to show up, but put your contract situation into the spotlight in an annoying and disruptive way. The all-time visual symbol of this may well be Terrell Owens doing pushups in his driveway. Jenkins or Umenyiora could choose to simply continue being a pain, in the hope that the annoyance might prod the team into trading him for less than they think he's worth. But this carries risk, as well -- the basic one being the risk of giving the outside world (and potential future employers) reason to believe you're a jerk.

The Giants don't fear this from Umenyiora, because they trust their coaching staff and their veteran locker room to effectively ignore potential disruptions. And the Cowboys know Jenkins, and I think they're betting on the idea that he's not the pushups-in-the-driveway sort.

What these guys are doing now -- skipping voluntary workouts and letting it be known through third-party sources that they're upset -- is the simplest way to make their particular point. It costs them nothing right now to stand up for themselves, and they should.

If you're unhappy at work and you feel your bosses aren't treating you fairly, it's important to find a proper and effective way to let them know. That goes for you, me, NFL players and everyone else. But in the end, in the cases of Jenkins and Umenyiora, there's not going to be anything either one can do.

This is the nature of their profession, and the working conditions under which NFL players operate. It's not fair, because teams can end contracts on a whim and the risk of injury is incredibly high, but a history of players crossing picket lines and caving in on labor negotiations has constructed a system in which the teams hold all the cards and the player rarely finds himself in the position of strength. Unfortunately for NFL players, this isn't Major League Baseball.

Jenkins and Umenyiora are both eligible to be free agents next year, and I don't think either has to fear the franchise-player designation. The franchise numbers for cornerbacks and defensive ends are over $10 million, and it's unlikely that either the Cowboys or Giants would want to commit so much to their No. 3 player at those positions.

It's too far into the future to predict for certain, but the odds are they won't be in limbo again this time next year. Right now, all these guys can do is decide how much fine money (if any) they're willing to spend to make their point, and once they reach that number, show up, practice, hope they don't get hurt and play well enough to convince some other team to give them big contracts in 2013.

It may not be great. May not be fair. But for Jenkins, Umenyiora and so many others like them in the NFL, they unfortunately don't have much choice.
And we're back. Another Tuesday on the NFC East blog, which means I need to stretch my chat muscles so I don't pull anything. Let's get right to the links.

Dallas Cowboys

I wrote Monday about Mike Jenkins staying away from OTAs and assumed he was doing that to make some sort of statement. I was right, as it came out later in the day that he wants to be traded. As Tim MacMahon says, good luck with that, Mike. This isn't like the Asante Samuel situation in Philadelphia, where the Eagles just wanted to dump Samuel's salary and took a seventh-round pick for him. The Cowboys can still use Jenkins, even if he is now the No. 3 corner behind Brandon Carr and Morris Claiborne. And given his health issues of the past year and where we are on the 2012 calendar (i.e., after the end of the draft), it's impossible to imagine any team offering them enough to make it worth their while to trade him.

In the ongoing quest to say sillier and sillier things about Tony Romo, the latest apparently is that the Cowboys don't go to the Super Bowl because Romo is not enough like Michael Young, which I guess means he needs to get on base more.

New York Giants

On the topic of Giants players "under pressure" in 2012 -- a topic we discussed here on the blog last week -- Ed Valentine picks wide receiver Ramses Barden, for whom opportunity looms large. Barden will have to hold off Domenik Hixon, Jerrel Jernigan and second-round pick Rueben Randle if he wants that No. 3 wide receiver spot created by the free-agent departure of Mario Manningham. The Giants drafted him thinking he had the tools to do it. The question now is whether he can stay healthy enough and play well enough to take advantage of his chance.

Tom Coughlin is still big in Jacksonville, where he coached the Jaguars before coaching the Giants and where he still holds his annual charity golf tournament. While in town for that, he once again answered questions about his possible retirement by saying it's not even something he's remotely considering.

Philadelphia Eagles

You can blame Juan Castillo and the defense all you like, but the Eagles' coaching staff thinks the biggest problem last year was their 38 turnovers (second most in the league), and they're determined to work with Michael Vick to cut that number down in 2012. Reading this, it sounds as though part of the problem is getting Vick to understand that there is one.

Eagles offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg talked about the fine line between leaning on the franchise running back to whom the Eagles just gave a five-year contract and overworking him. LeSean McCoy will only be 28 years old at the end of his new deal, and the Eagles surely can get five good years out of him even if they don't worry about limiting his touches. It will be interesting to see which way they lean.

Washington Redskins

You have to pay attention when you stand on an NFL sideline during practice, and Redskins coach Mike Shanahan unfortunately was looking at the wrong set of drills Monday when a couple of his players slammed into him and knocked him to the ground. "A little woozy" seemed to be the diagnosis, as Shanahan's "toughness" after his knockdown impressed some of his players. Sheesh. It's only the first day of OTAs and already the coach is down. Take it a little slower down there, fellas.

In spite of all he's done as a Redskin, Chris Cooley knows he's in a position this offseason of having to show something. Specifically, he needs to show he's healthy enough to play effectively in a two-tight end formation with Fred Davis. The reports after the first day of OTA practices were encouraging on Cooley.

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