NFC East: Carlos Rogers

I sincerely wish this for all of you: If ever you decide you need to take a day completely off from Twitter because you can sort of see your breaking point speeding toward you, I hope it's the day on which some idiotic controversy erupts on there about whether Tony Romo hung up on his conference call with the Baltimore Ravens beat writers. I can't remember the last time I felt so justified about a decision in retrospect.

Links.

Philadelphia Eagles

Very nice story from Marcus Hayes on Eagles rookie linebacker Mychal Kendricks and where he came from. Kendricks had a poor game against the Steelers last week, but over the first four weeks of the season he was one of the league's best linebackers and a key to the Eagles' fast start on defense.

Jason Babin and Trent Cole are looking all over the place for answers to why the Eagles' defensive line isn't getting any sacks these days. Babin even called his dad to ask what he thought about it.

New York Giants

Victor Cruz didn't like that Carlos Rogers imitated his salsa touchdown dance last year and says he hopes he doesn't do it again. Rogers said he would, because he likes it. But later, when told that Cruz considered it a tribute to his late grandmother, Rogers said he'd been unaware of that and that the information changes his view of the whole thing. So it sounds like this is all civil now.

The Giants won the NFC Championship Game in San Francisco in January, but the offensive line remembers it as a game in which Eli Manning took way too many hits. They vow this time it will be different. The Giants' line has played very well this year, especially since Will Beatty got healthy and became the starting left tackle again. But the 49ers' pass rush is considerably tougher than any they have faced so far.

Dallas Cowboys

The defense missed linebacker Anthony Spencer in Week 4 against the Bears, and they may have to play without him again Sunday in Baltimore, Spencer continues to miss practice due to a pectoral muscle injury.

The Cowboys cannot keep their punters healthy. Their punter is hurt and the punter they signed to replace him his hurt. Ironically, the punter they had last year that they really liked but let go of because they didn't think he could stay healthy is healthy and punting for the Eagles. Anyway, the Cowboys are probably going to need to find another new punter by Sunday.

Washington Redskins

Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III, who suffered a concussion in Sunday's loss to Atlanta, returned to the practice field Wednesday and says everything is going well in his attempt to recover in time to play Sunday against Minnesota. Still has to pass more tests as the week goes along, but the early indicators are positive on Griffin's status for Sunday.

Kent Babb, in consultation with folks around the NFL, explores the idea of how and how long Griffin can continue to play the way he plays if he wants to avoid further head injuries.
My Washington Redskins fans ask a lot about tight end Chris Cooley, who's one of their favorite players but hasn't been the same the past few years due to injuries, the emergence of Fred Davis and some other factors. The most common question I get about Cooley these days is whether he's a sure thing to be on the Redskins' 2012 roster. And after spending a couple of days earlier this week at Redskins minicamp and talking to Redskins people there, I can definitively tell you this: I don't know.

[+] EnlargeChris Cooley
Geoff Burke/US PresswireRedskins TE Chris Cooley, hampered by injuries last season, returned to the field in May for OTAs.
The two biggest things working against Cooley are health concerns and his salary. Cooley missed 11 games last year with hand and knee injuries, and he's been limited this offseason by knee, hamstring and groin problems. He turns 30 next month, and while a writer who turns 40 next month would never, ever suggest in print that 30 is old, it is an age after which injuries don't generally become less of a problem for an NFL player. (Or, for that matter, a writer.) There is some skepticism in the building about whether Cooley can be healthy enough to help, and with Davis now one of the best receiving tight ends in the league and Niles Paul being groomed as a tight end, it appears Cooley might have to accept a greatly reduced role.

With that, of course, could come a greatly reduced salary. Cooley is scheduled to make a base salary of $3.8 million this year, and it's unlikely the Redskins could or would want to keep him at that number, given their league-imposed cap difficulties and Cooley's status as the No. 2 or No. 3 tight end on the roster. Cooley may have to accept a pay cut if he wants to stay.

What's working in Cooley's favor, of course, is the sort of guy he is and his affinity for the team for which he plays. He loves playing for the Redskins and likely would accept a reduced salary and/or a reduced role if that's what it took to stay. He also could show in training camp and the preseason that he's healthy enough to play a larger role than they currently suspect he can. So the situation remains fluid, and Cooley's status is far from determined.

Some other notes left in my notebook from my Tuesday and Wednesday in Ashburn:

-Mike Shanahan has no concerns about Paul's ability to develop into a passing-game weapon as a tight end: "I had Shannon Sharpe, and I also had Byron Chamberlain, Billy Miller, Desmond Clark… I've had a lot of wide receivers that have been tight ends that have wound up playing at a very high level," Shanahan told me. "And this kid is faster than all of them. He's probably as physical as any receiver I've ever been around. You watch him as a gunner on the punt team. And defensive backs, I don't care whether it's a safety or a corner, they can't slow him down. He's under a 4.5 (40-yard dash time) guy. There aren't too many tight ends at 235 pounds who can run like that."

The only question about Paul is whether he can block well enough to really be an effective replacement for Cooley if it comes to that. I asked Shanahan that question directly, and while he didn't want to talk specifically about Cooley's status, he did mention Cooley was exceptionally strong as a blocker and there's no way to know how Paul will do as a blocker until the portion of the offseason in which the players are allowed to put pads on and make contact with each other.

-The running back situation remains a muddle, as Tim Hightower, Roy Helu, Evan Royster, Tristan Davis and fullback Darrel Young all missed minicamp practices this week with injury issues. This resulted in a lot of carries for Alfred Morris in practice. The Redskins like their depth at this position if everyone's healthy, but they'll continue to monitor everyone's health, especially Hightower's as he recovers from last year's ACL tear, and decide whether they need to bring another running back to camp next month.

-All eyes on the offensive line are on right tackle Jammal Brown. The Redskins looked at options for replacing Brown but couldn't sign any of them, and now they're hoping he stays healthy. If he can, they love what he brings to their zone blocking scheme. An offseason yoga regimen is said to have improved Brown's flexibility and eliminated some scar tissue. And if he does struggle with his health again, Shanahan mentioned Willie Smith, Tyler Polumbus and Maurice Hurt as guys who impressed and improved when pressed into service last year and James Lee as a veteran who has some experience in the NFL. Basically, he feels a little better about his depth behind the starters on the line than he did a year ago.

-Roster overhaul. Since Shanahan took over before the 2010 season, the Redskins have cut 150 players, and only one of those players -- San Francisco's Carlos Rogers -- is currently starting for another team.

-Wow. Would you look at that? More than 800 words on the Redskins and not one mention of the rookie quarterback. Bet you didn't think it could be done.
Dallas Cowboys

Like many members of the Cowboys family, Darren Woodson says he was hit hard by the news of the death of former special-teams coach Joe Avezzano.

The Cowboys have claimed quarterback Rudy Carpenter off waivers from the Buccaneers. This says a lot, I would think, about Stephen McGee and his tenuous hold on the team's No. 3 quarterback spot behind Tony Romo and Kyle Orton.

New York Giants

Former Giant Carl Banks tells the New York Daily News that the Gregg Williams speech that got all of the attention Thursday was more or less standard Saturday-night pregame stuff, though "some of the stuff was over the line." I think that's the point. In the current NFL culture, where player safety is a paramount issue, the revelation that coaches are encouraging players to target specific existing injuries just doesn't fit. This thing that came to light Thursday wasn't about bounties. It was about intent to injure, and the warning that went out league-wide (if people were listening) was that such specifics need to stop being part of pregame speeches. No matter how common a practice it has been up until now.

The staff of Giants.com debates some questions regarding the team's safety position and its outlook for the 2012 season.

Philadelphia Eagles

In this story about Demetress Bell's introductory news conference in Philadelphia, we learn that Eagles offensive line coach Howard Mudd was the one who encouraged the tackle who used to call himself Demetrius Bell to come forward with what turns out to be the correct spelling of his first name.

The Eagles' website takes a big-picture look at the offensive line as a whole with Bell in place as its new left tackle.

Washington Redskins

Former Redskins and current 49ers cornerback Carlos Rogers came to the defense of Williams, the embattled former Redskins and Saints defensive coordinator.

The release a few weeks ago of veteran fullback Mike Sellers didn't get a lot of attention, but it had an effect on current fullback Darrel Young, who credits Sellers for help with his development.
It's Saturday, which makes it the day I have to take my kids to swim lessons, which makes it the day I understand why some people drink alcoholic beverages before noon.

It also makes it mailbag day.

Andrew from New York, N.Y., admits he's a Philadelphia Eagles fan and therefore likely biased, but he says this to me: "I simply don't understand how you can report what Redskins sources say as the final word on McNabb's work ethic."

Dan Graziano: I didn't, Andrew. I presented and acknowledged both sides. Which Donovan McNabb pointedly did not, even leaving himself and his own win-loss record off his list of failed post-Elway Mike Shanahan quarterbacks. I would welcome a chance to discuss it with McNabb, and I let the producers of First Take know this, but they were not interested in having me on.

Dale from Novato, Calif., asks whether, if the Dallas Cowboys drafted a first-round cornerback, that would mean they're planning to part ways with Mike Jenkins after this season.

DG: Dale, I don't think it would automatically mean that, but as you point out, Jenkins does come with some injury questions. They love the way he played last year when healthy, but he wasn't healthy nearly enough. So if they were to draft a cornerback in the first round this year, they'd obviously be sending a message to Jenkins as well as covering themselves in case he can't get through the year healthy and they decide the best thing is to move on to other options. Better to address this now by thinking ahead then wait until next year when they have a clear problem/need at the position. And in this day and age, there's really no such thing as too many defensive backs.

Chris from Charleston, S.C., tells me that the reason Victor Cruz crushed Brian Orakpo in the Madden 13 cover vote was that Washington Redskins fans were voting against Orakpo because of the "Madden Curse." Chris is of the belief that I've not heard of this "Curse."

DG: Chris, I have heard of the Madden Curse, and of the idea that fans are voting against, rather than for, their favorite players in an effort to avoid having them land on the cover and end up "cursed." I just think it's foolish, and didn't see the need to acknowledge it in my post on the subject. We've reached an odd place in sports-fan history if this is really something about which people feel that strongly.

Tony G from Hamilton, Ontario, wants to know why the Arizona Cardinals are drafting ahead of the Dallas Cowboys when they had identical records and the Cardinals won the head-to-head matchup.

DG: Tony G, head-to-head result is not the tiebreaker for determining draft position. They use relative strength of schedule, and Arizona's was weaker, so their 8-8 record is deemed, for purposes of the draft, to be worse than Dallas' 8-8 record.

Ian from ODU wants to know if I think the Eagles would take Courtney Upshaw, the Alabama LB/DE, with their first-round pick (No. 15 overall) in next month's draft.

DG: Ian, my sense is that Upshaw will be gone by then, making this a moot issue. But if he is there, I'm still not 100 percent sure they take him. Upshaw is being looked at as a pass-rusher, and unless they were going to use him at defensive end in their 4-3 (where they're pretty well stacked with Trent Cole and Jason Babin), he might not be a fit for them. He's probably better suited to a 3-4 team as an outside linebacker who can get after the quarterback. The linebackers in Philadelphia's system aren't responsible for the pass rush.

Paul from Indiana Harbour Beach, Fla., likes Stanford tight end Coby Fleener for the New York Giants when they pick at No. 32 in the first round.

DG: Could definitely happen, Paul, and I agree with you that someone of Fleener's talents could make magic with Eli Manning. But since they've already signed Martellus Bennett and they surely expect Jake Ballard, Travis Beckum or both back at the end of this season if not before, I'm not certain they're looking at tight end as a long-term need position. The Giants will take the best available player still on their board at that spot, and if it's Fleener, I don't think they'd hesitate to do it. But I wouldn't be surprised if the highest player on their board at that point plays offensive tackle or defensive line. They really need a tackle, and they really love to draft defensive linemen.

Ahsen from MD wants to know why the Redskins didn't receive any compensatory draft picks for losing Carlos Rogers in free agency last year.

DG: Ahsen, you only get compensatory picks if your total net loss in free agency is deemed to have exceeded your net gain. So while the Redskins lost Rogers and others last year in free agency, the players they signed -- Stephen Bowen, Barry Cofield, Josh Wilson, etc -- were deemed by the NFL's formula to have been worth more than the total value of the free agents they lost. Hence, no compensatory picks.

Teon Wilson from Richmond, Va., wants to know if it's realistic for the Cowboys to trade for Eagles cornerback Asante Samuel.

DG: A couple of people I spoke with in Palm Beach this week told me they wouldn't be surprised to see the Eagles trade Samuel within the division. Nevertheless, I would. I don't think their need to trade him is so pressing that they'd send him someplace where he'd play against them twice a year. He's still pretty good. My guess is the price for Dallas would be higher than it would be for, say, an AFC team.

Nick from Rutgers wants to know why the Giants aren't at the top of the Breakfast Links posts anymore.

DG: We went back to alphabetical order once the new league year started. New year, standings reset. But I liked doing the links in standings order, and plan to do so again beginning in Week 2 of the 2012 season.

And to answer some questions that came in numerous times from numerous sources:
  • I don't know when the arbitrator will decide about the Redskins/Cowboys cap penalties.
  • No, I am not crazy.
  • Sorry, but unless you're a Redskins fan, I simply do not know which player your team will pick in the first round of the draft.

Enjoy your weekend.
The key thing to understand is that the Dallas Cowboys needed a cornerback. The secondary was the biggest reason they flopped down the stretch and failed to reach the playoffs in 2011. They cut Terence Newman on Tuesday, they can't be sure Mike Jenkins can stay healthy and they don't know if Orlando Scandrick is ready to be a starter. They didn't just need someone who was better than Newman -- they needed someone better than Jenkins and Scandrick.

Brandon Carr, late of the Kansas City Chiefs, was their top target. They flew him in Tuesday night, as soon as free agency opened, and they spent 24 hours negotiating a contract with him. Just before 4 p.m. ET on Wednesday, Adam Schefter reported that the deal was done for five years and $50.1 million.

[+] EnlargeBrandon Carr
Kirby Lee/Image of Sport-US PresswireThe Cowboys addressed concerns at the cornerback spot by adding Brandon Carr, but the rest of the division has also upgraded.
That's a lot of money, but the Cowboys had little choice. Once Cortland Finnegan signed with the Rams on Tuesday (for similar money), Carlos Rogers re-signed in San Francisco and Eric Wright signed in Tampa Bay, the Cowboys had to come away from this market with Carr. The drop-off to the next-best defensive back on the market was simply too steep.

Carr will be 26 years old when the 2012 season starts, which is part of the appeal. He's a good cover corner and, considering his age, can become even better. That's surely part of the Cowboys' hope -- that they're getting a guy who's on the upswing and is about to blossom into a top-level corner. For that money, he'll need to.

Here's what Scouts Inc.'s Matt Williamson had to say when I asked him about Carr:

"Well, first and foremost, the Cowboys had a massive need at the position and considering the weapons in the NFC East, getting a reputable CB was a must. I like Carr. He is still young, plays physical and can play man or zone coverage, although I think he is better as a zone guy. However, I also think he benefited a great deal from having [Brandon] Flowers on the other side of him in KC, as the Chiefs often put Flowers on the opponent’s WR1."

Not exactly a ringing endorsement considering the money. But it's a little like the Pierre Garcon signing in Washington. Did they overpay? Clearly. But everybody overpays in the first 24 hours of free agency, and the Cowboys couldn't afford to come out of it without a good cornerback. This is the guy they liked best, and this is what corners cost this year. Lots of pressure on the young man now, of course, to fix one of the team's biggest weaknesses. But I still think they'll look to add another defensive back, either in free agency or in the draft, and he's sure to be better than Newman was in 2011.

The Cowboys have been busy today. They agreed on a deal with backup quarterback Kyle Orton earlier in the day. Since then, they've added guard Mackenzy Bernadeau (who's not a big name but gets added into the mix with their other young interior linemen) and (per Calvin Watkins of ESPNDallas.com on Twitter a few minutes ago) agreed on a deal with fullback Lawrence Vickers. Lots of pieces being added, but Carr is the biggest and most important, and they absolutely needed to pay him what they paid him, or they wouldn't have gotten him.

Cowboys will have lots of cap room

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Calvin Watkins did some talking with Jerry Jones down at the Senior Bowl this week, and one thing he's learned is that the Dallas Cowboys' owner is very happy with the team's current salary cap situation:
The Cowboys have $12.6 million under the cap and that's before the team restructures any deals or cuts any of their current players. The team also has $28 million in dead money based on numerous players who were released last summer such as Leonard Davis, Marion Barber, Marc Colombo among others.

Stephen Jones, the executive vice president, and his staff did a good job of creating cap space so the $28 million of dead money won't bother the Cowboys in terms of making moves when free agency starts in March.

Calvin goes on to point out that more space can be created by restructuring deals for players like Doug Free and Orlando Scandrick, and that such maneuvers could result in the Cowboys having nearly $20 million in cap space by the time free agency starts.

In terms of need positions, the top free agents the Cowboys could pursue at guard include Carl Nicks of New Orleans and Ben Grubbs of Baltimore. The top free-agent cornerbacks include Atlanta's Brent Grimes, Tennessee's Cortland Finnegan and San Francisco's Carlos Rogers. If they can address both of those positions in free agency, the Cowboys might be able to take one of the draft's top pass-rushers with the No. 14 pick.

Of Eli Manning and interceptions

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EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- Now that we've seen Eli Manning practice Thursday, and New York Giants fans can breathe easier about the stomach bug that knocked him out of Wednesday's practice, we can get back to talking about his rather significant role in Sunday's NFC Championship Game against the 49ers in San Francisco.

I keep thinking turnovers could be the key to this game. The 49ers committed only 10 in the regular season, which is incredible, and had 38 takeaways. Manning threw two interceptions in the Week 10 game in San Francisco, and the Giants lost by a touchdown. So if Manning, who threw nine fewer interceptions this year in 50 more attempts than he had in 2010, can take care of the ball, I figure it's going to have a major positive impact on the Giants' ability to win the game.

I'm not alone. ESPN's Stats & Information blog has a piece up on the significance of Manning's 2011 interceptions. According to them, Manning's average interception this year caused a 13.1-point drop in the Giants' win probability -- the worst such figure of any quarterback on any team in the NFL this year:
Take Week 10, for example, a game in San Francisco against Sunday’s opponent in the NFC Championship. With 13:31 left in the game, an Alex Smith-to-Vernon Davis touchdown pass had just given the 49ers a 20-13 lead. Two plays later, Manning threw an interception to Carlos Rogers on 2nd-and-7 from his own 14. Rogers’ second interception of the game gave the San Francisco 49ers the ball on the Giants’ 17, and Kendall Hunter scored on the very next play. The 49ers won 27-20.

While Manning can’t be punished for Hunter’s touchdown run, his interception alone dropped New York’s chance of winning by 6.4 percent. As bad as that play was -- a fourth-quarter interception inside his own 20 down by a touchdown on the road -- that was the 12th-worst of Manning’s 16 interceptions.

The worst came in Week 5 against the Seattle Seahawks, when Manning was picked off by Brandon Browner with 1:25 left in the fourth quarter on the Seattle 10. Browner went 94 yards to paydirt, and New York’s chances of winning the game plummeted by 53.5 percent.

I don't think this says as much about Manning and poor timing as it does about how important Manning and his responsibility with the ball has been to the Giants' success this year. For much of the season, the Giants had no running game and a very poor defense and counted on Manning to win games in large part by himself. So it would stand to reason that a Manning interception would have a severe negative impact on the team's chances of winning.

If the weather forecasts hold up and it's rainy and muddy and sloppy on Sunday in San Francisco, the chances of turnovers both ways likely goes up. That would make it even more important for the Giants to stay away from them, since a large part of the 49ers' game appears to be based on forcing them and not committing any.
It is Thursday, and all I can promise is that I will not be limited in practice today. All those other guys, well, we'll just have to wait a few hours and see. Meantime, links.

New York Giants

Antrel Rolle had some stuff to say Wednesday, which was pretty entertaining. Some of the highlights included "I don't worry about our schedule. I think our schedule needs to worry about us," and, of Patriots receiver Wes Welker, "I don't know, you've got to ask those guys he's giving trouble to. I don't plan on having to answer those questions." The Giants don't scare, that's for sure.

Victor Cruz was lonely at practice Wednesday with fellow receivers Hakeem Nicks and Mario Manningham absent, Mike Vorkunov writes. Mike's report also includes some information regarding Nicks' injury -- namely that it's (a) not new, (b) severe enough to have kept him out of a game of lesser importance and (c) not certain to keep him out of Sunday's game in New England.

Philadelphia Eagles

Paul Domowitch writes that defensive coordinator Juan Castillo is more in sync now with his defense and with defensive line coach Jim Washburn than he was at the start of the season. This is the new narrative around the Eagles -- that it only made sense that it would take a while for all of the new pieces to jell. And there's real validity to it. The question is whether that 1-4 start was too much to overcome.

Eagles offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg wasn't overly impressed with what he saw from Rob Ryan's Cowboys defense Sunday night, and that included the four-sack effort from DeMarcus Ware.

Dallas Cowboys

Adam Schefter reported Wednesday that there was a chance Sean Lee's dislocated wrist could result in surgery that would end his season. And while Lee didn't deny that was a possibility, the linebacker is saying he'll do everything he can do get back on the field as soon as possible, and he's not ruling out Sunday.

Tim MacMahon wonders how many more chances Martellus Bennett will get before the Cowboys ditch him. Jason Garrett's answer is apparently that it doesn't really matter since they don't use Bennett much anyway. I'm still stuck on the number of cuts they could have made last week that weren't Tashard Choice when they decided to activate Bruce Carter and only use him on special teams. I go back to Sunday night, when I was walking out of Lincoln Financial Field thinking that carrying a kickoff specialist feels especially silly on a night when you only kick off twice.

Washington Redskins

One of the big criticisms of cornerback Carlos Rogers during his time in Washington was that he couldn't hold onto the ball for interceptions. (Which is so silly, because if cornerbacks could catch they'd have been receivers, right?) But Rogers, who comes back to Washington on Sunday with the 49ers, seems to have corrected that little problem so far this year. He's got three interceptions already.

John Beck and Mike Shanahan watched film together of the 10 sacks Beck took Sunday and went over the ways in which Beck can improve the situation. The Redskins are sticking with Beck for now, so the idea is to find a way to make it go better with him back there.
But wait ... he's not a wide receiver!

After a flurry of moves designed to improve the depth and quality of their receiving corps, the Redskins appear to have taken a break and made a move to improve their defense. Jamison Hensley of the Baltimore Sun reported via Twitter that the Redskins have agreed to a deal with cornerback Josh Wilson of the Baltimore Ravens. Adam Schefter reports that it's a three-year, $13.5 million deal with $9 million guaranteed for Wilson, who replaces Carlos Rogers in what looks to be a pretty strong Washington secondary.

Wilson showed last season in Baltimore that he's fully capable of being a starting cornerback, which he's likely to be in Washington now opposite DeAngelo Hall and with LaRon Landry and O.J. Atogwe playing safety. Wilson is undersized (5-foot-9), but his speed is a great asset in coverage and helps him make up for mistakes he might make there. He has the talent to keep improving, and he looks like a very nice investment for a Redskins team that's rebuilding all over the field but suddenly has a lot of very interesting pieces in the second year of Jim Haslett's 3-4 defense.

Redskins back-to-work FYI

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NFC: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South Unrestricted FAs

Readiness factor: The Redskins held a ton of player-organized workouts, and they seemed to go very well. Organized by defensive leaders London Fletcher and Lorenzo Alexander and inspired by the camps the Redskins teams of the past ran to great effect during labor stoppages, the Redskins' workouts were well-attended and well-directed. There were days when Fletcher would call plays from a piece of paper he kept in his pocket, trying to help the defense run some of the 3-4 looks that were installed (but not quite mastered) last year. They brought fans out of the stands to run drills with them and generally just had a good old time. It'll be interesting to see if all of that lockout-time bonding pays dividends once the games start to count.

Biggest challenge: Figuring out the quarterback situation. Donovan McNabb is surely gone as soon as they can move him. They didn't draft a quarterback in April, and shortly after the draft head coach Mike Shanahan said he liked the idea of John Beck as his starter. Whether it's Beck or Rex Grossman, who ran the offense late last year when the McNabb plan blew up, the Redskins will be going with an imperfect solution at the most important position on the field. Will it be a season-long nightmare that forces them to draft a quarterback high in next year's draft? Will it be a revolving door with one guy starting one game and the other the next? Will the defense play well enough to overcome it? Will Beck surprise and play better than everyone (except, apparently, Shanahan) thinks he can? Many questions, still no answers yet. At least soon they can start running drills and see what they actually have back there.

Haslett's second season: Defensive coordinator Jim Haslett came to town with Shanahan last year and converted the Redskins from a 4-3 defensive team to a 3-4. It was not an easy transition, and many of the pieces that were in place didn't fit well into the new scheme. Now, every coach who knows about it says it takes two years, not one, to fully transition to the 3-4. So we should see improvement in the way the Redskins play defense in 2011. They still need to add some pieces on the line, find a cornerback or two, and they may need a linebacker if Rocky McIntosh leaves and Alexander can't be a full-time starter on the inside. But the pre-lockout addition of O.J. Atogwe at safety and the drafting of outside linebacker Ryan Kerrigan in the first round were good moves. Along with the year of experience the returning guys got last year, they could help the Redskins put together a respectable defense sooner than you might expect.

Key players without contracts for 2011: OT Jammal Brown, CB Phillip Buchanon, DE Kedric Golston, QB Rex Grossman, LB Rocky McIntosh, WR Santana Moss, C Casey Rabach, CB Carlos Rogers
This one I'm curious about, because for weeks I've been hearing fans of certain teams say they'd rather not get free-agent cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha, either because he'd cost too much or because he's 30 or because you supposedly like Johnathan Joseph or Ike Taylor better. It's all hogwash, brought on and cultivated by the length of the NFL lockout. If this had been a normal offseason and your team had signed Asomugha in the spring, you'd be doing cartwheels and trash-talking the world about how awesome this year's defense was going to be.

Asomugha
He is the premier free agent, at any position, on this year's market -- a shutdown cover cornerback nearly on the same plane as the Jets' incomparable Darrelle Revis. You can build a defense around a guy like Asomugha, whose abilities free up the front seven to do more than they otherwise could. You'd think fans would be dying for their teams to sign him.

So in case there are some people out there who are thinking sensibly about this, I present your chance to argue in favor of signing the best player on the market.

This week's Fired-up Friday question is: Which NFC East team has the best chance to acquire Asomugha?

We put all four on the poll, but you can safely eliminate the Giants, who believe they took care of their present and future cornerback needs in the draft with Prince Amukamara. The other three teams, though, are in this race and should be. The Eagles have a desperate need at cornerback. The Cowboys could use an upgrade, and could cut Terence Newman to make room. And the Redskins will need a Carlos Rogers replacement.

Out of the NFC East teams (yes, remember, there are seven other divisions in which he could sign), I'm picking the Eagles as the most likely. The sense in Philly is that they don't need a cover corner and might need a more physical one. But Asomugha isn't the kind of player you sniff at because he doesn't fit your scheme. He's the kind of guy you get because he can do anything, and fit into any scheme. Playing opposite Asante Samuel, he'd give the Eagles a fearsome secondary duo, help take some pressure off the young safeties and allow the Eagles to send an extra blitzer pretty much any time they felt like doing so. They have the money and the cap room. He makes too much sense in Philadelphia.

The Cowboys surely would like to have him and could get him, but they have bigger needs at safety than they do at corner, and they need to sort out their defensive line situation. Can't rule them out, but they may not have as much incentive to make the big money push as Philadelphia does.

The Redskins? Well, they have the money, the cap room and the incentive. They'll surely make the effort. The question is whether Asomugha will want to play in Washington. The Redskins aren't currently perceived as a contender for this season's Super Bowl, and if Asomugha is going to leave Oakland it'll almost certainly be to improve his chances of winning a Super Bowl very soon. It's possible the Redskins could convince him they're closer than they appear, and that he could be the key piece that gets them there. But Asomugha's going to have a slew of very similar, very lucrative offers from a wide variety of teams. He's not going to have to go to a team he considers a non-contender if he doesn't want to. This is where the Redskins' chances suffer.

But that's enough from me. What do you guys think? Please play nice.
Hey, we're not talking about the 1985 Bears here, OK? Only one team in the league gave up more points last year than the Cowboys did. Only one team in the league gave up more yards last year than the Redskins did. (In both cases, it was the Broncos, by the way. You wanna talk about bottoming out?) It's safe to say that both Washington and Dallas had higher defensive expectations in 2010, even though the Redskins were switching to a 3-4 and their highest-paid player didn't want to play.

[+] EnlargeRob Ryan
Andrew Weber/US PresswireThe Cowboys brought in Rob Ryan to invigorate a defense that finished a disappointing 23rd in the league in 2010.
It's also safe to say that both the Cowboys and the Redskins expect to improve -- and improve a lot -- on defense in 2011. The Cowboys hired Rob Ryan as their new defensive coordinator, hoping he could get the defense back to its late-2009 performance levels. The Redskins drafted Ryan Kerrigan in the first round to play outside linebacker opposite Brian Orakpo and hopefully offer one of the most fearsome young pass-rush combinations in the league. Washington also signed free-agent safety O.J. Atogwe prior to the lockout, and the safety duo of Atogwe and LaRon Landry looks as if it will be a strength of the Washington defense.

There's work yet to do in both places. The Cowboys need to address safety (and maybe cornerback), and the Redskins need a nose tackle and likely will have to replace Carlos Rogers at cornerback and Rocky McIntosh at inside linebacker. But my debate question for you this Friday is this:

Which defense will have a better 2011 season? The Cowboys' defense or the Redskins' defense?

It's not as crazy a question as you might think. Washington does need the nose tackle, but as of right now I think they're ahead of Dallas in the secondary. And while the mere presence of DeMarcus Ware on the roster gives the Cowboys the edge at linebacker, I'm not sure how far behind the Redskins are at the position overall. Orakpo is an emerging force and London Fletcher and Lorenzo Alexander are strong, steadying presences. If Anthony Spencer plays the way he did in 2009, this is no contest. But at this point that's a big "if," and the linebacker comparison between these two teams could come down to Kerrigan vs. Spencer. If the rookie has a big year and Spencer disappoints again, we might be sitting here this time next year saying the Redskins have the better linebackers.

Might even be saying the Redskins have the better defense.

I'm going to pick the Cowboys in this debate for now, but I think it's close. I'm going to give the benefit of the doubt to Ryan and his ability to rejuvenate the good veteran personnel they have there, and I'm going to assume they upgrade at safety. I think Bradie James and Keith Brooking still have plenty to offer, and I think Spencer and Mike Jenkins will bounce back.

But if I'm wrong on any of that, I'm not going to be surprised if the Redskins end up with the better defense. The second year is a big one, coaches say, for making strides in the 3-4 defense. The Packers, who just won the Super Bowl in Year Two of Dom Capers' 3-4 scheme, are the best recent example of that. The Redskins don't have as many star-caliber defensive players as Green Bay has (nor do they have a quarterback), so there's no reason for Redskins fans to get their hopes up too high. But I don't think Washington's defense is too far away from challenging for a spot as the best in the NFC East.
In light of the word that the proposed new NFL labor deal would make players with four years of service time into unrestricted free agents, there has been some support in the comments for a free-agent rundown as it pertains to our little division here. We're going to do it position-by-position, over the next couple of days, and because the biggest-name guy in the field is a cornerback, we're going to start with cornerbacks.

NFC East teams in need

[+] EnlargeNnamdi Asomugha
Jed Jacobsohn/Getty ImagesNnamdi Asomugha is the big prize in this year's free-agent class.
Cowboys: Dallas plans to move Alan Ball, who flopped as a safety, back to the cornerback position, where they already have Mike Jenkins and Terence Newman as starters. Assuming all of those guys are on the team, the Cowboys could decide to stand pat and focus their energies on upgrading at safety. But one of the starters may have to be cut to create cap room, and if that happens, expect the Cowboys to be big-game hunters on the corner market.

Eagles: They need another corner to play opposite Asante Samuel, and they've said they plan to be aggressive in free agency. That could mean playing at the top end of this pool, but even if they don't land the big fish, expect Philadelphia to come up with someone on this list.

Redskins: Carlos Rogers wants out and the team seems inclined to grant him his wish. But while Redskins fans may be sick of Rogers, he's not a bad player and he will need to be replaced.

Top five potential unrestricted free-agent cornerbacks

1. Nnamdi Asomugha. The prize of the offseason free-agent market. Probably the second-best corner in the league behind Darrelle Revis. Asomugha will draw interest from all three of the above-named NFC East teams plus plenty of teams (Baltimore? Houston?) outside the division. Whoever does sign him will use a lot of cap space to do it, which is why, as much as Dallas might want him, he might make more sense in Philly.

2. Johnathan Joseph. Some talk that the Bengals will make him their franchise player, but if they don't, the 27-year-old rising star stands to ride Asomugha's coattails to a big payday somewhere outside of skimpy-spending Cincinnati. A fine fallback for the Eagles or Redskins. Cowboys? Sure, but my hunch is, if they don't get Nnamdi, they spend elsewhere and either keep the corners they have or go further down this list for a replacement.

3. Antonio Cromartie. Remains to be seen if the Jets will keep him (or if they'll pursue Asomugha as well!). Cromartie comes with plenty of baggage, as his attitude and effort were in serious question at the end of his time in San Diego. Doubt he'd fit in a place like Dallas or Washington, where peace and quiet are going to be important to the short-term and long-term plans.

4. Chris Carr. He's said he'd like to return to Baltimore and that he'd be willing to play some safety in order to do that. Lots of turnover is expected in the Ravens' secondary, and depending on how other things shake out, Carr could be a surprise entry onto the market and a nice fit in Philadelphia or Washington, neither of which is too far from Baltimore. His fellow Baltimore corner, Josh Wilson, would be an intriguing name on the market as well.

5. Ike Taylor. Known more as a physical corner than a traditional cover type such as Asomugha, Taylor is a perfect fit right where he is, in Pittsburgh. But there have been rumblings lately that he's seeking a big payday, and Washington seems like it could use an infusion of toughness and a championship-seasoned veteran presence on defense.

Predictions that mean nothing: Asomugha to the Eagles, Taylor to the Redskins, Cowboys stand pat at corner and spend on safety.
As a new week dawns in the NFC East, thoughts turn to the Oneida Correctional Facility, where former Giants WR Plaxico Burress has two weeks left before his release. He'll turn 34 in August, hasn't played in two years and is returning to an NFL that has no idea when, or if, its season will start; to a field of potentially interested teams that have no idea when or if they'll be able to sign him. But speculation is unavoidable, and you're going to hear plenty of Plaxico speculation here in the NFC East.

Gary Myers of the New York Daily News wrote over the weekend that he's heard the Eagles would be first in line to sign Burress upon his release. Myers names the Steelers, Chargers, Falcons and Ravens, too, and he doesn't think the Giants will go for a reunion. But the Eagles idea is interesting. Obviously, the Michael Vick rehabilitation experience indicates the Eagles can handle such a project and that coach Andy Reid doesn't mind the idea of bringing in a talented ex-convict and being patient with him. Burress would give Vick the kind of big downfield target that neither DeSean Jackson nor Jeremy Maclin, for all of their exciting talents, offer. And Philadelphia isn't too far from Burress' New Jersey home, which might make it appealing on his end.

Contrary to what Myers thinks, I wouldn't rule out the Giants. They seem set at receiver, but Burress still has many friends there, and those friends are eager to bring him back. I'm sure they'll at least discuss it. And I'm not counting out the Redskins, either. Leonard Hankerson notwithstanding, they're not exactly loaded at WR. As for the Eagles, they were a stunning destination for Vick, if you'll recall. They came out of nowhere to sign him. If they're to sign Burress, I imagine we won't hear much from them in advance of it. They like to keep things close to the vest there. But Burress to the Eagles makes a decent amount of sense if you're speculating. Which, at this point, we all are.

Meanwhile, as they say in Scotland: To the links!

Dallas Cowboys

Blogging the Boys looks at the Dallas secondary situation, wondering specifically what would become of Terence Newman if Dallas went out and signed a free-agent cornerback. Specifically, some thought here that the Redskins might be interested in Newman if they lose Carlos Rogers and don't sign Nnamdi Asomugha, whose name is required to appear in every edition of the NFC East breakfast links.

Charean Williams talked to backup QB Stephen McGee about what he's learning in the player-only workouts with Tony Romo. She didn't ask him whether he ranked Romo or Eli Manning higher, presumably because she assumed he'd already weighed in here along with the rest of you. (tee-hee)

New York Giants

Giants coach Tom Coughlin, the original coach of the Jacksonville Jaguars, is back in Jacksonville for his annual Jay Fund charity golf outing, which raises money for children with cancer. Several Giants players are there along with him. The Giants' Twitter page quotes from Coughlin's Sunday night speech: "Thanks for being here tonight and giving me a chance to see my players." What a card, huh?

Ahmad Bradshaw has apparently changed agents, dropping Craig Domann and signing up with Drew Rosenhaus. Now, Bradshaw and Rosenhaus both wait and hope that the 2011 free-agency rules turn out to make him an unrestricted free agent, rather than a restricted one.

Philadelphia Eagles

Jon Tamari talked to 2010 first-round pick Brandon Graham about the challenges he faces trying to come back from his knee injury during the lockout. The Eagles can make all of the improvements they want on defense this offseason, but few would help as much as the healthy return of last year's 13th overall pick to the pass-rush effort.

Interesting look by Moving the Chains at Trent Cole's rank among defensive linemen in a stat Football Outsiders calls "defeats." A defeat, in this case, is a good thing if you're a defensive player, and Cole is obviously a very good one. (Further down, incidentally, Sheil Kapadia disagrees with me and Gary Myers about the likelihood/sense of the Burress thing.)

Washington Redskins

Mark Rypien told the Washington Post that he thought Donovan McNabb was "the perfect guy for the job" of Redskins quarterback. Rypien shares this opinion with the August 2010 versions of McNabb and Mike Shanahan.

Oh, and Skins GM Bruce Allen did a little backpedaling over the weekend, attempting to clarify Friday's remarks about how "aggressive" the team was planning to be once free agency started. It is important to Allen that people don't expect the Redskins to resume the irresponsible free-agent spending that preceded his tenure under Dan Snyder. Asked specifically about that issue, Allen says, "No, we've dealt with that." Obviously, his comments Friday were interpreted in many places (including here) as an indication that Washington would return to its free-spending ways. Allen seems to be wanting to deliver the message instead that the team is in a good position to spend to address its many needs. It's a subtle but critical distinction for which he deserves the benefit of the doubt. Snyder stayed out of the way last offseason, and there's no reason yet to believe he won't keep that same promise to Allen and Shanahan this year.
Morning, fellow Easterners. I'll be with you as soon as I put the finishing touches on the ark in the backyard. (Seriously -- are our Dallas-area readers getting decent weather? Because if so I may either need to move there or get a waterproof laptop...)

Anyway, remember 24 hours ago when we were wondering along with Donovan McNabb why he gets so much grief all the time? Well, it turns out great minds think alike, and Jemele Hill had McNabb on the brain yesterday, too. Jemele believes it's time (or past time) for McNabb to stick up for himself against the silly garbage that's always being thrown at him.

She makes a good case, of course, but I guess I'm just not that sort of guy. I don't agree with validating baseless charges by addressing them or firing back. McNabb's always spent his time on the high road, and he seems to be pretty comfortable with the life he's lived, the career he's had and the man he is. Just my opinion, and I know others feel differently, but for me, if you know the stuff being said about you has no merit, what's the point of even acknowledging it?

I remain intrigued by McNabb's quote from a couple of days ago, in which he wondered why a guy who's done so little to ruffle feathers always finds himself at the center of these odd controversies. I'd especially love to hear from Eagles fans on this. Redskins fans, sure, but you've only had the one year with him and it didn't go well enough for me to expect a wide range of opinions. So really, I'd like to hear from Eagles fans, who knew him so well for so long, about why a guy who's accomplished so much and carried himself like a pro the whole time is so easy for people to malign.

Fire away in the comments or in the mailbag (I have mentioned the mailbag, right?) and I'll check back in all day to see what people think. Meantime, let's link it up.

Dallas Cowboys

The funeral for Ron Springs called to mind one of the great teammate stories of the past several years. Everson Walls, who donated a kidney to Springs in 2007, mourned his friend.

Forced to work out without new defensive coordinator Rob Ryan, the Cowboys' defense is kind of freelancing it, the Dallas Morning News says. It's got to be weird, knowing you'll have a new boss but having little to no idea what, exactly, he'll want from you. I think it's safe to assume that, if there is a 2011 season, the Cowboys' defense will be a lot simpler than what they'll run out there in 2012.

New York Giants

Tom Coughlin did a phone interview Thursday on "NFL Live" and expressed frustration over the lockout preventing him and his coaches from having access to "the rookies, the veterans and the surgical repairs." The coaches really are caught in the middle of this whole thing, aren't they? No union (or trade association) looking out for them. Some could end up being judged on their successes and failures during a season for which they were given inadequate time to prepare. Not that Coughlin necessarily fits this description, but if you're a coach on thin ice, you have to hope your bosses will give you some leeway if the season doesn't go exactly the right way.

Incidentally, Coughlin also discusses Plaxico Burress in that interview. Says re-signing Burress "really hasn't been discussed by any of us," but that he's happy the guy will soon be reunited with his family.

The Giants are having a contest where you can go on their site and vote for the best "fan story." The winners will get their pictures on tickets to a 2011 game. Assuming, of course, there are 2011 games.

Philadelphia Eagles

Attendance was apparently not what Michael Vick had hoped it would be, but he and a couple of his receivers gathered in South Jersey for a workout Thursday. Still feels kind of surreal that Michael Vick is the guy leading and organizing team workouts, right? I may have more on that later today, just FYI, so come on back. Oh, who am I kidding? I know you'll come back. You guys are the BEST.

Les Bowen caught up with Eagles first-round pick Danny Watkins, who spent time hanging out with his old firefighter buddies in British Columbia while waiting out the lockout. Don't worry, though, Eagles fans. Here's the money quote: "I didn't run into any burning buildings." Phew. Can't imagine too many insurance policies covering that.

Washington Redskins

Former FanHouse colleague David Elfin writes that Carlos Rogers wouldn't mind playing for the Cowboys or Eagles. Rogers claims to be the second-best cornerback on the market after Nnamdi Asomugha (Yes, that's three days in a row his name appears in the NFC East breakfast links!), which feels like a stretch, but it's the lockout. Everyone can talk/dream/fudge the truth. This highlights the fact that the Redskins still have some work to do to add pieces to that 3-4 defense in Jim Haslett's critical second year running it in Washington.

Dan Steinberg went scouring old newspaper stories for some John Beck facts. I like the part about the hunting videos Beck makes. We can all learn something during this lockout, even if it's about mule deer.

Enjoy the day. I gotta go find two giraffes.

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