NFC East: Clay Matthews

Redskins must consider future contracts

February, 28, 2014
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When the Washington Redskins look at free agency this offseason, they also have to be mindful of the next several years. They have key contracts that will expire over that time, with players they would probably like to keep around. ESPN's Adam Schefter reported Friday that the salary cap, projected about $133 million this year, could top $140 million next year and $150 million by 2016. It had been flat for a couple years. So any increase would be good for Washington.

Here are some contracts that could be impacted:
  • Orakpo
    Linebacker Brian Orakpo. If it’s going to get as high as $150 million in two years, then the Redskins could afford to take on the sort of contract it would take to keep him around. He could be a smaller cap hit this year, perhaps around $7 million or so (in comparison, Clay Matthews' new deal signed last spring cost Green Bay a $6.7 million cap hit this past season). A long-term deal would start to pay him silly money in Year 3 (again by comparison, Matthews will count $12.7 million in the third year of his deal). But with a higher cap figure the Redskins might decide they’re OK with such a contract.
  • Quarterback Robert Griffin III's contract will be up after the 2015 season. Thanks to the CBA, the Redskins will have the option of extending his contract for a fifth season. It would be worth the average salary of the 10 highest paid quarterbacks -- this year, that would be about $13.5 million. That would lock him up through 2016. But his next contract is one they will soon have to start taking into account, especially if he returns to the level they hope. By the way, backup Kirk Cousins' contract is up after 2015. Teams can only use that one-year extension on first-round picks; Cousins was a fourth-rounder.
  • Kerrigan
    Linebacker Ryan Kerrigan's contract is up after this season. However, as with Griffin, the Redskins can extend his deal. They have a May 3 deadline to decide if they want to pay him the average of the fourth through 25th players at his position, which would pay him between $3 million and $4 million for 2015. Otherwise he’ll become a free agent. Regardless, he’ll be a free agent by March 2016 at the latest.
  • Running back Alfred Morris will be an unrestricted free agent after the 2015 season. Because he was a sixth-round pick, the Redskins can’t choose to simply extend him. Morris was a perfect fit for Mike Shanahan’s stretch zone system. Offensive coordinator Sean McVay said they will use the same run game under new coach Jay Gruden. If that is the case, Morris should continue to pile up yards. But if Gruden wants to change it, you wonder how that could impact Morris. Shanahan showed that his system could make a lot of backs productive, but Morris has gone above the norm.
  • Britt
    Williams
    Left tackle Trent Williams will be a free agent after the 2015 season (he’ll count $13.7 million against the cap that year). He’s the anchor of the line and a guy who could play a long time.
  • Receiver Pierre Garcon won’t be a free agent until after the 2016 season, but a couple more years like this one -- mixed with massive contracts by other receivers -- could lead to a desire to get something done before he becomes free again.
  • Defensive end Jarvis Jenkins is a free agent after this season. His play has not warranted a big deal, but a strong season could change everything. Unlike some of the others on this list, Jenkins would not be a big-money guy. But, then again, the Redskins gave Stephen Bowen a deal that averaged $5.5 million, and he was not an accomplished player with Dallas before signing.
  • I’m including cornerback David Amerson and tight end Jordan Reed together, because both contracts will be up after the 2016 season. Reed could be in line for a major pay raise, but he has to prove he’s durable. Amerson will have plenty of time to show what he can do. I'm not yet concerned with these deals because three years is a lot of time in the NFL. We'll get a better feel after next season, perhaps, at what direction their careers will go.

Survey says: Keep Brian Orakpo (sort of)

February, 26, 2014
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It’s tough to remember a more polarizing Washington Redskins free agent than Brian Orakpo. Is he worth a big contract? Is he really that good? You can see that polarization when it came to our Redskins Nation poll: 81.4 percent of those responding said they wanted Orakpo back.

Ah, but there’s a catch. Of that 81.4 percent, only 45.4 percent were willing to pay him more than $9 million per season (including two who suggested the franchise tag, which is expected to be about $10.9 million).

Orakpo
There were eight votes for paying him $8 million a year or less, which, in essence, is a no. There is little chance Orakpo would be re-signed for such a figure.

Not every team would want to pay him $10 million a year simply because he lacks enough game-changing plays (six forced fumbles, one interception). But with the salary cap increasing, and the need for pass-rushers always high -- and few available this offseason, especially at outside linebacker -- it’s tough to see him getting less than what Cleveland handed Paul Kruger a year ago ($8.1 million per year).

Yes, the market can sometimes correct itself, but Orakpo is a more proven player than Kruger, was so it’s not the same situation. Orakpo is not Clay Matthews, but there is little chance he sees himself as being worth $5 million a year less than his Green Bay counterpart, who received a $13-million-a-year extension last offseason.

I think the Redskins will have a hard time paying him $10 million per year. If they do so, I think in some quarters of the building it will be done reluctantly.

Five people said they would bring him back for no more than $7 million a year. They should have done what Nancy Reagan suggested long ago: Just say no. But it certainly gives you an idea of what they felt about his value.

Back to the survey: So if it takes at least $9 million per year? Then the number of those who want him back drops to 37.3 percent.

Some said they would sign Orakpo at the right price, but didn’t give a price. Those responses couldn’t be used because, well, we’re trying to figure out what you think that price is or should be. Hard to say if that is a yes or a no.

One participant, @prog314, summed up some of the conflicted thoughts in a series of tweets: “I don't want to pay him. But, I fear a situation where you have to replace 3 out of 4 lbers in the 3-4 system. 8 mil is..overkill, but it may be a necessary evil. He needs to be on a contract that takes his injuries into account ... On top of that, who would replace these voids? I would love Dansby, but him and Cards are working on contract. Not a ... lot of good pass rushers to take his spot either. However, ILB is more important in my opinion.”

Here are some more of your responses:
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How Brian Orakpo compares at OLB

February, 25, 2014
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They say they want him back, but at what price? The Redskins have so many needs that giving free-agent linebacker Brian Orakpo a whopper deal could complicate their ability to adequately fill other holes – even with a lot of cap room. That’s why it’s not a lock that he’ll return, especially if his price tag climbs into the $10 million-a-year range. His lack of game-changing plays complicates this decision.

Orakpo
There are only a handful of linebackers in that range. Does Orakpo deserve to be among them? I took a look at five linebackers who earned big deals.

Robert Mathis is on this list, though he spent the bulk of his career at defensive end in a 4-3 until moving to outside linebacker in a 3-4 in 2012. He signed his new contract with the Colts knowing he’d be shifting to a 3-4. I also included DeMarcus Ware, now a defensive end, because his money was earned as a 3-4 linebacker. Only 3-4 outside linebackers were included on this list.
After seeing these breakdowns, what would you pay Orakpo?

Matthews
Green Bay’s Clay Matthews
Age: 27
Contract: 5 years, $66 million (2013)
Signing bonus: $20.5 million
Guaranteed money: $20.5 million
Average per year: $13.2 million
Analysis: Matthews earned NFC Defensive Player of the Year honors in 2010 with 13.5 sacks, two forced fumbles and an interception. He’s made four Pro Bowls and was twice named All-Pro. Matthews had recorded double-digit sack totals in three of the previous four seasons before his new contract. Matthews has missed a combined nine games the past two seasons. He was considered very good against the run this past season.
Game-changing plays: He has 50 career sacks to go with 10 forced fumbles and four interceptions in five seasons.
Worth it: Yes. There’s only one year to go on in the new deal, so it’s tough to say he isn’t. But injuries the past two years make this a shakier yes than anticipated.
Orakpo comparison: Matthews clearly is the better player, a more dynamic force who causes more worries for an offense.

Ware
Dallas’ DeMarcus Ware
Age: 31
Contract: 7 years, $78 million (2009)
Signing bonus: $20 million
Average per year: $13 million
Guaranteed money: $25,591,176
Analysis: He earned this deal in a big way with 53.5 sacks in his first four years, including 20 in 2008. He’s made seven Pro Bowls and was named first-team All-Pro four times and was the 2008 NFL Defensive Player of the Year. He never missed a game until this past season, his first as a 4-3 defensive end.
Game-changing plays: He’s intercepted only two passes in his career (one this past season), but has forced 32 fumbles. He’s recorded 117 career sacks he had a combined 35 sacks in 2009-10.
Worth it: Yes, though the Cowboys might now have to cut him to clear salary-cap space.
Orakpo comparison: There’s no comparison. Ware was a more dynamic player during his prime. If healthy, he can still play.

Hali
Kansas City’s Tamba Hali
Age: 30
Contract: 5 years, $57.5 million (2011)
Signing bonus: $15 million
Guaranteed money: $35 million
Average per year: $11.5 million
Analysis: Hali earned his deal with a big 2010 season with an AFC-best 14.5 sacks – his first year with double-digit sacks. He’s a four-time Pro Bowler and has made All-Pro twice, including this past season. He’s played in at least 15 games every season since entering the NFL in 2006.
Game-changing plays: Hali has forced 27 fumbles in eight seasons, but intercepted only two passes. He has 46.5 sacks since signing his new deal and 73.5 for his career.
Worth it: Yes. His production has improved and, with two more years left on his contract, he shows no signs of decline.
Orakpo comparison: Hali makes more game-changing plays, though his contract is a direct result of 2010 (he was a 4-3 end until 2009). He also has more talent around him. Orakpo has not had a breakout year, rather he’s consistently been between 8.5-11 sacks in his four full seasons.

Woodley
Woodley
Pittsburgh’s LaMarr Woodley
Age: 29
Contract: 6 years, $61.5 million (2011)
Signing bonus: $13.5 million
Guaranteed money: $17 million
Average per year: $10.25 million
Analysis: Woodley earned his contract after recording a combined 35 sacks over three straight seasons. But since then, he’s recorded a combined 18 sacks and missed a total of 14 games because of various injuries. Sacks don’t measure everything, but there’s been a drop-off in pressure and he got the big deal because of his sack total.
Game-changing plays: Since signing his deal, Woodley has intercepted two passes, forced two fumbles and recovered two others.
Worth it: No. Whether because of injuries or other reasons, his play has slipped.
Orakpo comparison: At this point, Orakpo is better. But Woodley posted better numbers – and more game-changing plays -- in getting this contract (albeit while surrounded by much better defensive talent). Orakpo has forced six fumbles and intercepted one pass.

Mathis
Indianapolis’ Robert Mathis
Age: 32
Contract: 4 years, $36 million (2012)
Signing bonus: $15 million
Average per year: $9 million
Guaranteed money: $17 million
Analysis: Mathis flourished this past season with a career-best 19.5 sacks – eight more than his previous best. Mathis has 111 career sacks, playing opposite Dwight Freeney as a 4-3 defensive end for most of that time. Mathis drops into coverage probably less than 10 percent of the time and rushes with his hand on the ground quite a bit. Two years ago, Mathis recorded eight sacks in 12 games.
Game-changing plays: He forced eight fumbles this past season and 48 for his career to go with one interception.
Worth it: Yes.
Orakpo comparison: Mathis signed his deal before playing in a 3-4, though the Colts already knew they were going to switch to that front. If Mathis, who turns 33 Wednesday, were up for a new contract this season? He’d top $10 million per year. He’s a more dangerous pass-rusher than Orakpo, who has six forced fumbles in his career. But Orakpo is asked to do more.
PHILADELPHIA -- The good news for Philadelphia Eagles coach Chip Kelly is he doesn’t have to spend the next couple months traveling to high school kids’ homes and recruiting them.

The bad news?

"It’s a different league," Kelly said. "This isn't recruiting where you can go out and offer and try to get them to come. There's a selection in the draft process and we're not going to pick until the 22nd [spot in the first round]. There's 21 other guys that we may covet, but we don't have an opportunity to get them."

If a team drafted 22d every year and did well, it could be awfully good. Based on the last 10 years, drafting only players taken between No. 22 and No. 32 (the end of the first round), a team could have Aaron Rodgers at quarterback, wide receivers Dez Bryant and Santonio Holmes, running backs Steven Jackson and Chris Johnson, linebackers Clay Matthews and Nick Perry, safety Brandon Meriweather and defensive linemen Cameron Jordan and Sharrif Floyd.

You could do worse. Plenty of teams did do worse. Cleveland took two quarterbacks, Brady Quinn and Brandon Weeden, at No. 22.

Later we’ll look at some possible players the Eagles could consider at No. 22 in this year’s draft. For now, here’s a quick look at the 22nd pick in each of the past 10 NFL drafts, along with a few players that were on the board at the time (I didn’t go beyond the end of the first round out of fairness; just looking at first-round graded players):

2013: Cornerback Desmond Trufant from Washington, selected by Atlanta.

On the board: Defensive tackle Sharrif Floyd, WR/Returner Cordarrelle Patterson, defensive end Datone Jones.

2012: Quarterback Brandon Weeden from Oklahoma State, selected by Cleveland.

On the board: Linebackers Dont'a Hightower and Nick Perry, running back Doug Martin.

2011: Offensive tackle Anthony Castonzo from Boston College, selected by Indianapolis.

On the board: Offensive lineman Danny Watkins, defensive end Cameron Jordan, running back Mark Ingram.

2010: Wide receiver Demaryius Thomas from Georgia Tech, selected by Denver.

On the board: Wide receiver Dez Bryant, quarterback Tim Tebow, cornerback Devin McCourty.

2009: Wide receiver Percy Harvin from Florida, selected by Minnesota.

On the board: Offensive tackle Michael Oher, cornerback Vontae Davis, linebacker Clay Matthews.

2008: RB Felix Jones from Arkansas, selected by Dallas.

On the board: Running backs Rashard Mendenhall and Chris Johnson, cornerback Mike Jenkins.

2007: Quarterback Brady Quinn from Notre Dame, selected by Cleveland.

On the board: Wide receiver Dwayne Bowe, safety Brandon Meriweather, linebackers Jon Beason and Anthony Spencer, offensive tackle Joe Staley.

2006: Linebacker Manny Lawson from N.C. State, selected by San Francisco.

On the board: Offensive lineman Davin Joseph, wide receiver Santonio Holmes, running back DeAngelo Williams, defensive end Mathias Kiwanuka.

2005: Wide receiver Mark Clayton from Oklahoma, selected by Baltimore.

On the board: Cornerback Fabian Washington, quarterback Aaron Rodgers, wide receiver Roddy White.

2004: Quarterback J.P. Losman from Tulane, selected by Buffalo.

On the board: Defensive tackle Marcus Tubbs, running back Steven Jackson, defensive end Jason Babin.

Redskins need to keep Orakpo

December, 20, 2013
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ASHBURN, Va. -- This shouldn't be Brian Orakpo's last home game as a Washington Redskins player. If the organization is smart they'll find a way to keep him around.

The problem is, they run a 3-4 scheme which needs pass rushers. It's difficult to find pass rushers. They don't have a first-round pick. And Orakpo is a good player.

[+] EnlargeBrian Orakpo
Bruce Kluckhohn/USA TODAY SportsThe Redskins would have a difficult time replacing Brian Orakpo.
Oh, and the Redskins' defense can't afford to lose good players. In case you haven't noticed, there aren't a lot of them on the field. It would just be creating yet another need.

Debating whether Orakpo is an elite rusher or player is one thing. He thinks he is and defensive coordinator Jim Haslett said Thursday that Orakpo is equivalent to guys like Robert Mathis or Robert Quinn, both of whom have more sacks but are not asked to do as much in other parts of the game.

Green Bay's Clay Matthews signed a contract extension last spring, with $20.5 million guaranteed. Orakpo has 39.5 career sacks in 63 games; Matthews has 49 sacks in 68 games. Orakpo has had two double-digit sack seasons, one less than Matthews.

"He rushes every time on third down or nickel, but he does drop into coverage," Haslett said of Orakpo. "He's really good in the run -- I think him and [linebacker] Ryan [Kerrigan] are two of the best I've been around at covering people, so I don't think it's fair. He's not a true four-down lineman. Now, that being said, there's other guys that have made that transition to a down lineman and they're not that successful because it's hard to do it every single snap. It's a little bit of a different breed down there."

Haslett was then asked if he considered Orakpo comparable to others who are considered elite.

"Yeah, I would," Haslett said. "The guy is a heck of a player and I think he showed what he's worth to this organization over the four years. He's been very successful, obviously he's a heck of a rush guy, but the other things he does besides that, he's outstanding, you know, covering tight ends and backs to the flat and in the run game. Him and Ryan are the reason we're so successful in the run. It's hard to get outside because of those two."

Now, a defensive boss typically will say great things about a player like Orakpo. He knows it can help him get paid. I've talked to personnel guys in the past who thought Orakpo was a good, but not great, pass rusher. But I do know he's better than Paul Kruger, who was the top free-agent outside linebacker in 2013 and received nearly $13 million in bonus money and $20 million guaranteed. His average per year is a little more than $8 million.

But again, you have to weigh the cost of his departure. Do you have a replacement signed for 2014? No, you don't. Rob Jackson is a free agent as well but is not as good as Orakpo. Yes, he'd be cheaper, but in a passing league you need to invest in pass rushers. Jackson is fine if Orakpo's price tag becomes exorbitant (and if it impairs the Redskins' ability to retain other free agents and add others) or if he just wants to go (that's not the case).

It also will depend on whether a new coach -- if Mike Shanahan is fired -- runs a 3-4 or 4-3 and how a new staff views him, of course. How would Orakpo do as a 4-3 end? He'd probably have to gain a little weight, but when he came out of Texas, opinions were split as to whether he should be a 4-3 end or 3-4 linebacker.

Orakpo is not a superstar, but he would be tough to replace. It'll cost the Redskins a lot of money, but it could just be the cost of doing business.

It could just be that they can't afford to lose him.

Double Coverage: Packers-Cowboys

December, 12, 2013
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IRVING, Texas -- The Green Bay Packers and Dallas Cowboys are two of the most storied franchises in NFL history, but with three games to play in the 2013 season both are on the outside of the playoff chase and in need of a win.

The Packers have fallen on hard times without Aaron Rodgers but won last week against the Atlanta Falcons. The Cowboys are coming off a humiliating loss to the Chicago Bears and have a short week to get ready.

ESPN.com Packers reporter Rob Demovsky and Cowboys reporter Todd Archer debate the matchup in this week's Double Coverage.

Archer: I'll skip the "What's Aaron Rodgers status?" and ask about Ted Thompson's approach to the backup quarterback. The Cowboys pay Kyle Orton a lot of money to hopefully never throw a pass. Is there any regret form the Packers that they did not have a better backup quarterback situation behind Rodgers, considering their struggles without him?

[Editor's note: Rodgers was officially ruled out for Sunday's game on Friday.]

Demovsky: Thompson admitted at the end of training camp that he probably should have signed Vince Young much earlier than he did, although after watching Young for about a month, I'm not sure he would have been any better had the Packers signed back in the spring. Where they probably erred was in not drafting a quarterback. They overestimated what they had in Graham Harrell and B.J. Coleman, and neither one developed enough. When Ron Wolf was the GM, he made it a regular practice to draft a quarterback in the middle-to -late rounds. Not all of them worked out, but guys like Ty Detmer, Mark Brunell, Matt Hasselbeck and Aaron Brooks all came up through the Packers' system.

Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers said Tony Romo is "playing probably as good as he has in his career." Do you agree with that assessment?

Archer: I'd agree with that, sure. It's hard to argue against his numbers. He has 3,244 yards passing with 27 touchdowns and seven interceptions. He's taking care of the ball. He had one really careless throw and it cost the Cowboys big-time in their loss to the Denver Broncos. Romo gets most of the blame for the December/January woes this team has had, but in his last 16 games he has 34 touchdowns and seven picks. It's hard to play better than that. But you know what? He has to. This defense is so bad that Romo has to be nearly perfect. There can be no poor drives. If they don't get points they at least need to chew up time because there's not an offense the Cowboys can slow down right now.

When the Packers won Super Bowl XLV at AT&T Stadium they were able to overcome so many injuries, especially on defense as we talked about. The difference this year is Rodgers missing time, but is there anything more to it than that?

Demovsky: They did end up with 15 players in injured reserve in their Super Bowl season, and then during that game itself they lost Charles Woodson to a broken collarbone. But you know what? This defense played fine early this season and even during the stretch Clay Matthews missed because of his broken thumb. Capers said last week that losing Rodgers had nothing to do with the Packers' defensive slide, but I'm not buying it. The Packers' defense got four turnovers in the Thanksgiving game at Detroit and still got walloped 40-10 because the offense couldn't do a darn thing with them. To be sure, there are issues on defense. Their failure to address needs at safety has hurt them up the middle, where their inside linebackers also haven't played well enough.

It sounds like Monte Kiffin is already taking heat, but how much of it is personnel? When I saw Packers castoff Jarius Wynn playing Monday night against the Bears, to me that was a red flag that there are talent issues, perhaps some of them caused by injuries.

Archer: There are talent issues and there are depth issues. Blame the owner and GM who constructed this team. Blame the coaches -- Kiffin and Rod Marinelli -- for saying the line was a position of strength. The Cowboys thought they had pieces to fit Kiffin's scheme at the start of the year. DeMarcus Ware has not been DeMarcus Ware in part because of injuries, but he acknowledged he has to play better. Bruce Carter was supposed to be the ideal weak-side linebacker and he just has not made any plays. The corners are more man corners and Kiffin has tried to play more man but all of them -- Brandon Carr, Morris Claiborne and Orlando Scandrick -- have had issues. Sean Lee has been hurt and could miss Sunday's game with a neck injury. He's been good but the defense has been lit up with him on the field, too. It's just a mess. Until Jerry Jones realizes he needs better players, not necessarily better schemes, it will be a mess.

Let's stick with the defensive coordinators. From the outside looking in, it appears Capers is catching a lot of grief too. Are the Packers committed to the 3-4 regardless or could they pull a Dallas and move to a 4-3 in the future?

Demovsky: When the cornerstone of the defense is Matthews, an outside linebacker, I would think they'd have to stick with the 3-4 even if they part ways with Capers, which I'm not sure will happen anyway. Mike McCarthy has continually praised Capers and the defensive staff. It's probably more about personnel. They need a few more playmakers to help out Matthews. They haven't gotten enough production from their defensive front. I'd look for an overhaul in personnel more than a coaching change.

Knowing the temperature in the Cowboys locker room like you do, how do you think they will react to getting steamrolled Monday night? Is this a group that will fight? Or will they pack it in?

Archer: This is where I have to give Jason Garrett credit. This team has fought. Maybe they didn't fight all that much in the losses to New Orleans and Chicago, but they have not packed it in. You saw the last time the Cowboys packed it in in 2010 at Lambeau Field when Wade Phillips was the coach. The Cowboys lost 45-7 and were completely disinterested. Phillips was fired the next day and Garrett took over. There is some gumption to this team. They do work hard. They do the right things. I'll say it again: Most of it is a talent issue. I'd expect the Cowboys to come out with the effort Sunday because they're still very much in the playoff chase. But do they believe they can really make a run? I don't know about that.

Scott Tolzien and Mathias KiwanukaGregory Shamus/Getty ImagesNew Packers quarterback Scott Tolzien will face Mathias Kiwanuka and an improved Giants pass rush.
 
The New York Giants will be looking for their fourth win in a row following an 0-6 start. The Green Bay Packers will be trying to snap their first two-game losing streak since 2010. The two teams square off Sunday at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J.

ESPN.com Giants reporter Dan Graziano and ESPN NFL Insider Matt Williamson (filling in for Packers reporter Rob Demovsky) break down the matchup for you.

Dan Graziano: Hey, Matt. Thanks for filling in while Rob's on the inactive list this week. The big question the Giants have this week is: Who is Scott Tolzien and what can we expect to see from him? So let's start with that one.

Matt Williamson: Well, Dan, that's a good question! I don't think we really know the answer, but he did move the team well in relief of an injured Seneca Wallace and was generally a smart distributor of the football. And we know Green Bay has weapons to get the ball to. We don't have a lot of tape to evaluate, but I think the Packers are better off with Tolzien over Wallace while Aaron Rodgers recovers from a broken collarbone.

While we are talking quarterbacks, what on Earth is going on with Eli Manning? Despite this winning streak, he really has not played well.

Graziano: Matt, my theory on Eli is that the protection issues at the beginning of the season were so egregious that he just fell into this zone of discomfort from which he's been unable to extricate himself. He just doesn't look right back there, and while the protection issues have improved some, they're still present. The Giants have had no blocking help from the tight-end position at all. They're vulnerable in the middle of the line, and I'm not sold on either tackle, to be honest. They haven't had reliable blitz pickup help from the running backs.

Downfield, Hakeem Nicks isn't playing wide receiver the way he used to play it. A lot has gone on around Manning to make him far less comfortable with his surroundings, and I'm not sure what it's going to take before he starts playing with that old Eli confidence again. Great quarterbacks make the best of bad situations, and Manning has not done that this year. As the Giants' situation improves, they will need him to play much better if they're really going to make this miracle run they still believe they can make.

They get another break this week with Rodgers out and Tolzien in, but they are already talking about that improved Packers running game. What do you see from Eddie Lacy & Co. and how do you think they'll attack the Giants, who have generally been pretty good against opposing running backs this season?

Williamson: This Packers' running game is terrific and should continue to excel even with less of a passing threat. The left side of the offensive line is playing great, but isn't healthy on the right side and has had to do a lot of shuffling of personnel there. Still, the rushing attack isn't easy to prepare for, as the Packers can run a wide variety of plays out of a wide variety of personnel groupings and formations. Lacy is quick to get downhill and is a punishing runner who can wear a defense down, and he also excels at reading his blocks and showing patience with the ball in his hands -- rare traits for a rookie running back. The Packers' ability to run the ball will probably be the most crucial component of this game.

Along those lines, I feel like the Giants might actually have a respectable rushing attack of their own now with Andre Brown carrying the rock. Do you agree?

Graziano: Yeah, the 30 carries and 115 yards for Brown on Sunday in his first game back off a twice-broken leg were eye-opening. I think the workload they gave him showed that the Giants knew just how much they were missing this season at running back. David Wilson never got going and then got hurt, and they patched it together with Brandon Jacobs and Peyton Hillis. But watching Brown run with vision and power and gain yards after contact Sunday, it was obvious that he's the Giants' best option going forward and the best they've had all season.

The injury risk has to be considered, given Brown's history, but at this point the Giants need to win pretty much every game, and they're going to have to lean hard on Brown to do it. Even if he can't be as productive every week as he was against the Raiders, the legitimate threat he poses on film should open up the play-action passing game as a way for Manning to combat those protection issues.

So the Giants feel they can offer a balanced offensive attack against a Packers defense that couldn't get the ball back from the Eagles in the final 9:32 of Sunday's game. Was that a LeSean McCoy issue, or are the Packers really struggling on defense right now?

Williamson: The Packers are struggling on defense and allowing too many big plays. I expected last week's return from injury by Clay Matthews to pay off much more than it did. However, we know Matthews is a great player, and maybe he just needed a week to get back into the swing of things. I still expect Matthews to torment the Giants' tackles this week.

On the inside of their defensive line, the Packers have a lot of sheer mass and power with guys like B.J. Raji, Johnny Jolly and Ryan Pickett. I also expect the Giants' interior offensive line to have a difficult time moving this group in the running game. This could be a bounce-back week for Green Bay on this side of the ball.

The Packers' run defense had a difficult time when the Eagles stacked both of their offensive tackles on the same side of the formation. While I expect the Giants could use some personnel groupings with six offensive linemen, I don't see them duplicating what Philadelphia did to make room for McCoy.

Watching the Giants game from last week, I noticed they had a difficult time getting the Raiders' Pat Sims blocked. Sims is a big-bodied and powerful defensive tackle in much the same mold as the Packers' group. I think that bodes well for Green Bay this week.

And expect the Giants to have a difficult time blocking little-known Mike Daniels in the passing game. Daniels has taken over the Cullen Jenkins role -- a spot Green Bay drafted Datone Jones for in the first round -- as an interior pass-rusher, and he has excelled.

The Giants' defense is based entirely on great defensive line play. This is a deep group with a ton of important resources tied up in it, but it hasn't been an elite group. It is improving, however. Where do you see this unit right now and this week against the Packers?

Graziano: Well, the sack numbers have come up. The Giants had only six sacks in their first seven games, but then got eight in their past two games. So they've moved from last in the league in sacks, where they spent most of the season, to a tie for 30th in that category. Odd thing is, of the eight sacks in their past two games, only four have come from defensive linemen. Safety Antrel Rolle has as many sacks (two) in the Giants' past two games as defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul has in their past 16.

The line has been very good, as I mentioned, against the run this year. But over the first seven games of the season, opposing quarterbacks did a good job of unloading the ball before the Giants' pass-rushers could stop them from doing so. Not sure they get the full test this week against Tolzien, but at some point we're going to find out whether the front four really has improved, or whether it has just been feasting on lesser competition.

Thanks again, Matt. Catch you online in one of our game chats soon, I'm sure.

 
Nick Foles and A.J. HawkGetty ImagesNick Foles and A.J. Hawk meet Sunday in Green Bay in a game that's turned in the Eagles' favor.
If you expected the Philadelphia Eagles to have the edge at quarterback for their Week 10 meeting against the Green Bay Packers at Lambeau Field, go to the head of the class.

The teams play Sunday, a week after their quarterbacks made headline news. The Pack's Aaron Rodgers broke his collarbone in Monday night's loss to the Chicago Bears, a day after the Eagles' Nick Foles tied the NFL record with seven touchdown passes against the Oakland Raiders.

A game that looked to be safely in the Packers' column is suddenly wide open. NFC North aficionado and all-around NFL expert Kevin Seifert breaks down the game with ESPN.com Eagles reporter Phil Sheridan.

Phil Sheridan: I'll start with the obvious one: Can the Packers win without Rodgers? Did they take his durability for granted in not having a better backup in place?

Kevin Seifert: On a local level, the backup quarterback has been an annual source of controversy for the Packers throughout Rodgers' career as a starter. Nationally, most people didn't find out about it until Monday night.

Seneca Wallace is the backup only because he was available when they realized none of the players they took to training camp was up to the job. He is 6-15 in his career as a starter, and his career seemed over in August 2012 when the Cleveland Browns released him.

The Packers' entire scheme is built around Rodgers doing things that only Rodgers can do. Think of what happened when the Indianapolis Colts played without Peyton Manning in 2011. The Packers will need to make fundamental changes to their offense -- and expect substantial elevation in other areas of their team -- to make it through this wilderness.

I have to imagine the Eagles can't believe their luck to be facing Wallace instead of Rodgers, huh?

Sheridan: They are saying all the right things about wanting to face the best and never wanting to see anyone get hurt, but they aren't oblivious. This game looked like a double-digit loss the day the schedule came out, and it still looked like an easy Packers home win until Rodgers' collarbone broke Monday night. So it not only becomes a winnable game for the Eagles, it comes when a win, combined with a Dallas loss (the Boys are in New Orleans), would move them even with the Cowboys at 5-5.

And it's not like the Eagles owe anybody an apology when it comes to luck. They haven't had a quarterback start and finish two games in a row since September, and they've been down to Matt Barkley twice.

They may not have a starter as good as Rodgers, but their backup isn't half bad. Foles threw for seven touchdowns Sunday against an Oakland defense that didn't blitz or, at times, even cover receivers. Given Dom Capers' background, how would you expect him to respond to a challenge like this?

Seifert: Capers is known for major scheme changes from week to week, depending on matchups. But as usual, the Packers are dealing with injuries that will limit his options. They are down four linebackers at the moment, although the Packers are hopeful that Clay Matthews can return soon -- if not Sunday -- and play with a club to protect his broken thumb.

In short, I'm not sure how many options Capers will have. He does have a group of talented cornerbacks -- Tramon Williams, Sam Shields, Casey Hayward and Davon House. Capers will have to hope that they can stick with the Eagles' group of perennial All-Pros and future Hall of Famers better than the Raiders did.

Are the Eagles' receivers really that good?

Sheridan: If they are, they have managed to keep that greatness a secret until Sunday in Oakland. DeSean Jackson is a dynamic player, no question about that, but he has been taken out of games in the past when cornerbacks get physical with him. The Raiders did not, and Jackson went off.

As for Riley Cooper and Jason Avant, they have not made up for the loss of Jeremy Maclin to a torn ACL during training camp. Cooper had great numbers Sunday -- five catches, three touchdowns, 139 yards -- but he has been neutralized more often than not during the season.

Tight ends Brent Celek and Zach Ertz had big numbers at Oakland too. So either the Eagles offense really turned a corner or the Raiders just didn't have anyone playing corner. Maybe a bit of both.

The Packers have added a more robust running game to their offense this season. Now that Rodgers is hurt, can Eddie Lacy & Co. carry the team until the quarterback is back? Is that even possible in this pass-happy league?

Seifert: I tend to doubt it. Up until Monday night's game against the Bears, much of the Packers' success in the run game came against light boxes (six men or fewer) designed to focus first on the pass, according to the charting we get from ESPN Stats & Information. The Bears brought a safety into the box Monday night and the Packers still rushed for 199 yards, but we should note that the Bears have the NFL's fourth-worst rush defense this year.

And even when you run successfully, it usually takes longer to score and thus your total points can drive down. The Packers were averaging 30 points per game before scoring 20 Monday night against the Bears.

How do you think the Eagles will approach it? Eight men in the box? Nine? How about 11?

Sheridan: This sets up a bit like the Tampa Bay game, I guess. Mike Glennon was making his second start, and the Bucs' passing game was not expected to be a big threat. The Eagles focused on shutting down Doug Martin, and they did, holding him to 67 yards on 16 carries. It helps, of course, to get a lead and force the opponent to throw the ball more.

All season, the Eagles' focus has been to stop the run while limiting big pass plays downfield. That made them vulnerable to intermediate passing and runs after the catch. Tampa Bay's Vincent Jackson, for instance, had nine catches for 114 yards and two touchdowns while the Eagles were focused on Martin.

That has to be the Packers' blueprint for success. If Wallace can get the ball out quickly and catch Jordy Nelson and Andrew Quarless in stride, the Packers can move the ball. The Eagles are better at tackling and covering underneath than they were, but there's opportunity there.

PHILADELPHIA – It must be like looking into a mirror for Michael Vick and Robert Griffin III -- only instead of a reflection, each sees a projection of himself across time.

Vick, 33, sees what was and what might have been if he’d harnessed his full potential when he was the hot young quarterback revolutionizing the game.

“I’m a fan of his just like he’s a fan of mine,” Vick said Wednesday. “I like the way he plays. I like the desire he brings to the game.”

Griffin, 23, sees what might yet be, the good and the bad. Vick is still in the league, still starting at quarterback. But he has never been to a Super Bowl, hasn’t won a playoff game since the 2004 season and has missed games due to injury in all but one of his NFL seasons.

That should resonate with Griffin, who is set to start for the Washington Redskins against Vick and the Philadelphia Eagles on Monday night -- his first game action since blowing out his knee in last season's playoffs. There is an obvious correlation between their style of play and their risk of injury.

“It’s not something you want to harp on,” Griffin said. “But it has been something I’ve heard for the past eight months, about sliding and getting out of bounds. So that’s something I’m going to do. It’s just a part of playing football. You live and you learn.”

[+] EnlargeMichael Vick, Robert Griffin III
AP Photo/Mel Evans"I'm a fan of his just like he's a fan of mine," Michael Vick said of Redskins counterpart Robert Griffin III.
Vick has lived and learned that, well, sliding just doesn’t really work for him. He has talked about it, too, but has shown no real commitment to doing it. Even in the preseason, he dived forward at the end of runs, sometimes as tacklers closed in on him.

Maybe Griffin will have more success learning to avoid contact. It won’t be easy. It used to be that mobile quarterbacks were told they needed to remain in the pocket to avoid injury. Both Vick and Griffin will be in offenses that thrive on their ability to run.

The position is in a state of enormous flux. Being called a running quarterback isn’t an insult. It’s the highest compliment. Vick wasn’t the first in the NFL, but he’s definitely a major part of the evolution.

“He was a lot of fun to watch,” Griffin said, “not just running the ball but throwing the ball. He paved the way for a lot of quarterbacks like myself, and guys before him paved the way for him. You always have a lot of respect for the guy. He’s been through a lot in his life and still come out, still a starting quarterback in the NFL.”

With the emergence of running quarterbacks and read-option-based offenses has come a backlash. Defensive coaches are advocating hitting the quarterback every chance defenders get. It is a penalty to hit a quarterback late in the pocket, but if the signal-caller hands off and pretends he still has the ball, he’s fair game.

So at a time when Vick and Griffin need to prove they can stay healthy, they are at more risk than ever.

“I don’t know what to expect from defenses,” Griffin said. “They’re always going to try to throw something special at you. But you’ve got to be careful when you talk about targeting quarterbacks because that sounds a whole lot like a bounty to me.”

He’s not alone in making that comparison. San Francisco head coach Jim Harbaugh watched the Ravens put as many hits as possible on Colin Kaepernick in the Super Bowl. Harbaugh was made aware of comments by Green Bay linebacker Clay Matthews, who will be chasing Kaepernick around Sunday.

Matthews said, in essence, that hitting quarterbacks after fakes might just discourage coaches from exposing them to such risks. That would be a huge boon to defenses trying to counter the game’s latest trend.

Harbaugh told reporters he raised the issue with the league office and that Matthews’ talk smacks of “targeting a player.”

Eagles head coach Chip Kelly had a more direct solution.

“They’ve got to catch you first, right?” Kelly said. “So carry out your fake and run really fast. … Any quarterback has to be prepared for hits if they're carrying out fakes. That's just the rule in the game.”

Time will tell if Griffin is able to deliver the championship that has eluded Vick. But he’ll only get the chance if he’s able to remain healthy and on the field. The same things that make Vick and Griffin such threats to defenses also threaten their well-being.

49ers gets some expert-pick love

September, 4, 2013
9/04/13
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The experts have spoken and the San Francisco 49ers are getting some respect.

Two of 12 panelists believe the 49ers will take it a step further and win the Super Bowl. Only four of the panelists think the 49ers will win the NFC West over Seattle, but 12 say think the 49ers will make the postseason.

Kevin Seifert is a particular favorite of 49ers’ fans. Seifert (no relation to George) picked the team ti win the Super Bowl and for quarterback Colin Kaepernick to win the MVP award.

Meanwhile, in a conference call with Bay Area media, Green Bay linebacker Clay Matthews said he has not spent any time with practice squad quarterback Scott Tolzien. The Packers just picked him up after he was with the 49ers for the past two years.

Halftime thoughts: Giants look fantastic

November, 25, 2012
11/25/12
10:12
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EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- The New York Giants appear to have done their homework during their bye week. Lackluster losers of two straight November games heading into their Week 11 bye, the Giants have come roaring out of the gates tonight to take a 31-10 lead over the Green Bay Packers at halftime. ESPN North blogger Kevin Seifert, seated to my right here in the MetLife Stadium press box, reports that the 31 points are the most any team has scored against the Packers in a game this season. To repeat, it is halftime.

What has gone right for the Giants? Just about everything. They have sacked Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers three times, and the third one came equipped with a forced fumble by Osi Umenyiora that set up Ahmad Bradshaw's 13-yard touchdown run in the half's final minute. They have a Corey Webster interception to go with the fumble. Eli Manning, who hadn't thrown a touchdown pass since Week 7, has thrown one each to Rueben Randle and Victor Cruz. Bradshaw has 56 rushing yards and Andre Brown 27 behind a fired-up offensive line that's blocking as well as it has in any game all season, and Bradshaw also picked up 59 on a screen pass on the Giants' first possession of the game.

Early on, when Jordy Nelson whipped Webster for a 61-yard touchdown pass to tie the score at 7-7 in the game's first five minutes, it looked as though this might be a shootout between two of the game's top offenses. But it has quickly swung the Giants' way. They looked energized and sharp, smoothly working their way in and out of various personnel groupings on offense and defense, and they appear to be confusing the Packers on both ends. Middle linebacker Chase Blackburn has one of the sacks and has been integral to the pressure they've been able to put on Rodgers. And Randle, the rookie second-round pick out of LSU, looks as though he might be developing into a reliable third wide receiver option. He is sometimes on the field even when Cruz is not, and his presence on the outside opposite Hakeem Nicks can enable the Giants to deploy Cruz in the slot, where he can get mismatches against linebackers and safeties.

The Packers are obviously never out of a game with Rodgers and all of their offensive weapons. But they're outmanned tonight with key players such as Greg Jennings, Clay Matthews and Charles Woodson out of the game with injuries. And if the Giants can keep the run game going the way it's gone so far, they should be able to control the clock enough in the second half to prevent a three-touchdown comeback. A Giants victory would keep their lead in the NFC East at two games over the Cowboys and Redskins with five games left in the season.

Kenny Phillips returns for Giants

November, 25, 2012
11/25/12
7:15
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EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- New York Giants safety Kenny Phillips, who has been out of action since injuring his knee in the team's Week 4 loss to the Philadelphia Eagles, is active and expected to start Sunday night's game against the Green Bay Packers. Phillips' return is huge for a Giants defense that has thrived on turnovers but has struggled for consistency this year. He helps the run defense as well as the coverage schemes, and it's conceivable that his absence is a big part of the reason they've struggled up front in the pass rush as well.

Linebacker Keith Rivers also returns to action for the Giants after missing the last two games with an hamstring injury. And running back Ahmad Bradshaw, who has been limited in practice for weeks with foot and neck problems, also is active for the game.

The Packers are down several significant players, including wide receiver Greg Jennings, linebacker Clay Matthews and cornerback Sam Shields, all of whom are inactive for the game. Matthews sits with a hamstring injury, and Jennings has been out since September with an abdominal muscle injury. Star safety Charles Woodson also is sidelined with a broken collarbone, making this Green Bay defense more vulnerable than it even was when the Giants beat the Packers in the playoffs in January.

Giants quarterback Eli Manning has not thrown a touchdown pass since Week 7 against the Washington Redskins, and the Giants are looking to get their offense in gear with the Dallas Cowboys and Redskins suddenly right behind them in the NFC East race.

I will be here at MetLife Stadium tonight, along with NFC North blogger Kevin Seifert and NFL columnist Ashley Fox, as well as the crew from ESPNNewYork.com. Check out our Countdown Live chat during the game.

How you feeling? Giants-Packers

November, 25, 2012
11/25/12
12:00
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As the New York Giants prepared to host the Green Bay Packers at 8:20 p.m. ET on Sunday at MetLife Stadium, here's one reason for Giants fans to feel good and one reason for concern.

Feeling good: The Packers are vulnerable. With Charles Woodson and Clay Matthews out due to injury, the defense is definitely not at full strength. That should allow the Giants' offense the opportunity to grind out the kinds of long drives that keep Aaron Rodgers and the high-octane Green Bay offense on the sideline for much of the game. Now, that assumes the Giants figured some things out over the bye about an offense that has really sputtered over its last three games. But that gets to the issue of how much Giants fans should trust quarterback Eli Manning and the coaching staff to fix their problems, and I personally think they've earned a lot of that kind of trust.

Cause for concern: The Giants' defense needs to wake up as well, and in a very specific way. The Giants have forced a lot of turnovers this year, but their vaunted pass rush has not been as dominant as it has in past seasons. They will need to put pressure on Rodgers, which was their formula for beating him in January in the playoff game in Green Bay. The Giants had four sacks and 13 hurries that day against Rodgers, who threw an interception and lost a fumble, too. Jason Pierre-Paul is having a fine season, but he needs more help from Justin Tuck and Osi Umenyiora on the other side of the defensive line.

Breakfast links: A day about football

November, 22, 2012
11/22/12
8:00
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Actually, this is pretty much my favorite day of the year, and for reasons that have nothing to do with football. I've got a pretty excellent life, and an incredible family, and ever since I was a kid I always enjoyed the idea of a day set aside to appreciate those things. Now that I have a wife and two boys of my own, it's even more special. I hope each and every one of you gets to take a moment today to smile about whatever it is you love about your life, and to give thanks for it. I can promise you that's how I'll be spending my day. Well, that and cooking. And watching football.

Scaled-down links today. You'll all have more than enough to fill you up later on.

New York Giants

The Green Bay Packer who has the Giants worried as they prepare for Sunday night's game is not superstar quarterback Aaron Rodgers, or wide receivers Greg Jennings (he's hurt anyway) and Jordy Nelson, or even linebacker Clay Matthews. It's Randall Cobb, who's emerged as the Packers' do-it-all menace this year, that the Giants believe they need to stop.

Dallas Cowboys

Dez Bryant hasn't wanted to talk about his complicated off-field life this season, but that all changed Wednesday, when for some reason he decided to open up to reporters about his relationship with his mother, his kids and everything that goes on when he's away from the field. Jeez, I mean, if Bryant's in a good place off the field as well as on it, the Cowboys have to be flat-out fired up about what he can do, no?

Washington Redskins

In his first game after missing five straight with a foot injury, Redskins receiver Pierre Garcon was a bit of a non-factor Sunday against the Eagles. And it's reasonable to think the main reason the Redskins have him out there is to make opposing defenses think a little, maybe to draw some attention away from the receivers whose feet don't hurt. But offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan thinks Garcon is capable of contributing more to the offense than he did Sunday, so we'll see. Both Garcon and linebacker London Fletcher, who's got a 234-game consecutive-games streak on the line, are listed as questionable for today's game against the Cowboys in Dallas.

Philadelphia Eagles

Quarterback Michael Vick and running back LeSean McCoy are still dealing with concussion problems, and it looks as though Nick Foles is likely to make his second start at quarterback and Bryce Brown his first at running back for the Eagles on Monday night against Carolina. Nothing certain yet -- remember, the Eagles have an extra day to make these decisions. But that's the way things appear as of now.
I was not surprised to read the comments by New York Giants defensive end Justin Tuck regarding the comments by Green Bay Packers linebacker Clay Matthews. If you haven't been paying attention, Matthews said the Packers beat themselves in the divisional playoffs last year and effectively handed the Giants the game by playing poorly at the wrong time. Tuck responded thusly:
Tuck
"Thank you for giving us the game, Clay," Tuck deadpanned. "I appreciate it a lot."

"Did they play their best ball?" Tuck continued. "I don't know. But we won the football game. I don't think they gave us anything."

Of course they didn't. You can't lose a home playoff game by 17 points coming off a bye week and say, "We gave that one away." The reason the Packers (and the Falcons, and the 49ers, and the Patriots) didn't play their best games in the playoffs against the Giants was that the Giants were playing great. In any violent land-acquisition skirmish, a key to victory is finding ways to diminish the effectiveness of your opponent's attack and/or defense. I mean, did Napoleon just have a bad day at Waterloo, or did the Prussians have something to do with it?

Anyway, I found it funny because I remembered an exchange I had with Tuck while I was at Giants camp in Albany a couple of weeks ago. We were talking about the division, and I mentioned that it seemed as though a lot of people were going to pick the Eagles again this year.

"Good," he said. "I think the Eagles and the Cowboys should be the favorites. They're very talented. They have better offense than we have. They have better defense than we have. Their special teams are better. Their coaches are better. Their fans are better."

Yes, you can hear the sarcasm dripping from his words. Tuck made it clear that he's used to (and fed up with) analysis that underestimates the Giants and that any hype surrounding his division rivals is something he works hard to put out of his mind.

"I'm going to stop using the word 'hate,' because that got me in trouble the last time," Tuck told me. "Honestly, I don't know. I go about the game the way I go about the game. I don't worry about what the Eagles do. I don't worry about what the Cowboys do. They're both good football teams. The Redskins got better. They're good. But I'm going to take my group against anybody in the league, and that's just how I feel."

I know you guys want predictions from me, but I honestly don't know who I'm going to pick to win this division. It's either going to be the Eagles or the Giants. I just think the Cowboys are a notch behind them both and the Redskins are still not quite on that level. But I'm sincerely torn between the Eagles and the Giants. I think both of them will be better than they were in last year's regular season. Everywhere I go, NFL personnel people tell me the Eagles could be the best team in the league, and I feel as though it'd be easy to pick them. But the memory of the way they played in big spots last year, combined with the memory of what the Giants did after I spent the season underestimating them, gives me pause. So I'm taking the few weeks I have left to decide and hoping something happens to make it a bit clearer.

As I do ponder, though, I find both comfort and humor in the knowledge that, no matter who I pick, Justin Tuck isn't going to give a rat's rear end.

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