NFC East: Gerald Sensabaugh

IRVING, Texas -- The free-agent shopping starts today at 3 p.m. CT.

If the Dallas Cowboys have learned anything, it’s that they should use coupons.

From 2006-11, the Cowboys signed 12 players in unrestricted free agency. Only two players who signed multi-year deals reached the end of their contracts: Kyle Kosier signed a five-year, $15 million deal with the Cowboys in 2006 and was with the team through 2011. Keith Brooking signed a three-year, $6 million deal in 2009 and was a contributor through 2011.

Igor Olshansky (2009), Leonard Davis (2007) and Akin Ayodele (2006) are the only other players who made it more than one season on their original deals, and Olshansky and Ayodele made it only two seasons.

The Cowboys signed seven unrestricted free agents in 2012 and three lasted one season (Dan Connor, Nate Livings and Lawrence Vickers) on multi-year deals. Brodney Pool signed a one-year deal and barely made it to training camp.

Three members of the 2012 free-agent class remain: Brandon Carr (five years, $50 million), Mackenzy Bernadeau (four years, $11.5 million) and Kyle Orton (three years, $10.5 million). Carr is coming off a disappointing 2013 season, Bernadeau took a pay cut last week and Orton is not sure he wants to play.

Spending money in free agency is hardly ever the answer. The Cowboys will not have a ton of money available to them when the market opens until the DeMarcus Ware situation is resolved, and even then they will have to be wise with how they spend it and who they spend it on.

The needs are obvious: defense, defense and more defense. That’s what happens when a unit finishes last in the NFL in 2013. But the Cowboys could use a veteran presence at wide receiver (Robert Meachem, Jason Avant) and a backup quarterback if Orton walks away (Shaun Hill).

Finding defensive line help is a must, but the Cowboys will have to be budget conscious. They have had on and off talks with Jordan Woy, who represents free agents Jason Hatcher and Anthony Spencer, for most of the offseason. Both players could find better financial opportunities elsewhere.

Hatcher turns 32 in July and is coming off a career-high 11 sacks. He was added to the Pro Bowl. Spencer played in only one game in 2013 because of a knee injury that will not be healed enough for him to be 100 percent ready for training camp.

How much of a commitment can the Cowboys make and feel like they will get their money’s worth?

Ties to new defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli could help in the pursuit of Henry Melton, but he is coming off a torn anterior cruciate ligament.

Value is often the most overlooked part of free agency. The big-money signings lead to the biggest headlines, but do not correspond enough to wins and losses.

The Cowboys found value in Kosier, Brooking, Gerald Sensabaugh and Bernadeau but did not or have not received enough bang for the buck in Carr ($26.5 million guarantee) and Davis ($18.75 million guaranteed).

As the Cowboys look to clear this 8-8 bump that has turned into Mt. Everest, they need to spend wisely, but more importantly they need to choose wisely.
IRVING, Texas -- As thrilling as Sunday’s 24-23 win against the Washington Redskins was, it might have only delayed the inevitable for the Dallas Cowboys.

Ware
Ware
With a loss this week against the Philadelphia Eagles in a third straight NFC East championship game, there will be change. Actually, win or lose there will be changes, because that is just the nature of the NFL. How grand and how widespread are the questions.

Speculation abounds about Jason Garrett’s future. Twice in the past two weeks Garrett said he is focused on doing his job to the best of his ability. There is nothing else he really can say. Would Jerry Jones have the patience to bring Garrett back for a fourth season after three crushing Week 17 losses?

After last season’s loss to the Washington Redskins, Jones promised an uncomfortable season for everyone in the organization ... not named Jones.

Would it have made a difference if the Cowboys beat the Redskins last season? Would Jones have stayed with the status quo? They didn’t win, so changes were made.

Defensive coordinator Rob Ryan was fired. So was running backs coach Skip Peete. Special teams coordinator Joe DeCamillis was allowed to leave for the Chicago Bears. Garrett’s brother, John, was allowed to leave for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Wide receivers coach Jimmy Robinson was named “senior coaching consultant,” however, he has not been seen at one practice the entire season.

Ryan’s replacement, Monte Kiffin, would appear to be on thin ice after this historically bad season as the Cowboys switched to the 4-3. He has consistently said retirement is not in his plans, but at 73 years old that could change quickly.

Players, like Gerald Sensabaugh, Marcus Spears, Lawrence Vickers and Dan Connor, were cut in the offseason. Doug Free had his base salary cut in half. Players like DeMarcus Ware and Miles Austin could be in the crosshairs this year win or lose to the Eagles.

A lot is at stake against the Eagles, and for some people it could be more than just a playoff spot.
IRVING, Texas -- On the physically unable to perform list for the first six weeks of the season, Jay Ratliff can play as many as 10 regular-season games or as few as five for the Cowboys this season, depending on his fitness in October.

Ratliff
Will they be his final regular-season games for the Cowboys?

The salary cap would seem to indicate it will be. Ratliff is scheduled to count $8.232 million against the cap in 2014. That’s a lot of money for a player who has been unable to play a full season since 2011 and whose sack total has decreased in each of the past five seasons.

Cutting Ratliff now would put only $6.928 million in dead money against the 2014 salary cap. Designating Ratliff a post-June 1 cut next year would create $5.5 million in space in 2014, but also leave nearly $4.2 million in dead money in 2015.

The best maneuver for the Cowboys would be to make a clean break. Take the full $6.928 million hit of bonus proration in 2014. A straight cut now would save the Cowboys $1.304 million in cap space next year.

More importantly, Ratliff would not be on the books in 2015.

Dez Bryant and Bruce Carter will be unrestricted free agents following the 2014 season. Tyron Smith could be locked into the fifth-year option of his rookie deal. The team must decide to use the option on Smith by next spring. That money is guaranteed by the first day of the 2015 league year. They have time to do a deal with Smith.

Bryant and Carter would be more pressing, and Bryant would seem to command megabucks if he has the type of 2013 season many anticipate.

By clearing Ratliff off the 2015 cap, the Cowboys would be able to structure these contracts in a more even way if they want. Or they could make the second-year base salaries high knowing they would restructure them anyway to create room, as they have done with Brandon Carr and Tony Romo, and not have to knock all those salaries down to the minimum and create larger cap numbers in the future.

The Cowboys have made this sort of quick-and-clean decision before. In 2009 they cut Terrell Owens and took a cap hit of nearly $9 million all in one season rather than spread it out over two. To a smaller degree, they did the same thing this offseason with safety Gerald Sensabaugh.

The clock is ticking on Ratliff for a variety of reasons. The salary-cap clock is always ticking for the Cowboys.
The Dallas Cowboys are one of three NFC East teams that will hold minicamp this week, along with the Redskins and the Giants. (The Eagles had theirs last week.) Calvin Watkins has a "What to Watch For" on the Cowboys' minicamp, and he addresses a few of the things on which he'll be keeping an eye on for us as I head down to see the Redskins and Ohm hangs out with the Giants.

I think the safety position is the most interesting to watch for the Cowboys this week and in the coming months, because there's some recent history that shows they're open to significant offseason movement at that spot. Last year at this time, veteran Brodney Pool was projected as a starting safety along with Gerald Sensabaugh. But Barry Church had an impressive offseason, beginning around this time, that showed he grasped the defense and made Pool expendable.

Church is now one of the projected starters for this season, and Sensabaugh is gone. And while veteran Will Allen isn't necessarily a sure bet to go the way of Pool, the Cowboys would like to see 2012 fourth-round pick Matt Johnson show as well this offseason as Church did last. Johnson has received nothing but praise from the Cowboys' coaching staff and administration for his playmaking abilities, but he also has never played in an NFL game, as injuries kept him out for his entire rookie season. The Cowboys think he's going to be a good NFL safety, but at this point they really can't know what they have. That's why Allen is on the roster, but surely they'd be open-minded to making Johnson a starter if he shows he can stay healthy and handle the responsibility in the coming months.

Anyway, as I said, I'll be keeping tabs on these other camps as I cover the Redskins this week, and we'll see what Calvin and the gang see.
Friday links, in order of when the state in which each team plays its home games was admitted to the union. You call it East Coast bias? I call it patriotism. This is the way Alexander Hamilton would have wanted it.

Philadelphia Eagles

The outside linebacker position is one of the most interesting to watch for the Eagles this offseason. Assuming they plan to institute more 3-4 looks, everybody wants to know how Brandon Graham and Trent Cole will handle the transition from 4-3 defensive ends to stand-up rush linebackers.

Jeremy Maclin says he doesn't know much about whether the Eagles are holding or will hold a starting quarterback competition. But in practices so far, Maclin says, Michael Vick has been running with the first team with Nick Foles "sprinkling in some reps here and there." As we have discussed at length, there are no sure things or guarantees here, but Vick is the current clear and obvious favorite to open the season as the Eagles' starter, based on his experience and his 2013 upside.

New York Giants

What the Giants liked about offensive lineman Justin Pugh, who was their first-round pick in the draft last month, was that he's smart and technically sound enough to grasp their system quickly and that he could play whatever position on the line they need him to play a year from now.

Chad Jones, the 2010 Giants draft pick who was injured in a terrible car accident before he could ever play for the team, has given up his football comeback and will try to pursue a career as a baseball pitcher instead.

Washington Redskins

Redskins owner Dan Snyder had this to say to USA Today on the name-change issue: "We'll never change the name. It's that simple. NEVER — you can use caps." So, you know. At least he's keeping an open mind on a sensitive issue. Good to see.

If there is to be any change on the Redskins' offensive line this year, it's most likely to be at right tackle. Keith McMillan examines the four candidates, including returning starter Tyler Polumbus.

Dallas Cowboys

You know how every single offseason there's a story about how Miles Austin is working harder or doing something different to prevent a recurrence of the hamstring injuries that are always bugging him? Yeah? Well, this is the May 2013 version of that story. I feel confident in saying that Cowboys fans would rather read stories next May about the success Austin had in doing this.

Cut earlier this offseason in a salary cap move, former Cowboys safety Gerald Sensabaugh has decided to retire from the NFL at the age of 29. Good for him. Hopefully he got out before the game took too great a toll on his physical health. I'm rarely surprised when people decide to retire from this game young.

Eight in the Box: Under the radar

April, 5, 2013
4/05/13
12:00
PM ET
NFC Eight in the Box: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

A look at the top under-the-radar move made by each NFC East team thus far this offseason:

Dallas Cowboys: Cutting safety Gerald Sensabaugh.

This move was significant in a couple of ways. Its most immediate impact was that it created enough salary-cap room to allow the Cowboys, later that same day, to designate defensive end Anthony Spencer as their franchise player for the second year in a row. Spencer still stands as the team's most significant "free-agent acquisition," and franchising him left the Cowboys with very little room under the cap for the ensuing few weeks. Although it helped the Cowboys cross starting defensive end off of their offseason shopping list, it left safety as a position of some concern. The projected starters right now are Barry Church, who's coming off injury, and Matt Johnson, a second-year man who didn't play at all as a rookie. They signed veteran Will Allen for depth, but it's a position they might have to address early in the draft as well.

New York Giants: Signing defensive tackle Cullen Jenkins.

Jenkins was part of the colossal disappointment that was the past two seasons in Philadelphia, but he's a veteran with something left who should make a contribution in New York in a few ways. He has experience at defensive end as well as tackle, so he'll fit in when the Giants decide to use those packages that load up the line with pass-rushers. The Giants like to lean on high-character veterans to help develop young players, and Jenkins can fill that role for someone like Marvin Austin. And with the way the Giants rotate linemen, they should be able to keep Jenkins fresh. After cutting Chris Canty, the Giants needed to add depth on the defensive line, and Jenkins was a smart pickup after the Eagles cut him just before free agency opened.

Philadelphia Eagles: Trading for wide receiver Arrelious Benn.

I have no idea whether Benn will make an impact for the Eagles as a wide receiver. Injury problems his first three years in the league led Tampa Bay to give up on him and deal him to the Eagles for basically nothing. And he's behind starters DeSean Jackson and Jeremy Maclin, among others, on the depth chart. But he's also just 24 years old and was a second-round draft pick only three years ago, so there is some untapped potential there. If he can get on the field in the offense, he's got enough size to offer something the Eagles' starting wideouts don't. Regardless, the move was significant as part of a clear mission by new coach Chip Kelly and GM Howie Roseman to improve the Eagles' disappointing special-teams units. Benn has experience as a return man and in kick coverage, and should help there right away. Along with the signing of linebacker Jason Phillips and punter Donnie Jones, and the re-signing of Colt Anderson, Benn is part of a special-teams overhaul.

Washington Redskins: Re-signing fullback Darrel Young

Except on the rare occasions when he catches a pass or powers into the end zone for a short touchdown, Young doesn't get noticed much, but he's a critical part of a Redskins running game that ranked No. 1 in the league in 2012. That run game is likely to be even more important than it was last season while starting quarterback Robert Griffin III recovers from offseason knee surgery, and the Redskins' ability to retain Young and keep their offensive line intact will benefit tailback Alfred Morris greatly in his second season.
The main reason Tuesday night was so quiet in the NFC East in free agency was the relative lack of salary cap space among the division's teams. But another reason was that all four have significant needs in the secondary, and defensive backs aren't really signing anywhere just yet.

It's simple supply and demand -- so many veteran cornerbacks and safeties have been released in the past couple of weeks that the market is now flooded. When supply goes up, prices go down, and that could mean the defensive backs on the market aren't finding the deals for which they'd hoped. Assuming that's the case, it would be good news for the teams in the NFC East, all of whom are in the market for at least some help in the secondary:

[+] EnlargeAntoine Winfield
Tom Dahlin/Getty ImagesA glut of veterans like Minnesota cornerback Antoine Winfield, 26, has created a buyer's market for teams seeking secondary help.
The Philadelphia Eagles, who have by far the most cap space in the division, could legitimately use two new starting cornerbacks and two new starting safeties. Maybe Bradley Fletcher and Patrick Chung, who signed Tuesday night, can compete for two of those spots, but neither is a sure thing, and even if they were the Eagles still need two more starters.

The Washington Redskins, who released veteran DeAngelo Hall on Monday, need a starting cornerback opposite Josh Wilson, and a free safety to replace the disappointing Madieu Williams. They have very little cap room, as a result of the $18 million in league-imposed penalties still hanging over their heads this year, and so they'll need to find bargains. A slow-moving market with greater supply than demand works in their favor.

The New York Giants signed old friend Aaron Ross on Tuesday and appear to have some depth at cornerback with him, Corey Webster, Prince Amukamara, Jayron Hosley and maybe even Terrell Thomas. But assuming they're going to lose Kenny Phillips in free agency, they're likely in the market for a safety. The Dallas Cowboys have their starting cornerbacks, but have a need at safety after releasing Gerald Sensabaugh. The Cowboys are dealing with $5 million worth of those same cap penalties the Redskins have, and will need to create room and find a bargain if they're to address the position. Every day that goes by without a flurry of big safety signings is good news for the Giants and the Cowboys.

You want names? They are too many to list here. Check out ESPN.com's free agency tracker if you want wish lists for these teams at cornerback Insider or at safety Insider. As you can see, plenty of interesting choices across the spectra of talent, age and versatility. One of the reasons the defensive backs market is likely slow to rev up is because of the big names that have landed on it in recent days. If you were a team making plans to pursue a free-agent defensive back and then, over a 48-hour stretch, guys like Hall, Nnamdi Asomugha and Antoine Winfield became available, you'd have to at least press pause and evaluate, no?

Whatever the reason, the slow-developing, supply-choked market for cornerbacks and safeties is good for teams in the market for help at those positions. The NFC East has four such teams. So while I understand it's a fan's job to panic when your team doesn't sign anyone on the first day of free agency, I ask you to take a deep breath and consider that, in this case, that might turn out to be a good thing.
Chance Warmack AP Photo/John WilliamsonAlabama guard Chance Warmack could be available for the Cowboys when they pick at No. 18.
If the Dallas Cowboys don't pick an offensive lineman in the first round of next month's NFL draft, their fans officially have permission to quit.

Seriously, this would be last-straw territory, folks. It's an excuse to follow through on all those threats you've made over the years while pulling out your hair and wondering what Jerry Jones was thinking. You would be free to exercise any form of peaceful fan revolt. Boycott the season. Picket the games. Throw out all of your blue-and-silver gear and go be a Redskins fan. Robert Griffin III played college ball in Texas. You could sell it to your friends and family. And they'd have to understand. You just can't keep throwing your heart and soul and disposable income behind a team that insists on refusing to get it.

The decision earlier this week to designate defensive lineman Anthony Spencer as their franchise player crystallized the Cowboys' most significant need at this point. Before that, you could have made the case for a pass-rushing defensive end, or even a defensive tackle, at No. 18 of the first round. I'd have disagreed with you, believing that the offensive line was the more pressing of the two lines for Dallas to address, but I'd have had to acknowledge that you had a case.

Not anymore.

Offensive line is the No. 1, 2 and 3 need for the Cowboys right now. Heck, you can make a strong argument that they need to upgrade at four of the five starting spots; 2011 first-round draft pick Tyron Smith at left tackle is the only one about whom you feel good for the present or the future. And that's the key thing to remember here -- that picking an offensive lineman in the first round is vital not just for the 2013 season but for the long-term health of the Cowboys.

What you see on the Cowboys' line now is decay, a result of years of neglect. Smith was the first offensive lineman they picked in the first round since 1981. I did the math on that. That's 30 flippin' years. If you go 30 years without drafting an offensive lineman in the first round and offensive line is consistently one of your most crippling weaknesses, eventually the light bulb's going to go on, right? This is not something the Cowboys can keep patching together without eventually adding some elite talent. If you do that, you end up having to give Phil Costa a two-year deal and deciding whether it's worth giving Mackenzy Bernadeau another season to show you something. That's not a pleasant situation.

Adding another first-round-caliber talent on the line, be it at guard or right tackle, would be a critical step in an important new direction for the Cowboys. They have, for several years now, boasted elite-level skill-position players on offense but have been unable to get the most out of them because of poor line play. They are squandering the prime years of players like Tony Romo, Miles Austin and Jason Witten -- and so far at least one otherworldly year from Dez Bryant -- by persistently failing to address this glaring need. The Smith pick in 2011 showed that maybe some things are changing, and that maybe this is becoming the priority it needs to be. Picking an offensive lineman again on April 25 would go a long way toward backing up Cowboys fans' hope that such is the case.

The opposing argument right now appears to be safety, because they also cut Gerald Sensabaugh the day they franchised Spencer, and because it looks as though Texas' Kenny Vaccaro might be there at No. 18. But come on. They aren't using four substandard players at safety on every defensive play. They are using four substandard offensive linemen on every offensive play. It's the far greater need, and again -- not just for this season, but for the long term. You build through the draft and you build through the lines. The Cowboys have to do both, and they have a good chance this year to do so.

People have been asking me all week, as I've preached this first-round-lineman gospel, why the Cowboys should "reach" for an offensive lineman if one isn't there at 18. My answer is that they won't have to. There are five offensive linemen -- three tackles and two guards -- in the top 10 on Mel Kiper Jr.'s latest Big Board . Only once in the past 15 years -- 2008 -- have five offensive linemen been taken in the first 17 picks. One of these guys will fall to 18, or far enough that the Cowboys can move up a spot or two without sacrificing their second-round pick this time. And if not, Mel's got Alabama tackle D.J. Fluker at 21. Not exactly a "reach," especially considering how vital is the need.

The Cowboys probably won't be in a position to get tackles Luke Joeckel or Eric Fisher, or even Lane Johnson. But wouldn't a guard like Chance Warmack or Jonathan Cooper look good on that line next year? And for the next 10 years? Pick that guy, plug him in and cross one gigantic worry off your list. It's a no-brainer at this point.

The Cowboys have gone 8-8 in each of the past two seasons. They have a lot of needs. And no, they can't address all of them with this year's first-round pick. But they can and must address the biggest. If they don't, it will be impossible to defend their decision.
I'm not going to sit here and tell you Gerald Sensabaugh was the second coming of Ronnie Lott, or that replacing him has suddenly jumped to the top of the Dallas Cowboys' offseason priority list after they cut him Monday for salary-cap room. Sensabaugh was a decent enough player, but surely not irreplaceable. The Cowboys can, without question, find someone in free agency or even in the early rounds of the draft who could give them in 2013 what Sensabaugh gave them in 2012.

However.

The idea that the Cowboys' starting safeties right now are Barry Church and Matt Johnson ... well, it's not an idea befitting a team that wants to make it to the playoffs, let's just leave it at that. Church showed promise early last year but is coming off an Achilles' injury. Johnson was a seventh-round pick they took in the fourth, and he didn't play a single snap as a rookie. The Cowboys can talk all they want about how good they think Johnson will be, but neither they nor anyone else has seen any proof that he can play in the NFL. They need to augment this situation prior to training camp.

Calvin Watkins has a look at the free-agent landscape at safety, and throws out well-known names such as Ronde Barber, William Moore and O.J. Atogwe as possible Cowboys targets. The safety pool in free agency this year is deep, as is the safety pool in this year's draft. The Cowboys will be able to add to their stable, even if it's not with a well-known name or a first-round pick (which they really should use on an offensive lineman). And if Church and Johnson play well enough to emerge as starters in training camp, then good for the Cowboys and their super-smart scouts.

The key for the Cowboys is to understand they need volume here to create the best possible combination, but not to go too crazy and shoot for a star at a position that doesn't require it. Replacing Sensabaugh isn't the hardest thing Dallas has ever had to do. They just need to make sure they have a candidate or two in place in case Church and/or Johnson can't do it.
Tom Coughlin's new book, "Earn the Right to Win," hits the shelves today. (Honestly, is that the most Tom Coughlin book title you could ever imagine? "Earn the Right to Win?") You can catch the Giants coach with one of his former players Wednesday morning when he stops by "Live" with Kelly Ripa and Michael Strahan. Coughlin's making the rounds this week. I'm curious to see whether Strahan or any of these other morning talk-show hosts asks any good questions about whether Kenny Phillips is coming back. Anyway, links.

Washington Redskins

Though they had options, and at least one player (Fred Davis) on whom they likely would have used it under different circumstances, the Redskins did not use the franchise player designation on anyone this year. Due to their salary-cap penalty, they really count not afford to.

I very much enjoyed Rich Campbell's feature on NFL players and their off-field businesses. It includes the Redskins' Lorenzo Alexander and Kedric Golston, who are operating a brand-new Pilates studio in Ashburn, Va. as well as Giants receiver Victor Cruz's "Young Whales" clothing line.

New York Giants

The Giants could plausibly have used the franchise tag on safety Kenny Phillips or tight end Martellus Bennett, but as Ohm points out, that's not how they roll. They use the tag for its originally intended purpose -- to buy themselves extra time to work out a long-term deal already in progress. With Will Beatty's deal wrapped up last week, there was no other player for whom the franchise designation would have suited the Giants' purpose.

Assuming Bennett goes elsewhere as an unrestricted free agent, I'd expect the Giants to bring in some veteran tight end to replace him. But I doubt it'd be a high-level guy, since they don't tend to spend on that position. And regardless, they'll be keeping an eye this offseason on the development of Adrien Robinson.

Dallas Cowboys

Todd Archer isn't ruling out the possibility that the Cowboys trade Anthony Spencer, even after they franchised him. I think it's farfetched to believe a team would trade a draft pick for Spencer knowing they have to either pay him $10.6 million or sign him long-term, but as Todd points out it's not unprecedented.

And Calvin wondered whether the franchising of Spencer and the release of safety Gerald Sensabaugh made it more likely that the Cowboys would target safety Kenny Vaccaro with their first-round draft pick. I have nothing against Vaccaro, and it's possible the Cowboys will target him or would have anyway. But with Spencer locked up to play defensive end for at least one more year, I think it's absolutely vital that the Cowboys use that pick on a building-block offensive lineman. To think they need a first-round safety to replace what Sensabaugh gave them is to overrate Sensabaugh.

Philadelphia Eagles

This recent look by Zach Berman at the Eagles' defensive line has me thinking that defensive line could be a major area of offseason emphasis, in free agency as well as in the draft.

Seems like everybody needs safeties around here, and the Eagles are obviously no exception. Sheil Kapadia has names of some potential targets, including some future Hall of Famers. Hard to see the Eagles signing someone as old as Ed Reed, but who knows? Maybe Chip Kelly feels differently about old guys than Andy Reid did.
video
So if you happen to be going back through earlier posts and you stumble on this one from this morning, I'd ask that you just read the very first line and not the rest of it. Because even though it appeared to make no sense for the Dallas Cowboys to designate Anthony Spencer as their franchise player for the second year in a row, the Dallas Cowboys have decided to do just that. Spencer's agent, Jordan Woy, tweeted the news about two hours before the 4 p.m. ET franchise-tag deadline and wrote also, "We will work on a long-term deal."

Now, because of the franchise-tag rules in the new CBA, the Cowboys must pay Spencer at least 120 percent of his 2012 salary if he plays the 2013 as their franchise player. Since last year's tag was $8.865 million, that means Spencer's franchise tag number for this year is $10.638 million, which is a ton of money to spend on one player given the Cowboys' cap problems. (If they tagged him again next year, they'd have to pay him 144 percent of his 2013, so at least $15.319 million.) Here are some of my thoughts on this odd reversal by the Cowboys:

1. They must like their chances of getting a long-term deal done this offseason with Spencer. It had been assumed he wanted to hit the market and cash in on his career season, but the decision to franchise him indicates to me the Cowboys and Woy must have had some encouraging discussions. If they didn't think it was possible to sign Spencer long-term, the Cowboys with this move would just be putting off a problem and making it worse. And while that wouldn't necessarily be out of character for them, the cap crunch is too obvious for even the most stubborn of owner/GMs to ignore. I would not be surprised if a deal got done to reduce Spencer's cap number for 2013.

2. They must be getting close to a contract extension for quarterback Tony Romo. After all of the restructuring work they did last week to get under the cap, tagging Spencer puts the Cowboys right back at or over it again. While there's other restructuring they can do, the best way for them to get significant 2013 cap relief is still to extend Romo and reduce his 2013 cap number in the process. Since they seemed last week as though they'd decided not to franchise Spencer and then they reversed course today, I have to believe they have some sense now of what Romo's 2013 cap number is going to be. That likely means they've made progress on Romo's extension, which I believe has been a foregone conclusion for some time.

[+] EnlargeJason Garrett, Anthony Spencer
Tom Pennington/Getty ImagesCowboys LB Anthony Spencer has been tagged as the franchise player for the second straight year.
3. They're prioritizing the defensive front. Spencer will move from outside linebacker to defensive end in the Cowboys' 4-3 defensive alignment under new coordinator Monte Kiffin, rushing the passer from the opposite side of the line from DeMarcus Ware and keeping Jason Hatcher and Jay Ratliff inside as defensive tackles. That looks like a very good pass-rushing line, as long as Ware and Ratliff can hold up physically and Spencer rushes the passer the way he did in 2012. Those are big "ifs," but the Cowboys appear to have decided they'd rather go cheap on the back end than the front. Which brings us to...

4. They need to address safety. Big time. The move that immediately preceded the Spencer news was the release of safety Gerald Sensabaugh -- a move that saves $1.4 million in cap room and leaves an opening at the back of the defense. The Sensabaugh cut, to me, says that they like Barry Church as the safety who can play the single-high position when Kiffin's scheme calls for it and that they still have plans for 2012 fourth-round pick Matt Johnson. The problems there are that Church is recovering from an Achilles injury and hadn't proven himself as a starter for very long before that happened, and that Johnson was an overdraft at pick 135 last year and missed his rookie season with a hamstring injury. That sounds like two pretty big question marks to me for a defensive scheme that asks a lot of its safeties. Now, the draft is very deep at safety this year, and there are good options on the free-agent market, so it's reasonable to argue that they'll have an easier time replacing Sensabaugh than they would have had finding a 4-3 defensive end to replace Spencer. But there's little doubt now where the Cowboys' biggest defensive need lies.

All in all, I can't say I like the move. It smacks of Jerry Jones' and the Cowboys' persistent inability to let go before it's too late. I feel the same way about Jones' stubborn refusal to part ways with Ratliff, as a matter of fact. But this is all easy for me to say, since I'm not the one who'd have to put together a new defensive line if I made those moves. In the end, it appears as though the Cowboys decided they didn't want to try to do that this offseason.

Secondary focus in the NFC East

February, 25, 2013
2/25/13
10:11
AM ET
As we have discussed on here a few times, it's entirely possible that the Philadelphia Eagles could feature four new starters in the secondary in 2013. Not certain, but possible. None of last year's starters -- cornerbacks Nnamdi Asomugha and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and safeties Nate Allen and Kurt Coleman -- showed enough that the Eagles will strain to bring them back. And as the one NFC East team with salary-cap room to spare, the Eagles enter the offseason with both the need and the ability to add quality pieces to their secondary.

Zach Berman has a look at the depth of talent at safety and cornerback in this year's draft and some names to watch for as the Eagles pick in the second and third rounds. You can't rule out Alabama corner Dee Milliner as the Eagles' first-round pick, but assuming they go elsewhere at No. 4, they should be able to find good options on Day 2.
If taking Milliner with the fourth overall pick is too high for the Eagles, they will have options in the second or third rounds. Mississippi State's Jonathan Banks, Rutgers' Logan Ryan (Eastern High School), and Oregon State's Jordan Poyer are likely to be options at No. 35, and each is at least 6-feet tall.

Another intriguing option later on is North Carolina State's David Amerson, a heralded cornerback before the season who admitted Sunday he misplaced his focus on trying to break the NCAA interception record after recording 13 picks in 2011. He finished with five in 2012, and his performance also declined.

The Eagles could try to find a safety in the second or third round. The key will be identifying one versatile enough to cover and play in the box. General manager Howie Roseman has said on numerous occasions that the position is evolving and challenging to evaluate.

This is an issue division wide. While secondary help is the top need for the last-place Eagles, it's also the top need for the division-champion Washington Redskins, who have major cap problems and no first-round pick. Each of the other NFC East teams will have picked twice before the Redskins' first pick (No. 51 overall) rolls around. And while that's the residue of the very positive acts of (a) trading for Robert Griffin III and (b) winning the division, it does hamstring Washington a bit as it looks for help at cornerback and safety. Depending on what they can find in free agency among guys like Louis Delmas, Ryan Mundy and maybe Kenny Phillips, the Redskins will be looking for starting-caliber players at safety in the second and third rounds. And with DeAngelo Hall's contract situation, they're likely to be looking for cornerback help, too.

The New York Giants took cornerback Prince Amukamara in the first round two years ago, but they have a contract issue with their other starting cornerback, Corey Webster, whose play declined sharply in 2012. With no obvious replacement on the roster, the Giants may look to pick a corner early to help shore up the back end of their defense. And with Phillips likely to depart as a free agent, they have to assess whether Stevie Brown is the answer as his replacement or whether they need to find a better long-term solution. Brown had a lot of interceptions, of course, but he didn't bring the same kind of all-around game Phillips does when healthy. The Giants, like the Eagles and the Redskins, will be looking for defensive backs who can start right away or very soon.

Even the Dallas Cowboys, who spent a truckload of free-agent money and draft picks on cornerbacks Brandon Carr and Morris Claiborne a year ago, will be on the hunt for help in the secondary. They'll lose cornerback Mike Jenkins to free agency, which will hit at their depth at corner, but the bigger issue is at safety. The switch to Monte Kiffin's 'Tampa 2' style defense puts greater emphasis on safety play, and after Gerald Sensabaugh the Cowboys have a lot of question marks at the position. Barry Church was a training camp star last year, but he got hurt early in the season and they really can't know his value as a starter. Even if he comes back healthy and fits well into Kiffin's scheme (two big question marks), the Cowboys will need to add depth at safety. And while they have bigger needs on both lines, don't be surprised if they look to the early rounds of the draft for help at that position.

The Eagles aren't the only NFC East team looking for help in the secondary this spring. The good thing for all four of our division's teams is that there appears to be plenty of such help out there.

Assorted NFC East injury news

September, 26, 2012
9/26/12
2:35
PM ET

The Washington Redskins' signing of veteran running back Ryan Grant was, as it turns out, an injury-replacement move. Backup running back Roy Helu is going on season-ending injured reserve because of turf toe and Achilles problems, and fellow backup Evan Royster injured his knee in Sunday's game against the Bengals. So it's possible Grant, who has zone-blocking run game experience from his time in Green Bay, will be the primary backup to rookie starter Alfred Morris as early as this week. And yes, it's also possible he could take over as the starter at some point this season if Morris gets hurt or struggles. The Redskins are second in the league in rushing offense so far, but 39 percent of their rushing yards belong to rookie quarterback Robert Griffin III. It makes sense that they would seek to add a healthy player to their backfield to help take some of the load off Morris and Griffin in the run game.

Some other injury-related NFC East news from the early part of the day Wednesday:

Philadelphia Eagles wide receiver Jeremy Maclin is practicing today after missing last week's game with a hip injury. It's the first Wednesday practice for Maclin since the season started, so there's reason to believe the Eagles when they say he's making progress and expected to play Sunday night against the New York Giants.

Dallas Cowboys safety Gerald Sensabaugh says he's expecting to play Monday night against the Bears after missing last week's game with a calf injury. But nose tackle Jay Ratliff, center Phil Costa and punter Chris Jones all missed Wednesday's practice with injuries.

Giants coach Tom Coughlin said running back Ahmad Bradshaw, who missed last week's game with a neck injury, would start Sunday night's game in Philadelphia, but that backup Andre Brown has earned himself a larger role. Wide receiver Hakeem Nicks, linebacker Keith Rivers and cornerback Jayron Hosley missed Wednesday's practice, though missing Wednesday's practice is part of Nicks' pain-management plan for his foot, and he is expected to play Sunday.

Got nothing for you at this time on Redskins tackle Trent Williams or wide receiver Pierre Garcon, as the Redskins' injury news typically shows up later in the day on Wednesday. I promise, though, that I'll keep you posted. Redskins folks did seem optimistic after Sunday's game that they'd get injured safety Brandon Meriweather back for this week's game.
Ah, Wednesday. Let's get these links out of the way so we can get to work on that All-NFC East team!

Philadelphia Eagles

Through two games, the Eagles' defense is doing the job. It's a unit that's clearly more confident in itself than it was a year ago. And whether that's because of DeMeco Ryans or the super-fast rookies or Todd Bowles or Juan Castillo being in his second year as coordinator or all of that put together, you can't argue with the results to this point.

Part of the Eagles' plan Sunday was not to be bullied by the Ravens' defense, which they believe had a plan to try to bully them. DeSean Jackson came dangerously close to being thrown out of the game, at one point throwing a punch at a Ravens defender, but he had a message afterwards for Ray Lewis.

Dallas Cowboys

Tim MacMahon writes that a 1-1 record after two games is no surprise, because the Cowboys have established themselves over the past decade-plus as one of the NFL's most average teams.

As for this week and trying to beat the Buccaneers, they're in trouble at safety. It doesn't look as though Gerald Sensabaugh will play, it looks as though Barry Church will have to play hurt, and Matt Johnson's not ready to play yet. A lot falls once again on those good cover corners they have to lock down Vincent Jackson and Mike Williams, though the Bucs prefer to try to run the ball.

Washington Redskins

Mike Shanahan blames execution and focus -- not strategy -- for the Redskins having had two punts blocked so far this year. He believes the problem can be solved. I'd have to think so. It'd be a pretty big story if the Redskins had 16 punts blocked this year.

Cornerback Josh Wilson is playing very well, making him a standout in an otherwise poor performance by the Washington secondary Sunday. Rich Campbell's defensive game review discusses that and much more.

New York Giants

Cornerback Prince Amukamara says he's optimistic he'll play Thursday night against the Panthers. And while they won't rush him back, the Giants do need him. I know, Amukamara hasn't proven anything at the NFL level yet. But he's more talented and fundamentally sound than the guys they're using opposite Corey Webster right now, and they're getting lit up back there. Even just another body, proven or unproven, would be welcome.

Justin Tuck asserts that he would have refused to do what the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' defensive players did on the final play of Sunday's game, even if ordered by his coach to do so.

SPONSORED HEADLINES

Insider