NFC East: Lawrence Vickers

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.
OXNARD, Calif. – Much was made of Dallas’ free agency shopping spree in 2012. Less than a year and a half later, the Cowboys don’t have much to show from the seven-player class.

If the Cowboys had their choice, only one of those players would see significant playing time for the team this season.

A quick recap on the class’ contributions to the Cowboys and where they stand with the franchise now:

CB Brandon Carr (five years, $50 million): Jerry Jones readily admitted the Cowboys paid “retail” to fill a major need. Carr had a solid first season in Dallas but didn’t perform well enough to merit serious consideration for his first Pro Bowl appearance. The hope is that he’ll benefit from Monte Kiffin’s scheme, which relies on cornerbacks to get in receivers’ faces and play physical.

OG Nate Livings (five years, $18.7 million): The Cowboys hoped that Ronald Leary would beat out Livings even before the veteran needed arthroscopic surgery on his knee, likely sidelining Livings for the rest of training camp. The question now is whether the Cowboys will cut Livings despite his $1.7 million salary being guaranteed this season.

OG Mackenzy Bernadeau (four years, $11 million): The Cowboys tried to replace Bernadeau with Brandon Moore, but the ex-Jet changed his mind and decided to retire. Bernadeau, who was demoted to a backup his last season in Carolina, has had injury issues since arriving in Dallas. The Cowboys clearly aren’t confident that they can count on him after he struggled last season, missed all of offseason workouts while recovering from shoulder surgery and was sidelined the first two weeks of camp with a strained hamstring.

QB Kyle Orton (three years, $10.5 million): Orton threw only 10 passes last season. The Cowboys would love it if he played that little again this year. They signed him purely as an insurance policy, albeit a pretty expensive one. They’re confident that they’ll have an adequate quarterback if Tony Romo goes down, but it’d be a major dropoff.

LB Dan Connor (two years, $6.5 million): It’s funny to think that a year ago Connor vs. Bruce Carter was considered one of the best position battles in camp. Connor, who got a $2.7 million signing bonus, became a cap casualty after a 58-tackle season. He signed a one-year, $780,000 deal with the New York Giants.

FB Lawrence Vickers (two years, $2.4 million): Vickers was a bit player for a team that statistically had the worst rushing attack in franchise history. He’s out of football now, cut by the Cowboys after they decided to scrap the fullback position in favor of using multiple tight ends.

S Brodney Pool (one year, $1.1 million): Pool was guaranteed only $100,000. He didn’t exactly earn that money, flunking the pre-camp conditioning test and getting cut soon thereafter when it was clear he had no chance to beat out Barry Church for the starting job.
ESPNDallas.com's position series on the Dallas Cowboys takes a look today at tight end, where Jason Witten remains one of the best in the NFL but there is change behind him on the depth chart. As Tim MacMahon writes, the Cowboys took tight end Gavin Escobar in the second round this year not as an eventual Witten replacement but in the hope that he could complement Witten and give them the ability to use more two-tight end sets. One of the interesting effects of this -- as well as the addition of Dante Rosario and the development of 2012 sixth-rounder James Hanna -- is that the Cowboys could eliminate the fullback position from their running game:
Late free-agent addition Dante Rosario and fullback Lawrence Vickers, who missed offseason workouts after undergoing back surgery, are probably competing for a roster spot. The Cowboys are seriously considering phasing out the fullback position, although they’d have to figure out a way to fill the lead-blocker role in short-yardage situations. Fullback has been a part-time position, with Vickers averaging less than 20 snaps per game last season.

Rosario has an edge over Vickers for two reasons not related to the Valley Ranch tight-end craze.

First, Rosario has proven himself capable of being a special teams contributor while playing for new special teams coordinator Rich Bisaccia the past two seasons in San Diego. Rosario had five tackles, a fumble recovery and a blocked punt on special teams for the Chargers last season. Vickers had only one special teams tackle for the Cowboys.

Second, the Cowboys can create $1.2 million in cap space by cutting Vickers, money that could be useful for linebacker Sean Lee’s long-term contract extension. Rosario would only count $620,000 against the cap.

Valley Ranch isn't the only place in the NFL where there's a "tight end craze" these days. Increased emphasis on that position is a league-wide trend, as coaches continue to find ways to use tight ends to diversify their passing offenses and create mismatches at the second and third levels of opposing defenses. The Cowboys will need to get creative in order to make this work. They'll need Escobar to develop quickly. And they'll need someone in their tight end meeting room to develop as a reliable blocker in the run game. But if all of those things come through for them, this could be a significant and beneficial change for the Dallas offense as early as this season.

Cowboys just barely under the cap

March, 12, 2013
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My friend and colleague Calvin Watkins reports that Monday's moves got the Dallas Cowboys $175,000 under the salary cap in advance of today's 4 p.m. ET start of NFL free agency. This, as Watkins points out, leaves them no room to sign anyone, even their draft picks. So don't expect a lot of Cowboys news at 4:01 p.m. ET, is I guess the point we're trying to make here. They have more work to do before they can really get their offseason humming.

With significant needs at offensive line, safety, backup running back and other positions, the Cowboys will have to find a way to add pieces this offseason. (Or at least pay their draft picks.) Getting in compliance with the cap by 4 p.m. ET today was merely a necessary first step. In the coming days and weeks, I'd expect news on at least one of the following fronts, and probably both:
  • A contract extension for quarterback Tony Romo, which would drastically reduce his 2013 cap number and offer the added benefit of locking up their franchise quarterback beyond 2013. (Watkins also thinks it's possible they could reduce Anthony Spencer's cap number with a long-term deal, but I find that less likely.)
  • The release of some more veterans, such as defensive lineman Marcus Spears and fullback Lawrence Vickers.

Now, a lot of people are asking about right tackle Doug Free -- specifically, why they haven't cut him yet. Cutting Free would save the Cowboys $7 million in cap room. The problem is, in order to get that savings, the Cowboys would have to designate Free as a June 1 cut. So while they could technically cut him any time they like, they wouldn't see that savings until June 1. That's the move that likely helps them sign those draft picks and/or allows them to carry over extra cap money into 2014, when they won't be operating under a $5 million penalty anymore and they might need help paying off some of the restructuring they did to get under this year's cap.

Weekend mailbag: Giants' interior rush

September, 29, 2012
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Let's see, let's see. What's in the mailbag this weekend?

Joe from NYC thinks the New York Giants should line up defensive tackle Linval Joseph over backup Philadelphia Eagles center Dallas Reynolds on Sunday night and "blow his doors off." Further, Joe's game plan would ask the Giants' defensive ends to key on the run.

Dan Graziano: Joe, I think this is an interesting idea for a couple of reasons. First, it likely would catch the Eagles by surprise and potentially limit LeSean McCoy if the Eagles decided to go to the run more. Second, the Cardinals had great success last week collapsing the pocket against Michael Vick with an interior pass rush. The Giants' interior defensive line is an underrated strength, as Joseph and Rocky Bernard have both played very well this year, and the Giants could succeed with this type of defensive game plan in their big divisional showdown. One thing I will say, though: Whatever they decide to do in the pass rush, it's got to work, because they're banged up in the secondary with Jayron Hosley out, Corey Webster playing with a broken hand and Antrel Rolle questionable due to his knee injury. The Giants can't let Vick have any time to throw downfield, because that's exactly what the Eagles want to do.




Andy from Manhattan Beach, Calif. and Todd in Kalaheo, Hawaii both wonder why the Washington Redskins didn't sign Tim Hightower instead of Ryan Grant when they were out looking for running backs this week.

DG: Mike Shanahan said they did reach out to Hightower and that he was their first choice after they realized Roy Helu would have to go on injured reserve. But the reason Hightower didn't make the team in the first place a month ago was because he wasn't fully recovered from last year's knee injury. Shanahan said this week that Hightower had re-injured the knee during his rehab and was likely to have arthroscopic surgery to clean some things up. So, since they still don't know when Hightower will be fully recovered and healthy, they moved onto their next choice, which was Grant. They still intend to use Alfred Morris as the starter, but they like to have several running backs on hand, and with Helu and Evan Royster hurt, they needed to bring in someone.




Carlos from Austin, Texas wonders if the switch from Tony Fiammetta to Lawrence Vickers at fullback might be responsible for the struggles the Dallas Cowboys are having in the run game.

DG: I guess it's possible, Carlos, but that's what I see. I think the issue is the offensive line, which is playing even worse than it did last year and is getting pushed back into the backfield on almost every play. Not sure exactly how much the fullback can do when there's no push up front. Now, part of the problem is that the last two teams the Cowboys played -- Tampa Bay and Seattle -- have been the two toughest defenses against the run this season. That doesn't get a lot easier anytime soon, with the Bears this week and the Ravens following next week's bye. But eventually it will, and there remains the chance that the offensive line will improve as the season goes along (mainly because it can't get any worse). So I'd hold off before blaming the fullback switch.




Nate from Montreal wonders why the Eagles don't seem to call as many designed run plays for Vick as they used to and thinks doing so would help balance out the offense.

DG: They stopped calling so many designed runs for Vick because he refused to learn how to slide properly and they didn't want to expose him to any more contact than they absolutely had to. I think a big part of the reason McCoy rushed for 17 touchdowns last year was because they seemingly took out all of the plays from the year before on which Vick would run it in. And in general, the Eagles prefer to pass the ball rather than run it if they can. So, for all of those reasons, I doubt you'll see a return to the type of running Vick did in his huge 2010 season. They'd like him to read the field better and throw the ball to his receivers.

Thanks for the questions. Catch you all next week.

What Jason Witten's absence means

August, 23, 2012
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Some things don't demand much further explanation. For instance, if I say to you, "Tony Romo and the Dallas Cowboys would really miss tight end Jason Witten if his spleen injury keeps him out of the season opener 13 days from now against the New York Giants," you'd take that on faith. Of course they'd miss him. Witten is one of Romo's most consistently reliable targets and has been a vital part of the Cowboys' offense for years.

But our man Tim MacMahon out there at ESPNDallas.com has an interesting and somewhat detailed explanation of just how a Witten absence would affect things for the Cowboys, and specifically coach and offensive play-caller Jason Garrett:
Garrett loves operating out of two- and three- tight end sets. According to Football Outsiders, the Cowboys used more than one tight end on 53 percent of their offensive snaps last season, the third-highest rate in the NFL.

The Cowboys were especially effective with one running back and two tight ends on the field, a personnel package that can be used in a variety of formations because of Witten's versatility. They averaged 7.0 yards per play with "12" personnel last season, their best of any package they used at least 5 percent of the time.

How often can they do that against the Giants if Witten is in street clothes and Martellus Bennett is on the opposite sideline?

Fair point, Tim. The solution is likely, as Tim points out later in his post, to use that "21" personnel formation, which is one tight end and two running backs. They did sign fullback Lawrence Vickers to block for DeMarco Murray, so it's not as though they're not planning to go with that kind of alignment at all this season. My guess is they'll probably go to it far more than the 13 percent of the time they apparently did in 2011, whether Witten's on the field or not.

But that doesn't change the fact that Witten's absence (especially with Bennett, the blocking tight end, having left via free agency) will inhibit Garrett's ability to run his offense the way he would prefer. And I think, after last season, all Cowboys fans can agree that they don't want Garrett less comfortable calling plays.
OXNARD, Calif. -- Much was made last year of the performance of Dallas Cowboys fullback Tony Fiammetta in connection with the breakout performance of running back DeMarco Murray. But the Cowboys let Fiammetta go this offseason and replaced him with veteran fullback Lawrence Vickers, who blocked for Arian Foster and Ben Tate last year in Houston and for Peyton Hillis the year before that in Cleveland. Vickers is a remarkably fun guy to talk to -- enthusiastic and engaging -- and here's what he told me about Murray when I spoke with him after Cowboys practice Monday:

[+] EnlargeLawrence Vickers
AP Photo/Paul SpinelliFullback Lawrence Vickers will be paving the way for DeMarco Murray this season.
"First of all, he's ambitious. And he's coming in to work. He's got that hard-nosed mentality, but he loves the game. And when you want to be great and you have ambition and goals and dreams and all those things, there's only one way to get there -- work, work, work. And that's what he wants to do. When it's his time to go, he wants to get in there. Everything he's doing, he's trying to do it to the best of his ability."

Vickers said his most important jobs as the fullback in the Cowboys' offense are "to lead by example and to be the eyes of the running back." Then he tried to demonstrate by standing in front of me with his back turned and asking if I could see anything. I could not. I am 5-foot-9, 190 pounds. Vickers is 6-0, 250. More relevantly. Murray is 6-0, 215 and likely cannot see around Vickers, either.

"He has to trust in me in order to go where I'm going," Vickers said. "You have to trust in me that I'm going to go to the right place, because you're following me. We have to be able to trust each other, and that just comes from repetition."

Murray obviously trusted Fiammetta with a great deal of success, so it's not as though running behind a fullback is some kind of new concept for him. But to those who have asked me whether there's anything to fear about Murray switching from Fiammetta to Vickers my answer is: If you met Lawrence Vickers, you wouldn't have to ask.

"I've got no complaints there," Murray told me. "He's a great guy, a great blocker, a smart guy and he gets after it."

Talking to Vickers fired me up. I wanted to go try to run through a defensive line. Fortunately for me, the opportunity did not readily present itself. If it had, I'd have asked Vickers to block for me. He'd probably have done it. He's a different sort of guy. I mentioned to him that the fullback position wasn't really a glory position in the NFL, and he agreed. He just doesn't care.

"I love it," Vickers said. "Because it's a job everybody can't do. So when you're doing something everybody can't do, and you're making it look good, that says a lot about you as a person. I don't need the glory, because at the end of the day, when those guys get in that end zone, when those guys go over to Hawaii, when those guys get in that Hall of Fame ... Emmitt Smith said it best: 'Couldn't do nothing without my fullback.' Not that my guys have to say that about me, but knowing that I was a part of that is enough for me."

Building the Cowboys' running game

August, 7, 2012
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OXNARD, Calif. -- Bill Callahan, the new offensive line coach of the Dallas Cowboys, is doing a lot of teaching in training camp. After the rest of the players and coaches have left the field following the morning walk-through, Callahan's still out on the field working with linemen, coaching them up even as they walk back toward their rooms.

But a lot of what Callahan's doing here is also learning. Given the task of overhauling the Cowboys' running game, Callahan is most interested in learning what his linemen and running backs can handle.

"We have really tried to solidify and package our run game into different concepts," Callahan said Monday morning. "The zone concept, the gap concept, the draw concept, the perimeter concept, misdirection concept. We want to have enough in our arsenal so we can go attack an opponent with those principles. And as we go through camp, I'm watching our players and our backs and really evaluating what they do best. So there's a lot of volume in training camp, but it's good because you get a good assessment and appraisal of where the players are with everything you have and then you select from that."

It has not helped, of course, that so many of Callahan's offensive linemen have been injured and unable to practice. The Cowboys had hoped to have newcomers Mackenzy Bernadeau and Nate Livings at guard and even give Bernadeau some time at center to potentially push Phil Costa. Callahan's a glass-half-full guy, though, and he'd rather talk about the great opportunity David Arkin is getting to play center on the second-team line as well as guard with the first-teamers. With Arkin, and to a lesser extent Harland Gunn, Callahan is learning what he's got in his young guards and whether they'll be able to play center down the road.

New fullback Lawrence Vickers is also helping with the learning process. A six-year NFL veteran who played fullback last year for a Houston Texans team that ranked No. 2 in the league in rush offense, Vickers has helped bring some of the Texans' zone concepts to Dallas, where Callahan would like to incorporate them as part of that arsenal.

"The Houston Texans know how to run the football," Callahan said. "We're not the Texans. We don't run that system. But he's very well acquainted with everything within the realm of their blocking schemes, and what he can transfer to us has been very important."

That doesn't automatically mean you're going to see the Cowboys leaning exclusively on zone concepts in the run game this year. The point, as Callahan is trying to make clear, is variety. If they can be a zone team one week because that attacks one opponent's weakness, and then do more perimeter running the following week because they're facing an opponent that's weak there and so on and so forth, that's the ideal scenario.

"I think we just have a very well-balanced attack right now," Callahan said. "Is the zone part of our game? Yes, we run the zone. Is it just majoring in the zone? No. There's all types of aspects that we're featuring."

Right now, early in training camp, it's all about learning what everyone's good at what they'll be able to feature from week to week once the games start counting.
Another slow offseason day calls for another edition of the NFC East position series -- our position-by-position look at each of the teams in our division. There's no pre-planned order to any of these, so it means little that I've chosen to look at running backs today and to start with the Dallas Cowboys.

Projected starters: RB DeMarco Murray, FB Lawrence Vickers

Reserves: RB Felix Jones, RB Phillip Tanner, RB Lance Dunbar, RB Darrell Scott, FB Shaun Chapas

[+] EnlargeDeMarco Murray
Tim Heitman/US PresswireDeMarco Murray racked up 897 yards in his shortened rookie season.
Potential strength: Murray performed like an elite-level workhorse in the seven games he played as a starter before the Giants game in which he broke his ankle. He averaged 114.1 yards per game and 5.96 yards per carry during that seven-game stretch. And Jones, the fifth-year former starter, had two 100-yard games after Murray went down. So they have a high-level starter and an experienced, capable backup, and they believe Vickers will play even better than Tony Fiammetta did for them as the lead blocker last season. And Tanner is a good third running back who's shown encouraging flashes and should stick around due to his contributions on special teams. Assuming everyone's healthy, this is a unit capable of big things.

Potential weakness: Even while he was rolling up all of those yards, Murray scored just two touchdowns last year. And Jones only scored one. The Cowboys had just five rushing touchdowns as a team in 2011. Only the Cleveland Browns scored fewer. As good as Tony Romo, Dez Bryant, Miles Austin and Jason Witten can be in the red zone, it would help if the running backs posed more of a realistic threat to score at the goal line. Red-zone production is an area in which the Cowboys' running game must be better than it was last year.

Keep an eye on: The on-field relationship between Murray and Vickers. Murray and Fiammetta made a very productive team last year. The Cowboys believe that had more to do with Murray than it did with the fullback, and they think they've upgraded at fullback. But Murray had an innate sense of where Fiammetta was going to go and what would result in terms of opportunity for him thereafter. Murray said during minicamp that he's getting to know Vickers, and it's unlikely to be a problem. But that chemistry he had with the fullback last year was part of his success, so it's at least worth watching to make sure he finds something similar with the new guy.
And a good Thursday morning to you all. Waking up to the news of the Eagles' front-office shakeup, with Joe Banner out as team president, and as soon as I process it I will have something posted later this morning. But it sure seems to me that Andy Reid's rush to deny that L.A. Times story a few months back had more than a little methinks-he-doth-protest-too-much aspect to it. The Eagles' offseason has longed seemed to be firmly in the hands of Reid and GM Howie Roseman, and today's news shows us that perception was a valid one. Still think Reid could be on shaky ground if they have a bad year, but assuming they don't, he and especially Roseman look like they've positioned themselves to have more power than ever going forward.

Meanwhile, today's goal is to not let things bother us as much as they did Wednesday. Say a little prayer for me, if that's your thing. My thing is links.

Washington Redskins

So the state of Virginia is throwing a bunch of money at the Redskins to get them to keep their operations there, and part of this is that they will hold training camp in Richmond starting in 2013. Mike Shanahan doesn't like having training camp in Ashburn, where the team has its regular-season practices, because football coaches hate when their players are comfortable and happy and around their kids all the time and stuff. So they'll go off and do some team-bonding exercises like they did in "Remember the Titans" and they'll supposedly be better for it. This assumes Shanahan's still the coach in 2013, of course, but I can't imagine they're only going to give him the one year with Robert Griffin III, even if that year is a huge disappointment.

Kirk Cousins likes what he's seen of Washington, D.C., and is cool with his backup role, he says. Believes he's got a good chance to pursue his goal of playing quarterback in the NFL from where he is. So that's good to know.

Dallas Cowboys

Remember the Dr. Seuss classic, "There's a Wocket in my Pocket?" Well, this story from Calvin Watkins about Lawrence Vickers and the ants in his pants reads a little bit like that. Only with more cringing.

Part of DeMarco Murray's training regimen this offseason includes mixed martial arts stuff, and you can take a look at him busying himself with it right here if you like.

New York Giants

The Giants are going away for training camp this year -- back to Albany after training last year in East Rutherford. And if you're planning on heading up there for any of it, here's the practice schedule. Tom Coughlin's planning to make them work in the heat of the middle of the day since he can no longer make them practice twice a day.

Coughlin got his contract extension Wednesday, and to hear John Mara tell it, the Giants actually wanted Coughlin to be their coach long before he actually was. As I tried to write yesterday but apparently didn't make clear, Coughlin's bulletproof as far as Giants ownership is concerned. And while, sure, there's a chance Giants fans get tired of him in the next three years if they don't keep winning, Giants ownership has made it clear that fan dissatisfaction isn't enough of a reason for them to make a coaching change. He'll coach the Giants as long as he wants to.

Philadelphia Eagles

Sheil Kapadia took a look at how Jeremy Maclin stacks up against the other five wide receivers taken in the first round in 2009. He fares pretty well, especially considering he's coming off a down, injury-plagued season. Only Hakeem Nicks among this group has been clearly better. Mike Wallace, the Steelers' third-rounder, has actually been the best wide receiver from the 2009 class, but obviously no one saw that coming or else he'd have gone earlier. Maclin's a guy to watch in 2012, for certain.

And we'll give our friend Jeff McLane some face time, as he offers a video discussing the competition for the backup running back spot. Which matters, since they'll need more from whoever's behind LeSean McCoy this year than they got from Ronnie Brown last year. That's right. I threw in a Ronnie Brown reference. Don't want you Eagles fans getting too happy in June.
So every Tuesday at noon ET we open up a SportsNation chat room and we do this thing where you guys ask me questions and I answer them. We call it the weekly NFC East chat, and it's oodles of fun. Those who don't come and join in... well, they're beyond hope at this point. So rather than fill them in with the highlights, I present these chat highlights for those of you were there, so you can relive all the fun we had together.

Wesley from Woodstock, Va. believes that, due to his lofty draft position and the attendant hype, Robert Griffin III will be targeted by defensive players in 2012 for "welcome to the NFL" hits. Considering this, Wesley wanted to know if I thought the Washington Redskins' current backup plan of Rex Grossman and Kirk Cousins was sufficient.

Dan Graziano: I don't know how much better a backup QB situation can get, actually. Grossman is the exact right guy to be backing up RG3 right away -- a QB who knows the offense and can help with the new guy's education (as long as the rookie ignores the parts about throwing it to the other team 20 times a year). And Cousins is a well-regarded young guy who'll be learning along with the starter. I think they've backed him up just fine.

St8prop from Atlanta saw a rumor that the Baltimore Ravens had offered the New York Giants a third-round draft pick for disgruntled defensive end Osi Umenyiora and wondered, if the Giants don't trade him, whether it would be because they believed they could do better in compensation picks for losing him to free agency next year.

DG: I think if they don't move him it's because they determined the value of keeping him on their roster outweighed what was offered. They don't NEED to move him. They're not worried about his discontent affecting what they do, and he showed last year that he can still make a major impact when he does play. And he's cheap.

(Ed. note: Please also remember that, if the Giants lose Umenyiora in free agency next year, their compensation pick wouldn't come until the 2014 draft, and it would depend on who else they lost in 2013 free agency and which players they signed as well.)

DAN FAN from Florida asked who would lead the division in touchdowns in 2012 and offered Dallas Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo as a guess.

DG: You mean passing TDs? I'd go with Eli Manning there, taking everything into consideration including his weapons and the relative states of the Giants' and Cowboys' running games.

So then Talon from Muncie, Ind. asked me to "elaborate on the state of NYG & DAL running games."

DG: Well, the Giants were last in the league, Ahmad Bradshaw has chronic foot injuries and Brandon Jacobs had 40 percent of their carries and is now gone. I think it's fair to say the state of the Giants' run game is questionable.

Mark from Los Angeles said he thought Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Michael Vick "started getting a little lazy" after signing his big contract last offseason and wondered what his state of mind is going into this season.

DG: I don't agree with "lazy" as a characterization of Vick from what I saw last year. I felt all along that the Eagles needed to see some development and maturation from him as a leader, and while he showed some of it late in the year, I don't think he showed enough of it early. I do not ascribe that to laziness, though. I think he works very hard. I just didn't feel that he showed enough improvement in his specific areas of weakness. That could be because he doesn't identify those areas correctly, or because more work needs to be done in them than he or we are willing to admit, or any number of reasons.

And Gavin from Maryland asked how much of an upgrade new Dallas Cowboys fullback Lawrence Vickers would be over Tony Fiammetta, who got a lot of press last year for his role in the run game once DeMarco Murray got hot.

DG: The folks I talked to around the time of that signing all liked Vickers a lot better than they liked Fiammetta. I think by the end of the year, the consensus was that the midseason success of the Dallas' run game was much more Murray than it was Fiammetta, in spite of what some believed while it was happening.

Enjoyed it, as always. Though we didn't hear back from our old buddy Jack from Raleigh. I hope we didn't scare him off.

Breakfast links: Free agency lull

March, 23, 2012
3/23/12
8:00
AM ET
Dallas Cowboys

ESPNDallas.com wants to know whether you're happy with what the Cowboys have done to this point in free agency. They tell you what they think -- Calvin Watkins calls it a success, Tim MacMahon says it's just a start -- but what they really want to know is what you think. So go read, and make sure to vote.

Josh Ellis thinks that the signing of fullback Lawrence Vickers -- especially if the Cowboys don't sign a second tight end or a quality No. 3 wide receiver -- could lead to more I-formation sets on offense in 2012. They had success in 2011 running behind fullback Tony Fiammetta and might look to replicate that with Vickers now that they've lost Martellus Bennett and Laurent Robinson.

New York Giants

Ebenezer Samuel offers some insight into the unusual procedure Ahmad Bradshaw had done to help heal his injured foot. It was not, apparently, a stem-cell treatment. The goal is to stop the foot from continuing to be an issue for Bradshaw throughout the remainder of his career, because as tough as he is, having to endure the pain he endured in 2011 isn't likely to lend itself to a long career at a very physically demanding position.

David Carr, who was a starting quarterback when he arrived in the NFL with the Houston Texans a long time ago, likes being the Giants' backup quarterback. Says it's the best locker room he's ever been a part of.

Philadelphia Eagles

Former Eagles defensive lineman N.D. Kalu, who now hosts a sports talk radio show in Houston, tells Les Bowen that the loss of linebacker DeMeco Ryans to the Eagles is hurting Texans fans more than the loss earlier in the offseason of Mario Williams to the Bills.

Though there is some tinkering left to do and a few additions that are likely to be made to the offseason roster -- a veteran running back, a veteran fullback, a veteran safety, maybe another linebacker or two -- the Eagles feel as though their roster is in fairly good shape right now, in the wake of addressing their biggest need.

Washington Redskins

There will be some competition at wide receiver this year in Redskins camp, Rich Tandler writes, and very little is guaranteed at this point in terms of anyone's role or status in the starting lineup. A lot could depend on health, too, for guys like Josh Morgan and Leonard Hankerson, whose 2011 seasons ended early due to injury.

Josh Johnson was an intriguing backup quarterback possibility, but he's a San Francisco 49er now. I wonder if, when he showed up for his visit on Wednesday in Ashburn, no one was there to open the door for him since they were all in Waco.
The big names are signing elsewhere as the Dallas Cowboys remain focused instead on needs, and on targeting specific players they like to fill those needs. While Mario Williams -- the apple of many Cowboys fans' eyes over the past few weeks in spite of no evidence at all that Dallas was really pursuing him -- was busy looking for a home in Buffalo, the Cowboys on Thursday morning agreed to a deal with free-agent safety Brodney Pool. Cowboys coach Jason Garrett broke the news in a conference call with reporters, Calvin Watkins tells us:
Garrett said the team wanted to sign Pool last year, during the brief free agency period, but was unable to due to finances.

"He has some really good ball skills," Garrett said.

Pool has played with Cowboys defensive coordinator Rob Ryan with the Cleveland Browns in 2009. Under Ryan, Pool had a career-high four interceptions and also had 10 pass breakups.

Again, many fans had been asking whether they'd sign someone like LaRon Landry. But while he doesn't have the name recognition or the raw ability of Landry, Pool is a guy who actually plays in games every week. Ryan likes him. He likes Ryan. They need someone to replace Abram Elam, who's a free agent. Makes sense. A day after signing cornerback Brandon Carr, backup quarterback Kyle Orton, fullback Lawrence Vickers and guard Mackenzy Bernadeau, the Cowboys continue to fill the many holes on their roster with players who look like good fits. Former Bengals guard Nate Livings and former Panthers linebacker Dan Connor are in town today to talk contract as well, and each would add depth to positions where the Cowboys are lacking.

A smart, targeted approach to free agency by a team with a lot of different needs. Maybe not the most exciting offseason the Cowboys have ever had, but if I were a Cowboys fan, I'd be enjoying it very much.
So I was sitting here on Twitter, trolling for news, answering your questions and getting a kick out of the fact that Justin Tuck was watching (and tweeting about) the same "Big Bang Theory" rerun as me when it occurred to me that it was almost time to turn in and get some sleep. Before I did that, I just wanted to ask one question.

How was your day ...

Philadelphia Eagles?

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

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

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

Dallas Cowboys?

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

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

New York Giants?

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

Washington Redskins?

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

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

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