NFC East: Marques Colston

Rapid Reaction: Dallas Cowboys

November, 10, 2013
11/10/13
11:46
PM ET
NEW ORLEANS -- A few thoughts on the Dallas Cowboys' 49-17 loss to the New Orleans Saints on Sunday.

What it means for the Cowboys: By the time the Cowboys play again on Nov. 24 against the New York Giants they could be out of first place in the NFC East.

They are currently tied with the Philadelphia Eagles at 5-5 and are technically in first place because of their 17-3 win at Lincoln Financial Field on Oct. 20. The Giants and Washington Redskins are only one game back in the loss column.

This was the worst loss of the Jason Garrett era. The previous one was a 34-7 loss at Philadelphia in 2011.

Stock watch: Jerry Jones, falling. On a night in which nothing went right it's too easy to point out a player or a coach. The owner and general manager is in the crosshairs tonight. He put together this lot and believes there is a chance to compete for a championship. The defense was awful. The offense was stone cold. Other than that Jones had a fine time in New Orleans.

Defense shredded again: The Saints scored on eight of 11 possessions and one ended on a missed field goal. The Saints showed mercy on their final possession and took a knee.

They had 40 first downs, setting an NFL record. The Cowboys gave up 625 yards. They allowed Mark Ingram to rush for 145 yards. They saw Marques Colston get 107 receiving yards.

The good news: Drew Brees did not throw for 400 yards. He finished with 392 yards and threw four touchdowns.

Blame the absences of Jason Hatcher, J.J. Wilcox and Morris Claiborne at the start of the game and the in-game absences of Sean Lee (hamstring) and Justin Durant (hamstring). Know that DeMarcus Ware was in and out in his return to the lineup after a three-game absence with a quadriceps strain.

It wouldn't have mattered. Maybe it would've made the outcome a little closer, but the Saints rolled all over Monte Kiffin's defense the way the Denver Broncos and Detroit Lions did.

Missed opportunity: On a night when the Cowboys knew it would be a struggle for the defense, they needed to take advantage of every chance they got.

Darren Sproles' fumble gave the Cowboys a chance at the Saints' 22 in the first quarter, but the Cowboys had to settle for a Dan Bailey field goal. A third-and-1 play was turned into third-and-6 after a James Hanna false start. Tony Romo's third-down pass was incomplete and would have been wiped out anyway by a Ronald Leary hold.

In the past five games the Cowboys have had 11 takeaways and scored just two touchdowns after those turnovers, and both of those drives started inside the opponents' 5.

What's next: The Cowboys are off until Nov. 24, when they visit the New York Giants. Players will practice on Tuesday and Wednesday before getting their first prolonged break since their first training camp practice on July 21 in Oxnard, Calif.

Welcome to Mercedes-Benz Superdome

November, 10, 2013
11/10/13
7:23
PM ET
NEW ORLEANS -- Welcome to the Mercedes-Benz Superdome where the Dallas Cowboys will look to knock off the New Orleans Saints and maintain their one-game lead in the NFC East going into the bye week.

The last time the Cowboys visited they were able to end the Saints’ run at an undefeated season in 2009.

Welcome back: In that 2009 win, DeMarcus Ware had his most memorable game. Six days after leaving a game with his head strapped to a board with a neck injury, Ware was able to play against the Saints. He did not start, but he certainly finished. He sacked Drew Brees twice, including the clincher with a forced fumble in the fourth quarter.

Ware will make his return to the lineup after a three-game absence because of a quadriceps strain, and the Cowboys need him to be a disruptive force. With Jason Hatcher’s status iffy and a line full of no-names, Ware has to get pressure on Brees almost by himself.

He had four sacks in the first six games, but was hampered by stringer and back injuries that limited his playing time and effectiveness. The time off was not only good for his quad, but perhaps for his entire body.

Maximize the possessions: The best way Tony Romo can help a defense that will be under pressure from Brees, Jimmy Graham, Marques Colston and Darren Sproles is to control the ball. But winning the time of possession battle only goes so far.

They also must score touchdowns when available and get field goals at the worst. In their 51-48 loss to the Denver Broncos, the Romo-led offense was able to keep up with eight scoring possessions (six touchdowns, two field goals), but were done in by a fourth-quarter interception.

Scoring early would also help. The Cowboys jumped out to a 14-0 lead in their 2009 win at the Superdome.

Run the ball? The Cowboys ran it a franchise-low nine times last week in their win against the Minnesota Vikings. Take away a Romo scramble and they called only eight runs.

Jason Garrett, Bill Callahan and Romo all say they want to run it more and run it better. They said that at the start of training camp as well.

The Saints have the NFL’s 25th-ranked run defense, giving up 121.3 yards per game on the ground. Coordinator Rob Ryan is so sub-package heavy that the Cowboys could be able to work their running game with a spread look out of a three-wide receiver package.

That would make DeMarco Murray happy.
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There might not be a more compelling game on this week’s NFL schedule than the Sunday night showdown between the NFC South-leading New Orleans Saints (6-2) and the NFC East-leading Dallas Cowboys (5-4) at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.

Both teams are jockeying for position in the NFC playoff race. They both offer offensive fireworks, led by the Saints’ Drew Brees and Jimmy Graham and the Cowboys’ Tony Romo and Dez Bryant. They’ve both got something to prove: The Saints will be focused on rebounding from their ugliest performance of the season in a 26-20 loss at the New York Jets; the Cowboys are looking to beat a team with a winning record this season.

There’s even a revenge factor. Saints defensive coordinator Rob Ryan was fired by Cowboys owner Jerry Jones after last season. And he's never been shy about expressing his displeasure with that decision.

ESPN.com’s Saints reporter Mike Triplett and Cowboys reporter Todd Archer break down the matchup.

Triplett: Rob Ryan has been such a huge addition for the Saints. Players love playing for him. He’s putting them in good positions to succeed, and his versatile schemes have worked great for the most part. What wasn’t working for him in Dallas?

Archer: Injuries played a big part in his demise here. He was down six starters at the end of the season and DeMarcus Ware was playing with one arm. He had them competitive. But, honestly, Ryan played a big part in it, too. He tried to junk it up with so many different looks and schemes and packages that the players couldn’t just go play. They had to think. Maybe he felt like he had to junk it up because so many guys were hurt, but he left them unsound a lot of times. He was also way too emotional. He lacked poise when the defense needed it most. I think he was too worried about becoming a head coach. Maybe it has changed down there, or maybe Sean Payton has more control of him.

Is there any reason to think that what happened against the Jets could be the start of something for the Saints?

Triplett: The Saints have had a few nagging issues that all seemed to creep up at once in that Jets loss. Their pass protection has been inconsistent. Their run game has been nonexistent at times. The run defense has been up and down. But I think it was rare for the Saints to have all of those things come up and bite them at once at New York, and they were a little out of their element in some chilly weather against a physical team. Playing at home against the Cowboys seems like a matchup that suits them better. They’re more than happy to engage in a shootout.

What’s the biggest threat the Cowboys pose? I assume Romo and Bryant are involved?

Archer: Since they just don’t want to run the ball, after just eight carries last week (the ninth was a Romo scramble), I’ll go with Romo-to-Bryant, but the Romo-to-Jason Witten combination is pretty good. The Cowboys can throw the ball well even without a running game. They might be happy to get into a shootout as well. The last time the offense was good was a month ago, in their 51-48 shootout loss to Denver. Romo knows Brees is going to score points, so he’ll have to match it. Remember, the last time the Cowboys were at the Superdome they ended New Orleans’ run at perfection by being aggressive early. I can see them trying to do that again.

The Cowboys have allowed four 400-yard passers this season, and I’m penciling in Brees as the fifth. Calvin Johnson went for 329 receiving yards against the Cowboys a couple of weeks ago. What will Graham do?

Triplett: You could have been talking about the Saints when you said they “can throw the ball well even without a running game.” The Saints might try to establish the run a little bit since Sean Payton said that one of his biggest regrets in the Jets loss was that he was too unbalanced. But the Saints are always willing to exploit a shaky pass defense.

Some teams have been defending Graham with top cornerbacks (which worked for the Patriots but not for the Jets). But the Saints have clobbered teams whenever they leave Graham in single coverage. Meanwhile, if defenses sell out to stop Graham, Brees will happily throw to any open man. Two weeks ago, he completed passes to 10 different receivers. And it looks like Darren Sproles and Marques Colston may both be back from injuries Sunday.

Why has Dallas’ pass defense been so bad?

Archer: Mostly, it’s taken time for the players to get a grasp of Monte Kiffin’s scheme and it’s taken time for the new defensive coordinator to know how to best use his players. They have man corners in Brandon Carr, Orlando Scandrick and Morris Claiborne, but they have played a lot of zone and been exposed. There have been just too many creases. The pass rush has not helped, either. They went into the season thinking Anthony Spencer, Jay Ratliff, Jason Hatcher and Ware would be their rocks. Spencer played in one game. Ratliff didn’t play in any before getting cut. Ware has missed the last three but is set to return this week. Hatcher is having a career year with seven sacks. When they have played average quarterbacks they have held up. When they have played elite quarterbacks they have given up 400 yards. For the fantasy-football owners out there, go with Brees Sunday.

You get this every week, but play calling is a big topic here. How have things been different with Payton calling the shots again?

Triplett: You’re right to mention play calling in that question. Most people ask about Payton’s leadership, which is obviously a huge deal; he instills a lot of confidence in this team and seems to press all the right motivational buttons. But his greatest strength is his offensive brain. He’s so good at using a ton of different formations to find and exploit mismatches, usually with Graham and Sproles. The offense hasn’t quite hit its peak like it did in 2011, but it has been excellent at times.

You mentioned Ware coming back. Will he be close to 100 percent? Folks around here won’t soon forget how well he played in 2009, when the Saints didn’t expect him to come back from injury so soon. He singlehandedly spoiled their undefeated season.

Archer: I think so, but he has had a couple of nagging things this season (a stinger and strained back). Missing three weeks might have Ware as fresh as he has ever felt entering Week 10 of a season. They’ll need him to be the Ware of that night in 2009 to succeed. He looked great in training camp, overpowering Tyron Smith in practice all the time, but he hasn’t been as explosive when he has played. What he’ll do is make the other guys around him better because he’ll command so much attention.

Ware is making the move back to defensive end from outside linebacker. How has the Saints' defense transitioned from the 4-3 to Ryan’s 3-4?

Triplett: The transition has been outstanding, in large part because Ryan has adapted his 3-4 to fit the Saints’ personnel (after a ton of injuries this summer, including one to former Cowboys linebacker Victor Butler). As a result, the Saints have actually spent most of the season in nickel and dime defenses with a four-man front. Ryan likes to use three safeties at once in versatile roles, disguising what they do and sending them on occasional blitzes.

End Cameron Jordan and outside linebacker Junior Galette are having breakout seasons as edge rushers. And veteran cornerback Keenan Lewis has been a great pick-up in free agency, too. He’s a bigger, long-armed guy. I wouldn’t be surprised to see him shadow Bryant on Sunday night.

We've hit on Romo, Bryant, Witten and Ware. Any under-the-radar Cowboys who might have a big impact on this game?

Archer: I’ll go with Cole Beasley. He might get stopped by stadium security before the game because he just doesn’t look like an NFL receiver at 5 feet 8 and 180 pounds, but Romo loves the kid. He’s a real threat in the slot. He’s super quick, has a great feel for getting open underneath and knows how not to take a hit. He had six catches last week against Minnesota. The Cowboys’ third-down offense has been pretty bad, but Beasley can take some pressure off Witten and Bryant in the slot.

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So I think this is a good deal for the New York Giants, this $43 million for five years for wide receiver Victor Cruz. It's a lot closer to the number they wanted to pay him when this whole thing began than it is to the number he wanted. So in that respect, it's a "win" for the team. It's a lot of money to commit at wide receiver, especially with Hakeem Nicks heading into the final year of his own contract. But with Cruz locked up, the Giants can now franchise Nicks next year and keep him off the market if they so choose. If they hadn't signed Cruz long term, they may have been in the position of having to decide which wideout to franchise. Now, they'll have some degree of control over both.

That said, it's not as though Cruz is going to have a tough time making his mortgage payments. He's not going to make Mike Wallace money, or even DeSean Jackson or Miles Austin money, but the deal puts him in the average-annual-salary neighborhood of guys such as Antonio Brown and Pierre Garcon. Hardly an insult, especially considering Cruz is strictly a slot receiver who gets beaten up a bit when he moves outside and doesn't really contribute as a blocker.

On top of the financials, though, this deal is a sweet one for Cruz because it keeps him in New York, where he obviously wants to be. Cruz is serious about football and about continuing to put up the kinds of numbers he put up the past two years and about trying to win another Super Bowl. But aside from all of that, Cruz also likes the idea of being a star. He has his clothing line. He has plans to do some sort of TV show. He's got his Chunky Soup commercials. He's in on this Jay-Z Roc Nation deal. The young man likes the perks of stardom, and as long as Los Angeles is without an NFL team, New York is the place to be if you want to maximize that stuff.

So it's all set up for Cruz now. He's got the contract, the quarterback, the fellow star wideout who'll draw defenses' attention. He's got the big market and the opportunities that go with it. All he's got to do is to keep playing like the star he wants to be.

Cruz's numbers the past two years are star-caliber numbers, make no mistake. If you catch 168 passes for 2,628 yards and 19 touchdowns over two NFL seasons, you're a big-time producer, whether you're doing it out of the slot or on the outside or lining up in the backfield. Numbers are numbers, and Cruz has numbers. He also has delivered in big spots in playoff games and a Super Bowl. He has been everything the Giants want and need him to be.

But he's got to keep building on it. Three years from now, we've got to be looking back at those 2011 and 2012 reception and yardage numbers as the start of something big. We've got to be able to look at last year's nine drops as a fluke and not the beginning of a chronic problem. We've got to be looking at Cruz as a guy who can speed past defenses and make magic happen after QB Eli Manning gets the ball in his hands, who forces defenses to pay attention to him even though an elite-caliber talent like Nicks is beating people up on the outside and downfield.

If that's who Cruz is over the life of this new contract, then he's got every right to be any level of New York sports star he wants to be. If not -- and if the issues that cropped up in 2012 turn out to be closer to what he really is than the mind-boggling achievements of 2011 -- then the Giants could be looking back on this contract as a mistake.

Cruz wanted to be paid like a star and to stay in the market that can help make him one. He's set on both fronts. His mission now is to keep playing like a star. And if he does that, then he, the Giants and everyone connected with this situation will look back on this as a very happy day.
Free agency lulling you to sleep here in the NFC East? Hey, it's only 31 days until the draft. We can get through this together, people. I promise. We have links.

Dallas Cowboys

The Cowboys are bringing in two free agents -- safety Will Allen and linebacker Justin Durant -- for visits today. Of course, if you read the first sentence of Calvin Watkins' story here you'll see they can only offer them unpaid internships. But hey, the way this market's going, maybe they'll take 'em.

Jason Garrett disagrees with the idea that the Cowboys have made no progress since he's been their head coach. He understands that consecutive 8-8 seasons fail to prove his case, but from his perspective the roster is in better shape now than it was two years ago, as David Moore explains.

New York Giants

It appears as though Osi Umenyiora will sign with the Atlanta Falcons, ending his 10-year run with the Giants. He won two Super Bowls in New York and now says he'd really enjoy winning one for his hometown team.

Gary Myers reports that the Giants have offered wide receiver Victor Cruz more than $7 million per year, which is no surprise considering co-owner Steve Tisch's prediction that he'd get more than the $6 million a year Wes Welker got from the Broncos. The issue with Cruz and the Giants appears to be one of philosophical differences. They're willing to make him the league's highest-paid slot receiver based on the idea that he is that. He wants top wide receiver money based on the numbers he's put up the past two seasons. If the benchmark is Marques Colston's five-year, $36.3 million deal (with more than $17 million in guarantees) with the Saints, then it sounds as though the Giants are a notch below that. And if you're Cruz's agent, your point is that he's outperformed Colston the past two years. Who blinks first?

Philadelphia Eagles

The Eagles' website takes a look at some of the defensive prospects potentially available to the Eagles in this year's draft, including popular mock draft pick Dee Milliner.

They also may not be done addressing defensive needs in free agency, as reports have them interested in in Chargers defensive lineman Vaughn Martin. Sounds like another versatile guy who could play in a variety of schemes and even move positions a bit if the Eagles' defense is going to be one that relies on varying looks.

Washington Redskins

Fred Davis had a meal with Buffalo Bills officials over the weekend, which I guess is interesting. I'm sure the Bills would like to have him, and that Davis and his agents are very happy the Redskins know another team is interested. I just question the idea of a pass-catching tight end who's coming off a major injury and needs to put up numbers this year in order to really cash in down the road signing with a team that currently has no quarterback whatsoever. But hey, I guess weirder things have happened.

And as for the Redskins' quarterback, I'm sure you saw the comments from Dr. James Andrews over the weekend about how "superhuman" Robert Griffin III and his recovery are. We've been over this a million times, and I just don't understand the way Andrews acts when it comes to Griffin. At this point, what in the world is the point of the team physician setting expectations high? We're more than five months away from regular-season games, and the kid had major reconstructive knee surgery in January. There's absolutely nothing wrong with saying, "Things are going well, but it's too soon to speculate about when he might be ready. The only thing that matters is his long-term health, and we won't rush him back." Those would be the words of an organization that has learned its lesson.

Rapid Reaction: Redskins 40, Saints 32

September, 9, 2012
9/09/12
4:49
PM ET

NEW ORLEANS -- A few thoughts from the Washington Redskins' stunning 40-32 season-opening victory over the Saints in the Superdome.

What it means: A complete statement game from the Redskins and rookie quarterback Robert Griffin III, who authored a debut for the ages in one of the toughest places in the entire league for a visiting quarterback to play. The Redskins' offensive game plan was designed to maximize Griffin's strengths, and he executed it very well. He was 6-for-6 on an opening field goal drive on which he didn't throw one pass beyond the line of scrimmage, and on the first play of the second possession he hit Pierre Garcon for an 88-yard touchdown pass. For the rest of the day, the Redskins called rollout after rollout, using Griffin's outstanding speed to keep him in space and out of the way of the New Orleans pass rush, and he consistently made good decisions and accurate throws downfield. If Redskins fans wanted to wrap up their day excited about their future with Griffin as the franchise quarterback, they got their wish.

The other side of the ball: The Redskins' defense also looked very good. They threw a number of different looks at Drew Brees, using defensive backs to blitz and dropping linemen into coverage. The defensive backs looked good in coverage, too, which was something of a surprise. They hung with Marques Colston and the receivers and broke up several deep passes. The Redskins' best defensive maneuver in this game was their remarkable time-of-possession advantage, as they were able to keep Brees off the field for long stretches. But when the defense was on the field, it appeared to have fresh legs and made plenty of plays.

The other rookie: Sixth-round draft pick Alfred Morris got the start at running back and got the bulk of the work all day. He appears to be an excellent fit in an offense that asks its running backs to make one cut and get upfield as quickly as possible. He did some tough inside running and started to break off bigger chunks of yards in the second half. It wouldn't be a surprise if the Redskins stuck with him as the starter for the foreseeable future.

Injuries: Garcon left the game with a foot injury in the second quarter and did not return. Rookie safety Jordan Bernstine was carted off the field with a right knee injury in the fourth quarter. If Bernstine is out for a while, the Redskins may have to go out and find another safety.

Booming leg: New kicker Billy Cundiff was brought in because of his ability to kick the ball through the back of the end zone on kickoffs, and he delivered with six touchbacks out of eight kickoffs. Cundiff also connected on all four of his field goal attempts, the longest of which was 41 yards.

What needs work: They had some issues in the punting game. Sav Rocca had one blocked in the second quarter that gave the Saints a touchdown just before halftime, and there was a bad snap on a fourth-quarter punt that resulted in a circus play and a couple of penalties for illegal activity downfield. You have to wonder about the downfield passing game if Garcon has to miss time. Griffin threw to a wide variety of targets, but Garcon is the one who looks most like a game-breaker.

What's next: The Redskins travel to St. Louis, where they'll play the Rams at 4:05 p.m. ET on Sunday.
Just after I posted about the Washington Redskins signing free-agent wide receiver Pierre Garcon, Adam Schefter reported they were on the verge of a contract with free-agent wide receiver Josh Morgan, formerly of the San Francisco 49ers. It's been a busy first couple of hours of free agency for the Redskins, who also have re-signed defensive lineman Adam Carriker to a contract extension.

Jason La Canfora of the NFL Network reported the Carriker deal first, and he reports that it's for $20 million ($7 million guaranteed) over four years. A short time later, Carriker tweeted, "I'm back! #resign94 complete." Carriker is an important piece for the Redskins, a favorite of the fans and the coaching staff who helped the conversion to a 3-4 defense, and with him back and Jarvis Jenkins expected back from his rookie-year injury, the Redskins should have good depth along the defensive line.

Now, as for the wide receivers, they're not the ones for whom you were hoping. I understand that. Vincent Jackson was the big prize, but he appears to be off to Tampa Bay, and Garcon was probably about the best option left on the market after Jackson. But he is not an established No. 1 wide receiver. He could turn into one. He turns 26 in August and caught 70 balls for 947 yards in Indianapolis last year without a real quarterback. He's a good fit for Mike Shanahan's offense, and he has the ability to blossom as a No. 1 wide receiver if he clicks with the Redskins' new quarterback, who's expected to be 22-year-old Robert Griffin III. And that kind of future bet was the best the Redskins could do if they weren't going to get Jackson.

Similar situation with Morgan, who's also 26 and played just five games for the 49ers this past year before breaking his leg and missing the rest of the season. Mike Shanahan has been looking for free agents who have done some work to establish themselves as NFL players but are still hungry and young enough to grow with the team over the coming years. This was the thought last summer behind the signings of guys like Josh Wilson and Barry Cofield, and Shanahan is sticking with it. He targets guys he thinks will fit what he plans to do on offense and who are young enough to still be with the team once it's a contender. His hope is to build a team that can contend for a number of years, not just for one.

So while the Redskins needed quality and not quantity at wide receiver, without Jackson and Marques Colston (who re-signed with the Saints earlier in the day) they didn't have too many top-level options. So they're banking on younger guys who can grow up around Griffin and hoping they're getting them right before they take off.

In that respect, the criticism the Redskins are taking for reverting to old habits seems unfair. These aren't aging, big-name stars who are on the downsides of their careers. They are players who fit what the Redskins are trying to build. And whether it works out or not, this is the residue of an actual plan, not just a dartboard free agency approach that looks like what they used to do.

Midday contract roundup

March, 13, 2012
3/13/12
2:32
PM ET
Less than two hours left now until free agency opens, but there's been a decent amount of NFC East-related activity already today. I figured I'd throw it all in one post and let you guys pick what you want.

Eagles sign Todd Herremans to three-year contract extension

Herremans was already signed through 2013, and his salaries the next two years remain unaffected. But now he's signed through 2016 and gets an additional $11 million guaranteed with the potential to earn $21 million more than his original contract called for if he plays the whole deal out. Herremans was supposed to be the team's left guard last season, but he moved to right tackle in training camp and played well there. The Eagles have adjusted his salary to one more commensurate with a tackle than a guard, which indicates they plan to leave him there going forward. Nice reward for performance.

Giants restructure David Baas' contract

Ralph Vacchiano of the New York Daily News reports on Twitter that Baas, the Giants' center, agreed to a restructure that drops his 2012 salary from $3 million to $900,000. As Ralph says, the remaining $2.1 million was surely converted into a bonus, so Baas still gets it, but it should help the Giants against the cap this year. They've been over the cap for most of this offseason, and have had to make a number of different moves recently to allow them the freedom to make some signings.

Terrell Thomas gets $11 million guaranteed

The Giants' injured cornerback, who re-signed this morning, told Sirius XM Radio that his new deal is worth $28.4 million over four years with $11 million guaranteed. While it's certainly not a remotely unfair deal for a guy who just missed an entire season with a knee injury, it's a good deal for the Giants, who would have had to pay much more to retain Thomas had he been healthy, played well all year and helped them win the Super Bowl. Fellow free-agent cornerback Aaron Ross is likely to command more, which is why he was always less likely to be back. It remains to be seen whether they can afford Ross, but if they can't, and if Thomas is healthy, he offers some coverage.

Marques Colston is off the market

The Saints have retained their top receiver on a five-year, $40 million deal that includes $19 million in guarantees. The Saints are in the NFC South, so this isn't technically our story. But he was the No. 2 wide receiver on the market behind Vincent Jackson, and the top fallback option for the Redskins (and other teams) should they fail to land Jackson. The drop-off to the next-best wideout on the market now is severe, and this deal will make it even more difficult (and likely more expensive) to get Jackson.

Bye, bye, Buehler

The Cowboys just announced they cut kicker David Buehler, which comes as no surprise. Dan Bailey made Buehler unnecessary with a brilliant rookie season, and the Cowboys get a little bit of cap room by cutting him loose.

NFC East: Free-agency primer

March, 8, 2012
3/08/12
12:00
PM ET
AFC Free-Agency Primer: East | West | North | South NFC: East | West | North | South

Free agency begins Tuesday at 4 p.m. ET

Dallas Cowboys

Key free agents: WR Laurent Robinson, S Abram Elam, LB Keith Brooking, LB Anthony Spencer (franchise)

Where they stand: Dallas needs serious help in the secondary and will have to decide whether it wants Elam back at safety while it pursues at least one cornerback. The Cowboys are expected to release Terence Newman, and they could look to add depth at that position and a new starter. Franchising Spencer indicates that while they would like to improve their pass rush, they won't be players in the Mario Williams market. Expect their free-agent focus to be on defensive backs and possibly some upgrades on the interior of the offensive line. They would like Robinson back as their No. 3 receiver, but if he's going to get No. 2 receiver-type offers, they'll likely let him walk.

What to expect: The top two cornerback targets are likely Kansas City's Brandon Carr and Tennessee's Cortland Finnegan. You can't rule out Dallas making a play for Saints guard Carl Nicks, who'd be a huge help to their offensive line. But someone like Baltimore's Ben Grubbs is likely to be more attainable financially. What the Cowboys really need on the line is a center, but it's not a great market for those unless they can get their hands on Houston's Chris Myers. The Cowboys likely will hunt for some second-tier safeties and inside linebackers to add depth, then target defensive back again early in the draft.

New York Giants

Key free agents: WR Mario Manningham, OT Kareem McKenzie, CB Aaron Ross, CB Terrell Thomas, LB Jonathan Goff, P Steve Weatherford (franchise).

Where they stand: The Super Bowl champs must get their own cap situation in order first, as they project to be about $7.25 million over the projected cap. That may mean tough cuts of people like Brandon Jacobs or David Diehl, or it may just mean some contract restructuring (like the big one they apparently just did with Eli Manning). Regardless, don't expect the Giants to spend big to keep Manningham or Ross. They're likely to bring back Thomas on a team-favorable deal as a result of the knee injury that cost him the entire 2011 season, and they'll probably let McKenzie walk and try to replace him internally (which favors Diehl's chances of sticking around).

What to expect: Just like last year, don't expect the Giants to be big-game hunters. They like to grow their own replacements. If Manningham leaves, they won't go after the top wide receivers but might try to find a bargain or two to supplement the young players from whom they're expecting more production next season. They could find a midlevel safety if they don't bring back Deon Grant, and if Jacobs leaves they'll probably bring in a veteran running back or two to compete in training camp with their youngsters. They liked Ronnie Brown last year as a possible Ahmad Bradshaw replacement when Bradshaw was a pending free agent, so there's a name to watch for if you want one.

Philadelphia Eagles

Key free agents: G Evan Mathis, DT Trevor Laws, DT Antonio Dixon (restricted), WR DeSean Jackson (franchise), QB Vince Young

Where they stand: Other than Mathis, whom they're working to try and re-sign before he his the market, the Eagles don't have many internal free-agent issues to worry about. They franchised Jackson because they're not ready to give him a long-term deal just yet. He's a candidate for a trade, but it would have to be a very nice offer. If they traded him, they'd hunt for a wide receiver, but they may do so anyway -- just at a lower level (think Plaxico Burress). The interior of the defensive line is in fairly good hands with Cullen Jenkins and Mike Patterson as starters, but they could stand to add depth to that rotation. And while they signed Trent Edwards a couple of weeks ago, they'll keep looking for a better veteran backup quarterback option with Young sure to be gone.

What to expect: Do not -- I repeat, do not -- expect the Eagles to be the same kind of player they were in free agency a year ago. Andy Reid made it very clear several times during the 2011 offseason and season that last year was unique, and the Eagles don't like to do business that way in general. They do need linebackers, and they have the cap room to play on guys like Stephen Tulloch or Curtis Lofton or even, if they wanted to get really nutty, London Fletcher. But while you can expect them to add a veteran or two at the position, don't be surprised if they sit out the higher-priced auctions this time around.

Washington Redskins

Key free agents: S LaRon Landry, LB London Fletcher, DE Adam Carriker, TE Fred Davis (franchise), QB Rex Grossman

Where they stand: Mike Shanahan said in December that Fletcher was a priority, but he remains unsigned with less than a week to go before free agency. Presumably, they'd still like to lock him up before he hits the market. If they can't, they'll have to replace a major on-field and off-field presence. Carriker is likely to be back, but the Fletcher situation has to be settled first. Landry likely is gone unless he wants to take a low-base, high-incentive deal to stay. The Redskins are sick of not knowing whether he'll be able to take the field from week to week. Grossman could return, but only as a backup to whatever quarterback upgrade they find.

What to expect: The Redskins could have more than $40 million in cap room with which to maneuver in free agency, and they're going to need it. They need a quarterback, of course, and if they can't make the trade with the Rams to move up to No. 2 in the draft and pick Robert Griffin III, they'll look at Peyton Manning and Kyle Orton and possibly Matt Flynn, though he doesn't appear to be high on their list. What Shanahan really wants is a true playmaking No. 1 wide receiver, which is why the Redskins have their eyes on Vincent Jackson and Marques Colston, who are at the very top end of that market. They'll be able to outbid almost anyone for those guys if they want to, but they may have to get quarterback figured out first if they want to persuade one of them to take their offer over similar ones. They'll also hunt for help on the offensive line and in the secondary, as they need depth in both places.
It's a line right out of the free-agent playbook. Mario Manningham says he wants to stay with the New York Giants. Per Ohm:
"I don’t want to go nowhere," Manningham said. "But if it is somewhere else, that is where my path continues. I want to come back. I can't wait to see what is going on, am I going to be here or not. I want to be here."

Sure, but he doesn't mean that. Because staying with the Giants would mean making a heck of a lot less money than he will make if he takes his talents to the open free-agent market and sells them to the highest bidder. And that matters, folks. In a league built on non-guaranteed contracts in which you're one freak injury away from never playing again, you get what you get when you can get it. And for Manningham, this is when he can get it.

This is a partial list of teams that are looking for starting-caliber wide receivers this offseason:

Washington Redskins
Chicago Bears
Minnesota Vikings
New Orleans Saints
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
San Francisco 49ers
Seattle Seahawks
St. Louis Rams
New England Patriots
New York Jets
Buffalo Bills
Baltimore Ravens
Cleveland Browns
Jacksonville Jaguars
IndianapolisColts
Denver Broncos
San Diego Chargers

And here's a list of the available, non-franchised free-agent wide receivers who probably rank ahead of Manningham:

Vincent Jackson
Marques Colston
Mike Wallace
Reggie Wayne
Brandon Lloyd

Get the picture? Yeah, first list is a heck of a lot longer than the second list. That means, unless Jackson can figure out a way to clone himself and sign with 11 teams, there are still going to be a lot of teams looking for starting-caliber wide receivers once the top guys sign. Manningham is right there in that next group with guys like Pierre Garcon, Robert Meachem, Braylon Edwards ... guys like that. And he has the advantage of just having played big in the playoffs and the Super Bowl, which ups a guy's value.

Manningham is positioned to cash in — to sign with a team for No. 2 wide receiver money — maybe even for a little bit more than that. The Giants have Hakeem Nicks and Victor Cruz and no room under the salary cap, and they're not about to pay Manningham No. 2 wide receiver money to stay. If he'd like to stay for No. 3 wide receiver money, I'm sure they'd be happy to talk to him about it. But that wouldn't be the shrewdest career move on Manningham's part.

So, while it's nice that he's saying what he's saying about wanting to stay with the Giants, Manningham doesn't really mean it. It just wouldn't make sense.
Yes, it's unusual to spend this much time writing about a Buffalo Bills wide receiver on the NFC East blog, but the Bills' signing of Stevie Johnson has a ripple effect. I do not think the Washington Redskins were planning to target Johnson if he hit the open market, since he's a bit younger and more unproven than the free agents Mike Shanahan has said he'd like to sign. But Johnson's five-year, $36.25 million contract, which includes $19.5 million in guarantees, helps define the market for free-agent wide receivers.

For my money, the best potential free-agent wide receiver this year is Vincent Jackson, who doesn't appear likely to be franchised for the second year in a row by the San Diego Chargers. Jackson is 29 years old, and therefore in Shanahan's preferred age range for free agents. He's also 6-foot-5 and 230 pounds and would be the sort of big, physical downfield threat the Redskins' wide receiver corps currently lacks.

When I spoke with Shanahan in December and asked him about offseason priorities, he specifically mentioned wide receiver and said, "We need a No. 1." With as much cap room as the Redskins have, they should be able to afford any of the No. 1 wide receivers available -- be it Jackson, Marques Colston, Dwayne Bowe, Pierre Garcon or whomever. All of those guys are likely to demand more than what Johnson just got from Buffalo, and with the possible exception of Garcon their track records indicate that they deserve it. Johnson's deal establishes the bottom of the free-agent wideout market, and is surely helpful to the Redskins as they budget their potential offers.

The issue the Redskins will have is convincing these guys Washington is a place worth playing. Money is one thing -- and don't kid yourself into thinking it's not the first, second and third most important thing to free agents -- but there will be other teams bidding big on these guys, and it would help the Redskins' case if they could tell these free-agent wideouts the name of the quarterback who will be throwing them the ball in 2012, or what they plan to do to upgrade the offensive line and improve their chances of contending for the playoffs in the short term.

That's another reason it'd be nice for the Redskins to have the quarterback situation resolved sooner rather than later -- for example, agreeing on a trade this week with the Rams for the No. 2 overall pick from which they could draft Robert Griffin III. They're going to be big-game hunting for wide receivers, and having their act together in other areas would help ensure that their money looks as enticing as other teams' money does.

NFC East links: Pay cut for Giants' Jacobs?

March, 1, 2012
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Dallas Cowboys

What issues should the Cowboys consider before offering to extend Tony Romo's contract? ESPNDallas.com's Calvin Watkins explores.

The NFL has never had a cheerleader older than 42. But a grandmother of two that will be 56 years old in May is trying to become a Cowboys cheerleader.

New York Giants

Running back Brandon Jacobs says the team is asking him to take pay cut. "It’s a great organization and I want to be a part of it, but if they’re not feeling the same way, then so be it," Jacobs said in an interview with NBC-4.

ESPN.com's Michele Steele sat down with Giants offensive lineman David Diehl to talk about his two Super Bowl championships and his NFL career.

ESPNNewYork.com's Ohm Youngmisuk grades the Giants' special-teams play from this past season.

Packers coach Mike McCarthy says he's still trying to figure out how his team lost to the Giants in the playoffs.

Philadelphia Eagles

Is the Eagles' front office making the same mistakes with DeSean Jackson that it did with Terrell Owens? Former governor Ed Rendell weighs in.

Sheil Kapadia of Philly.com looks at whether Plaxico Burress can be a good fit with the Eagles.

Washington Redskins

Mike Wise of the Washington Post tries to temper the Robert Griffin-mania that has gripped Redskins fans lately. "Many of the same people eviscerating this team for being so irresponsible over the years have decided responsibility is suddenly boring and want to go for it. We’re all-in again for one player who we are absolutely certain can be the answer to all the franchise’s problems," Wise writes.

The Redskins may pursue free agents Vincent Jackson, Pierre Garcon or Marques Colston in their search for an impact wide receiver.

Andrew Smith of the National Football Authority breaks down the Redskins' options for upgrading at quarterback.

Linebacker London Fletcher fired agent Drew Rosenhaus.

The Laurent Robinson situation

February, 23, 2012
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Dallas Cowboys fans, by and large, seem to want their team to re-sign wide receiver Laurent Robinson. He played very well for the team during Miles Austin's injury absences and even after Austin was back. Tony Romo threw 11 of his 31 touchdown passes to Robinson. Only two wide receivers (and one tight end) in the entire league caught more touchdowns. He says he wants to come back. The team says it wants to have him back. It all makes sense, in the abstract.

But as Todd Archer points out, due to the rules and conditions under which Robinson was signed last year, the Cowboys can't re-sign him before the new league year and full-on free agency open March 13. They can talk contract parameters with his agent, but Todd also wisely points out that they probably don't want to give the agent a figure he can go out and shop:
"The conversation with him goes more like, 'What are you thinking and then we'll think about it,'" executive vice president Stephen Jones said.

So, theoretically, if there's a team out there that loves Robinson and thinks he fits its system and wants to throw a bunch of money at him on March 13, the Cowboys are probably going to lose him. While neither Austin nor Dez Bryant is extremely costly, the Cowboys have a lot of needs that are more pressing than No. 3 wide receiver. If Robinson is going to get good No. 2 wide receiver money from some other team, my guess is the Cowboys will let him go.

What will help them keep him is the potentially flooded wide receiver free-agent market. The odds are that Robinson isn't going to be able to cash in his breakout season to the same extent he might have if he weren't competing for teams' affections with the likes of Vincent Jackson, Marques Colston, Dwayne Bowe, Brandon Lloyd, Stevie Johnson, Robert Meachem, Reggie Wayne, Mario Manningham, Pierre Garcon, Mike Wallace, DeSean Jackson and Wes Welker.

It's possible the Cowboys and Robinson get something reasonable worked out and he returns as a very good No. 3 wide receiver. But if his price starts to go up much beyond that range, don't be surprised if they let him walk and just try and find next year's Robinson the same way they found last year's.

NFC East weekend mailbag

February, 18, 2012
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12:00
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You e-mail, I answer. It's an offseason weekend thing.

Nick Curtin from Newark, Del., wants to know if the Dallas Cowboys might be able to pull off trades for Philadelphia Eagles cornerback Asante Samuel and New York Giants defensive end Osi Umenyiora.

Dan Graziano: Obviously, both would fill major needs, assuming Umenyiora would be willing/able to make the switch to outside linebacker in the 3-4. The problem is that these are potential trades and not free-agent acquisitions, which would require only money. These deals would require the Cowboys to give up draft picks (unwise, considering their plethora of needs) and would also require them to convince division rivals to trade them very good players. If I were the Eagles, I wouldn't be trading Samuel to a team I had to play twice a year, and same with the Giants and Umenyiora. As much as the Cowboys might like it, it's hard to imagine either of those players being traded to Dallas.


Greg Martin from Freehold, N.J., is surprised by the seemingly overwhelmingly negative reaction among Redskins fans and Washington media to the idea of the Redskins bringing in Peyton Manning to play quarterback next year. He wants to know why I think people are so against the idea.

DG: Greg, I think it's because people fail to see the differences between what's going on in Washington now versus past years, when they just went out on the market and signed the biggest possible name for the most money and it never worked out. This wouldn't be the same, but since Manning is such a big name and since he wouldn't be a long-term solution, people are inclined to say things like, "No, not again. Same old Redskins. Blah, blah, blah." I think people should trust what Mike Shanahan and Bruce Allen are doing. They've been focused and directed in their offseason moves since taking over. They took a flyer on Donovan McNabb two years ago and it didn't work out, but otherwise they're building the team the right way. If they can't trade up for Robert Griffin III, and they can't find their long-term, franchise guy in this offseason, a healthy Manning would be a fine solution. They'd be able to spend draft picks and other resources on other needs such as wide receiver and offensive line, and could continue looking for the long-term fix rather than trying to force one that doesn't work. And Manning isn't getting some huge contract. It'd be a year or two, incentive-based. No need for Redskins fans to fear a return of the bad old free-agency days.


Steve from Denver asks, if the Eagles decide to trade DeSean Jackson, which teams would be interested?

DG: The Patriots in the Super Bowl sure looked like a team that could use Jackson. The Saints if they lose Colston. The Chargers if they lose Vincent Jackson. The Bears. The Ravens. The 49ers. I could go on and on, but there's no shortage of teams that could use a wide receiver with Jackson's talent and big-play potential.


And Scott from Charlotte, N.C., has a PUNTER QUESTION!!!! He wants to know if it'd make sense for the Giants to franchise Steve Weatherford after his big season, and what such a move would cost.

DG: The franchise number for punters is around $2.7 million, and Weatherford did in fact have a great, difference-making season and especially postseason. Some have suggested to me that he should have been a stronger candidate for Super Bowl MVP. (Much as I love punters and the game Weatherford had, I disagree. Eli Manning was 30-for-40, for goodness' sake.) But I think the issue is moot. The Giants and Weatherford are at work on a contract extension and both sides expect a multi-year deal to be done soon.

Manningham and the free-agent WRs

February, 15, 2012
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Wide receiver may be the most intriguing position in free agency this year, especially in the NFC East, where the Washington Redskins need a No. 1, the Philadelphia Eagles need to figure out what to do with DeSean Jackson and the New York Giants and Dallas Cowboys could be searching for No. 3s to replace Mario Manningham and Laurent Robinson, respectively.

So, when I came across K.C. Joyner's Insider piece on Insider free-agent wide receivers, I read it. He addresses Manningham, Jackson, Vincent Jackson, Dwayne Bowe, Marques Colston, Steve Johnson and Brandon Lloyd and evaluates them against each other. Again, it's Insider, so I can't give you the whole thing, but here are a couple of highlights of possible NFC East interest:

1. K.C. says Manningham "could end up as the best value acquisition wide receiver" from among this group. He's just 25 years old, and assuming his postseason and Super Bowl performance doesn't inflate his perceived value, somebody could be getting a guy who still has some upside. K.C. cites Manningham's 2010 statistical profile as an indication that this year's postseason numbers aren't a complete anomaly.

2. I'm picking Bowe and Colston as the Redskins' most likely targets. Given their ages (27 and 28, respectively, though Colston will be 29 before the season starts) and size, they fit what Washington is looking for. I'd been thinking Vincent Jackson, and he still could be the guy, but K.C. says he comes with "consistency issues" and "some concern about his ability to deal with a larger target workload." He just turned 29, so he's not out of Mike Shanahan's target age group for free agents, but he's not completely out of it just yet.

3. I don't think DeSean Jackson hits the free-agent market, because I expect the Eagles to franchise him, but he still will be available in trade. He has a unique skill set (especially if he's going to go back to being a punt-return threat), but he also comes with what K.C. calls "more big-dollar bust potential than any other wide receiver in this year's field."

Just my thoughts on K.C.'s thoughts. Lots still to shake out here. But I thought you guys might find it interesting. Which really kind of goes without saying. I generally don't post things that I don't think you'll find interesting.

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