NFC East: Percy Harvin

IRVING, Texas -- ESPN Insider Mike Sando has a piece up on the loaded 2015 class of potential free-agent wide receivers, and the Dallas Cowboys' Dez Bryant leads the list.

Bryant
Bryant
Sando had help from two NFL general managers, an offensive assistant and a defensive coordinator. If you want to read the full story, you have to be an Insider Insider, but Bryant ranked ahead of guys such as Demaryius Thomas, Michael Crabtree and Jordy Nelson.

There are six receivers in the NFL earning more than $11 million per season. Does Bryant join that list with Calvin Johnson, Larry Fitzgerald, Percy Harvin, Mike Wallace, Dwayne Bowe and Vincent Jackson? Do we need to point out the new deal DeSean Jackson signed with the Washington Redskins is with $8 million annually?

Here’s what Sando wrote about Bryant:
Bryant lined up on the perimeter for 89.1 percent of his routes last season, the highest percentage for any player on this list. Versatility is great and teams certainly feature players from the slot, but being labeled as a "slot guy" isn't the best thing for a player's value in evaluators' eyes. "It's such a difference when you have outside guys that can stretch the field," a veteran assistant coach said.

Bryant, who turns 26 in November, accounted for 29.2 percent of the Cowboys' receiving yards last season. That was the highest percentage for any player on the list. He also accounted for 39.4 percent of his team's receiving touchdowns, by far the highest for any player on this list and the third highest for any wide receiver, behind Fitzgerald (41.4 percent) and Megatron (39.4).

"You'd better pay Dez Bryant," one of the GMs said. "Jerry Jones had better pay him. The antics you see, that is raw emotion, his competitive flair coming out."

Another GM expressed some concern about paying Bryant top dollar based on Bryant's overall makeup, but both GMs ranked Bryant first on their list, as did the defensive coordinator. "Teams will bid on Bryant," a third GM said, "but not all the teams will be in on that, because of his personality."


Bryant is set to make $1.78 million on the final year of his rookie contract. He doesn’t want to leave. The Cowboys don’t want him to leave. How they reach an agreement will be interesting. Bryant did not dismiss the idea of a hometown discount in this story from Tim MacMahon last month. I’ve written that the structure will matter most.

There is always the possibility of the franchise tag.

But I will ask this question: When was the last time the Cowboys lost somebody they wanted to keep?

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- Russell Wilson went to last season's Super Bowl to do research. So confident was the Seattle Seahawks' rookie quarterback in his and his team's ability to reach the NFL's championship game -- and reach it soon -- that he wanted to know everything he could about what it felt like to be there.

"I wanted to get a sense of how it was going to be," Wilson recalled Sunday night. "I wanted to know how the pregame was going to go, halftime, all of it, the whole experience, so I could be as prepared as possible."

This is why what happened Sunday night, with Wilson and the Seahawks trouncing Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos 43-8 in one of the most one-sided Super Bowls, is so scary. Wilson doesn't just ponder his future, he works to grab as much control of it as he possibly can. At 25 years old, he is already a Super Bowl champion quarterback. And while nothing for him or anyone is guaranteed, the possibilities for Wilson at this moment in time are dizzying.

He has the keys to the hottest car in the league and seems uniquely equipped to drive it. The Seahawks are the second-youngest team in the NFL and the second youngest ever to compete in a Super Bowl. The only younger roster in Super Bowl history was the 1971 Miami Dolphins, who lost Super Bowl VI to the Dallas Cowboys and then went undefeated the following season. These Seahawks have already done that group one better, and they did it with the defense leading the way. As Wilson improves with the wealth of young talent around him, only better things await.

"He just wants to be great so much," Seahawks wide receiver Percy Harvin said. "I haven't seen anybody prepare like him."

Here's what's special about Wilson's opportunity. He is set up, yes, with a dominant defense, power running game and a player -- Harvin -- that Wilson didn't even get to use this season waiting to do big things with him in 2014 and beyond. Having lasted until the third round of the 2013 draft, Wilson carries a mere $817,302 salary-cap hit for 2014, obviously less than he's worth. For now, he allows Seattle to continue to put great pieces around him. When you're still a couple of years from having to really pay your franchise quarterback, you can trade a first-round pick for Harvin. Your GM's offseason priority list becomes a lot more fun.

"Obviously, we feel like we have a really strong foundation," Seattle GM John Schneider said. "Every team's looking for a great pass rush, a great quarterback and a strong runner like Marshawn [Lynch]."

The Seahawks have all of that, and, unlike a lot of Super Bowl champions, it appears they will get to keep all of it for a while and build on it. As they do, they take great comfort in the knowledge that their 25-year-old quarterback won't let them get complacent.

"He refuses to fail. He refuses to let himself fail. And he's going to refuse to let anyone else around him allow that to happen," Seahawks offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell said. "So he's always going to be grabbing guys and making them watch a little more film, make them work a little bit more on this play or that play. A lot of the things that you would say about Peyton Manning, he has a lot of those qualities."

Ah, yes, Manning: the established superstar vanquished by Wilson's Seahawks in Super Bowl XLVIII. This game had a chance to be Manning's coronation -- a victory that could have erased so many of the things his critics hold against him and anointed him the undisputed best of all time. That must wait now, and, at 37, Manning has to know he's running out of chances. Wilson inhabits the other end of the spectrum and can legitimately dream about winning countless more.

"We've already said it," Seattle wide receiver Doug Baldwin said. "We're going to win this one, and then what's next is we're going to win it again."

Seattle has a team-wide swagger befitting its youth, but Wilson has a leader's mien, and a leader's responsibility to be more circumspect.

"The goal was to win the first one," Wilson said. "We've got a great group of guys, and I believe we can do it again, but it's not easy. So you can think about the future and how many great players we have and one of the youngest teams in the league, but we just wanted to win this one. To think about the future, that wouldn't be us."

I thank Wilson for his permission, and here goes: There's no one in the NFL you'd rather be right now than Russell Wilson. He knows for a fact he can win the Super Bowl and has a team around him that's deep and solid enough to be a clear-cut Super Bowl favorite going into 2014. But what should frighten the rest of the teams in the NFL is Wilson knows the breadth of his opportunity and feels a responsibility to work hard enough to cash it in. Sunday was the night of Wilson's life so far, but there's ample reason to believe there are more nights like this to come.
Pete Carroll and Mike Shanahan started new jobs in the same offseason. Four years later Carroll is in the Super Bowl; Shanahan is unemployed. Why did the Seahawks improve while the Redskins did not? Seattle won nine games combined in the two years before Carroll and a combined 38 in the next four years, while the Redskins won a combined 12 games in the two years before Shanahan and a combined 24 in the ensuing four years.
  • The Seahawks had two first-round picks in 2010 while the Redskins had two picks in the first four rounds. Seattle landed two excellent starters in tackle Russell Okung and safety Earl Thomas. Washington took tackle Trent Williams and linebacker Perry Riley. Williams is a Pro Bowler and Riley is a starter, good in some areas but who struggles in others.
  • The Seahawks hit on lower-round picks in 2010, selecting cornerback Walter Thurmond in the fourth round and safety Kam Chancellor in the fifth. Chancellor’s physical style sets a tone in the box, and Thurmond is an excellent slot corner and might as well be considered a starter. Seattle also took starting receiver Golden Tate in the second round. The Redskins whiffed on the rest of their 2010 class, none of whom were on the roster this past season.
  • Wilson
    Among the players Seattle unloaded in the 2010 offseason: corner Josh Wilson, who signed with the Redskins a year later; and defensive lineman Darryl Tapp, who played here this past season. The Seahawks wanted big, physical cornerbacks. Wilson was too small for them. Seattle clearly had a blueprint.
  • In 2011, the Seahawks had nine picks (the Redskins had 12). Seattle found three more starters in guard James Carpenter (drafted as a tackle in the first round); corner Richard Sherman (fifth round); corner Byron Maxwell (sixth round; a replacement for the suspended Brandon Browner) and outside linebacker Malcolm Smith (seventh round). Eight of the nine remain on the roster.
  • Meanwhile, the Redskins drafted 12 players, finding one good starter in linebacker Ryan Kerrigan and another starter in end Jarvis Jenkins. It wasn’t a bad draft, but it wasn’t a game-changer either. Nine of the 12 remained on the roster in 2013.
  • Wilson
    Griffin
    Both teams found quarterbacks in 2012, with Seattle getting Russell Wilson in the third round and the Redskins trading two future first-rounders and a second-rounder to swap positions with St. Louis to get Robert Griffin III. I agreed with the move, so I’m not going to second-guess it; besides, it’s not as if Ryan Tannehill, a player they liked, has torn it up in Miami (though, yes, they would have had more picks). There is no way Seattle could have anticipated what Wilson has become, and the Seahawks had also traded for Matt Flynn. But they quickly saw what they had in Wilson.
  • Both quarterbacks obviously made tremendous impacts as rookies. Griffin’s knee injury and other issues led to stumbles in 2013. But when he struggled, so, too, did the Redskins. When Wilson struggled, he could rely on the run game and defense to win. Big difference when you don’t have to carry a team -- and that’s because of how both were built.
  • Seattle drafted 10 players in 2012 -- eight played defense; three are starters (end Bruce Irvin, linebacker Bobby Wagner, and J.R. Sweezy, an end in college but now a starting offensive guard). The Redskins also hit on running back Alfred Morris in that same draft, and quarterback Kirk Cousins looks like a good backup who might yield a draft pick in return some day. But aside from them and Griffin? So far, nothing.
  • This past season, of the Redskins' top five defensive backs (including No. 3 corner David Amerson), four were picked in the first two rounds of their respective drafts. Of Seattle’s eight defensive backs, only one was drafted before the fourth round.
  • In the 2013 draft, Seattle added no starters, but that’s not a surprise given the Seahawks’ talent level. The Redskins added Amerson, who was their No. 3 corner. But nobody else provided any help. Even on special teams.
  • All totaled, of the starters listed on Seattle’s current depth chart, 16 were drafted by them or signed as an undrafted free agent. That includes nine defensive starters, and the lone two who weren’t drafted by them were acquired in trades, including end Chris Clemons. Of the four offensive players not drafted by Seattle, one was signed off a practice squad; another was acquired in a trade (running back Marshawn Lynch) and only one was considered a bigger free agent signing (tight end Zach Miller).
  • Seattle built a team that could withstand the loss of receiver Percy Harvin, who has caught one pass this season after being acquired in a trade. He might play in the Super Bowl. They signed pass-rush specialist Cliff Avril, who recorded eight sacks, but was not a starter.
  • Seattle is just more proof that you can succeed without having to spend big money. And the Redskins are proof as to what happens when you don’t successfully draft and develop.
PHILADELPHIA -- The good news for Philadelphia Eagles coach Chip Kelly is he doesn’t have to spend the next couple months traveling to high school kids’ homes and recruiting them.

The bad news?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On the board: Defensive tackle Marcus Tubbs, running back Steven Jackson, defensive end Jason Babin.
Age: 43

Position: Seattle Seahawks offensive coordinator

[+] EnlargeDarrell Bevell
Bob Donnan/USA TODAY SportsDarrell Bevell has been an assistant in smaller markets during his entire NFL coaching career.
Recent background: Bevell has served as the Seahawks’ offensive coordinator the past three seasons. His offense ranked 23rd in points per game in 2011 (28th in yards). But in the past two years they’re ninth and eighth, respectively, in points per game (and 17th both years in total yards).

Past stops: Bevell started his NFL coaching career as a Green Bay offensive assistant in 2000. Three years later he became their quarterbacks coach and three years after that Bevell was named Minnesota’s offensive coordinator. Quarterback Brett Favre posted a career-best 107.2 passer rating under Bevell in 2009, when the offense finished No. 2 in points per game (In his five years with Minnesota, they were 26th, 15th, 12th, second and 29th in points per game). Bevell was not retained when interim coach Leslie Frazier became the head coach for the 2011 season. He started four seasons at quarterback for the University of Wisconsin.

What I’ve heard about him: Seattle coach Pete Carroll expects Bevell to be a head coach in 2014. While the Seahawks’ offense has been inconsistent, what’s impressed many is that they’ve still been productive despite playing most of the season minus receivers Sidney Rice and Percy Harvin and half the season without tackles Russell Okung and Breno Giacomini. Bevell is considered matter-of-fact and not flashy, but open and honest. One ex-NFL general manager said he likes Bevell and thinks he’s a good coach, but said his personality is not that of a head coach.

Potential fit: Bevell has done excellent work in Seattle. They’re still playing with a young quarterback who was a third-round pick and they haven’t played much with their true starting lineup. Yes, Russell Wilson would have gone in the (late) first round had he been a couple inches taller. Still, he’s a young quarterback and Bevell and the Seahawks have done a good job winning with him (yes, with a great defense). It was Bevell who wanted Wilson to start right away over Matt Flynn, so he has some conviction and doesn’t appear afraid to make what was considered a gutsy move after they traded for Flynn. It's not like every team was raving about Wilson before the draft, either. I like that Bevell is younger. But I’d very much worry about his low-key personality in this organization. That’s not the sort owner Dan Snyder wants or needs; I think it would make it harder for Bevell to thrive in Washington. Also, several coaches from the past have talked about working in a big market; Bevell has been in Green Bay, Minnesota and Seattle. I'd worry about him being overwhelmed by the demands of the job in Washington, from maneuvering inside the organization -- knowing how to handle the owner is only part of it -- to dealing with outside pressures.

Suggested reading: A little bit on his offensive philosophy. Really, the first graph is the one that’s applicable. … A little bit more on his philosophy regarding audibles, from his Minnesota days. … A year ago, Bevell said, “We’re a running team.”… Too much verbiage? ... Vikings' loss was Seahawks' gain. ... An interesting look on his time in Minnesota.

W2W4: Giants vs. Seahawks

December, 14, 2013
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The 5-8 New York Giants host the 11-2 Seattle Seahawks on Sunday at MetLife Stadium in a 1 p.m. ET game. Here are four things to watch for in the game between a Giants team that has no playoff hopes and a Seahawks team that looks like a favorite to be back at MetLife Stadium for the Super Bowl in early February.

Rough week for Eli? The Seahawks have the No. 1 pass defense in the league, allowing just 175.6 passing yards per game. Eli Manning and the Giants' passing game have struggled through a rough season, averaging just 234 pass yards per game. Led by 6-foot-3 cornerback Richard Sherman and 6-3 safety Kam Chancellor, the Seattle secondary is big and physical and should beat up the Giants' receivers all game. The ability of Hakeem Nicks, Rueben Randle and Victor Cruz to withstand that beating will determine whether Manning can find success downfield. It would qualify as one of the week's larger upsets.

Look out for Lynch: Seattle has the No. 3 rushing offense in the league, mainly because of monster running back Marshawn Lynch. Giants defensive linemen spoke in relative awe this week of Lynch as a running back it takes a whole team to tackle. "It takes more than one person to bring him down," Cullen Jenkins said. "You've got to get 11 guys to the ball. You can't just leave one person hanging out to dry to try to bring him down himself, because he's a tough back, strong, fast, quick. He'll make you miss." After allowing 144 yards on 40 carries to the Chargers last week, the Giants have been paying extra attention to the run fits for their linebackers and safeties this week. It'll be more important than ever. One thing to note: Of the top 12 rushers in the league so far this year, Lynch will be the 10th the Giants have faced. (And next week, Reggie Bush will be the 11th. The only one they won't face this year is San Francisco's Frank Gore.) The Giants are 11th in the league in run defense, allowing 105.4 rush yards per game.

Road worriers: If you've seen the Seahawks on TV this year, chances are it's been a prime-time home game, and they've looked fantastic. The Seahawks' average scoring margin in their home games, of which they have won all six, is 18.7. But in their seven road games (in which they are 5-2), it's just 5.7. So they don't always look unbeatable on the road, where they've lost in Indianapolis and San Francisco and won by less than a touchdown in Carolina, Houston and St. Louis.

Wide receiver matchups: Seattle's Percy Harvin is still injured and will miss this game, so the big wide receiver weapons with whom the Giants' defensive backs will have to contend are Doug Baldwin and Golden Tate. Keep an eye on Tate, the fourth-year wide receiver out of Notre Dame. He's eligible for free agency after this season, and the Giants could be looking for help at that position, especially if Nicks leaves as expected.
Hakeem Nicks and Jason Pierre-PaulAP Photo, USA Today Sports ImagesGiants stars Hakeem Nicks, left, and Jason Pierre-Paul will be need new contracts in the near future.
The proverbial ink had yet to dry on Victor Cruz's New York Giants contract extension and people were already asking about Hakeem Nicks, who will need a new contract himself before the 2014 season begins and is likely going to cost more. This time next year, whichever way the Nicks situation has resolved itself, people are going to be asking about Jason Pierre-Paul, another young superstar who's going to need a long-term deal if the Giants want him to be part of their long-term foundation. And they're going to want to know what the Giants are doing about safety and cornerback -- two positions on which they've shown a desire to spend during the salary-cap era. Cruz wasn't the first sticky financial situation the Giants have encountered in recent years, and tons more loom on the horizon.

The issue that complicates all of these matters is the contract of quarterback Eli Manning, who is scheduled to cost the Giants $20.85 million against this year's cap, $20.4 million against next year's, and $19.75 million against the 2015 cap. The Giants are perfectly happy to commit such a large percentage of their cap to a quarterback who wins them a Super Bowl every four or five years, and justifiably so. Manning's deal is not out of line or regrettable. But it is an issue around which the Giants find themselves needing to work, and it is going to force some tough decisions in the next couple of years.

There's a real dichotomy developing between the teams that commit huge cap numbers to their established veteran quarterbacks (Giants, Broncos, Saints, Cowboys, Ravens, Packers ... Lions, I guess, now) and the newly minted contenders whose quarterback costs are low. Teams such as the 49ers, Seahawks and Redskins have some of the most talented quarterbacks in the league locked up for a small fraction of their cap costs. Colin Kaepernick is costing San Francisco $1.398 million against this year's cap and $1.63 million against next year's. Russell Wilson's cap cost to the Seahawks over the next three years is scheduled to average $817,302 per season. Robert Griffin III costs the Redskins about $4.8 million against this year's cap, about $5.76 million against next year's -- big numbers compared to Kaepernick and Wilson, but nothing compared to Manning and Drew Brees.

This is why the Seahawks can trade a first-round pick for Percy Harvin and sign him, why the 49ers can counter with an Anquan Boldin pickup, why the Redskins will be able to be active in free agency next year when their cap penalties are behind them. Having a franchise quarterback who costs less than 1 percent of the salary cap, as Wilson costs the Seahawks, is like finding free money when you're competing for players against a team whose quarterback costs 17 percent of the salary cap, as Manning costs the Giants. There's no quarterback in the league with a higher 2013 cap cost than Manning's. Tony Romo of the Dallas Cowboys is the only one who currently has a higher projected 2014 cap cost than Manning's. Romo, Brees and Peyton Manning are the only ones currently scheduled to cost more against the cap in 2015.

Such is the Giants' financial reality. Manning deserves his contract. They've built the team around him and he has rewarded them with remarkable durability, unassailable character and championship performance. But the fact of his contract means they have less money with which to build the rest of their roster, and that this annual cap crunch they face is going to remain an issue as long as Manning is their man.

There is relief to be had next year with the expiration of contracts such as Justin Tuck's and David Diehl's. But players such as Chris Snee, David Baas, Mathias Kiwanuka and Antrel Rolle carry massive 2014 cap numbers and probably all can't be kept. Each is a significant starter and would have to be replaced while Nicks and Pierre-Paul are lining up for their big paydays. The Giants have paid good money for defensive backs, believing the secondary to be a priority position. Can they continue to do that, or do they need to go cheap at cornerback and/or safety? How badly do they need Damontre Moore to develop as a pass-rusher so they can save money there in the coming years? Can they rebuild the offensive line on the cheap? They won't be able to answer all of those questions exactly the way they want to, and the decisions they make aren't going to come with much margin of error.

Again, they're not alone. Not even in their own division. The Cowboys deal with this same problem all the time, often as a result of decisions far worse than the one the Giants made to commit to Eli Manning. This isn't a criticism of the team, just a warning to its fans that things are going to continue to be tricky in the coming offseasons, and the Giants are going to have to rely more than ever on their ability to draft and develop players to fill gaps they can't afford to fill because of cap concerns.

Cruz should be flattered, honestly. He might not have ended up with the contract he wanted from the Giants, but the deal he got is significant. And because they know they can't pay everyone they want to pay, the Giants didn't offer it lightly. Cruz can take the Giants at their word when they say they value him and want him to be a part of their long-term plan. The deal they gave him proves it. They won't be able to make good on that promise to everyone.

Mara, Cruz and public negotiating

March, 11, 2013
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The news of the day, not surprisingly, was the New York Giants tendering restricted wide receiver Victor Cruz at a first-round level, which means that any team that wants to sign Cruz would have to give the Giants a first-round pick. Assuming that doesn't happen (and it really hardly ever does), Cruz's salary for this year is scheduled to be $2.879 million. But the interesting part of today's story was the extent to which Giants owner John Mara was willing to address the contract negotiations the team has had with Cruz about a long-term deal. Per Jenny Vrentas at The Star-Ledger:
Those talks have so far been fruitless, and while Mara declined to say how close the sides got, he believes the Giants' "very substantial" offer is a good one for Cruz.

"I'm not going to get into dollars," Mara said. "I don't want to characterize [the gap]. Let's just say if he took our offer, he'd be a very wealthy young man." ...
Mara said he believes in the long-term Cruz will be a Giant, but he added, "time will tell."

"I think Victor is smart enough to realize that he belongs in this area," Mara added to a response, unprompted. "I think he’s done very well for himself off the field. He’s a very popular player here. He’s had a lot of off the field opportunities. So hopefully all those other things will enter into his consideration."

It's interesting because it offers a window into the Giants' side of these negotiations. They are trying to get Cruz on the cheap. They love what he's done and the success he's had the past two years with Eli Manning, but they're remembering a season not too far in the past in which Steve Smith had 100 catches as Manning's slot receiver, and they don't want to pay real No. 1 wideout money for a guy who's best used in the slot and, they believe, could be replaced because of their quarterback's ability to maximize receivers' production. Especially because their No. 1 wideout, Hakeem Nicks, has a deal that will expire after the coming season and will need a new contract as well.

The last thing Mara said, about off-the-field reasons Cruz would likely want to stay in the New York market, is true. And it'll likely result in Cruz's taking less money to stay. The question is how much less, and the fact that the deal has not yet been done indicates that it's far less than Cruz and his agent believe his production justifies.

Basically, I wouldn't put too much stock into anything the team owner says in a situation like this. What Mara said about Cruz today was obviously designed to try to get public sentiment on the side of the team as it negotiates with (and probably lowballs) a very popular player. I also wouldn't worry too much about another team swooping in and giving the Giants a first-round pick for Cruz -- even the Vikings, who have an extra one after today's Percy Harvin trade. Mike Wallace was a restricted free-agent wide receiver a year ago and generated no interest at all, and this year he'll be one of the highest-paid free agents on the market. The RFA market just isn't a real thing. Teams prize those first-round picks too much.

So in the end, I still think this Cruz deal with the Giants will get done. The fact that Mara's saying so much out loud about it -- a week after coach Tom Coughlin was spouting pretty much the same company line -- indicates that it's been tougher than the team expected it to be. That could be because of unreasonably high demands from Cruz, but it could just as easily be because of an unreasonably low offer from the Giants.

Final Word: Redskins-Cowboys

November, 21, 2012
11/21/12
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Final Word: Texans-Lions | Redskins-Cowboys | Patriots-Jets

Three nuggets of knowledge about the Redskins-Cowboys Thanksgiving Day game:

The history: The Dallas Cowboys have won five of their past six Thanksgiving Day games, the only loss in that stretch coming against the New Orleans Saints in 2010. This will be the eighth time the Washington Redskins have played a Thanksgiving game, and the seventh time they've done so against the Cowboys. And while they did beat the Lions 20-0 on Thanksgiving in 1973, they are 0-6 all-time against the Cowboys in Thanksgiving games. The previous time they played one was 2002, when the Cowboys beat them 27-20.

[+] EnlargeRG3
Brad Mills/US PresswireWhen the Eagles didn't send extra pressure in Week 11, Robert Griffin III made them pay for it.
To blitz or not to blitz? The Cowboys must decide how they want to put pressure on Redskins rookie quarterback Robert Griffin III, and it won't be an easy decision. Through the first nine games, the book on Griffin was that he'd pick you apart if you sent extra pass-rushers, but that he struggled against standard pressure and the key was to contain him in the pocket and limit his options. However, in Sunday's victory against the Eagles, Griffin was 11-for-12 for 184 yards and three touchdowns against four or fewer pass-rushers. That's a 91.7 percent completion rate, and according to ESPN Stats & Information, a significant improvement from his 67 percent completion rate against standard pressure in his first nine games. In those, he averaged 7.4 yards per attempt and threw just three touchdowns and three interceptions against four or fewer. Sunday, his average was 15.3 yards per attempt, and he did not throw an interception.

Coverage improving: In their first seven games this season, the Redskins allowed eight opposing players to rack up 100 receiving yards in a game. That included staggering totals such as A.J. Green's 183 for the Bengals in Week 3; Danny Amendola's 160 for the Rams in Week 2; Percy Harvin's 133 for the Vikings in Week 6; and the Week 4 game in which two Tampa Bay receivers reached the century mark. However, in their past three games, no opposing player has more than 82 yards against the Redskins' defense. What does this mean for Dallas pass-catchers Miles Austin, Dez Bryant and Jason Witten, who have combined for seven 100-yard receiving games this season? History says at least one will have a big game, but it's also possible the Redskins' coverage schemes have improved enough to limit the damage.

Final Word: NFC East

October, 12, 2012
10/12/12
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NFC Final Word: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Five nuggets of knowledge about Week 6:

Y'all ain't got no Honey Nut? History says things will be tough for the Dallas Cowboys on Sunday in Baltimore. The Ravens are 3-0 all time against the Cowboys and have outscored them 57-10 the past two times the teams met in Baltimore. The Ravens have won 13 straight and 21 of their past 22 at home. It's a tough place to win, and the Cowboys need a win to avoid dropping to 2-3. Only 20.6 percent of teams starting 2-3 have made the postseason under the current format. Working in the Cowboys' favor is that they are 16-7 after their bye weeks since 1990, which is the fourth-best such record in the league. Besides, they may as well be playing tough teams now. After all, how do you expect to run with the wolves at night when you spend all day sparring with puppies?

Something may not have to give. The Detroit Lions have forced only three turnovers in their first four games, which is tied for the lowest total in the NFL. The Philadelphia Eagles, as you may have heard, have turned over the ball 14 times, which is the second-highest total in the league. The Eagles were able to play an entire home game against the Giants two weeks ago without turning over the ball, and the Lions would appear to offer an opportunity to repeat that performance.

[+] EnlargeEli Manning
Thearon W. Henderson/Getty ImagesThe 49ers will certainly be looking to put more pressure on Giants QB Eli Manning on Sunday.
Eli must avoid the rush. The San Francisco 49ers will be coming for New York Giants quarterback Eli Manning on Sunday. San Francisco has one of the best defensive fronts in the league, and last year they sacked Manning seven times. Six of those sacks, ESPN Stats & Information informs me, came on plays on which the Niners sent five or more pass-rushers. However, when the Niners sent five or more and did not sack Manning, he was 16-for-21 for 185 yards and two touchdowns.

Moving up the list. With his next victory, Giants coach Tom Coughlin will pass Bill Parcells for second place on the all-time Giants coaching victories list with 78. (He'll still be way behind Steve Owen, who racked up 153 wins from 1930-53, but I see little reason to believe Coughlin won't want to hang around and try to pass Owen, too.). Coughlin is also tied with Rams (and former Titans) coach Jeff Fisher for 18th place on the all-time NFL coaching wins list with 145.

Big-play guys. Washington Redskins rookie running back Alfred Morris isn't known for his breakaway speed, but he's having success in the Redskins' zone-blocking scheme this year. He has 17 run plays on which he's gained at least 10 yards, the most such plays in the league according to ESPN Stats & Info. The Vikings obviously have a great running back in Adrian Peterson, but the Redskins will have to contend with an unusual threat in wide receiver Percy Harvin, whose 22 receptions at or behind the line of scrimmage this year are 12 more than the next-highest receiver. Harvin has gained a league-best 319 yards after the catch this year, and the Redskins' linebackers are going to have to be at their most disciplined if they hope to contain Harvin in the short passing game.
For the record, your reaction to the "More or Less" post, both on Twitter and in the comments section (which I've been trying to stay out of, because some people think its purpose is to bait me into a fight), is one of the main reasons I consider it foolish to do predictions in June. And kind of at all, actually. Yes, Giants fans. I'm looking right at you.

Anyway, on to the links. It's so hot, I feel like a used insole.

Dallas Cowboys

Tim MacMahon says the fact the Cowboys haven't caved in to Mike Jenkins' demands shows that they've progressed as an organization. He cites the case of Marion Barber, who had the same agent as Jenkins, as a past example of such "caving," and believes Cowboys fans should consider it a good sign that they're holding their hard line with Jenkins.

More than 90 percent of respondents to ESPNDallas.com's poll say they would not trade Dez Bryant for Percy Harvin, who has demanded a trade from the Vikings but almost certainly won't get one. I mean, I get that it's June, but how is this even a question? Has Harvin shown any more than Bryant has so far? I like Harvin a lot, but I don't get what's wrong with Bryant that anybody would even make this a debate. He's had two years in the league. I think he'll turn out just fine.

New York Giants

Ohm's spotlight series takes a look at the issue of replacing defensive end Dave Tollefson, which doesn't sound like a huge problem but could be if injuries require a reserve defensive end to play as much as they required Tollefson to play in 2011. It sounds as though they'd prefer to leave Mathias Kiwanuka at linebacker as much as possible and have someone like Justin Trattou or converted linebacker Adrian Tracy claim that spot. But it's good to know they have Kiwanuka as a pass-rush option if they need to call on him.

Remember the kid who sent Brandon Jacobs $3.36 from his piggy bank in an effort to get him to re-sign with the Giants? Well, Jacobs took the kid and his brother out for a fun day at one of those bouncy-castle joints while he was in New Jersey this week. Not bad, Brandon. Not bad.

Philadelphia Eagles

Sheil talks about how he thinks O.J. Atogwe fits with the Eagles. He speculates that Atogwe will in fact be given a chance to win a starting spot, and sure, I imagine he will, in the sense that everyone who goes to camp is. I just don't see Atogwe holding up as a starter, and I think the best way for him to help the Eagles is in a reserve role where he sees the field in certain strategic situations, not on every play.

DeSean Jackson is excited about his new contract and has said so on Twitter, but doing so has possibly brought him some trouble. Apparently, a jeweler who claims Jackson still owes him money would like the Eagles' star wideout to use a portion of his new contract to settle the debt.

Washington Redskins

Clinton Portis gave a very entertaining Washington radio interview in which he talked politics, retirement and said Redskins fans should give Dan Snyder a break. I guess you have to wonder, if the Redskins get stuck and need a veteran back in training camp due to injuries, if Portis could get another call. I'd have to think it's an incredibly long shot, but there's a fair bit of relationship there.

The Redskins have announced their training camp schedule, which begins July 26 and includes 13 practices that are open to the public. Just remember, it's still in Ashburn this year. The plan to move to Richmond would take effect next year. So, don't go to Richmond. And don't sell your hair to a wig shop. Especially over June NFL predictions.

Polian: Giants among best drafters

April, 20, 2012
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Former Indianapolis Colts GM Bill Polian writes for ESPN now, which is especially handy this time of year because he's actually made NFL draft picks and can offer insight that schlubs like me can't offer. Today, Bill ranks the draft performance of each NFL team over the past three years Insider. (Except the Colts, since he made those picks and doesn't feel he can be objective. Fair enough. If I were ranking the best ESPN.com NFL blog entries of the past calendar year, I'd have a hard time figuring out how to handle the NFC East ones.)

Anyway, Bill's got the New York Giants ranked among "The Best" in his rankings, behind only the Ravens, Lions and Packers. He picks a "best value pick" and a "cornerstone pick" for each team, and for the Giants he lists wide receiver Hakeem Nicks (29th pick, 2009) as the best value pick and defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul (15th pick, 2010) as the cornerstone. Based on the results alone, these are both very good picks for the Giants, and they offer different types of examples of the Giants' broad-thinking approach to the first round.

[+] EnlargeHakeem Nicks
Mark Cornelison/Lexington Herald-Leader/MCTHakeem Nicks fell to the Giants at No. 29 in the 2009 draft thanks to the deep receiver class that year.
Nicks was the fifth of a whopping six wide receivers taken in that year's first round. The Giants, who take a best-player-available approach to the draft and almost never pick based on need, identified that this was a year in which those two concepts overlapped. They needed a receiver, and this was a first round that offered great value at that position. After Darrius Heyward-Bey went seventh to Oakland and Michael Crabtree went 10th to the 49ers, the Giants were locked in on Jeremy Maclin and reportedly had a deal in place to trade up to No. 20 to take him if he fell that far. Instead, the Eagles moved up and picked Maclin at 19. The Vikings took Percy Harvin at 22 and the Giants, with well-regarded Rutgers product Kenny Britt still on the board at 29, went with Nicks.

The Giants believed Maclin and Nicks were both top-15 value picks that had slipped into the second half of the round. They had them rated very closely together and believed each offered something special. With Maclin it was his raw speed and special-teams ability. With Nicks, it was his studious nature and everything they'd been told by his college coaches about his attention to detail and the level of responsibility he'd assumed as a leader of the wide receiver corps at North Carolina. They were ecstatic to get him at 29. If not for the saturation of first-round wide receiver talent in that particular year, they might not have been able to sniff either guy. They took advantage of a rare and exciting confluence of value and need to make that year's first-round pick, and it's paid off.

As for Pierre-Paul, we've been over this story a million times. The Giants were picking in the middle of the first round that year, and the value at that spot was going to be pass-rushers, which is their wheelhouse. Five defensive ends went in that year's first round, and the names of Brandon Graham and Derrick Morgan were being kicked around for teams in the middle of the first round. Pierre-Paul was a mystery man -- raw and inexperienced but unquestionably gifted as a pure athlete. Everybody saw the tape of him doing the backflips. No one -- not even the Giants -- knew for sure how that would translate into NFL football.

[+] EnlargeJason Pierre-Paul
Tim Farrell/The Star-Ledger/US PresswireNot even the Giants could guess how quickly Jason Pierre-Paul would become one of the league's most disruptive pass-rushers.
But the Giants fell in love. Tom Coughlin went to watch Pierre-Paul work out. They decided that his talent was worth taking a chance on, given the strength of their belief in the ability of their coaches and their veteran players to groom great defensive linemen. Their need was at linebacker, but there was no linebacker in that year's first round that offered value at No. 15. And they didn't need a defensive end who could help right away, since they were already loaded at that position. So why not take the guy whose potential cornerstone talent you believed you could mold into a cornerstone player?

The Eagles traded up to get Graham at 13 -- a move that has subjected them to derision in light of Pierre-Paul's rapid ascent and Graham's health struggles (and the fact that safety Earl Thomas went one pick later). And with the seemingly more NFL-ready Morgan still on the board, the Giants picked Pierre-Paul. They didn't know he'd be one of the best defensive players in the league two years later. They thought maybe he could eventually be that, and that his potential combined with their program made him worth the pick. This was a pick that made more sense for the Giants than it might have made for any other team picking in that spot. They identified that, and again, it has paid off.

Anyway, the other teams in the NFC East are much further down the list, all in the bottom-17 portion of Bill's list labeled "The Rest of the Rest." He picks Sean Lee as the Cowboys' value pick and Tyron Smith as the cornerstone. The Eagles' value pick is Jason Kelce (sixth round!) and the cornerstone pick is LeSean McCoy. The Redskins' value pick is Roy Helu (fourth round!) and their cornerstones are Brian Orakpo and Ryan Kerrigan, though the Redskins are hoping the real cornerstone is the guy they're picking No. 2 overall next week.

Reviewing the '09 draft

June, 9, 2011
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Mike Sando and Matt Williamson took a look back at the first round of the 2009 draft and ranked the picks, division by division. Mike's focus is on the NFC West, since that's his blog, but it was nice of him to make this an all-encompassing post from which the rest of us could steal liberally. Thanks, Mike. Your check is in the mail.

The NFC East did pretty well in this survey, ranking second among the eight divisions for return (so far) on its investment in 2009 first-round picks. The Cowboys didn't have a first-rounder that year, but the Redskins took Brian Orakpo 13th overall, the Eagles took Jeremy Maclin 19th and the Giants took Hakeem Nicks 29th. All three have been strong contributors at least and outright stars at times, and all three look poised to get even better in the short term and the long.

The only division that fared better in these rankings was the NFC North. The Packers had two picks in the '09 first round and spent them on B.J. Raji and Clay Matthews, whom you may have enjoyed watching win the Super Bowl a couple of months back. The Lions picked Matthew Stafford and Brandon Pettigrew, two key cogs in their offense when Stafford is healthy. And the Vikings got Percy Harvin. The Bears didn't have a first-rounder that year, but I think it's safe to say that the North's haul beats the East's in terms of volume and because of the aforementioned Packers Super Bowl title.

The reviews on this could change over the next few years, of course, but for now you have to believe the Giants, Redskins and Eagles are happy with the way that 2009 first round went.

Rapid Reaction: Giants 21, Vikings 3

December, 13, 2010
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DETROIT -- Thoughts on the New York Giants’ 21-3 win over the Minnesota Vikings on Monday.

What it means: Mother Nature couldn’t extend Brett Favre’s streak and she couldn’t slow down the Giants either. After flying to Kansas City and then to Detroit, the Giants finally faced the Vikings and beat them for the first time in the past five meetings. They won their third straight game by avenging a 44-7 loss to the Vikings in the season finale last year while keeping pace in the NFC East with the Philadelphia Eagles. They also took advantage of Green Bay’s loss here in Detroit the day before. The Giants showed that despite being jet-lagged and weary from all the havoc created by the snowstorm, they remained resilient and took care of business against a team that was without Favre, Percy Harvin, Steve Hutchinson and Ray Edwards.

Iron man streak finished: Favre’s streak of 297 consecutive starts ended in Detroit against the Giants when he was unable to play because of a shoulder injury. The Giants have been bad luck for Favre. He played against them in his final game as a Packer in the NFC Championship Game and now his streak ends against the Giants.

Eli's streak continues: Eli Manning made his 100th consecutive start and it started off looking like another streak would continue. Manning entered the game 0-4 against the Vikings with nine interceptions and two touchdowns. He threw two more picks in the first half but he finally beat the Vikings. He wasn’t at his sharpest but the bottom line is Manning got the win. Manning did have another streak end when he was sacked. The Giants had a five-game streak of surrendering no sacks.

Home-field advantage: Ford Field painted a Vikings logo at midfield over the Lions logo, which looked like it had been erased with a pencil eraser. The stadium also played the Vikings horn several times but it never quite felt like home for Minnesota. Even though there were more Vikings fans in the building than Giants’ fans, the crowd of 45,910 seemed more concerned with doing variations of the wave than with the Vikings’ performance. While tickets were distributed for free and the Lions stopped distribution after huge crowds braved the frigid cold in the morning, the stadium was not filled to the capacity of 64,500. It appeared that many of the fans who had original tickets to this game, and those who went to Sunday’s Lions-Packers game and were eligible to come to the game, chose to stay home.

Welcome back: The Giants welcomed back wide receivers Steve Smith and Hakeem Nicks and tackle David Diehl from injuries. Nicks started the game opposite Mario Manningham while Smith opened as the third wide receiver. However, Manningham injured his hip flexor in the first half and Smith replaced him. Then Smith injured his hamstring and did not return in the fourth quarter. Smith finished with one catch for 12 yards. Manning looked like he needed a game to get back on the same page with his top two receivers. Smith had missed the previous four games with a partially torn pectoral. Nicks, who finished the game with seven receptions for 96 yards, returned after a two-game absence following surgery to relieve swelling in his leg.

Keep on trucking: The Giants' running game continues to look better and better as the season progresses. Brandon Jacobs started the game and busted a 73-yard run down the left side in the first half. He finished with 116 yards and one touchdown on 14 carries. Ahmad Bradshaw also had a huge run, scoring on a 48-yard sprint down the left side that gave the Giants a 21-3 lead with under three minutes left in the third quarter. Bradshaw finished with 103 yards on 11 carries.

Fewell-injected: Defensive coordinator Perry Fewell does it again as the Giants smothered Tarvaris Jackson, Adrian Peterson and the Vikings' offense. Without Favre and Hutchinson, the Vikings' offense looked inept at times. Peterson was stuffed numerous times and finished with 26 yards rushing on 14 carries. Jackson started off strong, completing 10 of his first 13 passes, but he kept going in and out of the game with injuries.

What's next: The Giants have only a few days to prepare for their biggest game of the season against the Eagles. The NFC East could very well ride on this game as the winner will take a lead with two games remaining. The Giants made Michael Vick look somewhat human last time in Philadelphia, but turnovers and a late defensive breakdown led to a crushing loss four weeks ago. If the Giants want to be a serious contender, they must make a stand against the Eagles and beat them at home.

How I See It: NFC East Stock Watch

October, 20, 2010
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NFC Stock Watch: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

FALLING

1. Joe DeCamillis, special-teams coach, Dallas Cowboys: DeCamillis convinced head coach Wade Phillips that he needed Jesse Holley on special teams, and then the former reality TV show star flopped at a crucial moment. With Brett Favre and the Vikings' offense struggling throughout much of the first half, Percy Harvin opened the second half with a 95-yard kickoff return for a touchdown. DeCamillis had vowed that something like that wouldn't happen again following a 73-yard return by the Titans the previous Sunday. Then a nice return by Dez Bryant was wiped out in the second half because of a holding penalty on Alan Ball. The special teams for the Cowboys have been awful this season.

2. Mike Jenkins, cornerback, Dallas Cowboys: He's supposed to be an elite player in the league, but he's being exposed on a weekly basis. He grabs a fistful of jersey when there's no need. And it looks like opposing teams are starting to target him. We were probably too quick to move Jenkins past veteran Terence Newman in the pecking order.

3. Graham Gano, kicker, Washington Redskins: I don't want to let the Skins' secondary off the hook, but that miss from 48 yards at the end of the first half was a huge momentum killer. If you're down a touchdown at the half instead of 10 points, there's a totally different mindset. Gano's had his moments this season, but that wasn't a good one.

RISING

[+] EnlargeKevin Kolb
Barbara Johnston/US PresswireKevin Kolb had a quarterback rating of 133.6 against the Falcons.
1. Kevin Kolb, quarterback, Philadelphia Eagles: He was 23-of-29 for over 300 yards and three touchdowns. Kolb has completed 73.3 percent of his passes over the past two games. He's running Andy Reid's West Coast offense to perfection, and that's why the coach will have an interesting decision to make once Michael Vick's healthy. For now, though, Kolb is one of the hottest quarterbacks in the league.

2. Jeremy Maclin, wide receiver, Philadelphia Eagles: When DeSean Jackson had to leave the game following that devastating hit, Maclin took over the game. He and Kolb have had an excellent rapport the past two games. I could see Maclin going off against the Titans on Sunday.

3. Osi Umenyiora, defensive end, New York Giants: I'm not sure how Osi Umenyiora's remarkable season is sort of flying under the radar. He already has eight sacks and a stunning seven forced fumbles. New defensive coordinator Perry Fewell has put Umenyiora in position to succeed, and he's obviously responded. And when Mathias Kiwanuka went down with a neck injury, Umenyiora lifted his game even more. Umenyiora and Tuck are a lethal combination right now.

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