NFC East: Stephen Cooper

The mystery of what the Eagles' defense will look like in 2011 with former offensive line coach Juan Castillo as its new coordinator is beginning to unravel. Castillo spoke to reporters at Lehigh on Friday after the Eagles' first practice and talked linebackers, among other things.

Rookie Casey Matthews was the starting middle linebacker for the Eagles' first training-camp practice, with Jamar Chaney playing on the strong side. And it seems as if the strong side is where Castillo wants Chaney to stay. From the Philadelphia Daily News' Eagles blog:
But the way Castillo envisions the Eagles' D, the strongside 'backer is going to need to be a very physical presence, which Chaney is.

"We're going to attack and get up the field," Castillo said.

The team has reportedly decided not to bring back oft-injured middle linebacker Stewart Bradley, who is said to be talking to the Cardinals. But instead of handing that job off to Chaney, who manned the middle in Bradley's absence last season, the Eagles are going to keep Chaney on the outside and ... do something else in the middle. Castillo talked up Matthews, and hey, you never know. But no draft analysis I saw ever had Matthews projected as a 2011 starter. So if we read between the lines here, it looks as though the Eagles will pursue a free-agent middle linebacker to start in between Chaney and, I guess, Moise Fokou.

Options? Well, the top middle linebacker on the market is Tennessee's Stephen Tulloch, but Reuben Frank's got a source telling him the Eagles have no interest in Tulloch and not much in Nick Barnett, who was just cut by the Packers. Other highly regarded names on the market include Barrett Ruud, Kirk Morrison, Kevin Burnett and Stephen Cooper. Fair number of options for the Eagles to consider, but for now it appears, from reading the tea leaves, they'll be looking for someone for the middle.
One more for the week in our continuing series of position-by-position looks at the proposed four-year unrestricted free agency and its potential impact on the NFC East. We turn our attention now to the inside linebacker position, where the Cowboys seem set, but the division's other three teams all could be looking for help depending on other developments.

NFC East teams in need

Giants: They've overlooked the linebacker spot in general for the past couple of years, and as a result there are a few ways they could go. They could stick with Jonathan Goff in the middle and beef up on the outside, or they could sign a good middle linebacker and move Goff outside, where he'd probably be an upgrade over Clint Sintim. There are a lot of potential middle linebacker targets for the Giants, if this is the time they finally decide to get serious about it.

Redskins: Washington could be fine even with Rocky McIntosh leaving, because there's a chance Lorenzo Alexander has to move inside anyway to make room for top draft pick Ryan Kerrigan. But after they address needs on the defensive line, there's a chance they could look to add depth here.

Eagles: Hard to imagine this is a major priority for them, since even if Stewart Bradley leaves they can probably just leave Jamar Chaney in the middle. But if Bradley leaves and they decide Chaney's better on the outside, there will be some interesting options for them on the middle linebacker market.

Top five potential unrestricted free-agent inside linebackers

1. Stephen Tulloch. Likely out in Tennessee because they fear he'll cost too much to keep, the 26-year-old Tulloch is the cream of this particular crop. He's a bit small, but he has great range and has shown the ability to handle the middle linebacker's responsibilities for the Titans. Lots of people expect former Titans defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz, now the Lions' head coach, to be Tulloch's most aggressive pursuer as he continues to build a monster defense in Detroit.

2. Barrett Ruud. The question is how much responsibility he bore for the Buccaneers' miserable run defense in 2010. It's possible he was dragged down by those around him and he'll rebound with a big 2011. But his chances at a big free-agent deal certainly took a hit with his step-back 2010 campaign.

3. Paul Posluszny. The Bills will work to keep him, and there's some thought that he's better off as an inside guy in a 3-4 scheme than as the middle man in a 4-3. But we've heard the Giants connected to him a lot, so it's possible he's a name on their list of targets for their middle spot.

4. Kevin Burnett. Had a career season in San Diego, and the Chargers will try everything they can to re-sign him. It's more likely that his teammate, Stephen Cooper, will be free, and while slightly older than Burnett, Cooper could still be a helpful piece for a 3-4 team looking for help on the inside.

5. Bradley. If he still wants to play in the middle, and if he can convince teams he's fully recovered from his knee surgery, Bradley could leave Philadelphia in free agency. Will be interesting to see if the Eagles commit to keeping him in the middle and if that helps convince him to stay.

Predictions that mean nothing: Giants sign Ruud after Tulloch's price goes too high for their liking. Redskins stand pat or move further down this list (Dhani Jones?) as they focus on greater needs in the secondary and along the line. Eagles keep Bradley and play Chaney on the outside to start the season.

Cowboys-Chargers observation deck

August, 22, 2010
I thought the most significant thing to come out of Saturday's preseason game was the debut of Cowboys rookie linebacker Sean Lee in Dallas' 16-14 victory against San Diego. The second-round pick made back to back plays in the fourth quarter to shut down the Chargers' short-yardage running game. I wondered how he'd react to game speed, but it didn't seem to faze him. Watching him fight off a lead blocker and then tackle the tailback on his own was the most impressive play of the evening.

Now, let's look at some of other aspects of the Cowboys' win:
  • Nice job by cornerback Terence Newman bouncing back from getting burned to undercut a route and intercept Philip Rivers in the first quarter. This defense looks a lot more opportunistic after three preseason games.
  • The Cowboys better hope Ryan Mathews is the second coming of LaDainian Tomlinson, because he made them look bad at times Saturday night. The Chargers were able to run down hill with all three of their main backs. Wade Phillips' defense will have to work on tackling this week, because it kept bouncing off Chargers running backs. I've been a fan of Mike Tolbert's ever since he came out of Coastal Carolina. Impossible to bring him down if you go high, and Orlando Scandrick learned that lesson the hard way.
  • I didn't like the looks of Gerald Sensabaugh's left shoulder injury. Keith Brooking injured his right shoulder and said it was a "mild AC strain." Neither injury is serious, but don't be shocked if they sit out the final two preseason games.
  • I know that Tony Romo had linebacker Stephen Cooper closing in on him, but you can't throw that pass into the middle of the field. You'd rather see Romo take the sack in that situation, and he admitted that after the game. It wasn't a great night for Romo and the offense, but the red-zone touchdown pass to Miles Austin was a thing of beauty. Romo throws that back-shoulder fade as well as any quarterback in the league right now.
  • Norv Turner burned the Cowboys with those little slip screens to Darren Sproles. He used the Cowboys' speed against them by letting DeMarcus Ware and Anthony Spencer come free before dumping the ball over their heads. Not even Brooking could make a play in the open field as Sproles raced for daylight.
  • Marion Barber and Felix Jones aren't doing much in the preseason games. Jones needs to turn some of those runs upfield quicker instead of gliding down the line of scrimmage, hoping to find a seam.
  • Rookie free-agent safety Danny McCray has become a special teams phenom. I saw him make at least three tackles in coverage. He's already among the Cowboys' top two or three special-teams players, and he's not finished climbing.
  • It's fun watching left tackle Doug Free get out in space on screen passes. He flattened a defender to lead the way for Barber's 8-yard reception.
  • Let's give offensive tackle Robert Brewster his due. He certainly had some help at right tackle when Romo was on the field, but I thought he played pretty well. And when he moved over to the left side, Brewster did a nice job of anchoring and giving Jon Kitna a clean pocket. Backup center Phil Costa also receives kudos for some excellent work. He does a nice job on those middle screens. He's been the under-the-radar star of the offensive line in this camp. Mark that down somewhere.
  • Spencer is pretty much impossible to block right now. He had one sack wiped out because of defensive holding, but he was constantly in the face of Rivers or Billy Volek. He's poised to have a huge season.
  • During my time in Oxnard, Calif., last week, I kept telling you guys that Martellus Bennett could be a threat in the red zone. Well, Kitna realized that Saturday night. Bennett was a nice third-down option for both Romo and Kitna. He's an enormous target who is too big for safeties to cover and too fast for linebackers. That might have been the best all-around game I've seen him play in a Cowboys uniform. Let's see if he can take it to the regular season.
  • Linebacker Leon Williams didn't help himself by missing a tackle in the backfield on Tolbert. And fellow linebacker Victor Butler helped himself big time with a strip sack in the second half that led to the game-winning safety. Butler has had an excellent camp.
  • Cornerback Cletis Gordon's the biggest surprise from this camp. The former Charger snagged an interception with his right hand while running step for step with a wide receiver in the second half. If you count practice, I think he has at least 14 interceptions this preseason.
  • I like how rookie running back Lonyae Miller runs the ball. He played better than Herb Donaldson on Saturday. I'd try to get Miller on the practice squad. I'm sure he wanted to show off for his former Fresno State teammate Mathews.