NFC East: tony fiammetta

Will McClayAP Photo/James D SmithAssistant director of player personnel Will McClay, 47, will be an asset to the Cowboys in May's draft.
IRVING, Texas -- There is a Herm Edwards story that keeps coming back to Will McClay, especially now.

The story is from more than 10 years ago, when Edwards was coach of the New York Jets. As a boy, Edwards' father made him sweep the back patio of their house. When Edwards was done, his father went out back, saw the pile his son made and immediately went to the corners. They were untouched.

The message that stuck with McClay when he first heard the story was simple: Details matter.

In his current job as the Dallas Cowboys' assistant director of player personnel, McClay is sweeping the corners.

In this case, sweeping the corners is looking anywhere and everywhere for a player to help the Cowboys in next month's draft. This is McClay's first as the Cowboys' highest-ranked personnel chief not named Jones.

"He's there night and day," said McClay's former Arena Football League assistant and confidante Terry Gray. "He's got a relentless passion to provide Mr. [Jerry] Jones and Stephen [Jones] the very best product available within the means and the parameters of what he's able to work with. He's nonstop. Nonstop. He doesn't sleep a whole lot."

There will be time to sleep after the draft. Maybe McClay, 47, can sneak in a little bit in June after the minicamp ends but before training camp in Oxnard, Calif., begins in late July.

For now, sleep can wait. McClay, whom the Cowboys declined to make available for this story, is in charge of putting the Cowboys' draft room together. It is a painstaking process that takes months to go through but picks up its pace in the final few weeks before the Cowboys pick No. 16 overall in the first round on May 8.

This week, nearly 30 players from across the country will visit Valley Ranch, wrapping up on Wednesday. On Thursday, the club will host its Dallas Day workouts for the local draft prospects. When it is all over, McClay and the scouting department will be back in the office grinding away, sweeping the corners.

McClay's rise to this current position has taken him through the Arena Football League as a player and coach, the defunct XFL and the Jacksonville Jaguars, where he was the assistant director of pro scouting. He joined the Cowboys organization in 2002 as defensive coordinator of the AFL's Dallas Desperados and became the head coach in 2004. He also served as a pro scout for the Cowboys, and in 2012 he was named the director of football research. Last spring he was promoted to his current title.

"Everything equates in looking at talent," Cowboys executive vice president Stephen Jones said. "He found some really unique guys in the arena league and then of course when he was back in scouting. He has had a passion for it, and it just seems like every step of the way he's done a good job for us. I commend him on the job he did finding guys like [George] Selvie and [Nick] Hayden, people like that. People that everybody had a shot at, but he brought them in."

Over the past few years, the Cowboys have found several prizes in street free agency in Laurent Robinson, Tony Fiammetta, Eric Frampton, Ernie Sims and Selvie, who had seven sacks last season. The Cowboys dressed 20 different defensive linemen in 2013.

McClay spent most of the season sweeping the corners for defensive linemen. And he was doing it long before he ever heard Edwards' tale. He did it at Houston Marian Christian, playing wide receiver as a freshman and quarterback as a senior to win Class 3A state titles in the Texas Christian Interscholastic League in 1981 and ‘84.

His high school coach, Mike Treybig, remembers walking into his office only to see McClay feeding the 16-millimeter film into the projector.

"

He found some really unique guys in the arena league and then of course when he was back in scouting. He has had a passion for it, and it just seems like every step of the way he's done a good job for us.

" -- Cowboys executive vice president Stephen Jones on assistant director of player personnel William McClay
"William liked watching tape," Treybig said. "I would imagine he would've loved it if we let him call his own plays. I know there were times we allowed him to do that. He was definitely a student of the game. We didn't have to worry about a lot of stuff when it came to William. We knew he did his homework and would take care of things to give us the best chance to win on that Friday."

McClay could have gone to Nebraska, but he chose Rice instead to stay close to home and played defensive back. He was recruited there by Mike Nolan, the current defensive coordinator of the Atlanta Falcons. Tyrone Willingham, the former head coach at Notre Dame and Stanford, was the receivers coach at the time.

He remembers questions from McClay about what receivers looked for, searching for ways to get better as a defender even if the wins did not come as much as the Owls would have liked. Willingham and McClay remain close to this day.

"I'm personally excited for the individual, but I'm more excited for the organization because they did not let talent, for one reason or another, slip through the cracks," Willingham said. "That, to me, is so important because when you have talent you want to let it rise to the top to better everyone else in the organization."

Clint Dolezel played two years at East Texas State, throwing for 3,152 yards and 22 touchdown passes. McClay was defensive coordinator with a hand in personnel for the Milwaukee Mustangs in 1995 when Dolezel was recommended and eventually signed.

By the time Dolezel retired in 2008 with the Desperados with McClay as his head coach, he threw for 44,563 yards and 931 touchdowns.

"So many scouts get caught up in the fact, ‘Well, we want him because he went to this big school,'" said Dolezel, now the head coach of the AFL's Philadelphia Soul. "And a lot of times they're right, but those are the no-brainers that no one is pointing a finger at if he doesn't pan out. Hey, he had the pedigree because he went to Texas or Oklahoma or Florida State or Alabama. The good ones find the ones at East Texas State and schools like that."

In his interview with the Jaguars, Tom Coughlin had McClay research a particular free-agent cornerback the team was high on and wanted to sign. McClay watched the tape and concluded that the player would not be worth the money or fit in the system. Coughlin briefly objected, but McClay held firm. He got the job, and the Jaguars did not sign the player.

"There is not a magic formula," Gray said. "It's just good, old-fashioned bust-your-ass hard work and lots and lots of tape. Lots of calls. Lots of research. Just looking at thousands of players until you find one you think fits for you. He's just got a very unique way knowing a football player when he sees one. That's commonly described by a lot of people, but he just knows it at a different level. It's more than just everybody saying, ‘He can't play.' It's Will finding guys that can play that no one considered.

"Will McClay is a machine. He's a film-watching, evaluating, researching machine. He just never stops and he will never stop."

There always will be corners to sweep.

Weekend mailbag: Giants' interior rush

September, 29, 2012
9/29/12
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Let's see, let's see. What's in the mailbag this weekend?

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

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




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

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




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

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




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

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

Thanks for the questions. Catch you all next week.
OXNARD, Calif. -- Much was made last year of the performance of Dallas Cowboys fullback Tony Fiammetta in connection with the breakout performance of running back DeMarco Murray. But the Cowboys let Fiammetta go this offseason and replaced him with veteran fullback Lawrence Vickers, who blocked for Arian Foster and Ben Tate last year in Houston and for Peyton Hillis the year before that in Cleveland. Vickers is a remarkably fun guy to talk to -- enthusiastic and engaging -- and here's what he told me about Murray when I spoke with him after Cowboys practice Monday:

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

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

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

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

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

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

"I love it," Vickers said. "Because it's a job everybody can't do. So when you're doing something everybody can't do, and you're making it look good, that says a lot about you as a person. I don't need the glory, because at the end of the day, when those guys get in that end zone, when those guys go over to Hawaii, when those guys get in that Hall of Fame ... Emmitt Smith said it best: 'Couldn't do nothing without my fullback.' Not that my guys have to say that about me, but knowing that I was a part of that is enough for me."
Another slow offseason day calls for another edition of the NFC East position series -- our position-by-position look at each of the teams in our division. There's no pre-planned order to any of these, so it means little that I've chosen to look at running backs today and to start with the Dallas Cowboys.

Projected starters: RB DeMarco Murray, FB Lawrence Vickers

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

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

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

Keep an eye on: The on-field relationship between Murray and Vickers. Murray and Fiammetta made a very productive team last year. The Cowboys believe that had more to do with Murray than it did with the fullback, and they think they've upgraded at fullback. But Murray had an innate sense of where Fiammetta was going to go and what would result in terms of opportunity for him thereafter. Murray said during minicamp that he's getting to know Vickers, and it's unlikely to be a problem. But that chemistry he had with the fullback last year was part of his success, so it's at least worth watching to make sure he finds something similar with the new guy.
So every Tuesday at noon ET we open up a SportsNation chat room and we do this thing where you guys ask me questions and I answer them. We call it the weekly NFC East chat, and it's oodles of fun. Those who don't come and join in... well, they're beyond hope at this point. So rather than fill them in with the highlights, I present these chat highlights for those of you were there, so you can relive all the fun we had together.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Breakfast links: Free agency lull

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

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

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

New York Giants

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

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

Philadelphia Eagles

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

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

Washington Redskins

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

Josh Johnson was an intriguing backup quarterback possibility, but he's a San Francisco 49er now. I wonder if, when he showed up for his visit on Wednesday in Ashburn, no one was there to open the door for him since they were all in Waco.
So I was sitting here on Twitter, trolling for news, answering your questions and getting a kick out of the fact that Justin Tuck was watching (and tweeting about) the same "Big Bang Theory" rerun as me when it occurred to me that it was almost time to turn in and get some sleep. Before I did that, I just wanted to ask one question.

How was your day ...

Philadelphia Eagles?

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

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

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

Dallas Cowboys?

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

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

New York Giants?

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

Washington Redskins?

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

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

Breakfast links: Day one hangover

March, 14, 2012
3/14/12
8:00
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The first full day of the new NFL year dawns with the Redskins piling up receivers and the rest of our division still at work on the early part of free agency. Tuesday was a crazy, action-filled day, and the links offer us an opportunity to summarize, analyze or catch up on some things that maybe didn't get as much attention as they otherwise would have. Love the links.

Dallas Cowboys

The Cowboys did not tender any of their restricted free agents, including fullback Tony Fiammetta, who performed well last year as the lead blocker for breakout star running back DeMarco Murray. This of course makes it less likely that they'll be able to bring back Fiammetta, and as Todd Archer speculates, it's likely the result of the salary-cap penalty issued by the league Monday for the Cowboys having the audacity to spend whatever they wanted to spend during a season that had no salary cap. Fiammetta says they're still talking, but that the non-tender was a "game-changer."

There's a prevalent assumption that, since their in-person talks wore on deep into the night, the Cowboys will succeed in signing free-agent cornerback Brandon Carr. Even if they do, however, it wouldn't be a bad idea for them to look at a cornerback with their first-round pick in next month's draft. To that end, and as part of its draft preview series, ESPNDallas.com looks at North Alabama's Janoris Jenkins and what he offers as a first-round option.

New York Giants

Mike Garafolo has the full breakdown of the contract Terrell Thomas signed Tuesday. While Thomas announced it as a $28.4 million deal over four years, Mike points out that the base value of the deal is $17.4 million and that $28.4 million is the maximum value. But Mike also points out that the extra money is easily attainable if Thomas is recovered from his injury and able to rack up the playing time that a starting NFL cornerback would normally get. In other words, if Thomas hits all of the incentives that max out the contract, the Giants would have no problem compensating him for it. But if he doesn't, they're covered. Fine deal both ways.

Perhaps in part because of reports that Brandon Jacobs visited the Giants' team facility on Tuesday, Justin Tuck is holding out hope that Jacobs might still be able to return to the Giants. I do not think Tuck should hold out this hope. A Jacobs return at this point is a serious long shot that would require him to receive almost no interest from other teams and for the Giants to sign no replacement while he looks. These are two unlikely scenarios, and the combination of the two is nearly inconceivable. Jacobs will play elsewhere in 2012.

Philadelphia Eagles

The Eagles didn't go out on the free-agent market the first day. They stayed in-house and took care of extensions for two of their own players -- tackle Todd Herremans and defensive end Trent Cole. Jeff McLane explains the thinking behind this. But don't worry, Eagles fans. It was only the first day. They didn't do anything on the first day last year either, if I recall correctly, but they eventually caught up.

If you're looking for linebacker-target names, there's a report that the Eagles are bringing in Ben Leber for a workout. Leber is a former Vikings and Chargers linebacker who was cut by the Rams last year. It's entirely possible that this is the depth of the free-agent pool in which the Eagles plan to play this year, and that the big-splash signing doesn't happen. Not certain, but possible.

Washington Redskins

It seemed, for a time Tuesday, that the Redskins had signed wide receiver Eddie Royal to go along with wide receivers Pierre Garcon and Josh Morgan. But we got a Lee Corso-style "not so fast, my friend" on that Tuesday night when we learned that the Royal deal was not done and that he was, in fact, still talking to other teams. I wonder if Royal got cold feet when he saw that he was one of three being signed on the first day and might be looking for better playing-time options. If the Redskins do succeed in signing him, he could upgrade their return game as well as their wide receiving corps.

Sally Jenkins thinks there's a personal element to what the NFL did to Dan Snyder (and, to a lesser extent, Jerry Jones) with the salary-cap sanctions -- that Snyder is paying the price for making enemies around the league and not toeing the establishment line. I have no problem with this theory. What the NFL did is wrong and ridiculous, and smacks of something petty. Yes, Snyder spent more than anyone else did in the uncapped year after the owners supposedly all got together and secretly agreed not to do that. But that doesn't make him the crook -- just the guy who wouldn't go along with all the rest of the crooks.

NFC East links: Eagles shouldn't draft RG3

February, 28, 2012
2/28/12
8:14
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Dallas Cowboys

Charean Williams of the Star-Telegram writes that there's a prior connection between Stanford guard David DeCastro and new Cowboys offensive line coach Bill Callahan.

Not so fast, writes CBSSports.com's Pat Kirwan, who argued DeCastro is not worth such a premium pick.

Executive Stephen Jones admits the Cowboys don't have "good enough talent" on defense, the Star-Telegram's Clarence Hill Jr. wrote.

The Dallas Morning News is reporting that Tony Fiammetta is the only restricted free agent the Cowboys plan to tender.

Former Cowboys receiver Terrell Owens is reportedly facing foreclosure on two homes he owns in Dallas.

New York Giants

Brandon Jacobs will have to take a significant pay cut if he wants to return to play with the Giants, writes Ralph Vacchiano of the New York Daily News.

Tight end is a position of need for New York, and Giants101.com lists the five best options on the free-agent market.

Philadelphia Eagles

Robert Griffin III is going to be an elite player in the NFL, but Dave King of InsidetheIggles.com says the Eagles "can’t draft him. They shouldn’t, and they probably won’t, for a number of reasons."

The best player available when the Eagles draft No. 15 overall, says Philadelphia Daily News' Les Bowen, will likely be a defensive tackle. Is Devon Still in the Eagles' crosshairs?

Washington Redskins

The Redskins have re-signed backup defensive end Darrion Scott, The Washington Post reports.

Donovan McNabb is no longer a Redskin, and he says he sure doesn't see Peyton Manning as one, either.

Adam Carriker tells Jake Russell of TheHogs.net that he feels he's finally coming into his own as a defensive end and he should be compensated fairly by the Redskins or some other team.
Part 2 of ESPNDallas.com's position-by-position series is on running backs. Bryan Broaddus assumes that DeMarco Murray comes back from his ankle injury and regains the starter's role in which he thrived, and that fullback Tony Fiammetta recovers from his own health issues and is re-signed for the fullback role in which he thrived. But Bryan raises this interesting question regarding Felix Jones, who opened the 2011 season as the starter but lost the job to injury and Murray:
Should the Cowboys consider trading Jones this offseason? It's hard to accomplish a trade with Jones entering the final year of his contract. The Cowboys should explore whether a fourth-or fifth-round pick is available for the former first-round pick. The team doesn't trust Jones to become a 20-down back in the NFL. He's a solid backup, which leads us to Phillip Tanner. He should compete with Jones for more playing time. If he makes the roster, he should get more game-day carries and special teams snaps.

Personally, I'm kind of with Broaddus in that I don't see how much value Jones is going to have. If you're saying he's not good enough to be an every-down starter, and that's the reason you're dealing him, you can't really expect another team to decide you're wrong and that he can. So you're basically offering a change-of-pace back and hoping to get a fourth- or fifth-round pick for him. If a team's in the market for a back like that, why wouldn't they just draft one with that fourth- or fifth-round pick and develop him themselves?

Jones is, at this point, a nice luxury for the Cowboys -- a starting-quality back who can sub in for a short time if Murray gets hurt but isn't likely to be able to hold up over long stretches. With one year left on Jones' deal, the Cowboys would do well to give Tanner more time next year and see what they have with him. That'd be easier with Jones out of the picture, but he's worth too much to just cut or give away for nothing. If the Cowboys can find a team willing to part with a mid-round pick for Jones, it'd be a wise deal to make. But if not, he's worth hanging onto in the role in which he finished the 2011 season.

All-NFC East Team: Week 17 update

December, 28, 2011
12/28/11
11:59
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I don't vote on the Pro Bowl rosters. I'm not a fan, a coach or a player, and those are the three groups that combine to make those decisions. So if you look at this week's edition of the NFC East All-Division Team, and some players who didn't make the Pro Bowl are listed where players who did make the Pro Bowl aren't, that's because this here team has one voter. And this voters disagrees with some of the decisions those voters made. Including the first one on this week's list.

But first, the disclaimer no one ever reads: This is an All-Division Team based on overall performance this year to date. It is not -- repeat, NOT -- simply a list of awards for this week's performance. That's why Evan Royster isn't on it.

Quarterback: Tony Romo, Cowboys (Last week: Romo)

Running back: LeSean McCoy, Eagles (McCoy)

Wide receiver: Victor Cruz and Hakeem Nicks, Giants (Cruz, Nicks)

Tight end: Jason Witten, Cowboys (Witten)

Fullback: Darrel Young, Redskins (Tony Fiammetta)

Left tackle: Jason Peters, Eagles (Peters)

Left guard: Evan Mathis, Eagles (Mathis)

Center: Will Montgomery, Redskins (Montgomery)

Right guard: Kyle Kosier, Cowboys (Kosier)

Right tackle: Tyron Smith, Cowboys (Smith)

Defensive end: Jason Pierre-Paul, Giants; Trent Cole, Eagles (Pierre-Paul, Cole)

Defensive tackle: Jay Ratliff, Cowboys; Cullen Jenkins, Eagles (Ratliff, Jenkins)

Outside linebacker: DeMarcus Ware, Cowboys; Brian Orakpo, Redskins (Ware, Orakpo)

Inside linebacker: London Fletcher, Redskins; Sean Lee, Cowboys (Fletcher, Lee)

Cornerback: Asante Samuel, Eagles; Corey Webster, Giants (Samuel, Josh Wilson)

Safety: Kenny Phillips, Giants; O.J. Atogwe, Redskins (Phillips, Atogwe)

Kicker: Dan Bailey, Cowboys (Bailey)

Punter: Steve Weatherford, Giants (Weatherford)

Kick returner: Brandon Banks, Redskins (Banks)

Punt returner: Brandon Banks, Redskins (Banks)
  • Yes, Romo over Eli Manning. The numbers are better. Same number of wins. One more game to settle it, if they both want to play their best. Manning may have made the Pro Bowl on yardage numbers and his five fourth-quarter comebacks, but Romo has played the position better this year. Slightly.
  • Webster can have his cornerback spot back. He was fantastic Saturday, and in a weak field has been much more good than bad this season.
  • And while I, like a lot of people, got caught up in the Fiammetta hype. But Young has been a mauler all season at fullback, and it says something that three different Redskins running backs have had 100-yard games this season. (And that doesn't count original starter Tim Hightower, whose season high was 96.)
  • Cole over Jason Babin. We've been over this and over this. I'll take the better player. You can have the guy with the most sacks. Babin's year is sensational, but he's not the best defensive end on his own team. And as great as he is, he's not one of the two best in his division.
  • One final thought, at wide receiver: The Redskins' Jabar Gaffney is making a run at this team. If Nicks keeps dropping balls or misses this week's game with the hamstring injury that popped up on this morning's injury report, Gaffney could make a run at his spot. The numbers are getting close.

Okay, so what'd I get wrong?

Holland injury could cost Cowboys

December, 26, 2011
12/26/11
11:43
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Todd Archer of ESPNDallas.com is reporting that Dallas Cowboys guard Montrae Holland has a torn biceps and could be done for the season. If that's the case, the chances of the Cowboys' season lasting beyond Sunday night get a bit slimmer.

Holland isn't anything close to a big name or a superstar. He was actually one of the Cowboys' final roster cuts at the end of training camp and wasn't picked up by anyone else. But the Cowboys re-signed him in October after rookie Bill Nagy suffered a season-ending injury, and Holland's insertion into the lineup coincided with a revival of the Dallas running game. In the five games they played without him, the Cowboys averaged 84.8 rush yards per game. In the 10 games they've played with him as their starting left guard, the Cowboys are averaging 133.4 rush yards per game.

Of course there are a number of other factors there. Holland's first game was also rookie DeMarco Murray's first as the Cowboys' feature running game, and Dallas ran for 294 yards against the Rams in that game alone, skewing the numbers. That game also saw the emergence of Tony Fiammetta as a blocking force at fullback, and Dallas' rushing numbers did dip back down to 83 yards per game during the three-game stretch Fiammetta missed in Weeks 11-13.

But Holland was helpful in stabilizing the run game, and more importantly, he was clearly better than their other options. Derrick Dockery or Kevin Kowalski are likely to fill in Sunday in the game against the Giants that will decide the NFC East title. So while this is an injury the Cowboys likely can survive better than they could one to Tony Romo or DeMarcus Ware, it's one that has the potential to hurt them, because it strikes at something they've been able to do much better over the second half of this season -- run the ball and control the game.

All-NFC East Team: Week 16 update

December, 21, 2011
12/21/11
9:59
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You can't have as bad a game as Eli Manning had Sunday and keep your spot on the NFC East All-Division Team. Not when your closest competition is playing at such a high level. So we switch quarterbacks again this week, with Tony Romo ascendant. This has been a very close race all year, but statistically Romo is now pulling away. He's well ahead in passer rating and completion percentage. He has six fewer interceptions and one more win. All Manning has on him is yards and a head-to-head victory in which Romo played extremely well. So it's Romo with two weeks to go.

The disclaimer that no one will read: This is an All-Division Team based on overall performance this year to date. It is not -- repeat, NOT -- simply a list of the top performers from this past week. That's why Brent Celek isn't on it. Romo vs. Manning has been a running debate all year, and the main reason Romo has the QB spot this week isn't their relative Week 15 performances but rather the fact that Romo's season has been better than Manning's. Week 15 may have nudged him back ahead, but it's not the sole reason for the change.

I'll get to more explanations after the list.

Quarterback: Tony Romo, Cowboys (Last week: Eli Manning)

Running back: LeSean McCoy, Eagles (McCoy)

Wide receiver: Hakeem Nicks and Victor Cruz, Giants (Nicks, Cruz)

Tight end: Jason Witten, Cowboys (Witten)

Fullback: Tony Fiammetta, Cowboys (Fiammetta)

Left tackle: Jason Peters, Eagles (Peters)

Left guard: Evan Mathis, Eagles (Mathis)

Center: Will Montgomery, Redskins (Montgomery)

Right guard: Kyle Kosier, Cowboys (Kosier)

Right tackle: Tyron Smith, Cowboys (Smith)

Defensive end: Jason Pierre-Paul Giants; Trent Cole, Eagles (Pierre-Paul, Cole)

Defensive tackle: Cullen Jenkins, Eagles; Jay Ratliff, Cowboys (Jenkins, Ratliff)

Outside linebacker: DeMarcus Ware, Cowboys; Brian Orakpo, Redskins (Ware, Orakpo)

Inside linebacker: London Fletcher, Redskins; Sean Lee, Cowboys (Fletcher, Lee)

Cornerback: Josh Wilson, Redskins; Asante Samuel, Eagles (Wilson, Samuel)

Safety: Kenny Phillips, Giants, O.J. Atogwe, Redskins (Phillips, Gerald Sensabaugh)

Kicker: Dan Bailey, Cowboys (Bailey)

Punter: Steve Weatherford, Giants (Weatherford)

Kick returner: Brandon Banks, Redskins (Banks)

Punt returner: Brandon Banks, Redskins (Banks)
  • I almost put Jason Babin in at defensive end. Everybody always complains about Babin not being on here, and with six sacks in two games he's now tied for the league lead in the category. He merits strong consideration, and he gets it every week. My question to those who don't like it is: Which guy do I bench for him? Cole's still the better all-around player on Babin's own team, still having the better all-around year, playing the run as well as the pass and drawing double-teams while Babin sells out for the sack on every play. And Pierre-Paul is basically the only thing the Giants have right now on defense, and he's been brilliant. So I put it to you, dear readers: Which of my starting DEs should be dropped for Babin? As of now, my answer is "neither." But he's getting real close. And it's no insult to the guy to rank him behind these two.
  • It was a tough week for Nicks and Cruz, but they're not being challenged, really. The Eagles' receivers continue to muddle along, and the Cowboys are spreading it out too much. Nicks and Cruz are leading the division in catches and, by a healthy margin, receiving yards. Their 2011 seasons have been the best by any receivers in the division. I will offer honorable mentions to Dallas' Dez Bryant, who's been very consistent, and Washington's Jabar Gaffney, who ranks third among division wideouts in catches with 58 and yards with 842.
  • You know how I feel about cornerback. Nobody in the division is playing it well. Thought about putting Corey Webster back in there, but whatever. He was covering Redskins receivers, and the Redskins picked up every third down. The Cowboys' secondary is a mess, too, which is why Atogwe got the safety spot this week over Sensabaugh. I almost put him in over Phillips, but I think Phillips' 2011 body of work is still better than Sensabaugh's. I've got my eye on that Giants' secondary, too, though. When you break down that much every week, everybody shares responsibility.

So what'd I get wrong?

Division struggles in Pro Bowl voting

December, 15, 2011
12/15/11
9:36
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A down year in the NFC East is reflected not just in the standings but in the Pro Bowl fan balloting as well. Fans' votes count for one-third of the final Pro Bowl decisions, which will be announced Dec. 27, so we won't know anything final until the player and coaches' votes are added in. But if it were up to the fans, as of now, our division would have just two Pro Bowl starters -- the Dallas Cowboys' DeMarcus Ware, who's the leading NFC vote-getter at outside linebacker, and the Philadelphia Eagles' Jason Babin, who's second in voting among NFC defensive ends.

Eagles running back LeSean McCoy is the division's leading vote-getter so far, and No. 8 in the entire league in fan votes. But he trails Minnesota's Adrian Peterson by nearly 60,000 votes among NFC running backs.

The league only released the leaders at each positions and the overall top 10 so far, but I have applied my considerable investigative reporting skill to obtain more detail. Either that or Pat Yasinskas has a document that shows the top five at each position so far and he let me look at it.

Manning
The New York Giants' Eli Manning is fifth in Pro Bowl voting among NFC quarterbacks, behind Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees, Cam Newton and Matthew Stafford. It's not even close, actually. Manning has 316,687 votes. Stafford, in fourth, has 451,469. Poor Eli just can't get any respect. I wouldn't expect much help either from the player vote, since it was the players who left Manning off their list of the NFL's Top 100 players when that list was a big deal last summer.

Manning's receivers don't get any love either, as neither Hakeem Nicks nor Victor Cruz cracks the top five. Of course, as many have pointed out to me recently, Cruz isn't even on the ballot, since he wasn't listed as a starter when the season began. Neither was Giants' defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul, even though he started the opener with Osi Umenyiora hurt, so he's not among the top five in voting for defensive end. Umenyiora is, though. Seriously. He's fifth in the NFC in defensive end voting. Babin, as I said, is second, behind only Minnesota's Jared Allen.

The Cowboys' Tony Fiammetta ranks fifth in the fullback voting, well behind leader John Kuhn of Green Bay. Jason Witten is third among tight ends, behind the Saints' Jimmy Graham and the Falcons' Tony Gonzalez. And the Giants' David Baas is the only offensive lineman in the division in the top five at his position, ranking third among NFC centers.

Asomugha
The Eagles' Cullen Jenkins is the third-leading vote-getter among NFC defensive tackles, behind Detroit's Ndamukong Suh and San Francisco's Justin Smith. And the Washington Redskins' Brian Orakpo is the third-leading vote getter in the NFC at outside linebacker, behind Ware and Green Bay's Clay Matthews.

Philadelphia cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha is third in fan voting among NFC cornerbacks, behind Charles Woodson of the Packers and Carlos Rogers of the 49ers. The Eagles' Kurt Coleman ranks fifth in voting at the strong safety position. And the Giants' Antrel Rolle and the Cowboys Gerald Sensabaugh are third and fifth, respectively, among NFC free safeties.
ARLINGTON, Texas -- DeMarco Murray, the dazzling rookie running back whose emergence brought the Dallas Cowboys' running game back to life this season, could be done for the year with a severe ankle injury. Murray got hurt on an eight-yard run in the first quarter of Sunday night's game against the New York Giants and left the game with help from the training staff. During the third quarter, the team announced that Murray had a right ankle fracture and a high ankle sprain.

The Cowboys made no announcement on Murray's long-term status, only that he would not return to Sunday night's game. But an ankle fracture in Week 14 doesn't sound like the sort of injury that would allow Murray to return before the end of this season -- even if Dallas got into the playoffs and made a deep run.

In the short term, the Cowboys would seem to be fine. Former starter Felix Jones stepped right in and rushed for 81 first-half yards on eight carries after Murray left the game. But Jones is not the same kind of back as Murray, which is why he lost the starter's job to him in the first place. Jones is injury-prone, and not likely to hold up under a 20-carry-per-game workload the rest of the way. He also had a sloppy fumble toward the end of the first half that reminded everybody that he's not the most reliable guy in that area either. Even if they manage to grind out a win tonight against the Giants, the Cowboys likely will need to adjust their offense for the final three games of the regular season and probably ask Tony Romo to throw more. With Philip Tanner on injured reserve and Tashard Choice having been released weeks ago, Jones is now the only healthy tailback on the active roster.

The running game did seem to get the expected boost from the return of fullback Tony Fiammetta, a blocking machine who'd missed the previous three games with an illness. Fiammetta even got a couple of carries and a catch after the Murray injury. But the Cowboys are now dangerously thin at running back and will have to find a way to overcome it the rest of the way.

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