NFC East: Victor Butler

Friday links, in order of most recent division title:

Washington Redskins

Where does Robert Griffin III rank among the young stars on the Washington sports scene in terms of likelihood to spend his entire career in Washington?

This offseason is going to be a lot different for Kirk Cousins, as Griffin's continued recovery from knee surgery makes Cousins the starter once camp opens.

New York Giants

Osi Umenyiora said he understood the reasons but didn't like the fact that his playing time was cut in his final few seasons with the Giants. He also said the Falcons are the most talented team he's ever been on. I think the Falcons are loaded, but I can understand if you want to get outraged about him saying that when he's played on two teams that won the Super Bowl. This is a rare occasion on which I will sanction a moderate amount of outrage, if that's something you feel you need to do. Nothing past lunch, though, please.

The crew at giants.com thinks the Giants' 2013 starting right tackle is currently on the roster. I think they're probably right. Couldn't tell you which one it is, but I believe they have exactly the guys they want at the other four line spots and are content to fiddle at right tackle.

Philadelphia Eagles

Eagles quarterbacks coach Bill Lazor was in Tallahassee, Fla. on Thursday to check out Florida State quarterback EJ Manuel, whom Todd McShay projects to the Eagles in the second round of his most recent mock draft Insider.

The voluntary portion of the Eagles' offseason program begins Monday. Because they have a new head coach, the Eagles get to start two weeks before other teams do. The division's other three teams will begin their offseason programs on April 15.

Dallas Cowboys

It was not the worst year to have to wait out the first few weeks of the free-agent market. And while that may not have been the Cowboys' preference, Todd Archer writes that they ended up signing two potential starters for very good prices in Justin Durant and Will Allen.

We all knew at the time that the Cowboys had a rotten 2009 draft, and the four seasons that have transpired since did nothing to alter that conclusion. The signing of Victor Butler by the Saints on Thursday means there are no more players left on the Cowboys from that stupendously bad 12-man draft class.
Morning. No elephants yet today, but it's early. Links.

Philadelphia Eagles

Former Cowboys linebacker Victor Butler visited the Eagles but left without signing a deal. I know this situation is getting a lot of attention, but the Eagles are likely looking at Butler as a rotational player and special teamer. I wouldn't get too excited if he signs or disappointed if he doesn't.

Remember back around Super Bowl time when DeSean Jackson talked about new Eagles coach Chip Kelly using him the way Kelly used running back De'Anthony Thomas at Oregon? Well, Paul Domowitch has a more realistic view on that.

Washington Redskins

The Redskins' team physician may think Robert Griffin III is "superhuman," but Griffin himself offered a much more level-headed assessment of his status and his plans for a responsible recovery from his knee surgery.

Free-agent cornerback Antoine Winfield is planning to visit the Redskins, who'd love to find a way to fit him under the salary cap. But he's considering other offers in the meantime, which is not encouraging for the Redskins' prospects.

Dallas Cowboys

Free-agent safety Michael Huff says he's intrigued by the idea of signing with the Cowboys. But just because (as Adam Schefter reported) linebacker Justin Durant may have agreed to wait on finalizing his deal until the Cowboys cleared enough cap space doesn't mean Huff is willing to do the same.

If the Cowboys want to take safety Kenny Vaccaro in the first round of the draft (and again, I don't see why people are assuming they do when it appears what they want is to augment their current safety duo with a veteran), they could have competition.

New York Giants

David Diehl has agreed to a pay cut of nearly 80 percent in order to remain with the Giants in 2013. This indicates that they plan to use him as a versatile backup and several line positions, rather than as the starting right tackle. But Diehl has won out in similar situations in the past when other options have proven insufficient.

Former Giants running back Ahmad Bradshaw has a visit lined up with the Pittsburgh Steelers. If he can prove he's healthy, I believe Bradshaw can help someone, even as their No. 1 back in 2013. The Steelers seem like a very good place for him. I think the Packers make sense as well, but they don't sign free agents.
Punter links, cornerback links, draft links ... we got em all. Links ahoy!

New York Giants

Ohm Youngmisuk's reaction to the Giants' re-signing of Kevin Boothe is multi-faceted. He believes James Brewer should get the shot at right tackle with David Diehl remaining on the team as a versatile offensive line backup. He thinks it becomes less necessary in the Giants' minds to draft an offensive lineman early (though he still thinks they should). And he thinks the two biggest contract issues the Giants face now are those of their two starting wide receivers. I think Youngmisuk's got it all just about right.

Giants defensive lineman Shaun Rogers had about $500,000 worth of jewelry stolen while he was staying at a very nice South Beach hotel. That stinks.

Philadelphia Eagles

The Eagles were not a good punting team in 2012, so they went out and upgraded at punter, bringing in two-time all-pro punter Donnie Jones and saying good-bye to Mat McBriar. Not a lot to say on this. If the guy punts well, it's a good move. If not, they'll go get another punter.

Victor Butler couldn't crack the lineup in Dallas as a 3-4 outside linebacker behind DeMarcus Ware and Anthony Spencer and there doesn't appear to be room for him in the Cowboys' new 4-3 scheme. So the free agent is out looking for a new team, and his next stop is in Philadelphia. Can't have too many pass-rushers, they tell me.

Washington Redskins

Speaking of visits, free-agent cornerback Antoine Winfield, who had a fine year for the Vikings in 2012 but is turning 36 in June and got cut because it's a hard, cruel world out there in the NFL, is visiting the Redskins. Winfield would be a tremendous fit for the Redskins as a one-year stopgap at cornerback while they continue to try not to let their salary-cap penalty problem affect any future seasons. We shall see if they can fit him in the budget. My sense on E.J. Biggers, who signed last week, is that he's more of a No. 3 cornerback, which they also need.

Oh, and in case you're sitting there thinking to yourself, "I'd really like to see some pictures of Robert Griffin III with an elephant and other assorted circus performers," here.

Dallas Cowboys

Talent has never been the question with Dez Bryant. Maturity and understanding of the importance of his character off the field have. But as Calvin Watkins writes, those things may be coming into focus for Bryant at age 24. I mean, he's still only 24.

We have discussed the ways in which the Cowboys' switch to a 4-3 defensive front under Monte Kiffin should benefit middle linebacker Sean Lee and defensive tackle Jay Ratliff, but here's a smart look at the way in which it should lead to big-play opportunities for weakside linebacker Bruce Carter.

Observation deck: Dolphins-Cowboys

August, 30, 2012
8/30/12
11:00
AM ET
Yeah, because I like to space these out. And no one reads them if I put them up in the middle of the night. And they put the ESPNDallas.com one up on the blog anyway. This is why you're just reading this now. Because I know some of you were asking.

I'm not sure how much there is to say about the Dallas Cowboys' 30-13 preseason victory over the Miami Dolphins on Wednesday night anyway. Center Phil Costa was the only starter who played, and he only played because he'd been out for weeks with an injury and needed to see some game action, and he only played 11 snaps anyway. I didn't see anything egregious, and if you've been following my thoughts on the Cowboys' offensive line you know I was watching closely. He didn't have any problem getting the ball from the ground into the quarterback's hands, which sounds silly unless you've been paying attention to the Cowboys' backup center issues for the past few weeks. They tell me Costa's added bulk. We have yet to see whether or not he's added the strength he needs to make him a better player than he was last season. Could happen. We just haven't seen it.

Here's what else I saw in the Cowboys' final preseason game:
  • Kevin Ogletree didn't help himself much. He slipped on a route early and dropped a ball on third down on that same possession. Didn't catch any of the three balls thrown his way. I still think he showed enough in camp and in preseason to be the No. 3 wide receiver, but if that was still in doubt as of Wednesday, he didn't do anything to help himself. Of course, Dwayne Harris didn't catch a ball either, and Tim Benford was the only Cowboy who caught more than two. So it's possible Wednesday had no meaning whatsoever and I've wasted whatever time it took to type this paragraph.
  • Let's see, let's see, what else. ... Oh yeah, Josh Brent. I thought he looked real good a couple of times shoring up the middle against the run. I imagine he's the base-defense nose tackle assuming Jay Ratliff's ankle sprain keeps him out of Wednesday's regular-season opener against the Giants.
  • Victor Butler had a sack, which means it's still August. Seriously, we were saying this last year and it didn't happen, but don't the coaches have to find ways to use this guy more in the pass rush? He's got some skills. Rookie Tyrone Crawford had a sack, too. I know they plan to use him as a situational pass rusher this year in the hope that he adds size and can eventually be a starting defensive end for them down the road.
  • Orie Lemon had an interception and returned it 26 yards for a touchdown, which is good for Orie Lemon's effort to make the roster. He helps on special teams, too, so I'd think he's got a good chance. But they have some depth at linebacker and some choices to make there.
  • Choices at running back, too. I still think Phillip Tanner is the No. 3 behind DeMarco Murray and Felix Jones, but Lance Dunbar made a nifty cut to finish off his 58-yard touchdown run, and given his ability in the return game has to be making them at least think about keeping four running backs. I just like the way Tanner runs. If he can stay healthy, I'd have to think he's at least a threat to Jones' carries.
  • Teddy Williams fumbled a return and probably should have been flagged for pass interference in the end zone. Even the Cowboys' broadcasters were saying that was interference, so that kind of hurts Teddy Ballgame's case. On the fumble, one of the most alarming things was that Danny Coale couldn't come up with the ball at the bottom of the pile. Miami kicker Dan Carpenter outfought him for it. Coale and Matt Johnson have done pretty much nothing this preseason, and the team has decisions to make about their roster status. Which, if I were the kind of dude who liked to say I told you so. ... Nah, let's not go down that road.
  • Calvin Watkins tells me Dan Bailey was 8-for-8 on field goals in the preseason. That's good.

And that ought to just about do it. Next post is the one that's going nuclear anyway. See ya there!

Observation deck: Cowboys-Chargers

August, 19, 2012
8/19/12
8:00
AM ET
The Dallas Cowboys' second preseason game was a 28-20 exhibition loss to the San Diego Chargers. Yet it gave Cowboys fans more reason to feel good then did their 3-0 preseason victory over the Raiders on Monday night. Such is life in the preseason, where everything seems much bigger and realer than it actually is.

But what we saw from the Cowboys on Saturday, when the first-teamers were in the game, was pretty good. For instance, Tony Romo had much more time to throw in this game than he did in the first one, and he completed 9 of 13 passes for 75 yards. Nothing too special, but (a) Miles Austin and Jason Witten were out with injuries and (b) the most important thing was that the line held up well enough this time for the Cowboys to actually operate their offense. On the first drive, that meant a lot of running back DeMarco Murray, who was the focal point of five of the first six plays -- three carries and two receptions. The protection and the reliance on Murray might have been the result of the Chargers devoting more of their energy to coverage than to getting into the backfield, but again, the result was that the Cowboys got to run plays this time. And I don't think it's fluky that they went to Murray a lot on that first drive. Even when everyone's healthy, I get the sense they're going to lean hard on Murray as their featured back this year. And the fact that he didn't return after that first drive is most likely because they want to keep him healthy.

Here's what else I noticed:

1. Brandon Carr looked big-time. The Cowboys' prized free-agent acquisition had two interceptions, and he flat-out worked it. On the first one, he let the receiver get past him and baited Philip Rivers into throwing the ball, then closed quickly and made the leaping interception. His play on the second one was also smart and athletic, and he showed good skills staying with the ball in spite of bobbling it a few times before securing it in his hands. Carr has been a star in offseason workouts and in training camp, and so far has done nothing to make the Cowboys question their investment.

2. Kevin Ogletree is staking his claim to the No. 3 receiver spot. Again, you can't assume that a guy will play well in the regular season because he does so in the preseason. So there's no way to know what Ogletree would do if given the role. But what we see is a guy on the verge of winning the role. He's also looked good in practice, and the performance in Saturday's game only underlines what the coaches already like about him. He caught four passes for 60 yards, including a very tough one from Kyle Orton in double coverage, and seems to be a guy to whom Romo isn't afraid to throw the ball. Cole Beasley was also a standout in this game, and he caught one from Romo as well. Most of his damage was done late, against backup defenders, but Beasley ended with 104 yards on seven catches, was targeted a team-high nine times and left it all out on the field. Literally. Worked so hard, cameras caught him throwing up on the sideline just before the end of the game. I also thought Dwayne Harris looked good as a receiver and a punt returner, and rookie James Hanna looks like a very strong pass-catching tight end. Assuming Austin comes back soon and Witten doesn't have to miss too much time, Romo should have plenty of guys to whom to throw. We haven't even mentioned Dez Bryant, who had a quiet night but still dazzled with an athletic near-catch just out of the back of the end zone. I believe he should emerge as Romo's red-zone favorite.

3. The line did play better, but David Arkin continues to have a tough preseason. Kept getting caught downfield illegally, and he's committed too many penalties in these first couple of games. The team wants Arkin to develop as a backup center, at least, but he's struggling.

4. Morris Claiborne's debut was fine, but uneventful. The rookie first-round pick made a couple of tackles and looked fine in coverage. For some reason, the Chargers seemed to want to throw in Carr's direction more than they did in Claiborne's. If Carr keeps picking off two passes a game, I have to imagine that will change. But it was good for Claiborne to get his feet wet against NFL competition.

5. Sean Lee looked like a playmaking monster, again, but I would think Bruce Carter is currently ahead of Dan Connor in the competition at the other inside linebacker spot. Connor had trouble in coverage on tight end Randy McMichael, and Carter seems like the more athletic option at this point. This is a Cowboys defense that wants to prioritize an ability to make plays on the ball, and an inside linebacker who can't cover a tight end is not likely to find himself with much of a role in that kind of a defense.

6. The Butlers did it. Linebacker Victor Butler and defensive back Mario Butler both showed good things. Victor had an early sack and pressured Rivers a couple of times. Mario looked good in coverage but missed a big tackle that led to a touchdown. Victor Butler is a guy who should be able to emerge as a helpful pass-rusher if the coaches can find snaps for him.

Observation deck: Cowboys-Raiders

August, 14, 2012
8/14/12
12:01
AM ET


Of all the football games I've ever watched, the Dallas Cowboys' 3-0 preseason victory over the Oakland Raiders on Monday night was definitely ... well, it was one of them. It was a sluggish, poorly played game by two teams that obviously weren't at full strength or interested in showing a national TV audience very much of their playbooks. At the time it ended, nine Major League Baseball teams had outscored the two NFL teams' combined total.

But it was a game a defensive coordinator could love, and surely Dallas' Rob Ryan will use it as a rallying point for his defense in the days and weeks to come. As we say all the time here, there is little or no predictive value in any of these games. Some teams game-plan for them, many don't, and there's no way to really know what you're watching in terms of who's trying and who's not. But if you're a defensive coordinator, you'd better believe you can hold up a 3-0 victory and shout at your guys about what they're capable of if they play hard. Can't hurt, could help, you know.

The Cowboys' offense ... won't have as much fun watching film of this one. Let's get to what we saw from the Cowboys in Oakland on Monday night.

1. The interior of the offensive line is not good right now, and it affects everything the offense tries to do. Tony Romo had no time to throw, DeMarco Murray had no room to run and the No. 3 wide receiver candidates who were running with the first team had no opportunity to show what they could do. David Arkin started at center in place of the injured Phil Costa, and in the first half he got abused by Tommy Kelly for one sack and was also called for holding. The good news for Arkin is that he didn't botch any snaps, and he did look better as he continued to play into the third quarter (and the Raiders kept taking out first-team and second-team defensive players). Mackenzy Bernadeau, who started at right guard, is likely to get snaps at center in upcoming preseason games, but since he's coming off an injury the Cowboys are trying to work him in at guard to get him acclimated. Derrick Dockery started at left guard, and Ronald Leary struggled with the second and third teams. Now, the key things to remember are (a) this isn't news and (b) preseason games are about figuring out what you need to improve. There's no reason to think the Cowboys' offensive line will look worse at any point this year than it does right now, and they've known for a while that they have issues there. If they can get Costa and Nate Livings and Bernadeau healthy, they'll at least have the crew with which they planned to go into the season. I'm just not sure that's good enough -- or that they have anything behind the starters that can help in case of injury. And it's worth mentioning that right tackle Doug Free didn't look good either.

2. Andre Holmes had a good night. Of those No. 3 wide receiver candidates, Holmes stood out the most, with 40 yards on three catches. Holmes' asset is his size, and he looks like he's doing a good job of using his big body to shield the ball from defenders and make catches in traffic. Long way to go and a lot to see, but Holmes helped his case. Kevin Ogletree likely remains the favorite and got the first crack at it, starting in place of the injured Miles Austin. Ogletree caught the only ball thrown his way, for 12 yards, and had a goofy moment when he fell on his face trying to make a block and slipping on the infield dirt at the Oakland Coliseum. Expect to see more from Dwayne Harris, Tim Benford, Cole Beasley and Danny Coale in upcoming games. Beasley was the slot receiver with the first-team offense but didn't see any action. Interesting that Dez Bryant did start in spite of his hamstring injury and made one excellent 24-yard catch before taking a seat.

3. The defense did look fired-up and kind of deep in spots. Defensive end Marcus Spears played like a man who knows he needs to win a roster spot. Safety Gerald Sensabaugh came up with an early interception on a play on which cornerback Orlando Scandrick had his man well covered. Kyle Wilber showed some ability to generate pressure on Matt Leinart on a third-down play, though he did leave the game with a broken thumb. Tyrone Crawford pushed the pocket a little bit during his time in there. And I think that inside linebacker spot is going to be a real strength, as Sean Lee and Bruce Carter both looked good. Yes, the Raiders ran the ball effectively against the first-team defense, but that first-team defense was without starting nose tackle Jay Ratliff as well as defensive end Jason Hatcher and outside linebacker Anthony Spencer. So I imagine they'll be better once those guys are on the field.

4. Not-so-special teams. The Cowboys were called for penalties on two punts and one field goal attempt, each time allowing the Raiders to keep the ball. That needs to be tightened up, clearly, and it's the kind of thing that just infuriates coaches in these preseason games.

5. Miscellany: Adrian Hamilton, the undrafted linebacker who had 20.5 sacks at Prairie View last year, looked active and quick. Remains to be seen whether he has the size and speed to play against NFL offenses. ... Rookie tight end James Hanna showed good hands as a receiver and looked good on kick coverage. ... Dwayne Harris was called for holding and, yeah, that can work against a guy who's trying to get a job as a No. 3 wide receiver. ... Yes, you like what you see from Victor Butler, as you always do in August. Still need to see whether and how the coaches find more ways to get him on the field once the real games begin. ... Seemed like punter Chris Jones was fine.
Good morning. Precisely seven weeks from tonight, the Giants and Cowboys will play a game that counts. I dunno. To me, that still feels like too long. But training camps start next week, so real news is just around the corner. Right? Links.

New York Giants

Ohm's looking at linebackers as his camp preview series rolls along, and I guess one of the big questions is whether Keith Rivers can force his way into a starting spot. Chase Blackburn is the most vulnerable of the current projected Giants starting linebackers, but he plays the middle and Rivers really hasn't, so it's a big "we'll see" at this point. Regardless, as we've discussed multiple times, the Giants look much better at linebacker than they have in a while.

Marvin Austin discusses his recovery from the injury that cost him his rookie season and the music he's been making since he got kicked off the North Carolina football team in 2010. Austin, who hasn't played a real football game in more than two years, is someone to watch on the Giants' defense this fall -- a potential difference-maker but still a major question mark.

Philadelphia Eagles

Marcus Hayes writes that the Eagles' "Wide 9" defensive line formation should work just fine as long as Trent Cole is a healthy and productive member of it. Cole may have gotten a bit lost amid the monster sack season Jason Babin had, but he's still the best player on the Eagles' defense.

There are some position battles to watch in Eagles training camp, including the one for the starting weakside linebacker spot between Brian Rolle and Jamar Chaney. Les Bowen's breakdown discusses that and more, including which rookie running backs and wide receivers have a chance to stick.

Washington Redskins

I continue to have no doubt that Robert Griffin III will sign his contract before training camp starts, and I continue to believe this is a non-issue, as none of the top eight picks in the draft has signed yet. But many of you guys are concerned, and wondering what the holdup is, so here's Mark Maske to explain it to you. And yeah, if you or I were in the same situation, we'd want our agents working to make sure we get the best deal possible, down to the penny, so there's absolutely nothing wrong with what Griffin, Andrew Luck and the rest of these guys are doing. It'll all be fine.

Wide receiver is a critical position for the Redskins as they get set to open camp, and they have a jumble there. John Keim takes a look at what looks good and what doesn't. Much of how this all shakes out will depend on the health of Leonard Hankerson and Josh Morgan.

Dallas Cowboys

Michael Irvin has some strong and heartfelt thoughts on the Dez Bryant situation, and they seem to be focused the correct way -- on the idea that Bryant is a young man who needs help getting control of his life before things get even worse. The facts of the case, and the extent to which the 23-year-old Bryant should be punished for his Monday arrest for allegedly assaulting his 37-year-old mother, depend on the credibility of his mother as a witness. And there's plenty of reason that credibility could potentially be called into question. But regardless of the details, the fact remains that Bryant cannot continue to find himself in these situations and must take responsibility for avoiding them and/or acting differently when they do occur. And it's obvious he needs more help with that than he's received to this point in his life.

And because I know Cowboys fans don't want (or deserve) everything to be about Bryant's mess right now, here's our man Aaron Schatz on Victor Butler's chances of being a breakout guy for Dallas this year at outside linebacker.

Our continuing effort at a position-by-position assessment of each team in the NFC East takes us to the Dallas Cowboys' linebacker situation.

Projected starters: OLB DeMarcus Ware, OLB Anthony Spencer, ILB Sean Lee, ILB Dan Connor

Reserves: Victor Butler, Bruce Carter, Alex Albright, Orie Lemon, Caleb McSurdy, Kyle Wilber

Potential strength: Ware, obviously, remains one of the elite pass-rushers in the NFL and is the strength of the entire defense. When he is playing at his best, the Cowboys almost don't need to augment their pass rush with help from anyone else. Spencer can stay content in his role as a good run-support linebacker who doesn't attack the quarterback regularly, and Lee can roam the field to break up passes or make open-field tackles. The whole thing runs off of Ware, and his second year in Rob Ryan's defense should offer him a chance to showcase even more versatility as he moves from one side of the field to the other to confuse and terrify opposing offenses.

Potential weakness: Spencer's not a glaring weakness, per se, but he's not the pass-rusher he appeared to be back when the Cowboys were rolling through the end of the 2009 regular season. If he were to step forward as a serious pass-rush threat, it would elevate the Cowboys' defense to a new level and alleviate some pressure on the revamped secondary. But Spencer's had time to show that he's capable of doing that, and he hasn't. So they'll likely have to be content with him being the same player he's been for the past two years -- good, not sensational. Maybe Butler gets more opportunities this year to show what he can do to help the pass rush. But I feel like we said that last year too, right?

Keep an eye on: Carter. The second-year linebacker could conceivably open the season as the starter next to Lee. The Cowboys signed Connor in part because they weren't sure they could count on Carter to be ready to be a starter this year. But they believe in Carter's ability and think he can ultimately develop into something special. The question is timetable, and the extent to which he'll get a chance to show in training camp and the preseason how healthy he is. If he gets a lot of preseason playing time and does well in it, he has the chance to supplant Connor around the beginning of the season. If not, he'll have to play his way into a starter's role from the backup spot as the season goes along. But once he's ready, the Cowboys expect Carter to be a high-impact player, not just a guy who starts because they don't have anyone else to do it.
Yo. Thanks to all who joined in the live video mailbag yesterday. Went a lot better this time (since, you know, it actually went). You can see part of the replay here. We still have no idea why Vokle only recorded the first 18:50 of an approximately 35-minute chat, but I hope those who were there enjoyed it and those who weren't see something in the replay that convinced them to try it next time. This morning, we are back to the old reliable links.

Dallas Cowboys

The Cowboys gave away the division to the Giants last December because they couldn't defend the pass, and Jerry Jones says that's why they're not trading disgruntled cornerback Mike Jenkins no matter how many times he asks. The Cowboys are attacking their biggest problem with numbers, and Jones says the inspiration is the way the Giants loaded up on pass-rushers last year. Jones and the Cowboys have been unashamed of talking about the extent to which they believe imitating the Giants is the path to success.

Todd Archer came away from Cowboys OTA practice wondering if Victor Butler and Jason Hatcher might be able to help the team apply more pressure to opposing quarterbacks this year. I'd imagine both will get opportunities to do so.

New York Giants

Mathias Kiwanuka, who recently got a contract extension from the Giants, says he understands why Osi Umenyiora is skipping offseason workouts in protest of his own contract. Kiwanuka said Umenyiora "has been under contract in a bad deal for years now," and that he's not upset that Umenyiora cited Kiwanuka's contract in recent complaints about the fact that he hasn't been offered what he believes the team should have offered him.

Domenik Hixon was the receiver running with the first team in place of the injured Hakeem Nicks, and that serves as a reminder: These are still the Giants, who don't rush young players. And for all of the talk about Ramses Barden or Rueben Randle, if Hixon's healthy he's probably the guy who gets the first shot at replacing Mario Manningham as the No. 3 receiver.

Philadelphia Eagles

Earlier this week, Sheil Kapadia took at look at Michael Vick's batted-pass numbers from 2011 and concluded that there were obviously too many. The easy explanation most people offer for this is Vick's height, but as Sheil points out, Drew Brees is no taller and he hardly ever has a pass batted down. The height thing is a popular misconception, since there's really no quarterback tall enough to throw over linemen consistently and everyone throws through passing lanes. So I think the batted-ball numbers say less about Vick's height than they do about his ability to read the field. That's got to improve, because he's certainly not going to get any taller.

Jason Babin missed OTAs last week because he was bear hunting in Alaska and couldn't get back in time. Yeah, same Jason Babin who plans to run with the bulls in Pamplona later this year. Interesting guy. As a bonus, if you click the link to that story, you can see a photo of Jason Kelce with his beard painted pink. Offseason, you know.

Washington Redskins

Rick Reilly wrote of Brian Banks, a one-time stud-prospect linebacker who was wrongly convicted of rape and lost 10 years of his life to someone else's lie and mistake. Now exonerated and 26 years old, Banks is still hoping to play in the NFL, and the Redskins are one of four teams that Rick says have called to offer him a tryout.

Rick Snider says Robert Griffin III will be the Redskins' best quarterback since Sonny Jurgensen retired in 1974, which really puts the whole thing in perspective. No pressure, Robert ...

On the Cowboys and pass rush

April, 9, 2012
4/09/12
4:45
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In the absence of news, I believe we can just talk about the draft as much and as often as we want for the next 17 days. I assume you all agree. I assume this without asking, because I feel as though I have my finger on the pulse of the readership of this blog.

To that end, we have this from the Dallas Cowboys' official site on something Jerry Jones said about Victor Butler and the pass rush at the NFL owners meetings a couple of weeks ago. Jerry says the team is high on Butler as someone who can help the pass rush in 2012:
"There's some concern with setting the edge with him, but as far as the pass rush we know we can get plays out of Butler. He had the highest ratio of successful plays for the time he played on our defense when he was in there."

That last part of the quote is hard to read and harder to understand, but my initial thought on Butler is that he's a guy that had a great preseason in 2011, and if he was going to help the pass rush, Rob Ryan should have been able to find ways for him to do so last season. It's not as though Anthony Spencer was racking up the sacks and there was no way to take him off the field. If they really believed Butler was a key to unlocking a better pass rush, I believe we would have seen him do that. So I'm not sure how much stock we should put into this offseason talk about Butler from the team's owner.

I still think the Cowboys will look, if they can, to upgrade the pass rush via the draft. Calvin Watkins wrote Monday morning that the Cowboys see guys like Quintin Coples, Melvin Ingram and Courtney Upshaw as too similar to Spencer to make them worthy of a first-round pick. That's an interesting bit of insight and a useful look into the Cowboys' thinking as the draft approaches, and it makes me think that their main reason for drafting one of those guys (if they did) would be the fact that Spencer is only signed for one more year.

If I had the blogger mock draft to do over again, I think I'd give Mississippi State defensive tackle Fletcher Cox to the Cowboys. He'd help the pass rush right away, whether from the nose tackle or a 3-4 defensive end position. He'd allow them some flexibility in the short term and the long term, especially as it pertains to the idea of moving Jay Ratliff to end. They haven't wanted to do that so far, but adding a strong interior pass-rushing presence like Cox would allow them to move all of their linemen around and find ways to maximize everyone's production and alleviate wear and tear on Ratliff and others. That may be the best draft solution to the pass rush -- a guy who can help right away at a position where they need depth and who can also develop in the system and help down the road, even if they continue with Spencer at the outside linebacker spot.

Camp Confidential: Dallas Cowboys

August, 21, 2011
8/21/11
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ARLINGTON, Texas -- The Dallas Cowboys' coaches don't just announce drills during training camp practices, hollering out "9-on-7s!" as the horn blows and players shift from one field to the other. They're calling out situations. Two minutes to go, one timeout left, second-and-6 on your own 35. The players either huddle or hustle between plays, depending on what the called-out situation calls for. While these are drills only, they're intended to simulate game conditions as closely as they possibly can.

"Will we ever be able to completely recreate a game situation? No," Cowboys coach Jason Garrett said. "But we're going to try our best in practice, and I think all these situational periods had been really good for us. Not only have we created initial situations, but stuff comes up that isn't scripted, and I think our team has handled those well also."

What strikes you when you spend a few days in Cowboys camp is how normal things seem, how businesslike. Sure, they were in San Antonio for a while and now are splitting practice time between the steamy outdoor fields at Valley Ranch and the air-conditioned luxury of Cowboys Stadium. But it's nothing like last year, when they spent August bouncing between those places as well as Canton and California, brimming with the highest possible expectations, proclaiming with confidence the goal of being the first team to play a Super Bowl in its home stadium.

A 6-10 record and a new coach can humble you, for sure, after a summer like that, and there's no doubt these Cowboys are humbled by the way things went in 2010. But if the end result is the atmosphere Garrett has created in his first training camp as head coach, there are worse things.

"We certainly want an atmosphere where guys like to coach and play football, but we absolutely want to be organized and prepared," Garrett said after Friday morning's workout at the stadium. "We want it to be businesslike when we're out there doing our work, out there on the field and also in the meeting rooms. We want to create a nice, professional atmosphere where we feel like we can function the best."

Garrett exudes both confidence and competence. He has waited his whole life for this chance, but he doesn't seem over-eager or phony about the way he's putting his long-held ideas about how to be a head coach into practice. He is smart, knowledgeable and self-assured, and it's emanating throughout the building. Around a team that often, throughout its history, has been known for something of a circus atmosphere, the mentality this August is straight lunch pail.

"Everybody here knows, whatever we get, we're going to have to work for it," right guard Kyle Kosier said. "Whether it's your spot on the roster or in the starting lineup or a Week 1 win or a playoff spot, it's about putting in this time right here and working. And that's all that's on anybody's mind right now."

THREE HOT ISSUES

[+] EnlargeRob Ryan
Matthew Emmons/US PresswireRob Ryan will be expected to improve a defense that was one of the worst in the league last season.
1. Can the defense learn Rob Ryan's scheme in time? The Cowboys brought in Ryan to be their new defensive coordinator. And while they signed free-agent safety Abram Elam and free-agent defensive end Kenyon Coleman -- both played under Ryan in Cleveland the past two seasons -- the group they're bringing back on defense is otherwise the same as the one that allowed the second-most points in the league last season. Ryan is charged with fixing that, but of course the lockout denied him the opportunity to use spring minicamps and organized team activities as part of his installation process. The defense is trying to cram a whole offseason's worth of learning into one month, and there's a lot to learn. Ryan's defense is based on multiple and ever-changing looks, and a complexity designed to make things as confusing as possible for opposing offenses. But Garrett said he has faith in the quality of his defensive personnel and the ability of his flamboyant new coordinator to teach.

"It's difficult. There are a lot of looks," Garrett admitted. "But the other part to that, too, is that I think he grew up in a very fundamentally sound system in the NFL -- linebacker coach for New England for four years during their Super Bowl era in the early 2000s. So he has a very good feel for base defensive football, and then he has an ability to evolve in different situations and make it more difficult for opposing offenses. So we feel excited about that, and we're excited to see our players play within this system."

2. Can they put together an offensive line? There are some new and inexperienced pieces here. Rookie Tyron Smith, the ninth overall pick in this past draft, will start at right tackle. Every day Smith gets an extra tutoring session with offensive line coach Hudson Houck and a series of rotating instructors that has included Kosier, linebacker DeMarcus Ware, left tackle Doug Free and others. Smith is ultra-talented but needs work on his footwork and learning the schemes. And as with the players learning the new defense, he has to cram. The Cowboys moved Kosier from left guard to right so he could work more closely with the rookie, but now they need a left guard. And while that still has a good chance to be Montrae Holland or Phil Costa, later-round rookies David Arkin and Bill Nagy have been getting first-team reps lately and one of them could end up starting Week 1.

3. Who is the No. 3 wide receiver? One of the first things the Cowboys did when the lockout ended and free agency began was cut receiver Roy Williams to help create cap room. That also created a vacancy at the No. 3 wide receiver spot behind Miles Austin and Dez Bryant. Kevin Ogletree appears first in line to grab the opportunity, though Raymond Radway and Dwayne Harris have shown flashes. Some have suggested the Cowboys need to go out and get a veteran to fill the spot, but with tight end Jason Witten a near-lock for 90-plus catches, running backs Felix Jones and DeMarco Murray potential factors in the passing game and depth at both of those positions, the Cowboys feel as though the No. 3 wide receiver might be the No. 5 target for Tony Romo for most of the season.

THE BUTLER CAN DO IT

Third-year linebacker Victor Butler has been an eye-opener in camp, and some have suggested he might be a threat to Anthony Spencer's starting spot on the side opposite Ware. More likely, he's a guy to add to the pass-rush mix and give them depth and the ability to vary those looks even more. If anything, the camp Butler is having could serve to motivate Spencer to return to his 2009 form after a disappointing 2010.

"You can never have too many pass-rushers on one team," Ware said. "When the Giants won against the Patriots, they had several really great pass-rushers. Pressure is what gets things going. So to be able to develop another third-down guy will really help us out a lot."

TURNING UP A CORNER

[+] EnlargeOrlando Scandrick
John Albright/Icon SMIOrlando Scandrick has been a surprise in training camp and could provide much-needed depth in the Cowboys' secondary.
The Cowboys did not sign free-agent cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha, though they tried, and they'll go with Mike Jenkins and Terence Newman as starting cornerbacks again. The problem is, injuries have kept both Jenkins and Newman sidelined so far in camp, and Newman is out until at least the regular-season opener. This is a spot where the Cowboys struggled mightily in 2010, and they're not going to have their defense the way they want it until they get Jenkins and Newman back on the field. The one positive to come out of this is that backup corner Orlando Scandrick has looked very good in a starter's role so far in camp, so maybe they have some quality depth there that they didn't know they had.

OBSERVATION DECK

  • The Cowboys might have more at defensive end than we thought immediately post-free agency. Coleman looks as if he's poised to steal Igor Olshansky's starting spot from him, and Jason Hatcher has looked rejuvenated and been an asset in the pass rush. Letting Stephen Bowen go to the Redskins felt like a loss at first, but re-signing Marcus Spears and Hatcher and bringing in Coleman might have made them deeper than they'd have been if they'd stayed pat.
  • The kicking competition looks miserable, with neither David Buehler nor Dan Bailey having seized the opportunity and Kai Forbath unable to get on the field because of injury. Don't rule out the possibility that the kicker the Cowboys go with this season isn't on the roster yet.
  • Jones and Romo aren't new or exciting names around here, but they look as good as anyone in camp on offense. When I watched them practice against the Chargers on Thursday, the Cowboys were using Jones around end a lot, and he looks like he has great burst. The offensive linemen I spoke with all hope he gets a chance at full-time carries, because they believe he and Bryant can be "spark plug" guys.
  • Elam was a critical signing, as he'll be responsible for the secondary calls and has been vitally important in helping the holdover players understand the language Ryan is speaking. I'm interested to see if the secondary looks more organized Sunday night having had an additional week-plus practicing with Elam.
  • The Cowboys are serious about Nagy, who was a seventh-round pick after not playing much in his senior season at Wisconsin. He was seriously hurt in a moped accident as a junior and then was passed on the depth chart by a few other guys, so much of the action he got as a senior was actually at tight end. But the Cowboys love his athleticism and maturity. They could start him at guard early in the season, and there are some who think he could eventually start at center for them down the road.

Is Anthony Spencer falling behind?

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I won't personally be at Dallas Cowboys training camp until Thursday, so until then I am relying on the reports of those who are there -- specifically my friend Calvin Watkins and the army of reporters ESPNDallas.com is sending to training camp on a regular basis. One thing that has come through so far is that outside linebacker Anthony Spencer, whose rebound to 2009 form is thought to be a key to the Cowboys' season, has not been impressive so far in camp. Some have even begun to wonder whether third-year man Victor Butler is poised to take Spencer's starting job away from him and be the bookend pass rusher the Cowboys need opposite superstar DeMarcus Ware. This issue came up Tuesday in Cowboys coach Jason Garrett's daily news conference.

"Spence has been a strong contributor opposite DeMarcus Ware," Garrett said. "I think that if you ask teams around the league, they have an issue every week with our outside linebackers. When you have two guys who can make it difficult for either offensive tackles or tight ends or backs to block them, it really becomes a problem. At different times, Spence has been more productive than at other times."

Spencer burst onto the scene in late 2009, when he had four sacks in the Cowboys' final three regular-season games as the Cowboys surged to a division title. He then picked up another sack in each of their playoff games. But he had just two sacks in the final nine games of 2010, both coming in the finale against Eagles backups. The disappointing foll0w-up has left questions as to whether Spencer can truly be considered an "elite" pass rusher.

"It's not really for me to decide about elite pass rushers," Garrett said Tuesday. "We need to live in the world of Spence needs to get better today in practice. He's certainly a guy that teams know can be a very good pass rusher, has been that in the past, has been a guy, when he's not making sacks, is pushing the pocket and pressuring quarterbacks. He, like our whole football team, needs to do that on a more consistent basis."

And if he does, a defense that gave up the second-most points in the league in 2010 could look a lot more like the defense that was pitching shutouts against playoff teams at the end of the 2009 season. If he doesn't, sure, there's a chance someone like Butler, who has a total of five sacks over the past two seasons in a backup role, could take his place.

"Victor Butler's had a very good start to training game; had a very good game the other night," Garrett said. "He's a guy who's showing up on a more consistent basis. Again, we're looking for guys to do that, and we're looking to somehow find opportunities for them."

If Butler keeps doing it and Spencer keeps not doing it, don't be surprised to see a change. This isn't a Cowboys team that's re-tooling and looking toward the future. If Butler as a pass-rusher can help them win now better than Spencer can, I imagine he's going to play.
The Dallas Cowboys, much like the New York Giants, have been mentioned as a team that didn't do much in free agency. In fact they did sign a large number of free agents. It's just that, due to cap concerns and the fact that they were already set at most of the attention-grabbing positions, the Cowboys' free-agency exploits paled (as did most everyone's) to those of the Philadelphia Eagles.

But the Cowboys did sign Doug Free, Kyle Kosier, Marcus Spears, Gerald Sensabaugh, Abram Elam and Jason Hatcher. Five of those six guys are starters, and Hatcher showed up a lot Thursday night in sub packages and with the second-team defense. The performance he delivered in the preseason opener could lead him to an expanded role. Per DallasCowboys.com:
On the opening drive, he hurried Broncos quarterback Kyle Orton into an incompletion that forced Denver to kick a field goal. Later, his pressure led to an Alan Ball interception on Tim Tebow (the play was nullified by pass interference).

Hatcher, who re-signed for three years and $6 million a week into training camp, has 7.5 sacks in five seasons with the Cowboys. He worked hard to stay in shape during the lockout, knowing he could fit into Ryan's rotation.

"I'm playing more right side this year versus left side last year," Hatcher said. "I'm getting more comfortable as practice goes along.

"It allows me to use my athletic ability -- not read blocks, just get off the ball and make plays."

Hatcher seems to like the new Ryan scheme, and more importantly he seems to be grasping it very quickly. Players who do that are likely to have a greater chance to see the field early on that players who don't. The Cowboys aren't the kind of team that's going to want to ease into the season while everybody learns the new defense. They would like to win and compete for a championship this season. If Hatcher understands the defense, is slimmed down and quicker and can be a factor in helping the Cowboys generate a pass rush, you're going to see him a lot. They need help from up front rushing the passer, and Hatcher and Spears both had plays early in Thursday's game that indicated they might get some. I also thought Victor Butler showed a lot from the outside linebacker spot, and there have been plenty of reports from San Antonio that Butler is picking up the defense quickly too.

It's early in this process, and the Cowboys' defense looked it Thursday. But as August rolls along, Ryan is going to be looking for people who can grasp what he's teaching and put it into practice. If Hatcher is going to be such a person, his re-signing, while not very exciting at the time, could turn out to have been a very shrewd one.

Observation deck: Cowboys-Broncos

August, 12, 2011
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I'm not sure if there are fans out there who care whether or not their teams actually win preseason games. But if you're a Dallas Cowboys fan and you do, then the ending of Thursday night's preseason opener was fun. Stephen McGee's touchdown pass to Dwayne Harris in the final minute, and the two-point conversion play that followed to give the Cowboys a 24-23 exhibition victory over the Denver Broncos, provided decent (if meaningless) theater for fans happy to have football back after so long.

Of course, if you're enough of a fan to care about the final score, you almost certainly care even more about the stuff that was going on hours earlier, when the first-teamers were in the game. Here's what I saw from the Cowboys in their first preseason game:

1. The defense is a work in progress, and appears to know it. They've had just two weeks, since the lockout ended, to learn and adjust to Rob Ryan's new scheme. They are still learning. Especially in the secondary, there were lots of times early on where guys were looking around or at each other after the play as if they were trying to figure out what should have happened. The safeties got caught looking into the backfield at critical times. They did a fine job on the goal line in the first quarter, holding the Broncos to a field goal after Kyle Orton had marched down the field somewhat easily, and they got some nice pressure from defensive ends Marcus Spears and Jason Hatcher. But overall, this looked like a defense that's still learning. And that's fine. No one would have expected them to know Ryan's scheme already. He's keeping things simple, withholding the kinds of complicated blitzes and fake-out looks we'll surely see from him as his players get more comfortable with their assignments. These preseason games will be part of the learning process for a defense that will surely look better one, two and three months hence than it does now, and the Cowboys should not be judged on their inability to stop Orton or Tim Tebow on this particular night.

2. Tyron Smith is talented. The Cowboys' first-round draft pick failed to pick up a safety blitz, and that led to a sack. But overall, he held his own against the Broncos' line. What I liked best may have been the fact that, after almost every play, you could see Smith talking to Kyle Kosier as they walked back to the huddle. Moving the veteran Kosier to the right side to play next to the rookie Smith was a sharp idea, and as Smith also uses these games as learning opportunities, he'll benefit from proximity to the Cowboys' brainy guard.

3. More Victor Butler, please. If they don't think they can snap Anthony Spencer back into his late-2009 form, why not use Butler as a pass-rusher on the side opposite DeMarcus Ware? All reports indicate that he's looked good in practice and has a grasp of the scheme and the playbook. He was everywhere Thursday night when he was in the game. With a new coordinator in town, it makes sense to think guys will have chances to play their way into more playing time and larger roles, and Butler could be such a guy.

4. Felix Jones looks speedy. I mean, real nice bust through the line in his first-quarter action. We didn't see Tashard Choice or DeMarco Murray tonight, and Lonyae Miller failed to impress in what was thought to be his big chance. But Jones looked like a guy who wants to be a full-time starting running back in the league and has the tools to make it happen. Time will tell if this is the year, whether he'll have the opportunity to do so and how much he'll rotate with Choice and Murray. But Jones was fun to watch Thursday.

5. How about Dwayne Harris? There doesn't appear to be an immediate threat on the roster to Kevin Ogletree's hold on the No. 3 receiver spot. But if Ogletree struggles, there are some playmakers further down the depth chart. Harris caught two touchdown passes in the fourth quarter and looked tough as he created space and outfought a defender or two for the ball in a couple of spots.

6. Of course David Buehler's field goal was good. Hey, look. As I watched it, I was sure it had missed, too. But the official is standing right there under the upright, and there's pretty much no way to miss that call. It was ugly, but it was good, and it was the only field goal either he or Dan Bailey, his competitor for the kicker job, attempted all night. Buehler made his one extra point attempt and Bailey didn't get a chance at his because of a bungled snap. Bailey handled all the kickoffs, presumably because the Cowboys have no concerns about Buehler's ability to kick the ball through the back of the end zone now that it appears almost everyone can. No blood drawn, it would seem, in the kicker competition Thursday.

7. Stephen McGee. No idea what to make of it, since he was playing with and against backups, but the young man played some very nice football in this game and deserves to be recognized for that. At the very least, he provides potential fodder for the nuts who think Tony Romo should be replaced if the Cowboys don't win the Super Bowl. And that's good. Got to keep the nuts happy.

It's the last day of school in our town, and I have a first-grader (soon to be second-grader, as he would point out) absolutely bouncing off the walls in here. It's funny to recall what an awesome day this was when you were a kid, even as you cope with how frightening a day it is now that you're a parent. So many questions. How is he this old already? What will we do to keep him busy all summer? Don't we really need to be saving more for college? What does he think about what's going on with the teams in the NFC East?

Fortunately, to help with that last part, we can offer links.

Dallas Cowboys

Apparently, new defensive coordinator Rob Ryan made an impression on the Cowboys' defensive players during the brief pre-lockout time he had to talk to them about the new defense. "It's crazy," linebacker Victor Butler said, according to the Dallas Morning News. "You've got d-linemen lining up at the free safety spot. I'd love to see Jay Ratliff line up where Alan Ball is. It sounds crazy but when you get out there and run it it makes a lot of sense. I am super excited. I was hoping for [organized team activities]. That's how excited I was. Nobody hopes for OTAs. But I was hoping for OTAs so we can get in this defense and run this defense." Personally, I don't expect to see Ratliff in pass coverage. But there are worse things for the Cowboys' defense than to be energized after flatlining last year.

Gerald Sensabaugh told NFL.com's Vic Carucci that he's looking forward to testing the market. He said he gave the Cowboys "every opportunity" to re-sign him before the lockout and is "open" to returning but wants to know what his other options are. My guess? With the options that are going to be out there at the safety position, I don't see the Cowboys spending big to keep Sensabaugh. I think they'd like to have him back, but if he's going to have a bunch of other teams bidding on him, I imagine Dallas looks elsewhere.

New York Giants

I have said many times, and will continue to say, that I do not care about Tiki Barber. He is neither a big star nor a relevant player anymore. He's an arrogant, unrepentant scumbag who cares about no one and nothing but himself. He's an obvious phony whose words mean nothing and deserve to be ignored. And yet, some people still care. And Giants links are tough to find these days. So here: He had a fight with a similarly arrogant radio host. Big whoop.

NFL.com's Bucky Brooks thinks the Giants should refuse to give in to Osi Umenyiora's demands. Bucky, I'm pretty sure that's the plan.

Philadelphia Eagles

Attendance is up this year at Michael Vick's football camp in Virginia. Vick's a bigger star than he's ever been in his life, and he's doing a lot of positive things with the platform that stardom has given him.

The Eagles' team web site takes a look at rookie safety Jaiquawn Jarrett and where he fits into the 2011 puzzle. The likely departure of Quintin Mikell surely creates the potential for opportunity, but the Eagles have said they'll be active in the free-agent market, and there are some good safeties available.

Washington Redskins

Chris Cooley would like the Redskins to sign Plaxico Burress. He told Steve Wyche on a podcast, "I'm sure we'll try to sign Santana Moss back, but we need a big-time receiver." Ha! Hope Santana's not insulted, Chris! Plus, I'm just not sure Plax is going to just walk out of prison and qualify as a "big-time receiver." I think he needs to go to a situation where he can fill a very specific, small role and not have much expected of him, at least not right away. Not sure that's the situation he'd find himself in if he were to go to Washington.

Wondering what was going to happen to all those seats they're taking out of the upper deck of FedEx Field to make room for their new "party deck?" Well, if you want, you can buy them. $250 a pair. Don't all rush down there at once, now.

I'm glad you guys (a) suggested and (b) enjoyed the first day of the position-by-position rundown of the potential free-agent crop and potential fits in the NFC East. We're going to do at least two more positions today and keep this thing running until we do them all. That and a look at the Giants' losing streak against the Eagles from the perspective of a Giants player, all right here today on the NFC East blog.

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