NFL Nation: Abram Elam

The San Diego Chargers, whose already faint playoff hopes took a hit Thursday night when the Bengals beat the Eagles, got some good news when rookie left tackle Mike Harris was listed as probable.

That means the Chargers will play Sunday against Carolina likely with just two starting offensive linemen out. Right tackle Jeromey Clary (knee) and guard Tyronne Green (hamstring) are listed as doubtful to play Sunday. Harris, Clary and Green all missed last week’s win at Pittsburgh. Rex Hadnot will play for Green and Kevin Haslam will play for Clary.

Linebackers Donald Butler (groin) and running back Ronnie Brown (hamstring) are listed as doubtful and linebacker Demorrio Williams (ankle) is out for Sunday’s game.

In other AFC West news:

Denver guard Chris Kuper (ankle) and linebacker Wesley Woodyard (ankle) are listed as questionable to play at Baltimore on Sunday. Both players missed last week’s game at Denver and both were limited all week in practice.

Kansas City offensive linemen Ryan Lilja (knee) and Branden Albert (back) are questionable and safety Abram Elam (quad) is doubtful to play at Oakland on Sunday.

For Oakland, safety Tyvon Branch (neck) and defensive tackle Richard Seymour (hamstring) were limited Friday and both are listed as questionable to play Sunday. They will be game-time decisions.

ESPN.com columnist Ashley Fox makes the case for Denver linebacker Von Miller winning the NFL Defensive Player of the Year award.

Baltimore linebacker Terrell Suggs will be a game-time decision on whether he will play against Denver on Sunday with a biceps injury.

The forecast for Baltimore for Sunday’s critical AFC game between the Broncos and the Ravens is for rain. Thus, the running games for each team will be paramount. That could give an edge to the home team.

In an Insider piece, Chris Sprow looks at possible free agents in 2013.Insider

Oakland’s home game against Kansas City has been ruled a sellout and it will be shown on local television. It is Oakland’s last home game of the season.

Chargers may get some O-line relief

December, 7, 2012
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The San Diego Chargers entered the week thinking they’d be without three starting offensive linemen Sunday at Pittsburgh. Now, there appears to be a chance one could play.

Left tackle Mike Harris is questionable with an ankle injury, but he is hopeful of playing. Right tackle Jeromey Clary (knee) is out and right guard Tyronne Green (hamstring) is doubtful. If Harris can play, Kevin Haslam will play right tackle. If Harris doesn't play, Haslam will likely play left tackle and Reggie Wells will play right tackle. Haslam and Wells are both newly signed. Rex Hadnot is expected to play for Green.

In Kansas City, the Chiefs are dealing with several injuries. Safety Kendrick Lewis (shoulder), safety Eric Berry (hand), offensive lineman Branden Albert (back), linebacker Derrick Johnson (hamstring), safety Abram Elam (quad), cornerback Brandon Flowers (hamstring) and guard Jeff Allen (illness) are all questionable to face Cleveland on Sunday.

In other AFC West news:

Denver coach John Fox said he doesn’t think the shoulder injury receiver Demaryius Thomas suffered Thursday appears serious and he hopes Thomas can practice Monday.

Oakland coach Dennis Allen said the ankle aggravated by running back Darren McFadden on Thursday doesn’t appear serious. It was McFadden’s first game back after missing four games with the injury.

More reports of Chargers changes

December, 6, 2012
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This is what happens when a team is 4-8 in a season that it must make the playoffs.

Reports of demise flood in.

In the latest evidence that coach Norv Turner and general manager A.J. Smith are entering their final four games with the team, U-T San Diego reported that ownership has decided to fire both. The report said that the decision to fire Smith has come after the decision to ax Turner, but both will suffer the same fate. This jibes with what ESPN’s Chris Mortensen reported Sunday.

This is no surprise and few in San Diego will complain. In our AFC West poll this week, a whopping 94 percent voted that both Turner and Smith should go. The two were given a surprising reprieve last year. That won’t happen this year after yet another disappointing season.

Like Mortensen did, U-T San Diego reported that San Diego personnel man Jimmy Raye will take over for Smith. The Chargers will search for a new coach in January.

What’s left for Turner and Smith in San Diego? Four more uncomfortable weeks.

UPDATE: San Diego owner Dean Spanos just released this statement: “There is only one person in this organization who will make those decisions and that’s me, and I haven’t shared my thoughts with anyone. I will make my evaluations at the end of the season. Anything coming out now -- from sources or otherwise -- is pure speculation.”

In other AFC West news:
  • Linebacker Derrick Johnson (hamstring), safety Abram Elam (quad), cornerback Brandon Flowers (hamstring) and center Ryan Lilja (knee) all missed practice for the second straight day Thursday.
  • For San Diego, tackle Mike Harris and linebacker Donald Butler (groin) were among the players who missed a second straight day of practice. Butler is likely out. Harris has a slight chance to play Sunday at Pittsburgh.
  • As expected, the Chargers will face Pittsburgh starting quarterback Ben Roethlisberger on Sunday. He has missed the past three games with rib and shoulder injuries.
  • Kansas City running back Peyton Hillis had a humorous retort to the comments of Cleveland tackle Joe Thomas, who said Hillis let his contract situation affect the team. Hillis and the Chiefs visit Thomas and the Browns on Sunday.
I was soliciting ideas in the comments section on the Breakfast Links post, and Cazzi Pro asked about the Dallas Cowboys' safeties, so sure. Why not?

Cazzi's question was rooted in the work my friends over at ESPNDallas.com have been doing with ridiculously early roster projections. Todd Archer is predicting that the Cowboys carry only four safeties, and that free-agent signee Brodney Pool is not one of them. Tim MacMahon projected five safeties on the final roster, though he did issue a disclaimer about Pool, saying he'd probably have to win a starting spot in order to make the team:
If Pool gets beat out, he might never play a game for the Cowboys. It’d be tough to swallow paying a seven-figure salary to a backup safety.
[+] EnlargeStephen McGee
AP Photo/Paul SpinelliWill Barry Church's experience in Dallas' system earn him a starting spot at safety in 2012?
Pool could theoretically lose the starting strong safety spot to Barry Church or rookie Matt Johnson, who was the No. 135 pick in this year's draft in spite of being ranked as the No. 72 draft-eligible safety by our Scouts, Inc. scouting service. (As someone pointed out to me on Twitter at the time, this would have made him an incredible steal in a safety-only draft.)

Remember, this is the Abram Elam spot, for which the team signed Elam last year in part to help the rest of the defensive players learn Rob Ryan's defense. Elam had played for Ryan in Cleveland, as Pool did, and served a valuable leadership role in training camp and early in the season before his play tailed off in the second half. With the defense entering its second season under Ryan, and having a full offseason to learn and practice it this time, it's not quite as important to have someone with prior Ryan experience on the field as it may have been last August and September. So Pool's experience doesn't assure him of anything.

Church is a guy they obviously know, and Johnson is not. They liked his playmaking ability at Eastern Washington, and if he brings the same kind of game to the pros, he projects as a hard hitter with a nose for the ball. And yeah, they could obviously use that. Tim wrote last week that we shouldn't count Johnson out of the mix as a potential starter this year, and I always listen to Tim.

The problem with these sorts of projections, though, is that safety is an impossible position to analyze at this point. I was talking to Redskins coach Mike Shanahan last week about his safeties (name-dropper alert!), and at one point he said, "Who knows with safeties until you put pads on them and see them play?" And he's right. There's no hitting in these minicamps, and until you see how hard a safety hits somebody, it's pretty tough to evaluate him. You might be able to tell whether he's a decent cover guy, or whether he can make plays on the ball, but even that's no sure thing. The nature of the position naturally makes it likely that they'll play differently in a no-pads, no-contact minicamp than they might in a game.

So I'd say we're a long way off from knowing whether Pool is good enough to start for the Cowboys, or whether Johnson can make an impact this year. That the young man will get a chance at all says a lot about Dallas' need for someone to take charge at that position. The sleeper pick out of Eastern Washington would seem an unlikely candidate to do so, but stranger things have happened. And you never know with safeties.

NFC East: Free-agency primer

March, 8, 2012
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AFC Free-Agency Primer: East | West | North | South NFC: East | West | North | South

Free agency begins Tuesday at 4 p.m. ET

Dallas Cowboys

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

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

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

New York Giants

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

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

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

Philadelphia Eagles

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

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

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

Washington Redskins

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

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

What to expect: The Redskins could have more than $40 million in cap room with which to maneuver in free agency, and they're going to need it. They need a quarterback, of course, and if they can't make the trade with the Rams to move up to No. 2 in the draft and pick Robert Griffin III, they'll look at Peyton Manning and Kyle Orton and possibly Matt Flynn, though he doesn't appear to be high on their list. What Shanahan really wants is a true playmaking No. 1 wide receiver, which is why the Redskins have their eyes on Vincent Jackson and Marques Colston, who are at the very top end of that market. They'll be able to outbid almost anyone for those guys if they want to, but they may have to get quarterback figured out first if they want to persuade one of them to take their offer over similar ones. They'll also hunt for help on the offensive line and in the secondary, as they need depth in both places.

Should the Cowboys re-sign Abram Elam?

February, 17, 2012
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I'm going to miss ESPNDallas.com's Cowboys position series when it's gone. We've relied on it a lot over the past week or so for Cowboys content, and I plan on draining every last drop I can out of it. Today's edition is on safeties, and Calvin Watkins specifically takes up the question of whether the Cowboys will or should bring back Abram Elam:
Signing Elam might be a good thing for the Cowboys since he knows Ryan's defensive scheme, but he might want a long-term deal, and that's something the franchise might be unwilling to offer.

That was the point of bringing in Elam a year ago -- that he'd played for defensive coordinator Rob Ryan the year before in Cleveland and could help translate Ryan-speak to those on the Cowboys' defense for those who might have trouble grasping it right away. For a while, it seemed to work well. Elam was a leader on the defense, and the way the Cowboys played defense in the first half of the season led one to believe they were, in fact, picking up Ryan's system rather quickly.

In the end, though, the defense flopped, and the prevailing theory now is that it flopped because it didn't have good enough players. So as the Cowboys look to upgrade as many spots as possible on the defense, they need to treat Elam as they would any other free agent -- weighing his positives against his negatives, factoring in his contract demands, and deciding how important it is to upgrade the safety spot versus cornerback, outside linebacker, etc.

I agree with Calvin that safety isn't a position on which the Cowboys should be spending free-agent dollars, given the likely field and their other needs. So if Elam wants something long-term, the Cowboys are better off looking at lower-rung options and/or finding a safety in the early rounds of the draft. If they can address their pass rush, their cornerback situation, and their offensive line sufficiently in free agency, then maybe they're in a position to draft Alabama's Mark Barron with the No. 14 pick, as Mel Kiper's latest mock draft suggests they could. But the main reason for bringing Elam in a year ago is no longer as compelling as it was then. So they should be open-minded about how to fill his position. He's a candidate, but should be treated as one of several options.
EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- The New York Giants could not have asked for a better first half in the NFC East title game. They have done everything they've wanted to do on offense and defense. They have come out fired up behind high-energy stars like Mathias Kiwanuka and Victor Cruz. And when they've made mistakes, the Dallas Cowboys have consistently failed to capitalize on them.

Eli Manning is 15-for-20 for 199 yards and two touchdowns in the game so far. Ahmad Bradshaw has 46 rush yards and two touchdowns -- one on the ground and one through the air. The Giants are rolling with a 21-0 lead and will get the ball back to start the second half.

The Giants have been picking on overmatched Dallas cornerback Terence Newman all night, and Newman has given them no reason to stop. Not that he's the only Cowboy who should be blamed for what's going on here tonight. Here is a list of costly Cowboys mistakes from the first half. It's not for the faint of heart:
  • Tony Romo overthrowing Dez Bryant on third down on the first series of the game after Bryant had gotten past Corey Webster and could have had a long gain.
  • Newman missing a tackle and allowing Bear Pascoe to hurdle him and convert a third down deep in Giants territory.
  • Newman getting smoked by Cruz for a 74-yard touchdown reception.
  • Alan Ball failing to corral a muffed punt that would have set the Cowboys up with good field position in Giants territory.
  • Abram Elam completely missing a one-on-one tackle and allowing Bradshaw to run in for a touchdown.
  • Gerald Sensabaugh failing to pick up a Brandon Jacobs fumble, which eventually bounced back into the hands of Manning.
  • Romo going past the line of scrimmage before throwing the ball to Bryant for what looked like a big third-down pickup deep in Giants' territory down 14-0 late in the second quarter.
  • Ball downing an excellent Chris Jones punt inside the 5-yard line after going out of bounds, leading to an illegal touching penalty and awarding the Giants the ball on the 20-yard line instead of inside the 5.
  • Henry Hynoski pulling a repeat of the Pascoe hurdle job on Newman on the play just before Bradshaw's short touchdown catch pushed the lead to 21-0 with 1:09 left in the half.

It all adds up to this: One team came to play and the other team looks as though it did not. The Giants have been creative and quick and effective with their pass rush, which has deprived the Cowboys of a chance to take advantage of the Giants' secondary or even really find out if Romo's hand is OK. The Giants have kept the Cowboys off of Manning, which continues a trend. The Cowboys didn't sack Manning in the game three weeks ago in Dallas, and haven't tonight. And the Giants have blocked fairly well in the run game when they've needed to.

The game is not decided or out of reach, but a different -- and much more focused -- Dallas team needs to come out of the halftime locker room, or next week's playoff game is going to be here and not in Arlington, Texas.
So you know how much I like to mix it up with all of you on Twitter. It's the first thing I check when the wheels of the plane hit the ground, and when that happened at Newark Airport this morning I saw that @EZ_Money13 had sent me this bit of 140-character wisdom:
This loss isn't by any means on Romo but it's gonna b "the talk of the town" bc it was n December
[+] EnlargeRob Ryan
Matthew Emmons/US PresswireCowboys defensive coordiantor Rob Ryan had no answer for Eli Manning and the Giants on Sunday.
And @EZ_Money13 is right, of course, but what I told him and what I believe is that that's plain silly. Not only that, it goes to show how silly all of this obsessing over Romo's December record is. Romo was 21-for-31 on Sunday for 321 yards, four touchdowns and no interceptions. That's not a good game for a quarterback, it's a great one. And if you're a quarterback and you throw a touchdown pass that puts your team up 34-22 with less than six minutes on the clock in a home game, you have every right to consider that game won.

The problem, as later tweeters pointed out, was that Romo missed badly on a third-down toss to Miles Austin just before the two-minute warning that would have, if completed, either padded the Dallas lead or at least allowed them to chew more time off the clock. But (a) Austin said he lost the ball in the lights and (b) are we really going to hit Romo for one of his 10 incompletions in a game in which the Cowboys scored 34 points?

No, the only way this loss is on Romo is if they asked him to go in and play nickel cornerback on the last two Giants possessions and he refused. Or if he had a mirror on the sideline and was reflecting light into the eyes of all of his defensive backs, rendering them unable to cover anyone in a Giants' uniform in the game's final five minutes. This loss was on the defense, plain and simple, and anyone who watched the game knows that.

This was on Rob Ryan, the first-year defensive coordinator who had the defense clicking so well in September but has been unable to find ways to stop teams at critical times in the past month. But it goes deeper than that. The Cowboys have personnel issues in the secondary that are costing them. Terence Newman has faded terribly after a hot start. Mike Jenkins makes plays, but he seems to get hurt or at least nearly get hurt every time he does. The mixing and matching of blitzes has resulted in miscommunications and coverage busts in the secondary, and Sunday night they paid for it at the hands of Eli Manning, who's having one of the best seasons of any quarterback in the league.

The Cowboys knew this was going to be a problem. Remember, they tried hard to sign free-agent cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha in the offseason before the Eagles snatched him away. They were going to cut Newman to make room for Asomugha in their lineup and under their salary cap, and they believed he'd be a major upgrade. Asomugha hasn't played up to his hype in Philadelphia, but it's no stretch to believe he'd be doing better at this point than Newman is.

This is an area the Cowboys must adjust in the next offseason. They appear set to part ways with Newman and go with Jenkins and Orlando Scandrick as starting cornerbacks. They're committed to safeties Abram Elam and Gerald Sensabaugh. But they need depth in the secondary, and they need to add a playmaker or two, because the major problems they're dealing with now are personnel problems more than they are scheme problems.

Make no mistake: Ryan deserves his share of the blame and will surely accept it. The talk a couple of weeks ago about him as a head coaching candidate has cooled and will continue to do so as long as teams can throw and score at will against the Cowboys in the fourth quarter. But the Cowboys knew they were going into this season shorthanded on the back end of the defense, and lately it has begun to show up. Sunday night, it showed up big time, and it -- not the Cowboys' quarterback -- lost them a pretty important game.

Air Eli? Giants are a passing team now

December, 8, 2011
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Eli Manning John David Mercer/US PresswireLed by quarterback Eli Manning, the once-rugged Giants have changed their personality this season.
The New York Giants are supposed to be one of the furniture franchises of the NFL. You know where you stand with them. There's a reliable consistency to the way they conduct themselves, operate their franchise and play the game. When you think about the Giants, you think about tough defense and gritty offense. You think about running backs grinding out yards -- three-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust-type stuff that works no matter the era, no matter the windy, cold late-season weather in northern New Jersey.

Which is why it's a little jarring to see that this Giants team -- the one that heads to Dallas on Sunday for a critical NFC East showdown with the Dallas Cowboys -- bears so little resemblance to its run-focused forebears. The 2011 Giants are a passing team, plain and simple. And with Eli Manning as their quarterback, they've become one of the best passing teams in the league.

"They're explosive at all of the skill positions," Cowboys safety Abram Elam said in a phone interview this week. "You've got a lot of guys to account for, and you always have to be aware that they can beat you with the big play in the passing game."

That sounds like the Patriots, and it sounds like the Saints and the Packers and maybe the Peyton Manning Colts. But it's still a little bit surprising, given what we thought we always knew about the Giants and their place in the NFL establishment, that such a description could apply to Big Blue. This year's Giants still wish they could run, and they still open the game trying to run. But there they sit at the very bottom of the stat sheet -- 32nd in the league at 3.3 yards per carry and 83.8 rush yards per game. If a team that really considered itself a running team put up numbers like that, it wouldn't win any games at all.

Fortunately for the Giants, they've turned into a high-octane passing offense. They rank fourth in the league in passing yards, behind only the Saints, Patriots and Packers. They have one wide receiver, Victor Cruz, who's already cracked 1,000 receiving yards and another, Hakeem Nicks, who's only 140 yards away. Manning is fourth in the league in passing yards and fifth in attempts, and he's 295 yards away from 4,000 for the season. That would be the fifth 4,000-yard passing season in Giants' team history. It would also be Manning's third in a row.

"Everybody last week was talking about Aaron Rodgers being a Super Bowl MVP, and he is a great quarterback and having an unbelievable year, but we have the same thing on our side behind us," Giants left tackle David Diehl said. "At the beginning of the season when he compared himself in the same caliber, he got a lot of heat for that and people said 'how can he do that?' But Eli's having an incredible year."

When the Giants need a play, Manning throws the ball. He has shrugged off the departure of Steve Smith and the injuries to Mario Manningham and helped turn Cruz into a superstar wide receiver on the opposite side of the field from the brilliant Nicks. He found tight end Jake Ballard in key situations on a game-winning drive this season in New England. He hooked up with tight end Travis Beckum for a long touchdown pass last week. Running back Ahmad Bradshaw returned after four missed games because of injury, and Manning started last week's game with a screen pass to him.

"The way he's playing, everybody's going to be looking to him," Nicks said of Manning. "He's leading our offense. He's staying confident until the last minute, motivating guys in the huddle, making sure everybody knows when the play could come to them. He's got that energy and that confidence in himself and in everybody else, and everyone on our offense feeds off of him."

They can resist it all they want, and preach the importance of balance on offense. But it doesn't look like this year's Giants, with a banged-up Bradshaw, a faded Brandon Jacobs and all of the offensive line problems they have had (not to mention their injury-riddled defense), can really make good on that.

The Giants are poised to make a run and, in spite of their current four-game losing streak, win the NFC East and get into the playoffs. They have four games left, two against first-place Dallas, and their fate is in their hands. They've had a chance to win every game they've played this season except the one two weeks ago in New Orleans, and there's little reason to think they can't or won't have chances to win these last four. But when they do get that chance, this season's Giants are going to do something the Giants of years past weren't known for doing. They're going to ask their quarterback to air it out. Because that's what this year's Giants do best.
Time once again for our weekly exercise in position-specific agitation: The NFC East All-Division Team.

First, the disclaimer that no one will read: This is an All-Division Team based on overall 2011 performance to date. It is not, I repeat, not based solely on performance in the most recent games. And that, to answer your question, is why Brent Celek is not on it.

Who is on it are the usual suspects at quarterback and running back, as Eli Manning and LeSean McCoy easily held their spots with brilliant Week 8 performances. I made a change at wide receiver, moving Jeremy Maclin back in for Dez Bryant after Bryant's disappearing act against Maclin's Eagles. And I switched up at a couple of spots on defense and on the offensive line.

This week's team features eight Giants, seven Cowboys, six Eagles and six Redskins, and here it is:

Quarterback: Eli Manning, Giants (Last week: Manning)

Running back: LeSean McCoy, Eagles (McCoy)

Wide receivers: Hakeem Nicks, Giants; Jeremy Maclin, Eagles (Nicks, Dez Bryant)

Tight end: Jason Witten, Cowboys (Witten)

Fullback: Darrel Young, Redskins (Young)

Left tackle: Jason Peters, Eagles (William Beatty)

Left guard: Evan Mathis, Eagles (Mathis)

Center: Will Montgomery, Redskins (Montgomery)

Right guard: Danny Watkins, Eagles (Chris Snee)

Right tackle: Tyron Smith, Cowboys (Smith)

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

Defensive tackle: Jay Ratliff, Cowboys; Rocky Bernard, Giants (Ratliff, Bernard)

Outside linebacker: DeMarcus Ware, Cowboys; Mathias Kiwanuka, Giants (Ware, Brian Orakpo)

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

Cornerback: Corey Webster, Aaron Ross, Giants (Webster, Mike Jenkins)

Safety: Kenny Phillips, Giants; Abram Elam, Cowboys (Phillips, LaRon Landry)

Kicker: Dan Bailey, Cowboys (Bailey)

Punter: Sav Rocca, Redskins (Rocca)

Kick returner: Brandon Banks, Redskins (Devin Thomas)

Punt returner: Brandon Banks, Redskins (Banks)

OK, first, on the offensive line: Watching Peters play left tackle Sunday night made you realize how important he is to what the Eagles do, especially as a run-blocking line, and how much they missed him when he was injured. Giving him his spot back over Beatty was a no-brainer. Peters is far and away the best left tackle in this division. Yes, I know Montgomery is playing left guard now for the Redskins, but he played center for their first five games and no other center in the division has a seven-game body of work that's more impressive than what Montgomery did in his five. And at right guard ... Snee is the most accomplished guard in the division, to be sure, but like the rest of the Giants' line he is not having a great year. Missing a game with a concussion didn't cost him his spot, but returning this week and playing a poor game did, especially with the rookie Watkins looking very good in Philadelphia. And yeah, the line could have been even more Eagles-heavy, as I took a long look at moving Todd Herremans into that right tackle spot over Smith, who hasn't been as awesome in the last three games as he was in his first four.

Tight end was a tough call for the first time. Fred Davis' numbers match up very well with Witten's, and if the Dallas passing game continues to struggle and Davis gets healthy and has another big game, you could see a change there soon. That was one of those spots that looked as though it might be unchallenged all year, but Davis is making it interesting.

People keep saying Jason Babin over Cole at defensive end, but they're just not comparable players. Babin is a sack artist, and a brilliant one, but that's literally all he is. He'd even admit to that, and credit Jim Washburn for identifying it last year in Tennessee and allowing him to focus on nothing else. Cole's return from injury made that line whole and flexible, and the way they played Sunday night showed you they'd been missing him as the offensive line had been missing Peters.

As I wrote last week, I've really been thinking for a while about putting one of the Giants' 4-3 outside linebackers on this team, even though the 3-4 outside linebackers in Washington had such a great start to the season. This week seemed like the week to do it. Kiwanuka's performance this year has been remarkable, considering he was asked to switch positions for the good of a team that was weak at linebacker. He and Michael Boley have both played very well, but I really think what Kiwanuka does has earned him the spot over Orakpo to this point.

Both Giants corners appear again this week after going back to the Mike Jenkins well last week. Thought about Terence Newman, who's played well since his return, but when I watch the Giants I really like what Ross is doing, and Webster had another big week against a No. 1 wideout, this time the Dolphins' Brandon Marshall.

Oh, and I made a change at safety, moving Landry out after a poor game and giving his spot to Elam. Might not have felt like the right week to elevate someone on the Cowboys' defense, but this is a year-to-date team, after all. The Cowboys' defense had been extremely good up until Sunday, and Elam deserves credit for his contribution as its leader in the secondary.

So that's it. What'd I mess up?

Scary situation with Rams' Jason Smith

October, 23, 2011
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Doctors are tending to St. Louis Rams right tackle Jason Smith after a frightening collision that compressed Smith's head and neck.

Smith was diving to make a tackle following a turnover when the left-front portion of his helmet struck the right thigh of safety Abram Elam. Smith is now being removed from the field on a cart, immobilized on a stretcher. He acknowledged fans by lifting his hands as the cart left the field.

Fox sideline reporter Jennifer Hale said medical personnel removed Smith's facemask.

Details to come.

The Rams trail the Dallas Cowboys 7-0.

What if the Eagles had hired Rob Ryan?

October, 20, 2011
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We all know that if the San Diego Chargers had hired Rex Ryan instead of Norv Turner to be their head coach in 2007, they'd have two Super Bowl rings by now. This is headline news today, in large part because Ryan has become a prominent head coach at a time when no one in the NFL can seem to take a joke.

But the hubbub over all of this got me thinking about another Ryan -- Rex's brother, Dallas Cowboys defensive coordinator Rob Ryan, and whether the Philadelphia Eagles might have been better off hiring him as their defensive coordinator last winter than promoting offensive line coach Juan Castillo to the position.

[+] EnlargeRob Ryan
Ronald C. Modra/Getty ImagesIn his first season with the Cowboys, Rob Ryan has helped turn the defense around.
Now, up front, let me say that I don't know that this was possible. Ryan was officially hired by the Cowboys 10 days after the Eagles' playoff loss to the Packers, so it's likely his deal with Dallas was done before the Eagles ever knew they'd be firing defensive coordinator Sean McDermott. So this isn't a column that says the Eagles made a mistake by not getting Rob Ryan. I don't know if they ever could have.

But there's a point to be made here about the value and importance of coaching in the NFL, and the difference between the way the Cowboys' defense and the Eagles' defense have played this year helps make it.

Both defenses needed help. Both underachieved in 2010 -- the Cowboys to devastating levels and the Eagles just enough to cost them down the stretch. Both teams needed to overhaul things on the defensive side of the ball, and they went in different directions to do it. The Cowboys believed they had the player personnel in place to have a good defense if they could just get 2009 stars such as Anthony Spencer and Mike Jenkins to play the way they'd played in 2009. Add a safety here, a 3-4 defensive end there, promote Sean Lee to starter and they felt like they weren't far off. What they needed was somebody who could bring it all together, and so they brought in Rob Ryan, who'd coached the Cleveland Browns' defense to respectability in 2009 and 2010 and clearly knew what he was doing.

The Eagles needed to change personnel, so they decided to overhaul everything. Not only did they switch Castillo from offensive line to defensive coordinator, they brought in respected defensive line coach Jim Washburn. They decided they'd play a completely different style of defense, built on linemen who get upfield and harass quarterbacks. They went out into the trade and free-agent markets and brought in two new cornerbacks, two new defensive linemen and built it all up from scratch, and they gave all of this responsibility to a guy who'd been coaching the offensive line for the previous 13 years.

The results? Well, the Eagles have struggled, and the scheme and its administration have come under fire. Washburn's "Wide-9" defensive front appeared to leave the Eagles vulnerable to the run through the first five games, especially because they under-spent at linebacker and don't have the players at that position to support the hyper-aggressive line in run defense. For some reason, they're playing their new cornerbacks in zone coverage when they've excelled in the past as man-to-man cover guys. Castillo has shown an ability to adjust and fix things during games, but the Eagles' defense often seems unprepared at the start of games, getting run over early by everybody from Steven Jackson to Fred Jackson to Victor Cruz.

There was a lot to bring together here in a short period of time, and they took a big risk by handing that responsibility to a first-year defensive coordinator. The results are mixed. The Eagles rank 14th in the league in total defense as measured by yards allowed per game, but their struggles in the run game prior to last week and their susceptibility to big plays early in games has cost them dearly.

The Cowboys, who were one of the league's worst defenses in 2010, currently rank fifth in the NFL in total defense. Only the Steelers, Bengals, Ravens and Chargers have allowed fewer yards per game. No team has been tougher against the run. And Dallas has played two of the league's highest scoring teams in its past two games. They added Abram Elam at safety and Kenyon Coleman at defensive end -- two guys who'd played for Ryan in Cleveland -- and they let Ryan at the holdovers. The result is that guys such as Lee and Jenkins and Spencer and Terence Newman are playing lights-out. The Cowboys eschewed major personnel changes in favor of a new, stronger voice -- an experienced and accomplished defensive coordinator -- and it appears to be paying off. They're 2-3, but most of that is on the late-game failings of the offense. And with the schedule about to soften up, Dallas' improved defense could be a key to a huge second half.

Two different approaches to similar problems. And the year isn't even halfway over yet, so it's too early to say for sure whose solution was the better one. But the early returns indicate that the Cowboys' decision to emphasize coaching as a way of improving on defense was a smart one, and that the risk the Eagles took by under-emphasizing it may prove costly.
When training camp began last month, inside linebacker Sean Lee wasn't even a sure thing to start for the Dallas Cowboys. But after three eye-popping games as their starter, the Cowboys announced Wednesday, Lee has been named the NFC's Defensive Player of the Month. Lee is the first Cowboys player to win this award since it was established in 1986.

The numbers that accompanied the release of this announcement are impressive. The Cowboys have credited Lee with a team-leading 36 tackles through three games. He also has two interceptions, two fumble recoveries, a tackle for a loss and three pass breakups. He's been a revelation at inside linebacker, reducing veteran Keith Brooking to something like an afterthought and symbolizing the effect new defensive coordinator Rob Ryan has had on the team.

I had thought that the Cowboys would struggle on defense early in the season as they worked to learn Ryan's complex new scheme -- that the Dallas defense, while talented, would be better in November than it was in September. But the Cowboys have been a very good defensive team so far -- particularly in the second halves of their past two games -- and Lee and the seamless way he seems to fit in with what Ryan is teaching are a big reason why.

Ryan's defense relies on ever-shifting looks and deception. A player like Lee is given an assignment -- be it cover the tight end, spy the running back, rush the passer, play a certain zone, whatever -- but is allowed freedom to determine how he wants to accomplish that assignment. He can line up wherever he wants, for instance, assuming he can get to where he needs to be in time to do his job. The player becomes part of the deception, doing his part to confuse the offense before the snap. And a player like Lee, who plays with speed and intensity and has the ability to put himself around the ball seemingly at all times, can thrive in that kind of a scheme.

Lee isn't the only one thriving. Defensive end Kenyon Coleman and safety Abram Elam, who played for Ryan last year in Cleveland, also have shined. Linebacker Anthony Spencer and cornerback Mike Jenkins, two talented players who regressed last year after strong 2009 campaigns, have rebounded. And DeMarcus Ware, likely the best player Ryan has ever had on one of his defenses, remains an unparalleled pass-rushing force. But Lee has been the battery, the spark plug, the main cog in the Cowboys' defensive machine so far this year, patrolling the middle of the field with unrelenting energy and disrupting offenses at every turn. A well-deserved award, to be sure.

Observation deck: Cowboys-Vikings

August, 27, 2011
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Yeah, I know the game's not over yet. And I want to see DeMarco Murray as much as the next guy does. But I'm in New Jersey and I'm not sure how much longer the power will stay on. So I thought it made some sense to get something down now, rather than later, about the Dallas Cowboys' preseason game Saturday night in Minnesota.

First off, everybody's going to want to talk about the defense, which gave up 216 yards to Adrian Peterson, Donovan McNabb and the Vikings in the first half. Peterson looked unstoppable, which he often does against many teams. The Vikings' offensive line beat up the Dallas defensive line in the run game, and Peterson cashed in for 69 yards on 11 carries. Safeties Gerald Sensabaugh and Abram Elam got burned on a long touchdown pass to Bernard Berrian, and it's very easy to come out of that first half saying the Dallas defense looks like more of the same from last season, when only the Broncos gave up more points.

But I'm not sure Cowboys fans should be so quick to get so down about this, and for a number of reasons.

First, and most importantly, it's only preseason. I'm constantly preaching here that you can't make sweeping predictions or evaluations about team performance in preseason, because you don't know what you're watching. Some teams game plan, others don't, and sometimes plays get called for the express purpose of identifying how a certain player will do in a certain matchup. To say the Cowboys' defense is in trouble because they gave up a bunch of yards in the first half Saturday night is a classic overreaction.

[+] EnlargeTony Romo
AP Photo/Andy KingThe Vikings pressured Tony Romo for much of the first half, but Romo still managed to amass 141 yards and was 15-of-20 passing.
Secondly, they did do some good individual things. Cornerback Orlando Scandrick had a couple of nice pass breakups in big spots against Berrian. Jason Hatcher got his hand on a McNabb pass and Sensabaugh made a nice diving interception before the ball hit the ground. I thought Anthony Spencer was very active and busy around the ball, whether it was pressuring McNabb (he sacked him once) or making a play or a tackle in coverage. Overall, the tackling (which was a major issue for the Cowboys last year) was fine. Peterson had a couple of chances to break very long gainers and didn't. So while they didn't do a good job containing him at the point of attack, they did manage to keep him from completely destroying them.

Finally, the Cowboys are not at full strength on defense. They're still missing starting cornerbacks Mike Jenkins and Terence Newman, and starting defensive end Marcus Spears. And those who are playing have only had a month's worth of practices in new defensive coordinator Rob Ryan's new system. It's perfectly understandable if frustration from last season's defensive performance leaks into this season. But it's unfair to assume based on preseason games that it won't be better. It's a work in progress, getting healthier and more comfortable. And considering how strong the Cowboys' offense should be, remember: The defense doesn't have to be one of the best in the league to make them a contender. It only has to improve from the back of the pack to somewhere near the middle.

As for that offense, there were quite a number of highlights, which I'll hit as I mention some other things I saw:

1. Tony Romo looks great. He was pressured early up the middle (remember, they were starting a third-string center) but held up fine and threw with impeccable accuracy and confidence all night. He was 15-for-20 for 141 yards in the first half, and even some of his misses were well thrown. The near-touchdown on which Kevin Ogletree couldn't get his second foot in bounds was a perfect throw. The throw just out of Dez Bryant's reach at the goal line shortly before Felix Jones' touchdown run was in a place where Bryant was the only one who would have even had a chance to catch it. Romo's accuracy is his greatest strength, and it was on display Saturday.

2. Bryant is a physical beast. He can overpower defensive backs to make a catch. When he makes a catch, he's hard to bring down. He's 6-2, 225 with great hands and great instincts. Once defenses have Miles Austin to worry about as well as Bryant, Romo is only going to look better.

3. Jones continues to impress. But while Jerry Jones is out there saying Tashard Choice needs to play better on special teams to make the roster, Choice looked good on a couple of runs while spelling Felix. Murray was also set to play at some point Saturday (and I'll update with stuff on him if the storm allows), and as great as Jones has been this preseason, it's good for the Cowboys to see what their other options are for giving him a break and helping to keep him healthy.

4. Jesse Holley is working hard to make the team. Made a couple of very nice third-down catches, missed a tackle on a kick return ... mixed bag kind of a first half for Holley, but if Romo's comfortable throwing to him and he's making the catches when he does, that's got to help his case.

5. The offensive line got better as the game went along. As mentioned, there were some issues early with the Vikings getting pressure up the middle. Rookie Bill Nagy still looks like he needs to add strength, and Tyron Smith looked as though he was struggling with his footwork again on the first offensive series. But things tightened up as the first half moved along, and they were able to keep Romo clean and allow him to make his plays. On the sack, left tackle Doug Free got beaten by Jared Allen, who forced Romo up in the pocket where Christian Ballard got off a Nagy block to bring Romo down. I wonder if Nagy's supposed to hold that block longer, or if I'm watching the rookie too closely.

6. Shayne Graham should be the kicker. Dan Bailey and Graham each hit a mid-range field goal (37 and 38 yards, respectively) at this writing, but given Graham's track record I have to think he gets the job as long as he doesn't miss kicks in the preseason. He didn't look great on kickoffs, but the new rules make that less important this season.

Again, more later if I'm still online. But that's what I have for now.


Camp Confidential: Dallas Cowboys

August, 21, 2011
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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 re-create 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 ever 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 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 saw 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.

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