NFL Nation: Brodney Pool

IRVING, Texas -- The free-agent shopping starts today at 3 p.m. CT.

If the Dallas Cowboys have learned anything, it’s that they should use coupons.

From 2006-11, the Cowboys signed 12 players in unrestricted free agency. Only two players who signed multi-year deals reached the end of their contracts: Kyle Kosier signed a five-year, $15 million deal with the Cowboys in 2006 and was with the team through 2011. Keith Brooking signed a three-year, $6 million deal in 2009 and was a contributor through 2011.

Igor Olshansky (2009), Leonard Davis (2007) and Akin Ayodele (2006) are the only other players who made it more than one season on their original deals, and Olshansky and Ayodele made it only two seasons.

The Cowboys signed seven unrestricted free agents in 2012 and three lasted one season (Dan Connor, Nate Livings and Lawrence Vickers) on multi-year deals. Brodney Pool signed a one-year deal and barely made it to training camp.

Three members of the 2012 free-agent class remain: Brandon Carr (five years, $50 million), Mackenzy Bernadeau (four years, $11.5 million) and Kyle Orton (three years, $10.5 million). Carr is coming off a disappointing 2013 season, Bernadeau took a pay cut last week and Orton is not sure he wants to play.

Spending money in free agency is hardly ever the answer. The Cowboys will not have a ton of money available to them when the market opens until the DeMarcus Ware situation is resolved, and even then they will have to be wise with how they spend it and who they spend it on.

The needs are obvious: defense, defense and more defense. That’s what happens when a unit finishes last in the NFL in 2013. But the Cowboys could use a veteran presence at wide receiver (Robert Meachem, Jason Avant) and a backup quarterback if Orton walks away (Shaun Hill).

Finding defensive line help is a must, but the Cowboys will have to be budget conscious. They have had on and off talks with Jordan Woy, who represents free agents Jason Hatcher and Anthony Spencer, for most of the offseason. Both players could find better financial opportunities elsewhere.

Hatcher turns 32 in July and is coming off a career-high 11 sacks. He was added to the Pro Bowl. Spencer played in only one game in 2013 because of a knee injury that will not be healed enough for him to be 100 percent ready for training camp.

How much of a commitment can the Cowboys make and feel like they will get their money’s worth?

Ties to new defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli could help in the pursuit of Henry Melton, but he is coming off a torn anterior cruciate ligament.

Value is often the most overlooked part of free agency. The big-money signings lead to the biggest headlines, but do not correspond enough to wins and losses.

The Cowboys found value in Kosier, Brooking, Gerald Sensabaugh and Bernadeau but did not or have not received enough bang for the buck in Carr ($26.5 million guarantee) and Davis ($18.75 million guaranteed).

As the Cowboys look to clear this 8-8 bump that has turned into Mt. Everest, they need to spend wisely, but more importantly they need to choose wisely.
OXNARD, Calif. – Much was made of Dallas’ free agency shopping spree in 2012. Less than a year and a half later, the Cowboys don’t have much to show from the seven-player class.

If the Cowboys had their choice, only one of those players would see significant playing time for the team this season.

A quick recap on the class’ contributions to the Cowboys and where they stand with the franchise now:

CB Brandon Carr (five years, $50 million): Jerry Jones readily admitted the Cowboys paid “retail” to fill a major need. Carr had a solid first season in Dallas but didn’t perform well enough to merit serious consideration for his first Pro Bowl appearance. The hope is that he’ll benefit from Monte Kiffin’s scheme, which relies on cornerbacks to get in receivers’ faces and play physical.

OG Nate Livings (five years, $18.7 million): The Cowboys hoped that Ronald Leary would beat out Livings even before the veteran needed arthroscopic surgery on his knee, likely sidelining Livings for the rest of training camp. The question now is whether the Cowboys will cut Livings despite his $1.7 million salary being guaranteed this season.

OG Mackenzy Bernadeau (four years, $11 million): The Cowboys tried to replace Bernadeau with Brandon Moore, but the ex-Jet changed his mind and decided to retire. Bernadeau, who was demoted to a backup his last season in Carolina, has had injury issues since arriving in Dallas. The Cowboys clearly aren’t confident that they can count on him after he struggled last season, missed all of offseason workouts while recovering from shoulder surgery and was sidelined the first two weeks of camp with a strained hamstring.

QB Kyle Orton (three years, $10.5 million): Orton threw only 10 passes last season. The Cowboys would love it if he played that little again this year. They signed him purely as an insurance policy, albeit a pretty expensive one. They’re confident that they’ll have an adequate quarterback if Tony Romo goes down, but it’d be a major dropoff.

LB Dan Connor (two years, $6.5 million): It’s funny to think that a year ago Connor vs. Bruce Carter was considered one of the best position battles in camp. Connor, who got a $2.7 million signing bonus, became a cap casualty after a 58-tackle season. He signed a one-year, $780,000 deal with the New York Giants.

FB Lawrence Vickers (two years, $2.4 million): Vickers was a bit player for a team that statistically had the worst rushing attack in franchise history. He’s out of football now, cut by the Cowboys after they decided to scrap the fullback position in favor of using multiple tight ends.

S Brodney Pool (one year, $1.1 million): Pool was guaranteed only $100,000. He didn’t exactly earn that money, flunking the pre-camp conditioning test and getting cut soon thereafter when it was clear he had no chance to beat out Barry Church for the starting job.

Camp Confidential: Dallas Cowboys

August, 10, 2012
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OXNARD, Calif. -- The one-on-one confrontations drawing the most attention these days in Dallas Cowboys training camp are the ones between running back DeMarco Murray and linebacker Sean Lee. Each of Dallas' young, serious, budding stars sees the other as a daily personal challenge. Murray is determined to finish every run as far downfield as he can, and Lee is determined to make that as difficult as possible. The action is so good, coach Jason Garrett said, that he's using Lee and Murray as examples for the rest of the team: "Look at the way this guy works. Look at the way this guy practices."

The fact that Garrett's examples, in this case, are a third-year linebacker and a second-year running back says a great deal about where the Cowboys are as a franchise. Yes, of course they want to win in 2012. But the sense you get when you spent time around this team is that they're all focused on building a successful and sustainable long-term future.

"Those young guys we have came in right away and just started molding themselves as impact players," star linebacker DeMarcus Ware said. "Those are the guys that are going to be here and be that team. And right now, our veteran guys are still in our prime, along with the guys who are going to take your place eventually. So I think we have the building blocks that we need, and I feel like we have that total team this year."

This year could go either way for a Cowboys team that still has questions about its defense, its offensive line and its depth in general. But those who focus only on 2012 and wonder whether Garrett or quarterback Tony Romo would be in trouble if Dallas doesn't reach the playoffs are missing the point. Garrett is, increasingly, in control of the way this team is being put together. And his long-range vision has the support of owner Jerry Jones, who longs for a return to the 1990s dynasty days.

"We're trying to build our football team for 2012, but we're also trying to build a football program," Garrett said. "To put a program in place that's going to have sustained winning for years to come. 'Build' is an important word for us. It's something we've talked about a lot this offseason. I think the values that I have are shared by the people in our organization. We've done it a lot of different ways with the Cowboys through the years, but I would argue that the football character of the Super Bowl teams in the '90s was outstanding. They loved to play football. They worked hard at it. There was great spirit to them. They loved it and they worked hard at it and they understood what 'team' was."

By trying to prioritize character and makeup when choosing which players to draft or sign, Garrett believes the Cowboys are giving themselves the best possible chance to replicate that 1990s vibe. Of course, there's one very important thing this year's team can do to contribute to the long-term goals.

"We've put the good work in when it comes to foundation, but it doesn't mean anything unless we win," Lee said. "We need to win in big situations. We need to get to the playoffs. We need to compete for Super Bowls every year if we want to be a legitimate team. I think we have the character and the talent to do it, but it's a matter of putting it on the field."

THREE HOT ISSUES

Tyron Smith and Bill Callahan
AP Photo/James D SmithTyron Smith, left, will be moving from right to left tackle along the Cowboys' reshuffled offensive line.
1. The offensive line. For all of the well-deserved heat the defense took during last season's collapse, the offensive line was a year-long problem. The Cowboys couldn't find any kind of decent mix on the interior, where they're still struggling with health, strength and the center-quarterback exchange. Phil Costa returns as a somewhat underwhelming starting center, and the hope is that veterans Mackenzy Bernadeau and Nate Livings will solidify the guard spots, but to this point they have not. Doug Free struggled so much at left tackle last year that he's been moved back over to the right side, while 2011 first-round pick Tyron Smith has moved to the left. Smith was outstanding as a rookie, and there's little reason to believe he won't be able to handle the transition, but the other four spots on the line remain question marks.

That Romo was able to post big numbers last year behind a struggling line last year says a lot about him, and the Cowboys will once again count on their quarterback to cover some of those weaknesses. But they must be able to protect him, and to open holes for Murray in the run game. NFL history is littered with teams that had great quarterbacks, running backs and receivers but were done in by bad offensive lines. If the Cowboys want to avoid becoming another of those teams, they need to find a serviceable mix of linemen at some point in August.

2. Corner-ing the market. Garrett says that the first thing the Cowboys do when constructing their roster is identify the "money positions" -- the spots on which they're willing to commit major resources. For Dallas, these are quarterback, offensive tackle, pass-rusher, playmaking wide receiver and cornerback. Given that, it's no surprise that they attacked cornerback hard this offseason. They signed free agent Brandon Carr to a huge contract and traded their first-round and second-round draft picks for Morris Claiborne. That's committing major resources to one position, and the Cowboys' hope is that they can build their 2012 defense around two great man-coverage cornerbacks.

"No pressure, right?" Carr joked when asked about the responsibility he carries as the big free-agent signing. "I like it. I came from Kansas City, where we played a lot of man-to-man, and with this front seven we have here we should have an opportunity to go out there and challenge receivers and make plays on the ball."

Claiborne missed the offseason program while recovering from wrist surgery, and a knee problem has kept him off the field for the early part of training camp. Defensive coordinator Rob Ryan will be able to do a lot of creative things with his defensive front if he can count on Carr and Claiborne being effective in man coverage, so the Cowboys would like to see Claiborne on the field as much as possible this preseason so he can get up to speed on the NFL game.

3. Winning when it counts. The Cowboys lost four of their last five games in 2011, including two to the Giants, and finished one game behind the first-place Giants in the NFC East. It's not hard to figure out what they need to do better.

"That's why we didn't end up making the playoffs and that's why the Giants went on -- because they could make big plays in big situations," Lee said. "We need to be able to do that and be more consistent with it."

Lee, Ware and the linebacking corps look like a bunch of playmakers. The Cowboys think their new cornerbacks can be playmakers. They know Romo, Dez Bryant, Jason Witten and Miles Austin can be playmakers on offense. But as Lee says, they just need to do it. Austin can't lose the ball in the lights on third down in the home game against the Giants. Somebody besides Ware needs to come up with a sack every now and then. If the Cowboys' lesson of 2011 is that they need to be tougher in big spots, they'll get plenty of 2012 chances to show whether or not they learned it.

REASON FOR OPTIMISM

Dez Bryant and Tony Romo
Ron Jenkins/Fort Worth Star-Telegram/MCT via Getty ImagesDez Bryant, left, and Tony Romo are among the many playmakers the Cowboys have on offense.
The Cowboys' front-line talent is very good. Romo, Bryant, Austin and Witten all rank among the top players at their positions on offense, and Ware is probably the best defensive player in the entire league. There's reason to believe a healthy Murray can be an outstanding runner, and the offense worked very well last year while he was healthy and starting. Lee looks like an emerging superstar on defense, and we've already talked about the corners. If they can get lucky and avoid major injuries to starters, the Cowboys have as much talent at key positions as anyone in the conference.

REASON FOR PESSIMISM

The flip side, of course, is that there isn't much depth behind those offensive stars. And guys like Austin, Bryant, Murray and Romo aren't always the picture of health. You can make the point that no team can sustain injuries to key starters, but the Cowboys especially look like a team for which everything really needs to go right. An early training-camp hamstring injury to Austin is a bad sign. Unless they're going to somehow find another Laurent Robinson in the wide receiver bargain bin, they need to keep Austin and Bryant on the field.

OBSERVATION DECK

  • There are interesting battles going on for spots on the defensive line, where Kenyon Coleman and Marcus Spears are seeing their roster spots challenged by the likes of Sean Lissemore and Clifton Geathers. With Jay Ratliff and Jason Hatcher looking like sure-thing starters, Josh Brent the likely backup at nose tackle, and third-round pick Tyrone Crawford in the mix as a situational pass-rusher, there may only be two more spots on the roster for defensive linemen.
  • Don't rule Ronald Leary out of the mix for a starting guard spot. He was undrafted, but the Cowboys like him a great deal and the competition at those spots is very much open at this point.
  • Bryant looks like the best player on the field at Cowboys practices. Simple as that. There is nothing football-related that's keeping him from being one of the best wide receivers in the league. Now, if they can just build him an apartment that's attached to the field so he never has to be away from it, they should be all set.
  • This time last year, everybody was worried about the third wide receiver spot, and they plucked Robinson out of nowhere to catch 11 touchdowns. With Robinson gone off to Jacksonville, fans are worried again, but the Cowboys aren't. Even if someone like Kevin Ogletree wins the spot and can't play the way Robinson did last year, they'll find a way to make up for his production. "You can fill it with the second tight end, you can fill it with the backs, and obviously with the third wide receiver," Witten said. "But I don't think it's just one guy. What Laurent did, it's hard for a No. 3 receiver to come in and do that. So I think it's got to be a combination."
  • Barry Church won a starting safety spot in the first week of camp. Yes, Brodney Pool was a disappointment, but part of the reason they cut him so early was that they liked what Church had shown them. So it appears he'll start at safety along with Gerald Sensabaugh. If he can transfer his early-camp performance into real games, that'd be a big bonus for the secondary -- whether or not those corners are locking people down in man coverage.
  • The linebacker group looks like a real strength, even inside. Lee is a big-time playmaker, and both Dan Connor and Bruce Carter have been performing well as they fight for the other starting inside linebacker job. Still not sure if Anthony Spencer can improve as a pass-rusher enough to give them a credible threat opposite Ware, but they should be tough to move the ball against in the middle of the field.
  • The switch from left tackle to right tackle could take a little time for the ultra-talented Tyron Smith. He played right tackle in college and is working on retraining himself on things as simple as which foot to move first. I expect he'll get it figured out in time.
  • The talk early in camp was of using Bryant on punt returns and backup running back Felix Jones on kick returns. The Cowboys have been hesitant to use Bryant on returns because of his value to the passing game, so they're looking at other options. But none is as potentially game-changing as Bryant is with the ball in his hands.

Checking in on Cowboys camp

July, 25, 2012
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The Dallas Cowboys opened training camp for rookies and selected veterans Wednesday, and there are a few newsy tidbits courtesy of my good friends over at ESPNDallas.com.

Cornerback Mike Jenkins is one of five players opening camp on the Cowboys' physically unable to perform list. He's in camp, continuing his recovery from shoulder surgery, but as Calvin Watkins wrote this morning, his situation is very much in flux. He's not happy about being the No. 3 corner behind Brandon Carr and rookie Morris Claiborne, and he's asked for a new contract or a trade, neither of which the team wants to give him. The Cowboys don't know when they'll see Jenkins on the field, in part because he doesn't seem in a hurry to get there. The rest of the PUP crew -- guard Mackenzy Bernadeau, wide receiver Danny Coale, guard/center Kevin Kowalski and safety Matt Johnson -- are all expected back in the coming weeks.

All five players matter. Bernadeau and Kowalski are in contention for starting spots on the interior of the offensive line, the team wants to see if Coale can be a real candidate for the No. 3 wide receiver spot as a rookie, Johnson has a chance to beat out Brodney Pool for a starting safety job but needs to be on the field to do it, and Jenkins is of course part of the Cowboys' plan to be as deep as possible at the position that devastated them last year.

Most eyes Wednesday were on top draft pick Claiborne, the rookie cornerback who missed OTAs and minicamp while recovering from wrist surgery but was on the field for the first training camp practice. Todd Archer thought he looked aggressive ("maybe too aggressive at times, but it's better to be that way and coach it out of a cornerback"), and I think everyone's eager to get to Oxnard next week and see how he looks against Dez Bryant and Miles Austin. Claiborne also returned some punts, but the reviews on that don't indicate that you should expect to see it once games start.

And rookie Tyrone Crawford is a bit behind due to the calf injury that limited him this spring and summer, but he's working at it. Crawford's a long-term project anyway, and unlikely to play a major role early in 2012.

So there's your Cowboys update for the day. They'll be my final training camp stop, and I won't see them until Aug. 6, so I'll do my best to keep you posted in the meantime, even if that just means referring you to the exhaustive and perpetually excellent work of Calvin, Todd and Tim MacMahon.
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.

Cowboys: One big question

May, 3, 2012
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Have the Dallas Cowboys really fixed their defense?

I'll give them cornerback. With the free-agent signing of Brandon Carr and the surprising trade up in the first round of the draft to pick Morris Claiborne, the Cowboys have worked hard to make sure that this year's starting cornerbacks will be much more difficult for Giants fullbacks to jump over. Assuming Claiborne is the instant-impact guy he was drafted to be, he, Carr, Mike Jenkins and Orlando Scandrick make one of Dallas' weakest 2011 units a 2012 strength.

But questions remain at other places on a defense whose total system failure was the sole reason the Cowboys lost four of their last five games and the division title. Is Brodney Pool an upgrade over Abram Elam at safety? Can they get reliable production from that other inside linebacker spot from the combination of Dan Connor and Bruce Carter? Will Anthony Spencer be a more effective pass-rusher? Do they have a plan for limiting the wear and tear on nose tackle Jay Ratliff, to help him maintain a high level of performance throughout the second half of the season?

The Cowboys' active and productive offseason has done nothing to directly address the pass rush. There is a theory that the improvements at cornerback will help the pass rush, since better coverage of receivers could give the men up front more time to get to the passer. And that may well be true. But any and all improvements the Cowboys have made on defense remain theoretical until we see that defense on the field. Last year, the party line in Dallas was that the defensive personnel were good and had underachieved and would improve in the first year under new coordinator Rob Ryan. That turned out not to be the case, and now some of the personnel have been changed. But it remains up to Ryan to put it together as a cohesive unit more capable of stopping opponents than the 2011 version was. Right now, we're taking the Cowboys' word that the new faces are dramatic enough upgrades to pull that off. But aside from the money spent on Carr and the high draft position of Claiborne, there's little outside evidence to support it. More could have been done to improve at safety, outside linebacker and defensive line, and it was not. Although Ryan may be able to make it all work, it's hard to feel too certain about it on May 3.

NFC East free-agency assessment

March, 30, 2012
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AFC Assessments: East | West | North | South NFC: East | West | North | South

Dallas Cowboys

Key additions: CB Brandon Carr, S Brodney Pool, QB Kyle Orton, FB Lawrence Vickers, LB Dan Connor, G Nate Livings, G Mackenzy Bernadeau

Key losses: WR Laurent Robinson, TE Martellus Bennett, FB Tony Fiammetta, CB Terence Newman, G Kyle Kosier (cut)

"You ain't a beauty, but hey, you're all right": Rather than go big for the biggest names out there, the Cowboys took a more directed, focused approach to free agency this year. They did spend a lot to bring in Carr, but they had a glaring need at cornerback and they believed Carr was the best one on the market. The two guards were specifically targeted by Cowboys' scouts and new offensive line coach Bill Callahan, and Connor was brought in to address a need at inside linebacker while 2011 draft pick Bruce Carter continues to develop.

The only loss that they didn't upgrade is that of Robinson, who signed with the Jaguars after coming out of nowhere to catch 11 touchdown passes from Tony Romo in 2011. The Cowboys will hope that one of the young receivers on their roster fills that No. 3 wide receiver role, or that they can catch lightning in a bottle again this year as they did with Robinson last year. They could miss Kosier's leadership on the offensive line, but he was getting old and injured and they needed to keep getting younger on the line.

What's next: While they'll keep an eye out for a bargain-bin receiver to replace Robinson, and they could try and find another tight end to replace Bennett, the Cowboys' main focus the rest of this offseason is likely to be on defense. They could add to the safety or cornerback mix in the draft or with another free agent. They'll keep looking to upgrade the pass rush, either with another outside linebacker or a defensive lineman. Those are the likely areas in which the Cowboys will focus their efforts in the draft.

Otherwise, it's going to be about sorting things out, especially on the offensive line. They need to find a pair of starting guards from a group that includes the two newcomers and the two youngsters -- David Arkin and Bill Nagy -- they drafted last year. Training camp should help sort out what needs to be sorted out on the offensive side of the ball. The draft will be for adding more pieces to Rob Ryan's defense.

New York Giants

Key additions: TE Martellus Bennett

Key losses: RB Brandon Jacobs, WR Mario Manningham, CB Aaron Ross, T Kareem McKenzie

"Reason to believe": The Giants don't like to make big free-agent splashes, and since they're up against the salary cap they also have little choice. But their second Super Bowl title in five years should help ease any concerns fans might have about if they're doing enough in the offseason. The Giants' way is to establish fair prices for the positions they need to fill and to be patient until they find players willing to play for their number. They'd have loved to have Jacobs or Manningham or Ross back, but not for the kind of money those guys found in free agency. They'd love to have linebacker Jonathan Goff and defensive end Dave Tollefson back, but if they get big-money deals elsewhere, the Giants will let them go too.

They targeted Bennett right away and signed him on the second day of free agency, since they saw in him a young talent at a position where they lost two players to major knee injuries in the Super Bowl. And they re-signed cornerback Terrell Thomas and punter Steve Weatherford, two of their offseason priorities. But since then, the Giants have been quiet, content that they have a good, deep, championship roster and willing to let the market come to them.

What's next: The areas of concern, if there are any for the Giants, are linebacker and offensive line. And if Goff comes back, they like what they have at linebacker with the incumbents and last year's rookies. With McKenzie leaving, they could move David Diehl from left tackle to right tackle, but they'll still need to add depth at tackle as they look to the future on the offensive line.

There remains the chance that the Giants could trade defensive end Osi Umenyiora, who was disgruntled about his contract this time last year and now only has one year to go. If they did that, they could move Mathias Kiwanuka from linebacker back to his old pass-rushing spot on the line. But the Giants would have to be really blown away by an offer to move Umenyiora, who has relaxed a great deal about his contract situation and said he'd like to stay.

Philadelphia Eagles

Key additions: LB DeMeco Ryans (trade), G Mike Gibson

Key losses: DE Juqua Parker, WR Steve Smith, QB Vince Young

"We take care of our own": The Eagles' focus so far this offseason has been internal. They extended the contracts of right tackle Todd Herremans and defensive end Trent Cole, signed wide receiver DeSean Jackson to a long-term deal and re-signed free-agent guard Evan Mathis. The Eagles believe last year's team was a good roster that underachieved, and they basically are taking a mulligan and hoping it works this time.

The one exception is a big one -- the trade that brought them Ryans from Houston in exchange for a fourth-round draft pick. The Eagles were pitifully weak at linebacker last year, and that weakness hurt their otherwise successful implementation of the "Wide 9" defensive line formation. They could get to the passer with their front four, but teams were able to attack the middle of their defense at will. The addition of Ryans, a veteran middle linebacker who was a productive tackler and beloved leader with the Texans, should help solve a lot of those problems.

What's next: There remains a strong chance the Eagles will trade cornerback Asante Samuel before or during the draft. They can afford to do so because they'd still be left with Nnamdi Asomugha and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie as starting cornerbacks and the underrated Joselio Hanson at nickel corner. Other than that, the Eagles figure to be fairly quiet the rest of the way.

They're most likely to use their first-round pick on a defensive player, though Boston College linebacker Luke Kuechly, who'd be a great addition, now looks likely to be gone by the time they pick at No. 15. So they could pick up another veteran linebacker and use the draft to add to their defensive line rotation. It's also likely they add a veteran safety and a veteran running back to back up LeSean McCoy, who's next in line for a new contract.

Washington Redskins

Key additions: WR Pierre Garcon, WR Josh Morgan, CB Cedric Griffin, S Brandon Meriweather

Key losses: S O.J. Atogwe (cut), S LaRon Landry, WR Donte' Stallworth

"When the change was made uptown and the big man joined the band": The Redskins' biggest move of the offseason was the draft-picks trade they made with the Rams, sending three first-round picks and a second-round pick to St. Louis in exchange for the No. 2 pick in this year's draft. That pick ensures that Washington, which has been looking for a franchise quarterback for a couple of decades, will be in position to take one of the two quarterbacks in this year's draft that projects as a franchise guy. They're most likely getting Baylor's Robert Griffin III, the 2011 Heisman Trophy winner who's got Redskins fans in a tizzy already.

The Redskins' first big moves when free agency opened were aimed at building a new offense for their rookie quarterback to run. Garcon and Morgan are, the Redskins believe, receivers with big-play talent who will fit well into the offense they like to run. The other two big additions -- Griffin and Meriwether -- were brought in to beef up the secondary, which lost its two starting safeties. It's possible Griffin could play safety, though he played cornerback in Minnesota.

What's next: The Redskins continue to try to re-sign veteran linebacker London Fletcher, and they're confident they can do that. They also want to bring back running back Tim Hightower, assuming he's recovered from his ACL injury, and they're in talks with him about doing just that. If they fail in either or both of those efforts, they'll need backup plans, as they'll lack depth at running back and inside linebacker.

Washington still could stand to add to its secondary and find help for the offensive line. Right tackle Jammal Brown has injury problems, and the team is looking for a better option. Demetrius Bell remains on the market and is a player Washington likes for that right tackle spot.
The big names are signing elsewhere as the Dallas Cowboys remain focused instead on needs, and on targeting specific players they like to fill those needs. While Mario Williams -- the apple of many Cowboys fans' eyes over the past few weeks in spite of no evidence at all that Dallas was really pursuing him -- was busy looking for a home in Buffalo, the Cowboys on Thursday morning agreed to a deal with free-agent safety Brodney Pool. Cowboys coach Jason Garrett broke the news in a conference call with reporters, Calvin Watkins tells us:
Garrett said the team wanted to sign Pool last year, during the brief free agency period, but was unable to due to finances.

"He has some really good ball skills," Garrett said.

Pool has played with Cowboys defensive coordinator Rob Ryan with the Cleveland Browns in 2009. Under Ryan, Pool had a career-high four interceptions and also had 10 pass breakups.

Again, many fans had been asking whether they'd sign someone like LaRon Landry. But while he doesn't have the name recognition or the raw ability of Landry, Pool is a guy who actually plays in games every week. Ryan likes him. He likes Ryan. They need someone to replace Abram Elam, who's a free agent. Makes sense. A day after signing cornerback Brandon Carr, backup quarterback Kyle Orton, fullback Lawrence Vickers and guard Mackenzy Bernadeau, the Cowboys continue to fill the many holes on their roster with players who look like good fits. Former Bengals guard Nate Livings and former Panthers linebacker Dan Connor are in town today to talk contract as well, and each would add depth to positions where the Cowboys are lacking.

A smart, targeted approach to free agency by a team with a lot of different needs. Maybe not the most exciting offseason the Cowboys have ever had, but if I were a Cowboys fan, I'd be enjoying it very much.

Let's talk about LaRon Landry

March, 15, 2012
3/15/12
9:30
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Man, do I get LaRon Landry questions. Washington Redskins fans want to know if they're bringing him back. Dallas Cowboys fans want to know if they should sign him to play safety. Philadelphia Eagles fans want to know if they're taking a look. The answers, best as I can tell, are as follows:

No, no and only if it's really cheap. Landry is an injured player, folks. And if there's an early market for his services, it's because some team is willing to take a very big risk.

I guess Landry has fans' attention because he's a big name. And in spite of the fact that memories only go back six days in the NFL, there are some images still stuck in people's brains about big plays Landry used to make once upon a time when he was a healthy player. Oh yeah, when he's on the field, there are few safeties in the league scarier than Landry. There is no doubting that.

[+] EnlargeLaRon Landry
Steven Bisig/US PresswireLaRon Landry's days in D.C. appear to be coming to an end.
But the reason he's on the market -- and the reason the Redskins are talking to people like Brandon Meriweather while Landry is trying to get visits to other places -- is that he can't get on the field, and the Redskins are sick of wondering from week to week whether they can count on him. Hampered by Achilles and groin injuries, Landry played in eight games for the Redskins in 2011, was credited with just 35 tackles, no passes defensed and no interceptions. That doesn't scream, "Pay me!!!," especially when he played in only nine games the year before. The Achilles is still hurt, and he has refused to have surgery to repair it, which makes him an injured player, which explains why he's not on some big, happy tour of various team sites and sifting through huge contract offers.

So if you're a Redskins fan, you ought to say goodbye. The current coaching staff has had enough of waiting for Landry to show them what he can do -- and that he can do it reliably over the course of a full season. They have moved on. They used their franchise tag on Fred Davis instead and are looking at other options for the secondary.

And if you're a Cowboys fan, don't get your hopes up. The Cowboys don't appear to be going the big-name, low-production route this year. They're targeting guys they like for their specific need positions, and Brodney Pool is the safety coming in for a visit today.

And if you're an Eagles fan, keep expectations low. Yes, it's possible they'd take a look at Landry, but only if his price remains very low and he's willing to come in on a short, make-good deal that pays off only if he plays and produces. The Eagles have talented young safeties who need to play and develop, and while they might be willing to take a chance on Landry's talent, they're unlikely to do so at the expense of their long-range plan.

This post by AFC East blogger James Walker Wednesday says the Patriots and the Jets have some interest in Landry. It mentions the Eagles, too, at the bottom, but those two AFC East teams feel like more likely destinations. Rex Ryan loves him a big name, even if the production no longer matches up. You could see him taking a shot. And the Patriots? Well, Landry would feel like a very Patriot move. I could just imagine them signing him, late in the market, to a low-guarantee, high-incentive deal and everybody saying, "Wow, that Bill Belichick may have got himself a steal right there." You know. Like they said last year when he got Albert Haynesworth and Chad Ochocinco.

Fact is, whoever signs Landry may get themselves a steal, if he can finally stay healthy and put together a full season. But at this point, on the third day of free agency, with so many other healthier options available, it's hard to see how it's worth the risk. For anybody.
So I was sitting here on Twitter, trolling for news, answering your questions and getting a kick out of the fact that Justin Tuck was watching (and tweeting about) the same "Big Bang Theory" rerun when it occurred to me that it was almost time to turn in and get some sleep. Before I did that, I just wanted to ask one question.

How was your day ...

Philadelphia Eagles?

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

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

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

Dallas Cowboys?

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

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

New York Giants?

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

Washington Redskins?

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

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

Patriots-Jets inactives: Chung out

November, 13, 2011
11/13/11
7:20
PM ET
EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- Here are the players you won't see in Sunday night's game between the New England Patriots (5-3) and New York Jets (5-3):

Patriots
Jets

Rapid Reaction: Jets 17, Giants 3

August, 29, 2011
8/29/11
10:37
PM ET
WHAT IT MEANS: So the New York Jets captured the Snoopy trophy as the winner of the first annual MetLife Bowl against the New York Giants. Yawn. Based on the way his team played, Rex Ryan should punt the trophy. Forget about the final score, 17-3; the Jets’ starters were badly outplayed in the first half, out gained 209 to 61. The offense was a disaster and the Jets made dumb penalties. Basically, they played like they didn’t give a hoot about the preseason.

WOE IS O: Mark Sanchez & Co. was brutal. Can you say “regression”? In seven possessions, the Jets’ starting offense punted five times, lost a fumble (Sanchez) and, somehow, saved face with a touchdown -- a 17-yard pass to Santonio Holmes. They probably wouldn’t have scored the touchdown if it weren’t for Antonio Cromartie, who set up the offense at the Giants’ 35 with a 70-yard kickoff return.

Sanchez (8-for-16, 64 yards) was off his game from the outset, appearing indecisive as he made his reads. But this mess wasn’t all his fault. The pass protection was shoddy and his receivers, namely Plaxico Burress and Derrick Mason, couldn’t gain separation against the Giants’ cornerbacks. That could be something to watch, as Burress and Mason -- 34 and 37, respectively -- aren’t the fastest guys around.

The starters won’t play in Thursday night’s finale against the Eagles, which means the No. 1 offense scored only three touchdowns in 5 1/2 quarters for the preseason. Blech!

DUMB & DUMBER: The Jets were undisciplined, committing five major penalties. The biggest blunder came from rookie defensive end Muhammad Wilkerson, who was ejected in the third quarter after taking a swing at running back Brandon Jacobs. Jacobs swung back, so he, too, was tossed. Wilkerson, whom the Jets are counting on to be a starter, deserves an earful from Ryan. That is unacceptable behavior.

But Wilkerson wasn’t the only guilty Jet. Right taclke Wayne Hunter (unsportsmanlike conduct), safety Brodney Pool (chop block on a punt), safety Emanuel Cook (facemask) and cornerback Donald Strickland (unnecessary roughness) all committed 15-yard penalties. Shame on them.

All told, the Jets had seven penalties for 79 yards, including a holding call on wide receiver Courtney Smith that nullified a touchdown run by backup quarterback Greg McElroy.

THE PLAX EFFECT: Burress doesn’t need to touch the ball to have an impact on the game. You saw that on Holmes’ touchdown reception. Burress lined up in the right slot, with Holmes on the outside, against the Giants’ three-by-two coverage. Safety Kenny Phillips rolled toward Burress, leaving Holmes in man-to-man against cornerback Corey Webster. Phillips tried to get back, but it was too late. Holmes ran a post route and got open in the back of the end zone.

Aside from that contribution, Burress’ anticipated matchup against his old team turned out to be a big zero -- as in zero catches. Burress, coming off his sensational debut against the Bengals, was targeted four times. In fact, Sanchez completed only four passes to his wideouts.

OPPORTUNISTIC D: For a team with a very good defense, the Jets made an alarmingly low number of interceptions last season (12). So far, they seem to be reversing the trend. Safety Jim Leonhard and linebacker David Harris intercepted two of Manning's passes, giving the Jets six picks in three games (two by Leonhard). Leonhard’s interception was set up by Harris, who came on an inside blitz and slammed Manning.

BEND BUT DON’T BREAK: Aside from the interceptions, the Jets’ No. 1 defense did some nice things in one half of play, holding the Giants to 2-for-8 on third down and 0-for-1 in the red zone. But -- and this is a big "but" -- they were pushed around between the 20s. The Jets allowed 209 total yards in the first half, uncharacteristic for a Rex Ryan-coached defense. Their conventional pass rush was nowhere to be found and there were a couple of missed tackles in the open field, including a big one by linebacker Bart Scott.

THE NEW BRAD: The Jets finally unveiled their 2011 version of the Wildcat, with rookie wide receiver Jeremy Kerley -- no surprise -- taking the direct snap and playing the role of Brad Smith. The Jets ran it four times, resulting in 39 yards. Kerley ran twice for 13 yards, handed off to Joe McKnight for eight and threw a pass -- yes, a pass! -- to Matt Mulligan for 18. That will give the Cowboys a little extra to think about as they prepare for the season opener.
NFC: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South Unrestricted FAs

A look at the free-agent priorities for each AFC East team:

Buffalo Bills

1. Add new blood: For the most part, most of the Bills’ free-agents-to-be would not be big losses. Buffalo should have plenty of money to spend once free agency does finally open. Obviously, this has been a losing franchise for some time now, and transforming the roster and changing the culture of the organization should be a very good thing. The Bills did take a fine step in the right direction in the 2011 draft, taking several prospects from big-college programs with winning histories.

2. Keep Paul Posluszny: Although inside linebackers generally are not difficult to find, Posluszny is the type of guy Buffalo needs to keep within the organization. He is productive, tough and able to lead the defense on every down. Last season wasn’t his best, but Posluszny was fantastic in 2009, and I fully expect him to get back to that form, especially playing behind what should be a vastly improved young interior defensive line.

3. Eliminate needs: I list the Bills’ three greatest needs as left tackle, outside linebacker and tight end. Rome wasn’t built in a day, but if Buffalo could knock out one or two of these needs in free agency, it would go a very long way in its rebuilding process. Jared Gaither or Doug Free could potentially fill Buffalo’s left tackle position for years to come, while Matt Light could hold down the fort and provide leadership until Chris Hairston or a future draft pick is ready. An outside linebacker such as Manny Lawson, Matt Roth or Mathias Kiwanuka could also be money very well spent to pose an edge presence opposite Arthur Moats, whom I featured in my Soon to be Stars series. Zach Miller is really the only free-agent tight end who would qualify.

Top free agents: Posluszny, Donte Whitner, Drayton Florence

Miami Dolphins

1. Add running back help: Miami used the 62nd overall pick in 2011 to select Daniel Thomas, a big, bruising runner with a lot of ability. But of course, Thomas is going to be a rookie this season, and fully counting on him to carry the load and learn the pass protections would be foolish. Miami needs a backup plan. Bringing back Ronnie Brown, or more likely, Ricky Williams, wouldn’t be a terrible situation. But just adding Brown or Williams wouldn’t be enough. Snatching up Ahmad Bradshaw or DeAngelo Williams would obviously be a huge addition and would push Thomas to backup status. Even bringing in a reliable back like Joseph Addai or Jason Snelling might do the trick as Thomas develops. Another option is to add a specialty player like Darren Sproles.

2. Find competition for Chad Henne: Personally, I am not ready to write off Henne. I believe in the approach that Miami has taken this offseason. The Dolphins have surrounded him with pieces to make his life much easier. But still, adding a veteran signal-caller seems like a must at this point. Suitable options include Marc Bulger, Donovan McNabb or even Vince Young, who is soon to be released by Tennessee. If quarterback remains a problem after this year, then Miami needs to sell the farm to draft its next franchise quarterback. But in the meantime, this would be my approach.

3. Make a splash on D: To me, the Dolphins’ three biggest needs are quarterback, running back and then free safety. Even if Miami didn’t add a defender of any sort in free agency, I would rank its 2011 defense among the best in the NFL. I am that high on this group. But what if the Dolphins could land a real talent at free safety? Imagine the possibilities. This is a deep free-agent class of safeties. I would love to see the Dolphins sign someone like Michael Huff or especially Eric Weddle. Even adding a solid player with upside like Brodney Pool would be helpful here.

Top free agents: Ronnie Brown, Ricky Williams, Tony McDaniel, Richie Incognito, Tyler Thigpen

New England Patriots

1. Lock up Logan Mankins: Because the Patriots designated Mankins their franchise player, I didn’t include him among their top free agents. But New England does have to get him locked up. Mankins might just be the best guard in all of football. With Matt Light potentially leaving town, the Patriots cannot afford additional unrest along their offensive line. Mankins would be the ideal player to line up next to Nate Solder to help the rookie’s transition to the NFL.

2. Find a pass-rusher: I see outside linebacker as New England’s greatest need, followed distantly by wide receiver and defensive end. Although I expect Jermaine Cunningham to develop quickly into a solid starter, adding one more edge player who can be disruptive on throwing downs is something that still needs to be addressed after the team curiously ignored it in the draft. The name I like best for the Patriots here is Mathias Kiwanuka, if his health checks out. He is smart, versatile and has some experience at linebacker. Two other players who fit the bill are Matt Roth and Manny Lawson.

3. Acquire a deep threat: I am not as sold as most that New England must add a wide receiver who can stretch the field. But this is a tremendous organization, and the Pats just don’t have many needs, so picking up such a luxury player could be the difference between a Super Bowl championship or another early exit in the postseason. My favorite fit for the Patriots is Braylon Edwards. Edwards is immensely talented, and if submersed in this environment with Tom Brady throwing him the ball, he could quickly rank among the top wideouts in all of football.

Top free agents: Matt Light, Gerard Warren

New York Jets

1. Make critical decisions on their own players: The Jets have a lot of free agents, and they are one of the teams in the league with the least amount of money to spend as it stands today. New York has come very close to its goal the past couple of seasons, but this free-agency period is absolutely critical to staying among the best teams in the NFL.

2. Address wide receiver: Considering who is up for free agency, wide receiver has to be the biggest worry for the Jets right now. I greatly respect Braylon Edwards’ abilities, but Santonio Holmes is just the better player right now. In fact, I see Holmes as a top-10 wide receiver. He is incredible in the clutch. Mark Sanchez needs quality options to throw to at this point of his young career. If the Jets brought back Holmes, increased TE Dustin Keller's role and also found a bargain at wide receiver late in free agency (maybe Randy Moss or Chad Ochocinco), then I think they would be OK.

3. Don’t forget about the trenches: The Jets are a physical team that is strong on both lines of scrimmage. Two of their starting offensive line spots are uncertain at this point. And although they drafted Muhammad Wilkerson and Kendrick Ellis, rookie defensive linemen rarely make a major impact -- especially in a 3-4. Shaun Ellis is probably going to be playing elsewhere, and New York doesn’t have a high-end outside linebacker. So there are concerns up front. The Jets will have to sign some cheaper veteran options -- probably to one-year contracts -- to shore things up.

Top free agents: Santonio Holmes, Braylon Edwards, Shaun Ellis, Antonio Cromartie, Brodney Pool, Brad Smith

Scouts Inc. watches games, breaks down film and studies football from all angles for ESPN.com. Follow Matt Williamson on Twitter @WilliamsonNFL.

Jets back-to-work FYI

July, 25, 2011
7/25/11
1:57
PM ET
NFC: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South Unrestricted FAs

Readiness factor: The Jets' coaching staff and much of the roster will remain intact, which reduces the learning curve. But the Jets won't have training-camp bonding time at SUNY Cortland, an enhancement Rex Ryan and his players prized the past two seasons. They already pulled the plug on their upstate training camp and will convene at team headquarters in Florham Park, N.J.

Biggest challenge: All their free agents. The Jets have some biggies, most notably at wide receiver. They must keep young quarterback Mark Sanchez's support staff stocked with weapons, and receivers Santonio Holmes, Braylon Edwards and Brad Smith are about to hit the market. So are cornerback Antonio Cromartie and safeties Brodney Pool, Eric Smith and James Ihedigbo.

What a rush: The Jets quietly tied for eighth in the NFL in sacks last season but didn't have a fearsome presence in an overall defense designed to create mayhem. Of the 40 sacks they recorded last season, more than a quarter of them belonged to defensive backs and almost half were rung up by players who aren't under contract. The Jets released outside linebacker Jason Taylor (5 sacks). Defensive end Shaun Ellis (4.5 sacks) also has an expired contract.

Key players without contracts for 2011: In addition to the above, fullback Tony Richardson, cornerback Drew Coleman, top special-teams tackler Lance Laury, kicker Nick Folk, punter Steve Weatherford.

Inside view on getting Jets over hump

June, 15, 2011
6/15/11
4:00
PM ET
Antonio Cromartie, Santonio Holmes, Brodney PoolGetty ImagesAccording to one Jets insider, the team should bring back Antonio Cromartie, Santonio Holmes and Brodney Pool.
While yakking with a key starter from last year's New York Jets squad this week, I asked a question I posed on the AFC East blog last month and have addressed regularly in my weekly chat.

What team is the class of the division? The New England Patriots, coming off 14 victories and another title? Or the Jets, who knocked the Patriots out of the playoffs and reached their second straight AFC Championship Game?

"Until we dethrone them," he said, "the Patriots are the class of the AFC East. That's the bottom line. There's no other way to slice it. You've got to knock them off the pedestal. That's goal No. 1, winning the division. That's the easiest way to get to the ultimate goal of the Super Bowl."

That comment alone wasn't enough for the player to request anonymity, but the next part of our conversation made him feel it was necessary for the sake of diplomacy and because he wants to keep his job next season.

I wanted to know more. To extract his veteran insight on the state of the Jets, I asked what his game plan would be if I could appoint him general manager for the next couple months.

How would he get the Jets over the hump from runners-up to AFC East champs and into the Super Bowl? He must have pondered that very question over the past few months because, without much thought, he rattled off six key steps to propelling the Jets upward.

Here they are, in order of what he felt was most important, along with his reasoning:

1. Re-sign receiver Santonio Holmes.

"You have to do that," our embedded analyst said. The Jets have three prominent free-agent receivers, but Holmes must be the priority over Braylon Edwards and Brad Smith. Holmes missed four games while serving a suspension but made 52 catches for 746 yards and six touchdowns. He was a clutch performer and added a couple more touchdowns in the playoffs.

"If I had to choose between Santonio, Braylon or Brad Smith -- I don't think you can re-sign them all -- I'll take Santonio because of his body of work," the Jets insider said. "He's more established."

Smith averaged 28.6 yards on kickoff returns and scored two touchdowns, and was the club's third-leading rusher with 299 yards and a TD as a gadget quarterback. The Jets led the NFL in average start position after a kickoff (at the 31.5-yard line). But the insider said revamped kickoff rules would neutralize Smith's impact in 2011.

The possibility of signing Plaxico Burress is intriguing and could help the Jets cope with any inability to re-sign Edwards or Smith. As for whether Burress would be a problem for head coach Rex Ryan, the insider laughed.

"With everything we have in our organization, he'd be just one of the guys," he said. "He wouldn't stand out like a sore thumb.

"Guys just love playing for Rex. With Rex's personality and the way he runs the show, Plaxico would just fit right in. Rex doesn't have problems with guys who have so-called character issues or big personalities. Rex is a big personality himself. A guy like Plaxico would do well with the Jets."

[+] EnlargeDavid Harris
Alan Maglaque/US PresswireDavid Harris is slated to become a free agent after the 2011 season.
2. Get inside linebacker David Harris signed to a long-term contract.

Harris led the Jets with 119 tackles. He recorded three sacks, 14 quarterback hits, a forced fumble and a recovery.

He signed his franchise tender and is under contract for next season, but he'll be a free agent again next offseason unless the Jets broker another deal before then.

"I've got to lock up David Harris," the insider said. "He's one of the more underrated defenders in the league. I've got to get him signed long-term."

3. Re-sign cornerback Antonio Cromartie.

Another significant free agent, Cromartie helped limit opposing quarterbacks to a 50.7 completion percentage -- lowest in the league by far -- and a 77.1 passer rating. He notched 42 tackles, three interceptions and a team-high 18 passes defensed.

Besides, the Jets invested too much in him to let him stroll for nothing this summer.

"If I gave up a second-round pick for the guy, I don't want to see him walk out the door," the insider said. "That would be a high draft pick I'd wasted.

"Plus, with no offseason to monitor the young players, I don't know what I have with Kyle Wilson. The team hasn't had a chance to coach him up. He didn't do the things the team expected last year. So I need to get Antonio Cromartie back to make sure I shore up the secondary."

4. Find a pass-rusher or two.

One of the Jets' biggest perceived weaknesses heading into the offseason was their inability to generate a more formidable pass rush last season.

"This team has a defensive scheme that can be dangerous with a pass rush," the insider said. "We had a great group, but that'll make my defense even stronger."

Outside linebacker Jason Taylor's status is in question. The Jets cut him, but it's not unfathomable he could return. Last year's regular starters, Calvin Pace and Bryan Thomas, are under contract. Thomas recorded a team-high six sacks last season, while Pace had 5.5 sacks. Taylor added five more. Those aren't fearsome numbers.

Football Outsiders charted the Jets for 117.5 hurries (seventh in the NFL), but just 38 quarterback hits (tied for 23rd).

[+] EnlargeDamien Woody
Richard A. Brightly/Icon SMIDurability concerns could steer the Jets away from bringing back Damien Woody.
5. Sign a free-agent right tackle.

The Jets released Damien Woody after the season, but published reports before the lockout indicated the club was interested in bringing him back.

Woody can't provide many guarantees in what would be his 13th NFL season. Although he has been to the Pro Bowl, is one of few players on last year's roster who owns a Super Bowl ring and started 13 games last season, there are injury concerns. He battled knee problems before an Achilles' injury landed him on injured reserve in the playoffs.

There don't appear to be any solutions on the roster. Last year's second-round draft choice, Vladimir Ducasse, was a tackle at Boston College but was unable to win a job at guard. Woody's reliable backup, Wayne Hunter, is a free agent.

6. Identify a safety to solidify the secondary, looking first at Brodney Pool.

The Jets' best safety, Jim Leonhard, is coming off a broken shin that had him limited to a scooter during rehab. Pool, Eric Smith and James Ihedigbo all are free agents.

Pool started 12 games. He ranked fourth in tackles with 63. He registered a sack, an interception, nine passes defenses, a forced fumble and a recovery. Smith started six games and was fifth with 57 tackles. He also made an impact on special teams (19 tackles), as did Ihedigbo (27 tackles).

"I would try to get Brodney Pool or Eric Smith back," the Jets insider said. "Both played well down the stretch, but I think Brodney Pool was a guy who, as it got later in the season, really picked up the scheme and became a playmaker at the safety position."

I found the insider's opinions to be insightful. Nowhere among the list of issues to address were quarterback Mark Sanchez, left guard or kicker Nick Folk. The obviously aren't major concerns with this veteran player.

Once the lockout concludes, we'll see how much the anonymous player's wish list jibes with Mike Tannenbaum's.

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