NFL Nation: demetress bell

W2W4: Five things for Texans-Cowboys

August, 29, 2013
8/29/13
12:30
PM ET
IRVING, Texas -- The Dallas Cowboys meet the Houston Texans in the preseason for the first time since 2010 at AT&T Stadium. Intrastate pride might be on the line for the fans of both teams, but little else.

With 75 players on the roster, some jobs remain but most are filled. Here’s what we’ll be looking at tonight:

Job fair: With 18 roster moves to make by Saturday’s cut-down date, most of the decisions have likely been made. There are perhaps two open spots with as many as eight guys looking to fit the square peg. Would the Cowboys carry five tight ends? How about six receivers? Nine defensive linemen?

Defensive tackle Sean Lissemore, tight end Andre Smith, wide receiver Anthony Armstrong, cornerback Micah Pellerin, tackle DeMetress Bell, guard David Arkin and guard Kevin Kowalski can make their cases tonight. Linebacker Brandon Magee (concussion), safeties Eric Frampton (calf), Danny McCray (hamstring) and Matt Johnson (foot) will have to watch and sweat out the final decisions.

Tanney time: Maybe Kyle Orton opens the game, but the Cowboys will give Alex Tanney most of the work.

With needs at other positions and injury questions going into the opener, Tanney is looking more like a practice-squad fit than a 53-man roster fit. If he plays lights out, he could change the equation or at the very least get another team to keep him on the 53-man roster the way Matt Moore did a few years ago.

Check out the Texans: Last year the Cowboys closed the preseason against Miami and traded for veteran offensive lineman Ryan Cook a few days later based on what they saw in that game.

With the Cowboys moving to a pure zone blocking scheme this year, check out the Texans’ offensive linemen. Assistant offensive line coach Frank Pollack spent five years with the Texans (2007-11) and will have a good idea of what would be a good fit with the Cowboys.

As unsettled as the Cowboys are with their starting offensive line they’re more unsettled with the backups. A case could be made they don’t have a ninth or 10th guy (if they choose to reach double digits) on their current roster to fill out the line.

Earning practice squad jobs: Tanney has been talked about, but there will be seven other spots to fill. The Cowboys like to keep receivers and defensive backs on the practice squad because of the amount of running in practice, so guys like Danny Coale, Tim Benford and Pellerin bear watching.

And the line play will have candidates to, like defensive end Jerome Long and offensive tackle Darrion Weems. Linebacker could be another spot of interest with Cameron Lawrence and Taylor Reed.

The digital board: Chris Jones hit it last week with a punt against Cincinnati and the Bengals returned the re-kick 75 yards for a touchdown, continuing a preseason-long issue of special teams’ miscues. Jones is unlikely to hit it again, but watching it to see the clock tick down will be more important because it brings us closer to the start of the regular season.

GLENDALE, Ariz. -- Dreadful. Just dreadful. The Dallas Cowboys (1-2) completed the West Coast portion of training camp with a 12-7 loss to the Arizona Cardinals (2-0) on Saturday afternoon at University of Phoenix Stadium.

The Cowboys' first-team offense was able to move the ball but failed to score, in large part because of turnovers that gave the Cardinals prime field position.

Here are some thoughts on the Cowboys' loss:

Turnovers, turnovers, turnovers: The Cowboys committed six turnovers against Arizona. Kyle Orton threw two interceptions, both on bad throws. Lance Dunbar and Dez Bryant fumbled after long receptions, and for the second consecutive week, the Cowboys' special-teams unit muffed a punt. This time, it was Dwayne Harris losing a fumble. Alex Tanney also threw a late pick. But Arizona managed only 12 points (four field goals on five tries).

First-team offense shut out: Tony Romo completed 7 of 10 passes for 142 yards with no touchdowns or interceptions during three drives. Romo looked in tune once again with Bryant, who caught four passes for 74 yards. But the Cowboys' two best plays led to turnovers. Romo connected with Dunbar on a catch-and-run, but the running back fumbled while being tackled after a 43-yard gain. The play would have given the Cowboys the ball at the Arizona 7. Bryant fumbled on the next possession after making a catch in the middle of the field. He was stripped by cornerback Jerraud Powers while being pulled down, giving the Cardinals the ball at their own 24.

Arkin starts at left guard: With Ronald Leary out while recovering from right knee surgery, David Arkin got the start and played a little more than three quarters. Arkin did a nice job as a run- and pass-blocker. There did, however, seem to be confusion on a pass play when Arizona's defensive linemen used a stunt against Arkin that resulted in a sack.

Tanney leads scoring drive: After not scoring for three quarters, Tanney connected with Gavin Escobar on a 5-yard touchdown pass with 10:55 to play in the fourth quarter to bring the Cowboys to within 9-7. The score ended a 16-play, 89-yard drive that lasted just under 10 minutes. Tanney had two chances to give his team the lead in the final five minutes, but one drive ended with a punt and the other on an interception. Tanney finished 14-of-19 for 136 yards with one touchdown and one interception.

Surprise decisions: Jermey Parnell, who returned to practice late last week from a strained hamstring, was a healthy scratch. Demetress Bell was the right tackle with the second team in the second half. Darrion Weems was the left tackle. The Cowboys might have played Bell just to get a good look at him against another opponent. He was signed after camp started but failed the conditioning test. Coach Jason Garrett said Bell needed to get in shape. Phillip Tanner, who was getting snaps behind starter DeMarco Murray and Dunbar at running back, didn't get any snaps Saturday. Instead, rookie Joseph Randle was the running back with the third team. Tanney took all the snaps after Romo and Orton were done for the day. The Cowboys didn't give Nick Stephens any snaps in the second half. It's doubtful if the Cowboys go with three quarterbacks, but Tanney played better than Orton.

What's next? The Cowboys finally come home after a month on the West Coast. They will be off Sunday and resume practices at 8 a.m. Monday in Irving.
PHOENIX -- The NFL announced the ever-popular compensatory draft picks Monday, awarding extra picks to 16 teams whose net losses in free agency last year were deemed by the league's formula to have outpaced their net gains. The Philadelphia Eagles and the New York Giants each added a seventh-round pick. The Eagles' extra pick will be the 239th of the draft. The Giants' will be the 253rd.

Neither the Dallas Cowboys nor the Washington Redskins, who were both very active in free agency last year, received any compensatory picks.

The formula for determining these picks is not strictly a 1-for-1 equation. For instance, the Giants got a pick even though the number of compensatory free agents they lost (Mario Manningham, Aaron Ross and Dave Tollefson) was equal to the number they signed (Martellus Bennett, Sean Locklear and Shaun Rogers). The reason is that, according to the formula, what the Giants lost in free agency was more than what they gained. The formula, the league's official release says, is "based on salary, playing time and postseason honors."

The Eagles got the extra pick because they lost Juqua Parker and Steve Smith and signed Demetress Bell. It's safe to assume they wish Bell had performed well enough to prevent them from getting an extra seventh-round pick this year.

Eagles offensive line thoughts

October, 23, 2012
10/23/12
10:21
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On second thought, it appears there will be at least one change to the Philadelphia Eagles' offensive line coming off the bye. Reuben Frank reports that King Dunlap is back in as the starting left tackle in place of Demetress Bell.

Obviously, the Eagles' real left tackle is Jason Peters, who tore his Achilles' tendon twice in the offseason, and without whom the offense is apparently crippled. But since Peters isn't an option for a long time yet, and likely not at all this season, they have been juggling. They signed Bell because they believed him to be athletic enough to do the same kinds of things Peters did for them last season, but they have learned by watching Bell play that (a) there is no way to replicate what Peters does and (b) athletic or not, Bell isn't a very good player. So back in goes Dunlap, who's a giant with really long arms who knows the system and might be able to at least slow down defensive ends on their way to Michael Vick.

The only other offensive line point of note -- at least until the Eagles get back to practice Wednesday -- is that right guard Danny Watkins has apparently stopped talking to reporters because of negative press. This always bugs me. Watkins had no problem with the media as long as they were chronicling his super-fun progression from Canadian firefighter on skates to first-round NFL draft pick. But once those same people start pointing out that he needs to play better, he's got no more use for them. Be a grown-up, dude. You don't get paid all that money to play football -- you get paid all that money because you play football in public. There are plenty of places you could go where nobody would ever write a word about you, but your car wouldn't be as nice.

Anyway, Watkins obviously is far from the only player in the league who pulls this garbage, but since he's in the news for it and in the division, I thought I'd take a moment to rant. Thank you for your patience. Go on about your day.
PHILADELPHIA -- New York Giants wide receiver Hakeem Nicks will miss his second straight game due to injury. Nicks has been bothered by a foot injury since the spring, but he showed up on the Giants' injury report as doubtful with a fresh knee injury Friday, and he was announced as one of the inactive players for Sunday night's key divisional showdown here against the Philadelphia Eagles.

With Nicks out, Giants quarterback Eli Manning will have to rely heavily on wide receiver Victor Cruz, who was held in check last week by Carolina, and tight end Martellus Bennett, the surprise early-season star who's caught a touchdown pass in each of the Giants' first three games. Backup wide receiver Ramses Barden had a big game last week in place of Nicks and fellow wide receiver Domenik Hixon. But even with Hixon recovered from his concussion and playing this week, the Giants will face tougher coverage from the Eagles than they saw from the Panthers.

Safety Antrel Rolle, who injured his knee running into a cameraman on the sideline late in last week's game in Carolina, is active and will start the game. That's good news for a banged-up Giants secondary whose top cornerback, Corey Webster, is playing with a broken hand and whose impressive rookie nickel corner, Jayron Hosley, is among the inactives. Also inactive for the Giants are tackle David Diehl, linebacker Keith Rivers, guard Mitch Petrus, defensive end Adewale Ojomo and tight end Adrien Robinson.

The Eagles get one of their starting wide receivers back for this game. Jeremy Maclin, who missed last week's game with a hip injury, is back and starting this game. The biggest injury is starting linebacker Akeem Jordan, who will be replaced in the lineup by Jamar Chaney.

Also inactive for the Eagles are tackle King Dunlap, running back Dion Lewis, safety Colt Anderson, offensive lineman Nate Menkin and defensive end Vinny Curry. Demetress Bell starts at left tackle in place of Dunlap and gets the very difficult assignment of keeping Michael Vick safe from Jason Pierre-Paul. I'll be here all night to keep you posted on how that goes.

How you feeling? Eagles-Cardinals

September, 23, 2012
9/23/12
12:15
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As the 2-0 Philadelphia Eagles prepare to face the 2-0 Arizona Cardinals at 4:05 p.m. ET today in Phoenix, here's one reason for Eagles fans to feel good and one reason for concern.

Feeling good: Arizona's 2-0 start has a lot more to do with the play of its impressive defense than anything it's been able to do on offense. And with backup quarterback (and former Eagle trade chip) Kevin Kolb under center, the Cardinals should struggle to score enough points to beat the Eagles. Philadelphia's defense has played at a very high level so far this year, and it's the main reason the Eagles have been able to win two games in spite of the nine turnovers they've committed. As long as Philly can get wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald covered, the Cardinals have very few other offensive weapons with which to hurt them.

Cause for concern: This is not the place for the Eagles to go to solve their turnover problems. The Cardinals' defensive front should do a good job of putting pressure on Eagles quarterback Michael Vick, who is prone to mistakes and poor decisions when under pressure. The Eagles also are playing without starting wide receiver Jeremy Maclin and starting center Jason Kelce, and camp disappointment Demetress Bell is starting at left tackle in place of the injured King Dunlap (who'd been starting in place of the injured Jason Peters). At some point, the Eagles won't be turning the ball over 4.5 times per game anymore. But especially if the Cardinals can win up front and limit LeSean McCoy and the run game, it could be tough for the Eagles' offense to get on track today.
Philadelphia Eagles center Jason Kelce has significant knee ligament damage, and while the team isn't ruling him out for the year, season-ending surgery remains a possibility. At the very least, they must be prepared to play without him for four to six weeks. For an offensive line that already lost its best player, left tackle Jason Peters, to an Achilles injury in the offseason, this is certainly not good news. But I don't think it's a season-crippling bit of news for the Eagles, and here's why:

Dallas Reynolds, who replaced Kelce on Sunday and is slated to replace him going forward, is not just some guy the Eagles plucked off the street when they got in a jam. He spent three years (which is the maximum allowable number of years) on the Eagles' practice squad before making this year's 53-man roster as Kelce's backup. He did not win that spot by default. There was competition. He had to beat out two other players for it. Reynolds was offensive line coach Howard Mudd's pick to fill this exact role, and the reason is that Mudd believed he was ready to fill in if Kelce got hurt.

This is no real stretch. Kelce was a rookie last year and had Mudd's scheme down cold almost from the beginning. It was something of a surprise in 2011 training camp when everyone realized Kelce might win the starting job ahead of Jamaal Jackson, but by midseason it made all the sense in the world. Reynolds could conceivably play well enough to make everyone forget they were ever worried about this. He worked to learn Mudd's schemes all of last year and in training camp this year. And if you ask an Eagles offensive lineman, he'll tell you that Mudd's blocking schemes can take a little time to learn but that once you've got them down, you've got them down. Kelce, Evan Mathis and Danny Watkins all stand as examples of guys who figured it out all of a sudden and never looked back. It's possible Demetress Bell, who went in at left tackle Sunday and played well after King Dunlap got hurt, could be the latest such example.

Point is, the Eagles have faith in Mudd and his ability to put together an effective run-blocking and pass-protecting offensive line. They do not fear a lack of depth, because they believe they created competition for their backup spots and that it made everyone better. Kelce is a very good player who will be missed, but I think it's more than a little bit possible that Reynolds will fill in just fine.

Maclin, Jackson will start for Eagles

September, 16, 2012
9/16/12
11:55
AM ET
PHILADELPHIA -- Good morning and hello from the press box at Lincoln Financial Field. They have just announced the inactive players for today's game between the Philadelphia Eagles and the Baltimore Ravens, and neither of Philadelphia's starting wide receivers is on the list. That means that DeSean Jackson, who missed practice time last week with a hamstring injury, and Jeremy Maclin, who injured his hip in last week's game and missed practice time as well, will start the game as they said they would Friday.

Good news for the Eagles, of course, who need all the help they can get against a tough Baltimore defense, and quarterback Michael Vick, who's looking to get his season on track after throwing four interceptions in last week's victory in Cleveland.

Among the Eagles' inactives is backup running back Dion Lewis, who also missed last week's game due to injury. That means Bryce Brown and Chris Polk are the backup running backs for LeSean McCoy. The Eagles ran 56 pass plays and 30 run plays in last week's games, and while they're not likely to get 86 offensive snaps in this game, if they're looking for better balance they're going to have to find plays for at least one of the backup running backs.

Tackle Demetress Bell, inactive for last week's game, is active for this week's game, though King Dunlap remains the starter at left tackle.

For the Ravens, starting strongside linebacker Paul Kruger is inactive due to a back injury. That's a tough blow to that aforementioned Ravens defense, and it could offer the Eagles more of a look at Baltimore rookie Courtney Upshaw.

I'll be here all day with updates on this game while also keeping an eye on the other three games in the division today. The full list of inactives for Eagles-Ravens:

EAGLES
RAVENS

Observation deck: Eagles-Browns

August, 24, 2012
8/24/12
11:30
PM ET

You want to talk Nick Foles, and that's fine. The rookie quarterback the Philadelphia Eagles took in the third round looked very good again Friday night in a 27-10 victory over the Browns in Cleveland. Foles was 12-for-19 for 146 yards, two touchdowns and one interception. The interception was on his second pass of the night, and obviously he improved after that. The touchdown passes both came from in close and both after turnovers deep in Cleveland territory, but overall Foles looks like a guy who's not scared of the rush, makes good decisions and throws a very nice deep ball.

There is a chance, as Mike Kafka continues to sit out with a broken hand and Foles continues to impress in these preseason games, that the rookie could win the backup quarterback job. And I think that could potentially make sense for reasons that have nothing to do with preseason numbers. The fact is, Foles throws the deep ball better than Kafka does, and the speed-based Eagles offense needs someone with the arm strength to throw deep.

I don't think Foles would be an effective answer for the Eagles if Michael Vick had to miss significant time this year. I think, in a case like that, Kafka would be more likely to be able to manage the game and run the offense, and they could alter the playbook to suit his skills. But if Vick goes down in a game and has to miss a few plays or can't finish, it might make sense to go with Foles. No, he doesn't have Vick's mobility, but they could still run the downfield passing game and feel confident that they had a guy who could get the ball to DeSean Jackson and Jeremy Maclin. Something to think about.

Some other things I saw in the Eagles' third preseason game:
  • Foles wasn't the only Eagles rookie who had a good game. Wide receiver Damaris Johnson, who continues to look good in the return game, had two catches for 58 yards, including a 45-yarder from Foles while falling on his back. He also appeared to make a nice touchdown catch, but upon review it was ruled that he didn't have both feet in bounds. On the topic of rookies, linebacker Mychal Kendricks continues to look fast and alert and sure with his tackling.
  • The Eagles' defensive line is no joke. Derek Landri forced a fumble. Darryl Tapp and Brandon Graham had big games. These are guys who might not even be starters, and yes, next Friday the Eagles are going to have to make some tough decisions as they sort through their excellent options at defensive line. But if the Eagles' plan is to run wave after wave of fresh defensive linemen at teams, they appear well equipped to do so.
  • King Dunlap started at left tackle. Demetress Bell replaced him on the second offensive series but was beaten badly to allow LeSean McCoy to take a loss. At this point, you'd have to think Dunlap starts the regular-season opener, which oddly is right back in Cleveland in 16 days.
  • I know it's been criticized a lot in preseason, but I think the Eagles' defense looks fine. They're tackling well. They're covering well. It's just that, because they pursue so hard with the defensive linemen on every single play, there are going to be plays on which it looks like everything broke down. Happened on the Browns' first drive, when Brandon Weeden dumped the ball off to a wide-open tight end and converted a second-and-19. It's going to happen during the season too. It's like the opposite of a bend-don't-break defense. It's more of a "break-every-now-and-then-but-it's-okay-because-we're-making-the-quarterback's-life-miserable" defense. The risk is worth the reward, in other words.
  • There were still too many penalties -- seven for 47 yards -- but it wasn't anything close to last week's epidemic that prompted the Andy Reid-Cullen Jenkins sideline shouting match. There also were no sideline shouting matches this time.
  • Cliff Harris had an interception, Keenan Clayton blocked a punt... it was that kind of night. Everybody looked good, even the guys who aren't sure things to make the roster.
  • Chas Henry got to punt first and did well. Mat McBriar looked good too. Makes you think whichever one doesn't win the job has a chance to latch on somewhere else.
  • O.J. Atogwe sat out with an injury, which made Jaiquawn Jarrett and Phillip Thomas the backup safeties. This is not an area at which the Eagles have any reliable depth. They will lean hard on that defensive line to create pressure and the starting corners to cover and lock down receivers.
  • I like what I see from Brett Brackett, the backup tight end who caught one of Foles' touchdown passes. He was a standout performer in the training camp practices I attended a few weeks ago too. Hard to see how he makes the roster, but you never know.
  • Still like Bryce Brown as a runner better than Chris Polk, though Polk is the better blocker and had the better numbers Friday night. Dion Lewis is ahead of both of them as McCoy's backup, and he had a nifty 22-yard reception.
  • It's worth pointing out that quarterback Trent Edwards has played well this preseason. He was 14-for-17 for 127 yards and a touchdown in this one. I guess he could make it over Kafka if Foles surpasses Kafka on the depth chart. Still lots to sort out there.

Observation deck: Eagles-Patriots

August, 21, 2012
8/21/12
12:13
AM ET


The story of the Philadelphia Eagles' 27-17 preseason victory over the Patriots on "Monday Night Football" was one of quarterbacks. Eagles starter Michael Vick was knocked out of the game by an injury for the second time in two weeks, taking a shot to the ribs that required X-rays (which were negative) and raising old red flags about his fragility and the manner in which his style of play contributes to that. That injury, combined with Mike Kafka's absence due to his own injury, pushed rookie Nick Foles into significant playing time, and Foles looked very good.

Foles was 18-for-28 for 217 yards, two touchdowns and an interception. It was his second impressive performance of the preseason. And while it's important to note that he has not played against first-team defenses, it's also worth raising the question of whether Foles could beat out Kafka for the No. 2 quarterback spot behind Vick. He's a rookie, and he'd likely make more mistakes than Kafka would if pressed into fill-in duty. But in practices and games he has shown a stronger arm and better touch on deep throws than Kafka has, and that matters in Philadelphia's speed-based offense. That difference alone could set Foles apart if he continues to impress and Kafka can't get on the field, and Foles showed impressive poise Monday night, along with the ability to handle many different aspects of the playbook.

I don't personally believe the Eagles can contend this year if Vick has to miss a significant period of time. But if he does need to sit out here and there due to injury, the Eagles and their fans have at least seen something from Foles that would make them feel a little bit better if they had to go with a rookie.

Here are some other things I noticed/saw/thought about the Eagles on Monday:

1. What was Andy Reid yelling about? I am certain that, if the Eagles have a great season, the head coach's first-half sideline shouting match with Cullen Jenkins and the defense will be looked back upon as a brilliant bit of motivation and leadership. I am equally sure that, if the Eagles have a poor season, that exchange will be regarded as a sign of insurmountable discord. Of greater likelihood than either of those is that it was an emotional outburst by a coach who was getting sick of dumb third-down penalties. And if you're worried about whatever happened there causing lasting damage to coach-player relationships, Reid's track record more than earns him the benefit of the doubt.

2. That said, penalties are unforced errors and a worthy subject of coaching scorn, even in the preseason. I've written many times here that preseason games are poor predictors of regular-season performance, because we don't know which teams are game-planning for these games and which are not. But penalties have little or nothing to do with whether the opponent is scheming to beat you. They're about discipline, attention and focus. The Eagles had 16 of them on Monday, for a total of 131 yards, and I would not be looking forward to my next practice right now if I were an Eagles player.

3. Mychal Kendricks was a defensive star in this game. He showed speed and instincts closing on running back Shane Vereen on a screen pass early in the game, and he got himself into the backfield to disrupt a couple of running plays. The Eagles' big linebacker addition was veteran middleman DeMeco Ryans, but Kendricks looks as though he could be an asset on the outside. The Eagles' defensive scheme is going to make its linebackers look bad at times. Even at its best, it relies on aggressiveness by the linemen up front. Because of they, they're likely going to get a lot of sacks and pressure a lot of quarterbacks. But an offshoot of that aggressiveness is that sometimes over-pursuit will open them up to the possibility of a big play. That puts a lot of responsibility on the linebackers to limit those plays, and when they don't, it's going to look ugly. The Eagles seem willing to accept that risk in exchange for the long-term reward their pressure schemes bring them. And they appear better equipped this year to limit damage at the second level.

4. Don't forget Brandon Boykin. The Eagles' fourth-round pick is more than holding his own in his fight with veteran Joselio Hanson for the role of nickel cornerback. He also showed explosiveness on a kickoff return and helped cause a turnover with his speed as a gunner on the punt coverage team. Hanson looked good in his turn at cornerback, too, but what Boykin brings on special teams should keep him on a roster and, at the very least, a persistent threat to Hanson's spot.

5. Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie looked very active and very good before leaving the game with a shoulder injury. Reid said Rodgers-Cromartie wanted to go back in and didn't sound overly concerned.

6. King Dunlap played the whole first half at left tackle, and Demetress Bell was flagged for a couple of penalties during the second half. At this point, it would not be a surprise if the Eagles opened the season with Dunlap as the starting left tackle. It also wouldn't be a surprise if Bell worked to learn the schemes in a backup role and threatened to take the job back from Dunlap as the season went along, the way Danny Watkins did last year at right guard. Howard Mudd's schemes aren't easy for everyone to get right away.

7. The Eagles have some tough roster decisions at defensive line, but Phillip Hunt is going to be impossible to cut. Say whatever you want to say about his size, but they don't have anyone faster among their pass-rushers (which is saying something), and he's just made too many plays to overlook.

8. Punter note! Mat McBriar averaged 49.8 yards on his four punts. Chas Henry dropped both of his inside the 20 and one inside the 10. I don't think it's a real competition if McBriar proves himself healthy, but it's nice to see that Henry won't go down without a fight.
allas Cowboys Jason O. Watson/US PresswireLike its NFC East rivals, Dallas is shuffling and searching for ways to solidify its offensive line.
The NFC East leads the league in hype. The huge media markets in which the teams play, the history of success, the rivalries ... all of it combines to create a perception that the NFC East is the best, most competitive and toughest division in the NFL. That the defending Super Bowl champion New York Giants play in it -- and are not the clear-cut favorites to win it again this season -- only adds to the perception, as does the growing excitement over an NFL regular-season opener between the Giants and the Dallas Cowboys 16 nights from tonight.

But while Giants-Cowboys is fun, and each of those teams has something pretty intense going with the division's other two teams -- the Giants' recent struggles with the Philadelphia Eagles and the Cowboys' longstanding rivalry with the Washington Redskins -- the stats don't back up the NFC East as the league's toughest division anymore. The division is, by many measures, coming off its worst season ever. Last season was the first regular season in NFC East history in which no team won at least 10 games. Only the Giants finished over .500, and they gave up more points than they scored. Their Super Bowl run might have saved the division's honor, but it also disguised the troubling fact that the NFC East is no longer the Beast it used to be.

A large part of the reason for this, I believe, is the state of the division's offensive lines. We all know offensive line play is important, but in the NFC East these days, concern about the lines affects too many things. Teams that are strong on the line can control games. Teams that aren't cannot. Eli Manning and the Giants have been talking for months about wanting to not have to come back in the fourth quarter as much as they did last season, and the best way to avoid that is to control games from the start. Given the issues with their offensive line, they could find that a challenge once again.

But they're not alone. As we look ahead to 2012 and start assessing everyone's biggest questions, offensive line stands out as an issue for each of the NFC East's four teams. To wit:

  • Giants left tackle Will Beatty is unproven and can't get healthy, and they're thin at tackle in general. Additionally, David Baas was a disappointment in his first season in New York, and they haven't seen Kevin Boothe as a full-season starter yet. The Giants finished 32nd in the league last season in rushing offense because of a line that couldn't get any push. Pro Football Focus graded them the 29th-best run-blocking team in the league, and the worst pass-blocking team in the league. Good for them for overcoming it all and winning the Super Bowl, but it remains an issue insufficiently addressed.
  • The Cowboys' offensive line has been the dominant story of their training camp -- specifically their struggles at center, where Phil Costa has been banged up and the potential backups and replacements for him have had trouble snapping the ball to the quarterback. The Cowboys also are trying to find guards who can protect Tony Romo against the interior pass rush better than they did last season. And starting tackles Tyron Smith and Doug Free have had to switch sides because of Free's struggles on the left last season. PFF had Dallas as the 15th-best pass-blocking team in 2011 and the 11th-best run blocking one, so it could be worse. But they need everyone healthy and playing together to see if they have a chance.
  • The Redskins likely were planning to use some of the $18 million in salary cap money the league took from them on the eve of free agency to upgrade the offensive line. But they couldn't, obviously, so they're still dealing with Jammal Brown's hip injury, Kory Lichtensteiger's knee injury and Will Montgomery's limitations as a center in their zone-blocking run scheme. The Redskins ranked 26th in pass blocking and 30th in run blocking last season according to those PFF grades, and they also made no significant change or improvement.
  • After a rocky start, the Eagles had a good season on the line in 2011. They ranked second in the league in run-blocking and 14th in pass-blocking. But they also lost left tackle Jason Peters, their best lineman and one of the best in the league, to an Achilles injury in the offseason. As good as the other four starters on their line are, the Eagles could struggle to replace what Peters gave them last season, and so far they have not figured out whether Demetress Bell or King Dunlap replaces him as the starter.

The NFC has no shortage of star power. It has three great quarterbacks and one, Washington rookie Robert Griffin III, who's getting as much hype as any of the other three these days. It has some of the great wide receivers in the league in veterans such as Hakeem Nicks, Miles Austin and DeSean Jackson as well as rising stars such as Victor Cruz, Dez Bryant and Jeremy Maclin. The Eagles' LeSean McCoy ranks with the game's great running backs. And on defense, of course, the division is known for its great pass-rushers. Each team can rattle off names that give opposing quarterbacks heartburn. DeMarcus Ware. Jason Pierre-Paul. Justin Tuck. Trent Cole. Jason Babin. Brian Orakpo.

All of that makes the NFC East very exciting. But very often in the NFL, excitement and hype can conceal issues of quality. And if the NFC East really wants to be the best division in football again, it's not the quarterbacks or the wide receivers or even the pass-rushers that will bring it there. The NFC East's teams all need to start paying more attention to their offensive lines, because as those continue to erode, so will the division's annual claim to Beastliness.

What to watch for: Eagles-Patriots

August, 20, 2012
8/20/12
12:00
PM ET
The Philadelphia Eagles will play their second 2012 preseason game tonight at 8 ET against New England Patriots in Foxborough, Mass. The game will be broadcast live on ESPN. Here are the things I'll be watching ...

Most closely: Michael Vick's performance. Eagles coach Andy Reid has said he plans to play his starters longer tonight than he does in next week's preseason game against the Browns, since the Eagles open in Cleveland 16 days later and he doesn't want to give the Browns any more help than he has to. That means this will likely be the longest look we get at the Eagles' starters this preseason. And that means a chance for Vick to show us the fruits of all of the hard offseason work he and the Eagles say he's been doing. The Eagles' party line is that this is the first real offseason Vick has had as the starting quarterback since 2006 in Atlanta, and as a result he's worked harder and better on refining his game. Vick says he's watched more film than ever before in his career, and that he's determined to fix the mistakes that led to all of his turnover problems early in 2011. What Eagles fans should want to see from Vick is improved decision-making -- not just with regard to his personal safety, but also in terms of knowing when to give up on a play for the sake of valuing the ball. I'm interested to see if the offseason classroom work has made him a more proficient reader of the field and the defense, and how it works with him and center Jason Kelce in terms of changing the protection calls at the line. Vick is under the most pressure of any player in the NFL to perform this year, and while it doesn't matter what he does until Sept. 9 in Cleveland, it'd be encouraging for Eagles fans if they could come out of tonight's game convinced something about their quarterback looks different.

On the other side of the ball: Tackling, especially at the second level. I'm willing to believe that the defensive line will be the strength of the team once everyone's healthy, and I'm eager to watch Brandon Graham again after last week. But the Eagles' preseason opener featured some communication and tackling issues in the linebacker corps and in the secondary that were reminiscent of last season. And while I fervently believe that on-field preseason performance is a poor predictor of regular-season results, it can make fans (and, I assume, coaches) uneasy when a preseason problem reflects a prior-season problem you believed your team had solved. The same way a sharp Vick performance could help Eagles fans' optimism for the season, a sharp performance by the linebackers and the cornerbacks could help everyone feel better about the defense.

If I think of it: The backup running backs remain interesting. Does Dion Lewis look as though he could be an effective fill-in for LeSean McCoy? Is Chris Polk or Bryce Brown the leader for that No. 3 spot? Could that come down to something as pedestrian as special-teams work or blitz pickup?... Second-year safety Jaiquawn Jarrett could stand to show something, as the organization appears to be souring on him if it hasn't already. ... The left tackle position is also one to watch in this game. Demetress Bell is the player they signed to replace injured star Jason Peters, but he's struggled badly enough to get demoted to the second team, and perennial backup King Dunlap has been starting in his place in practice. The coaches will have their eyes on both of those players, and I'm interested to see if McCoy is going to run more up the middle and to the right this year with Peters gone. ... The Eagles also have a punting competition going on between Chas Henry and Mat McBriar.

Asomugha back at practice for Eagles

August, 16, 2012
8/16/12
12:05
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The Philadelphia Eagles received good injury news Thursday with the return of star cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha to the practice field. Asomugha cut his lip and injured his neck in a collision with safety Nate Allen in practice this week and was examined for concussion symptoms. But having found none, Eagles coach Andy Reid said, the team will return Asomugha to practice and proceed apace.

This continues a run of fairly good injury luck for the Eagles, who have suffered a large number of injuries during this training camp but don't expect any of them to threaten the regular season. Defensive end Jason Babin (calf) and backup quarterback Mike Kafka (hand) aren't likely to play until the final preseason game at the earliest, but the Eagles believe each will be back by the Sept. 9 opener in Cleveland. Other injuries, such as those to Trent Cole and Cullen Jenkins, are expected to resolve themselves sooner.

Of course, it hasn't been a totally injury-free offseason for the Eagles, who lost starting left tackle Jason Peters to an Achilles' tendon injury months ago. That left tackle spot remains unsettled, as Peters' replacement Demetress Bell struggled in the preseason opener, and has for the moment been demoted to the second-team offense while King Dunlap works with the first-teamers.

The injuries have given the Eagles a chance to try out their depth at places like defensive line, where they believe they have as many as eight or nine high-quality options. But a team with hopes as high as Philadelphia's this season needs its stars on the field. The return of Asomugha so soon after such a scary injury is an encouraging turn of events for the Eagles as they hope to get off to a good start and erase the memories of last September.
Newsy little Saturday up there at Lehigh with the Philadelphia Eagles. Quarterback Michael Vick is planning to practice in spite of the thumb injury he suffered in Thursday night's preseason opener. But backup quarterback Mike Kafka is not, because he broke his left (non-throwing) hand in that game when a Steelers player stepped on it. Rookie Nick Foles, who threw two touchdowns in the game, is taking second-team reps as Vick's backup. And left tackle Demetress Bell has been dropped to the second team after a poor Thursday performance, and King Dunlap is working as the first-team left tackle.

Got all that? Let's take the last part first.

[+] EnlargeNick Foles
Eric Hartline/US PresswirePhiladelphia rookie QB Nick Foles was sharp in his preseason debut on Thursday night.
Bell is the tackle the Eagles signed to replace star left tackle Jason Peters after Peters tore his Achilles tendon (twice) this offseason. His demotion is obviously not a good sign for the Eagles' ability to replace Peters, but it's also not necessarily permanent. Recall last year, when first-round pick Danny Watkins wasn't ready to start the opener at right guard but was able to ascend to a starter's role during the season. Offensive line coach Howard Mudd's schemes can be difficult to pick up, and it's possible that Bell needs more time. There are 29 days until the Eagles' regular-season opener in Cleveland, so he has that time if he needs it. And if he needs more, the Eagles (as they showed with Watkins) will give it to him. Dunlap has worked for a year in Mudd's system as a backup and spot starter, and I'm sure the Eagles feel they can get by with him there for a couple of weeks if need be. If Bell never gets any better, and Dunlap has to be their 16-game starter at left tackle, the Eagles could have a big problem. But today's news isn't "Bell out for season," it's "Bell needs more work."

The Kafka news is interesting because news about the backup plan for Vick is always interesting. There's a feeling of inevitability about Vick getting injured and missing time at some point during the season, so Eagles fans want to know who's next in line. The plan was for Kafka to be that guy in this, his third season on the roster and in the offense. But now they're estimating he's out three weeks with the broken hand. And given the way Thursday night went, that doesn't help him.

Interesting that Foles, and not veteran Trent Edwards, is getting the second-team snaps. Foles looked very good Thursday, completing 6-of-10 passes for 144 yards and those two touchdowns. The Eagles' third-round pick this year out of Arizona, Foles has great arm strength and great size. Should Vick get hurt and Foles be the replacement, the results would likely be spectacular in two different directions -- some eye-opening throws and plays mixed with (likely too many) damaging rookie errors. He still needs time in the offense and working on mechanics and footwork before he's a viable replacement. Even if he does throw the ball better down the field right now than Kafka does, that doesn't mean he's going through his progressions the way the Eagles need him to. Giving him the second-team reps is a good way to speed along his education. Edwards has experience, and the Eagles think he fits their offense well, so they could put him in there in a pinch in a real game. But in preseason, the Kafka injury is a chance to educate and evaluate Foles against a little bit better competition than he otherwise might have seen.

The question is how quickly Kafka gets back, and whether this injury hurts his spot on the depth chart or even the team. At this point, I'd have to think not. But his absence will give the other Vick backups a chance to make their cases.
BETHLEHEM, Pa. -- A year ago, as excitement swirled around the free-agent-happy Philadelphia Eagles and preseason predictions called for big things, something still didn't feel quite right.

"I didn't think the expectations were too high, but I knew that the timing might not match up as quickly as everyone wanted it to," cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha said after practice last week. "Because you would hear, 'Oh, they're going to be this, going to be that,' and then you'd come out in practice and you could see us blowing plays. Yes, we could be there, but we weren't there yet. That's what I was feeling in training camp. Right now in training camp, it feels completely different."

Last week, before the Eagles' training camp was rocked by Sunday's news of the death of coach Andy Reid's son Garrett, the atmosphere was serene and businesslike. The players have been practicing together since February, when Asomugha and quarterback Michael Vick were organizing players-only workouts at the University of Pennsylvania. And late July welcomed them to one of the hardest-hitting camps in the NFL. Their motivation is clear and simple -- they were 8-8 last year and believe they should have been better. They admit to being downright angry about the way the 2011 season went.

"Yeah, I think there's a determined effort to try to maximize our opportunity," Eagles general manager Howie Roseman said. "You see it from the players. You see it from the coaches. You see it from the support staff. And I think last year, maybe you underestimated how long it takes to acclimate."

No such issues or excuses this time around. This is basically the same group as last year's, with new guys at middle linebacker and left tackle. All of the coaches who were new to the team or their roles last year are back. All of the new schemes implemented last year by defensive coordinator Juan Castillo, defensive line coach Jim Washburn and offensive line coach Howard Mudd are familiar by now, and everybody should be more comfortable in them. If the Eagles flop again, there won't be anywhere to look for explanations other than within. That's why this August's focus is internal, and on the things that are important, rather than any hype they might be attracting.

"I don't want anyone buying into anything," Asomugha said. "I just want us to get into this season and just play the way we know how to play. I'll be completely honest with you: Our team looks very good. Obviously it's camp, we're not playing against anybody. But we're under specific instruction: Don't talk. Don't blow this thing up. Don't nothing. Let's just get in the season and let's just start playing football."

Once they do that, the Eagles believe that this time around, everything will be just fine.

THREE HOT ISSUES

1. Can Vick lead them to greatness? There is no player in the league under more pressure in 2012 than Vick. The brilliance of his 2010 season was away under the disappointment of his injury- and interception-riddled 2011, in which he failed to take that critical next step in his late-career development as a leader and a quarterback. The popular narrative is that this is the first time since 2006 in Atlanta that Vick has had a real offseason as a team's starting quarterback. He began 2010 as the Eagles' backup, and the 2011 offseason was wiped away by the lockout. The result, everyone says, is that Vick has spent more time than ever before at the team facility, working out, studying film and applying himself to details in order to get better.

"It's all evident," Vick said of his 2011 film review. "A lot of the turnovers I had, I think eight of them, were on balls that got tipped, so I need to try and release the ball a little higher, do something differently. There's nothing more gratifying than learning from a mistake. Interceptions are going to happen, but you try to keep them to a minimum and think about ball control."

The more focus on detail, the better for Vick, who has long relied on his unusual and considerable talent to carry him through. As last year proved, being a quarterback is about the little things, and much more than just what you can do with your arm and your legs.

"I see him just being smarter," wide receiver DeSean Jackson said of Vick. "He's taking a leadership role where he can be coached and be taught by other people as well. He's not at a point where he doesn't feel like anybody can tell him anything. He interacts, and he wants to know what it is that he's doing something wrong. And if he is doing something wrong, you can just get on him, just like a regular individual, a regular player."

[+] EnlargeDemeco Ryans
AP Photo/Brian GarfinkelThe Eagles believe veteran DeMeco Ryans will provide the defense with stability at linebacker.
2. The "quarterback of the defense." The big player acquisition of the Eagles' offseason was middle linebacker DeMeco Ryans, whom they acquired in a trade with the Houston Texans prior to the draft. Ryans is a well-respected veteran who was emerging as one of the top linebackers in the league before his 2010 Achilles injury. A misfit in the 3-4 defense the Texans implemented during his rehab, Ryans is more comfortable playing the middle linebacker spot in the Eagles' 4-3. He's also healthy and looking like the player who was so universally loved and respected by Texans teammates, who called him "Cap." The Eagles' defense, which started unprepared rookie Casey Matthews as its middle linebacker last September, should benefit from Ryans' veteran presence in the role.

"You see that stability there," Reid said. "The game's slower for him than it would be for a rookie. So he's able to just kind of get everybody lined up, get everybody settled and calmed down."

Roseman said it was a priority for the Eagles to find "the quarterback of our defense," and Ryans is aware that he was brought in to correct 2011's biggest defensive flaw. But he's trying to keep those expectations as calm as he's trying to keep his defensive teammates.

"It's not going to take one person to fix all the problems," Ryans said. "It takes everybody working together and finding out how we can make all 11 guys play better and have a better defense."

Sure, but what they like about Ryans is that he can help teach everybody just how to do that. And who can play a little, too.

"It's not like we just got a guy off the street who has some experience," Asomugha said. "This guy is a big-time player."

3. Replacin' Jason. Left tackle Jason Peters may have been the best player on the Eagles' roster last year, and that's no slight to anyone else. Peters was a monster blocker who was critical to the overall success of the offensive line and to the breakout season of running back LeSean McCoy. But Peters injured his Achilles in the offseason and is out for the year. His replacement is free-agent signee Demetress Bell, who's athletic like Peters and has the potential to be an adequate replacement. Bell's issue has been staying healthy and on the field, but so far his teammates say he's looking good and picking up Mudd's complex blocking schemes.

"I think he's one of the best options we could have had to replace Jason," left guard Evan Mathis said. "He displays great athleticism. He has a hunger to learn and a hunger to get better. And what's good for him is, Jason had a monster season, so he can go look at the film of Jason having a monster season, take what he's learning from Howard, apply it to what he's doing on the field and just try and replicate that and do exactly what Jason was doing. He's making strides daily."

REASON FOR OPTIMISM

For all that went wrong last year, the Eagles still managed to finish 8-8 and weren't eliminated from playoff contention until Week 16. Had they managed to hold just one of those blown fourth-quarter leads -- against the 49ers, Falcons or Giants, say -- we might be having a very different discussion about their 2011. They played well enough at the end of last year (and in the first three quarters of their September games) to prove to themselves they can be as good as they think they can be. If they can cut down on the costly mistakes, and if they get the mental boost they say they got from their season-ending four-game winning streak, it's not a long journey from where they were to a division title.

REASON FOR PESSIMISM

So much comes down to Vick, and with a backup corps that currently comprises Mike Kafka, Trent Edwards and rookie Nick Foles, it's more important than ever for him to stay healthy. He hasn't played 16 games in a season since 2006, and the Eagles were 1-2 in the three games he missed last year. When he's at his best, Vick gives the Eagles advantages at the position over any team in the league. He can do things with his arm and his legs that other quarterbacks can't. But his relatively small size and his all-out style of play have created a history of injury that can't be overlooked when forecasting his -- and the Eagles' -- season. If he doesn't play well, or if they lose him for an extended period of time, it's going to be difficult for them to compete with the top teams in the NFC.

OBSERVATION DECK
    [+] EnlargeJeremy Maclin
    Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesNow fully healthy, WR Jeremy Maclin has the tools to have a career season in 2012.
  • Wide receiver Jeremy Maclin is a breakout candidate. He was sick this time last year and wasn't able to get a lot out of training camp, and he had injury issues throughout the season. But he's 100 percent healthy now, and he gives the Eagles a big-time speed threat opposite Jackson in the wide receiver corps. Don't be surprised if Maclin has a better statistical season than Jackson.
  • I think McCoy will miss Peters at left tackle, because the Eagles ran outside a lot last year and Peters' upfield blocking was a huge help to McCoy's ability to break long runs. But having watched the Eagles work on their inside running in camp, I get the impression they're so strong in the middle of the offensive line -- especially given how much better 2011 first-round pick Danny Watkins looks at right guard -- that McCoy will be able to run successfully between the tackles more than he did a year ago.
  • Brandon Graham is the 2012 Eagles in microcosm. Fans are sick of hearing how good he's supposed to be and just want to see it. The 2010 first-round pick looks fantastic in the early going and should be able to make a contribution as part of the rotation at defensive end. Reid says the plan is to rotate eight guys on the defensive line and "throw fastballs, if we can, at the offensive line." A healthy, productive Graham subbing in to give Trent Cole or Jason Babin a breather would go a long way toward enabling that.
  • Jamar Chaney was playing well enough to look like the starter at weakside linebacker before a hamstring injury in the second week of camp sidelined him. So that could be Matthews or Brian Rolle if Chaney can't keep his momentum going. Rookie Mychal Kendricks is supposed to start on the strong side, but the Eagles are taking things slowly with him. Don't be surprised if, as with Watkins a year ago, his role is bigger in the second half than it is at the start.
  • Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, the starter at cornerback opposite Asomugha, looks spry and comfortable in his new role. He played the slot cornerback position last year, which he never has before, and should be better on the outside.
  • Rookie Brandon Boykin could win that slot corner job ahead of veteran Joselio Hanson. Boykin is also helping as a kick returner.
  • It's possible the Eagles could go without a fullback. They didn't use one much last year, and they like what backup tight end Brett Brackett has been showing in camp. They could use him or Clay Harbor along with Brent Celek in multiple tight end sets.

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