What do you call a fifth-round rookie WR with real expectations? Tajae Sharpe, and there may not be another player like him in NFL history. Tennessee's poor history of developing wideouts has led to a rare opportunity that Sharpe can seize this season.
12 Feb 2007
by Ryan Wilson
Heading into the 2006 season, the NFC East was arguably the most complete division in the conference. Giants quarterback Eli Manning was poised for a breakout season; head coach Bill Parcells was entering year four in Dallas; in Philadelphia, Donovan McNabb was healthy and sans T.O.; and Washington, with its usual assortment of high-priced off-season free-agent additions, was readying for a playoff run. A strange thing happened on the way to Miami: Tom Coughlin lost control of his team, Dallas' defense lost its way, McNabb was lost to injury, and the Redskins lost 11 games, in part, because of poor personnel decisions last off-season.
Although three NFC East teams qualified for the postseason, the Giants and Cowboys faltered down the stretch, while the Eagles exceeded expectations by making it to the NFC Divisional game without their starting quarterback.
Head coach Bill Parcells ended each of his four seasons in Dallas with a different quarterback: Quincy Carter, Vinny Testaverde, Drew Bledsoe, and finally Tony Romo. Despite the heartbreaking wild-card loss to the Seahawks because of a botched Romo hold on a field-goal attempt, the fourth-year undrafted quarterback offers the Cowboys stability at the position for the first time since Troy Aikman retired in 2000.
Even with the all the quarterback uncertainty during his Dallas tenure, Parcells managed a 34-30 record -- including two playoff appearances -- but opted to retire last month, telling the Dallas Morning News, "I just think it's time. Physically I could do it again, but mentally, I think that's the difference."
Last week, owner Jerry Jones named Chargers defensive coordinator Wade Phillips the new Cowboys head coach, the seventh in team history. Jones hired Dolphins quarterbacks coach Jason Garrett in an undecided role, but he will serve as the Cowboys offensive coordinator. Dallas' defense, as currently constituted, is best suited for the 3-4, the same scheme Phillips had great success with in San Diego. Though some questioned the Phillips hire, in four full seasons as a head coach in Buffalo and Denver, he compiled a 45-35 record, including three playoff appearances.
Other than Parcells, who is already out the door -- likely plotting his return to the New York Jets in some front-office capacity, -- wide receiver Terrell Owens is the biggest question mark. Jones told the Fort Worth Star Telegram that Owens will return for 2007, even though he sported a 56 percent catch rate and regularly dropped passes, is due a $3 million roster bonus in June, and was a divisive locker room presence.
The offensive line could have some turnover. Right tackle Marc Colombo is a free agent. Center Andre Gurode is also a free agent, but he should be re-signed. Gurode is best known for being on the receiving end of an Albert Haynesworth stomp to the face in Week 4, but he also made the Pro Bowl. Guard Marco Rivera and left tackle Flozell Adams are still under contract. According to Football Outsiders, the Cowboys ranked 23rd in adjusted sack rate. However, the Cowboys would be 29th if we only included games started by Bledsoe, and 15th if we only included games started by Romo.
Mike Vanderjagt, possibly the most overpaid player in the NFL last season, was released in November and replaced by Martin Gramatica, who is also a free agent.
Depending on what Phillips and Garrett decide, the offensive line could see a major overhaul or just a few tweaks. If the Cowboys choose to upgrade through free agency, guard Eric Steinbach and tackle Leonard Davis are the top available free agents in a thin class, but neither will come cheaply.
The kicking game is also an issue. The Cowboys could re-sign Gramatica, who converted 7-of-9 field goals last season, including 3-of-5 from beyond 40 yards. Or, if the team is willing to lay down some cash, the Seahawks' Josh Brown is available. After spotting Vanderjagt a $2.5 million signing bonus last off-season, Dallas may be hesitant to go down that road again.
Adding depth in the secondary isn't a top priority but should be addressed, if not in free agency then via the draft. Roy Williams struggles in coverage, and Pat Watkins had an uneven rookie season. Tony Parrish was signed in December but is an unrestricted free agent.
The Giants jumped out to a 6-2 start, then backed into the playoffs at 8-8. After a wild card loss to the Eagles, Tom Coughlin was expected to lose his job, but instead received a one-year extension. Defensive coordinator Tim Lewis wasn't so lucky. He was fired, and the team hired Eagles linebackers coach Steve Spagnuolo to replace him. There is some speculation that Coughlin is only a placeholder for 2007, and the team will make a run at one of the big-name coaches likely to be available next off-season.
In case you haven't heard, Tiki Barber has retired. Brandon Jacobs is Barber's obvious successor, but there is no depth behind him.
New York has nine unrestricted free agents. Center Shaun O'Hara, who can also play guard, performed well last season, but the Giants will only re-sign him at the right price. Linebacker Brandon Short probably will not be back but that could depend, in part, on LaVar Arrington's recovery from an Achilles injury. Carols Emmons is perpetually injured and could be released. The Giants hope second-year outside linebacker Gerris Wilkinson is ready to step into a starting role.
Kicker Jay Feely is also a free agent but will probably be re-signed. The only other notable free agent is backup tight end Visanthe Shiancoe. He was a third-round pick in 2003, but has only 32 receptions in four seasons. The Giants might let him go, especially if the team feels Darcy Jackson is ready to graduate from the practice squad to the 53-man roster.
New York ranked 13th in defensive efficiency last season, which is astounding considering all the injuries. Defensive ends Michael Strahan (foot) and Osi Umenyiora (hip) missed considerable time, and there is no guarantee Arrington will ever fully recover from a torn Achilles. Based on the health of New York's front seven, defensive line and linebacker depth could be a priority. Adalius Thomas and Lance Briggs are two intriguing names, though both could receive the franchise tag from their current teams.
The secondary was a liability for most of the season. Sam Madison's poor play was the only reason more wasn't written about Corey Webster's sophomore slump. Either Asante Samuel and Nate Clements would be marked upgrades, but both would be costly.
The Giants would like to bring in someone to compete with Jacobs, a third-year back from Southern Illinois who is unproven as a starter. Free agent Ahman Green would be a short-term solution, but New York covets Chargers restricted free agent Michael Turner. Turner would almost certainly command a first-round pick, but he might be worth it.
As well as things went for the Eagles in the last third of the season -- also known as the Jeff Garcia Era -- the off-season has been just bad. First, there were rumors the Eagles would trade McNabb to the Lions for the No. 2 overall pick. Then, according to the Associated Press, head coach Andy Reid's 21-year-old son was charged with drug and weapon offenses stemming from an incident in which he was accused of pointing a gun at another motorist.
Obviously, Reid's family is his first priority. Now that he's taking a month off to deal with those issues, the Eagles will need to take care of free agency without him.
Bill Cowher resigned one year after winning the Super Bowl to spend more time with his family and to watch his daughters play basketball. Andy Reid could follow Cowher's lead, but for more serious reasons. If Reid's month off turns into a year off or longer, Marty Mornhinweg has head-coaching experience, is currently the assistant head coach/offensive coordinator, and has Reid's full trust. Last year, Reid relinquished play-calling duties to Mornhinweg, and he credits the offensive coordinator for helping the Eagles turn their season around.
The Eagles have 11 free agents, and Jeff Garcia will likely be the most sought-after. All the 36-year-old quarterback did was replace McNabb, win five games in a row to end the regular season, and beat the Giants in the first round of the playoffs. Now, the former Browns and Lions retread could find himself with a starting gig in 2007. Garcia indicated he is amenable to returning to the Eagles and is more interested in winning a Super Bowl than just being a starting quarterback in the NFL. We will see if a lucrative contract changes his mind. If Garcia does leave, A.J. Feeley will back up McNabb.
Like Garcia, Donte' Stallworth also said he would like to return to Philadelphia, but he heads the list of a mostly pedestrian wide receiver free agent class. If Stallworth goes elsewhere, the Eagles still have Reggie Brown and are high on rookie Hank Baskett.
Running back Correll Buckhalter had a nice season after missing two years to injury. The team will try to re-sign him to back up Brian Westbrook. Safety Michael Lewis, who was benched at one point last season, will not be back. Sean Considine played well in his place and took his starting job. The Eagles would also like to re-sign safety Quintin Mikell. Third-string quarterback Koy Detmer is a free agent but if the Tony Romo botched hold taught us anything, it's that good holders, like good long snappers, are well worth a roster spot.
The Eagles probably won't be huge players in the free agent market. The team has drafted well recently and many of those picks could make up most of the roster in 2007. Linebackers Omar Gaither and Chris Gocong should become full-time starters, and the offensive line is set, at least on paper. Shawn Andrews, a 2004 first-round pick, made the Pro Bowl, and Winston Justice and Max Jean-Gilles, taken in the 2006 draft, provide depth.
Defensive end Javon Kearse is returning from serious knee injury, and his effectiveness could be a concern. Also, 2006 first-round defensive tackle Broderick Bunkley had a forgettable rookie season. The team will need more production from the position next year.
Joe Gibbs is entering his fourth year of un-retirement and in that time the Redskins have drafted 16 players, acquired just as many big-name players through free agency or trades, and posted a 21-27 record. Owner Daniel Snyder would never fire Gibbs, but until the three-time Super Bowl-winning head coach gives up his personnel duties, Washington will continue to stumble through the NFC East.
The Redskins have 11 unrestricted free agents but only linebacker Warrick Holdman was a starter. Holdman was often overmatched last season and will likely be replaced by 2006 second-round pick Rocky McIntosh. Running back T.J. Duckett was acquired last August for a third-round pick and then spent the season buried on the depth chart. Duckett's a free agent and wants to be a starter. With Clinton Portis and Ladell Betts firmly entrenched in Washington, Duckett won't be back. Neither will oft-injured kicker John Hall, who is still under contract but seldom healthy.
In an effort to create cap room or to just cut dead weight, Washington could choose to release David Patten, Brandon Lloyd, Adam Archuleta, and maybe even Mark Brunell. Archuleta is possibly the biggest free-agent signing-turned-bust during the Gibbs regime. and the team would eagerly listen to any trade offers.
Unlike last off-season, the Redskins will be relatively quiet during free agency. The defense ranked last in the NFL in 2006. The pass rush was nonexistent, and as a result the secondary floundered. Opponents threw away from cornerback Shawn Springs when he was healthy enough to play, which meant 2005 first-round pick Carlos Rogers was exposed as the weak link. Washington would love to upgrade the position with Samuel or Clements, but don't have the cap space to do so.
There were rumors during the season the Redskins would make a typical off-season run at Colts defensive end Dwight Freeney, but Indianapolis will either sign him to a long-term deal or franchise him. Defensive ends Patrick Kerney and Charles Grant are unrestricted free agents, but Kerney, who is 31, could re-sign with the Falcons, and Grant could be too expensive for Washington given their cap constraints.
The Redskins have the sixth overall pick in the April draft and will in all likelihood use the pick to draft a pass-rushing end.
Next: AFC East by Bill Barnwell
*All projected cap numbers courtesy of www.askthecommish.com. These numbers are "ballpark" and are subject to change. The intention is to give an approximate idea of each team's available resources before free agency and the draft begin.
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