"Last team with the ball wins" is a cliche, but sometimes cliches are the best way to get across the central narrative of an important game. If you like great quarterback play, you have to watch the NFC Championship Game.
13 May 2008
Guest Column by Mike McGibbon
After an offseason of much smoke and little fire, the Cowboys sprang into action on the weekend of the draft, making a total of eight trades. As a result, former starters Akin Ayodele (linebacker) and Anthony Fasano (tight end) are now Dolphins, Pacman Jones (cornerback) is now in Dallas, and the Cowboys now own extra picks in the third and fourth rounds of the 2009 draft. In fact, the Cowboys made so many trades that if you include the one they made in 2007 with the Cleveland Browns (which allowed the Browns to move up and select quarterback Brady Quinn, and gave the Cowboys the Browns' 2008 first round pick) every 2008 Cowboys draft pick was the result of a trade but one: Texas A&M tight end Martellus Bennett, picked in the second round, who fills the hole left by Fasano.
If the Cowboys didn't have such a strong roster, some of these trades would have been inspected more closely. Did the Cowboys really need to give the Titans a fourth-round pick for Jones when no one else was bidding for him and he still hadn't been reinstated? Could they have gotten more for Fasano, a second-round pick in 2006, and Ayodele, who would have challenged Zach Thomas for a starting spot? In these instances, Jerry Jones appeared to be more interested in getting the deals done than in getting the best deals.
On the other hand, the trade for cornerback Mike Jenkins (South Florida) was excellent. In return for moving up three spots in the first round, the Cowboys gladly surrendered their fifth- and seventh-round picks. (The Chargers and Texans were ahead of the Cowboys; one of them would have almost certainly drafted Jenkins.) Although the Cowboys had already traded for Pacman Jones, they can't rely on him to be reinstated (or to avoid further suspension). Jenkins will compensate for the offseason losses of Jacques Reeves and Nathan Jones, and will also give the Cowboys leverage next year, when Terence Newman will be in a position to demand a very expensive contract.
Perhaps the Cowboys' most controversial pick was their first, running back Felix Jones (Arkansas). Many wondered if the Cowboys would instead draft Rashard Mendenhall, the 5-foot-11, 210-pound running back from Illinois, whom some experts considered a better prospect than the fourth-overall pick, Jones' Arkansas teammate Darren McFadden. But the Cowboys saw Mendenhall as too similar to the bruising back they already have, Marion Barber, and thought that the more explosive Jones would be a better complement. While it is true that Felix Jones has excellent speed, and is used to playing the wingman role after sharing carries with Darren McFadden for three years, his undeveloped receiving skills make this pick less than ideal. The Cowboys need a running back who can catch the ball out of the backfield; Marion Barber ranked merely 51st in receiving DPAR among running backs last year. Yet in his three years at Arkansas, Felix Jones caught only 39 passes. East Carolina's Chris Johnson might have made more sense; he has superior receiving skills and recorded the fastest 40-yard dash at the combine. Many considered him a reach at the 22nd spot, but that didn't stop Tennessee from snatching him two spots later.
The Cowboys were expected to draft a wide receiver at some point in the draft, but didn't. However, with Terrell Owens and Patrick Crayton returning (ranked 2nd and 25th, respectively, in DPAR), and Terry Glenn hoping to return, not to mention young players like Sam Hurd and Miles Austin, the Cowboys thought that wide receiver was not a pressing need. Running back and cornerback were the main positions of need, and they were further bolstered when Dallas selected running back Tashard Choice of Georgia Tech and cornerback Orlando Scandrick of Boise State. Choice's stock was hurt by a knee injury during his senior year, but he left Georgia Tech with 18 100-yard games. Some reports had Scandrick outplaying Jenkins at the first minicamp.
The Cowboys signed 14 rookie free agents, grabbing players at every position but quarterback and defensive tackle. Former Texas Tech wide receiver Danny Amendola has gotten a fair amount of media attention, due mostly to the success of his predecessor, Wes Welker. The 5-10, 180-pound receiver had 109 catches for 1,245 yards and six touchdowns for the Red Raiders in 2007. Daniel Polk (Midwestern State) was another interesting pickup; the former quarterback was the only player in the nation to pass for more than 2,000 yards and run for more than 1,000 yards. His speed is merely average, however (he ran a 4.5 in the 40-yard dash), which may hurt his chances to break into the lineup as a wide receiver.
Few were surprised to see the New York Giants select Miami safety Kenny Phillips with the last pick of the first round. The Giants would like to see Phillips capture the starting spot vacated by Gibril Wilson's departure for the Raiders, but if he doesn't, the Giants still have James Butler, Michael Johnson, and free agent signingSammy Knight. The team only lost one other starter in free agency, linebacker Kawika Mitchell. (They may also lose defensive end Michael Strahan, who has not yet decided whether or not to retire.) However, given that the Giants signed linebacker Danny Clark in the offseason, and are still developing Gerris Wilkinson and Zak DeOssie, drafting a linebacker wasn't a definite need. Really, the Giants had no pressing needs other than safety, so they drafted players they liked and players who could compete at positions like linebacker and cornerback, where the starting lineup is somewhat unsettled. Linebackers Bryan Kehl and Jonathan Goff were drafted in the fourth and fifth rounds, respectively, to compete with Clark, Wilkinson and DeOssie. Florida State cornerback Terrell Thomas was drafted in the second round despite his poor speed (he ran a 4.51 in the 40-yard dash). The Giants then took defensive end Robert Henderson of Southern Mississippi with their last pick, perhaps preparing for Strahan's possible retirement.
The Giants' other two picks were purely for perceived value. Quarterback Andre' Woodson was drafted in the sixth round, even though the Giants already have two former first-overall picks on the roster (Eli Manning and David Carr), as well as two longtime backups (Jared Lorenzen and Anthony Wright). As recently as October, many analysts had Woodson as a potential first-round pick, but his inaccuracy on short throws and poor Combine performance caused his stock to drop drastically. The Giants also drafted Mario Manningham, the wide receiver from Michigan who alienated many teams by testing positive for marijuana and lying to everyone at the Combine. Peccadilloes aside, Manningham was excellent playmaker for the Wolverines, and may be the most interesting Giant to track from this draft.
Back in the fall of 2007, it seemed very likely that the New York Giants would need to draft an offensive lineman in the 2008 draft, perhaps even in the first round. Former starting left tackle Luke Petitgout had just left for Tampa Bay, and his backup, Bob Whitfield, had retired. These departures gave David Diehl, formerly a guard, and Rich Seubert, formerly a backup, the chance to start at left tackle and left guard, respectively. Fans hoped for the best, but it wouldn't have been too surprising to see Diehl move back to guard by now, forcing the Giants to draft a lineman high or dip into the free agency pool.
After the Giants won the Super Bowl, many incredulous pundits described them as an average regular-season team that somehow played out of its mind in the playoffs, but the statistics tell a different story about the offensive line. The Giants' line ranked second overall in Adjusted Line Yards, and ranked in the top ten in every other category except pass protection (in which they ranked 11th). Their strong performances won Seubert and Diehl new offseason contracts. Diehl's 6-year, $31-million contract was especially surprising and indicative of New York's appreciation, given that he still had three years remaining on an existing contract, and that teams are generally very reluctant to give players new contracts if they don't have to.
Diehl apparently signed the contract before the draft, but no one knew about it. So at the time of the draft, it still seemed possible that the Giants would choose to draft an elite offensive tackle prospect, or at least a young developmental player. But the Giants drafted no linemen this year, and have in fact drafted only two in the past four years.
Given the lack of depth up front, it is no coincidence that four of the six rookie free agents signed by the Giants were offensive linemen. Dylan Thiry may have the best chance to make the team; the offensive tackle was a 34-game starter for Northwestern. He may not have gotten much attention due to the merely average performance of his team in 2007, but he helped block for 1,000-yard rushers in 2005 and 2006, and contributed to the pass protection that allowed his team to average more than 300 yards passing per game in 2007.
The Eagles may have made the best trade of the draft when they swapped their first-round pick for Carolina's second- and fourth-round picks and next year's first-rounder. The deal probably disappointed some fans who were hoping for an explosive wide receiver, but there weren't any that were worth taking with the 19th overall pick, and the Eagles managed to get a number of talented players later in the draft anyway. With their two second-round picks, they selected Notre Dame defensive tackle Trevor Laws and Cal wide receiver/kick returner DeSean Jackson. Some thought Laws was taken a bit high, but he will provide competition for Broderick Bunkley and Mike Patterson, two former first-round picks. Jackson is a small receiver, but he made play after play at Cal, and promises to help revive the Eagles' moribund punt return unit.
Later, the Eagles sent their fourth-round pick to Miami for Lorenzo Booker, whom the Eagles hope will be Brian Westbrook-lite. Like Westbrook, Booker excels at catching passes out of the backfield, and can occasionally line up as a wide receiver. His arrival may spell the end for Tony Hunt or Correll Buckhalter, who have failed to pick up the slack when Westbrook is on the sideline. The Eagles also added depth at vulnerable positions, drafting ballhawk Quintin Demps (Texas-El Paso) in the fourth round and three offensive linemen: Mike McGlynn (Pittsburgh), Mike Gibson (Cal), and the mammoth Auburn tackle King (yes, King) Dunlap. Fourth-round Wisconsin defensive back Jack Ikegwuonu was a surprise pick. He was accused of stealing an X-Box, and then tore up his ACL, but before all that he had been expected to go on the first day. Given his superior tackling ability and lack of speed, he may be moved to strong safety once he's healthy.
Many commentators expected the Eagles to have an extra first-round pick this year. Asante Samuel's 6-year, $57 million contract made Lito Sheppard's 10-year, $30 million contract look pretty meager, and most analysts assumed that the Eagles would trade Sheppard before he started making trouble. Of course, in the absence of some ugliness, there is really no reason for the Eagles to get rid of him. His $3 million per year average is nothing when you consider that the salary cap has ballooned to $116 million. And while Sheppard has struggled with injuries recently, he is worth well more than his salary cap number when healthy. That's why everyone expected a trade. But the draft came and went, and Sheppard is still an Eagle. In fact, he even showed up at a voluntary minicamp, and expressed a desire to work out a new contract with the club.
The Eagles have brought in players to compete at every position of weakness. Demps will fight with the other Quintin (Mikell) and Sean Considine for the starting safety spot next to Brian Dawkins. The three rookie tackles will vie for backup positions along the offensive line, and sixth-round pick Joe Mays of North Dakota State may help the Eagles in kick coverage. However, if DeSean Jackson doesn't pan out, many will wonder why the Eagles didn't draft any other offensive weapons.
To be fair, the Eagles did acquire three rookie wide receivers -- after the draft was over. Penn State's Terrell Golden, Nebraska's Frantz Hardy, and Delaware State's Shaheer McBride were all snapped up in the free agency period following the draft. Of the three, McBride seems most promising. Golden and Hardy hail from big-name schools, but neither had more than five receptions in any game last year. By comparison, McBride tied John Taylor's touchdown record at Delaware State with 33, and is the school's all-time leader in receptions and receiving yards.
The Redskins began the draft by embracing conventional wisdom yet again this offseason, trading for more picks instead of reaching in the first round. The offensive and defensive lines were obvious positions of need for Washington, but both areas were picked over by the 21st spot. Six offensive linemen had already been taken, and defensive ends Chris Long, Vernon Gholston, and Derrick Harvey were all gone by the eighth pick. New head coach Jim Zorn had previously expressed his desire for a big wide receiver, but no player available seemed worthy of a first-round pick. So, very sensibly, they traded their first rounder to Atlanta for two of the Falcons' high second-rounders, leaving them with a total of ten draft picks.
Virtuous as his draft-day conduct may seem, Redskins' owner Daniel Snyder had been up to his old tricks again before the draft, attempting to trade this year's first-round pick and a 2009 conditional third-round pick to Cincinnati for the privilege of employing Chad Johnson. Had Johnson performed at a Pro Bowl level (and why would you trade a first-rounder for him if you didn't think he would?), that conditional 2009 pick would have become a first-round selection. Is a 30-year-old, disgruntled wide receiver worth two first-round picks? Snyder will never know, because the Bengals are incredibly stubborn, and have refused to trade Johnson at (seemingly) any price.
Having been rebuffed by the Bengals, the Redskins addressed their need for pass-catchers in the second round, drafting wide receivers Devin Thomas of Michigan State and Malcolm Kelly of Oklahoma, plus USC tight end Fred Davis. Each of the three would have been a questionable pick one round earlier: Thomas only had one standout year at Michigan State after transferring from a junior college, Kelly ran extremely poor 40-yard dash times (and then blamed one of them on his school for having a bad running surface), and Fred Davis is known more for his pass-catching than his blocking (now he's known for sleeping through his first minicamp). Nevertheless, they were all good value picks in the second round. Kelly and Thomas will provide much-needed depth at the wide receiver position, and Fred Davis will create mismatches when he and fellow tight end Chris Cooley are both on the field.
Flush with seven second-day picks, the Redskins added depth to many crucial positions, drafting Northern Iowa offensive tackle Chad Rinehart in the third round to backup all those 30-something linemen; Arizona State cornerback Justin Tryon to challenge for the nickel spot; and Nicholls State safety Kareem Moore to help with special teams. Moore is an interesting pick, an athlete who started football late in high school (where he was an all-state basketball player) and played well enough to earn his league's Defensive Player of the Year award. Unfortunately, he just had arthroscopic knee surgery, and may not be able to play until June.
Jason Campbell may be pleased at having so many new players to throw to, but he has to be a little nervous about his offensive line -- Chad Rinehart was the only offensive lineman selected, even though two of Washington's linemen were hurt for most of last year. The Redskins also didn't make any serious move to find an understudy for Phillip Daniels (35), waiting until the seventh round to select a defensive end (Rob Jackson, Kansas State). Drafting a linebacker would have been logical as well, given the injuries of Rocky McIntosh and Marcus Washington. Instead of addressing these needs, the Redskins chose to select Hawaii quarterback Colt Brennan and punter Georgia Tech Durant Brooks with two of their sixth-round picks. Brennan put up great numbers, but he lasted so long because of his disappointing Sugar Bowl and Senior Bowl performances (and the fact that he just had hip surgery). Brooks lasted that long because he's a punter. Given that the Redskins have two solid quarterbacks in Jason Campbell and Todd Collins, and that they just re-signed their punter, Derrick Frost, both Brennan and Brooks seem like luxury picks.
In all, the Redskins brought in 13 undrafted rookie free agents. Of those 13, four were offensive linemen. And of those four, Florida State's Shannon Boatman and New Mexico's Devin Clark may have the best chance to make the team, given that both started for most of their final two seasons. Dorian Smith, an All-Pac 10 first-team defensive end from Oregon State, will also challenge for a spot.
Mike McGibbon is a musician and private tutor in New York City; his mind turns to football when students make homework excuses and when horn players start their twentieth chorus of "Blue Bossa." FO thanks Mike for helping out with this edition of Four Downs.
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