"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.
16 May 2012
by Vince Verhei
In a nutshell, the Cowboys have three starting spots open, and the four players fighting for them include two former seventh-rounders (Bill Nagy and Mackenzy Bernadeau) and two players who weren't drafted (Nate Livings and Phil Costa). The Cowboys cut Kyle Kosier and opted not to re-sign Montrae Holland, which meant neither starting guard from last year would return. They also chose not to re-sign Derrick Dockery, a key backup who saw action in eight games. The Cowboys did very well in most of our offensive line metrics, but in Power Situations (third and fourth down with two or fewer yards to go, or goal-to-go situations with two or fewer yards to go) they ranked just 23rd in the NFL.
With those losses, Nagy -- a 2011 draft pick who opened the season as a starter, but fractured his ankle after four terrible games -- is their lone returning guard. Our game charters had bad things to say about Nagy's blocking, and the Cowboys' Adjusted Line Yards climbed from 3.52 in the first month of the season to 4.00 after Nagy was injured.
But it's not that simple. Charean Williams of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram says that the Cowboys will start with Livings on the left side and Bernadeau on the right. Offensive line coach Bill Callahan, though, said they could end up switching sides. Further, Callahan mentioned that Bernadeau and Nagy would get a chance at center, even though Costa (who started every game at that position in 2011) is still around. Not exactly a vote of confidence there. As teams start to make roster cuts this fall, there will be plenty of versatile depth players on the market, but Dallas already has four of those. Somehow, through player development or surprise cuts on other teams, they need some starters.
(Late update: Bernadeau had hip surgery this weekend and may be out until early August, which would certainly cut down on his chances to win a starting job.)
Few teams get more after the draft than the Cowboys -- four of their 22 starters last year went undrafted, including Tony Romo and Miles Austin. This year they signed 21 college free agents, including six offensive linemen. Columbia tackle Jeff Adams and Memphis guard Ronald Leary were both expected to be draft picks. Russ Lande actually projected Leary to go in the fourth round, but a knee injury knocked him out of the draft. Texas A&M cornerback Lionel Smith has prototype size (6-feet-even, 192 pounds) and speed (4.44-second 40-yard-dash). Wide receiver Saalim Hakim (Tarleton State) runs a 4.29 40, but that’s only natural since speed runs in his family -- big brother Az-Zahir Hakim played for the Rams during the "Greatest Show On Turf" era.
Tom Coughlin's Super Bowl Giants teams will be remembered for their steady rotation of defensive linemen. It was a unit that sent one pass rusher after another across the line of scrimmage and into quarterbacks' nightmares, from Michael Strahan to Justin Tuck to Osi Umenyiora to Mathias Kiwanuka to Jason Pierre-Paul. Now, though, the Giants' list of pass rushers is getting smaller. Though Tuck and Pierre-Paul remain entrenched at defensive end, Kiwanuka has been moved to linebacker, leaving Umenyiora as the only proven pass rusher on the Giants' bench. He may not be there for long. Umenyiora is entering the last year of his contract, and if the Giants do not give him the extension he wants (or trade him to a team that will), he has suggested he will hold out.
What kind of void would Umenyiora leave on the New York bench? Only one other Giants reserve lineman has ever sacked an NFL quarterback: 33-year-old Shaun Rogers, who had no sacks in 16 games with New Orleans last year. Most of the other bench players are late-round draftees or college free agents, none of whom have significant experience. The most talented player in this group might be Marvin Austin, a 2011 second-rounder out of North Carolina who missed his entire rookie season with a pectoral injury, but he will probably be placed at defensive tackle, not end. This is why the Giants have been hesitant to trade Umenyiora: They can't afford to lose any more pass rushers. Even if Osi and the Giants make a deal, New York still needs to add depth here.
The Giants won the Super Bowl, after all, so they're not desperate for talent here. They signed only nine players. Joe Martinek is an undersized fullback who will get plenty of attention because he went to school at nearby Rutgers. Wide receiver Julian Talley was a Massachusetts teammate of current Giants star Victor Cruz. Defensive end Matthew Broha was a two-time All-WAC player at Louisiana Tech. Merrimack quarterback James Suozzo is a former MVP … in a Division II conference called the Northeast-10 (which also produced the earlier-mentioned Mackenzy Bernadeau).
The Eagles did about as much to rebuild their team as anyone over the offseason. They signed offensive tackle Demetress Bell from the Bills, traded for ex-Texans linebaker DeMeco Ryans, and picked California linebacker Mychal Kendricks in the second round of the draft. That's three methods for three new starters. However, they created a hole in their defensive backfield when they traded away cornerback Asante Samuel, one of the best pass defenders in the league. Samuel ranked fourth among cornerbacks in Success Rate and first in Yards Per Pass allowed in Football Outsiders' charting stats, after leading the NFL in both categories in 2010. His replacement, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, did not see enough passes last year to qualify for the leaderboards, but his Success Rate of 60 percent was nearly identical to that of the other starter, Nnamdi Asomugha, who ranked 15th. On the other hand, both Rodgers-Cromartie and Asomugha allowed more than seven yards per pass, which is about average for cornerbacks. In other words, expect the Eagles to force a lot of incompletions this year, but those balls that are caught could go for big yardage.
Just as importantly, Rodgers-Cromartie's promotion leaves the cupboard bare when it comes to secondary depth. Veteran Joselio Hanson steps up into the nickelback position, but he'll be 31 on opening day. Beyond that, there are only inexperienced mid-round picks from 2010 (Trevard Lindley), 2011 (Curtis Marsh), and 2012 (Georgia’s Brandon Boykin).
The situation is similar at safety. Behind starters Kurt Coleman and Nate Allen, only one projected backup was actually drafted: Jaiquawn Jarrett, a 2011 second-rounder who rarely saw the field as a rookie. Teams that can spread the field with three or four quality receivers (the Giants come to mind) should give the Eagles all kinds of trouble, and if any of the starters misses significant time with an injury, it will be a sad season in Philadelphia.
The Eagles signed 13 free agents. The biggest name among them is Chris Polk, who was the second all-time leading rusher at the University of Washington. He was expected to go in the second or third rounds, but rumors of a degenerative hip injury (which Polk denied) knocked him out of the draft entirely. Philadelphia also signed a pair of defensive backs with character issues. Phillip Thomas was suspended for a year by the Syracuse Orange, but he opted to simply leave school altogether instead. Oregon cornerback Cliff Harris has great speed – behind the wheel of a car. He was once ticketed for going 118 miles an hour, and was later kicked off the team for marijuana possession.
How busy were the Redskins in free agency? They added seven veterans on defense alone, which is as many as the Cowboys signed overall and more than the Eagles or Giants. Then they added three more players on offense, and topped it off with a kicker. Also, as you may have heard, they traded a bundle of draft picks to move up and select a new quarterback in Baylor's Robert Griffin. They made so many changes that it can be hard to identify their biggest need, but even though they added five defensive backs in free agency, the secondary is still in dire straits.
Cornerback Josh Wilson finished in the top 25 in both of our pass coverage charting stats while starting all 16 games for the first time in his five-year career. However, DeAngelo Hall once again was DeAngelo Hall, only less so, with only three interceptions. To contrast Wilson and Hall, consider this: when covering the opposing team's top receiver, Wilson had a 49 percent Success Rate and allowed 9.4 yards per play. Hall had a 30 percent Success Rate and allowed 11.3 yards per play. To supplement their starters, the Redskins signed Cedric Griffin (ex-Vikings) and Leigh Torrence (ex-Saints) to play nickel and dime. Griffin tore each of his ACLs in successive years, and when he finally came back in 2011 was one of the worst starting corners in the league. Torrence has generally come out below average in our charting numbers, although without enough passes to be ranked.
The Redskins cut O.J. Atogwe and saw LaRon Landry sign with the Jets in free agency, so they will have two new starting safeties next year, and not necessarily very good ones. Tanard Jackson finished third in our broken tackle count last year, but since he only played 10 games, his 16 broken tackles work out to a horrid 33.3 percent broken tackle rate. Jackson claims that he'll be better once he recovers from a shoulder injury, but that injury is the main reason Tampa Bay cut him. The current plan is to put Brandon Meriweather next to Jackson, but the Patriots were so sick of his freelancing that they cut him before last season, and the Bears were so sick of his freelancing that they benched him after four games. When Washington inevitably gets sick of him, they still have veteran Reed Doughty and youngster DeJon Gomes, who are both strong box safeties but struggle in coverage. They also added Madieu Williams, a seven-year veteran with the Bengals, Vikings, and 49ers.
The Redskins signed as many college free agents (11) as they did veteran free agents. Virginia cornerback Chase Minnifield once had a second-round projection, but was unable to work out before the draft due to an ankle injury. It was also revealed that he had microfracture surgery on his knee earlier this year. His father Frank played corner for the Cleveland Browns for nine years and was a first-team All-Pro in 1988. Darius Hanks was a two-year starter at wide receiver for a national championship Alabama squad.
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