Possibly the closest Super Bowl matchup in history also poses the question: how much does it mean when certain aspects of an NFL team improve dramatically in the second half of the season?
28 May 2014
by Scott Kacsmar
Despite how the Dallas discussion almost always comes back to quarterback Tony Romo, the Cowboys are fine on offense as long as he's healthy. They drafted Notre Dame's Zack Martin in the first round, giving Dallas three first-round picks on the offensive line with tackle Tyron Smith and last year's pick center Travis Frederick. The skill positions still have Dez Bryant, Jason Witten, DeMarco Murray and don't sleep on Terrance Williams, who had a good year for a rookie wide receiver.
The offense will produce, but can the defense stop anyone? They couldn't last year, ranking 30th in Football Outsiders' DVOA (explained here), and that was even with Jason Hatcher and DeMarcus Ware up front. At age 31, Ware was not his usual dominant self and he missed games due to injury for the first time in his career. Even if Ware was on the downslide, it's still hard to replace a Hall of Fame-caliber player and second-round rookie Demarcus Lawrence is unlikely to look like the original DeMarcus right away. Sean Lee is the best Dallas linebacker, but he's struggled to stay healthy. (And, just after we ran this article on ESPN, he went down for the year with a torn ACL.) Likewise, defensive end Anthony Spencer is recovering from microfracture surgery and his 2014 playing status is in question.
The secondary will be a lot better if cornerback Morris Claiborne plays more like a No. 6 pick in the draft should in his third season, but safety is another big question left unanswered in offseason moves. The Cowboys hope free-agent signing Henry Melton (Chicago) will be the player he was before last year's ACL injury, but overall they did not have the cap room to sign other significant starters in free agency.
Dallas drafted five defenders in the seventh round for plenty of depth, but rarely do those players turn into starters or even important reserves.
Even though Dallas had an eventful seventh round, the Cowboys still added 23 undrafted rookie free agents. Quarterback Dustin Vaughan (West Texas A&M) may not have the pedigree of Johnny Manziel, but he destroyed Division II competition with 10,113 yards and 98 touchdowns in the last two seasons alone. If Kyle Orton does decide to retire, Vaughan could ride this shot well into August or beyond. Safety Jeff Heath has had playing time with Dallas as an undrafted free agent, so don't overlook Auburn safety Ryan Smith.
A significant number of injuries, especially at running back and defensive back, hampered the Giants in 2013, leading to the team's first losing season since 2004. Better luck with health alone will fix many of the roster problems, but the Giants did make sure to enhance the battered offensive line. The offense was responsible for most of the team's struggles and the problem started up front. Eli Manning made a lot of mistakes last year, but he needs better protection to maintain his pocket proficiency. He will now have Geoff Schwartz (Kansas City) at left guard, while second-round rookie Weston Richburg (Colorado State) could get an opportunity to start at center.
Historically, the Giants were very dependent on wide receivers in their passing game under former offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride. Taking over Gilbride's job is Ben McAdoo, who coached tight ends in Green Bay while learning from Mike McCarthy. His offense will probably still favor the wide receivers since the Giants have Victor Cruz, brought back Mario Manningham, saw good progression out of Rueben Randle last year, and drafted Odell Beckham (LSU) 12th overall.
Where the depth chart is not so plentiful is at tight end with Kellen Davis, Larry Donnell, Daniel Fells and Adrien Robinson currently on the roster. They have a combined 145 catches in the NFL and are all better suited to be backups. Manning's done some good things in the past with unheralded tight ends like Jake Ballard and Kevin Boss, but this might be the barest the cupboard has been in his tenure. It will also be the fifth year in a row the Giants have a new leading receiver at tight end.
BYU defensive end Eathyn Manumaleuna is the cousin to former NFL tight end Brandon Manumaleuna. He set the school record for games played (54) and scouting reports praise his strength, balance and body control. Safety Thomas Gordon started at strong safety for Michigan and had a 41-inch vertical at his pro day. Xavier Grimble caught 11 touchdowns at tight end for USC. He has the size (6-foot-5, 250 pounds) the Giants like at the position and he has reportedly been studying former great Mark Bavaro on film.
In the extremely rare case when a team releases their No. 1 receiver/punt returner after a career year in his prime, that usually becomes the biggest hole on the roster. However, the Eagles are not your ordinary case, and as good as DeSean Jackson can be, coach Chip Kelly seems to have a good grasp for offensive football. It was also a career year for Riley Cooper and an unbelievable one for quarterback Nick Foles. Jeremy Maclin returns from injury to give the receiving corps another legitimate starter and the Eagles drafted Jordan Matthews (Vanderbilt) and Josh Huff (Oregon) for insurance. Some of those short passes Jackson caught can also go to Darren Sproles now. The offense should be fine.
Defense was a bigger problem for the 2013 Eagles. It was evident right from the earliest games, when Philip Rivers and Peyton Manning did whatever they wanted to a suspect secondary without worrying about a pass rush. It continued late in the season, when this defense allowed Matt Cassel to lead Minnesota to a 48-30 win. Backup Kyle Orton nearly led Dallas to the playoffs in Week 17 before throwing that last-minute interception. In the postseason, Drew Brees and the Saints rushed for 185 yards on the road and put the game away with quarterback sneaks right into the heart of the Philadelphia defensive line on way to a game-winning field goal.
Philadelphia tried to address some defensive needs with the signing of safety Malcolm Jenkins and the first-round selection of linebacker Marcus Smith (Louisville), but the defensive line returns the same primary rotation of Fletcher Cox, Cedric Thornton, Bennie Logan and Vinny Curry. That's not likely going to work well against the better offenses. Last season, the Eagles ranked 25th in DVOA when rushing four defenders. If you have to blitz to get pressure, that's a big problem in the NFL.
Last season 14 players who entered the league as undrafted rookie free agents played at least one game for Chip Kelly's Eagles. Kicker Carey Spear (Vanderbilt) is unlikely to push Alex Henery, but his nickname "Murderleg" would have fit in well on Buddy Ryan's Eagles teams (classic gangsta rap era). Daytawion Lowe (Oklahoma State) is a free safety who started 39 consecutive games and was Second-Team All Big-12 in 2013.
When a team goes from the playoffs to 3-13, there are likely problems on both sides of the ball. Washington fits that bill, but some of its team-building capabilities have been compromised due to the massive amount of resources spent in the 2012 trade to acquire Robert Griffin. When your quarterback is such a prized asset, he must be heavily protected. That's why the biggest hole is offensive line and not a defense that features very little outside of an ideal pass-rushing duo in Ryan Kerrigan and Brian Orakpo. Defensive lineman Jason Hatcher (Dallas) was an adequate signing with the bonus that it hurts the Cowboys, but the secondary is filled with over-the-hill free agents.
There was little to tinker with on offense for Jay Gruden in his NFL debut as head coach. Still, the Redskins made the big move to sign DeSean Jackson and pair him with Pierre Garcon, who led the league with 113 receptions. Jordan Reed certainly looked the part at tight end last season. Alfred Morris is very productive, but he'll have to prove he can get it done without Mike Shanahan's system that has made numerous rags-to-riches stories out of running backs.
For this team to work, Griffin must stay healthy and that has been a problem in his career. His style of play and body frame invites a lot of punishing hits and his inadequate offensive line does few favors in limiting his exposure to them. Trent Williams is a blue-chip piece at left tackle, but the rest of the unit raises questions. Guard Shawn Lauvao comes over from Cleveland, but Football Outsiders game charting marked him with just as many blown blocks (21.5) as Kory Lichtensteiger had a year ago, despite nearly 400 fewer snaps. Tyler Polumbus and Chris Chester combined for 65.5 blown blocks on the right side of the line. Washington drafted tackle Morgan Moses (Virginia) in the second round and guard Spencer Long (Nebraska) in the third round, but it's always difficult to gauge when a rookie will be ready to step into the fire.
Griffin was a fine rookie, but he'll never get back to that level without a better offensive line.
Jay Gruden added 11 undrafted rookie free agents to his roster. USC running back Silas Redd probably wishes Mike Shanahan was still the head coach so he'd have a chance to rush for 1,200 yards should Alfred Morris get hurt. Notre Dame quarterback Tommy Rees was signed, but if you've seen him play, you know how far this one's going to go. Cornerback L.J. Jones (Fresno State) had little chance of being drafted after a season-ending knee injury. He can still run a 4.44 forty and it's not like the Redskins are brimming with talent in the secondary.
Portions of this article previously appeared on ESPN Insider.
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