Four Downs: NFC East

Four Downs: NFC East
Four Downs: NFC East
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

by Vince Verhei

Dallas Cowboys

Biggest Post-Draft Need: Interior offensive line

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.)

Important Undrafted Free Agents

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.

New York Giants

Biggest Post-Draft Need: Osi Umenyiora's replacement

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.

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Important Undrafted Free Agents

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).

Philadelphia Eagles

Biggest Post-Draft Need: Secondary depth

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.

Important Undrafted Free Agents

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.

Washington Redskins

Biggest Post-Draft Need: Secondary (yes, still)

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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.

Important Undrafted Free Agents

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.


36 comments, Last at 24 May 2012, 11:46pm

1 Re: Four Downs: NFC East

"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"

They give everyone else trouble, too.

2 Re: Four Downs: NFC East

"The Cowboys did very well in most of our offensive line metrics..."

Only in terms of run blocking--they weren't very good with pass protection. They were below the NFL average in adjusted sack rate and sacks allowed. That's an odd definition of doing "very well."

7 Re: Four Downs: NFC East

They've given up 30+ sacks for something like five years straight. With somebody less mobile than Romo, they'd probably give up 50. If Orton has to play this year he's a dead man.

10 Re: Four Downs: NFC East

I have from PFR:

2011: Romo 36, McGee 3 = 39
2010: Kitna 21, Romo 7, McGeee 3 = 31
2009: Romo 34 = 34
2008: Romo 20, Johnson 8, Bollinger 3 = 31
2007: Romo 24, Johnson 1 = 25

So yeah, most years have been in the 30's since 2007. But of those, we can say that in '07 and '08, they weren't on pace for 30 and it only happened because they had a non-Romo-level QB in play. '09 and '11 suggest, though, that Romo's ability to scramble and elude a sack are diminishing, and that's not a good thing for a team that hasn't invested in its OL like some might have thought/wanted.

24 Re: Four Downs: NFC East

The offensive line has also gotten worse each year since 2007. I remember seeing a stat that Romo gets hit on a higher percentage of plays than any QB in the league but that his hit-to-sack ratio is much better than most. The man has taken a serious beating every year, and that's going to catch up with him in the next couple of years. He already has chronic back problems.

3 Re: Four Downs: NFC East

"The Giants won the Super Bowl, after all, so they're not desperate for talent here."

Well, they also finished 9-7 and were outscored by their opponents during the regular season. Had the Eagles managed to win one more game, the Giants would have missed the playoffs and would quite possibly have a new coach by now. And you'd probably criticize them for not signing enough UFA's...

4 Re: Four Downs: NFC East

Giants: I can't believe that the biggest post-draft need wasn't "Offensive line", and in particular "a real left tackle" and "a right tackle since ours retired". Diehl was manhandled on the left side throughout the playoffs, (although a big part of that is Justin Smith, which isn't quite fair), and Beatty is a very nice reserve lineman. I do not understand (it's like the Giants are turning into the Colts) drafting a running back in the first round when there were pick-appropriate linemen available. Brandon Keith, Marcus McNeill, and Max Starks (the latter two being check-with-the-doctors options) are all free agents still. Saying that Eli Manning compensates for a poor offensive line is an explanation, not a strategy.

Cowboys: I'm not sure what the 'boys are going to do in the defensive backfield this year, but it will almost have to be better than Terence Newman. Notwithstanding that, this defense is basically DeMarcus Ware and some guys, and has been for years now. The still-underappreciated Tony Romo probably had the best season ever by a quarterback whose team came third in the division last year.

5 Re: Four Downs: NFC East

I agree completely - particularly when they nearly lost the NFCCG (and, to be honest, deserved to lose the NFCCG) because nobody could even slow down Justin Smith in the 2nd half. Like his brother, Eli compensates for a lot of deficiencies in the OL, but there's a limit to how much he can do.

8 Re: Four Downs: NFC East

Yea. The giants deserved to lose because that 49ers offense was really picking up steam...

Er.. We do realize the 49ers actually needed to score to win, right?

20 Re: Four Downs: NFC East

The 49ers converted ONE third down all game. ONE!!!!!

The Giants should have blown the 9ers out. The only reason it was close was due to two complete blown coverages on the only actual offensive threat they had.

23 Re: Four Downs: NFC East

Reply to slipknottin as well:

Of course you are correct. It was the Giants' skill that made 49er defenders collide while attempting to pick of Eli twice. Kyle Williams letting a punt hit his knee and inexplicably not trying to recover it was also due to the brilliance of the Giants.

I feel ashamed for even mentioning those events as clearly the Giants good plays were all due to their enlightened performance. Any good plays by New York were results of their preponderant dominance and those that the 49ers made against the Giants linebackers, despite being totally overmatched, can only be explained as improbable flukes. As mere pretenders to quality play the 49ers should count themselves fortunate that they weren't beaten by a greater margin, we all know this. It has only been made more clear by your deployment of multiple exclamation marks, the harbinger of substantive thought amongst great minds.

Everyone should give no credence to the 49ers destruction of the Giants' offensive line in the second half or even entertain the thought that while the 49ers didn't convert third downs they might have been following the game plan they had used all year that was derailed by missed turnovers and muffs and fumbles by their backup return man. Your wisdom is all encompassing.

25 Re: Four Downs: NFC East

I understand and appreciate the narrative, here, but the 49ers offense in that game consisted of two very good long touchdowns. That was pretty much it. The NYG offensive line was awful, Justin Smith and Patrick Willis were awesome, and NYG could not run at all. But the 49ers didn't lose because of a fluke play. Alex Smith completed one pass for three yards to his wide receivers.

29 Re: Four Downs: NFC East

It also took two fluke plays (both passes to Vernon Davis) to keep them in the game in the first place. That was my point.

35 Re: Four Downs: NFC East

What was fluky about them? Smith to Davis has been one of the few reliable cogs in the offense for quite a while.

Now, balls bouncing off knees that the returner didn't even notice -- that's fluky.

36 Re: Four Downs: NFC East

Yeah it does seem weird to call the one thing they're good at in the passing game a fluke... especially considering how the same "fluke" also won them the game versus the Saints...

"It was a fluke that Brady found Welker coming across the field and scored 3 TD's!" "It was a fluke Vick scrambled to extend the play and scored a crucial first down!" "It was fluke Jared Allen got those sacks!"

This is not to say that the 49er's offense is good. As long as Alex Smith is their QB, their offense will indeed prevent them from winning championships...

6 Re: Four Downs: NFC East

I think you're underrating Beatty significantly. He wasn't great at run blocking, but he was very good in pass protection before he got hurt. And I think Diehl can probably slide over and do a credible job at RT (certainly better than Kareem McKenzie on his last legs). We also don't know how the younger guys like Brewer looked in practice this past season. Reese isn't perfect (no GM is), but I generally trust him to have a sense of what talent on the roster's fringes is ready to step up. If he was genuinely worried about the offensive line, he'd have taken bigger steps to address it.

9 Re: Four Downs: NFC East

We'll be able to see what the team really thinks of Beatty pretty soon-- he'll be a free agent in 2013. He's looked like a capable pass blocker to me, although Brian Orakpo in particular tends to give him trouble.

I do agree that Diehl at RT is a probable next move. An OL of Beatty-Boothe-Baas-Snee-Diehl is the most likely starting 5 for 2012, with a chance that someone like Brewer or Sean Locklear (who takes the "cast-off former starting OT brought in for depth" role that Tony Ugoh and Stacy Andrews played last year) wins the RT job, and a (smaller) chance that Mitch Petrus starts at LG. It's worth mentioning that both Snee and Diehl played through significant injuries that weren't disclosed during the season last year. Granted, they're at the age where that becomes more of a concern rather than less, but it's one reason why the team might reasonably be expecting better OL play from mostly the same guys in 2012.

Still, though, I agree with Vince generally that DE depth is the Giants' biggest concern. This team wins primarily because of the strengths in its pass rush and at QB-WR. The most important thing to continue that winning is to make sure that they can keep relying on those strengths. (Secondarily, to make sure the rest of the roster is at least serviceable.) I doubt that an Osi holdout would go into the season, so I'm not worried for 2012's sake (yet). But the Giants generally like to acquire guys a year in advance of need, unless they're signing a veteran from another team. Maybe they'll play Kiwanuka (who did recently sign a contract extension) more at End, but that would leave the LB corps as a crowd of weakside-types (Boley, Rivers, J. Williams) running around blockers.

Depth at Safety is also worth mentioning. Deon Grant played a lot of snaps last year, and I'm not certain that either Tyler Sash or Chris Horton is the right guy to step in there.

11 Re: Four Downs: NFC East

At safety they also signed two other somewhat interesting FAs, Will Hill and Janzen Jackson. Both at one point were very highly rated college safety's, arguably even first round type prospects, then both fell apart off the field and gathered no interest at all from teams in the draft(Hill didnt even get a UDFA call his first year). If either one actually has their head on straight, they could be nice finds.

12 Re: Four Downs: NFC East

And in terms of the Deon Grant role, don't forget that when Terrell Thomas went down, everyone else had to move up. I could see Thomas, for instance, sliding into the spot Rolle often played in the nickel, and Rolle in turn sliding up to fill the Grant spot.

In terms of the pass rush, I have to believe Kiwanuka will wind up playing more end than linebacker. I don't know that that contract makes sense if he's going to stay as a two-down strongside LB, but it does if he's going to be part of the pass rush rotation, and an even more important part next year after Osi leaves as a free agent.

Osi won't hold out, I don't think. He wants his last contract to be a good one, and he knows the Giants can't give it to him given their other commitments and future cap issues (like re-signing Nicks and Cruz). It's clear no one's trading for him at the price the Giants want, and he has to be on the field if he wants one more big payday. If he can stay healthy (big if with a lot of these older Giants players), we could see a very good year from him.

30 Re: Four Downs: NFC East

If Terrell Thomas is indeed a starting-caliber corner coming off that injury, the Giants will have a decent secondary. I'm still not sure about the linebackers; maybe Kiwanuka plays all downs, 1-2 at SLB and 3 at end, with Tuck kicking inside.

I still think the offensive line is the big problem; it is sliding into Colts-after-2006 territory, where suddenly guys who were getting it done stop getting it done, and there's no real left tackle. Maybe Beatty is that guy, but the history of unknown left tackles suddenly turning into great left tackles is not well documented.

15 Re: Four Downs: NFC East

I don't get the comment on Dallas' secondary. They signed Brandon Carr and traded up for Morris Claiborne; Newman isn't with the team anymore.

The comment about Dallas' lack of talent on defense is apt, but Lee and Ratliff (even though the latter has noticeably declined the last two years) deserve better than "some guys."

17 Re: Four Downs: NFC East

He also mentioned Brandon Keith as a potential solution at OT...take his comments with caution! Giants have already tried the FA market with Andrews, Locklear and Ugoh. I think they are better off trusting Beatty, if he sucks in camp - then you can start panicking and trawl for bad OTs being cut by others.

31 Re: Four Downs: NFC East

That comment was truncated for some reason. I am not sure I can fix it now... Keith was intended as "Another guy to kick the tires on," not an obvious fix.

13 Re: Four Downs: NFC East

Was OJ Atogwe bad last year? I didn't follow the Skins. But he was pretty good in St Louis (where I live). With as many teams needing help at safety, you'd think he'd have been picked up by now.

18 Re: Four Downs: NFC East

I think he got injured and had some kind of surgery. I assume teams are waiting to see if hes healthy. I would certainly like him back with the Rams if he can prove his health.

26 Re: Four Downs: NFC East

I'm thinking that, even injured, Otogwe would be better than what the Skins have now. I mean, Madieu Williams???? It looks like they've gone from one of the best safety units in the NFL to one of the worst in a flash. I hope no one is expecting them to look competitive even with a hot new QB.

14 Re: Four Downs: NFC East

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 this guy wasn't signed by the Raiders or Bengals needs to be answered.

16 Re: Four Downs: NFC East

Callahan hasn't said that Bernadeau will compete for the starting center position. He mentioned that Bernadeau has some experience at center (apparently in the pre-season) and that he could possibly play there due to injury.

I generally like what Dallas did in the offseason. They prioritized fixing their woeful pass defense, which I think is the primary reason they've missed the playoffs the last two seasons. More specifically they targeted the inadequate personnel in the secondary. So they signed Brandon Carr and traded up for the consensus best cornerback. Dallas also signed Dan Connor, and although he may not improve the pass defense significantly, he's an upgrade over Bradie James/Keith Brooking - neither of whom can play anymore. They also signed Kyle Orton who might be the best backup quarterback in the league.

The interior offensive line, as Vince noted, is an obvious issue. If they can cobble together another pair of mediocre guards like last year (which seems plausible), and more importantly improve at center, then they should be able to get by. That's too many "ifs" to feel comfortable and given Romo's recent injury history, their inability to run in 'power' situations, and the organization's general poor evaluation of offensive line talent recently (omitting Tyron Smith/Doug Free), it's hard to feel good about this area of the team. Hopefully Garrettt has some personnel acumen for this position.

One thing not mentioned here that really does concern me is their pass rush. Their adjusted sack rate was still high last year (6th), but it's increasingly just reliant on DeMarcus Ware. Anthony Spencer has never matched Greg Ellis' pass rush ability and, more importantly, Jay Ratliff has noticeably declined the past two seasons. Ware turns 30, and if he has any significant dropoff in play, or gets injured, their pass rush is basically screwed royally.

19 Re: Four Downs: NFC East

Funny you talk about the lack of depth at Giants DL because they moved Mathias Kiwanuka to LB. But it is obvious if Osi does leave then Kiwanuka will move back to DL.

Giants have a load of young LBs that can step up if Kiwanuka moves back to DL Greg Jones , Jacquian Williams, Mark Herzlich are now in their second years and they will have a full camp under their belts.

33 Re: Four Downs: NFC East

Herzlich, in particular, did not look like an NFL prospect in limited time last year. I don't know that I have ever seen a linebacker get that lost in coverage. I understand people have high hopes for Jones I haven't seen him play to pay attention to. I actually think LB is a bigger problem than DL, too, given that I expect Osi to play for NY this year. I guess the obvious starting lineup is Boley-Rivers-Kiwanuka behind Pierre-Paul, Tuck, Canty, and Linval Joseph. Presumably Osi will get a lot of work too, meaning Tuck will continue to play three positions on the line, especially good with Tuck coming off offseason knee surgery.

34 Re: Four Downs: NFC East

Herzlich looked terrible but he was drafted as a raw prospect and they intended to take a little time to develop him - it was onlt because of massive injuries to the unit that they were forced to throw him on the field. He did look awful, but I suspect they Giants assumed he would his rookie year. Many prospects need a little time to develop into being NFL-ready (and their teams are well aware of that fact), so writing him off after 1 season is pretty short-sighted...

27 Re: Four Downs: NFC East

Isn't future draft picks Washington's biggest post-draft need?