Four Downs: NFC East

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

by Sean McCormick

Dallas Cowboys

Biggest hole: Safety

It was a bit surprising to see defensive coordinator Rob Ryan get the boot with one year still remaining on his contract. Dallas’ defense faltered down the stretch -- they finished the year ranked 23rd in defensive DVOA but 30th in weighted DVOA -- but it’s hard to see how Ryan could have done much better with the collection of spare parts he was forced to utilize over the final month of the season.

Ryan had to do without five defensive starters, and guys like DeMarcus Ware and Gerald Sensabaugh gutted through injuries to stay in the lineup and were unable to perform at their best. But Jerry Jones wanted to hold someone accountable, and so it’s out with Ryan and in with legendary defensive coach Monte Kiffin, who is returning to the NFL after a stint at Southern Cal and bringing a modified version of his old Tampa-2 defense with him. Does Kiffin have the right personnel to run his system? Players like Bruce Carter and Sean Lee look like great scheme fits, and Ware can play in any defense. On the other hand, Kiffin may run into problems implementing his defense with what he has to work with in the secondary.

No team fared worse against tight ends in 2012 than Dallas, and the 28.9% DVOA they allowed to them was in large measure a product of inferior safety play. The aforementioned Sensabaugh played through a hip injury that robbed him of his athleticism late in the year, but he wasn’t performing up to his 2011 standards even when healthy. Part of that could be blamed on the fact that Sensabaugh had to adjust to a steady succession of players starting alongside him. Barry Church, who was the opening day starter, went down in Week 3 with a ruptured Achilles. Danny McCray, a special teams standout, struggled mightily when forced to step in as Church’s backup. Charlie Peprah and Eric Frampton also saw time late in the season, but neither showed much, and the Cowboys are unlikely to bring either back.

Church, who showed flashes as an in-the-box defender, will be back thanks to the four-year extension he signed while on injured reserve. That said, we’re talking about a player with a pretty thin resume and a skill set that meshed better with the old defense than the new one. Dallas is going to be severely inhibited on the free agent market by their gruesome cap situation -- they went into the offseason $18.2 million over the cap -- so they are lucky to find a deep safety group with a number of potentially low-cost veterans who could help. Guys like Chris Clemons and George Wilson are solid options who won’t cost an arm and a leg. If Jerry Jones wants to make a splash, he might even take a run at Charles Woodson, who still has the coverage skills to help address those tight end woes and could provide a one- or two-year solution that would allow the team to draft and groom a replacement.

New York Giants

Biggest Hole: Cornerback

The cornerback group looked like a strength for New York heading into the season, but injuries and ineffective play have cast a huge question mark over this unit. Everything starts with Corey Webster, who is supposed to be the team’s top cover man. He opened the year getting beat by Kevin Ogletree for a 40-yard touchdown, and finished it getting worked over by Joe Flacco in a 33-14 demolition by the Ravens that knocked the Giants out of the playoffs. All told, Webster gave up 10.6 yards per play according to our game charters, which ranked him dead last out of the 89 corners with at least 35 charted targets. Webster turns 31 in March, and he is due to make $7.5 million; if he doesn’t agree to a pay cut, he may be gone, and even if he returns, his rebound may only be a dead cat bounce.

Terrell Thomas, who was supposed to be the other starting corner last year, is attempting to come back from a third ACL reconstruction on his right knee. Thomas never had great lateral quickness to begin with, and it’s likely that the injuries have sapped whatever was left. General manager Jerry Reese is on the record as saying Thomas might need to move to safety, and that’s assuming he sticks on the roster. Thomas restructured his contract and is now playing on a one-year, $700,000 deal, which means that the team will take only a small cap hit if they decide to cut Thomas in training camp. That leaves Prince Amukamara is the most likely candidate to nail down a starting job. The good news is that Amukamara has been an effective player when he’s been in the lineup; the bad news is that he can’t seem to stay on the field. Amukamara has missed twelve games due to injury over his first two pro seasons, and his injuries left the door open for rookie Jayron Hosley to get some starts. The former Virginia Tech Hokie responded by doing his best imitation of burnt toast. Despite the rough start, the team still has high hopes for Hosley, but he may be a better fit in the nickel.

The Giants are hard up against the cap, so they are unlikely to be able to target one of the better free-agent options. Instead, they may have to look for a one-year stopgap like Sheldon Brown or perhaps an underachiever like Antoine Cason, while adding a mid-round pick into the mix come draft time.

Philadelphia Eagles

Biggest Hole: Cornerback

The Eagles finished the season with the worst pass defense DVOA in the NFL, a feat that barely seems possible considering the talent the front office assembled by trading for Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and signing Nnamdi Asomugha just two seasons ago. As recently as August, the Eagles were essentially willing to give away a Pro Bowl cornerback, sending Asante Samuel packing to Atlanta for a seventh-round pick. Defensive coordinator Juan Castillo’s inability to figure out how to utilize Asomugha cost him his job midway through the season, and successor Todd Bowles’ spectacular flameout -- Philadelphia’s pass defense DVOA was a pedestrian 9.0% through the first eight games and a jaw-dropping 44.5% the rest of the way -- put the finishing touches on Andy Reid’s tenure. (Defensive DVOA, like yards or points allowed, is worse the higher it goes, so that means we estimate the Eagles were more than 44 percent worse than an average pass defense over their last eight games. If they had been that bad all year, it would have been the worst pass defense since at least 1991.)

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Now Rodgers-Cromartie is an unrestricted free agent, and Asomugha, a 32-year-old corner with a rapidly declining skill set, is due to count $15 million against the cap in 2013. He’s a virtual certainty to be released, which will result in a $4 million cap hit. But at least that gets the rest of that $60 million albatross contract off the books.

These departures leave a depth chart with Curtis Marsh and Brandon Hughes on the outside, assuming the team wants to keep Brandon Boykin in the slot. Obviously, that’s not going to cut it, so the question for general manager Howie Roseman and new coach Chip Kelly is whether the team should look for two starting corners or should keep one of their current starters while looking for a cost-effective veteran to man the second spot. They could opt to franchise Rodgers-Cromartie and then sign someone like Leodis McKelvin or Derek Cox, players who are under thirty and who could be had for a reasonable price. If they want to aim a bit higher, the team could try to sign Sean Smith or Aqib Talib, players who will command contracts in the same range as Rodgers-Cromartie, but have the shiny new car smell and no negative performance in Philly yet. Don’t expect Philadelphia to use their first round pick to address the cornerback position. Alabama’s Dee Milliner is generally considered the top prospect, and while he’s certainly an intriguing player, the fourth overall selection may be a little high for him.

Washington Redskins

Biggest hole: Safety

The Redskins were a middle of the pack defense against the pass for the second year running, but their performance wasn’t even across the board. Washington’s DVOA ranked 16th against number one receivers, 14th against number two receivers, and fifth against other receivers, but 27th against tight ends. Washington was the only team to allow more than nine pass attempts per game to tight ends, and they gave up more yards per game than anyone in the league. Linebackers London Fletcher and Perry Riley were diced up when asked to handle athletic pass catchers like Tony Gonzalez and Jimmy Graham. They were forced into those assignments in part because of the ongoing disaster at safety. The plan heading into the year was for Brandon Meriweather and Tanard Jackson to be the starters, but they ended up never seeing the field together. Jackson was busted for his second illegal substance violation and did not play a down. Meriweather’s season was also a wash, thanks to a succession of knee injuries that limited him to a single appearance in Week 10 against Philadelphia. Plan A never made it off the drawing board.

Plan B, unfortunately for Redskins fans, did. Madieu Williams got the starting nod at free safety, and opposing offenses quickly realized they could beat him deep with double moves, pump fakes, or play-action. Williams did mix in the odd big play, including a game-saving pass breakup in the end zone against Dallas on Thanksgiving, however he didn’t do it nearly often enough to offset his frequent mental lapses. Reed Doughty was marginally better at strong safety, but his limitations in coverage make him more suitable as a situational run defender than a full-time starter. DeJon Gomes and Jordan Pugh spotted Doughty at times and failed to impress when given the opportunity.

It’s possible that Jackson is reinstated by the league and Meriweather returns healthy and in form, in which case the Redskins might simply try pretending that 2012 never happened. It’s more likely, however, that the team will target a coverage specialist. Someone who can hold his own against tight ends while defensive coordinator Jim Haslett sends the house on a blitz. Thanks to the trade with St. Louis that netted Robert Griffin, the Redskins are without a first-round pick, so any potential starter may have to come from the free agent ranks. It’s a strong group of safeties, though top players like Jairus Byrd and Dashon Goldston will price themselves out of consideration. Louis Delmas and Kenny Phillips are two guys who might merit a look.

(This article originally appeared on ESPN Insider. We've corrected a previous error about Washington's second-round pick.)


35 comments, Last at 05 Mar 2013, 9:43am

#1 by Scizzy (not verified) // Feb 25, 2013 - 11:12am

The Redskins did not trade their 2nd round pick to the Rams.

Points: 0

#2 by Podge (not verified) // Feb 25, 2013 - 11:22am

A small nitpick: as far as I'm aware, the Redskins still have a second round pick - they gave the Rams a first and second last year, but only a first this year (and next year). I guess they might have traded it away separately (I can't imagine the Redskins trading draft picks!), but it's not gone to the Rams.

Other than that, a good article which basically illustrates how much of a passing league the NFL is - none of these teams have a particularly outstanding run defence unit, but that's barely even an issue, and certainly wasn't the reason that most of them underperformed last year.

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#3 by batesbruce // Feb 25, 2013 - 11:38am

I hope someone adds up all the "biggest hole" positions for the league. At this rate secondary will win. And if you are 6 feet and can run, why wouldn't you take a shot at playing some secondary in the NFL? (note to all the wide outs at the combine).

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#4 by RickD // Feb 25, 2013 - 11:58am

I feel obliged to provide a link to the video of Brandon Meriweather's most recent injury, during pre-game warm ups.

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#22 by dmb // Feb 26, 2013 - 12:00am

Actually, he recovered from that after a few weeks, only to tear his ACL after about three quarters of play.

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#5 by Never Surrender // Feb 25, 2013 - 12:53pm

As others have pointed out, the Skins still have a 2nd round pick and are likely to look for a starting safety there.

It's also worth noting that the Redskins will be dealing year two of a severe cap penalty for violating nonexistent rules, which — as good as Washington's cap experts are — will make signing good FA safeties a challenge. I'm optimistic about Jackson playing a role in 2013, pessimistic about Merriweather's chances, and overall expect another tough year for our pass defense.

Points: 0

#6 by Dan in Philly (not verified) // Feb 25, 2013 - 12:56pm

The Eagles have already said they will not franchise DRC, and I understand they have offered NA a choice of a pay cut (don't know how much) and being cut.

Personally, I cannot tell how much of the secondary woes to put on the players and how much the coaches. The DL got zero pressure all season - in a system which was designed to get pressure on the QB above all else. The pass defense went from 10th overall in 2011 to just ok in the first half of 2012 to putrid in the second half - was all of this due to diminishing skills, or was a lame duck coach and chaos on the defensive side to blame?

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#7 by mjb // Feb 25, 2013 - 1:48pm

There was a report on the NFL channel yesterday that said the Eagles were in the hunt for Sean Smith, if that is true I would think that would mean that Nnamdi was going to ask to be cut.

As for the pass rush, yes it was putrid for most of the season. But, I would say part of that was due to the wide-9 scheme. Trent Cole and Jason Babin would rush up the field, but there would be no pressure from the inside so most passers would just step up and away from the pressure. However, once they abandoned the wide-9, Jim Washburn and Jason Babin they were getting better and more consistent pressure from the line.

And now with that said who knows what the Eagles front-7 are going to look like next season. With a move to a 3-4 or 4-3 "under" upcoming there are a bunch of guys on the roster that I wouldn't look at as scheme fits (like Mike Patterson, Brandon Graham, Vinny Curry, and Darryl Tapp).

Points: 0

#14 by Sifter // Feb 25, 2013 - 4:32pm

I thought the Eagles pass rush was underrated last year. The sack numbers were down, yes, but I reckon they still got some pretty good pressure on QBs, they just couldn't bring them down as often. Don't have that in factual form though, just my gut.

Given the front 7 is a heavily invested area with high picks (Cox, Graham, Curry, Kendricks) and big contracts (Cole, Ryans, Patterson and Jenkins to lesser extent), I'd be more willing to trust a new coaching staff and scheme to help fix that area, rather than bringing in any new talent.

Safety is also a terrible weakness. Coleman and Allen were awful last year. If I were Eagles GM, I'd probably go for 4 year starters in the secondary. Hopefully one is not Sean Smith, I didn't like what I saw of him in 2012. McKelvin would be a guy I'd support though.

Points: 0

#21 by mjb // Feb 25, 2013 - 10:51pm

And hours after writing this the Eagles go ahead and cut Mike Patterson and Cullen Jenkins. I can understand cutting Patterson because of the head injury he had to deal with last season, and because he would not fit a 3-4 scheme. Jenkins on the other hand I am little more surprised by, as he has experience playing as a 3-4 DE and could help in the short-term transition to a 3-4 front.

This move looks to have locked the Eagles into signing and or drafting another DE this year, as well as trying to find someone who can play NT.

Points: 0

#8 by tinfw17 // Feb 25, 2013 - 1:56pm

Explain why the articles are appearing at ESPN Insider 3-4 days before being released on this site.

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#10 by Wikitorix (not verified) // Feb 25, 2013 - 2:10pm

Because the FO guys are trying to make some money from their labors. What's your hurry, anyway? If this article is going to affect what your favorite team does this offseason, I'm sure they've already sprung for the Insider membership.

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#9 by Karl Cuba // Feb 25, 2013 - 2:01pm

Dallas made it a big priority to make sure they had two man cover corners, they sunk plenty of draft capital and lots of Jerry's cash into Carr and Clairborne. Now they're moving to a Tampa 2, this is exactly why stability is a good thing.

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#11 by Jim W. (not verified) // Feb 25, 2013 - 2:50pm

Disagree. Dallas' stability in the front office is their biggest problem.

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#12 by Karl Cuba // Feb 25, 2013 - 3:50pm

That was the point I was trying to make, their idiotic, meddling, egoist of an owner has managed to screw up a good plan. They had the corners and Ware but he lacked the patience to wait for his two stud linebackers to get healthy to see if last year's plan would workk, though it is entirely possible that the Kiffin hire is Gruden bait.

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#13 by Tim Wilson // Feb 25, 2013 - 4:17pm

Good CBs are always valuable, no matter what scheme you're running. Kiffin has said he'll be running a scheme similar to what Seattle used last year-- and the signature of that defense is stellar outside CBs (and safeties, but Dallas obviously has a ways to go on that).

Part of the rationale for firing Ryan and going with Kiffin (and a new scheme) was that injuries are going to happen in the NFL, and that when new players were brought in to replace injured starters, Ryan's schemes were too complex for them to pick up. There were also some comments that some of Ryan's schemes were not fundamentally sound or consistent in their use of pressure and coverage, but tough to parse that type of after-the-firing commentary.

The Cowboys' DEF won't suffer the abnormal number of injuries it did last year on a routine basis, but I also don't think "let's wait until all 11 planned starters are healthy and then see what happens" is a reliable plan.

Carter and Lee should remain studs in Kiffin's scheme, and Ware will still be a very good player as well (although maybe the 20 sack terror he was when heatlhy under Phillips and Ryan).

Points: 0

#15 by Karl Cuba // Feb 25, 2013 - 5:03pm

One of the benefits a team receives from using the Tampa 2 is that they don't need to invest in man cover corners, which Dallas has just done. It doesn't make much sense.

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#19 by justanothersteve // Feb 25, 2013 - 9:32pm

Not every good cover corner can play zone. Man-on-man coverage is more about athleticism, but doesn't necessarily require much thought or awareness of what others on defense are doing. Good zone covers need to understand the scheme and their responsibility within it, and need to be in position to execute their role depending on the play. Sam Shields is a pretty good cover corner who sucks in zone. There are several examples of zone corners who you don't want in man coverage.

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#30 by BlueStarDude // Feb 27, 2013 - 10:37am

Um, Carr excelled as a rookie playing zone under Herm Edwards. And although he was brought in to play press-man, Claiborne's skill set was thought best for zone schemes according to the scouting reports on him coming out of LSU. And of course by the end of his time in Tampa, Kiffin used cover 2 well less than half the time so he's certainly capable of calling coverages based on whatever he deems to be his DBs strengths.

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#20 by Will Allen // Feb 25, 2013 - 9:47pm

Karl, with Jerrel's latest, about wanting to be credited for a hypothetical Cowboy's Super Bowl win at some point in the future, I suspect that he has entered late stage Al Davis territory. This might get even substantially uglier than it's been for the last 15 years.

Golly, that really makes me sad.

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#27 by bravehoptoad // Feb 26, 2013 - 2:28pm

Sad? Or giddy with joy?

Poor America's Team. Poor, poor America's Team.

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#32 by Aaron Brooks G… // Feb 27, 2013 - 1:07pm

Jerry just needs to reintroduce cocaine into the locker room.

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#16 by DEW (not verified) // Feb 25, 2013 - 7:17pm

I wonder how much of Corey Webster's awful stats would be improved if he'd just get over the problem of handing off receivers on deep patterns to safety help that wasn't there. I spent a chunk of the early season wondering if it was him or the safety, until realizing that (a) it just kept happening over and over, and (b) it never happened to the guy on the other side.

Points: 0

#17 by Independent George // Feb 25, 2013 - 7:18pm

Was Antrel Rolle usually on his side? Because if he was, then it's still uncertain whether it was Webster or the safety...

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#18 by Carlos // Feb 25, 2013 - 9:08pm

Safety or CB as biggest need? Try pass rushers. For all of these teams. Great pass rush makes mediocre DBs look a whole lot better. No pass rush, and even a good secondary can't hold out for long.

Points: 0

#23 by Pat (filler) (not verified) // Feb 26, 2013 - 10:22am

Mediocre would be an upgrade for the Eagles at least.

In general, though, I don't entirely agree. Great pass rush makes limited DBs look a whole lot better - DBs that don't have top-end speed, for instance. But you can always neutralize a pass rush with more blockers.

That takes receivers out of the pattern, and makes it easier for the DBs, but they still have to be competent enough to understand their assignments and not get crossed up in coverage. There are more of those guys than elite DBs, but you still have to find them.

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#25 by Kevin from Philly // Feb 26, 2013 - 12:20pm

From the crappy sod to Jeff Lurie's Einstein haircut, there's almost nothing on this team that doesn't need to be upgraded.

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#24 by galactic_dev // Feb 26, 2013 - 11:25am

Is there a reason we're not talking about the Eagles' terrible O-line? Are all the good ones coming back from injury or something?

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#26 by mjb // Feb 26, 2013 - 12:48pm

Yes, the expectation is that Jason Peters will have recovered from his two achilles surgeries, Todd Herremans comes back from his broken foot, and Jason Kelce can come back from his ACL tear. Not to mention one of the main culprits for thier poor line play has already been cut - Demetress Bell.

Points: 0

#28 by Sifter // Feb 26, 2013 - 2:52pm

Add to that, a new staff and O-line coach will potentially help out the Eagles 2011 1st rounder, Mr Danny Watkins. I'd like to see how he responds to the new coaching regime and scheme before hands are raised in panic. Unless Joeckel is there at #4, it's probably backup O-linemen that the Eagles will be targeting this off-season ie. 3rd round and later. That was arguably the problem last year, just too large a gap between the starters ability and the bench.

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#29 by LionInAZ // Feb 26, 2013 - 6:21pm

The Cowboys signed a player on IR with a ruptured Achilles' tendon to a four year extension? I never cease to be amazed at the genius of Jerry Jones.

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#31 by BlueStarDude // Feb 27, 2013 - 10:43am

It was a four-year contract extension with $3.9 million guaranteed. So?

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#33 by LionInAZ // Feb 27, 2013 - 5:25pm

You're already way over the salary cap. You don't toss $4 million at a guy with limited demonstrated value coming off an injury that might end his career, when you can use that money on guys who you know can help you. If Church gets cut in September that contract extension will hurt. But it's pretty clear Jerry Jones doesn't have much regard for sense anyway.

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#34 by BlueStarDude // Feb 28, 2013 - 7:44am

It's pretty clear Jerry has much regard for his players and shows faith in them and gives them a little security even when coming off an injury that has ended more than a few careers. Jerry's personnel decisions may often be whack but it is nice to have an owner who has consistently treated his players like the real people they are and not pawns to kick to the curb whenever it's convenient. I'll root for that. You can have the Fords or whoever is in charge over there.

Points: 0

#35 by Hairstyles 2013 (not verified) // Mar 05, 2013 - 9:43am

The blog is so informative and nice.I like this effort so much.

Points: 0

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