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04 May 2009

Four Downs: NFC East

by Bill Barnwell

The next set of Four Downs recaps the offseason work done by each team, and what stands out with regards to successful work or holes remaining. Portions appeared originally on ESPN Insider. This round's FO-exclusive content, as customary with the post-draft Four Downs, is analysis of each team's crop of undrafted free agents.

Dallas Cowboys

Despite fanciful talk of Ray Lewis and Julius Peppers making their way to the Lone Star state, Dallas mostly held serve this offseason. They replaced the departing Zach Thomas and Chris Canty with Keith Brooking and Igor Olshansky, respectively, two players who bring roughly the same set of strengths and weaknesses to the table.

After arguably missing the playoffs because of their lack of a NFL-caliber backup quarterback, the Cowboys traded for Jon Kitna, shoring up the weakest spot on their roster. Kitna's ranked between 21st and 37th in quarterback DVOA in each of the last five seasons; he should rate among the league's better backups.

The biggest change, though, will come on offense; the departure of Terrell Owens means that Roy Williams becomes the Cowboys' lead target in the passing game. That means more passes to both him and Jason Witten, who will fill the 1A role. Starting across from him will likely be Miles Austin; Austin was fourth in the league in DVOA last year, and while he was only thrown 23 passes, his success with those throws indicates that he has, at the very least, the potential to be a useful player.

Undrafted Free Agents

The Cowboys brought eight rookie free agents in for their rookie minicamp, including two players who declared for the draft as underclassmen and weren't selected. West Virginia guard Greg Isdaner is a tweener; after playing as a guard in WVU's spread offense, he's quick and has good technique, but he doesn't have the upper-body strength guards need to handle NFL-sized tackles, nor does he have enough quickness to move outside to tackle. 6'1" Virginia wide receiver Kevin Ogletree missed all of 2007 with a torn ACL, and after putting up 723 yards and five scores as a redshirt junior, he elected to head to the pros. Ogletree's a good athlete with poor technique who will need to be coached up to have an impact.

New York Giants

Much like Dallas, the Giants' offseason rumor mill churned through Day Two of the draft without yielding a big name. Plaxico Burress was released as expected, but instead of pursuing Anquan Boldin or Braylon Edwards, Big Blue elected to draft Hakeem Nicks in the first round and hope that he, third-round pick Ramses Barden, and incumbent Domenik Hixon can combine to replace Burress' reps.

While the front seven was already a strong point for New York, the organization chose to take that grouping to the next level. By adding linebackers Michael Boley and Clint Sintim to go along with defensive tackles Chris Canty (moving over from end) and Rocky Bernard, the Giants will be capable of doing virtually anything with their front seven on passing downs. After the defense wore down in the second half, the Giants will rotate in and out far more frequently to keep studs like Justin Tuck and the returning Osi Umenyiora fresh, both later in games and later in the season.

New York also added depth to the offensive line by taking UConn tackle William Beatty with their other second-round pick. The Giants have had the healthiest offensive line in football over the past two years; they're the only team in football whose five starters have answered the bell for every single regular season game over that timeframe. (Center Shaun O'Hara missed a playoff game in 2007.) That's a testament to their toughness, but it's also a bit of luck; expect New York to need Beatty at one point or another this year.

Undrafted Free Agents

Perhaps the most intriguing of the undrafted free agents the Giants brought in was defensive lineman Alex Field, formerly of Virginia. The 6'6", 267-pound Field is very raw, and only started as a senior, but he has the size and the athleticism the Giants look for. Of course, he's only behind 17 or 18 great athletes in New York, so he's probably a practice squad guy at best.

Philadelphia Eagles

Four cornerstones of Philadelphia football won't be appearing in green and white this upcoming season. The most prominent departure is safety Brian Dawkins, whose leadership far outweighs his remaining ability on the field. He will likely be replaced by Quintin Demps, last seen getting burnt by Larry Fitzgerald and decking Kurt Warner for a late hit in the NFC Championship Game. Corner Lito Sheppard left for the Jets, but like Dawkins, his name recognition far outweighed his performance over the past couple of seasons. His spot as the dime corner is now Ellis Hobbs'; the former Patriots corner will seek to regain his reputation as a promising defensive back in part-time play.

On offense, tackles Tra Thomas and Jon Runyan leave after starting for nine consecutive seasons together on the Philly offensive line. They replaced them with able lieutenants in Pro Bowl tackle Jason Peters (left) and up-and-comer Stacy Andrews (right), brother of embattled guard Shawn, who missed the majority of the season with emotional issues and a back injury. They should help make up one of the best lines in football, but it will likely take a few games for them to meld into a cohesive unit.

They also added Missouri wideout Jeremy Maclin with their first pick; Maclin should contribute immediately as a downfield threat across from DeSean Jackson, and gives the Eagles, at the very least, someone who can keep up with Jackson in the case that the former Cal star fumbles the ball before crossing the plane of the goal line again.

Undrafted Free Agents

There's all kinds of potential fits here. Wake Forest K/P Sam Swank had a groin injury in 2008, but was 9-of-12 from 50+ yards from 2005 through 2007, and registered 47 touchbacks over the same timeframe. 225-pound Walter Mendenhall -- brother of Rashard -- transferred from Illinois to Illinois State for his final year and has a good track record as a short-yardage back. Indiana back Marcus Thigpen was a first-team All America as a sophomore returning kicks. Finally, Vanderbilt safety Reshard Langford is an intimidating run blitzer and stout special teams gunner who could make the roster if Sean Jones washes out.

Washington Redskins

After a year off, Daniel Snyder's back to flirting with the biggest names he can find. He was successful in acquiring Albert Haynesworth, who should help strengthen a pass rush that had only 24 sacks a year ago, as well as a rush defense that was 28th in the league against runs up the middle (according to our Adjusted Line Yards statistic). Expect to see Haynesworth combine with defensive ends Andre Carter and Brian Orakpo, their first-round pick, on the same style of stunts and twists Haynesworth employed with Kyle Vanden Bosch in Tenneseee.

Unfortunately, his arrival meant the end of Jason Taylor's short stint in Washington, depriving the Redskins of their most fancied pass rusher. The Redskins also cut injury-riddled linebacker Marcus Washington and don't have an obvious replacement; that should be their biggest hole in 2009, and one teams will exploit with passes to their tight ends.

Snyder and GM Vinny Cerrato then went after both Jay Cutler and Mark Sanchez unsuccessfully, despite the fact that Jason Campbell's improved his completion percentage, thrown for more touchdowns, and decreased his interception percentage in each of his three seasons as the Redskins' quarterback. The only offensive change they made was swapping out veteran guard Pete Kendall for former Redskin Derrick Dockery, a cap casualty in Buffalo. Dockery's a better pass blocker than Kendall, which should help curb Campbell's one noticeable flaw -- his rising sack rate.

Undrafted Free Agents

Washington's most prominent UFA was former Mizzou quarterback Chase Daniel, who will compete for a roster spot with Colt Brennan, his fellow 2007 Heisman Trophy nominee. With Washington still light at defensive end, someone to watch might be Illinois defensive end Derek Walker, whose mix of strength at the point of attack and solid technique could get him onto the active roster as opposed to the practice squad.

Posted by: Bill Barnwell on 04 May 2009

36 comments, Last at 07 May 2009, 12:51pm by AlanSP


by AlanSP :: Mon, 05/04/2009 - 10:53am

He will likely be replaced by Quentin Demps, last seen getting burnt by Larry Fitzgerald and decking Kurt Warner for a late hit in the NFC Championship Game

You know, Demps did play in other games last season... Also, a minor nitpick: it's Quintin, not Quentin, though I see how that can get confusing with Quentin Mikell as the other starting safety.

Andy Reid's apparently giving Shawn Andrews a crack at playing RT, which would then slide Stacy inside to RG. I'm interested in seeing how that works out, since I think Shawn is capable of being a great tackle.

The other thing I'm curious about is how the return teams play out. Jackson and Demps were very good last year as punt and kick returners, respectively, and Hobbs was great on kickoffs. Then you have Maclin, and possibly Thigpen, who were standout return men in college. That's a lot of different options.

by Pat (filler) (not verified) :: Mon, 05/04/2009 - 1:05pm

"though I see how that can get confusing with Quentin Mikell as the other starting safety."

Both Mikell and Demps are Quintin, which is kindof embarrassing in a post where you're correcting them. :)

by AlanSP :: Mon, 05/04/2009 - 5:13pm

Man, I could have sworn they had different spellings.

by Hairball (not verified) :: Mon, 05/04/2009 - 3:06pm

The other thing I'm curious about is how the return teams play out. Jackson and Demps were very good last year as punt and kick returners, respectively, and Hobbs was great on kickoffs.

I just wanted to mention that I hear Hobbs was responsible for the longest kick return in NFL history.

by Fargo (not verified) :: Mon, 05/04/2009 - 11:15am

I'm not a Dolphins fan or anything, but it'll be a cold, cold day in hell before I let someone compare Keith Brooking to Zach Thomas and go unchallenged. Cowboys got a lot worse out of that exchange, just because they're both aging and white does not make them equivalent. Enjoy watching Brooking get blocked by linemen, TEs, fullbacks, ballboys.....

by Temo :: Mon, 05/04/2009 - 12:25pm

I imagine it'll be something like watching Zach Thomas get blocked by lineman, TEs, fullbacks, and Jerry Jones last year. And have another guy (Kevin Burnett last year) do the one thing he does well (pass coverage) better, so there's really no place to play him.

Maybe you're overestimating Thomas instead of underestimating Brooking, but they're about the same player. And Thomas didn't fit well with the rest of the defense last year, so now the Cowboys will roll the dice with somebody else (this time, a guy who's familiar with Phillip's defense).

Neither is a good solution, though. Here's to hoping that Bobby Carpenter does something this year (he won't).

by The Ninjalectual :: Mon, 05/04/2009 - 11:15am

The Redskins also cut injury-riddled linebacker Marcus Washington and don't have an obvious replacement; that should be their biggest hole in 2009, and one teams will exploit with passes to their tight ends.

H.B. Blades was just as effective as Marcus Washington last season, if not more so, IMO. The Redskins D will be just fine with Blades, Fletcher, and McIntosh at LB.

"Just look at that pumpkin."
-John Madden, looking at the moon.

by dsouten :: Mon, 05/04/2009 - 8:58pm

And it looks like Orakpo will be used only as a situational pass rusher at DE and will probably play much more at OLB. It remains to be seen whether that is a good thing or a bad thing, but the point is there is more depth at LB than implied by the article.

Also the coaches are supposedly very high on Albert Fincher, although he didn't get enough playing time last year for me to really have an opinion on him.

by Bowl Game Anomaly :: Tue, 05/05/2009 - 11:08am

I liked what I saw from Fincher in a preseason game last year, but it was preseason.

(Formerly "The McNabb Bowl Game Anomaly")

by Theo :: Mon, 05/04/2009 - 11:31am

"...in the case that the former Cal star fumbles the ball before crossing the plane of the goal line again."

Wow, that was so galactally stupid.

by Bill Barnwell :: Mon, 05/04/2009 - 12:09pm

Some thoughts:

- Yes, Demps (I apologize for the spelling) was LAST SEEN doing that. I didn't say that was all he did all season. Furthermore, it was the most important stuff he did all year. Would you have been upset had I said, this time last year, that David Tyree was last seen catching a ball with his helmet?

- Thomas wasn't exactly great in run support last year, I promise.

- I really like H.B. Blades -- I made sure he made it to our Top 25 Prospects list a year ago - don't know if he's up to Washington's caliber in a good year for Washington. I suppose that there's not much hope of a good year for Washington in the future, though.

- It's usually wise to try and spell your six-word sentence correctly, Theo, if you're going to try and ride that high horse.

by The Ninjalectual :: Mon, 05/04/2009 - 2:48pm

I agree with the above... Marcus Washington had a nice high peak, but it sure seems that his days playing at a high level are over. Perhaps H.B. Blades' peak is only a solid if unspectacular starter, but at this point, that is far better than what Washington can bring. Now, if we could only find a way to keep Reed Daughtery off the field... he was absolutely terrible last year, but the coaches seem to like him for some reason.

Also, as a Redskins fan, I am going to miss Zach Thomas' Cowboy days. He did seem to get blocked easily last year.

"Just look at that pumpkin."
-John Madden, looking at the moon.

by Theo :: Tue, 05/05/2009 - 9:47am

Bill, you're throwing stones while you are at sin.
(with 'stupid' I was talking about the DeSean Jackson action, not what you wrote)

by Key19 :: Mon, 05/04/2009 - 12:39pm

No mention of how David Beuhler (spelling?) should be quite a weapon to help repair the Cowboys' terrible kickoff coverage? I'm actually quite excited about him.

He and coach Joe DeCamillis should be great additions to help our special teams actually become a good unit sometime soon. Hopefully Beuhler and DeCamillis (and everyone else) recover from their injuries and return to form.

by Bowl Game Anomaly :: Mon, 05/04/2009 - 1:48pm

I like Blades too, but it looks like he will not be the main LB replacing Washington. The plan right now appears to be for Orakpo to play LB on rushing downs and DE on passing downs. (As to covering TEs, I don't know how well Orakpo will do that but he played some LB in college.) Considering that Haynesworth subs out a lot, it seems likely that he and Orakpo won't be on the line at the same time very often. The main DE opposite Carter will be Philip Daniels with help from Reynaldo Wynn.

I agree with you that Derek Walker seems like a promising guy to make the roster as a UDFA, especially when you consider that Orakpo will play more LB than DE.

(Formerly "The McNabb Bowl Game Anomaly")

by AlanSP :: Mon, 05/04/2009 - 5:43pm

"The plan right now appears to be for Orakpo to play LB on rushing downs and DE on passing downs. (As to covering TEs, I don't know how well Orakpo will do that but he played some LB in college.)"

That makes no sense to me at all. In general I don't like DE to 4-3 OLB transitions, which sort of minimize the player's main skill (rushing the passer), in favor of skills that they have to basically learn from scratch (e.g. covering TEs). Plus, it's hard enough asking a rookie to come in and learn one position on the defense, let alone two, one of which he has essentially no experience with (are you sure he played some LB at Texas? If he did, it probably wasn't much, since all of his starts were at DE).

Of course, Washington himself was a college DE, but only for his senior season; prior to that he played LB, so he already had substantial experience there when came to the Colts.

by NY expat :: Tue, 05/05/2009 - 2:32am

I agree that DE-to-LB is a tough transition. Kiwanukas has certainly had his share of challenges in coverage. On the other hand, like Kiwanukas, Orakpo is a bit small to be playing DE. I think he's around 260-265 pounds, and at that weight it's generally really hard to hold up against a 300-pound tackle. Guys like Strahan are really the exception there.

by AlanSP :: Tue, 05/05/2009 - 3:23am

Not as much of an exception as you might think. Orakpo weighed in at 263 at the combine. Here are some of the guys that weighed in at 266 or less: Patrick Kerney, Mathias Kiwanuka, Jared Allen, Justin Tuck, Dwight Freeney, Derrick Burgess, Aaron Schobel, Jevon Kearse, Mike Rucker, Elvis Dumervil, Kabeer Gbaja-Biamilla, John Abraham, Andre Carter, Robert Mathis, and Trent Cole.

Or, to put in another way, most of the league's elite pass-rushing DEs not named "Peppers," or "Williams," or "Kampman." I wouldn't worry about his weight.

by NY expat :: Tue, 05/05/2009 - 12:57pm

Good point, though I was thinking more of "rushing downs as LB", where I've noticed Kiwanuka has had some difficulties. And thanks for not nailing me on the spelling of Kiwanuka's name.

by tuluse :: Wed, 05/06/2009 - 4:43pm

I wouldn't use Colt's DEs as an example. They use a really undersized defense in general, and they don't care if their DEs can't play the run.

Also, Dumervil and KGB are not every down players.

Still you make a good point, that 260 should probably be the cut off for what we consider decent sized in the NFL.

by Carlos (not verified) (not verified) :: Mon, 05/04/2009 - 3:48pm

Campbell's one noticeable flaw -- his rising sack rate

Might be the tiniest bit influenced on having below replacement level blockers in front of him.

They signed Mike Williams and weighed him in at 450. Problem solved.

by Joe T. :: Mon, 05/04/2009 - 4:57pm

I don't disagree about the line, but Campbell does hold onto the ball too long. I think he takes too long to get through his progressions. Put a QB back there who makes quicker reads and I think you shave off 5-10 of those sacks.

I think the line should have been addressed in the draft, but the conventional and advanced stats have them pegged as at least a league-average unit.

by Carlos (not verified) (not verified) :: Tue, 05/05/2009 - 10:32am

Campbell does hold onto the ball too long

Agreed that this is the conventional knock on him, but I find it hard to judge based on watching games. Todd Collins good play 2 seasons ago certainly raises the possibility that Campbell ain't so hot, and that's supported by the supposed lack of interest Campbell got from Denver during the trade talks.

by Adam B. (not verified) :: Mon, 05/04/2009 - 4:24pm

I'd prefer we not say "emotional issues"; he was diagnosed with depression, which has both biological and social causes. It's a bit bigger deal than just being sad.

by Telamon :: Mon, 05/04/2009 - 4:37pm

Well, you can also argue that ALL mental problems are physical, depending on your take on the whole mind/body problem, but that's neither hear nor there, so let's not get to nit-picky.

by Henrik Madsen (not verified) :: Mon, 05/04/2009 - 5:19pm

The point is, in my opinion, that depression is a valid diagnosis, so why not just name it? Nobody said Chris Simms had "stomach issues" when he actually had his spleen removed.

by Bowl Game Anomaly :: Mon, 05/04/2009 - 7:07pm

Actually, people use shorthand like that all the time. Player X is recovering from a torn PCL, but I might say he has a knee injury. Or Player Y had a subluxated shoulder, which I might call a "banged up" shoulder. The only difference is that with mental issues it sounds like you're dancing around something when you don't give a specific diagnosis.

(Formerly "The McNabb Bowl Game Anomaly")

by Bill Barnwell :: Mon, 05/04/2009 - 5:18pm

Adam -- I certainly didn't mean to offend you with the comment -- it wasn't meant to be flippant.

by Adam B. (not verified) :: Tue, 05/05/2009 - 3:40pm

Oh, it takes a *lot* to offend me. But this is something that I tend to get exercised about, as when someone uses "retarded" as an all-purpose slur.

by Wait, what? (not verified) :: Mon, 05/04/2009 - 9:26pm

Nice summary- although I think the Eagles drafted some RB from Pitt too, right? (I kid, of course; FO readers don't need Four Downs to spell out every single player drafted, especially the high-rounders.)

I like the undrafted FA section for each team, as there usually isn't much coverage on that aspect of the draft process (team-specific blogs do it for their guys, of course, but I can't be bothered reading blogs about the 31 non-Eagles teams unless Marty B is involved).

Also, 20+ comments on a Bill Barnwell piece that mentions Jason Campbell, and none of those comments are a lengthy criticism of both parties from Chris? Biggest surprise of the off-season so far!

by c_f (not verified) :: Tue, 05/05/2009 - 12:30am

Walker started for three years at Illinois, though his junior year he was pushed for PT, and so his stats dropped off. He's a true left end and looks the part at 6-4 and 270. Walker was a good but certainly not great college player, a solid starter who relied mostly on power, as you note.

I wish him well of course, but I am doubtful about his chances at contributing, given his limited athleticism; he's strong but not amazingly so, and not particularly quick.

by Tim (not verified) :: Tue, 05/05/2009 - 1:41pm

Runyan has not left yet, he is a free agent. Also, you have your Andrews' reversed, Shawn is playing tackle, so Stacy will most likely be a guard.

by chivy (not verified) :: Wed, 05/06/2009 - 1:09am

So who takes the this year????? i for one think the Giants edge out the Eagles because of non-clutch playcalling from Andy Reid.

by shamah (not verified) :: Wed, 05/06/2009 - 5:12pm

Won't Patrick Crayton start across from Roy Williams?

by Xeynon (not verified) :: Thu, 05/07/2009 - 3:48am

So who takes the this year????? i for one think the Giants edge out the Eagles because of non-clutch playcalling from Andy Reid.

The playcalling critique of Reid has seemed groundless to me; I think the main reason he didn't call as many running plays last year is that the personnel he had was much better suited to a pass-pass-pass strategy. With the addition of better run-blocking OTs in Peters and Andrews and a true FB in Weaver that's no longer the case.

As for this season, I think it's a toss-up between the Eagles and the Giants.

The Eagles have improved their offense significantly from a talent perspective but it remains to be seen how long it will take the new pieces to jell; I think, as I suggested above, that their running game will be much improved and I expect them to score a lot of points overall but still have some games where they just don't show up. On defense they should hold serve as their only significant loss was Dawkins who, while still a great blitzer and run defender, had become a coverage liability. I'd guess they go 11-5 or 10-6.

As for the Giants, I know DVOA says otherwise, but I think losing Burress is going to hurt their offense significantly, particularly against top caliber pass defenses (of which there are two in their division). They are also unlikely to enjoy near-perfect OL continuity as they have the past few seasons. That said, their defense is going to be really good and Eli has developed into a good enough QB at this point that their offense will still be effective. Again 11-5 or 10-6 seems about right.

The Redskins are a solid team but I think management instability, age, injury, and talent depletion on the offensive line, and suspect quarterbacking will keep them a step behind the division leaders. Haynesworth will make their defense even tougher to run against but they still don't have an elite defensive playmaker. I'm guessing 9-7.

I expect the Cowboys to finish in last. They didn't make any significant acquisitions this offseason, as the free agents they picked up were mostly lateral moves (e.g. Brooking for Thomas), and their draftees seem to be mostly developmental types. They're getting older at some key spots and as crazy as T.O. is I think replacing him with Roy Williams is an on-field downgrade (ridding themselves of Owens' locker room antics will undoubtedly help team chemistry but the impact of that is difficult to quantify). They're an 8-8 team IMO.

by AlanSP :: Thu, 05/07/2009 - 12:51pm

Mostly agree with that assessment. I expect the Eagles' running game to be significantly better than it was last year since Peters, Andrews, and Andrews is a significant upgrade over Thomas, MJG/Cole, and a banged up Runyan in that department, plus Weaver and hopefully have a healthier Westbrook means they'll be more effective in that department. I'd be surprised if they can replicate their success in pass protection from last year, but if Jackson progresses like most 2nd year WRs, their passing game should be fine. On defense, I just hope that the Sheldon Brown situation doesn't get out of hand; he was quietly one of the best cover guys in the league last year and a big part of their terrific defense. Ellis Hobbs would be a much bigger downgrade than people realize. I'd guess somewhere from around 11-12 wins

For the Giants, I expect Eli to regress a bit, but it's really the running game that makes their offense run in the first place, and they should be able to keep leaning on that. Their defensive line looks strong and deep right now. I think Canty's overrated and isn't a great fit in a 4-3, but the more important change is the return of Osi Umenyiora, which gives them 3 very effective DEs in their rotation. Boley should also be an improvement over the guys they had at OLB last year.

I wouldn't totally sleep on the Cowboys either, simply because they should have a healthy Romo and Felix Jones, and Roy Williams should be better than last year, when he seemed lost in the new offense. I still think they finish 3rd, but I wouldn't be surprised if they manage to get 10 wins and a playoff spot.

I don't really know what to make of the Redskins. Haynesworth should help, but their pass rush still looks pretty anemic. Campbell's a better QB than people give him credit for. The wild card for them is what they'll get out of their second year receivers. It's easy to forget about them because they did nothing as rookies, but that's not particularly unusual for rookie receivers.