The next stop in our training camp series focuses on arguably the most popular division in the league, the NFC East.
The New York Giants were the Super Bowl Champions last season, but remember, as of Week 17 they were tied with the Dallas Cowboys for the division lead. Meanwhile, it’s likely that the Philadelphia Eagles will be more competitive than their disappointing 2011 season. Not to be forgotten are the Washington Redskins with their highly touted new quarterback, Robert Griffin III. Who knows who will wear the NFC East crown in 2012.
With all four teams now equipped with star QBs, let’s take a look at the defensive battles in training camp.
Position: Safety (both positions)
The Players: OJ Atogwe, Kurt Coleman, Nate Allen, Jaiquawn Jarrett
The Battle: The Eagles have not had a solid pair of safeties since letting Quintin Mikell and Brian Dawkins go a few years back. They had hoped 2011 second-round pick Jaiquawn Jarrett would become a starter, but after his shaky debut season (-8.6 overall in 254 snaps) the door has been left open for former seventh-round pick Kurt Coleman. Coleman has shown some promise (namely, his three-interception performance against the Redskins in Week 6), but has been fairly inconsistent, especially in coverage, giving up 396 yards and five TDs last year.
Another former second-rounder, Nate Allen, fared much better than either of them and vastly improved from his debut campaign in 2010, raising his overall grade from -5.0 to +3.8. Allen primarily played deep, which is also where newcomer OJ Atogwe is best. In his first and only season as a Washington Redskin, Atogwe struggled against the run (-2.2) and when blitzing (-1.2) but was solid in coverage (+4.0). Ironically, two of his three picks last year where at Michael Vick’s expense.
The Verdict: The edge for free safety has to go to Allen, who no doubt boosted the Eagles’ confidence in him with his performance last year. That leaves Atogwe, whose health is still in question, as the veteran backup who could seem time at both positions, regardless of injury. Meanwhile, Coleman ended last year on IR (biceps injury), but that doesn’t seem to be an issue as Andy Reid has claimed he has the starting strong safety spot. Obviously, a head coach’s words on these matters should be taken with a grain of salt, but on paper it does seem that Jarrett will have to outplay Coleman for the job.
Position: Middle Linebacker
The Players: Chase Blackburn, Mark Herzlich, Jacquian Williams, Michael Boley
The Battle: In 2011, the Giants had a rotating door at MLB as a result of starter Jonathan Goff getting injured prior to the start of the season. That left rookies Greg Jones and Jacquian Williams to start for the first half of 2011. Both were competent against the run (+3.5 combined) but struggled in coverage (-4.9 combined).
Another rookie, Mark Herzlich, started in Weeks 11 and 12, picking up a QB hit and two hurries on eight blitzes but was taken advantage of in coverage to the tune of 4-of-5 passes completed for 79 yards. He suffered an ankle injury and wouldn’t play another snap, which led to signing back ex-Giant Chase Blackburn off the street. Blackburn surpassed all reasonable expectations from that point on, earning a +4.8 overall grade including two interceptions, one which will be forever forged in Super Bowl lore.
There have also been rumblings that outside linebacker Michael Boley could be moved here, and the veteran has played the position plenty in sub-packages for the Giants. While he was terrible in coverage last season, he has been a pass-rushing force throughout his three-year Giants career with six sacks, 11 QB hits (including one that placed Tony Romo on injured reserve in 2010), and 17 hurries.
The Verdict: Chase rightfully earned a spot on this year’s squad, but he will have to fight off Williams and especially Herzlich, assuming the latter is healthy. If Boley is indeed moved inside, he would most likely win it. Jones, according to defensive coordinator Perry Fewell, is moving to outside linebacker, giving more credence to the theory that Boley could start at MLB.
The Position: Cornerback
The Players: Morris Claiborne, Mike Jenkins, Orlando Scandrick
The Battle: The Cowboys’ secondary from 2011 has been a punchline all offseason. This has lead to a three-way fight between stud first round pick (Morris Claiborne), disgruntled former first-rounder (Mike Jenkins), and the nickel man who received a nice extension last summer (Orlando Scandrick). Big-money free agent Brandon Carr will be guaranteed one starting spot, but the next two spaces are up for grabs. Some believe Claiborne is guaranteed a starting gig immediately because of his high selection and the price Dallas had to pay to get him. That’s rather hard to believe though, especially prior to the beginning of training camp. Rookies at this position historically struggle, Rob Ryan’s defense is more creative/tougher to learn than many, and Claiborne had wrist surgery in March. It is also reasonable to expect camp is not enough to prepare a rookie to cover Hakeem Nicks, Victor Cruz, or anyone else Eli Manning is throwing to in Week 1.
“About as close as you can get to just spitting in Wade Phillips’ face,” noted Chris Collinsworth in reference to Jenkins’ non-tackle attempt on James Jones’ 10-yard TD in the 2010 Green Bay blowout and ultimately the final nail in the coffin for Phillips as the Cowboys head coach. Injuries have also been a concern for the four-year veteran who has only graded positively in coverage once in that span (2009). It should also be noted that his completion percentage against dropped to 51.9% last year after giving up 67.4% in 2010, despite playing through injury. His bitter attitude so far, including refusing to rehab a shoulder injury in Dallas, doesn’t help his cause, but he’s obviously talented, if also inconsistent.
Also in the mix is Scandrick, who despite getting paid has struggled heavily in his role, with his best coverage grade in the past three seasons being -3.6. Over that span he has proven his value in run defense (+1.6) and especially in pass rushing (+7.1), but a possible battle between himself and the other two could negate those virtues.
The Verdict: Despite his shortcomings, Jenkins’ one stellar season (+6.7 in coverage) and other performances indicate that he could hold off Claiborne in camp if both are healthy. Add in the fact that the one-time Pro Bowler is in a full-year audition for a new team and lucrative contract which indicates Jenkins will be ready to compete. Scandrick might hold his starting job for at least the first week, but he will no doubt be tested by one or both of the other two cornerbacks sooner than later. It has also been said that Ryan may employ a four-CB package, but regardless the Cowboys will have depth at an important position in an increasingly pass-happy league, assuming they don’t trade Jenkins, which is still a possibility, albeit a slim one.
The Position: Safety (both positions)
The Players: Madieu Williams, Brandon Meriweather, Tanard Jackson, Reed Doughty, DeJon Gomes
The Battle: After releasing the injury-prone LaRon Landry and OJ Atogwe, the Redskins have tried to fill both safety positions via free agency. On paper, this situation looks favorable to the high-powered rival NFC East passing attacks.
The strong safety competition seems to be between the two-time Pro Bowler and ex-Patriot and Bear Brandon Meriweather, hard-working but athletically-limited Reed Doughty, and second-year DeJon Gomes. Meriweather is the big question here. He has talent, as his +6.7 overall 2009 performance showed, but he has struggled since with blown coverages and unnecessary roughing penalties. He also got a DUI since signing with Washington and could face league discipline.
The free safety position has never been solidified since the tragic loss of Sean Taylor. This contest will be between journeyman Madieu Williams and Tanard Jackson, who became PFF’s whipping boy last year (brought on by a -14.7 overall grade). Williams hasn’t graded positively in coverage since his 2008 campaign with the Minnesota Vikings, and only played 143 snaps for the San Francisco 49ers last year. Jackson has shown potential, but was suspended for nearly the entire 2010 season for substance abuse. He also hasn’t graded positively in coverage in the three seasons he has played, and missed a league-high 24 tackles last year. He was apparently battling a shoulder injury for the past year at least, but if that made him that much of a liability he would have been better off not playing.
The Verdict: Meriweather received the best contract out of all the new additions, so it seems the Redskins expect him to be the starting strong safety. Gomes could contest that, but also proved to be injury-prone last year, so even if he were to win this battle, it’s likely Meriweather will be in there sooner than later. As for the free safety spot, Williams, who has proven at least to be more reliable throughout his career than Jackson, should end up getting the nod.