New York Giants
While many of the "changes" to the Giants' roster during the off-season simply involved injured players getting well, the team also did one of the NFL's best jobs in personnel acquisition through the use of Unrestricted Free Agents.
General manager Ernie Accorsi, with obvious prodding from the intense head coach, Tom Coughlin, resolved a handful of pressing needs and the net result is to offer an improved team ready for training camp at the end of the month.
Perhaps the most critical addition was the signing of right tackle Kareem McKenzie from the New York Jets. He was immediately planted in a starting position. The 6-6, 327-pounder should remain as the starter for the next several years (barring injury, of course).
But further, with young quarterback Eli Manning beginning his second season (and first full one), the team needed to upgrade its wide receiver ammunition. Presto! After several fits and starts, which included the firing of one agent and the signing of another by the player, the Giants and Pittsburgh wideout Plaxico Burress agreed to a contract.
He is a 6-5, 225-pounder with speed, strength and leaping ability. He seems certain to become Manning's favorite target, his "go to" receiver.
Also, the offense was improved with the signing of kicker Jay Feely, who offers the Giants deeper kickoff range (nearly 12 yards more than last year's veteran, Steve Christie). Feely was signed from the Atlanta Falcons.
But the Giants didn't ignore the defense, either.
They plucked a prize from the Washington Redskins, middle linebacker Antonio Pierce, a 6-1, 240-pounder who played the position "sideline to sideline," said Coughlin. Additionally, Pierce played every defensive down for the Redskins last season, indicating an ability to cover on passing situations.
Finally, defensive tackle Kendrick Clancy joined the Giants, like Burress a veteran of the Steelers. He's 6-1 and 305, and at the moment is listed to start at the left tackle position ahead of William Joseph, the disappointing 2003 first-round draft pick.
"What I like best about our guys," said Accorsi, "is that all of them are in their twenties and they all played very well last year. I would think four of them (excluding the kicker) would have been first round picks had they come out this year."
As to the draft picks, the Giants had only four, courtesy of the major trade that brought Manning to their roster from San Diego. They took cornerback Corey Webster in the second round, defensive end Justin Tuck in the third, running back Brandon Jacobs in the fourth and defensive end Eric Moore in the sixth.
Webster may compete for a starting position immediately, and the 6-4, 267-pound Jacobs seems to have nailed down the role of backup to Pro Bowl running back Tiki Barber. He is being counted on to end the team's embarrassing inability to convert third-down and short-yardage situations the last three years.
The Eagles think the addition of rookie wide receiver Reggie Brown and the return to health of running back Correll Buckhalter will add even more teeth to a potent offense that averaged 24 points and nearly 250 passing yards per game last season.
The Eagles' draft aim with wideouts during the Andy Reid era has not been particularly good. But they think they have a keeper in second-rounder Brown. He brings more size and speed to the table than departed slot receiver Freddie Mitchell, who caught just 22 passes last year.
Brown will battle third-year man Greg Lewis for the No. 3 wideout job behind starters Terrell Owens and Todd Pinkston, assuming Owens decides to play this season. Lewis, a former undrafted free agent, came on strong late in the season, catching eight passes for 182 yards in the postseason, including a 30-yard fourth-quarter touchdown catch against New England in the Super Bowl.
Those four, along with tight end L.J. Smith and running back Brian Westbrook, who both often line up wide in search of coverage mismatches, give quarterback Donovan McNabb one of the league's best top-to-bottom receiving corps.
Thanks in large part to the addition of Owens, McNabb finished with career-best numbers last season in completion percentage (64.0), touchdown passes (31) and yards per attempt (8.26). He also became the first quarterback in league history to throw more than 30 touchdown passes and less than 10 interceptions (8).
The Eagles are hoping Buckhalter, who has missed two of the last three seasons with knee injuries, can return to the form that saw him average 4.3 yards per carry and rush for 8 touchdowns in '03 when he rotated with Westbrook and Duce Staley. Healthy, Buckhalter is a considerably more explosive runner than last year's No. 2 man, Dorsey Levens.
The Eagles also will be getting guard Shawn Andrews, their '04 No. 1 pick, back. After winning the starting right guard job, he broke his leg in Week One and missed the rest of the season. The biggest uncertainty up front right now is Pro Bowl left tackle Tra Thomas, who was diagnosed with a blood clot in his leg during the offseason. The Eagles are optimistic that he will be ready for the start of training camp. If he isn't, it will severely weaken a line that doesn't have a lot of depth.
After finishing a shocking 31st in scoring, 30th in yards and 29th in passing last year under one-time offensive genius Joe Gibbs in 2004, the Redskins have made some changes. Bill Musgrave, a proponent of the West Coast scheme, was imported from Jacksonville to replace quarterbacks coach Jack Burns, a Gibbs protege. Musgrave has convinced Gibbs to incorporate the shotgun into his system for the first time.
The biggest moves in offensive personnel have come at receiver. No. 1 wideout Laveranues Coles, disgruntled despite catching 90 passes last year, was dealt back to the New York Jets in a trade for swifter but less consistent wideout Santana Moss and at the cost of $9.3 million in signing bonus acceleration.
No. 2 wideout Rod Gardner, nicknamed 50-50 for his ratio of dropped balls during his four years in Washington, will be cut as soon as the Redskins need his $2.1 million worth of salary cap room to sign first-round draft picks Carlos Rogers and Jason Campbell.
Gardner has been replaced by one-time Arena League performer David Patten (5-foot-10 like Moss), who doesn't have the 6-2 Gardner's size but who has a much better work ethic and three Super Bowl rings from his time in New England. The Redskins are much faster with Moss and Patten, which should greatly enhance the deep passing game that was almost non-existent in 2004, but they're also less sturdy.
Kevin Dyson, a former standout for Tennessee who missed most of 2003 with a torn Achilles' and was out of the league last year, is trying to win a reserve spot from holdovers James Thrash, Taylor Jacobs, Darnerien McCants (the lone big wideout) and Antonio Brown.
Quarterback Patrick Ramsey, who replaced the struggling Mark Brunell in Week 9 and was respectable the rest of the way, is the starter again. However, Ramsey's long-term hold on the job is extremely tenuous given Gibbs' decision to trade three picks for the right to take Campbell. The rookie takes over for the departed Tim Hasselbeck behind Ramsey and Brunell, but if Ramsey doesn't play well and/or the Redskins don't win this fall, the tall and athletic former Auburn star could be No. 1 in 2006.
The offensive line is stronger thanks to the return of stalwart right tackle Jon Jansen, who missed all of 2004 with a torn Achilles', meaning that 42-year-old Ray Brown can return to being the first man off the bench. Center Casey Rabach, signed from Baltimore, is an upgrade over incumbent Cory Raymer.
Clinton Portis gained 1,315 yards in 15 games in his Redskins debut, but he often didn't look comfortable while averaging just 3.8 a carry and running for just five touchdowns. The former Denver star and Gibbs have said that the retooled offense should better fit his style.
Fourth-round choice Manuel White figures to see more time at H-back behind last year's third-rounder, Chris Cooley, than he does in relief of Portis and solid backup halfback Ladell Betts.
Kicker John Hall is 100 percent after missing most of 2004 with groin and hamstring injuries and is favored to hold off Jeff Chandler, who was perfect under 50 yards in the final three games.
Around the NFC East
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