NEW YORK GIANTS
The Giants finally got their man -- well, sort of.
The Giants acquired a linebacker but it wasn't Denver's Al Wilson, who was almost a Giant, until he failed a physical March 23. Instead, they went the more inexpensive route and signed four-year veteran Kawika Mitchell of Kansas City to a one-year, no-option contract. Mitchell, like Wilson, is a middle linebacker.
However, Mitchell will likely move outside for the Giants. Expect to see Mitchell on the strong side next season, since Pro Bowler Antonio Pierce is the Giants' man in the middle.
On the other hand, the team needs starters on both sides, since they saw fit to release strong-side linebacker LaVar Arrington and weak-side linebacker Carlos Emmons, despite Giants' limited depth at linebacker prior to Mitchell's signing. The only players the Giants had under contract were last year's rookie Gerris Wilkinson, reserve Tyson Smith and non-starting veteran Reggie Torbor.
Wilkinson got high grades for the brief time he played; Smith is camp fodder and Torbor, though highly athletic, has had trouble digesting the playbook. Mitchell will fill a spot and the draft is likely to fill the other one, unless Wilkinson can emerge in training camp.
"It wasn't quite the red carpet treatment," Mitchell joked at Giants Stadium, when he reported to the team's off-season workout and conditioning program to find general manager Jerry Reese and head coach Tom Coughlin at the owners' meetings in Phoenix and the assistant coaches gone. He was ushered into the building by a team publicity person, signed his contract for one of the scouts and then went downstairs to meet the press and then his new teammates.
"I have played all three linebacker position in college, so it won't be a new experience," said Mitchell, who played at South Florida. "I'm just happy to be here. I always knew the Giants had a great organization, and I think this team can win. I want to help."
--Head coach Tom Coughlin committed the ultimate foot in mouth gaffe during the NFL owners' meetings in Phoenix, Ariz., when asked if he was aware of fan criticism last season. "I heard some of it. I saw it. I am told (by others) what's going on. It's Hitler and me, in that order. Unfortunate, but there it is." Hitler, history's most infamous mass murderer? Even Coughlin's harshest critics would likely not equate bad coaching to genocide.
--The Giants re-signed another of their own UFA players, guard/tackle Grey Ruegamer. He played in all 17 games (including the playoff appearance) and started once, in Game 16 at left guard.
--DE Osi Umenyiora, on a recent trip to Nigeria, which is his homeland, went through a set of rituals in order to make himself a chief of the town of Okbunike. "It's cool," he said. "I have my constituents, mostly quarterbacks. You might say I am the Chief of Quarterbacks in the NFL."
--The Giants were awarded a seventh-round compensatory pick in the draft, giving them two in that final round. The compilations by the NFL took into account the players they lost to free agency (CB Will Allen, LB Nick Greisen, SS Shaun Williams and DT Kendrick Clancy) and those they signed (CBs Madison and McQuarters; safeties Jason Bell and Will Demps).
--For the second year in a row, the Giants will open their season as a Sunday Night participant on the NBC Network. They'll play their division rivals, the Cowboys, under new head coach Wade Phillips, in Dallas Sept. 9.
The Eagles' acquisition of linebacker Takeo Spikes speaks volumes about how
concerned the Eagles were -- and still are -- about their entire linebacking
Spikes doesn't fit the profile of the kind of veteran player the Eagles normally go after. He's older (turned 30 in December), has a major injury in his recent past (ruptured Achilles tendon in '05) and is expensive ($4.6 million salary for '07.
But head coach Andy Reid knew he had to do something to try and upgrade a unit that did not play very well last season.
Strong-side linebacker Dhani Jones has been a liability for two years now, and 30-year-old middle linebacker Jeremiah Trotter's knees are wearing down and limiting how many snaps he can be on the field for and remain effective.
|Former Bills LB Takeo Spikes now in Philadelphia (Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images)|
It's uncertain what's going to happen on the strong side. Jones isn't likely to be back, but the Eagles are bullish on '06 third-round pick Chris Gocong, a 260-pound college defensive end who is trying to make the transition to linebacker. They also like the potential of second-year linebacker Torrance Daniels, who spent most of last season on the practice squad. It's also possible Spikes could end up on the strong side.
"I don't know exactly where Takeo is going to play at this point," said Reid, who also picked up backup quarterback Kelly Holcomb in the trade with Buffalo. "We'll see how things work out as we go.
"That's a position that we need to play better at. I'm not making promises to anybody right now. That's open competition there. Wide open."
Spikes started 11 games for the Bills last season, all on the strong side, missing four games early in the season with a hamstring injury.
"I thought as the season went along, he played better," Reid said. "I thought he got stronger and had more trust in his leg."
While he only has 20 career sacks, Spikes is regarded as a very good blitzer, which was one of the appealing things about him to the Eagles, who didn't blitz their linebackers much last season.
--Coach Andy Reid said he thinks quarterback Donovan McNabb, who is recovering from a torn ACL, will be ready for the start of training camp, but added that it will be "close." Reid acknowledged that McNabb's uncertain situation was a big reason why the Eagles got veteran Kelly Holcomb in the Takeo Spikes deal with Buffalo. Jeff Garcia's departure left A.J. Feeley as the only veteran quarterback on the roster besides McNabb. "Yeah, that was part of it," Reid said. "A.J.'s still the No. 2 guy and Kelly's there as a solid (No. 3) backup."
--Reid said offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg will call the plays next season, just as he did the final seven games of last season. "I'll probably let Marty call them again," he said. "I thought he did a nice job there. I've got a lot of trust in him. You've got to remember, Marty and I go way, way back."
--New Eagles linebacker Takeo Spikes thinks he will be back to Pro Bowl form this season now that he's put two years of distance between himself and the ruptured Achilles tendon he suffered in '05. "They told me that it would take a year -- not from the time that I tore it, but a year from the time when I actually started rehabbing," he said. "I can definitely feel a big difference, very big. By the end of last season, I felt real strong."
--Reid said the Eagles' decision not to make an offer to quarterback Jeff Garcia had nothing to do with fear over how Donovan McNabb would react to his presence and everything to do with money. "We knew Jeff was going to get some money (in free agency)," Reid said. "It's hard to pay your second guy as much as what he -- and we -- felt he was going to get on the open market. You can't sign that many quarterbacks for that much money. So I decided to let Jeff go and re-sign A.J. (Feeley), a younger quarterback who I think can win a lot of football games for us (if Donovan McNabb gets hurt)."
Joe Gibbs admits that he was stunned by his team's drop from 10-6 in 2005 to
5-11 in 2006, the biggest fall in the Hall of Fame coach's 15-year career.
"Last year was a shock," Gibbs said. "You'd like to see the program keep improving. You certainly don't want to see the graph turned the other way. It was a bitter disappointment. We all felt we should've been a lot better than what we were. We just couldn't get going for whatever reason. This year is probably one of the most important years I've ever coached because of everything that happened last year. "
|DB Fred Smoot will get a fresh start in Washington (Doug Pensinger/Getty Images)|
"I don't want to come across as positive," Gibbs said. "I'm not a positive-thinking guy. I'm a realist. But as poorly as everything went last year, we all feel that we have the right kind of guys and that we should be better. We don't have to tear everything up."
Even the defense, which tumbled from the NFL's ninth best in 2005 to second-worst in 2006, will not see a major overhaul. Gibbs and his defensive staff watched each game of last season and compared those tapes to four games from 2005 and didn't come away as discouraged as the stats had made them.
"The thing that encouraged me was there were select games late in the season like Philly, where (we lost because) we threw two interceptions, Carolina and the Saints (both upset victories)," Gibbs said. "Considering the way we played the first two years on defense, I felt it will be easy for us to get back to playing that kind of football if we just did a few things right. We've got the staff. We haven't made wholesale changes there. We have the players, generally. We asked how we can help ourselves. It was depth at corner and middle 'backer. I believe we have a very good chance of bouncing back."
Gibbs is also upbeat about his offense, which finished strong with neophyte starting quarterback Jason Campbell and is entering its second year in associate head coach Al Saunders' scheme.
"For as tough a year as we had, we all kind of see some of the positive things that happened the last seven weeks," Gibbs said.
--With last year's top backup tackle, Todd Wade, the leading candidate to fill the vacancy at left guard caused by Derrick Dockery's departure for Buffalo, the Redskins signed Jason Fabini on Mar. 26. Fabini, who'll be 33 in August, started for the New York Jets for his first nine seasons before moving on to Dallas as a backup last year. The 6-7, 309-pound Fabini would be a worthy replacement for starters Chris Samuels and Jon Jansen if he has anything left. Fabini joins holdovers Mike Pucillo and Taylor Whitley and newcomers Will Whitticker and Ross Tucker to give the Redskins five backup linemen with at least one season as NFL regulars.
--The Redskins, who have the sixth pick in the draft, will welcome most of the first-round prospects to Redskin Park in April. "We have 25 guys coming in to visit," vice president of football operations Vinny Cerrato told The Washington Times. "We have to cover our bases in case we trade up, trade back or stay."
--Coach Joe Gibbs didn't deny that despite giving big money to receivers Santana Moss, Brandon Lloyd and Antwaan Randle El the past two years, the team would love to have Georgia Tech receiver Calvin Johnson and would consider trading up to get him. "I think everybody (at the NFL meetings) would like to have him," Gibbs said.
--Center Casey Rabach is thankful that workouts at Redskin Park are now voluntary until early May since wife Nicole just gave birth to their second child and he can spend all of his time with his family. "Everybody I've talked to is ecstatic that we have the freedom to be there when it works for us," Rabach said.
Cowboys owner Jerry Jones still believes his team could have been a contender
last season. Never mind the 9-7 record or the wildcard playoff loss to the
Seahawks, which precipitated the departure of coach Bill Parcells.
"We weren't far from the Super Bowl," Jones said.
Jones' perspective about last year is the reason he believes the Cowboys have a good shot to make those dreams come true in 2007. New coach Wade Phillips is hopeful as well, although he knows if things hadn't gone badly last year he wouldn't be coaching the Cowboys now.
"Yeah, I'm kind of glad it didn't turn out that way," Phillips said. "Otherwise, I wouldn't be sitting here."
|Dallas QB Tony Romo (Chris McGrath/Getty Images)|
Namely, the Cowboys made a priority of shoring up the offensive line and they did that in a big way with the re-signings of center Andre Gurode and right tackle Marc Colombo and the free-agent addition of guard Leonard Davis. The Cowboys signed free-agent safety Ken Hamlin, which should allow strong safety Roy Williams to do what he does best and make plays close to the line of scrimmage.
"You don't always get (your needs) addressed in free agency certainly, but we think we did," Phillips said.
Jones believes the 2007 offensive line of left tackle Flozell Adams, left guard Kyle Kosier, Gurode, Davis and Colombo is the team's best starting offensive line since the 1995 Super Bowl season. The group that year included five Pro Bowlers, namely left tackle Mark Tuinei, left guard Nate Newton, center Ray Donaldson, right guard Larry Allen and right tackle Erik Williams.
"When I came in, our real weakness on the team was the offensive line," Phillips said. "Now, we feel like maybe a weakness is more toward a strength. That was an area we addressed."
Because of their work in free agency, the Cowboys are heading into the draft with no specific needs and can take the best available player. Considering the Cowboys haven't drafted an offensive player in the first round of the draft since 1997, look for them to take a long look at a receiver with their 22nd overall pick.
--RG Marco Rivera is expected to announce his retirement soon. Rivera's future was in question after he had to undergo back surgery in January. It was his second back surgery in three years. The Cowboys moved to replace him with the signing of Leonard Davis. Still, Rivera hoped to return at least as a backup. Now, the news is Rivera is not long for the NFL.
--LB Greg Ellis is ahead of schedule in his rehab from a torn Achilles' tendon that sidelined him for the final seven games of last season. Ellis has already started running and the Cowboys believe he will be ready for training camp. Ellis led the team with 4.5 sacks before he was sidelined in week 9. "Obviously, when they lost him last year that hurt them a lot," new head coach Wade Phillips said.
--LB Bobby Carpenter, who came on at the end of last season, may be without a job with Greg Ellis' impending return. However, the Cowboys still like Carpenter's potential and have plans to find a role for him. Coach Wade Phillips said Carpenter will be looked at both outside and inside linebacker.
"I want to start this off-season putting Bobby outside and inside and try to get a feel for exactly where he needs to have an opportunity to play, because he is a talented player," Cowboys coach Wade Phillips said. "He's big and can run and is smart. You just kind of look for fits -- where people should fit in -- and give them an opportunity to play."
--QB Tony Romo will not have to relive last year's bumble against Seattle. Because he is the starting quarterback he has been relieved of his duties at the team's holder. It will either be backup quarterback Brad Johnson or punter Mat McBriar on holding duties next season.