Today we continue our annual Battle of the NFC East articles, comparing all four NFC East division rivals — the Dallas Cowboys, New York Giants, Philadelphia Eagles and Washington Redskins — against each other, position by position. I will rank the teams in order of strongest to weakest at each position and will also choose the best player in the division at each particular position. We will start on offense and proceed to defense over the course of this week. Evaluations will be based not only on the strength of starters, but also reserves and may be influenced by current injuries.
We continue today with the secondary.
1. Dallas Cowboys
For years Terrence Newman was the leader of the Cowboys secondary and the best cornerback on the team. The former may still be true, but the latter is not. Newman is still a solid starter, but he's just turned 32 and has lost a step or two. Newman works hard in all phases of the game, supports the run and plays a smart game. However, he now allows too many completions to be made in front of him because he doesn't trust himself to run deep with fast wideouts. Mike Jenkins really came on last year and took over as the top cornerback on the team. Jenkins has decent size, excellent speed and can play physical, too. He's got great confidence in his coverage skills, justifiably, and has no fear of operating without safety help over the top. [A good thing, too, with the Cowboys safety corps.] Jenkins can play man or zone defenses effectively.
The problems for the Cowboys secondary come at safety, where the injured Gerald Sensabaugh is a very average strong safety and Alan Ball, a former cornerback, may be the smallest free safety in the NFL. Orlando Scandrick provides the depth at safety and that's not a good thing. The depth at cornerback is really no better. The Cowboys really rely on their cornerbacks to provide their production in the secondary. If Newman or, worse, Jenkins should miss significant time with injury, the Cowboys would be in a lot of trouble.
2. Philadelphia Eagles
CB Asante Samuel has been a top cornerback for years, excelling with his rare ball skills and superb anticipation and closing speed. He finished last year with 9 interceptions and 17 passes defensed, evidence that he still possesses those things. He's a top-notch playmaker who can be counted on to change a game or two each season with a big-time play. His only big weakness is tackling -- and it's a pretty big weakness. Samuel was one of the least-reliable tacklers among NFL cornerbacks last year, so if you can complete the ball to Samuels' receiver, yards after the catch are a definite possibility.
Ellis Hobbs is a good athlete with a solid, if short, physique and he's an effective returner on special teams. He's really a below-average corneback now, though, having never been as good as his reputation when he played for the Patriots. Hobbs missed half of last season with a neck injury and it isn't know if he will show any effect of that injury this season. Hobbs takes over for Sheldon Brown, a very good cornerback the Eagles traded to the Cleveland Browns in exchange for...not enough. Macho Harris provides some depth, but you don't want him playing too much. Joselio Hanson is a serviceable nickel back.
Quintin Mikell played superbly at safety for the Eagles last year. He's an excellent tackler and possesses terrific speed for his position. He has good instincts, good athleticism and plays tougher than his relatively small size would indicate. The Eagles drafted Nate Allen from South Florida to take over one safety spot and it looks like he will do that right away. Allen has had a good preseason and training camp and has a great combination of size and speed. He can cover tight ends and running backs out in the flat. He could be a big upgrade over Quintin Demps. who had the starting job last year, but performed so poorly that he couldn't hang on to it.
3. Washington Redskins
CB DeAngelo Hall is a serious playmaker with super-elite physical ability and natural talent. Unfortunately, he doesn't play anywhere close to his talent level and is usually just an average or pretty good cornerback. He plays well in man-to-man coverage and can be a star when he feel motivated, particularly when going against high profile wide receivers. His technique is poor and he doesn't work hard in run support. He's still only 26 so if he ever decides to devote himself to his job he could have several years of being a top level player. Don't hold your breath, though.
CB Carlos Rogers chafed under former defensive coordinator Greg Blache, but finds Jim Haslett's defense far more to his liking. He's a smart and dependable player who makes few mistakes when he feels comfortable with the scheme. He isn't a big playmaker, though, because he has salad tongs where his hands should be. He can run with faster wideouts and muscle up and be physical with other receivers. If Rogers had better ball instincts and hands he could be an All Pro cornerback. He should play better this year in Haslett's defense.
Laron Landry moves back to strong safety, where he played when he broke into the NFL and Sean Taylor was playing free safety for the Redskins. Landry is a sloppy tackler who takes poor angles and makes a lot of mistakes in deep zones and coverage so getting out of free safety might turn his otherwise disappointing career around. Landry has good size, amazing strength and good speed, but he worries too much about making big hits, hoping to knock receivers out and get himself on ESPN SportsCenter. He should be more involved in run support this year and his coverage assignments will normally be man-to-man so this year should see an improvement in Landry's play. If it does not he won't be able to blame Greg Blache.
Reed Doughty steps in as the starting free safety until injured Kareem Moore returns, probably some time in early October. Doughty does not have great size or speed and he isn't ideal for free safety, but he's a smart player who is almost never out of position and plays with great enthusiasm. Moore is a superior athlete, with greater speed and closing ability and the defense will improve when he's healthy and returns.
Off the bench, Phillip Buchanon replaces Fred Smoot as the nickel cornerback and that's an upgrade even though Buchanon's career has been somewhat disappointing. He can start, if necessary, but he'll be better off the bench and playing smaller receivers in the slot. No player on the Redskins roster has improved more in training camp and preseason than Kevin Barnes, who has the size and speed to be a very good cornerback. I wouldn't be shocked if Barnes challenges Buchanon for the nickel back job before the season is over and the improvement he has made in the past three months make him look as an eventual starter -- and not too far in the future. Chris Horton and Tyrone Carter provide depth at safety. Horton isn't fast, but he hits hard, while Carter knows this 3-4 scheme well and can fill in at both safety positions.
4. New York Giants
The Giants secondary was devastated by injuries last season and the depth couldn't hold up. The result was a complete fiasco, as the secondary turned into the Pearl Harbor Crew and the New York defense crumbled and fell from the league's elite. CB Terrell Thomas was the only member of the secondary who played well last year, leading the team in interceptions, passes defensed and tackles. He did this while starter Aaron Ross was injured. The result for this season is that Thomas is now the starter and Ross is now his backup. The other cornerback is Corey Webster, who also got hurt last year, but he wasn't playing very well anyway. Webster has been a very good player in the recent past, though, so the Giants must hope he returns to that level immediately. Webster isn't a particularly good zone defender, though, so defensive coordinator Perry Fewell must watch out for that. CC Brown remains on the roster as a backup, which is where he must remain. Brown was forced to play too much in 2009 and it was a disaster as one team after another victimized him for tons of yards and touchdowns.
The safeties are Kenny Phillips and Antrell Rolle, a free agent acquisition. Rolle was terrible in Arizona last year so it will be up to Rolle and the coaching staff to prove he's got something left. Deon Grant, another free agent, is a decent player, but at 31 is not getting any better and he might be getting more injury-prone. Grant will provide the main depth for the safety position.
Best cornerback in the NFC East: Michael Jenkins, Dallas Cowboys
Best safety in the NFC East: Quintin Mikell, Philadelphia Eagles
Best Secondary in the NFC East: Dallas Cowboys