Scouting the NFL: NFC East Players To Watch

With the regular season around the corner, Inside The Pylon reached out to former NFL scout and current Scouting Academy director Dan Hatman for a cheat sheet on who the pros are keeping an eye on – and who may be in danger of losing his job. Here, he identifies which NFC East players to watch in 2015.

Dallas Cowboys

Rookie Who Is Needed Early Players Who Need to Develop Quickly Veteran Who May Be Ready to Decline Most Intriguing to Study Excited About Expanded Role
Byron Jones Joseph Randle / Demarcus Lawrence Sean Lee Tyrone Crawford Andrew Gachkar

Is a successful rushing attack because of the running back, or the offensive line? Dallas is looking to prove it is the line, having let DeMarco Murray depart to division rival Philadelphia, and entering the season without a clear-cut #1 ball carrier. The addition of Christine Michael, acquired from the Seattle Seahawks, to an already crowded backfield makes it even less clear who is going to tote the rock.

The pressure is on third-year running back Joseph Randle, who must Develop Quickly, or he’ll find himself out of the mix. The former Oklahoma State star has logged 105 carries in his brief career, posting dismal numbers as a rookie and stellar results in his sophomore campaign. The knock on Randle is that he lacks a second gear and acceleration, too often running upright and without power to break tackles after contact. On the plus side, he is an excellent receiver out of the backfield, with shifty moves in the open field and a penchant for falling forward. It will be interesting to see if the great offensive line can make any running back look good — and if Randle will be the guy to seize the opportunity.

For the Cowboys to their goals this season, first-round selection Byron Jones is the Rookie Who Is Needed Early. Losing defensive back Orlando Scandrick to a season-ending injury puts the UConn product on the field, and in the crosshairs of opposing quarterbacks, earlier than the Cowboys wanted. However, his tremendous athleticism and ball skills should help Jones make the transition. After setting an NFL Combine record in the broad jump, Jones has had a disrupted training camp, suffering a shoulder injury that is cause for concern, as the same injury curtailed his senior season. If healthy, Jones has great potential as a cover corner, showing the ability to run, and jump, with any big receiver.

Byron-Jones-interception-against-Michigan

The real questions mount on the defensive side of the ball. Middle linebacker Sean Lee missed all of 2014 with an ACL injury and may be the Veteran Ready To Decline. The 29 year old has never played 16 games in a season, and missed 10 in 2012, five more in 2013 and is now returning from his second major knee injury. A smart, instinctive player who is seemingly always in the right position on the field, Lee is a team leader despite his injury history, working almost as a coach last season in the film room with his teammates. However, while the mind is willing, it remains to be seen if the body can deliver. A healthy, effective Lee is one of the top players at his position and would be a boon for a Dallas defense that needs his leadership and tackling ability on the field.

Outside linebacker Andrew Gachkar is Excited About An Expanded Role, as he will initially get more playing time while Rolando McClain serves a suspension. The fifth-year player signed as a free agent after starting his career in San Diego, where he carved out a role on special teams and in sub packages on passing downs. A high-motor, high-effort player who tackles with authority and plays well in space, Gachkar’s weaknesses are his lack of size and his inability to shed blockers. It will be interesting to see what kind of role he eventually settles into, if everyone is healthy and not suspended at the same time.

The Cowboys added plenty of pass rush potential in (also suspended) Greg Hardy and second-round draft pick Randy Gregory – but neither figure to be on the field in prominent roles until October, at the earliest. That puts the spotlight on a pair of ex-Boise State defensive ends: Tyrone Crawford, the Most Intriguing To Study, and Demarcus Lawrence, a Player Who Needs to Develop Quickly. Crawford started 15 games last season, registering three sacks and 25 tackles. Meanwhile, Lawrence – a 2014 second-round pick – only saw limited action in seven contests, recording nine tackles and a forced fumble.

Crawford is a big bodied, strong player capable of playing inside or out, who packs a punch when engaging the opposition. A very raw prospect coming out of college, he has refined his technique and game knowledge under the tutelage of respected defensive line coach and coordinator Rod Marinelli. Crawford is a relentless player on film, never giving up and playing through the whistle. With the additions at the DE position, Crawford is slated to align at the 3 technique in Marinelli’s system, which is where Warren Sapp made his money. He may be ready to make the leap, and fulfill the potential Cowboy scouts saw in him four years ago.

Lawrence is an edge rusher from the defensive end position with tremendous athletic ability and burst off the snap. He showed excellent pass rush moves as a collegian, with fluid movements and explosiveness. However, he is perhaps too aggressive at times and showed a penchant for abandoning his assignments and freelancing too much. He has also demonstrated difficulty setting the edge and defeating blocks, making him a player the opposition targets in the running game. However, if Marinelli and defensive ends coach Ben Bloom can harness his potential, the Dallas pass rush may no longer be a problem come playoff time.

New York Giants

Rookie Who Is Needed Early Players Who Need to Develop Quickly Veteran Who May Be Ready to Decline Most Intriguing to Study Excited About Expanded Role
Ereck Flowers Damontre Moore / Weston Richburg Jon Beason Devon Kennard Jonathan Casillas

Two units are the focus of attention for the Giants – the offensive line and the linebacking corps. Both were trouble spots in 2014 and both have major question marks heading into 2015. Starting left tackle Ereck Flowers, the ninth overall pick, is Needed Early. Scouts report that Flowers possesses ideal size, strength and mentality to eventually develop into a dominant run blocker. He is a mauler, and noted for his competitive toughness. However, he is a work in progress as a pass blocker. He lacks consistent efficiency in his pass sets, struggling to match angles and play with proper pad level, and his hands are disconnected from his feet. These flaws leave him vulnerable against NFL rushers. He would have been best served to get a redshirt year behind Will Beatty in 2015. Now he will be a Day 1 starter with no depth behind him if he gets in trouble.

Second-year center Weston Richburg was an outstanding player, and vocal leader, during his collegiate career at Colorado State and he must Develop Quickly, both on and off the field. On the smaller side of offensive linemen, he’s vulnerable to being engulfed by huge, quick opposition, but his solid technique, use of leverage and instincts enable him to be very competitive in both the run game and pass blocking. Richburg struggled at the left guard position in 2014 and the team is hopeful that the return to his more natural center position will bring him back to the form that made him a second-round selection.

On the other side of the ball, linebackers coach Jim Herrmann and defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo have a lot of questions in their linebacking corps. Jonathan Casillas parlayed a special teams/backup linebacker role with New England in 2014 into a three-year contract with the Giants, where he will fill the same role. The six-year veteran is a solid performer who is undoubtedly Excited For An Expanded Role. He has shown flashes of starting caliber tools dating back to his days in Tampa Bay, but has not developed any consistency within a system. He is a more physically capable player than J.T. Thomas and only what is going on between his ears will keep him off the field.

Casillas-A-gap-pressure-leads-to-Ayers-interception

Injury is always a concern with middle linebacker Jon Beason, the Veteran Who May Be Ready to Decline. Beason has missed dozens of games because of myriad leg injuries, and battled a sprained knee during the preseason. Entering his 10th season, the middle linebacker has great awareness and instincts, but his durability is in question. The Giants are much better off with a healthy Beason to wear the green dot and be a coach on the field but it’s unlikely he’ll make it through the season without another injury. The team parted with veteran backup Jameel McClain and if Beason goes down again, they will be left with undrafted free agent and surprising performer Uani Unga manning the MLB position.

Second-year outside linebacker Devon Kennard is the Most Intriguing To Study, after a promising rookie campaign that saw the fifth round pick earn a starting role down the stretch. The son of former NFL offensive lineman Derek Kennard, Devon is a hard-working, intelligent player who exceeds his average physical talent. He is thoroughly professional and was regarded as a team leader for his work ethic and competitive toughness at USC. He showed positive traits as a run defender and as a blitzing LB, improving in his six games as a starter. It will be fascinating to watch him develop as he learns more about the professional game and builds his football IQ.

Star pass rusher Jason Pierre-Paul will miss most, if not all of the season because of injury, creating an opportunity for third-year defensive end Damontre Moore to seize a role. A third round pick in 2013, Moore recorded 5.5 sacks in rotational duty last season, but he must Develop Quickly to help the Giants overcome the loss of Pierre-Paul. Moore displayed very good pass rush skills at Texas A&M and was a favorite of many during the draft process, though his combine numbers lowered his draft stock. His is still a better pass rusher than a run defender and he only has a sub package role at this point. Spagnuolo has used more Under fronts than in past seasons and Moore has frequently been used out of a two-point stance. Many things are in flux in New York, but the one thing you can bank on is that Jerry Reese wants as many pass rushers as he can find and if Moore does not grab this role, Reese will find someone who will.

Philadelphia Eagles

Rookie Who Is Needed Early Players Who Need to Develop Quickly Veteran Who May Be Ready to Decline Most Intriguing to Study Excited About Expanded Role
Nelson Agholor Lane Johnson / Marcus Smith Jason Peters Josh Huff Walter Thurmond

It starts up front with the Eagles, specifically the bookends of the offensive line: left tackle Jason Peters, the Veteran Who May Be Ready To Decline and right tackle Lane Johnson, who Needs To Develop Quickly. Peters enters his 12th NFL season, and while he had an effective 2014, the NFL has proven that previous performance does not guarantee future performance. A powerful, agile blocker with great recognition, Peters won’t be fooled by stunts or bowled over by anyone, but speed edge rushers are giving him more problems than they have in the past. On the right side, Johnson, the fourth overall pick in 2013, has had two uneven seasons in Philadelphia, missing four games last season because of a suspension*. An athletic, active player, Johnson has yet to master anchoring in pass protection and still has some holes in his technique. For the Eagles rushing attack to operate at full strength, these two must perform well on the ends of the line, especially with the turnover at the guard position.

Wide receiver Nelson Agholor is the Rookie Needed Early, following the departure of Jeremy Maclin as a free agent. The former USC wideout runs precise routes and has reliable hands. Concerns linger over his straight line speed, despite good NFL Combine results, as he is quick, not fast on the field. However, he shows good knowledge of how to use his body and footwork to create separation. He starts the season behind Jordan Matthews, and potentially Riley Cooper and Josh Huff, but his abilities will put him on the field.

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Second year receiver Josh Huff is nominally the starter, and is the Most Intriguing To Study after a rookie campaign that saw him catch just eight passes. The former Oregon Duck has an excellent work ethic, being noted for his blocking, competitive toughness and practice habits. He lacks ideal speed and strength, having trouble defeating press coverage, but he possesses soft, reliable hands and wins contested balls with regularity. Philadelphia does want to have a deep field presence from outside the numbers and he must perform well or could be overtaken by Agholor for the bigger role.

Defensively, 2014 first-round pick Marcus Smith is under pressure to Develop Quickly after a disappointing rookie campaign that frequently saw him standing on the sideline or in the training room. The linebacker appeared in just eight games, and was a source of frustration for fans and defensive coordinator Billy Davis, who hoped the former Louisville player would slot into the Eagles pressure-oriented front seven. Concerns about his ability to get off blocks and effectively defend the run have lingered into the preseason and Smith needs to show improvement on the field and stat sheet this season.

Walter Thurmond left Seattle two seasons ago as a coveted free agent, but lasted just two games with the New York Giants after an injury ended his 2014 campaign. A physical corner who supplanted Brandon Browner in 2013 with the Seahawks, Thurmond is looking for an Expanded Role with the Eagles, and has earned a starting safety job on the Eagles depth chart, where he will presumably collaborate with old Seahawks teammate Byron Maxwell in combination coverages. Davis likes to play a lot of Cover 1 and Cover 0, making Thurmond’s ability to tackle and cover essential to the scheme.

Washington Football Club

Rookie Who Is Needed Early Players Who Need to Develop Quickly Veteran Who May Be Ready to Decline Most Intriguing to Study Excited About Expanded Role
Brandon Scherff Spencer Long / Keenan Robinson Jason Hatcher Duke Ihenacho Jeron Johnson

Frankly, a picture of a dumpster fire could run in this section, but there is not a big enough example available on the internet, so words will have to suffice.

The soap opera that is the Washington Football Team rolls on in the nation’s capital, with head coach Jay Gruden naming Kirk Cousins the starting quarterback, relegating Robert Griffin III to the bench for the season. While the signal-caller spot was an issue on the field this preseason, the offensive line looked porous at best. This means that Brandon Scherff, Washington’s first-round selection in the 2015 draft, is a Rookie Who is Needed Early. The offensive lineman from Iowa was the starting left tackle for the Hawkeyes, but his strengths (run blocking and mauling defenders in small spaces) translate well to the guard position, so the team abandoned their previous plan to align him at RT and have worked him at RG. He’ll need to re-learn his technique at the new position, especially when it comes to pass blocking, otherwise defenses will throw A Gap blitz after Double A Gap blitz his way.

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Another offensive lineman who Needs to Develop Quickly for Washington is Spencer Long. Long was a third-round pick out of Nebraska who saw limited action in 2014 after battling back from a knee injury that sidelined him during his senior year in Lincoln. Finally healthy, Long was expected to hold down the RG role when the team released Chris Chester, allowing Scherff to stay outside. Long’s struggles forced new OL coach Bill Callahan’s hand, putting limited athlete Morgan Moses back into the RT role and relegating Long to the bench. If the OL can hold up their end of the bargain, Washington does have some talent at the skill positions, with DeSean Jackson and Pierre Garcon on the outside, and Alfred Morris and Matt Jones in the offensive backfield.

One bright spot for this organization is the defense that is quietly being assembled around Ryan Kerrigan, a young talented outside linebacker and a star in the making. But one question mark for this defense is who will provide pressure aside from Kerrigan. Washington finally moved on from Brian Orakpo, an athletic freak of a defensive end who had issues staying healthy. They added run defenders in Stephen Paea and Terrance Knighton, but will continue to rely on 32-year-old Jason Hatcher as an interior rusher. The veteran has struggled with the injury bug and was severely limited in 2014, eventually having arthroscopic knee surgery and ending the season on IR. He did tally 11 sacks for the Cowboys in 2013, but because of his age and the mounting injuries, Hatcher is the Veteran Who May Be Ready to Decline.

At the next level, inside linebacker Keenan Robinson enters 2015 as the starter at ILB for the second consecutive season. The University of Texas product took over at this position when London Fletcher retired prior to 2014, and enjoyed a solid first year as a full-time player, recording 109 tackles in 13 games. He has become the signal-caller for this unit with the green dot on his helmet.  He is known more for his athleticism than his mental processing or on field decision making and will need to Develop Quickly between the ears to hold the middle of the field together for this unit.

The secondary contains a number of NFL veterans with game-tested experience, including DeAngelo Hall and Chris Culliver at the two cornerback spots, and Dashon Goldson locked in as the starting free safety after leaving Tampa Bay in free agency. But one question mark for this group is the strong safety spot. Duke Ihenacho is penciled in as the starter right now, but the hard-hitting safety with a knack for forcing turnovers missed most of 2014 with a fractured foot. His aggressive style of play makes him a very Intriguing Player to Study. But pushing Ihenacho from behind is Jeron Johnson, a free-agent signee from Seattle. Stuck behind Kam Chancellor on the depth chart for the past few seasons, Johnson should see more playing time in Washington and fans should be very Excited about his Expanded Role.

*Editor’s Note: Thanks to an astute reader for catching a mistake; Lane Johnson missed four games because of suspension, not injury. We have updated the text. 

Follow Dan on Twitter @Dan_Hatman

Dan Hatman is the Director of The Scouting Academy and writes for Inside The Pylon when not teaching future football scouts and coaches how to do their job.

All video and images courtesy the NFL and NFL Game Rewind.

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