10 Most Important Role Players in the NFC East
Before last season, anyone could tell you that the NFC East was pound-for-pound one of the most talented divisions in the league. So why was the division winner 7-7 going into Week 16?
It certainly doesn't help that each team's schedule has six games against the other three teams in the division. Only one team managed to have a winning record within the division. They tend to beat up one each other a little bit.
However the big difference, and the reason they are considered some of the most talented teams in the league, is not just because of the stars on each team, but because of the second-tier talent on each team.
Let me just say that by "second-tier" I don't mean players who aren't any good who happen to succeed for whatever reason. I simply mean either players who aren't listed as number one on the depth chart, or players who do start, yet aren't the bigger names at their respective positions.
Here are 10 key role players who will make a huge impact on the outcome of this season.
Dallas Cowboys: Felix Jones
Jones was drafted 22nd overall by the Cowboys with the mindset being that he would be the feature back for years to come. However, with the emergence of DeMarco Murray, Jones has been relegated to a certain degree to the number two back.
With that said, ask any NFL GM if they'd take a back like Jones as their number two and I think the general consensus would be that you'd be fit for a straitjacket if you said no.
Jones has the ability to affect any given game like few other number two backs in the league. However, his production hasn't been on par with what the Cowboys have wanted as their starter.
In his four seasons in the NFL, Jones has never rushed for more than 800 yards or three touchdowns in a season. You can certainly chalk that up to the league transitioning to a more passing friendly league to a certain extent, but that doesn't explain everything.
The Cowboys addressed their issues on defense and if Tony Romo can have another season like 2011, and Jones can contribute and produce enough to keep teams worried about both him and Murray, the Cowboys will be hard to beat this season.
Dallas Cowboys: Any Wide Receiver Not Named Dez Bryant
Dez Bryant is slowly progressing toward being one of the top wide receivers in the league, and someone who warrants all of the acclaim that he has received since his last year at Oklahoma State. In 2011, he was able to stay healthier than in 2010 and his numbers increased from 45 receptions for 561 yards and six touchdowns to 63 receptions for 928 yards and nine touchdowns.
While Bryant is becoming a top threat on the outside, whoever is playing opposite him will be key for the Cowboys. I find it hard to call Miles Austin a role player, even by my very broad standards, but whether it's him or Kevin Ogletree, whoever the Cowboys number two and three receivers may be, they will have to produce in order to keep double-teams off of Bryant.
If Austin or Ogletree, or even if Jerry Jones himself straps on some pads and hits the field, if they can come through for the Cowboys, teams will have a hard time stopping them. Who has the personnel to stop Tony Romo handing the ball off to DeMarco Murray and Felix Jones, and throwing the ball to Bryant, Austin and Jason Witten?
New York Giants: David Wilson
The Giants' first-round pick this year will have to come in and make a difference.
I know anyone reading this will probably think I'm nitpicking, but the truth is, as was the case with the Cowboys and Felix Jones, if you can't run the football at all, you will have a hard time winning.
I know the Giants won the Super Bowl, but they also went 9-7 and were last in the league in rushing yards per game. If a game or two went a little differently, the Giants may not have been in the playoffs at all.
Wilson will need to come in and immediately help Ahmad Bradshaw in the running game, especially with all of the improved defenses in the NFC East.
New York Giants: Whoever Ends Up Being Their Third Receiver
Anyone who watched the Super Bowl (which was a ton of people apparently) knew that going into the game, the Patriots needed to contain the wide receiver duo of Hakeem Nicks and Victor Cruz.
In the end though, it was Mario Manningham who made the biggest catch of Super Bowl XLVI, and now he's gone. The Giants will be looking to replace him with either Domenik Hixon, Ramses Barden, or rookie Rueben Randle.
The last slide was all about how the Giants need to improve their running game, and they do, but Eli Manning proved last year that he can win without all that much help. One place he does need help is wide receiver.
If Hakeem Nicks isn't ready to go Week 1 or isn't 100 percent or Victor Cruz suffers a little sophomore slump of sorts, Hixon, Barden or Randle will need to be there to keep the Giants offense moving.
New York Giants: Middle Linebacker
The running game was not the only weakness the Giants had last season. The defense suffered a ton of injuries early in the year and never really made it back from them until the playoffs started.
One of the biggest holes was at middle linebacker. The Giants did a great job by picking up Chase Blackburn toward the end of the season who did a great job as a sudden replacement, but now is in a fierce position battle with Mark Herzlich for the starting job, and he's not the only one.
When the Giants traded for Keith Rivers before the draft, they picked up a solid outside linebacker. The problem is, they already have two solid outside linebackers in Mathias Kiwanuka and Michael Boley.
While there's no way the Giants would trade for Rivers and then not play him, that creates a bit of an issue as to where to put everyone on defense.
What they may try to do is move Boley from his natural spot on the outside to the middle but who knows right now.
Regardless of who it ends up being, the middle linebacker needs to serve as the anchor for a defense that was run all over last season.
Philadelphia Eagles: Dion Lewis
While the Eagles offense is in a pretty good spot with LeSean McCoy as their starter considering he is a top five overall running back in the league, he can't run all day. Give McCoy a ton of credit for his durability, but the Eagles can't expect him to produce at a high level all season if he's overworked.
Dion Lewis was McCoy's understudy at Pitt, and now holds the same position on the Eagles. If the Eagles can get some solid production out of Lewis, this running game will be an absolute joke.
Both backs are fast and can juke guys out of their shoes. If the defense spends half the game running around trying to bring these two down, it'll open up a ton of opportunities for Michael Vick and the passing game.
Philadelphia Eagles: Riley Cooper
The Eagles' passing game already ranks among one of the most dangerous in the league with guys like DeSean Jackson, Jeremy Maclin, Brent Celek and LeSean McCoy out of the backfield.
While it's hard to imagine them needing any kind of boost, Riley Cooper is a talented slot receiver who could make this passing game completely unstoppable.
If Cooper can produce at all really, it'll take a lot of pressure off the other guys on the offense, as if they were struggling before.
Philadelphia Eagles: Mychal Kendricks
I don't imagine Kendricks will be labeled as a "role player," no matter how broad the definition, for very long. He's a tenacious linebacker who has good lateral speed and is excellent at stopping the run, which was a problem for the Eagles defense last season.
Kendricks will have to anchor the Eagles defense on the run so that guys like Justin Babin, Trent Cole and Nnamdi Asomugha can make plays around him.
If that happens, the Eagles will be far more like the "Dream Team" Vince Young envisioned last year.
Washington Redskins: Roy Helu/Tim Hightower
I have Helu and Hightower tag-teaming this slide because I think they'll be used almost the exact same amount next season. But only if they are both producing. I have a soft spot for Tim Hightower as a fellow Richmond Spider, but that isn't why he and Helu could be quite the dynamic duo in the backfield.
Mike Shanahan running backs have a tendency to run for absolutely ridiculous amounts of yards because of the complexity of his zone blocking scheme.
One of the best ways to help a young quarterback develop is to have a strong running game and with backs who can produce the way these two can, that is a distinct possibility for Robert Griffin III.
If the Redskins can get good production out of the two of them, I expect RGIII to develop quickly and the Redskins to be a very dangerous team.
Washington Redskins: Perry Riley
Take a look at the Redskins three other starting linebackers. Don't feel like it? Well they're London Fletcher, Brian Orakpo and Ryan Kerrigan. One of them is probably a Hall of Famer, one is one of the most feared outside backers in the league, and the other is on his way to that title as well.
The Redskins won't need a ton of production out of Riley, but they will need him to play well.
The old saying goes, you're only as strong as your weakest link. If Riley can be strong at all, this linebacking corps will be scary good.