Season Preview: The NFC East

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Season Preview:  The NFC East
(Photo by Chris McGrath/Getty Images)

Last year's NFC East race, while full of exciting games and plenty of drama, ended in relatively routine fashion. 

The Giants were the heavy hitters that many thought they would be. 

The Eagles contended like they do almost every year, despite some midseason drama. 

The Cowboys, while having a talented roster, were unable to get the job done in December, and thus missed the playoffs. 

The Redskins missed the playoffs as most expected, even after a hot start to the season.

So, where does that leave the NFC East, arguably the best division in the entire NFL, going into training camp, preseason, and ultimately the season? 

Will the Cowboys finally realize the potential of a talented roster? 

Will the Skins surprise some people by making a playoff push, or will the division be controlled once again by either the Eagles or Giants? 

This article examines those possibilities.

 

The Dallas Cowboys

Going into the upcoming season, the Cowboys' roster looks very similar to the roster that got embarrassed in December against the Eagles. 

There is one key change, however. 

Jerry Jones decided to swallow his pride this offseason and released talented, but troublesome wide receiver Terrell Owens

The question becomes:  Does T.O's departure improve this team by removing distractions, or does it hinder the team due to one less playmaker on the perimeter? 

I guess we will find out.

Even with the release of T.O., the Cowboys' roster has plenty of talent. 

It has a dynamic trio of running backs in Marion Barber, Felix Jones, and Tashard Choice.  Each one brings a different skill set to the backfield. 

Barber is a bruiser while Jones is a home run waiting to happen.  Choice is more of a scat back that can get decent yardage every play, but is unlikely to break any very long gains. 

This dynamic bunch will give offensive coordinaters nightmares if they can stay healthy, unlike last season.

The defense is pretty solid in Big D this year as well. 

DeMarcus Ware leads a group of very talented LBs that will pressure QBs all season. 

However, there are questions in the secondary. 

If Terrance Newman is healthy, he is one of the best CBs in the league, but the rest of the secondary can be suspect.  Hamilin is a decent safety, but the other CB spot and other safety spot are filled with unproven talent. 

They have the potential to be good, but they are young and inexperienced.

Now back to the offense. 

Beyond Jason Witten, who is Tony Romo going to throw to? 

Roy Williams has yet to prove he can be as productive as he was in Detriot, and the other receivers, while talented, are unproven in the No. 2 spot. 

Then there is Romo. 

Always a fantasy stud into November, Romo struggles in December.  He has yet to lead the Cowboys to a playoff victory this decade.  For this team to have success, Romo has to be able to overcome his Christmas woes.

Prediction: 9-7 while missing the playoffs.  No significant offseason additions (I view the T.O. departure as a net change of 0), and no immediate draft help means this team will have a shot.

But I believe they'll fall just short again.

 

The Philadelphia Eagles:

Historically, this team just cannot quite get it done from year to year and win the hardware. 

This offseason has seen some major changes in the city of brotherly love. 

Brian Dawkins' departure was a major blow to the team's leadership.  Dawkins was a playmaker and also improved the game of all of the players around him. 

However, this defense should be able to replace the big plays and at least some of the leadership.  Quentin Mikell and Stewart Bradley are two under the radar playmakers on this defensive unit. 

Peter King of S.I. selected Bradley to second All-Pro team behind Ray Lewis.

This is a defense that ranked third in the NFL last season behind only the Steelers and Ravens

There are some holes though. 

Broderick Bunkley and Mike Patterson are very good DTs that can stop the run.  However, they sometimes do not provide a consistent pass rush up the middle. 

Also, it has yet to be seen if Quentin Demps can adequately replace Dawkins as a playmaker in the secondary.  The other concern in the secondary is if Sheldon Brown, despite a contract dispute, will play to his full ability.

The offense also has its fair share of questions. 

Will Westbrook be healthy when the season starts? 

At this point, the prognosis is good that Westbrook will be ready to play. 

If he is unable to play at the beginning of the season, will talented rookie LeSean McCoy be able to step up? 

I believe Westbrook will be ready to go, but he will be on the wrong side of 30 at the start of the season.

Another question:  How will McNabb fare behind a new look offensive line, and will he gel with his new toy Jeremy Maclin? 

The O-line has the potential to be one of the best in the league.  The issue becomes if the price tag for Jason Peters was justified.  If it was, then McNabb should be given plenty of time to find his young and talented group of receivers. 

DeSean Jackson should be in for another good year, but I am wary of expecting big stats from Maclin just yet. 

Prediction:  11-5 with a playoff berth.  The Eagles always find a way to lose a couple of out of division games that they should win.  Coupled with the usual pedestrian division record means a battle for the top, but by no means running away with it.

 

The New York Giants:

After a disappointing loss to the Eagles in the playoffs, the Giants look to rebound in a big way in the 2009 season.

With the return of Osi Umenyiora, the Giants' defensive line will be one of, if not the most, feared in all of the NFL. 

A combination of Justin Tuck, Umenyiora, and Mathias Kiwanuka is a formidable group.  The G-Men also have good interior pass rushers in Barry Cofield and Chris Canty in rotation with Rocky Bernard. 

They are also pretty stout against the run. 

This makes the secondary better than it may actually be, but still corners Corey Webster, Aaron Ross, and safety Kenny Phillips are no bunch to sneeze at.

Then there is the Giants' running game. 

Fueled by one of the most powerful backs in the league, Brandon Jacobs, along with Ahmad Bradshaw, and one of the best O-lines in the league, the Giants will routinely run over opposing defenses. 

The problem with the running game comes when opposing teams stack the box with eight or nine defenders (more on that later). 

However, I still see this team putting up big rushing numbers in 2009.

There are two holes I see on this team.

First, is the lack of a No. 1 WR.  I do not think rookie Hakeem Nicks will step in right away and be a stud.  And, while I think the Giants have a good number of WRs with some talent, they lack the big time playmaker. 

Many Giants fans believe Dominique Hixon will fill the void left by Plaxico Burress.  He very well could, but I did not see that consistency at the end of last season.  So, I cannot say that he will produce consistently this season. 

With the lack of a true No. 1 receiver, opposing teams do not have to worry as much on the perimeter and can focus on the Giants' powerful running game.

Second, the linebackers on this team are nicked up heading into training camp.  Big FA pickup Michael Boley may miss some time early in the season, and missing camp/preseason really hurts a player's adjustment into a new system. 

Also, Antonio Pierce is not getting any younger.  While he is still the intellectual leader of the defense, he has lost a step. 

Can this unit get healthy and be productive? 

Young guys like rookie Clint Sintim may need to step up in order for that to happen.

Prediction:  11-5 with a playoff berth.  O-Line, D-Line, and a good running game is always a recipe for success, and the Giants have all of those areas covered.

 

The Washington Redskins:

This will be the first year that Jason Campbell will have the same offensive coordinator since he entered the league. 

I believe that will significantly help his production. 

Unfortunately, Campbell's top receivers do not match the system that Redskins run.  While Santana Moss has had successful years, the Redskins' offensive system is tailored more for larger, more physical receivers. 

This means that one of the young guys, such as Devin Thomas, needs to produce.  It also does not help that the O-line is still very suspect, and therefore does not afford Jason Campbell the time to make as many good throws.

If the receivers can produce, it provides Clintin Portis with more running room.  Portis is not the young man that he once was because he has been in the league for so long for a running back. 

He now relies more on power and vision to gain his yards because of the speed that he has lost.  He and Ladell Betts are still a tandem that needs to be accounted for but no longer impose as much fear as they did two to three years ago.

The defense, while good last year, should be better this year. 

The big issue last year was a lack of a pass rush.  This offseason has seen the additions of Albert Haynesworth and Brian Orapko, and, even though I feel both are slightly overrated, they should immensely improve the Redskins anemic pass rush.

The linebackers (including Orapko) are decent and anchored by tackling machine London Fletcher.  The other LBs have room to improve, but overall they are a decent bunch. 

One big question being asked is: Can Orapko make the transition and defend the run, cover backs, and tight ends?

The Skins' secondary is much like the linebackers.  It is filled with decent players, but has no star power as of yet. 

LaRon Landry has the potential to make the next step and become a top safety in this league, but, at this point, has yet to reach the level of the late Sean Taylor.  Corners Fred Smoot, Carlos Rogers, and DeAngelo Hall are capable but can sometimes be taken advantage of. 

Chris Horton was a nice surprise last year as well.  Let's see if he can keep up the high level of play of his rookie campaign.

Prediction:  7-9 while missing the playoffs.  This team's record from last year is mostly a product of their hot start. 

I don't see that happening this year due to a lack of playmakers on the offensive side of the ball. 

I just don't see Devin Thomas as a consistent reciever at the NFL level.

 

Final word:  Giants win division due to better division record but likely lose again in the playoffs to the Eagles.  The Birds seem to have their number in January.

I know predictions, especially ones in June, can be proven very, very false.  These may change by the end of training camp and teams/players may prove me wrong. 

That is the nature of the NFL, and that is what makes it worth watching once September finally gets here.

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