The NFC East promises to be one of the most competitive divisions in football. The Redskins and Cowboys were more talented than a couple of playoff teams (I'm looking at you, San Diego, Indianapolis, and Miami), but suffered from playing in a tough division.
These four teams do not have many weaknesses; yet at least one (and maybe two or three) will be watching the playoffs from home. With that in mind, let's preview each team from the NFC East.
Dallas Cowboys: No matter what, this team always seems to find itself in the spotlight. From its high-profile owner, to its singer-dating quarterback, to its reality shows, the Cowboys certainly make for good gossip.
In addition, while they are not as talented as they were two years ago when they ran through the NFC, they still have some weapons.
The first thing I think of when I think about the Cowboys is the running back position, which could be the deepest in the NFC East. In Marion Barber, the Cowboys have a bruiser who wears down defenses with his tough running style. He has Pro-Bowl talent.
Felix Jones is a candidate for a breakout season, according to many people. Overshadowed by Darren McFadden at Arkansas, Jones finally proved his explosiveness last year. The Cowboys hope to use him like Brian Westbrook, and he could really add some fire to the Cowboys passing attack.
Tashard Choice is the Cowboys third running back, and he is a versatile player who will be used a great deal.
The Cowboys rushing attack could rival the Giants' for best in the NFC East. The 13th-ranked offense from a year ago should rival those numbers this year.
The questions for the Cowboys are on the defensive side of the ball. DeMarcus Ware is great, and leads a solid front seven that ranked 12th in run defense last year, and helped cover up for a depleted secondary with a strong pass rush.
Jay Ratliff is solid up-front, but the Cowboys rely on their linebackers for most of their pass pressure. If there is a weakness for these linebackers, it is coverage ability. Teams have had success dumping the ball out to tight ends and running backs against this team in the past.
The secondary is also a bit of a question mark. Terrence Newman has been an elite cornerback for most of his career, but he is 30, and coming off an injury-plagued year where he was beaten quite a bit.
At the second cornerback position, Dallas will most likely start 2008 first-round pick Mike Jenkins, who showed flashes last year, and should be a good player in his sophomore effort.
Nickelback Anthony Henry is an average player, and while Ken Hamlin has been solid, if not spectacular, at the free safety position, the Cowboys have a question mark at the strong safety position.
The Cowboys secondary was exposed a few times last year. If they are healthy this year, they may once again become a solid unit, but that remains to be seen.
Overall, the Cowboys had a top-15 offense, and top-10 defense. I would expect those ranks to stay about the same, and the Cowboys should once again contend for a playoff spot.
However, it may be tough to come by in the NFC East, as all three teams pose tough matchups.
I see the Cowboys starting out strong, and heading into the bye at 5-0, but they could easily lose the last five games of the season.
My prediction is 9-7 overall, and 2-4 in the NFC East (I think either the Eagles or Redskins could sweep the Cowboys, as both pose bad matchups for Dallas), though 10-6 or even 11-5 is a possibility.
New York Giants: The 2007 Super Bowl Champs have reloaded their defensive line. They boast great depth, with three elite defensive ends in Osi Umenyiora, Justin Tuck, and Mathias Kiwanuka.
Tuck's ability to play inside on passing downs should also allow the Giants to be creative with their pass rush, an area in which they should once again excel.
The secondary has improved the last two years. Corey Webster has quietly become a top-10 cornerback, and this is only his third year. Kenny Phillips, a 2008 first-round pick at free safety, should also have a great season this year. After the Eagles, the Giants look to have the best secondary in the East.
The O-line is solid once again, with no weak links. As a unit, the line is greater than the sum of its parts (though Chris Snee and Shaun O'Hara are arguably the best players at their positions in the NFL), and they play extremely well together.
Eli Manning comes into this season with a lot to prove. Without Plaxico Burress, he struggled towards the end of last year. The receivers could not consistently beat one-on-one coverage, allowing teams to stack the box with eight guys, and slow down Brandon Jacobs.
Jacobs, a running back built more like a defensive end at 6'4'' and 265 lbs, is a freight train. Once he gets momentum in space, he is extremely tough to bring down.
Ahmad Bradshaw should have a bigger role spelling him. While the loss of Derrick Ward, a thousand-yard rusher, will hurt, the Giants have a lot of confidence in Bradshaw, who has performed well in the opportunities he has received.
The wide receivers are the big question mark on offense. The Giants drafted Hakeem Nicks to be their No. 1 receiver of the future, and they also have a lot of hope invested in speedy Steve Smith.
If one of those guys can exploit one-on-one coverage on a consistent basis, the Giants will once again be a Super Bowl contender. If not, then the Giants will still win a lot of games in the trenches, but will fail to beat elite teams and make a deep playoff run.
Prediction: 3-3 in the NFC East, 10-6 overall (losses @NO, @MIN, and SD). Wildcard Playoff berth.
Philadelphia Eagles: Many people feel the Eagles had the best offseason in the NFL. However, there is no Lombardi trophy for the offseason. Nonetheless, it seems like the Eagles are solid at every position on the football field.
Defensively, the Eagles lost Brian Dawkins. This was more of an emotional loss than one that should severely impact the defense.
Quintin Mikell had a great year at the other safety position, while Quintin Demps performed admirably in spot duty. Either Demps or Sean Jones, newly acquired safety from the Cleveland Browns who intercepted 15 passes the past three years, will take over Dawkins' spot. Either way, it doesn't look like the Eagles will be weak at that position.
The Eagles' strength is their front seven. Stewart Bradley had a great season last year, and was named to Dr. Z's all-Pro team at only 25 years of age. His combination of size and athleticism remind many of Brian Urlacher.
Chris Gocong is a solid run-defender who looks to improve as a pass rusher. He was drafted to be a pass-rushing specialist, but has been better as a run stuffer than in blitz packages.
Akeem Jordan took over for Omar Gaither midway through last season, and played well. He is a speedy player who did a better job of covering tight ends. But Gaither, who had a breakout season in 2007 as an MLB, will try and take his spot back.
Barring this, he will back up all three position, as will Joe Mays, a fifth-round pick from 2008 who has showed potential.
On offense, the Eagles boast the best quarterback in the division in Donovan McNabb. Blessed with mobility, good size, and one of the strongest arms in the NFL, McNabb has nonetheless suffered from inconsistency at times. He tends to suffer at the beginning of football games, coming on strong in the second and third quarters.
Nevertheless, with an offense with so much speed, McNabb should see plenty of opportunities to chuck the ball deep. The receiving corps is the best since 2004, led by Desean Jackson.
Jackson is coming off a breakout rookie season, and at 5'10'' he makes up for his size with blazing speed. He should improve this year, and demand double-team attention.
On the other side will either be rookie Jeremy Maclin or vetern Kevin Curtis. Curtis is a 5'11'' receiver with good hands, and great speed and quickness.
Maclin is about 6'1'', and he is another fast guy who can get deep, but also take a short pass for many yards after the catch.
One of these two will see a lot of time in the slot, and whoever it is should have plenty of success.
Behind these three is Jason Avant, a man who had a breakout season last year. Avant played well in the slot; he's not the fastest or the biggest guy, but he runs great routes and has good hands, and made 22 catches on third down last year.
Brian Westbrook should be more effective with the addition of Lesean McCoy, a Westbrook clone who will take some pressure off of the starter.
Leonard Weaver, the Eagles new fullback, is a versatile player who will help alleviate the Eagles' short-yardage woes with his ability to block, run the football, and catch passes. The offensive line is vastly improved, with the addition of two-time Pro Bowler Jason Peters, arguably one of the best left tackles in the NFL.
Shawn Andrews and Todd Herremans are Pro Bowl caliber players, Jamaal Jackson is a solid center, and Stacy Andrews should finally reach his potential after his move to right guard.
Prediction: This team does not have many weaknesses. I see them going 4-2 in the division, and 11-5 overall. Tentative division favorite.
Washington Redskins–Despite making the biggest free agent acquisition this offseason, Washington is overlooked by most people. It shouldn't be. The Redskins had the talent to go to the playoffs last year, but Clinton Portis wore down, and the team fell apart down the stretch.
Nevertheless, the Redskins return a solid team. The defense will keep them in most games, led by a solid secondary. It's sad to say, but one can only imagine how scary this defense would be if it still had the late Sean Taylor.
Though DeAngelo Hall gets more attention from the press, Carlos Rogers is the best cornerback on the Redskins. A former first-round pick, Rogers has improved every year, and has become an elite cover corner.
On the other side, DeAngelo Hall displays playmaking ability, but also gives up a lot of big plays. LaRon Landry has been solid, and Chris Horton should improve once again this year.
The front seven of the Redskins is deep and talented, led, of course, by the mammoth Albert Haynesworth.
Haynesworth is a force stuffing the run as well as rushing the passer, and his impact will be felt all over the rest of the defense.
Defensive end Andre Carter, Reynaldo Wynn, and Phillip Daniels will be that much more effective rushing the passer, and converted rookie linebacker Brian Orakpo should also see plenty of opportunities to shine.
London Fletcher anchors the middle of the defense, and he has been a solid veteran. At age 34, he shows no signs of slowing down.
On offense, much-maligned quarterback Jason Campbell will return as the starter. Despite the criticism he has received, Campbell has played solid when he has a running attack.
Remember, he was only drafted in 2005. Those who defend Tony Romo by claiming that he has only started three seasons should remember that the same defense applies to Jason Campbell.
Part of the reason Campbell has struggled is his lack of targets in the receiving game. That should not be the case this season.
Santana Moss is an explosive deep threat. On the other side, either Devin Thomas or Malcolm Kelly (both 2008 second-round draft choices) needs to step up and become a viable threat.
Chris Cooley is a top-10 NFL tight end, and will continue to take advantage of the attention given to Moss, but if another receiver does not step up, this offense will continue to be decent, but not great.
Clinton Portis returns, but he has battled injuries consistently, and his age is starting to show. However, when healthy, he is a top-five NFL running back, and will be able to wear down defenses.
Washington's offensive line is their only issue. Chris Samuels is getting old, and Washington did not address the right tackle position in the draft. It is for this reason that I think they will struggle to run the ball consistently in this division.
Prediction: 3-3 in the NFC East, and 9-7 overall.
Any one of these teams could win the division, and that's why I have the first place and last place teams separated by just two games.
Furthermore, I believe each of these teams will have a record that does not truly indicate their talent level relative to the rest of the NFL because of their brutal schedules (10 games each against the NFC South and East, two of the toughest divisions in football)
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