NFL football isn’t going to miss a beat in 2011. That feels great to say. After months and months of talking about class action lawsuits and revenue sharing models, we’re finally back to the only business of football we all really care about—the business that takes place on the field and on our TV screens every Sunday in the fall.
Because the lockout shortened the free-agency period and the preseason as a whole, this year more than ever there’s a deluge of information for football fans to digest in a short period of time. Every team in the league has changed some portion of their roster that will directly affect the way the team looks and plays this year. Keeping up with all the changes is tough in most years; this year it’s the hardest it's ever been.
That’s why in the coming weeks I’ll be giving you all the knowledge you’ll need to enjoy the upcoming NFL season—or to finally win a football argument with that know-it-all guy in the office who always gets the last word when you’re at the printer. Either way, you’re welcome.
I’ll dole out it all out division by division, giving you about two divisions each week as we make our way through the preseason.
Today, I bring you the NFC East, always an interesting division with great historical rivalries and franchises. This year the division has ramped things up a notch with high-profile player acquisitions and high-profile trash-talking. The NFC East will once again be competitive and fun to watch.
Before we begin our pigskin journey, let’s get one thing out in the open: I don’t make specific predictions. I won’t tell you how many wins the Cowboys are going to get or who is going to lead the league in rushing yards. If I knew that with any certainty, I would be on a plane to Vegas and the next time your heard of me would be as the star of some new bizarre urban legend that could only happen to a guy who just won a boatload of money in Sin City, not sharing all this knowledge with you.
What I can do is attempt to compare the teams to each other, especially to the other teams that they’ll be competing against for division titles and playoff spots. I’ll tell you who got better from last year and who got worse. I’ll give you a good idea of what to expect from every NFL team in 2011.
I break each team down by the offensive and defensive sides of the ball. I’ll let you know the best new players on the team, the players the team lost that will hurt them the most this year, as well as who will be the key player on both offense and defense for all 32 teams.
The key player isn’t necessarily the best player on that side of the ball, but more importantly, they’re the player that the team’s success hinges on the most. If the key player has a better than expected season, so will the team. And if they have a subpar year, so will the team.
2010: 10-6, NFC East champions
Better or Worse in 2011: Better—this was a solid team last year and should be a top Super Bowl contender in 2011
The Dream Team moniker that has been liberally given to the 2011 Philadelphia Eagles may be a little premature, but this team certainly has all the parts in place to make a serious run at the Lombardi Trophy this season.
The offense is likely to be explosive once again, and if the improvements that have been made to the defensive roster pay dividends on the field, the Eagles are going to be a tough team to play.
Important Acquisitions: Ronnie Brown, Vince Young
Toughest Player Losses: Kevin Kolb
Key Player: Michael Vick
The “If” Factor: Three "ifs"
2010 Offensive Ranking: Ninth in passing, fifth in rushing
Anytime your offense is coming off a season where they finished in the top 10 of the league in both passing and rushing and your biggest loss is a backup quarterback, you have to feel pretty good about your chances in 2011. That is, until you remember that your quarterback is realistically capable of performing as either the best player in the league or losing the starting job to the constantly underperforming Vince Young.
And that doesn’t even take into account that Vick has had a hard time staying healthy throughout his career.
Vick’s injury history makes the Vince Young signing all the more important. Young is like Vick Light—you never quite know what your going to get out of him from game to game and his accuracy throwing from the pocket has always been his Achilles heel. The major difference between the two is that Vick has the potential to be a truly great quarterback, while Young is a decent starter in the NFL at best.
Still, his skill set and talent level are better than most teams have at their disposal in their backup quarterback. If need be, Young has proven that he has what it takes to win games. We just need to see if he wants to be a starter again or if he’s satisfied being a backup for the rest of his career. It’s a good bet that he’ll get the chance to let us know before this season comes to an end.
Not to be outdone in the unreliable category, budding superstar wide receiver DeSean Jackson is another question mark for the Eagles offense going into 2011. If he stays healthy and focused on football instead of his contract situation, he has the ability to be a game-changer at wide receiver.
The Eagles are once again going to be a dynamic offense. If Vick can put up a year that is even close to how good he was in 2010, Jackson can stay focused and the tandem of LeSean McCoy and Ronnie Brown provide quality yards on the ground, the Philly offense will be one of the best around. I know, that’s a lot of ifs.
Important Acquisitions: Nnamdi Asomugha, Cullen Jenkins, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, Jason Babin
Toughest Player Losses: Quintin Mikell, Broderick Bunkley, Omar Gaither, Ernie Sims
Key Player: Asante Samuel
The “If” Factor: One "if"
2010 Defensive Ranking: 15th in passing, 15th in rushing
The Eagles have focused their offseason acquisitions mostly on the defense, and have managed to improve on an already solid group. Cullen Jenkins is a quality defensive lineman who will help stuff the run. Jason Babin is an outside pass-rusher who will help get to the quarterback, especially on those crucial 3rd-and-long downs.
Most notable was the surprise free-agent signing of all-world cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha. One of the best coverage players in football—if not the best—Asomugha is a true game-changer and can single-handedly transform the Eagles defense from average to dominating this season. That is, if he can assimilate to a new defense and a new team.
So far we’ve only seen him in Oakland; we’ve yet to see that he can perform at a high level when the games actually matter. We don’t know if he has that winner’s DNA, or if he is only good when he’s playing meaningless games.
He certainly has the talent to get the job done under the bright lights, but we have yet to see if he will. I can’t wait to see him lined up man-to-man against Dez Bryant in Cowboy Stadium Week 16, a game that should have serious playoff ramifications.
Asomugha isn’t the only talented corner in Philly. They also traded for a talented young player in Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie as well as still having veteran Asante Samuel on the roster. In today’s NFL, you can’t have enough good defensive backs, so keeping all three on the roster is the right move, but whether or not Samuel still has enough left in the tank to play at a Pro Bowl level will determine the ultimate fate of this defense.
Samuel is a corner who likes to play in zone coverages and can be a pass-intercepting machine, but he comes into the 2011 campaign at 30 years old. He’s getting to be the age when a defensive back loses a step or two, and that can be the difference between making that pick and getting burned. The thought of Asumugha locking down the opponent's best receiver and Samuel being able to roam free about the field jumping routes has NFL offensive coordinators waking up with night sweats.
The question is whether or not Samuel can still be a difference-maker; if he can, then the Eagles will have a great defense in 2011.
2010: 6-10, tied for last place in the NFC East
Better or Worse in 2011: Better, pretty much by default
Once again, the key word for the Dallas Cowboys this season will be “pressure." Expectations are always high for America’s Team, but after several years of underachieving, many are beginning to wonder if this particular group has what it takes to win a title.
Tony Romo returns to the field healthy this year, and if he can’t get the Cowboys to the postseason in 2011, the starting job might not be waiting for him next year—and he won’t be the only one.
Important Acquisitions: None
Toughest Player Losses: Marion Barber, Roy Williams, Leonard Davis, Marc Columbo
Key Player: Dez Bryant
The “If” Factor: Off the charts
2010 Offensive Ranking: Sixth in passing, 16th in rushing
The Dallas Cowboys once again come into the season with one of the best offensive units in the league, on paper that is. Too bad last year showed just how different the actual results on the field could be. Instead of getting all the Super Bowl hype they got last preseason, America’s Team is heading into 2011 with more questions than ever.
The pressure is on this year for perennial underachievers like Tony Romo and Jason Witten to step up their games when they count the most: late in the year and (hopefully for Dallas fans) deep into the playoffs.
The player I’ll be watching the most will be second year-player Dez Bryant. Bryant showed flashes of sheer brilliance during his rookie year and all eyes will be on him when the Cowboys take the field this season. His off-the-field antics have been well reported, but what will matter the most is whether or not he can stay focused on Sundays and be the consistent superstar that he has the potential to be.
If Bryant can continue to improve, the sky is the limit for not only himself, but the entire Dallas Cowboys team.
Important Acquisitions: None
Toughest Player Losses: None
Key Player: Terrence Newman
The “If” Factor: Unfortunately pretty low. This defense is pretty consistent. Consistently bad that is.
2010 Defensive Ranking: 26th in passing, 12th in rushing
As good as the Dallas offense can be, the defense has the potential to be equally as bad. The Cowboys struggled because they simply didn’t have the talent across the board to get the job done.
Enter their new defensive coordinator and controversy-creating machine, Rob Ryan. A disciple of his father, legendary defensive mastermind Buddy Ryan, Rob will bring a more aggressive version of the 3-4 to the Cowboys. I expect to see him use multiple fronts and blitz packages to not only take advantage of their best player, outside pass-rushing specialist DeMarcus Ware, but most importantly to hide the lack of talent in the defensive backfield.
One of the offseason priorities for the Cowboys was to upgrade their cornerbacks and safeties, but after losing out on the Nnamdi sweepstakes, it looks like they’re going to have to get the job done with smoke and mirrors, and lots of pressure on opposing quarterbacks.
If Ryan’s defensive packages force enough bad throws, the Dallas defense should be good enough to keep their talented offense in position to win most weeks.
2010: 6-10, tied for last place in the NFC East
Better or Worse in 2011: Worse, like maybe historically worse
This was a quiet offseason for the Washington Redskins, who are usually good for at least one overpaid free agent every year. It’s going to be a tough year in Washington; the Redskins are going to be in contention for the worst record in the league this season.
At least that means they could end up with the first overall pick in next year's draft, which will land them a man considered to be one of the best quarterbacks to enter the league since Peyton Manning over a decade ago, Andrew Luck.
Something Redskins fans will be reminding themselves of plenty of times this fall.
Important Acquisitions: Ummm Tim Hightower? Not really sure that counts as important but it’s kind of all I got here
Toughest Player Losses: Donovan McNabb (Stop laughing, he’s still better than Rex Grossman or John Beck)
Key Player: Chris Cooley—nothing helps out bad quarterbacks like a good tight end.
The “If” Factor: Only one—too bad it’s “if they can score double digits in any game this year”
2010 Offensive Ranking: Eight in passing, 30th in rushing
The NFL is a league built around winning with a good quarterback, and the Redskins have two options that would disappoint most fans if they were their team’s backups. That makes it even more scary that the team is going to have to start either John Beck or Rex Grossman.
Most likely the job will go to Beck, pretty much by default. We’ve witnessed enough of Rex Grossman in the NFL that we know what he can do, which isn’t very much. If they hand the eins to Beck there’s at least a small chance that he has another gear in his back pocket that we haven’t seen yet. Not likely, but hey, it’s not like it’s really going to make a difference—both of these guys are just to keep the seat warm for Andrew Luck.
The running game may be the only saving grace for the 'Skins offense this season. Mike Shanahan is back to his old tricks, stockpiling mediocre running backs. If history is any indication he’ll be able to get decent results from them, but neither newly acquired Tim Hightower or Ryan Torain will have the type of blocking that Shanahan’s old backs in Denver had.
Important Acquisitions: Ryan Kerrigan (R)
Toughest Player Losses: Nothing of note
Key Player: LaRon Landry
The “If” Factor: Again, not very high, just because there isn’t much upside here
2010 Defensive Ranking: 31st in passing, 26th in rushing
Not a lot of change from the defense that the Redskins put on the field in 2010. While continuity from year to year is usually a good thing, when you finished below .500 the year before and your roster isn’t exactly on the young side, staying put may not be a good thing.
Ryan Kerrigan has the potential to be a really good draft pick. He was a productive player at Purdue, and his skill set will fit right into the Redskins' system.
To add injury to insult, the only reliable difference-maker on the Washington defense, safety LaRon Landry (note I don't include cornerback DeAngelo Hall here; he's good but not reliable), has been held out of preseason practices due to an apparent Achilles injury. The extent of the injury is unknown; best-case scenario is that the team is just be overly cautious with a player who already knows the system and won’t be affected too much from missing time in August, but will be a big loss if he isn’t able to play in September.
The bottom line is that things are going to be rough in the nation's capital this fall, and not just on Capitol Hill but in FedEx Field as well.
2010: 10-6, Second place in the NFC East
Better or Worse in 2011: Worse, but not by a lot
The Giants are in danger of falling into the most dangerous of all NFL categories: consistently mediocre. They’re a good team in a tough division. They have a good quarterback but not a great one. They have the talent to win some games, but after catching fire during the 2007 playoffs, they’ve fallen back to the rest of the pack.
2011 will be the year that we figure out if they have the ability to recapture that 2007 magic or if this core group of players has seen its best days already.
Important Acquisitions: Not really an acquisition, but re-signing Ahmad Bradshaw was important
Toughest Player Losses: Kevin Boss, Shaun O’Hara, Rich Seubert
Key Player: Hakeem Nicks
The “If” Factor: Two "ifs"
2010 Offensive Ranking: 10th in passing, sixth in rushing
The Giants have been successful the past few years by playing an old-fashioned form of football offense. They had a reliable running game and a quarterback who minimized the amount of mistakes that he made.
All of this relied heavily on the play of the offensive line. This season New York is going to need to replace two starters from last year, Shaun O’Hara and Rich Seubert. Good offensive linemen tend to settle in quickly to new roles; the question is whether or not the Giants have the talent in their big boys to get the job done.
Tom Coughlin and the coaching staff have three rookie offensive linemen in camp this summer, and they are hoping that at least one of them can step up and earn a starting job. One player with the potential to be that guy is Indiana University product James Brewer. Brewer has the size at 6’6” and 323 lbs, but was constantly injured during his college career. If he can stay healthy, Brewer could be a real sleeper this season for the Giants.
One bright spot for the New York offense has been the emergence of wide receiver Hakeem Nicks. Nicks has proven himself a more than capable NFL pass-catcher, and has the potential to enter the ranks of the very best. If he continues his ascension and becomes the type of receiver that defenses need to focus their attention on, his play will open up the field for the running game.
The Giants offense will once again be based on running the ball and a conservative passing game, but if Hakeem Nicks can take the next step in his career, then they may be able to get more aggressive in 2011.
Important Acquisitions: Prince Amukamara (R), Rocky Bernard, Mark Herzlich (R)
Toughest Player Losses: Not much here, all the major parts come back in 2011
Key Player: Justin Tuck
The “If” Factor: Two "ifs," but two really big ones
2010 Defensive Ranking: Ninth in passing, eighth in rushing
The Giants have built their defense on a talented, aggressive group of defensive linemen who can get after opposing quarterbacks. This pressure has been so important because their secondary play has been lacking in recent years.
New York attempted to address the lack of talent in the defensive backfield in this year's draft by selecting Nebraska cornerback Prince Amukamara in the first round. Amukamara looked poised to be ready to step right into the Giants lineup and be a difference-maker, and to take some of the responsibility of holding the opponent's passing game away from those defensive linemen.
Too bad he broke his foot in practice already this preseason, and it’s starting to look like his contributions in 2011 will be very limited.
With the injury to Amukamara, and the lack of any upgrades at the linebacker positions, the Giants defense will once again be based on those defensive linemen. Justin Tuck had a really good 2010, with 76 tackles and 11.5 sacks, and is the best player of the group. New York made a good investment in re-signing Mathias Kiwanuka, a defensive end/outside linebacker hybrid who has a knack for getting after the quarterback.
A big "if" for this squad will be whether they can get anything from Osi Umenyiora. His contract situation is messy, but if management can get him happy and back on the field, he adds yet another dangerous weapon on the defensive line.
The Giants will continue to have a solid defense, and will rely on stopping the run and pressuring the quarterback on passing downs with their front four, leaving their linebackers and defensive backs free to clog up the passing lanes.