Wednesday, September 2, 2009

NFC East Preview

There hasn't been a repeat winner in the NFC East since 2004, and I mention that as a warning to the New York Giants. As reigning champions, they're vulnerable to a sneak attack by someone down below -- with Philadelphia the most likely choice.
If the Giants have a problem, it's a No. 1 receiver -- they don't have one. Not yet, at least. But that doesn't make them unique.

Every club here has a hole. With Philadelphia it's the offensive line; with Washington, it's the offensive line; with Dallas, it's the month of December and a head coach and quarterback who haven't won a playoff game.
I guess that's another way of saying anything can happen here, but when it does expect the Giants and Eagles to be the last ones standing. They look like the two strongest and deepest clubs. They also look like dead-bolt cinches for the playoffs.

New York Giants
Significant additions: WR Hakeem Nicks, WR Ramses Barden, DE Chris Canty, LB Michael Boley, DT Rocky Bernard, S C.C. Brown.
Significant losses: WR Plaxico Burress, WR Amani Toomer, RB Derrick Ward, S James Butler, CB Sam Madison, PK John Carney.
Biggest offseason move: Cutting their losses with Burress. He was their top receiver and most dangerous red-zone threat but became a problem -- and a distraction -- with his off-the-field behavior. So the Giants did the right thing and cut him, leaving themselves vulnerable at wide receiver. Big deal. They're better off in the long run.
Will go to the playoffs if ... They can figure out how to fill the holes left by Burress and Toomer. Together, they had 81 catches, including eight for touchdowns, last year. Holdovers Steve Smith, Domenik Hixon, Sinorice Moss and Mario Manningham combined for five TDs; figure on Smith and Hixon as the starters for now.
Rookie to watch: Nicks. He was their first-round draft pick and is the logical choice to replace Burress some day as the go-to receiver. But injuries reduced his time in training camp, with Nicks struggling to catch up. The good news: He's getting there. The best news: He had two TD catches last weekend.

Predicted Order of Finish
1. Giants
2008 standings: 12-4

Pts Scored: 427
Pts Allowed: 294
Off. Yds/G: 355.9
Def. Yds/G: 292.0
2. Eagles
2008 standings: 9-6-1

Pts Scored: 416
Pts Allowed: 289
Off. Yds/G: 350.5
Def. Yds/G: 274.3
3. Redskins
2008 standings: 8-8

Pts Scored: 265
Pts Allowed: 296
Off. Yds/G: 320.0
Def. Yds/G: 288.8
4. Cowboys
2008 standings: 9-7

Pts Scored: 362
Pts Allowed: 365
Off. Yds/G: 344.5
Def. Yds/G: 294.3
Overview: The Giants still are the team to beat in the division. They are loaded on defense, particularly up front, and seem set in all but one spot on offense. That, of course, would be wide receiver. There are a lot of candidates, but all look more like second and third receivers at this point. If and when the Giants get that figured out, look out.

Philadelphia Eagles
Significant additions: QB Michael Vick, T Jason Peters, G Stacy Andrews, S Sean Jones, FB Leonard Weaver, WR Jeremy Maclin, RB LeSean McCoy, CB Ellis Hobbs.
Significant losses: S Brian Dawkins, T Jon Runyan, T Tra Thomas, S Sean Considine, CB Lito Sheppard, TE L.J. Smith, RB Correll Buckhalter.
Biggest offseason move: Acquiring Vick. The guy has a world of talent, but he has been out of football 2½ years and might not be eligible to play for a month. This is a dangerous game the Eagles are playing, with Vick a potential distraction and threat to Donovan McNabb.
Will go to the playoffs if ... The offensive line holds up. You tell me how many starts the Eagles get out of Shawn Andrews. Subtract him, and you have Winston Justice at right tackle. The last time I saw him start he looked more like a turnstile than a tackle. Granted, he's better now, but he's a risk.
Rookie to watch: Running back LeSean McCoy took over for Brian Westbrook this summer and was marvelous. He was everything the club envisioned when it made him its second pick, and what it envisioned was someone who could do just about everything Westbrook could. Now he's the perfect complement to Westbrook, a relief pitcher who might help keep the veteran in the lineup 16 games.
Overview: Sorry, Joe Banner, but this isn't the most talented roster in the NFL. It is, however, deep in almost all the right places. The loss of defensive coordinator Jim Johnson is huge, with Sean McDermott in the unenviable position of succeeding him. The loss of Dawkins, the leader on and off the field, is big, too. But the Eagles have weapons galore, and isn't that what McNabb said he needed to get to the Super Bowl? One problem: While quick and fast, these weapons are small.

Washington Redskins
Significant additions: DT Albert Haynesworth, LB Brian Orakpo, DL Jeremy Jarmon, G Derrick Dockery, P Hunter Smith, T Mike Williams.
Significant subtractions: G Pete Kendall, CB Shawn Springs, T Jon Jansen, DE Jason Taylor, LB Marcus Washington, DE Demetric Evans.
Biggest offseason move: Shelling out the big bucks for Haynesworth. He was the year's top unrestricted free agent, and the Redskins should be a lot better against the run -- and the pass -- with him bottling up the middle. If there's a concern, it's this: His two best years were contract drives; now that he has the money, what happens?
Will go to the playoffs if ... They can get their offense and Jason Campbell to put together two good halves in one season. The Redskins were 6-2 at the break a year ago, but injuries to the offensive line and Clinton Portis doomed them for the stretch run. That can't happen again, or Campbell and his head coach are out.
Rookie to watch: Orakpo. He was almost unblockable when I stopped by to watch the team practice. He can rush the passer. He can defend the run. He can drop into coverage. For the moment, he looks like someone who will be difficult to solve and who should be on the short list for 2009 Defensive Rookie of the Year.
Overview: Washington helped itself defensively with the drafts of Orakpo and Jarmon and the acquisition of Haynesworth. Now it must produce more offense than it did the second half of last season. The problem: The Redskins play in the NFL's toughest division with its fourth-best quarterback. Time for Jason Campbell to make a name for himself.

Dallas Cowboys
Significant additions: QB Jon Kitna, LB Keith Brooking, S Gerald Sensabaugh, DE Igor Olshansky.
Significant losses: WR Terrell Owens, CB Pacman Jones, DE Chris Canty, LB Zach Thomas, CB Anthony Henry, DT Tank Johnson, QB Brad Johnson, S Roy Williams, LB Kevin Burnett, S Keith Davis.
Biggest offseason move: Letting Owens walk. He led the team in touchdown receptions. He led it in receiving yards. He was second in catches. But when controversy swirled near the end of the season, guess who was in the middle? Enough is enough. Hasta la vista, baby.
Will go to the playoffs if ... They figure out how to win in December. The Cowboys are about as good in the clutch as Alex Rodriguez, with a 5-10 record in December and January the past three years and a 44-6 humiliation in Philadelphia in last year's season finale. Brutal.
Rookie to watch: WR Kevin Ogletree. He's an undrafted rookie out of the University of Virginia, and he has done a good job as a kickoff returner and wide receiver -- with productive games the past two weeks. Look for him to lock down the fifth wide receiver position. The problem the Cowboys have with their high-profile rookies is injuries, with Jason Williams out 4-6 weeks with a high ankle sprain and Robert Brewster on IR.
Overview: There's talent here, but there's also an aging offensive line and a thin group of receivers. If the Cowboys stick to the run, they could be OK. If they try to make Tony Romo and the passing attack their star performers you can kiss the season goodbye.

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