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A Summer Preview Of The NFC East

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A look at how the NFC East shapes up as training camp gets underway in the NFL.

As training camp opens up in 2010, the NFC East landscape seems to have shifted with the past offseason on the surface. The Eagles shipped their franchise quarterback in Donovan McNabb within the division to the Washington Redskins while the Giants and Cowboys remained relatively quiet throughout free agency. Here’s a team by team preview of the NFC East in July*.

*- Noting that we’re in July and I’m likely to eat each and every one of these words before Week One even hits thanks to training camp injuries.

Dallas Cowboys (11-5 in 2009)

The Cowboys this year look poised to, at the very least, repeat as NFC East champs. They’ve put the finishing touches on a relatively quiet offseason which saw absolutely no controversy unlike years past (See: Terrell Owens). In fact, the Cowboys biggest free agent moves were actually subtractions. Flozell Adams and Ken Hamlin are no longer with the team, which could be seen as addition by subtraction. Miles Austin and Marcus Spears are among the notable players that the Cowboys did in fact re-sign, and it appears now with all draft selections signed the Cowboys will look to lock up Miles Austin long-term.

Dallas’ biggest splash this offseason came of course in the draft. The Cowboys managed to trade with the New England Patriots (who made approximately 345 draft day trades) and selected wide receiver Dez Bryant with the 24th pick in the draft. Dallas also selected linebacker Sean Lee in the second round as well as safety Akwasi Owusu-Ansah, Sam Young, Jamar Wall and Shawn Lissmore. Amazingly, all draft picks have been signed already and will have a full training camp. Needless to say, this bodes well for the progression of the rookies especially Dez Bryant who looks to earn the No. 1 wide receiver post.

Dallas should be able to build on their success from last year. Despite the poor taste left in Cowboys’ fans mouths last year, 2009 should still be considered a relative success. Not only did Dallas win the division, they effectively ended the Donovan McNabb era in Philadelphia in the process with a Wild Card round thrashing of the Eagles. The addition of Dez Bryant should give Tony Romo another legitimate weapon to go to along with Jason Witten and Austin Miles. Marion Barber has slimmed down this offseason too and is reportedly quicker and more agile than he was last year - when a hamstring injury in particular slowed his mobility. An increased burst out of The Barbarian should bode well for the Cowboys offense and also increase Felix Jones’ effectiveness given he won’t have to carry such a workload should Barber remain effective. The only loss that Dallas had over the offseason was on the offensive line with the departure of Flozell Adams. That is likely addition by subtraction as Adams had committed twelve penalties last year while allowing eight sacks. Still, the offensive line looks like it’s the Achilles heel for the Cowboys offense.

Dallas’ defense will be anchored by DeMarcus Ware once again. Mike Jenkins should continue to progress next year, solidifying the secondary. Alan Ball will look to replace Ken Hamlin as free safety. Jerry Jones’ decision to keep Marcus Spears rather than trade him seems like a good stance to take. Even if Spears eventually loses his starting job, defensive line depth is something that is typically vital for a team’s success over the duration of a season. The linebacker crops with Ware, James, Spencer, Brooking and second rounder Sean Lee look to be strength once again for the Cowboys. Should Spencer continue his progression from last year, the strong and weak side linebacker tandem of Spencer and Ware could be the best among 3-4 defenses in the league.

After last year’s kicking carousel, David Buehler has the job headed into camp. It’s his to lose, but, I can’t imagine Wade Phillips and Jerry Jones have much tolerance for another kicking disaster, so if he struggles I’d anticipate a change of kickers relatively quickly. A great team should be able to succeed despite its kicking game, but do not underestimate the power of a kicking game to drag a team down and prevent it from greatness (See: Mike Vanderjagt’s Colts) or help catapult them to success (See: Adam Vinatieri and the New England Patriots).

Dallas looks poised to repeat as division champions on paper. However, a tough schedule could make things a bit tricky. At least for Dallas, the entire NFC East has to face the AFC South, but the Cowboys also have to face division winners from last year and travel to Green Bay and play host to the defending Super Bowl Champion New Orleans Saints on Thanksgiving. Regardless, the Cowboys are easily capable of going 12-4. Their schedule will make it tough to do so.

Prediction: 10-6, NFC East Champions

Philadelphia Eagles (11-5 in 2009)

For the first time since the Rodney Peete, Koy Detmer and Bobby Hoying era, the Eagles will go into the season with a quarterback atop the depth chart not named Donovan McNabb. Kevin Kolb has been handed the keys to the kingdom, earning praise from the Eagles coaching and personnel staff. While Kolb has dazzled in his brief performances for an injured or ineffective McNabb, the move leaves Philadelphia weak in terms of depth at quarterback. Michael Vick is almost all bells and whistles at this point in his career, and should Kolb suffer an injury, things might not always be sunny in Philadelphia.

Further highlighting the Eagles changes, Brian Westbrook will not be an Eagle in 2010. Nor will long time Eagles cornerback Sheldon Brown, who has signed with the Browns. Philadelphia was aggressive much like the Cowboys in the draft, trading up with the Denver Broncos in order to draft defensive lineman Brandon Graham.

While the Eagles offense will look drastically different, it should remain effective. Kolb in his limited time has proven he’s no slouch. He’ll be surrounded with pretty good options in the backfield with LeSean McCoy and Mike Bell. Jeremy Maclin and DeSean Jackson look to be the starting wide receiver duo. Jackson has proved he is one of the most dangerous threats in the NFL and should only progress, much like Maclin. While many are skeptical of the Eagles moving McNabb, they clearly believe in Kolb and now is the best time to let him play and develop a rapport with the young core of players around him.

Philadelphia will need to see an improvement in their defense if they are going to make the playoffs again in 2010. The Eagles gave up 337 points last year - the second most of any NFC playoff team - and more points than the 4-12 Washington Redskins. The Eagles traded up to acquire Brandon Graham and will be looking for him to make an impact on the defensive line. Trent Cole will look to improve upon his 12.5 sack year of last year and anchor the defense. Philadelphia also looked to help their defense via trade, trading for linebackers Alex Hall and Ernie Sims. Philadelphia’s first five picks in the draft were used on defense as well: Graham in the first, Nate Allen (safety), Daniel Te’o-Neshiem (defensive end), Trevard Lindley (corner) and Keenan Clayton (linebacker) were all selected before an offensive player in April’s draft. It’s apparent that the Eagles looked at defense as their focal point in the offseason and have seemingly addressed it. It might take at least a year to see the desired results, however, since it’s no guarantee that rookies and new additions coming off down years (Sims) gel immediately as a defensive unit.

David Akers will be returning as the familiar face for the Eagles kicker. He’s enjoyed a progression in field goal percentage since his down year in 2007, so he’s a pretty safe bet as kicker. DeSean Jackson, of course, is one of the most dangerous return men in the league, giving the Eagles a pretty good special teams unit.

It’s really tough to get a good read on how the Eagles will play out. Their schedule is no picnic, with dates against the Packers, Falcons, Titans, Colts and Vikings in addition to NFC East play. Still, the Eagles look to be boasting an explosive, young offense that will hinge on the arm of Kevin Kolb. If he falters, this team will be a 5-6 win team. If he thrives, the Eagles will make the playoffs.

Prediction: 9-7, Wild Card berth.

New York Giants (8-8 in 2009)

The 2009 Giants were without a doubt disappointing. After a 5-0 start to the season, the Giants proceeded to go 3-8 in their remaining eleven games to finish the season 8-8. The Giants also suffered two embarrassing losses to end the season - losing in their final home game at old Giants Stadium 41-9 to the Panthers before headed to Minnesota for a near repeat performance, losing 44-7. Despite last year’s fade, not much was done in the offseason to improve the Giants.

New York’s core will not look much different. Antonio Pierce has been released and Domenik Hixon has already torn his ACL and is out for the season. Aaron Rouse and the immortal backup quarterback David Carr are among the notable Giants who have been released during this offseason. Through free agency, the Giants haven’t added much. They signed Antrel Rolle to a five year contract to help solidify their secondary. Jim Sorgi was signed as a free agent, replacing Carr and replacing backing up Peyton with Eli Manning this year.

In the draft, the Giants focused almost solely on defense. Jason Pierre-Paul, a defensive end from South Florida, was selected in the first round, fueling rampant speculation that the Giants would trade Osi Umenyiora after vocalizing his displeasure with how he was utilized as the season progressed last year. The Giants held onto Osi and now he’s already hurt - with a doctor telling him his pain in his hip won’t subside without surgery. The Giants went onto draft four other defensive players: Linval Joseph (defensive tackle), Chad Jones (safety), Phillip Dilliard (linebacker) and Adrian Tracy (linebacker). Unfortunately for the Giants and especially Chad Jones, it looks like his career is likely over before it ever began as he fractured his tibia and fibula in an automobile accident in June.

The Giants failed to address their need for an explosive weapon on offense throughout this offseason. Losing Hixon won’t help, but his loss will be felt more on special teams. The Giants will surround Eli Manning with Hackeem Nicks, the lesser Steve Smith, Mario Manningham and Kevin Boss with Brandon Jacobs and Ahmad Bradshaw in the backfield. While it’s very likely the Giants young wide outs will progress, they still lack a real playmaker on offense. Rumors circulated about the Giants trading for either Anquan Boldin or Brandon Marshall, but the ship passed on both. New York will need their running game to be extremely efficient if they are to score enough points to keep up with Dallas and Philadelphia.

Defensively, the Giants will look a bit different. Rolle will be in the secondary and Pierce is gone. The defensive line, if healthy, should be pretty good if not excellent with Tuck, Pierre-Paul, Kiwanuka, Cofield, Alford, Canty and if healthy, Umenyiora in the mix. Newly signed Keith Bulluck is amazingly expected to start - so far- at middle linebacker. I’m skeptical at how long that will last since I don’t believe Bulluck has much left in the tank, but his job should be easier with an excellent front line ahead of him. The secondary with Webster, Phillips, Rolle and Thomas slated to start should progress with Phillips and Thomas gaining more experience last year. Having Rolle as a stabilizing piece will help the secondary gel together.

Lawrence Tynes comes back as the Giants kicker. I don’t think he’s awesome, but he is pretty good - and having a pretty good kicker in the NFL is, well, pretty good. Losing Hixon hurts the return game significantly.

Much like the other teams in the NFC East, the Giants do not have an easy schedule this fall and winter. New York will have to travel to Indianapolis and Minnesota this year - two domes that are not easy to play in, with pretty excellent teams occupying them too. The Giants also have to travel to Green Bay and end their season with three of four games on the road - at Minnesota in Week 14 before travelling to Green Bay and Washington D.C. in weeks 16 and 17. New York will have to rely heavily on their defense if they’re to make a deep playoff push, similar to the Cinderella run they made a few years back that I’d frankly like to forget ever happened. Still, I just don’t see enough talent this year on offense, but if their wide receivers progress more than I expect them to, then the Giants could very well sneak into the playoffs. As things stand in July, I simply don’t see it.

Prediction: 7-9

Washington Redskins (4-12 in 2009)

The Redskins have been at the center of the NFL story lines this past offseason. Hiring Mike Shanahan as head coach was a big splash but trading for Donovan McNabb was an even bigger splash. The fact that the Eagles had the gall to trade McNabb within the division is telling. As bad as the Redskins were last year, it instantly makes them significantly better both on offense and in the clubhouse.

Washington has had one of the busiest off-season’s easily - something that should be expected with a regime change, especially when Mike Shanahan is taking over. Jason Campbell was dealt, McNabb brought in and the Redskins also parted ways with Fred Smoot, Randy Thomas and Antwaan Randel El. The Redskins were busy in free agency bringing players in (big shock with Snyder as owner, right?) bringing in a bevy of older players. Larry Johnson and Willie Parker both signed on with the Redskins, as did Mike Furrey, Joey Galloway, Vonnie Holliday and Phillip Buchanan. It will be interesting to see if the Redskins can get anything out of Johnson and Parker, but I wouldn’t count on it as they’ll both be second and third fiddle to Clinton Portis.

Washington also managed to bleed itself dry of draft choices - selecting just twice in the first five rounds with Trent Williams at fourth overall and Perry Riley in the fourth round, a linebacker from LSU.

Offensively, the Redskins will look much, much different. Shanahan is not Jim Zorn. McNabb is not Jason Campbell. The Redskins should have a much improved offense by default. Santana Moss and Devin Thomas are slated to be the starting wide outs, with Chris Cooley at tight end. While it’s great to have McNabb, Campbell was sacked 43 times last year - third in the league. Whether that’s a reflection on Campbell or the offensive line is up for debate but the line clearly did Campbell no favors. They will have to improve if McNabb is to succeed. First round pick Trent Williams will look to solidify the line. Newly acquired Jamaal Brown is also slated to be starting opposite Williams at right tackle - making two new faces on the offensive line.

On defense, the Redskins weren’t awful last year. As aforementioned, they allowed fewer points than the Eagles did. If Albert Haynesworth actually feels like playing this year, the defense could be even better. Linebacker Brian Orakpo, a 2009 first round pick, should progress and improve upon an eleven sack season from a year ago. The defensive line is pretty unimpressive, especially if Haynesworth is disgruntled. Phillip Daniels and Kedric Golston are slated for starting positions as of today to go along with Haynesworth. D’Angelo Hall, LaRon Landry, Carlos Rogers and Reed Doughty look to comprise the secondary. This entire defensive unit likely hinges upon Haynesworth who can be an absolute force when he cares and a complete void and waste of space when he doesn’t.

Washington will be going into the season with a relative unknown at kicker, hanging onto Graham Gano who is four for four in his young career in field goal attempts. Suisham was a problem for the Redskins last year in the kicking game and it won’t shock me to see another kicking carousel in the nation’s capitol this season.

The Redskins have the easiest schedule in the division, which is obviously by design since they finished last. Still, they have to face the AFC South during interconference play which will be no easy task for the Redskins, nor will the NFC North. Washington will get cupcakes in St. Louis and Tampa Bay that the other three teams in the division aren’t afforded, but it will make little difference in the standings. Washington will definitely be a better team than they were in 2009, but it’s tough to be worse than 4-12. If everything goes right and a perfect storm hits D.C. with McNabb and Shanahan, there is reason for some hope that the Redskins could be a wild card playoff team. I just don’t see it.

Prediction: 6-10

As always, the NFC East will be one of the most entertaining and competitive divisions in the NFL with each team essentially hating every other team in the division. Very few divisions are rivals from top to bottom which is part of the allure of the NFC East. This year should be a bit closer from top to bottom given the schedules and improvements from the Redskins, but I’m expecting this season to play out exactly like last year in the standings. The Eagles will surprise teams and the Cowboys should win the division. The Giants are capable of making the playoffs as well, but, as I said earlier, I simply don’t see everything coming together in Gotham this season.

That is, however, why they play the games - should be a fun season to watch not only the NFC East but the entire league unfold and see who is playing in the Super Bowl hosted in Dallas.

Photographs by jamesbrandon, jdtornow, phlezk, flygraphix, mcdlttx, tomasland, and literalbarrage used in background montage under Creative Commons. Thank you.