2010 NFL Preview: NFC East Predictions

MINNEAPOLIS - JANUARY 17: Tony Romo #9 of the Dallas Cowboys yells to call a play during the second quarter of the game against the Minnesota Vikings during the NFC Divisional Playoff Game at Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome on January 17, 2010 in Minneapolis, Minnesota. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)

2010 NFL Division Previews & Predictions: AFC East | AFC North | AFC South | AFC West | NFC East | NFC North | NFC South | NFC West | 2010 Question Marks Series

Much like its counterpart in the AFC, the NFC East is extremely difficult to predict this year. Three of the top four teams are legitimate playoff contenders and the Redskins have improved after going 4-12 last season.

It’s going to be a battle in this division this year, much like it is every season.

Here’s how I see things shaking out in the NFC East in 2010. Be sure to check out the link entitled “2010 Question Mark” under each team’s preview, which is a breakdown of one or two potential weaknesses that could derail that squad’s hopes this season.

1. Cowboys

What to Like: The ‘Boys already had quite the offensive core in Tony Romo, Miles Austin, Marion Barber, Jason Witten and Felix Jones. But then they had Dez Bryant fall to them in the first round last April, which gives the offense yet another playmaker that defenses have to deal with every Sunday. After finishing sixth last year in total offense and 14th in scoring, I don’t see any reason why Dallas shouldn’t light up the scoreboard again this season. Defensively, DeMarcus Ware returns as a pass-rushing terror from his outside linebacker position and the unit is littered with underrated players like Jay Ratliff and Igor Olshansky.
What Not to Like: The biggest two question marks surround the free safety and left tackle positions. Alan Ball is an intriguing prospect, but he’s only a rookie and no matter how well he plays, he’s going to make some mistakes. At left tackle, the ‘Boys dumped long-time veteran Flozell Adams and replaced him with the inexperienced Doug Free, who played well on the right side last year but he has never been counted on to protect a quarterback’s blindside. The good thing is that if Free struggles, the team added Alex Barron this offseason as insurance. The other concern when it comes to the Cowboys is that they have a habit of fading down the stretch, with last year being the exception. I put that on coaching more than anything and with Wade Phillips (good coach, but he doesn’t come without his criticisms) still roaming the sidelines in Dallas, that means a late-season free fall isn’t out of the question.
Keep Your Eye On: Dez Bryant, WR
The Cowboys’ first round pick has already turned heads this offseason (both for his play on the field and his decision not to carry Roy Williams’ shoulder pads after practice) and if he can recover from an ankle injury that has sidelined him for the preseason, he’s going to have opportunities to make plays out of the team’s three receiver set.
The Final Word: This is the most talented team in the division and they’re pretty deep at most positions. The problem is that the Cowboys usually get in their own way down the stretch and late season collapses are nothing new to this franchise. That said, they got the playoff monkey off their back last year by advancing to the second round and as long as Phillips can keep this squad motivated, the ‘Boys should win the East for the second straight year. Their offense will be tough to stop and their defense will put pressure on the quarterback. The talent is there, now let’s see if the execution follows.

Dallas Cowboys 2010 Question Mark: Free Safety

2. Eagles

PHILADELPHIA - SEPTEMBER 27:  Kevin Kolb #4 of the Philadelphia Eagles looks to pass against the Kansas City Chiefs on September 27, 2009 at Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.  (Photo by Chris McGrath/Getty Images)

What to Like: Obviously the biggest question surrounding this team is whether or not Kevin Kolb can replace Donovan McNabb at quarterback. In the limited snaps he took last year, Kolb proved that he could run Andy Reid’s offense, so let’s see if he can do it on a weekly basis now. One thing’s for sure, he has plenty of playmakers at his disposal in the offense thanks to running back LeSean McCoy, receivers DeSean Jackson and Jeremy Maclin, as well as tight end Brent Celek. Jason Peters and Winston Justice return to make the tackle position one of the team’s strengths. Defensively, Philly is absolutely stacked on the defensive line. Trent Cole gets more attention for his pass-rushing ability but he’s equally as good, if not better, against the run. Brodrick Bunkley is also well adept at shutting down the run and has emerged as the Eagles’ best interior lineman. Throw in Victor Abiamiri (when healthy) and rookie Brandon Graham and this unit is chockfull of playmakers. In the back seven, Asante Samuel and Quintin Mikell are studs, rookie Nate Allen has loads of potential and I love the addition of Ernie Sims (trade/Lions), as long as he can stay healthy. Don’t forget that MLB Stewart Bradley returns from an ACL injury that wiped out his entire 2009 season.
What Not to Like: The depth in the secondary is a concern and although there has been nothing but rave reviews about Allen thus far, he’s still a rookie and has yet to be tested. The bigger issue is at cornerback, where Ellis Hobbs will step in for Sheldon Brown across from Samuel. Hobbs finished last season on injured reserve after suffering a serious neck injury and hasn’t exactly set the world on fire with his play dating back to his days in New England. If he were to go down with another injury, Joselio Hansen, Macho Harris or Dimitri Patterson would be thrust into a starting role despite none of them proving that they could be full-time players.
Keep Your Eye On: Nate Allen
Talk about a future playmaker. Allen is going to make his fair share of mistakes as a first-year starter, but Philly fans will probably have visions of Brian Dawkins dancing through their heads this season while watching the rook. His potential is limitless and there’s little question that he’s going to be a ballhawk for the Eagles’ defense this season.
The Final Word: This is by far a boom or bust team. There’s plenty of reason to believe that the Eagles will finish third behind the Cowboys and Giants in the division, but I love their talent on both sides of the ball and you know they’re going to be aggressive defensively. They also have a favorable schedule, even though they made the playoffs last season. They only play five playoff teams from 2009, compared to the seven that the Giants will face. I put their chances of making the playoffs just above 50%, but I think Philly surprises doubters this year and finishes second in the East. Of course, I’m banking on the fact that Kolb can run the offense and won’t be a complete disaster in his first year as a starter.

Philadelphia Eagles 2010 Question Mark: Secondary Depth

3. Giants

EAST RUTHERFORD, NJ - DECEMBER 13:  Brandon Jacobs #27 of the New York Giants runs the ball against the Philadelphia Eagles at Giants Stadium on December 13, 2009 in East Rutherford, New Jersey.  (Photo by Nick Laham/Getty Images)

What to Like: This won’t be the same defense that finished 30th last year in points allowed per game (26.7). Gone is defensive coordinator Bill Sheridan and his highly ineffective schemes and in is Perry Fewell, who brings an attacking style of play to the Big Apple. Under Fewell, the Giants should get back to using their strength on defense, which is getting after the quarterback. This team has no shortage of pass-rushers in Justin Tuck, Mathias Kiwanuka, Osi Umenyiora, Michael Boley, Clint Sintim and rookie Jason Pierre-Paul, and Fewell will find ways to use them all. Offensively, the Giants averaged 366 yards per game through the air last year, but they’d like to remain balanced with running backs Brandon Jacobs and Ahmad Bradshaw. After compiling a 93.1 QB rating last season, Eli Manning returns again as the rock of the offense and he’ll have plenty of help in the passing game thanks to receivers Steve Smith, Mario Manningham and Hakeem Nicks, as well as underrated tight end Kevin Boss.
What Not to Like: There’s no other way to put it: the defense has to be better this year – dramatically better. This team gave up 427 points last season, including 41 or more in three of their last four games. They allowed the most points in franchise history since 1967 and even though this is only Fewell’s first year in New York, he’s excepted to produce right away. The biggest question I have is whether or not Jonathan Goff can play the “Mike” linebacker in Fewell’s scheme. This isn’t to say that Goff isn’t a good player because he is. He can be a force against the run but he struggles in coverage, which is something he’ll be asked to do in Fewell’s defense. Can he turn and run with a back or tight end in coverage? We’ll find out soon because opponents are going to test him. The Giants also have some injury concerns at the moment, most notably at strong safety with Kenny Phillips and outside linebacker with Keith Bulluck. As of right now, it sounds like both of them are healthy, but we’ll see what happens once they start going full force in regular season games. The Giants could really use a healthy Phillips (a rising star) for a full season.
Keep Your Eye On: Osi Umenyiora
I list Umenyiora here because he’s an interesting study right now more than anything. Three years ago he was one of the major keys to the Giants beating the Patriots in the Super Bowl. Then an injury wiped out his entire 2008 season and last year he struggled mightily getting back onto the field and publicly voiced his displeasure with Sheridan’s defense (not that anyone blamed him). For a short period of time during the offseason, it looked like the Giants might trade him but he’s back and now the question is whether or not he can be the player he was in 2007.
The Final Word: Look, I get it. There are less questions about the Giants than there are about the Eagles, so I don’t blame NY fans for being upset that I have their beloved “Big Blue” finishing third in the division. But this team has a rough road ahead of it and they have plenty of questions themselves. Can Fewell fix the defense? Can Umenyiora and Jacobs (3.7 YPC average last season) bounce back? Is Goff the right fight for Fewell’s scheme? This team has got to get back to forcing turnovers again too, which is something it struggled with last year. The G-Men play seven playoff teams from 2009 and seeing as how they play in the toughest division in football, I don’t see them making the playoffs this year. There seems to be something missing, even if the defense dramatically improves from a year ago.

New York Giants 2010 Question Mark: Middle Linebacker

4. Redskins

LANDOVER, MD - AUGUST 21: Head coach Mike Shanahan of the Washington Redskins watches the preseason game against the Baltimore Ravens at FedExField on August 21, 2010 in Landover, Maryland. (Photo by Greg Fiume/Getty Images)

What to Like: It’s not a matter of “if,” it’s “when” Mike Shanahan will whip this team into shape. While it wasn’t entirely his fault, Jim Zorn was a disaster as a head coach and in Shanahan, the Redskins get back a sense of stability and control. While I’ve always felt that Jason Campbell kind of got a bad rap in Washington, there’s no doubt that even at this point in his career, Donovan McNabb has better skill sets. He’s also better handling pressure than Campbell, and will look to get the ball out of his hands quickly if he feels a rush. The addition of massive left tackle Trent Williams via the first round of the draft was a huge boost for the O-line, as was the acquisition of former Saint Jammal Brown. Defensively, this team can really bring it off the edge thanks to second-year player Brian Orakpo and steady veteran Andre Carter. If Albert Haynesworth ever gets his head out of his ass, this defense will be pretty good at every level. The secondary features a couple of playmakers in strong safety LaRon Landry and DeAngelo Hall, even though the latter believes he’s much better than he really is.
What Not to Like: There’s major concern that Shanahan’s zone-blocking scheme isn’t a fit for the current players the Skins employ on the offensive line. Williams has a ton of potential, but he’s only a rookie and has limited experience on the left side. Brown is a massive upgrade over Stephon Heyer, but he’s more of a pass blocker than a mauler in the run game. The same goes for left guard Derrick Dockery. If the new pieces on the O-line take a while to gel, that could spell trouble for McNabb, Clinton Portis and the rest of the offense. Speaking of Portis, he played in only eight games last year because of injury and unless Larry Johnson and Willie Parker find the fountain of youth, there isn’t a whole lot of talent behind him. McNabb won’t have a No.1 receiver at his disposal either, although he’s used to that coming from Philadelphia.
Keep Your Eye On: Albert Haynesworth
Haynesworth’s relationship with Shanahan will continue to be a story to follow well into the regular season. Once you think the two have reached common ground, Haynesworth does or says something to tear it all down. There’s no doubt he makes the Skins’ defense better when he’s healthy and motivated, but if he’s worried more about everything outside of just the game of football, then he’ll be useless. Not to mention, we still don’t know if he’s a good fit for the 3-4. (Even he thinks he isn’t, which is one of the main reasons he threw a major temper-tantrum this offseason.)
The Final Word: There are some pundits that think the Skins are going to magically transform from a 4-12 team to a playoff contender overnight because of Shanahan and McNabb. But the fact of the matter is that the O-line is still a major question mark and the defense is switching to a 3-4. Quite frankly, I don’t think this team has enough playmakers on offense or overall depth to contend all season. They may play well early on, but I’m willing to bet the Skins fade over the course of the year and then settle into last place in the East again. That said, this is an improved and improving squad from top to bottom.

Washington Redskins 2010 Question Marks: Offensive Line, Running Back, Receiver

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