Tuesday, March 13, 2012

NFL Off-Season Preview: NFC East Addition

And so here we are. The last of my off-season previews. For are last stop, we take a look at the division of the Super Bowl Champion New York Giants.The Giants played the best football in the last month of the regular season and rode that momentum to a great post-season and eventually a Super Bowl win. The Giants have a couple key free agents this off-season, but they should be geared up for another run. The Philadelphia Eagles were billed the "Dream Team" heading into the season, but they struggled early on and couldn't come back late. The Dallas Cowboys? They had high hopes coming into the year, but two losses to the Giants in December kept them from making the Playoffs. And the Washington Redskins just traded away three 1st round Draft Picks for one player. This division usually gets the most talk from the national media because of the big time players in it, and they usually don't disappoint when it comes to making buzz.

New York Giants
2011 Record: 9-7

I sang the praise of the Giants for the last month of the season. Other than that stinker at home against Washington, they played very well. I didn't think, however, that the Giants would carry that momentum all the way to the Super Bowl. I thought the Packers would get the better of them. I thought the Giants could score an upset, but I didn't think it would happen. But the Giants shut down the Packers offense, got some good breaks against San Francisco, and scored late again against the Patriots to win the Super Bowl. Eli Manning in the process cemented his claim as an elite quarterback in the NFL. The Giants defense is what stepped up towards the end of the season. Once the pass rush was finally healthy, they were difficult to stop. Jason Pierre-Paul grew into one of the best pass rushers in the league. If the core group of the Giants can stay together, then there is no reason to think a repeat isn't possible.

Biggest Question: Can the Giants Repeat?
Segue! Eli Manning showed that he truly is the man to lead the Giants for the future. The pass rush is great as long as it stays healthy. But can this team repeat? Well, if they are, they are going to have to improve a few things. Among them is their 32nd ranked running attack during the regular season. The team released Brandon Jacobs, but they will need to find a quality back up somewhere because Ahmad Bradshaw can't stay healthy. The healthy Giants pass rush helped cover up some of the flaws in the Giants secondary that need to be worked on, and they could also use a linebacker or two. Plus, the NFC will still be very strong next year with the Packers and Saints, as well as an improved Lions and 49ers team. The NFC is anybody's game this season, and if the Giants want to repeat they can't have any lulls mid-season like they can be prone to at times. The Giants are still my pick to win the division, but they will be challenged to win the Super Bowl again.

Top 3 Free Agents
1. Mario Manningham: Wide Receiver
Manningham struggled with a knee injury all last year, but once healthy he was a major part of the Giants offense, including three touchdown receptions in the post-season. But with Victor Cruz and Hakeem Nicks, and the money Manninggam will command, he will probably leave.

2. Terrell Thomas: Cornerback
Had Thomas not suffered a torn ACL, he would have been a great help to the Giants secondary woes. He should be healthy in time for the season. RE-SIGNED TUESDAY 3/13

3. Chase Blackburn: Linebacker
Blackburn filled in quite well at inside linebacker for the Giants last year and made a big interception in the Super Bowl. I don't know if he can be the long term answer, but he is good depth at least.

Top 3 Needs
1. Offensive Line
Left Guard was a problem for the Giants last year, as well as injuries to both tackles. The Giants need improvements if they want to keep Eli Manning healthy.

2. Tight End
Jake Ballard was emerging as a target before suffering a knee injury in the Super Bowl. The Giants are already rumored to be interested in Dallas Clark.

3. Safety
Antrel Rolle was the weakest link in the Giants secondary. Somehow the Giants need to replace him.

The Giants are still the best team in this division. They have the best defense when healthy and have the best quarterback in the division. The Giants problem is that they can go through lulls where they lose to bad teams like they did to Washington last year. Everyone in the NFC will be out to beat the Giants next year, with revenge on the minds of the Packers and 49ers particularly. If the Giants can get a better run game going, they can win the NFC again. But with there being so much parity in the NFL nowadays, you have to think it is almost impossible for the Giants to repeat.

 Philadelphia Eagles
2011 Record: 8-8

Ah, the "Dream Team." That is the title this team inherited coming into the season. Unfortunately for the Eagles, they weren't able to live up to those lofty expectations. They started the season with a Week One victory over the Rams, but lost four straight after that. The team was never able to get on the same page, and they finished with an 8-8 record. The problem the Eagles had is that they were a bunch of individuals that couldn't come together as a team. Mike Vick also missed a few games. That has become the norm for Vick's career. WR DeSean Jackson also had problems with coach Andy Reid. And the defense, while ranking in the Top 10, wasn't as great as they were advertised. The secondary struggled early on. The Eagles have the talent to be a Playoff team, but it is all about them coming together as a unit.

Biggest Question: Is This Any Reid's Last Season?
Andy Reid stayed on as Eagles coach this year. Even though the team had lofty expectations and didn't live up to them, Reid was retained. But Reid faced heavy criticism last year. How could he not have a team with so much talent playing better? Why did he make the team's offensive line coach the defensive coordinator? Reid's play calling has also come into question this year. The Eagles played slightly better towards the end of the year, and the Eagles will have to carry over that momentum into the season. If the Eagles get off to another slow start, then Reid may find himself out of a job quickly. Reid isn't a bad coach, but the Eagles are expecting great things with the team they have now and a bad season again could spell bad news for Andy Reid.

Top 3 Free Agents
1. DeSean Jackson: Wide Receiver
Jackson was franchised by the Eagles, but I still wouldn't expect him in an Eagles jersey next year. He is too much of a distraction and still has lingering problems with Andy Reid. I expect the Eagles to trade him before the start of the season.

2. Evan Mathis: Guard
Mathis did not give up a single sack at his position last year. Mathis is one of the better interior lineman in the league and should re retained.

3. Derek Landri: Defensive Tackle
Landri stepped up last year and played very well coming off the bench. He can stuff the run and clog up the middle of the field.

Top 3 Needs
1. Linebacker
If you watched any Eagles games last year, you know that their linebackers were a huge joke. They couldn't tackle or cover anyone in coverage. The Eagles need at least two new starters at this position.

2. Wide Receiver
Assuming the Eagles trade DeSean Jackson, they will need to add a number two WR. Jeremy Maclin can't handle the load but himself, and Riley Cooper isn't a #2 WR.

3. Cornerback
This was suppose to be the strong point of the team. But Asante Samuel probably won't be back, and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie doesn't give his all at all times.

The Eagles have the talent to be one of the better teams in the league. The problem is, they play for themselves rather as a team. If the Eagles talent can come together as a unit this year, then there is no reason they can't be a 10 win team this year. If Mike Vick can stay healthy all year, then the Eagles could compete for the division title. The Eagles need a couple improvements on defense, but the talent is there for this team to compete for a Playoff spot this year.

Dallas Cowboys
2011 Record: 8-8

Similar to the Eagles, the Cowboys had a good team last year and multiple opportunities to take control of the NFC East. But then they just do things that baffle your mind. Tony Romo played terrible in Week 1 against the Jets. Then they blew a huge lead against the Detroit Lions. They lost to the Eagles twice, and had the opportunity to take control of the division twice with wins against the Giants, but they lost both meetings. They also iced their own kicker in their loss to Arizona. The Cowboys finished the year losing four of their last five and missed out on the Playoffs again. The Cowboys may actually have more talent then the Eagles, but unlike the Eagles, they usually do something stupid to shoot themselves in the foot rather then let their egos get in the way. Tony Romo will come under fire at some point this year like he always does, and Jerry Jones will stick his nose where it doesn't belong.

Biggest Question: How Much Longer Does Tony Romo Have?
There is no denying that Tony Romo is a good quarterback. But his Playoff record, or lack there of, is what his critics bring up the most. Since taking over as starter in 2006, Romo's Playoff record is 1-3, and he has also missed the Playoffs three times, including the last two years. Romo's leadership has come into question at times as well. Is Romo really the leader that can take the Cowboys to the Playoffs? There were whispers that the Cowboys may make a play for Peyton Manning, but the team publicly backed Tony Romo. But ho much longer does Romo have left as Cowboys starter? Romo has had numerous opportunities to get his team into the Playoffs but hasn't. And the NFC East isn't getting any easier. And who knows, by the time this year is over, Romo could be the 4th best quarterback in the division. If the Cowboys don't make the Playoffs this year, they could start looking for Romo's replacement.

1. Laurent Robinson: Wide Receiver
Robinson stepped up huge last year when Miles Austin went down with an injury. He may not be a #1 WR, but he could be a good #2 somewhere. The Cowboys probably won't pay him the money he wants.

2. Tony Fiammetta: Fullback
Fiammetta was a huge part of the Cowboys running attack being successful last year. He did a good job opening up running lanes.

3. Anthony Spencer: Linebacker
Spencer has a ton of potential going forward, he just has to release all of it. He is much better then the six sacks he had last year. His franchise tag will probably keep him in Dallas.

Top 3 Needs
1. Cornerback
Part of the reason the Cowboys faltered late is because they couldn't stop any kind of deep pass. Their cornerbacks were constantly beat in one-on-one coverage. Major upgrades are needed.

2. Interior Offensive Line
Phil Costa is a terrible center, and the guards aren't the best either. If the team wants to keep Romo healthy, they will improve here.

3. Linebacker
If Anthony Spencer doesn't like the franchise tag, or they can't re-sign Bradie James, the Cowboys will need to get a few new starters.

The Cowboys will be under a ton of pressure to perform from their fans and front office this season. Again, just like the Eagles, if the team doesn't get off to a good start, there could be a shake-up or two on the coaching staff or team. The Cowboys have the talent, but they play in a very tough division where a couple mental lapses could cost them valuable wins. Until the Cowboys go through a season without a mental lapse or two, I don't know if they will get to the Playoffs.

Washington Redskins
2011 Record: 5-11

And then there is the Washington Redskins. They are like the red-headed step child of this division. They are usually the team willing to throw around the most money, but they never make the right moves doing it. Washington started the year 3-1, and Rex Grossman even said the team would win the NFC East. But the team went on to lose 10 of its last 12 games, played quarterback musical chairs, and struggled offensively in the process. Mike Shanahan and Company knew that they didn't have the right quarterback on their roster, so they went out and traded the farm to get the Rams #2 pick. They swapped first round picks this year, gave up a 2nd round pick this year, and their first round pick the next two years to get the #2 pick this year. That is a lot to mortgage on one guy. But then, the Redskins found out Monday that they will lose $36 million in cap space, divided however they want over the next two years, because they front loaded contracts in last year's uncapped year when they were told multiple times not too. What does that mean? Probably that the Redskins will be looking up from the division cellar for the next two years.

Biggest Question: Is Robert Griffin Worth It?
People will be asking this question all off-season. A team hasn't given up that much to Draft a player since the New Orleans Saints gave up their entire 1999 Draft to trade up for Ricky Williams. Griffin is definitely a top prospect. Some scouts have him ranked higher than Andrew Luck. Griffin has great play making ability. He can move out of the pocket with his legs and still make an accurate throw 30 yards down field. Griffin is the kind of guy you can build an offense around. But all of that doesn't translate to the NFL immediately. Not everyone is Cam Newton or Michael Vick. Griffin has some of the similar tools that those guys have, but it is all about how mentally prepared these guys are coming into the NFL. And who their surrounding cast is. The Redskins will be hard pressed to get big time free agents the next two years because of the cap mess they've created for themselves. Griffin will definitely be fun to watch, but I have a feeling he will struggle his first season with very limited weapons surrounding him. Long term, I don't know if he will be worth 3 first round picks. 

Top 3 Free Agents
1. London Fletcher: Linebacker
Fletcher is 37 years old but he is still a tackling machine and one guy that is pretty much universally liked by everyone in the league. He's the team leader on defense and should be retained.

2. Laron Landry: Safety
If Landry could ever stay healthy he could turn into a good safety. But he hasn't played a full season in the last two years.

3. Rocky McIntosh: Linebacker
McIntosh was not a good fit in the Redskins 3-4 scheme. He won't be back.

Top 3 Needs
1. Quarterback
This will obviously be answered on Draft Day, unless Robert Griffin pulls an Eli Manning.

2. Wide Receiver
The problem Griffin will have in his first year is that he will have no one to throw to. Santana Moss isn't a number one guy, and none of the young Redskins WR have proven anything. They were expected to make a play for Vincent Jackson before the salary cap sanctions.

3. Safety
Laron Landry is a free agent and O.J. Atogwe was cut. With a weak safety class, an upgrade will be tough to find.

With the recent salary cap sanctions, expect the Redskins to struggle again this year. I think they would have even if they didn't face these sanctions. Not every QB can be like Cam Newton in their first year. While Griffin may still be good, he could also struggle. There is too much talent on every other team in this division for the Redskins to compete with. I would expect a 4th place finish again.

Well, there you have it folks. Free Agency starts today at 4. I will probably write something this weekend discussing all of the big time signings.

Until Next Time
Justin C
Follow Me On Twitter @JCWonka

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