NFC East preview: Cowboys look like best of beasts

by | CBSSports.com Senior Writer
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Training camp tour | Bleacher Report: NFC East predictions

The NFC East not only is the deepest division in the NFL; it's the best. Yeah, I know, you can make cases for the AFC East and North, too, but each has a bottom feeder that can't compete for the top spot.

I don't see a doormat here.

That doesn't mean Washington challenges Dallas, but it does mean you can make a case for the Redskins, especially with the additions of coach Mike Shanahan, quarterback Donovan McNabb and defensive coordinator Jim Haslett.

I'm just not here to make it.

Instead, I'll push the defending-champion Dallas Cowboys as the team to beat. Normally, I'd have Philadelphia on their heels, but it's the Giants who should push the Cowboys this fall, followed by Philadelphia and Washington. You can make a case for the Giants going to the top, and I tried ... but their linebackers scare me. I'm not sold that they've solved their problems there, and I'm wary of Philadelphia with Kevin Kolb as the starter.

That's not because I don't like him. I do. In fact, the Eagles have a future star in Kolb. But he's raw, with only two pro starts, and there will be growing pains this year, which means the Eagles might have trouble making the playoffs.

Anyway, this is how I see this division falling:

Dallas Cowboys

Significant offseason additions: T Alex Barron.

Key offseason losses: T Flozell Adams, C Duke Preston, K Shaun Suisham, S Ken Hamlin, LB Bobby Carpenter

Biggest offseason move: Dumping Adams, the perennial starter at left tackle, and turning the position over to Doug Free. The Cowboys have faith in Free, and they should. He played well on the right side a year ago. But now he switches to Tony Romo's blind side, and he better be prepared. Romo is the franchise, and you saw what happened to the Cowboys the last time he bowed out.

Will go to the playoffs if ... They figure out how to play well down the stretch. A year ago, they did -– winning their last three starts after losing their first two in December. Typically, the Cowboys stink in December, but somehow, some way, they corrected themselves in 2009, and look what happened: They not only won the division; they won their first playoff game since 1996.

Rookie to watch: Wide receiver Dez Bryant. He was the most talented receiver in the draft, yet the Cowboys found him at the 24th spot. The reason: While he has a ton of ability, he also has all the makings of a T.O.-sized diva. If he stays injury free and concentrates on football he becomes an immediate impact player.

Overview: The Cowboys won the division a year ago for a reason: They're the most talented team in the NFC East and one of the most talented teams, period. If there's anything that can slow this club down it's that late-season swoon that is as much a part of the Cowboys as glitz and glamour. Oh, yeah, I'm worried about questionable coaching decisions, too, and I'm not talking solely about Wade Phillips; I'm talking about the entire staff. It needs to improve as much as its players.

New York Giants

Significant offseason additions: S Antrel Rolle, LB Keith Bulluck, S Deon Grant, G Shawn Andrews.

Predicted Order of Finish
1 Cowboys2009: 11-5 (1st NFC East)
Dallas Cowboys Pts. Scored: 361 (14th overall)
Pts. Allowed: 250 (2nd overall)
Off. Yds/G: 399.4 (2nd overall)
Def. Yds/G: 315.9 (9th overall)
2 Giants2009: 8-8 (3rd NFC East)
New York Giants Pts. Scored: 402 (8th overall)
Pts. Allowed: 427 (30th overall)
Off. Yds/G: 366.0 (8th overall)
Def. Yds/G: 324.9 (13th overall)
3 Eagles2009: 11-5 (2nd NFC East)
Philadelphia Eagles Pts. Scored: 429 (5th overall)
Pts. Allowed: 337 (19th overall)
Off. Yds/G: 357.9 (11th overall)
Def. Yds/G: 321.1 (12th overall)
4 Redskins2009: 4-12 (4th NFC East)
Washington Redskins Pts. Scored: 266 (26th overall)
Pts. Allowed: 336 (18th overall)
Off. Yds/G: 312.5 (22nd overall)
Def. Yds/G: 319.7 (10th overall)

Key offseason losses: LB Antonio Pierce, LB Danny Clark, P Jeff Feagles, QB David Carr, DT Fred Robbins, S C.C. Brown.

Biggest offseason move: Firing former defensive coordinator Bill Sheridan and replacing him with Perry Fewell. Fewell coached a Buffalo defense that had 28 interceptions and 33 takeaways, both departments where the Giants came up short. But the Giants were down in sacks, too, and that's where this team must improve most. Having a healthy Justin Tuck and a rejuvenated Osi Umenyiora should improve a pass rush that went from 42 sacks in 2008 to 32. If they can pressure the pocket as they have in the past, the Giants will force quarterbacks into mistakes.

Will go to the playoffs if ... They fill holes in a defense that hemorrhaged 427 points, including 41 or more in three of their last four games. The Giants weren't just bad defensively; they stunk, allowing the most points in franchise history since 1967. Fewell was hired to fix the defense, and he doesn't have much time. In fact, give him a year, with coach Tom Coughlin on notice that another 8-8 finish won't cut it.

Rookie to watch: Defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul. He's a boom-or-bust acquisition, only the Giants don't buy half of that equation. They think they have a keeper, a raw talent who could blossom into an impact player as a situational pass rusher. If they're right, the heat just went up on opposing quarterbacks.

Overview: The Giants are only as good as their defense, and a year ago their defense was dreadful. Result: New York lost eight of its last 11 and five times was hammered for 40 or more points. If the Giants can shore up their back seven ... if they can create a pass rush ... if they can prevent the gash plays ... heck, if they can just dictate with a defense that used to dominate opponents ... they challenge Dallas at the top of the division.

Philadelphia Eagles

Significant offseason additions: LB Ernie Sims, DE Darryl Tapp, RB Mike Bell, DE Alex Hall, WR Hank Baskett.

Key offseason losses: QB Donovan McNabb, RB Brian Westbrook, S Sean Jones, WR Kevin Curtis, G Shawn Andrews, LB Chris Gocong, CB Sheldon Brown, LB Will Witherspoon, DE Chris Clemons, DE Darren Howard, LB Joe Mays, WR Reggie Brown.

Biggest offseason move: Trading McNabb to Washington. Say this about coach Andy Reid: He has no conscience. He doesn't care if he has to face McNabb twice a season. He was more interested in the best deal he could make for the quarterback, and Washington was the team that stepped forward. Now, he hands the ball to a young quarterback with a ton of upside, and maybe there's a short-term hiccup with Kevin Kolb and maybe there's not. All I know is that Reid believes the move will benefit the Eagles in the end.

Could go to the playoffs if ... Kolb is an overnight sensation. That's not easy for a virtual rookie at the game's toughest and most important position, but he threw for over 300 yards in each of his two starts last season and won one of them. Kolb has a strong arm, is accurate and is confident. What he is not is experienced, and that may hold the Eagles back this season. I focus on him because his development is critical to the development of the team's defense, too. If the Eagles aren't better on defense than they were a year ago when Dallas buried them three times, they don't contend. If Kolb can make the plays and the offense can extend drives, their defense benefits. Simple as that.

Rookie to watch: Safety Nate Allen. The Eagles struggled to find a suitable replacement last season after letting Brian Dawkins walk, so they decided to resume auditions and start all over again. Which is where Nate Allen comes in. The second-round draft pick has been so good this summer that he jumped almost immediately into the starting rotation on a defense that must improve for the Eagles to contend. Allen has more range than his predecessors, and that's a start for a club that three times was burned by Tony Romo and the Cowboys.

Overview: This is one of the most intriguing teams out there because after eight playoffs and five conference championship games they had the guts to cut loose the quarterback who took them there. Now, I'm not sure what to make of them, other than it's never wise to underestimate Reid. He admires Kolb and believes he's a better fit for what the Eagles do with their passing game than McNabb ... and maybe he's right. But one problem: McNabb had over 10 years of starting in this offense; Kolb has two games. So expect mistakes borne from inexperience, which means expect more losses than last season.

Washington Redskins

Significant offseason additions: QB Donovan McNabb, T Jammal Brown, OL Artis Hicks, DE Vonnie Holliday, CB Phillip Buchanon, DE Adam Carriker, DT Ma'ake Kemoeatu, RB Larry Johnson, RB Willie Parker, QB Rex Grossman, QB John Beck, RB Ryan Torain, P Josh Bidwell.

Key offseason losses: QB Todd Collins, RB Rock Cartwright, T Chris Samuels, QB Jason Campbell. WR Antwaan Randle El, G Randy Thomas, CB Fred Smoot, P Hunter Smith, NT Anthony Montgomery.

Biggest offseason move: Next to the hiring of coach Mike Shanahan, it was the acquisition of McNabb. For years the Redskins tried to win with Jason Campbell as their quarterback, and for years they failed. So Shanahan decided a change was necessary, adding a quarterback who went to the conference championship game five times in eight seasons. Is this Shanahan with John Elway and the Denver Broncos all over again? Not quite. I don't see Terrell Davis in the picture.

Could go to the playoffs if ... McNabb plays lights out, and Washington wins the close calls it dropped a year ago. Look, the Redskins will be better at the most important position, which means they should score more. So I figure they turn about half of those losses in 2009 into wins, which puts them at .500.

Rookie to watch: Left tackle Trent Williams. The Redskins thought so much of him they chose him over Russell Okung, regarded by many as the top tackle in the draft. Williams protects McNabb's blind side, which means he holds the keys to the store. It's difficult to make it big in your first season as an offensive lineman, but Joe Thomas did it, Jonathan Ogden did it and Orlando Pace did it. The Redskins can only hope that Williams follows those leaders.

Overview: It's hard to make a case for these guys going farther than third in the NFC East, not because they're not any good but because the rest of the division is that much better. I'm concerned about the number of guys 30 and older. Typically, they fade as the season wears on, and that's what I think happens here. Shanahan makes a difference with the offense, with the Redskins finding points where there were none a year ago, but if Joe Gibbs couldn't push them over the top how can he? Washington is a coach's graveyard, and it will take the best of Shanahan, his staff and his players just to make it past .500.

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