The one constant in the NFC East over recent history has been change at the top. Perennially one of the NFL’s toughest division titles to win, the Cowboys, Eagles, and last year’s Super Bowl champ Giants have each twice worn the crown over the past six years–with none able to repeat the feat since Philadelphia’s run at the top ended in 2005.
All three look to again be poised to contend, and even the Redskins, who haven’t won the title since 1999, have reason for excitement with the arrival of rookie QB Robert Griffin III. Can a breakout player or a standout rookie be the determining factor? Our analysts check in with their picks.
Who is the one player from this division you see having a breakout year?
Sam: It’s definitely the obvious choice, but it’s also the right one in this case, and I’ve got to go with Sean Lissemore. He’s capable of dominating the line of scrimmage from multiple positions and is one of those guys who just disrupts plays on a regular basis, causing a real headache for the offense. I would expect most of us to go with him.
Khaled: It should really come as no surprise to anyone that knows me that I’m going for Sean Lissemore here. He’s an impact player wherever you line him up along the defensive line, capable of making plays in the run and pass game. It would surprise me if, barring injury, he hasn’t made his way from rotational player to starter by season’s end.
Neil: After a shaky start last year, left tackle Trent Williams was just pulling it all together and starting to look worthy of his draft status when injury cut him down. In the last seven games he played, he only allowed three hits and four hurries, which is a remarkably low number. While I expect Williams will be able to pick up where he left off, he may not get the credit he’ll deserve because the rest of the line may have RGIII running for his life. For some reason in the NFL, playing well in isolation hardly ever gets noticed; except by us of course!
Ben: In Dallas, he was an exceptional foil to Jason Witten and one of the best blocking tight ends in the entire NFL. In New York, I think Martellus Bennett should emerge as a quality all-around tight end as he gets the chance to pick up the catches that weren’t sent his way in the Lone Star State. Only three teams were worse than the Giants at rushing off end last season–Bennett’s addition should improve their fortunes in that area (without considering the addition of rookie David Wilson in the backfield). And, with plenty of talent at wide receiver, he should get some favorable looks in the passing game.
The over/under lines for season win totals in the division have been set at: Dallas 8.5; New York 9.5; Philadelphia 10; Washington 6.5. On which team would you put your theoretical $100?
Sam: I think the Eagles are going to be a better team in 2012 than they were in 2011. They were starting to get it together by the end of the season and finally looking like the contenders people thought they would be this time last year. The problem is that the loss of Jason Peters is huge, and I’m not buying a 10-win division favorite until they prove it to me
Khaled: I feel bad for the Redskins because I don’t know, even with Robert Griffin III if they did enough in free agency to catch up on as tough a division as there is. My gut says no and that a six-win season with the franchise firmly behind RGIII represents progress. I’ll take the under on them.
Neil: Dallas will be better than 8.5 wins. The injuries at the skill positions scare me slightly, but the defense seems to be coming to terms with Rob Ryan’s scheme and Tony Romo looked terrific when I saw him in preseason.
Ben: They’re not the dream team–no team has deserved that title since 1992 and no other team ever will–but the Philadelphia Eagles are extremely talented and they’ve had a year to gel, so I’m going to take them to go over 10 wins. There are areas on this team that are relatively thin, but the strengths, such as the sheer ferocity of the defensive line, make me feel comfortable that they’ll at least hit that 10-win mark. I seem to say this every day now, I’m not overly confident on this bet, but I’m going to go with it as the best I can find in this division.
Which rookie are you most looking forward to seeing in action?
Sam: It’s an obvious one, but I can’t wait to see Morris Claiborne in action for a full season. I haven’t seen much from him in college, but what I did see showed me a player with ball skills and a natural ability for man-coverage that could make him special at the NFL level.
Khaled: Is it mischievous to say Nick Foles when Michael Vick picks up his inevitable injury?
Neil: I know he’s injured, but if the Giants can get Jayron Hosley on the field I think he’ll make a very good, feisty slot corner. He stood out in training camp practice I saw and reviews from inside the team are positive. If this happened it would have the added bonus of moving Antrel Rolle away from the slot; an area in which he’s generally struggled.
Ben: The Eagles already had a crowded depth chart at defensive end before April when they added another top draft pick to the shuffle in the shape of Vinny Curry. Personally, I’m fascinated to see exactly what sort of a player Curry is going to be for the Eagles. I’m also excited to see what the Eagles saw in him that they felt he could contribute quickly (as you surely expect second-round picks to do) and earn playing time with so many fine edge defenders already on their roster.
Who is going to make the playoffs and who is going to win it all?
Sam: I think the Giants will make it to the post-season again, but they’re going to have to do it the hard way and go on the road once they get there. Despite wanting them to show it to me, I do think the Eagles will come out of the regular season as NFC East champs. As for whether they will be contenders when they manage it, I think any team that comes out of this division is instantly a post-season contender when they get there.
Khaled: It may actually be harder for the Giants to get out of the ultra-competitive NFC East than it is to pick up postseason wins if they get there. That said, I like them to give themselves a shot because that defense has a way of stepping it up when it needs to, and Eli Manning has moved his game to a level where he can make up for the weaknesses of those around him. I can see the Eagles joining them in the post season, but I’m going to guess that Vick goes down at some point and that torpedoes their promising season.
Neil: The Giants will go through again but this time as a Wild Card because the Cowboys will just have a slight edge on the defensive side of the ball. As for Philadelphia, I’ve never seen a team with such a huge amount of talent on defense waste it in a scheme that seems to regularly expose its worst players. Add to this Michael Vick’s penchant for running head-first into trouble and it’s another recipe for failure.
Ben: This division looks like a battle between two or three teams with the Eagles and Giants definitely in the running, while the Cowboys could be there if they can fill a few holes and re-find some of the chemistry that was lost last season. This division could be so brutal that only one team emerges with the top three, and even an improving Redskins team, taking wins off of each other throughout the season. Whichever team emerges is a threat to anyone in the NFC (as the Giants showed in January) and to win the whole shouting match. If forced to choose (and I have been), the Eagles take the division and no other comes out of the East.