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Often referred to as “The Beast” by members and fans of this division, it is frequently the most over-hyped division in the NFL. It features 4 major markets – Dallas, Washington D.C., Philadelphia, and New York City – and a long storied history of rivalry. This year the hype machine might not be so overblown. The Redskins are still in transition, but their Superbowl winning head coach has the team rolling through the preseason, the New York Giants are only a few years away from their improbable Superbowl victory over the Patriots, the Eagles have one of the most electrifying players in the NFL, and the Dallas Cowboys possibly feature a turned-around offense and a defense with a new attitude this year. It looks to be a scary division this year…or is it?.

The most dangerous man in the division

Philadelphia Eagles

Cole: Let’s get the Vick thing out-of-the-way. This team does depend on him. They’ve spent a year designing an offense around his many talents. They’ll be running out of the shotgun a lot more this year, McCoy will be running draws as Vick sets up the run with the pass and his own athletic ability. They have an incredible big play offense with burners DeSean Jackson and Jeremy Maclin. Vick is a smaller guy, however, and isn’t nearly as durable as some of the other elite quarterbacks in the NFL. He puts himself in a lot of danger with his scrambling, and when he’s blitzed he quickly becomes average as a passer. If he’s in trouble this team could be in trouble, hence they made a move to sign Vince Young, another mobile quarterback that can orchestrate the new offense that Andy Reid has designed around him. On defense their secondary is deep at corner, but safety play could use some improvement. Nate Allen is still returning from injury and could lose his job to Jarrad Page. At linebacker, Casey Mathews seems the anointed middle linebacker. He’s paired with two other young guys whose inexperience could hurt the team down the road. Their defensive line is solid, however, and could be the strength of this unit. Mike Patterson and Trent Cole anchor the line, and their signing of Cullen Jenkins could protect a weaker linebacker corp. Overall, this is a team that should improve. Andy Reid shipped Kevin Kolb out in order to focus on an offense designed around mobile quarterbacks and with the whole team marching in the right direction this could indeed be a “dream team”.

Andy: The offense is centered around Michael Vick.  Lesean McCoy is good, but nothing special at RB, and is very effective because of the runner/receiver threat he becomes in their offense.  DeSean Jackson and Jeremy Maclin are both burners and good receivers, but I believe they (and Brent Celek) are so effective because of the system they are in, not that they are the most talented receivers (that award belongs to the likes of Calvin Johnson, Fitz, and Andre Johnson, who have all been great on losing teams).  This team does rely on Michael Vick first and foremost, and I don’t believe Vince Young can be anywhere as effective.  Additionally, I would not be surprised if Vick goes through a ‘sophomore slump’ type season, as teams now have a full year of film to study on him.  The defense will be the one to carry this team in my opinion.  They have to have the best CB tandem in the game in Asomugha, DRC, and Asante Samuel, but safety is just ok.  The LB corps has looked anything but prepared in the preseason so far, and could be an Achilles Heel if they do not improve.  The line is more impressive, with the reliable Trent Cole and new signings Cullen Jenkins and Jason Babin.  I expect this team to win the NFC East, but they are far from invulnerable.

Dallas Cowboys

Cole: Generally teams that fire head coaches one year don’t explode the next. This is not that case. Jason Garrett already knows his players and they know him. The defense has been given Rob Ryan to turn it around as well. They get Tony Romo back, who belongs in the conversation of top 5 quarterbacks in the NFL (even if he’s not quite there yet), and are committed to running back Felix Jones who should explode this year. At WR they’re set with Dez Bryant and Miles Austin ready to roll. Their line has gone for the youth movement and they drafted Tyron Smith to play right tackle this season. This is an offense that’s poised to break out like the Texans and the Lions. The concerns here are on defense. Their linebackers are average at best besides the ferocious DeMarcus Ware. Their secondary has not improved much since last season. Scandrick remains their top corner and Mike Jenkins can’t seem to get back into the starting lineup. Facing pass happy teams like the Eagles with that kind of secondary will hurt them down the road. They have several games on their schedule that will exploit that weakness – Detroit, New England, St. Louis, Buffalo, Arizona, and Philadelphia twice. If they can beat the teams they should be better than in that stretch, this team can find its way back to the playoffs.

Andy: I’m a firm believer that Dallas’ 2010 season was a fluke, and they will return more to their form in previous seasons.  Assuming Tony Romo stays healthy, the man can compete with the best QBs in the NFL, and has 3 high-caliber targets in Miles Austin, Dez Bryant, and Jason Witten.  Felix Jones could be the next Jamaal Charles, he has that type of explosiveness (and no more Marion Barber to play behind).  The defense is a whole lot of mediocre.  DeMarcus Ware will remain a remarkable threat to the QB, but there is not much more to brag about in this defense.  Mike Jenkins is just a few games away from being a big bust, and not much else on the defense leaves me inspired.  Rob Ryan is clever with his blitzes, but he can get burned badly if they do not get to the QB quickly.  I see them having a winning record, but expect them to be in a bunch of shootouts, and the playoffs are far from guaranteed.

Hang in there Redskins Fans

Washington Redskins

Cole: A couple of websites I respect have already pegged the Redskins as the last place team and winner of the Andrew Luck sweepstakes. I’m not convinced. The focus of everyone on their quarterback situation this season has drawn attention away from the developing running game. The Shanahan’s picked up Tim Hightower who looks born to run in the zone blocking scheme and Beck has looked very good in preseason games. I know they’re preseason, but it’s a much better sign than if Beck looked bad. Still there are enough concerns that I’m not hopping on the bandwagon with John Beck. They lack talented wide receivers still. Santana Moss returns as the number one, but Anthony Armstrong and Jabar Gaffney are the 2 and 3. Donte Stallworth is the 4. That’s not a strong lineup. They spent picks on Malcolm Kelly and Devin Thomas, but neither has developed at all (or stayed healthy). Their offensive line is better, but not strong enough that it’s not an area of concern. They signed Jammal Brown long-term, and he’s been solid at LT. Trent Williams looked promising as a rookie RT in 2010. They brought in Chris Chester as either G or C (betting on guard), and kept Will Montgomery and Kory Lichtensteiger. If those names don’t ring a bell it’s not surprising. They cut Casey Rabach, who provided veteran leadership, so this line is basically an entire new unit from the last two years. Again, they’ve looked better in preseason, but not enough that I won’t question whether they can hold up. I’ve been a strong advocate that when Mike Shanahan came in and took a top 10 4-3 defense and forced it into a 3-4 that he was foolish and last year was vindication for me. To their credit, they’re sticking with it and have continued to work on bringing in 3-4 personnel. Ryan Kerrigan and Orakpo should be sound as edge rusher, but Rocky McIntosh struggled as a 3-4 inside linebacker last year. He could lose his job this year if he doesn’t improve. Most of their “outside linebackers” last year were converted ends who had no business standing up. That problem has been corrected. Their secondary is wildly improved with the additions of Oshiomogho Atogwe from St. Louis and Josh Wilson from Baltimore. LaRon Landry should start opposite Atogwe and DeAngelo Hall will stick as the other corner. The defensive line still needs work. They brought in Barry Cofield, whose been a 4-3 tackle his whole career, to play nose tackle which may not be enough to protect their smaller linebackers. There are still a lot of holes here, but don’t expect Vick to come into Fed Ex Field and earn 500 yards in a half again.

Andy: Cole did this very in-depth, so I will try to keep this short.  The Redskins offense has looked better than expected in the preseason, and I think Shanahan might have the final laugh on having Grossman and/or Beck being a good QB for this team.  Tim Hightower looks like a new RB in this offense, and Helu could be a great RB someday.  The inside of this offensive line is pretty damn weak, but with Shanahan’s offense I expect this to be a bigger worry for the passing game than the running game.  I’m still convinced Shanahan is being too stubborn in continuing with trying for the 3-4 (he should have followed Chan Gailey in accepting his team is better in a 4-3), and I’m also still convinced Orakpo can be better as a dedicated pass rusher.  The secondary should be better, but behind the starters is still quite thin.  This team will be more competitive, but I do not expect them to be on the same level as the other 3 NFC East teams for at least another year.

New York Giants

Eli Manning

Cole: This is another team that needs to rebound from an average 2010 season. Tom Coughlin needs to bring back the consistent play that won him a Superbowl or he could find himself out of a job. He’s spent this year reworking the offensive line’s interior. William Beatty is schedule at LT, Chris Snee at LG and Kareem McKenzie at RT. Those are the main returnees from last year. That should cause some growing pains for Eli and company. At the skill positions, this team is loaded. Eli Manning can be elite, but often struggles with accuracy when pressured. His wide receivers are set at Mario Manningham and Hakeem Nicks. Add last years preseason all-star Victor Cruz in the mix and this could be a dangerous unit. Ahmad Bradshaw and Brandon Jacobs return despite rumors that both could be on the way out, and they look in full form thus far. On defense, Jason Pierre-Paul (or JPP) looks dominating and has essentially ruined Osi Umenyiora’s trade leverage with Justin Tuck opposite. The inside might be in trouble as Marvin Austin, rookie out of North Carolina, tore his pectoral and is out for the year. Linval Joseph, Chris Canty, and Rocky Bernard will compete for the 2 spots, but expect a good rotation. The linebacker group has been up and down. Mathias Kiwanuka is a solid Lawrence Taylor type outside back, and Jonathan Goff has been reliable if not explosive on the inside. Michael Boley could easily be upgraded, but I don’t see that upgrade on the team currently. The secondary is the big question mark here. Terrell Thomas has torn his ACL and will be out the year. Bruce Johnson, dime back, is also out. Prince Amukamara is out til October reportedly, which leaves often maligned Corey Webster and Aaron Ross as the starters. There’s almost zero depth behind them. Antrel Rolle was signed at safety and has already volunteered to move back to corner if requested, but should likely stay without any depth at safety. Many eyes will be on Kenny Phillips who looked phenomenal his first year. A serious leg injury in 09 and his ’10 season was a good rebound. He needs to start stepping into the limelight, however, by making a few more big plays on the back-end. As with most teams, this team will need the quarterback to carry them. Eli Manning can do it, but they need to avoid any more significant injuries.

Andy:  I expect the Giants to be better, if only because I cannot see Manning having so many turnovers again.  Several of his INTs were due to bobbles, and I believed he has learned from last year.  He is much closer to being an elite QB than people expect.  Nicks and Manningham make a great 1-2 punch at WR, and Cruz could be an outstanding #3, with Ahmad Bradshaw being a great dual threat in the backfield (and is also much stronger than most give credit).  The right side of the O-line in particular raises questions, but I think the line will hold up better than people anticipate.  Pierre-Paul and Tuck are one of the best DE tandems in the league.  DT is a bit of a question, but a solid (not great, but solid) LB corps should help keep opponent’s running games in check.  The cornerback is the big concern.  As Cole pointed out, they have no depth at CB due to injuries, with two starters who honestly should not be starters in the NFL.  They have two good corners, but this does not compensate.  They need to sign a CB or two badly (Kelvin Hayden anyone?)  If not, then expect teams to try and go pass-happy on the Giants.

Predictions:

Philadelphia Eagles: Andy & Cole – 11 – 5

Dallas Cowboys: Andy – 10-6  / Cole – 9 – 7

New York Giants: Andy – 8-8 / Cole 7 – 9

Washington Redskins: Andy & Cole – 6-10

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