2013 NFL Preview: NFC East
With training camps about to begin, we take a division-by-division look at where each team stands heading into the 2013 season.
Always a fascinating division to watch, the NFC East has been about as good as it gets over the past two seasons. The division race has gone down to the wire each time, with the eventual Super Bowl champion Giants grabbing the crown with a final-week win over Dallas in 2011 and the Redskins doing the same to Dallas in 2012.
There appears to be minimal separation again, at least among the East's top three teams. Philadelphia will add another dose of intrigue, with all eyes on new coach Chip Kelly. The Eagles may be a year away, but a rapid rebuild could turn this into a remarkable four-team race.
It's time to break down the NFC East, as we wrap up our pre-training camp division previews:
Where they got better: Tight end. The Cowboys hope at center, too, after spending a first-round pick on Frederick. They are particularly excited about rookie Gavin Escobar, though. Jerry Jones said right after selecting Escobar that the Cowboys would use the San Diego State product and Jason Witten in two-TE sets to open up the offense, something they did not do all that much with blocking-proficient John Phillips as their No. 2 tight end last season. If the Witten-Escobar combo can thrive, it would lessen the pressure the Cowboys are feeling to force a third receiver onto the field.
Where they got worse: Safety. No one was going to confuse Gerald Sensabaugh with a Hall of Famer, but the Cowboys' cap-influenced decision to release the veteran (who then retired) further thinned out a weak safety group. Sensabaugh had been a full-time starter for the Cowboys since joining the team in 2009. Will Allen will try to fill one of the safety spots, but he had only started two games from 2007-11 before starting seven games last season. Barry Church has the other spot in his control, despite making all of four career NFL starts. Danny McCray, Matt Johnson and rookie J.J. Wilcox will have to chip in. This still could be the Cowboys' weak spot on defense.
Breakout player: Dwayne Harris, WR. Harris reportedly had a sensational set of offseason workouts. He'll try to carry that momentum into camp and, if he does, could earn significant playing time. Harris caught 22 balls for 354 yards and a touchdown last season.
Where they stand: Because they were tight up against the salary cap all offseason, Dallas made minimal additions outside the draft -- Justin Durant and Allen being the team's only two significant free-agent pickups. The Cowboys instead will hang their hats on better performances from their stars, like QB Tony Romo and RB DeMarco Murray, and a switch from a 3-4 to a 4-3 defense under new coordinator Monte Kiffin leading to results. They should hang in the NFC East all season, yet again. Beyond that? Well, it would be false to say that the Cowboys look better than either the Giants or Redskins right now.
New York Giants
Where they got better: The offensive line. You can thank Syracuse's Justin Pugh for that, after the Giants nabbed him with the 19th overall pick in the 2013 draft. Eli Manning took a mere 19 sacks last season, but this O-line still needed a shot in the arm. Pugh could slot in at either guard or tackle, though he worked as a right tackle during minicamp and OTAs. New York might keep him there, given that David Diehl struggled so mightily there, when he was healthy. Pugh also could challenge LG Kevin Boothe. Either way, the Giants upgraded their depth and flexibility with that draft choice.
Where they got worse: Running back. Ahmad Bradshaw's nagging foot injuries made his last two seasons with the Giants a test of endurance, rather than real showcases of his talent. Even so, he was a 1,000-yard rusher (and 1,250-total yard player) last season. David Wilson and Andre Brown should make a formidable 1-2 punch for the Giants in 2013, provided Brown gets all the way back from a broken leg. They'll have to be on their games, because Bradshaw was a do-everything back. The Giants may miss him most on passing downs -- Bradshaw averaged 31 catches over the past four seasons and is one of the better pass-blocking RBs in the league.
Breakout player: Rueben Randle, WR. Off a 19-catch rookie season, Randle should be a bigger part of the Giants' offensive game plan in 2013. He may even develop into Hakeem Nicks' replacement, next season and beyond, should Nicks bolt in free agency after this year.
Where they stand: The Giants suffered substantial attrition this offseason, with Bradshaw, Osi Umenyiora, Martellus Bennett, Chase Blackburn, Michael Boley all exiting. They're well-positioned to overcome most of those absences, in no small part due to a draft which addressed both lines. This was a 6-2 team at the halfway point last season. They're closer to that group, on first glance, than the one that finished with a 3-5 stretch. Expect the Giants to be mentioned often as an NFC East favorite and potentially dangerous playoff team.
FB/TE James Casey, NT Isaac Sopoaga, OLB Connor Barwin, CB Bradley Fletcher, CB Cary Williams, S Patrick Chung, S Kenny Phillips; traded for WR Arrelious Benn, DE Clifton Geathers; drafted OT Lane Johnson, TE Zach Ertz, DT Bennie Logan, QB Matt Barkley, S Earl Wolff.
RB Dion Lewis, OT Demetress Bell, OT King Dunlap, DT Cullen Jenkins, DT Derek Landri, DT Mike Patterson, OLB Akeem Jordan, CB Nnamdi Asomugha, CB Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie; hired head coach Chip Kelly, O.C. Pat Shurmur, D.C. Bill Davis
Where they got better: The secondary. Call this addition by subtraction. The super secondary of Nnamdi Asomugha and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie never materialized, with both players struggling in Philadelphia. The Eagles, in fact, gave up more TD passes (32) than any other team in the league last season, despite seeing fewer passing attempts from the opponents than all but one secondary. The new CB duo of Bradley Fletcher and Cary Williams will give up some big plays, but the overall product has to get better. The safety spot should be healthier, as well, with Patrick Chung and ex-Giant Kenny Phillips joining underwhelming 2012 starters Nate Allen and Kurt Coleman. And don't sleep on fifth-rounder Earl Wolff, who has a shot at starting.
Where they got worse: The defensive line. Some of the issues will be minimized if the Eagles go with a 3-4 base defense, as expected, rather than their old 4-3. Cullen Jenkins, Derek Landri and Mike Patterson all were decent contributors, to varying degrees. The Eagles brought in Isaac Sopoaga, who was pushed out of San Francisco's lineup last season, as well as Clifton Geathers and rookie Bennie Logan. All in all, the drop-off may not be too steep -- a line of Fletcher Cox, Sopoaga and either Cedric Thornton or Logan should hold its own. A combined 36 starts are still gone from the defensive front.
Breakout player: Patrick Chung, S. Wolff could throw a wrench in this plan, if he beats out Chung as the starting strong safety. Should Chung, who has the added benefit of having played for Chip Kelly at Oregon, lock down that job, he could challenge his 96-tackle total from 2010. The Eagles need a SS who can help the front seven in the box.
Where they stand: Some people are expecting Chip Kelly to work magic from the get-go. Others believe he's doomed to fail in the NFL. The bar should be set somewhere in the middle for Year 1. This is a team in transition, especially on defense. Plus, even the best coaches struggle when trying to implement radical scheme shifts, as Kelly may on offense. It's possible a Michael Vick-led offense absolutely explodes under Kelly's tutelage. More likely, the defense will continue to struggle a bit in 2013 and this team will be ready to contend again in 2014.
OLB Lorenzo Alexander, S Cedric Griffin, S Madieu Williams
Where they got better: Safety. Despite not having a lot of draft picks to work with, the Redskins doubled up on safety in the later rounds, selecting Phillip Thomas (Round 4) and Baccari Rambo (Round 6). One or both could start at the onset of the regular season. Their presences alone at least creates some competition somewhere the Redskins badly need it, after letting 16-game starter Madieu Williams leave. There needed to be changes -- Washington's play at safety, in general, left something to be desired last season. Thomas and Rambo are aggressive and could develop into draft steals in a hurry.
Where they got worse: Right tackle. OK, so the Redskins did not really get worse here, in theory. They also did not get any better. This was the weak spot on their offensive line last year, with Tyler Polumbus scuffling all season. Washington added ex-Buc Jeremy Trueblood and ex-Brown Tony Pashos to provide some depth. Nary an option there is a particularly good one. Polumbus allowed twice as many sacks as any other Redskins O-lineman (8) and more than twice as many hurries (46), per Pro Football Focus. Sometime in the very near future, Washington must find a more reliable answer at this spot.
Breakout player: E.J. Biggers, CB. Biggers did what he could on an absolutely awful Tampa Bay secondary last season. The Redskins then stole him in free agency on a one-year, $1.5 million deal. Biggers will make some plays for that price ... and he might even wind up in the starting lineup. Where they stand: Even more so than the Cowboys, the Redskins' hands were tied this offseason by NFL-mandated cap penalties and few draft picks. So, aside from a few tweaks here and there, this is essentially the same team that won the NFC East at 10-6 last season. For the most part, the Redskins should be fine with that given the turnover they've undergone in recent years, doubly so if Robert Griffin III and Brian Orakpo are on the field in Week 1. The Redskins' expectations will be higher in 2013. Simply repeating their 2012 performance would be impressive.