Monday, September 3, 2012

2012 NFL Predictions - NFC East

1) New York Giants

Key Gets – David Wilson (RB, Virginia Tech), Rueben Randle (WR, LSU), Jayron Hosley (CB, Virginia Tech), Martellus Bennett (TE, Cowboys)

Key Gones – Brandon Jacobs (RB, 49ers), Mario Manningham (WR, 49ers), Aaron Ross (CB, Jaguars)

Key Games – wk1 v. Cowboys, wk4 @ Eagles, wk6 @ 49ers, wk7 v. Redskins, wk8 @ Cowboys, wk9 v. Steelers, wk12 v. Packers, wk 13 @ Redskins, wk14 v. Saints, wk15 @ Falcons, wk16 @ Ravens, wk17 v. Eagles

The Giants were my surprise team for last year’s playoffs, and surprise they did.  Entering week 17 of last year the Giants needed a win against the Cowboys just to make the playoffs.  They got that one and four more to claim their second Super Bowl title in five seasons.  You a believer yet?

Peyton who?  As much talk as big brother gets, Eli has him in championships 2-1, and it’s not like Eli pulled a Dilfer in those contests.  The Giants were champs because of Eli, not in spite of him.  I truly believe Eli is in the league’s elite group of passers, settling in behind Rodgers, Brady, and Brees.  Yes, he’s still prone to the occasional mental lapse, but he looks so comfortable and confident out there.  Dare I say the best is yet to come for Mr. Manning.  It’s not like he’s leaning on an unstoppable run game.  No one ran for less yards per game last year than the Giants.  Brandon Jacobs is no longer the dominant bruising back, and Ahmad Bradshaw can’t shake the injury bug.  David Wilson was added this offseason with the last pick in the draft’s first round.  While Bradshaw is the unquestioned starter I expect Wilson to eat into his carries more and more as the year progresses.  Welcome to the NFL Victor Cruz.  The man once labeled a preseason darling exploded last season for a team high 82 catches, 1,536 yards receiving, and 9 TDs.  He can dance too.  He’ll again line up across from Hakeem Nicks, the athletic receiver with hands the size of jai alai cestas.  They form one of the league’s best receiving duos, and rather than feel the loss of Mario Manningham, I believe they’ll consume most of the tosses that went his way.  I’m a fan of rookie Rueben Randle too and look for him to make an impact in his first year.  Everyone has injuries in this league, but the Giants have been shuffling around offensive linemen for the last couple of seasons.  David Diehl will move over to right tackle if/when Will Beatty gets over his back issues, strengthening the ends of the line.  Right guard Chris Snee is the best of the interior linemen. 

Whenever you talk about the Giants defense, you’ve got to start with the studs up front, and who else better to start with than Jason Pierre-Paul.  The pass rusher from USF catapulted himself into the league’s elite pass rusher fraternity with a whopping 16.5 sacks and a Pro Bowl selection.  It’s scary to think how this guy is just scratching the surface on his potential.  Justin Tuck had his lowest sack total since 2006 with injuries and personal issues contributing to the decrease in production.  I think he turns it around.  Then there’s Osi Umenyiora.  Though he’s seemingly always butting heads with management about a contract extension, he tallied nine sacks in nine games.  I believe Linval Joseph is a nice upgrade over Barry Cofield at nose tackle, but they really need Marvin Austin to get over his back injury and onto the football field.  Mathias Kiwanuka, recipient of a new contract this offseason, fits perfectly with this defense.  He lines up at linebacker, end, and tackle based on down and distance.  Chase Blackburn starts in the middle, but he’ll have plenty of competition from Keith Rivers, Mark Herzlich, and Greg Jones.  My money is on Herzlich earning the job at some point.  Rivers and Jones are talented, versatile reserves.  Corey Webster is one of the best cover men in the business despite not getting the PR of guys like Nnamdi Asomugha and Darrelle Revis.  The Giants re-signed Terrell Thomas this offseason, but he suffered a knee injury and his forecast for the opener is cloudy.  Last year’s #1 draft pick Prince Amukamara will step in during Thomas’ absence.  Then there’s the Hurricane safety duo.  There may not be a better professional centerfielder than Kenny Phillips.  The guy tracks the ball tremendously and is strong against the run.  Antrel Rolle led the team in tackles and has found a home at safety for the Giants.

The run game is a bit of a question mark as is the offensive line, but this is a team that plays with a ton of confidence and composure.  As always, the division figures to be tough, and I don’t think anyone else in the group did enough to knock the Giants from their pedestal. 

Team MVP – Eli Manning
Breakout Player – David Wilson
Disappointment – Ahmad Bradshaw

2) Philadelphia Eagles

Key Gets – Fletcher Cox (DT, Mississippi State), Mychal Kendricks (LB, California), Vinny Curry (DE, Marshall), Brandon Boykin (CB, Georgia), OJ Atogwe (S, Redskins)

Key Gones – Ronnie Brown (RB, Chargers), Jamaal Jackson (C, FA), Vince Young (QB, Bills)

Key Games – wk2 v. Ravens, wk4 v. Giants, wk5 @ Steelers, wk6 v. Lions, wk8 v. Falcons, wk9 @ Saints, wk10 v. Cowboys, wk 11 @ Redskins, wk13 @ Cowboys, wk16 v. Redskins, wk17 @ Giants

Was there a more disappointing team last year than the Eagles?  Even before Vince Young’s “dream team” comment, much was expected of this bunch, especially after acquiring defenders Nnamdi Asomugha, Jason Babin, and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie to go with a lethal offense.  Instead, 2011 was a nightmare.  They started 1-4 and needed a four game winning streak at the end of the season just to finish 8-8.  They didn’t blow the whole thing up this offseason, but another season of disappointment won’t be tolerated. 

Michael Vick again failed to play an entire sixteen game schedule, and he’s already getting beat up this preseason.  If you get hit as often as Vick has, you’re liable to sustain a few injuries.  How comfortable are they in Mike Kafka and Nick Foles?  There’s a good chance at least one of them makes at least one start this season.  LeSean McCoy is easily the best player on a talent-laden offense.  He totaled over 1,600 yards from scrimmage for the second year in a row and scored a league high 17 rushing TDs.  The offense runs through McCoy.  At receiver, will DeSean Jackson be more willing to go over the middle of the field and take hits now that he got his big contract?  I still think Jeremy Maclin is the best receiver in the group and looks to be finally healthy.  I look for a huge year from him.  Brent Celek has been a productive outlet for Vick, but he’s dealing with a knee injury this preseason.  Vick isn’t taking hits because he’s playing behind a shoddy line.  This group has talent.  Stud left tackle Jason Peters is out for the year after tearing his Achilles twice this offseason; huge blow to the offensive line.  Demetress Bell was signed in free agency to be his replacement, but King Dunlap has taken the job and run with it.  Evan Mathis should be considered among the elite offensive guards in the league.  Philadelphia wisely re-signed him this offseason and will plug him in next to young, promising center Jason Kelce.  Danny Watkins and Todd Herremans form a solid combination on the right side.

The Eagles are one team that can give the Giants a run for their money when it comes to talent along the defensive line.  Jason Babin finished third in the league with 18 sacks, showing that his 12.5 sacks from 2010 was no fluke.  The guy absolutely thrives with Jim Washburn as his coach.  You know you’re good when you can relegate Trent Cole to the “other” pass rusher.  Cole added 11 of his own giving the Eagles two huge forces coming off the edge in their Wide Nine defense.  Cullen Jenkins lines up inside next to rookie tackle Fletcher Cox.  The Packers still miss Jenkins who finished third on the Eagles in sacks with 5.5.  Cox was the most talented defensive tackle in this year’s draft in my opinion and should do a lot of damage early on with those other three drawing so much attention.  DeMeco Ryans came over from Houston this offseason and should see his game improve once again playing back in a 4-3 scheme.  Rookie Mychal Kendricks is set to start on the strong side.  Look for him to make an impact.  The secondary is a little less crowded with Asante Samuel being shipped off to Atlanta, but there’s still plenty of talent remaining in Asomugha and DRC.  There are a couple of big changes here.  First, the Eagles will be employing more press-man coverage which should really benefit both Asomugha and DRC.  Second, with Samuel gone, DRC can now go back to playing the boundary where he’s better off.  Brandon Boykin could be one of the bigger steals in this year’s draft.  A fourth round pick, Boykin is already making a name for himself on both defense and special teams.  Like Maclin, free safety Nate Allen is finally healthy again and should provide yet another boost to the secondary.

I think they’re better this year, but Vick’s stability is too big of a question for me.  For better or worse this team should be one of the league’s top stories this season.

Team MVP – LeSean McCoy
Breakout Player – Fletcher Cox
Disappointment – Michael Vick

3) Dallas Cowboys

Key Gets – Morris Claiborne (CB, LSU), Brandon Carr (CB, Chiefs), Dan Connor (LB, Panthers), Kyle Orton (QB, Chiefs), Tyrone Crawford (DE, Boise State)

Key Gones – Laurent Robinson (WR, Jaguars), Keith Brooking (LB, FA), Terence Newman (CB, Bengals), Martellus Bennett (TE, Giants)

Key Games – wk1 @ Giants, wk4 v. Bears, wk6 @ Ravens, wk8 v. Giants, wk9 @ Falcons, wk10 @ Eagles, wk12 v. Redskins, wk13 v. Eagles, wk15 v. Steelers, wk16 v. Saints, wk17 @ Redskins

Jason Garrett’s first full year as head coach was a lot better than the 2010 debacle, but losing four of their last five games had to leave a bad taste in his mouth.  Only three of Dallas’ eight losses were by a touchdown or more, but they need to win more of those close games if they want to make it back to the playoffs after a two year absence. 

Tony Romo can’t get any love.  Maybe it’s just me, but his on field failures seem to be spotlighted more than any other QB in the league.  I guess it’s a Dallas thing.  I don’t think he’s among the league’s elite at his position, but I’d put him in the Matt group – Stafford, Schaub, and Ryan.  This year I see him being the same old Romo – some good, some bad, still better than most.  At this point he’s a lot like Eli Manning was before the Super Bowls.  DeMarco Murray was the Cowboys’ breakout player of the year in 2011.  They started the season with a trio of Murray, Felix Jones, and Tashard Choice, but when Jones went down with an injury, Murray took the job and ran away with it.  Only a late season foot injury kept him on the sidelines.  He’s healthy this preseason and is the unquestioned bell cow of the running game.  Dez Bryant is one of the most talented receivers in football, but he’s an idiot.  He finished second on the team last year in receptions and should rise to the top of the list this year.  Miles Austin is a hamstring injury waiting to happen, so while the departure of Laurent Robinson may mean more targets for Bryant and Austin, their lack of depth may be exposed.  Things could get worse if Romo’s top target, Jason Witten, suffers any further issues with a spleen injury that has sidelined him this preseason.  Moving Tyron Smith to the left side and Doug Free to the right improves an already solid set of bookends.  Smith seems set to stay on the blind side for the next decade.  Their problem is the interior of the offensive line. 

The addition of Rob Ryan didn’t exactly lead to an immediate turnaround on defense.  It’s not all bad though.  They’re really solid in the pass rushing department with DeMarcus Ware and Anthony Spencer on the outside.  Ware continues to be one of the league’s elite pass rushers year in and year out while Spencer seems to always be on the precipice of joining the league’s upper echelon.  Victor Butler is coming on and provides them with quality pass rushing depth.  Jason Hatcher is one of the better unknown 3-4 ends.  He’s just really strong and hard to move.  It seems they continue to talk about moving Jay Ratliff to end every year, but every year he remains at NT.  He’s not the biggest noseman in the league, but the guy continues to draw double teams and be a force on the defensive line.  Dallas’ secondary has been under fire for several seasons, and the Cowboys have cleaned house.  They made two huge additions this offseason by signing veteran Brandon Carr in free agency and taking Morris Claiborne with the sixth pick in the draft.   There was also some addition by subtraction.  Terence Newman is now in Cincinnati, and Michael Jenkins has been relegated to third on the depth chart.  Dallas absolutely had to get better in this area with Philadelphia and New York having such strong passing games.  I’m still a Barry Church fan and like seeing that he’s got the edge on the starting strong safety spot.  Gerald Sensabaugh is kind of a jack of all trades, master of none at free safety. 

It won’t be Romo’s fault if these guys don’t make the playoffs.  The primary focus factors for me are Murray’s health maintenance, Bryant’s maturity, and improved secondary play.  New York and Philadelphia are too talented to allow Dallas to back into the playoffs.  They must get better.

Team MVP – Demarco Murray
Breakout Player – Tyron Smith
Disappointment – Miles Austin

4) Washington Redskins

Key Gets – Pierre Garcon (WR, Colts), Cedric Griffin (CB, Vikings), Josh Morgan (WR, 49ers), Robert Griffin III (QB, Baylor), Kirk Cousins (QB, Michigan State)

Key Gones – OJ Atogwe (S, Eagles), LaRon Landry (S, Jets), Rocky McIntosh (LB, Rams)

Key Games – wk1 @ Saints, wk2 @ Rams, wk5 v. Falcons, wk7 @ Giants, wk8 @ Steelers, wk11 v. Eagles, wk12 @ Cowboys, wk13 v. Giants, wk16 @ Eagles, wk17 v. Cowboys

A 15-33 record over the last three seasons isn’t anything to brag about.  Jim Zorn was laughed out of town, but it’s not like the Shanahans have done much better.  The team is only 11-21 over the last two seasons, which included the horribly failed Donovan McNabb era and forgettable performances by Rex Grossman and John Beck.  Have they finally found the guy to turn this thing around?

Washington moved up in the draft to take Robert Griffin III after the Colts committed to Andrew Luck.  In RGIII the Skins are getting one of the more gifted athletes to play professional football; someone who is just scratching the surface of his potential as both a playmaker and leader.  It’s going to take some time for him to be comfortable and consistent at this level, but it shouldn’t be a surprise if he has a better rookie year than Luck.  A Mike Shanahan run game is full of uncertainty?  Go figure.  Tim Hightower isn’t exactly having an Adrian Peterson-like recovery from his ACL injury, and Roy Helu is dealing with soreness in both Achilles.  Is Evan Royster really a reliable professional runner?  I think Fred Davis is in perfect position to have a really huge season.  Chris Cooley is no threat at all to his snaps, and rookie QBs generally grow very fond of their tight ends very fast.  RGIII won’t have to stare down Davis thanks to an aggressive offseason that saw the Redskins add two receivers to their arsenal.  With Pierre Garcon brought in to the be the #1 receiver, Leonard Hankerson and Santana Moss settle into #2 and slot duties respectively.  That puts the underrated Josh Morgan, another free agency acquisition, in the #4 spot.  Davis is the best pass catcher in this bunch, but the wideouts are talented enough to keep defenses honest.  The offensive line is lacking health and continuity much more than it is lacking talent.  Trent Williams and Jammal Brown are a formidable tackle combination when healthy and not high, and Kory Lichtensteiger is a quality interior lineman when his knee is right.  RGIII’s athleticism will help him make a lot of plays, but any improvement this line can make will go a long way in helping the rookie’s development.  

Coming out of their bye, Washington suffered through a six game losing streak which pretty much sealed their season.  They won only two more games the rest of the year.  During that stretch the Redskins surrendered more than 25 points in half of their contests.  That’s not a recipe for success.  The top talent on this side of the ball resides at the position of outside linebacker.  Brian Orakpo has been a consistent pass rushing threat since entering the league in ’09.  He didn’t have much help in 2010 after Andre Carter moved on, but last year, 1st round pick Ryan Kerrigan proved to be well worth the draft’s 16th over selection.  Kerrigan’s rookie year was overshadowed by the numbers put up by Von Miller and Aldon Smith, but Kerrigan acclimated himself to the professional game just fine.  London Fletcher will keep playing until he’s 106.  Pencil him in for 90+ tackles every year.  Perry Riley looks like a fixture on the inside as well.  Stephen Bowen is their best defensive lineman.  He provides another source of sacks and holds his own against the run.  Adam Carriker and Barry Cofield are the weak spots up front.  I think they’ll continue to have problems in the secondary.  DeAngelo Hall will be playing some free safety this season, but I still think he’s one of the more overrated defensive backs in the game.  Opposite him, Josh Wilson needs to continue taking steps forward and show more of the potential he exhibited in Baltimore.  Veteran Cedric Griffin and his busted knees aren’t an improvement.  I think strong safety Brandon Meriweather has played his best football, and Tanard Jackson couldn’t even make it to the regular season before failing his 500th drug test. 

They’ll be really entertaining to watch on offense, but I think they’re extremely vulnerable to the big play on defense.  Defending Eli, Vick, and Romo twice each a season with that secondary should lead to a lot more 25+ point outings. 

Team MVP – Robert Griffin III
Breakout Player – Leonard Hankerson
Disappointment – DeAngelo Hall

Division MVP – LeSean McCoy
Division Breakout Player – David Wilson
Division Disappointment – Miles Austin

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