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NFL Football: 2006 NFC East Preview

NFC East 2006 preview

Teams are listed in their expected order of arrival.

1. DALLAS COWBOYS

OFFENSE: Big D’s biggest news this offseason is the addition of wide receiver Terrell Owens. Owens’ presence immediately made the Cowboys offense extremely powerful. His ability means unique coverage for Terry Glenn and more room in the middle for tight end Jason Witten. It also means more wiggle room for running backs Julius Jones and Marion Barber. The Cowboys drafted Notre Dame tight end Anthony Fasano with the plan to eliminate the fullback role and go with a two tight end offense. Bill Parcells likes the idea of ​​being able to use this package on all three tries to let the opposing defense guess. The only question on this offense is whether or not the offensive line can protect quarterback Drew Bledsoe. Dallas added depth down the line by signing tackle Jason Fabini and also added guard Kyle Kosier to replace Larry Allen.

DEFENSE: Dallas’ move to 3-4 went pretty well last season. The Dallas D ranked 12th in points allowed and 10th in yards allowed. OLB DeMarcus Ware, despite having a midseason slump, had a strong rookie season, totaling eight sacks. Expect that number to improve in 2006. Year two ends Marcus Spears and Chris Canty will rotate with Gregg Ellis to give the Cowboys good passing-rushing ability. The mammoth Jason Ferguson obstructs the middle of the line. The LB corps will be enhanced by the additions of OLB rookie Bobby Carpenter and ILB Akin Ayodele. The secondary remains strong with cornerbacks Terence Newman and Anthony Henry and SS Roy Williams.

SPECIAL TEAMS: With all the TO talk, many overlook the signing of kicker Mike Vanderjagt. Vanderjagt is currently the most accurate FG kicker in NFL history. He won’t be hitting on the inside anymore, but his career stats show he’s doing just as well on the outside. Speedster Tyson Thompson broke franchise records for kickoff returns (57) and yards (1,399), but has yet to take one all the way.

PREDICTION: The offense will be more explosive and the young defense will show continued improvement in the second year of the 3-4 scheme. The Cowboys are among the top three teams in the NFC and could very well end up in the NFC Championship Game.

2. NEW YORK GIANTS

OFFENSE: QB Eli Manning made great strides last season and is expected to take another step forward in 2006. RB Tiki Barber had a fantastic 2005 season, leading the NFL with 2,390 scrimmage yards. If Barber holds up (he’s a member of the “Over 30 RB Club”), the Giants offense should be deadly again. WR Plaxico Burress had a strong first season in the Big Apple, rushing for 1,214 yards and seven touchdowns. Rookie Sinorice Moss could overtake Amani Toomer as the team’s #2 WR. And let’s not forget TE Jeremy Shockey, who accounted for seven touchdowns in 2005. If Shockey can stay healthy, which is a big “if,” he could hit double-digit touchdowns in 2006.

DEFENSE: The Giants’ pass defense was mediocre in 2005, ranking 27th in passing yards allowed. We certainly can’t blame it on the defensive line. Fins Michael Strahan and Osi Umenyiora combined for 26 of the team’s 41 sacks. CBs Sam Madison and RW McQuarters and safety Will Demps were brought in to help solidify the secondary. LB LaVar Arrington was also added to improve the front seven. The Giants recorded 37 takeouts last season (3rd best in the league) and will be looking to improve on that number with the talent they have added.

SPECIAL TEAMS: Forget the Seattle game, which is easy to do unless you’re a Giants fan. Jay Feely had 35 of 42 FG tries in 2005 with a length of 52 yards. Feely led all NFL kickers with 148 points last season and should have plenty of scoring opportunities this season as well. Chad Morton is a dangerous return who can change his position on the field in favor of the Giants every time he touches the ball.

PREDICTION: Manning will continue to improve and the offense will continue to produce. The question is defense. Even with the players they added, it will take some time for this secondary to gel as a unit. Expect the G-men to fight for second place in the NFC East and also for a Wildcard spot.

3. WASHINGTON RED SKIN

OFFENSE: Does QB Mark Brunell still have something in the tank? After an excellent start to the 2005 season, Brunell has faded well and one has to wonder when the keys will be handed over to Jason Campbell. The ‘Skins brought in receivers Brandon Lloyd and Antwaan Randle El to calm down Santana Moss. TE Chris Cooley emerged as a red zone threat, scoring seven touchdowns last season. The center point of the offense is RB Clinton Portis, who improved his numbers in his second year as a Redskin. Portis rushed for 1,516 yards and scored 11 touchdowns last season. Even with average QB play, this offense has some potential.

DEFENSE: The ‘Skins added Andre Carter in a bid to improve their passing rush. Carter, who played OLB in the 49ers 3-4 scheme, has great speed and will be an upgrade from this unit. That’s unlikely to be enough to generate a solid pass rush from the front four. Defensive coordinator Gregg Williams will still have to use aggressive play calls to pressure opposing QBs. The LB body will be less LaVar Arrington, but still a solid group that should keep the ‘Skins respectable defensively. The strength of this defense is in the secondary. Shawn Springs is a strong covering corner and the safety tandem of Sean Taylor and Adam Archuleta should keep Washington among the NFL leaders in pass defense.

SPECIAL TEAMS: Kicker John Hall struggled with injuries last season but still managed 12 of 14 FG tries. The ‘Skins were 11th in kickoff return average last season and had two return touchdowns. They also ranked 28th in punt return average. Expect Randle El to improve this phase of Washington’s special teams unit.

PREDICTION: It all comes down to QB play. Brunell’s best days are behind him and Campbell lacks experience, which is why I put him third in this division.

4. PHILADELPHIA EAGLES

OFFENSE: With Terrell Owens out of the picture, expect the Eagles to return to their ‘spread the ball’ philosophy. There’s no clear No. 1 WR in this pass-happy offense. Reggie Brown has had a strong rookie campaign and is showing great potential. Todd Pinkston and Greg Lewis are also viable options. The Eagles also have rookies Jason Avant and Jeremy Bloom in the fold. QB Donovan McNabb seemed to favor TE LJ Smith (61 catches) last season. RB Brian Westbrook doesn’t get a ton of carries, but he’s a game nightmare in the passing game. If he and McNabb can stay healthy, this offense should produce quite well.

DEFENSE: This once mighty unit dropped to 27th in points allowed and 23rd in yards allowed in 2005. Even more surprisingly, Jimmie Johnson’s blitz unit has recorded just 29 sacks this season. Philly signed DE Darren Howard to improve pass rush and drafted DT Brodrick Bunkley to solidify inside the line. The Eagles have talent at linebacker and the secondary should play better this season with improved line play.

SPECIAL TEAMS: David Akers was injured last season but remains one of the best kickers in the league. Reno Mahe led the NFL with a 12.8-yard punt return average in a half-season.

PREDICTION: I put the Eagles last in the NFC East, but they are capable of finishing much higher if all the pieces fall into place. In any other division, I would place them above this spot.

FINAL THOUGHTS

The Cowboys are my pick to win the NFC East, but any team in this division could win it if the cards fell their way. Dallas appears to be headed for the top of the NFC. The Giants will fight for the division title with an improving Eli Manning. The Redskins could also win it, but they will need a solid QB. And I don’t see that happening. The Eagles have a chance with McNabb back under center, but need to play better off their defensive line. This is definitely the most difficult division in my opinion. Even though they play six division games each, I don’t see any of them finishing worse than 7-9.

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