2006 NFC East Preview
In an eight-part series, sports handicapper Dwayne Bryant previews the 2006 NFL season. In Part One, Dwayne gives his thoughts and predictions on the NFC East.
Teams are listed in their predicted order of finish.
1. DALLAS COWBOYS
OFFENSE: The biggest news in Big D this offseason is the addition of receiver Terrell Owens. Owens’ presence immediately makes the Cowboys offense extremely potent. His ability means single coverage for Terry Glenn and more space over the middle for tight end Jason Witten. It also means more running 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 that package on all three downs to keep the opposing defense guessing. The only question on this offense is whether or not the offensive line can protect quarterback Drew Bledsoe. Dallas added some depth along the line by signing tackle Jason Fabini and also added guard Kyle Kosier to replace Larry Allen.
DEFENSE: Dallas’ switch to the 3-4 went rather well last season. The Dallas D ranked 12th in points allowed and 10th in yards allowed. OLB DeMarcus Ware, despite a mid-season slump, had a good rookie season, tallying eight sacks. Look for that number to improve in 2006. Second-year ends Marcus Spears and Chris Canty will rotate with Gregg Ellis to give the Cowboys good pass-rushing ability. Mammoth Jason Ferguson clogs the middle of the line. The LB corps will be improved by the additions of rookie OLB Bobby Carpenter and ILB Akin Ayodele. The secondary remains solid 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 kicking indoors anymore, but his career statistics show him to be equally successful kicking outdoors. 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 year two of the 3-4 scheme. The Cowboys are among the three best 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 progress last season and should take yet another step forward in 2006. RB Tiki Barber had a fantastic 2005 season, leading the NFL with 2,390 yards from scrimmage. If Barber holds up (he’s a member of the “Over 30 RB Club”), the Giants offense should be lethal once again. WR Plaxico Burress had a good first season in the Big Apple, totaling 1,214 yards and seven TDs. 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 TDs in 2005. If Shockey can stay healthy, which is a big “if”, he could reach double-digit TDs in 2006.
DEFENSE: The Giants pass defense was poor in 2005, ranking 27th in passing yards allowed. One certainly can’t pin the blame on the defensive line. Ends Michael Strahan and Osi Umenyiora combined for 26 of the team’s 41 sacks. CBs Sam Madison and R.W. McQuarters and safety Will Demps have been brought in to help solidify the secondary. LB LaVar Arrington has also been added to improve the front seven. The Giants recorded 37 takeaways last season (3rd best in the league) and will look to improve on that number with the talent they’ve added.
SPECIAL TEAMS: Forget the Seattle game, which is easy to do unless you’re a Giants fan. Jay Feely connected on 35 of 42 FG tries in 2005 with a long of 52 yards. Feely led all NFL kickers with 148 points last season and should see plenty of scoring chances this season as well. Chad Morton is a dangerous return man who can swing field position in the Giants’ favor every time he touches the ball.
PREDICTION: Manning will continue to improve and the offense will continue to produce. The question is the defense. Even with the players they’ve added, it’ll take some time for that secondary to gel as a unit. Expect the G-men to battle for second place in the NFC East and also for a Wildcard spot.
3. WASHINGTON REDSKINS
OFFENSE: Does QB Mark Brunell have anything left in the tank? After a great start to the 2005 season, Brunell faded badly and one has to wonder when the keys will be turned over to Jason Campbell. The ‘Skins brought in receivers Brandon Lloyd and Antwaan Randle El to take the heat off Santana Moss. TE Chris Cooley emerged as a red zone threat, scoring seven TDs last season. The focal point of the offense is RB Clinton Portis, who improved his numbers in year two as a Redskin. Portis rushed for 1,516 yards and scored 11 TDs last season. With even average QB play, this offense has some potential.
DEFENSE: The ‘Skins added Andre Carter in an attempt to improve their pass rush. Carter, who played OLB in the 49ers 3-4 scheme, has great quickness and will be an upgrade to this unit. It’s unlikely that will be enough to generate a solid pass rush from the front four. Defensive coordinator Gregg Williams will still have to use aggressive play-calling to pressure opposing QBs. The LB corps will be minus LaVar Arrington, but is still a solid group that should keep the ‘Skins respectable defensively. The strength of this defense is in the secondary. Shawn Springs is a solid cover 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 battled injuries last season, but still managed to make 12 of 14 FG tries. The ‘Skins were 11th in kickoff-return average last season and had two return TDs. They also ranked 28th in punt-return average. Expect Randle El to improve that phase of Washington’s special teams unit.
PREDICTION: Everything comes down to QB play. Brunell’s best days are behind him and Campbell lacks experience, which is why I place them third in this division.
4. PHILADELPHIA EAGLES
OFFENSE: With Terrell Owens out of the picture, look for the Eagles to return to their “spread the ball around” philosophy. There is no clear-cut #1 WR in this pass-happy offense. Reggie Brown had a good rookie campaign and shows 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 L.J. Smith (61 catches) last season. RB Brian Westbrook doesn’t get a ton of carries, but he’s a matchup nightmare in the passing game. If he and McNabb can stay healthy, this offense should produce quite nicely.
DEFENSE: This once-powerful unit plummeted to 27th in points allowed and 23rd in yards allowed in 2005. Even more startling, Jimmie Johnson’s blitz-happy unit only recorded 29 sacks on the season. Philly signed DE Darren Howard to improve the pass rush and drafted DT Brodrick Bunkley to solidify the interior of the line. The Eagles have some talent at linebacker and the secondary should be play better this season with improved line play.
SPECIAL TEAMS: David Akers battled an injury last season, but remains one of the league’s best kickers. Reno Mahe led the NFL with a 12.8-yard punt return average in a half-season’s work.
PREDICTION: I place 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’d have them placed above this spot.
The Cowboys are my choice to win the NFC East, but any team in this division could win it if the cards fall their way. Dallas appears to be heading to the top of the NFC. The Giants will battle for the division title with an improving Eli Manning. The Redskins could win it too, but will need solid QB play. And I don’t see that happening. The Eagles have a shot with McNabb back under center, but need better play out of their defensive line. This is definitely the toughest division in my opinion. Even though they each play six division games, I don’t see any of them finishing worse than 7-9.
Word count: 1396
2006 NFC East Preview