The NFC East: Surprises, disappointments and where the Redskins fit in

So at the risk of ticking off Mista Moe (sorry, the Cowboys and Giants can’t both lose tonight) and choosing another Opening Kick topic that bothers beep-beep, I figured the NFl season kicking off with a couple NFC East brethren made it a good time to look at the division as a whole. For that, I brought in Jimmy Kempski of BloggingthebEast.com, which focuses on the four NFC East teams. You might also remember Jimmy from last season’s NFC East-focused Trash Talk Q&As.

Jimmy and I went back and forth on a few topics of interest around the division, and then we turn it over to Insider readers and your division predictions. It ran long, so grab some coffee and clear your morning schedule:

 Keith: Who you got on Wednesday night, Cowboys or Giants?

Jimmy: I have the Giants over the Cowboys, comfortably.  The Cowboys could have a rough go of it in the NFC East this year.  Their biggest weakness, the offensive line, lines up perfectly (or in the Cowboys case, not so perfectly) with the strengths of their three division rivals. The Giants and Eagles may very well have the two best defensive lines in the NFL, and the Redskins have a very strong front seven. The Cowboys are going to struggle blocking Jason Pierre-Paul, Justin Tuck, and Osi Umenyiora Wednesday night, and I think that a lack of protection for Tony Romo will be a recurring theme within the division all season for them.

Pierre-Paul by the way, made an argument with his play last year that he could be the best defender in the division.  In addition to his 16.5 sacks, he batted 10 passes at the line of scrimmage, he led the league in tackles among all defensive linemen, and in the first Giants-Cowboys matchup last year, he sealed the game by blocking a potential game-tying FG. DeMarcus Ware, meanwhile, had 19.5 sacks last year and has the much larger body of work. Between those two players, who you got?

Keith: The easy answer is Ware, based on his 99.5 career sacks and the fact he’s started 111 of a possible 112 games in his seven-year career. But it was you who did the blog post with the video clips of him playing — or rather, not playing — the run against the Eagles last season, showing how they pulled their tight end, blocked Ware easily and gobbled up chunks of yardage. If I’m biased in my NFL-watching, it’s always deferring to the older, more accomplished guy, but this is one of those cases where the torch might have passed. Pierre-Paul has quickly become every bit the pass rusher Ware is, but his play against the run is even more highly praised.

Pierre-Paul was a high draft pick, but he had 4.5 sacks as a rookie, then upped that number by 12 last season. Are there any Redskins or players around the division that are flying a little under the radar now, but could be stars by the time 2012 is finished?

Jimmy: As far as individual players for the Redskins, a guy that I had my eye on was Perry Riley, but a few things I saw from him in the preseason scared me off a bit.  However, if I can take a small liberty with your question, I think that the Redskins’ front seven as a whole is flying under the radar a bit, maybe not among Redskins fans, but certainly among fans of the other teams around the league. They were 3rd in the league in sacks in the preseason, and 10th in the league in 2011.  It’s a good young group (London Fletcher excluded on the “young” part), that also has some nice depth. I fully expect them to make some serious noise this season, and carry that team.

A couple rookies from the other teams that have caught my eye are RB David Wilson of the Giants, and LB Mychal Kendricks of the Eagles. Both have the look of legitimate playmakers at the NFL level.

Any players you see going to other way, as in players that have produced in recent years, but may start to see a decline for whatever reason?

Keith: Liberties granted. And good question. To be totally honest, all four NFC East teams have done a good job the past few years of keeping their rosters young, and trimming the Keith Brooking, Andre Carter and Kyle Kosier-type guys from the roster. Chris Cooley is gone. Terence Newman. Joselio Hanson. Guys that were key parts of NFC East teams for a while.

Mike Shanahan, you’ll remember, went veteran-heavy his first year, to set the right atmosphere and lend legitimacy to the regime, I guess, but the Redskins have begun to go young at just about every spot but in the secondary.

A few names come to mind, but even so, with a caveat: Santana Moss can still produce, but at 33 you wonder how much longer he will have the quickness to work from the slot and stay injury free. Eagles defensive end Trent Cole turns 30 during the season, but his relentless style is that of a guy who might eventually hit a wall.

In both of their cases, though, their teams have added rotational depth to their positions, so Moss and Cole might not have to take as many snaps.

The Eagles have a couple guys who are popular to worry about, in Michael Vick and Nnamdi Asomugha, but Jason Babin, at 32 and coming off an 18-sack season, is probably the guy I’d expect to have the fastest career dropoff, though he apparently stays in great shape.

The Redskins’ three opponents have an older interior defensive lineman whose play could tail off: The Cowboys’ Jay Ratliff (31) is ruled out of the opener with a high ankle sprain. The Eagles’ Cullen Jenkins is 31 and the Giants’ Rocky Bernard is 33. Washington’s three D-line starters are each 28.

But to truly answer your question, of who simply can’t keep it up, I’d say the Giants’ offensive line. The tackles, David Diehl and Sean Locklear are 31, and the rest of the starters are 30 or right on the cusp. One might be able to pitch that as experience, but with a slew of young pass-rushers in the division, this might be a unit that looks its age the soonest.

The expectations coming off a Super Bowl really can’t be much higher. It would be pretty hard for the Giants to live up to what they did last year, even if they had a much better regular season. There are expectations in Philadelphia, Dallas and Washington as well though. Which team do you think is least likely to live up to them?

Jimmy: Ha, setting me up like Stockton to Malone, Keith. The Cowboys have seven to 10 good-to-great-to-excellent players at the top of their roster, mediocrity scattered throughout the rest of the starting spots, no depth, and are bad in the trenches.

That’s been roughly the formula the last two years, but they went 14-18 over that span and people call the team a disappointment. Their lack of success really shouldn’t have come as much of a surprise in 2010 or 2011, and it shouldn’t come as much of a surprise when they’re an average team yet again in 2012. But to some, it will.

Boom, summed up the Cowboys in less than 100 words.  Any NFCE teams you see exceeding expectations?

Keith: Yeah. I wrote on Tuesday morning about how the Redskins lost a lot of close, winnable games last year. The point isn’t to let them off the hook for not being able to finish, but just to look beyond the 5-11 record. The schedule is tougher, but the roster is deeper. Mostly, I think the depth is better, which makes them less susceptible to the annual second-half fade, and the consistency at QB will help.

I’m not pandering, either. Washington could still have issues on the offensive line and in the secondary. But expectations are low enough that exceeding them is possible. Fans in New York and Philadelphia expect the Super Bowl, and you really can’t exceed that.

This dovetails nicely into the way we should wrap it up. I’ll give my order of finish, you give yours, and then we throw it over to the readers:

1. Eagles: A year after the hype, the glaring holes at linebacker were addressed with DeMeco Ryans and Kendricks, and there are a couple of potential breakout rookies behind their two irreplaceable offensive players (Nick Foles backing up Vick, and Bryce Brown behind LeSean McCoy). Listening to their players talk, they sound like a group less concerned with living up to expectations, and more like one who knows if they do their own jobs and limit mistakes, they are talented enough to flourish.

2. Giants: A year after the Super Bowl, that’s all anyone can talk about. While the kudos are deserved, New York didn’t exactly blow through the regular season. It’s a very similar team to the one that went 9-7. A little healthier, perhaps, and younger with Brandon Jacobs and Mario Manningham replaced by draft picks, but in the end the same key cogs. The Giants can be as good as anyone, or go through rough patches. Another 9-7 year, or even 10-6, doesn’t guarantee a return to the postseason.

3. Redskins. For reasons explained above. Plus, in the third year of the 3-4, and now that Jim Haslett has the proper personnel, the defense could be a good enough to carry a team. That would take pressure off Robert Griffin to feel like he has to do it. And if he can just relax, take care of the ball and let his natural talent shine, he’ll be dangerous.

4. Cowboys. They’ve become the new Redskins. They shell out for top-level starters, but the part of the roster that keeps teams together when you’re deep in the season and your stars are banged up seems thin. Great teams need good line play, good depth, mistake-free special teams. Dallas has the stars to carry them to several wins, but the full 53 doesn’t seem like that of an outstanding team.

If it makes any Cowboys fans feel better, however, I thought the Giants were the fourth-place team last preseason. Um, oops.

What’s your order?

Jimmy: Ugh, I have to be boring here.  I have the exact same order.

1. Eagles. The biggest concern obviously will be the health of Vick, but beyond that I just don’t see very many holes. I’ll put it like this: The biggest non-Vick concern I have for this team is at the LT position. The No. 2 concern would be OL depth. And yet, the Eagles’ OL is far better than any of the other three teams in the division. This team oozes speed, and their defensive line has all the makings of being an absolute terror.

2. Giants. Best QB in the division, hands down, best 1-2 punch at WR, and again, a downright nasty defensive line. Those were the key ingredients last year, and they’re still in place. But there are some major warts. The starting offensive tackles are Sean Locklear (who Redskins fans should know something about) and David Diehl (a player Pro Football Focus rated as the worst offensive lineman in the league last year).

 3. Redskins. Improved skill positions, impressive front seven, a RB by committee that has some promise, and hope in the golden child. Can the OL and secondary at least be adequate? If so, they could realistically win 8 or 9 games. Personally, I have them at somewhere around 7-9 in the honeymoon season.

 4. Cowboys. See comments above.

Floor’s yours, Insider readers. I’d planned to include the division picks from those of you who e-mailed them in, but our systems froze last night. I’ll update the post as soon as I can get back into my e-mail.

Your Redskins’ record picks

A lot of great stuff in the comments yesterday, and a bunch of 7-9 and 8-8 picks. Seems like the consensus, and you all deserve some credit for not being ridiculous homers. Years of unfulfilled dreams hardens people, I guess.

Here are some of my favorite reactions:

frediefritz: “My heart says 9-7, my wallet says 7-9, and the fan in me says 14-2.”
 
stevek20147: “Honestly, the win total doesn’t bother me this year. Just looking for better execution and consistency thru four quarters. Don’t believe the win total will be less than last year, however. Next year, I’ll be counting wins and losses.”
 
VaBroker: “Probably six wins. A fairly hot start followed by reality. Our OL is still thin and our secondary is extremely vulnerable. We play some very good passing teams.”
 
heyjoe728: “Joe the Soothsayer predicts an 8-8 season. Sounds blah, doesn’t it? But, it will be a much more enjoyable season than last year. Why? The month of December. The Redskins will actually be in the hunt, with a possibility of postseason play in December. It will be the first December since Gibbs v.2 that we are watching games at holiday time with some semblance of hope and excitement. But alas, we will fall a bit short but will be hopeful for next season.”
 
BeantownGreg1: “Anywhere from 7-9 to 9-7, is most likely…this is a foundation year, the qb is in place, the team now has what could be a good to very good WR core, and a good core of rb’s…they need to continue to draft wisely, and the double digit wins will soon follow. … “
In reply, AWWbareskinsYEA: “I like the term ‘foundation year.’ “
 
brainstorm “I just want to beat the Terrible Towels. I still can’t forgive Danny for turning FedEx field into Pittsburgh, Md.”
 
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