1. Philadelphia Eagles
When recently signed backup quarterback Vince Young described his new squad as a "dream team," many seized on his words. No Eagles team has won an NFL championship since 1960. But Young's words forced many to consider: is there any disputing that thed already talented Eagles haven't dramatically improved?
A middle-of-the-pack pass defense last season, the Eagles solidified their secondary by signing cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha (five years, $60 million) from the Oakland Raiders and trading away backup quarterback Kevin Kolb to the Arizona Cardinals for 2009 Pro Bowl cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie.
They also added to their defensive line (Pro Bowl end Jason Babin with a five-year, $28-million contract and Cullen Jenkins, formerly of the Green Bay Packers), running back depth (2009 Pro Bowler Ronnie Brown) and receiving corps (former New York Giant Steve Smith). If the Eagles were already dangerous with quarterback Michael Vick, running back LeSean McCoy and receivers DeSean Jackson and Jeremy Maclin, Young may have been right.
2. New York Giants
The Giants have collapsed in the second half of the season two years in a row, failing to reach the postseason. The team's hope for a stronger defense may have collapsed already. By the second week of the preseason, the Giants had lost their leading tackler, cornerback Terrell Thomas to a knee injury, as well as cornerback Brian Witherspoon. Rookies Prince A mukamara, the team's 2011 first-round pick, and Marvin Austin, their second-round pick, also will miss significant time or the entire season.
In a division of high-powered offenses, the Giants finished last season fifth overall, and second in the NFC, in total offense (380.3 yards per game). So having Eli Manning throwing to Hakeem Nicks and Mario Manningham — despite the losses of tight end Kevin Boss and receiver Steve Smith — is still a plus.
The defensive line, anchored by Justin Tuck and a recovering Osi Umenyiora, will be a strength. If the Giants can recover from the injuries and adjust to an offensive line without veterans Shaun O'Hara and Rich Seubert, a playoff appearance isn't out of reach.
3. Dallas Cowboys
Despite having the talent to be among the league's top defenses, the Cowboys allowed the most points in franchise history last season, a performance so inept that the Cowboys started the season 1-7 and brought in new defensive coordinator Rob Ryan, brother of the New York Jets' outspoken coach, Rex Ryan.
Under Coach Jason Garrett, the Cowboys did improve, finishing the season 5-3. The breakout season of rookie wide receiver Dez Bryant allowed the team to release Roy Williams and rely on a new trio of pass catchers for quarterback Tony Romo: Miles Austin, Jason Witten and Bryant.
If the defense improves under Ryan and around sack machine DeMarcus Ware, and an inexperienced offensive line holds firm, the Cowboys should improve from a 6-10 season and challenge the Giants and Eagles.
4. Washington Redskins
There are glimmers of hope in Year 2 of the Mike Shanahan regime: a younger team built through the draft, no careless gargantuan free-agent signings and the elimination of distractions. A team, it seems, may just be forming in Ashburn.
But without a proven starting quarterback in John Beck or Rex Grossman, the Redskins face a daunting challenge in the NFC East, a division of capable signal callers. The defense, second worst in yards per game among all teams last season, is still a work in progress.
Additions such as nose tackle Barry Cofield and safety Oshiomogho Atogwe will help first-round pick Ryan Kerrigan, pass-rushing linebacker Brian Orakpo and safety LaRon Landry in the 3-4 defense. Adding depth to the running backs and receivers may also help free up Santana Moss. The win-loss record may not turn out to be better than last year's 6-10 mark — but expect the quality of play to improve.
By James Wagner - The Washington Post. Published Aug. 31, 2011.