Eight in the Box: Returning from injury

May, 17, 2013
5/17/13
12:52
PM ET
NFC Eight in the Box: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

A look at key players for each NFC East team who are coming back from injuries:

Dallas Cowboys: LB Sean Lee

Lee has been a breakout defensive star for the Cowboys the past two seasons, but he hasn't been able to stay healthy. A wrist injury limited him after a raging hot start in 2011, and after another hot start in 2012 he injured a toe in Week 7 and missed the remainder of the season. The Cowboys' defense is different when Lee is on the field and at his instinctive, playmaking best, and it misses him terribly when he's not. Now set to play the middle linebacker position in Dallas' new 4-3 defensive alignment, Lee is more important than ever to the every-down success of the defense. We easily could have picked running back DeMarco Murray or even perpetually nicked-up wide receiver Miles Austin for this exercise, but the Cowboys' biggest question marks lie on defense, where six starters missed time last year because of injury. Improved health on defense is the surest way for the Cowboys as a whole to improve in 2013, and Lee is right in the middle of it all.

New York Giants: WR Hakeem Nicks

Nicks broke a bone in his foot during minicamp last year, and while he made it back in time for the start of the season, he was not himself all year. Foot and knee problems cost him three games and limited him to 692 yards and three touchdowns on 53 catches (10 catches and 199 yards of which came in a Week 2 game for which he was named NFC Offensive Player of the Week). Without his top wide receiver healthy for much of the year, Giants quarterback Eli Manning was unable to duplicate the Super Bowl-winning magic of the previous season. With Nicks hobbled, defenses were often able to focus more on Victor Cruz, whose production dropped from the previous year's dazzling yardage numbers. Nicks is a vital part of the Giants' passing game, which is the vital part of their offense. When he's at his best, he's among the top all-around wide receivers in the league. He needs to stay healthy for the Giants to function at peak levels.

Philadelphia Eagles: LT Jason Peters

Peters tore his right Achilles tendon twice during the 2012 offseason and was obviously unable to play at all as a result. He was the first of three Eagles starting offensive linemen to land on injured reserve last year, but after the year he had in 2011, his was the absence they had the greatest difficulty overcoming. Peters was essential to the Eagles offense in 2011 as a multi-level blocker who could take out his man at the line and then get upfield quickly and block a linebacker or a safety as well. Without him, the run game suffered, the screen game suffered, and quarterback Michael Vick's ability to succeed when he extended plays suffered. The Eagles need Todd Herremans and Jason Kelce back on the offensive line, and they need first-round pick Lane Johnson to play well at right tackle. But the most important offensive line recovery is that of Peters, who brings something to the equation no one else brings. He needs not only to be healthy, but to play like his old, spry self.

Washington Redskins: QB Robert Griffin III

If you've been living in a cave without access to TV or the Internet for the past six months, it will come as news to you that Griffin tore his ACL in the Redskins' playoff game (yes, they made the playoffs) and had reconstructive surgery in January. While the Redskins believe they have a capable backup in Kirk Cousins, much of their 2012 success was because of Griffin's unique talents and abilities. Even if Griffin is back to 100 percent, the Redskins probably will take greater care with how they use him in the read-option this year. But the threat he poses to defenses as a runner and a passer is not something Cousins or very many other quarterbacks in the league can replicate. The Redskins must be careful not to rush Griffin back from his injury, as he's their franchise quarterback and vital to the long-term success and health of the team. But their 2013 fortunes are tightly tied to the timing and extent of his recovery.

Dan Graziano

ESPN New York Giants reporter

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