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Thursday, June 9, 2011
NFC East must toughen up in the trenches

By Dan Graziano

Tyron Smith and Danny Watkins
The Cowboys (with Tyron Smith) and the Eagles (with Danny Watkins) used the draft to address a need along the offensive line.
Our readers like to call this division "The Beast," but I'm not so sure. I mean, I get it -- it rhymes with "East," and it reflects the kind of toughness and meanness that fans like to attribute to their favorite teams. And not long ago, it fit nicely. The NFC East was the NFL's toughest division. Sent three teams to the playoffs in 2006 and 2007. Took out the undefeated Patriots in the Super Bowl. Very Beast-like stuff, no question.

But things change quickly in the NFL, and 2010 wasn't this division's most Beastly year. For the first time in six seasons, the NFC East last year came up with just one playoff team. The division had as many 10-loss teams as 10-win teams, and the only playoff game it has won in the past two seasons was Dallas' January 2010 intradivision victory over Philadelphia.

A fluke? Sure, it's possible. Most people expect the Cowboys to bounce back in 2011 (assuming there is a 2011). And John Clayton pointed out last week that a slate of 2011 games against NFC West opponents could help inflate NFC East teams' records the way that delicious bit of scheduling helped out NFC South teams in 2010. But if the teams in this division want to make sure this little downturn is nothing more than a blip on history's radar, they would all do well to take a look at their offensive lines.

All four teams in the NFC East had offensive line issues last year. The Giants couldn't keep theirs healthy. The Cowboys couldn't seal off the right side. The Eagles couldn't keep Michael Vick's uniform clean. The Redskins were rebuilding. Although most, if not all, of those issues are resolvable, the teams need to work to make sure they're resolved. If there's one area whose erosion can really affect the toughness, meanness and other Beast-like qualities of a team or group of teams, it's the offensive line.

To their credit, the Cowboys and Eagles at least seem to understand they need to do something. Dallas took USC tackle Tyron Smith in the first round in April and spent three of their eight total draft picks on offensive linemen -- snagging guard David Arkin in the fourth round and guard/center Bill Nagy in the seventh. Smith is the only one of the three expected to start in 2011, as he's slated to be the right tackle, but depth on the O-line is never a negative.

Philadelphia needed a right guard so badly that it drafted 26-year-old former hockey player and firefighter Danny Watkins in the first round. He'll surely start at right guard, and Philadelphia picked up two more interior offensive linemen later in the draft. The Eagles still need to figure out what's going on there on the right side with Winston Justice and King Dunlap, and that tackle spot might potentially be something they address in free agency. With a left-handed quarterback, right tackle is to the Eagles what left tackle is to most other teams -- the protector of the "blind side."

Washington used only one pick this year on an offensive lineman, and it was a seventh-rounder. But the Redskins spent the fourth overall pick in the 2010 draft on left tackle Trent Williams, who looks as if he'll be a star at that spot, and they're piecing things together across the middle. They will need to address right tackle if they lose both Jammal Brown and Stephon Heyer in free agency, but the Redskins are in rebuilding mode. At least they have the franchise left tackle in place.

The Giants ... sigh. The Giants could have used offensive line help in the draft. But these are stubborn people who don't believe in drafting for need. They used their first-rounder on a cornerback, even though they already had plenty of those. The "value" of Prince Amukamara that late in the round was too much for the Giants to pass up, so they didn't end up taking a lineman until the fourth round, and they didn't bother taking another one after that. Now, if healthy, the Giants' offensive line is the best one in the division. But the five projected starters have an average age of 31.6. Shaun O'Hara missed 10 games and David Diehl missed four last year as the fates practically screamed at the Giants about the value of depth on the O-line. Injury and age on the line didn't sink the Giants' season per se, but they reared their heads and offered a warning. So far the Giants have yet to show they heard it.

The success of the teams in the NFC East -- this year and in the years to come -- will depend largely on the ways in which the four teams address the issues bubbling up across their offensive lines. I believe the division could have three playoff-caliber teams in 2011. The Redskins are doing some nice things but still have a long way to go and, currently, no quarterback to take them there. The other three teams have skill-position talent spilling out of their ears, but holes along the line can keep even the most skilled players from making the highlight-reel plays for which they're paid. Offensive line play was one reason the NFC East looked a little meeker than usual in 2010. It may be the key to "The Beast" regaining its teeth.