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Friday, June 28, 2013
Eight in the Box: Can’t-lose players

By Dan Graziano

NFC Eight in the Box: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Other than the quarterback, which player could each NFC East team least afford to lose to injury? Here's a look:

Dallas Cowboys: OT Tyron Smith

Smith is a great talent in his own right, a rising 22-year-old star who's quick and strong and physical enough to develop into one of the league's top tackles. His issues with penalties last season likely can be blamed on the transition from right to left tackle, and because he won't even turn 23 until Week 15 of this coming season, it's fair to believe he'll only get better. But what makes him truly indispensable is how much better he is than anyone else on the Cowboys' offensive line. Dallas has tried to patch together its line with second-tier talent for quite a while now, and it's become a major annual weakness. Using a first-round pick on Smith in 2011 and another on center Travis Frederick this year shows that it's finally willing to address it by spending more significant resources, but there's still a big drop-off in talent level to the Doug Frees, Nate Livingses and Mackenzey Bernadeaus in the room. If the Dallas line had to play without Smith, the weaknesses of the other linemen would become more apparent and more damaging.

New York Giants: WR Hakeem Nicks

We saw what happened to the offense last season when Nicks was either missing time or playing hurt. As great as Eli Manning and Victor Cruz are, Nicks at the No. 1 wideout spot is a major, versatile weapon who makes the offense function at a higher level when he's on the field. The Giants' running back corps this season is unproven, and they have a new tight end, as usual, so the wide receivers have to be the guys on whom Manning can rely. And then there's this off-field matter to consider: Nicks is the Giants' main leverage in their ongoing contract negotiations with Cruz. If Nicks is healthy and great, they can get away with offering Cruz less because he's less of a player. But if Nicks is hurt, their need to keep Cruz gets more dire, and he's likely to demand and get more.

Philadelphia Eagles: RB LeSean McCoy

When McCoy went down with an injury in the second half of last season, backup Bryce Brown showed plenty of explosiveness and big-play ability. Unfortunately, he also showed a disturbing tendency to fumble the ball at the worst possible times. Even if Brown were more reliable, McCoy would be a difficult player to replace. His running style is unique among the star running backs in the league today -- no one makes quicker cuts or finds holes more efficiently. And considering how questionable the Eagles' quarterback situation is and the extent to which Chip Kelly's offense is expected to lean on the run game and the short-passing game, there's no player on the Eagles' offense more important to their point-scoring prospects this season than their star running back.

Washington Redskins: NT Barry Cofield

The popular Redskins answer when I put this question on Twitter on Thursday was left tackle Trent Williams. And while I agree that Williams is an outstanding player whose absence would hurt the offense and Robert Griffin III, I also think Griffin's running ability at quarterback helps the Redskins combat whatever issues the offensive line may have. So in a close call, I'm giving this to Cofield, whose impact on the Redskins' 3-4 defense at the nose tackle position is a bit underappreciated. It seemed like an odd fit when the Redskins signed Cofield to play nose tackle, a position he hadn't played in the NFL, but his strength, athleticism and leadership have helped him grow quickly into one of the best nose tackles in the league and a vital piece on Washington's defensive line. If the Redskins lost Cofield, they could find someone to plug up the middle, but whoever it is wouldn't bring the same kind of speed and versatility. Cofield makes plays in the backfield that other interior defensive linemen can't make.