Dallas Cowboys: nfc east top 20

NFC East Top 20: No. 1 Eli Manning

September, 4, 2012
9/04/12
9:43
AM ET
In the final 20 days before the start of the regular season, we are counting down the top 20 players in the NFC East. For a full explanation, see this post. And if you want to read any of the other posts that have run since we started this series, you can find them all here, in this link.

No. 1 -- Eli Manning, Giants QB

Manning
This wasn't easy, and the fact that it wasn't easy to pick a two-time Super Bowl MVP quarterback as the best player in the division says a ton about the rest of the players in the division. It was a very tough, close call between Manning and Cowboys linebacker DeMarcus Ware for this spot, and I gave more than a passing thought to Eagles running back LeSean McCoy, who finished third.

But in the end, Manning deserves the spot. He's earned it by performing with incredible consistency at a high level and in the biggest of spots. He ranks behind only Peyton Manning, Drew Brees, Tom Brady and Matt Hasselbeck in passing yards among active quarterbacks, and each of those players has at least a three-year head start on him. He's fifth (behind those same four guys) in touchdown passes among active quarterbacks. Only Peyton Manning, Brady, Brees and Ben Roethlisberger among active quarterbacks have engineered more game-winning drives, and only Peyton Manning and Brady have more comeback victories.

So Eli is a top-level quarterback in terms of production (and in spite of a stubborn, lingering reputation to the contrary), but what truly sets him apart as a great player is the way he's performed during the two Super Bowl title runs the Giants have made with him under center. He has a 61.5 career completion percentage, a 17-to-8 touchdown-to-interception ratio in his 11 career playoff games and has led the team from behind to beat Bill Belichick, Brady and the New England Patriots in two separate Super Bowls. He's the unquestioned leader of his team, the calming influence which Giants players know they can count on in tough times, a key to his team's uncanny ability to handle adversity and a proven champion without whose individual performance those Super Bowl titles would not have been possible. The best quarterback in the NFC East is the most clutch quarterback in the NFL right now and is the division's best player.

The rest of the rankings:

2. DeMarcus Ware, LB, Cowboys
3. LeSean McCoy, RB, Eagles RB
4. Trent Cole, DE, Eagles DE
5. Jason Pierre-Paul, DE, Giants
6. Hakeem Nicks, WR, Giants
7. Tony Romo, QB, Cowboys
8. Justin Tuck, DE, Giants
9. Jason Babin, DE, Eagles
10. Victor Cruz, WR, Giants
11. London Fletcher, LB, Redskins
12. Michael Vick, QB, Eagles
13. Tyron Smith, T, Cowboys
14. Brian Orakpo, LB, Redskins
15. Jason Witten, TE, Cowboys
16. Dez Bryant, WR, Cowboys
17. DeSean Jackson, WR, Eagles
18. Osi Umenyiora, DE, Giants
19. Evan Mathis, G, Eagles
20. Ahmad Bradshaw, RB, Giants

NFC East Top 20: No. 2 DeMarcus Ware

September, 3, 2012
9/03/12
11:40
AM ET
In the final 20 days before the start of the regular season, we are counting down the top 20 players in the NFC East. For a full explanation, see this post.

No. 2 -- DeMarcus Ware, Cowboys LB

Ware
A six-time Pro Bowler who's led the league in sacks twice, Ware is universally regarded as one of the very best defensive players in the NFL. There are plenty of people who call him the best. He is fifth among active players in sacks and 29th in league history already at the age of 30. His lowest sack total of the past six years is the 11 he posted in 2009. He led the league with 20 the year before that and 15 the year after, and his 19.5 in 2011 would have led the league in almost any other year. He enters each season a threat to break the all-time single-season sacks record. He's as good at hunting down quarterbacks as any player in the league.

Sacks are his game, but they're not his whole game. Ware is smart and fast and athletic enough to make a decision on the fly to change course and run down a running back. He can play either side of the field and get into the backfield just as quickly. He is constantly double-teamed, which is a testament to his own remarkable ability as well as the fact that the Cowboys have yet to establish a consistent pass-rushing threat other than him. But he's handled that responsibility every year and hasn't allowed it to affect his production. He's a classy professional who sets a strong example for younger Cowboy players who revere him.

Ware is a superstar in his prime and shows no signs of slowing down. He is one of the headline players who help this star-studded division retain its reputation as one of the toughest in which to play year after year.

Rankings so far:

3. LeSean McCoy, Eagles
4. Trent Cole, DE, Eagles
5. Jason Pierre-Paul, DE, Giants
6. Hakeem Nicks, WR, Giants
7. Tony Romo, QB, Cowboys
8. Justin Tuck, DE, Giants
9. Jason Babin, DE, Eagles
10. Victor Cruz, WR, Giants
11. London Fletcher, LB, Redskins
12. Michael Vick, QB, Eagles
13. Tyron Smith, T, Cowboys
14. Brian Orakpo, LB, Redskins
15. Jason Witten, TE, Cowboys
16. Dez Bryant, WR, Cowboys
17. DeSean Jackson, WR, Eagles
18. Osi Umenyiora, DE, Giants
19. Evan Mathis, G, Eagles
20. Ahmad Bradshaw, RB, Giants

NFC East Top 20: No. 3 LeSean McCoy

September, 2, 2012
9/02/12
1:20
PM ET
In the final 20 days before the start of the regular season, we are counting down the top 20 players in the NFC East. For a full explanation, see this post.

No. 3 -- LeSean McCoy, Eagles RB

McCoy
Amid the quarterbacks and pass-rushers who dominate the top part of our list we find a running back -- the best in the division and one who may be on the verge of becoming the best in the entire league. After rushing for 1,080 yards in 2010 in his second year in the league, McCoy rushed for 1,309 in the 15 games he played in 2011 to rank fourth in the NFL. He also ran for 17 touchdowns and caught three more in 2011, establishing himself as the top scoring threat on the Eagles' high-powered offense.

McCoy has shown an ability to be a workhorse back, a goal-line back and a receiving back. His 78 catches led the Eagles in 2010, and while his total dropped to a more reasonable 48 in 2011, he's obviously a help to the passing game as well as the run game. His speed and vision make him a dangerous threat when he gets the ball in his hands and has space in which to operate. He's the complete package in an era that is seeing the running back position become more specialized. It says a lot that the only criticism Eagles fans have of McCoy is that the team needs to give him the ball more often.

McCoy is poised for even greater things. He just turned 24 years old in July, making him one of the youngest stars on this list. He was already one of its brightest.

Rankings so far:

4. Trent Cole, DE, Eagles
5. Jason Pierre-Paul, DE, Giants
6. Hakeem Nicks, WR, Giants
7. Tony Romo, QB, Cowboys
8. Justin Tuck, DE, Giants
9. Jason Babin, DE, Eagles
10. Victor Cruz, WR, Giants
11. London Fletcher, LB, Redskins
12. Michael Vick, QB, Eagles
13. Tyron Smith, T, Cowboys
14. Brian Orakpo, LB, Redskins
15. Jason Witten, TE, Cowboys
16. Dez Bryant, WR, Cowboys
17. DeSean Jackson, WR, Eagles
18. Osi Umenyiora, DE, Giants
19. Evan Mathis, G, Eagles
20. Ahmad Bradshaw, RB, Giants

NFC East Top 20: No. 4 Trent Cole

September, 1, 2012
9/01/12
11:12
AM ET
In the final 20 days before the start of the regular season, we are counting down the top 20 players in the NFC East. For a full explanation, see this post.

No. 4 -- Trent Cole, Eagles DE

Cole
Quick quiz: Cole entered the league the same year as Justin Tuck. Who has more sacks? The answer is Cole, and it's not even close. Cole has 68 sacks in his seven-year career, which is good for 10th among active players. Tuck has 45.5. Cole's only one behind Tuck's teammate, Osi Umenyiora, who has 69 and began his career two years earlier. He doesn't have the Subway endorsement deal or the two Super Bowl titles, and I'm sure he'd trade all of his sacks for the latter. But those numbers help to illustrate that Cole is a much better player than his rather low national profile tends to indicate.

Cole is the Eagles' do-everything defensive end, kind of like Tuck is for the Giants. While teammate Jason Babin was hanging out with the league sack leaders last year, Cole got his 11, reaching double digits for the third year in a row. He also plays the run very well, shows a variety of ways of getting to the passer from the outside or, when needed, the inside. And because opposing offensive coordinators don't care about headlines or national profiles and know who the scariest player is on the defense, Cole found himself fighting through double-teams more often than his teammate on the other side of the line. His Pro Football Focus grade last year ranked him the No. 1 4-3 defensive end in the entire league, first in the pass rush and 10th against the run.

Cole is a quiet star, but make no mistake about it -- he is a star. In a division loaded with some of the top pass-rushers in the league, he deserves to be ranked here, behind only the very best and ahead of some of his better-known rivals.

Rankings so far:

5. Jason Pierre-Paul, DE, Giants
6. Hakeem Nicks, WR, Giants
7. Tony Romo, QB, Cowboys
8. Justin Tuck, DE, Giants
9. Jason Babin, DE, Eagles
10. Victor Cruz, WR, Giants
11. London Fletcher, LB, Redskins
12. Michael Vick, QB, Eagles
13. Tyron Smith, T, Cowboys
14. Brian Orakpo, LB, Redskins
15. Jason Witten, TE, Cowboys
16. Dez Bryant, WR, Cowboys
17. DeSean Jackson, WR, Eagles
18. Osi Umenyiora, DE, Giants
19. Evan Mathis, G, Eagles
20. Ahmad Bradshaw, RB, Giants

NFC East Top 20: No. 5 Jason Pierre-Paul

August, 31, 2012
8/31/12
9:30
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In the final 20 days before the start of the regular season, we are counting down the top 20 players in the NFC East. For a full explanation, see this post.

Pierre-Paul
No. 5 -- Jason Pierre-Paul, Giants DE

Since we began this list, oh, I guess about 15 days ago, people have asked me what the criteria are. Career accomplishment? 2011 performance? Projections for 2012? The answer is, as you can see if you look at the list, a combination of all of those things. But in the case of the first member of our top five, it's clear that the second has played an overwhelming role.

Pierre-Paul's second year in the NFL was a thunderous exclamation point of a season that established the New York Giants' defensive end as the kind of player who can completely dominate a game. He registered 16.5 sacks, which was good for fourth in the league, and added another half-sack in the NFC Championship Game in San Francisco. He was the lone stalwart in the Giants' pass rush in a season that saw Justin Tuck and Osi Umenyiora struggle with injuries, and more often than not he looked like the best player on the field when the Giants were on defense.

Pierre-Paul's signature game was the Week 14 victory in Dallas, in which he had two sacks, eight tackles, a forced fumble and blocked the field goal that would have sent the game into overtime. His standout performance in a game that featured almost no defense by either team otherwise helped the Giants end a four-game losing streak and secure a victory that would prove crucial in their ability to overtake the Cowboys for the division title. Still just 23 years old, he's already among the most feared defensive players in the NFL, and his potential appears to be nearly unlimited.

Rankings so far:

6. Hakeem Nicks, WR, Giants

7. Tony Romo, QB, Cowboys

8. Justin Tuck, DE, Giants

9. Jason Babin, DE, Eagles

10. Victor Cruz, WR, Giants

11. London Fletcher, LB, Redskins

12. Michael Vick, QB, Eagles

13. Tyron Smith, T, Cowboys

14. Brian Orakpo, LB, Redskins

15. Jason Witten, TE, Cowboys

16. Dez Bryant, WR, Cowboys

17. DeSean Jackson, WR, Eagles

18. Osi Umenyiora, DE, Giants

19. Evan Mathis, G, Eagles

20. Ahmad Bradshaw, RB, Giants

NFC East Top 20: No. 6 Hakeem Nicks

August, 30, 2012
8/30/12
12:00
PM ET
In the final 20 days before the start of the regular season, we are counting down the top 20 players in the NFC East. For a full explanation, see this post.

Nicks
No. 6 -- Hakeem Nicks, Giants WR

The best wide receiver in the NFC East is a soft-spoken workaholic who calls no attention to himself and has been obsessively studying game film since he was in high school. He knows where everyone on the offense is supposed to line up on every play, and what each person's responsibility is. He knows how to bait a cornerback, outrun a cornerback, outjump a cornerback and find the ball in traffic before the cornerback can find it. He's a master at getting open when he has to on a big play, and he doesn't mind being a decoy or absorbing double coverage if that's what it takes for a teammate to make one instead. Nicks has been every bit the player, worker and leader the New York Giants believed he would be when they made him their first-round draft pick in 2009.

He has exceeded 75 catches and 1,000 yards in each of his past two seasons as he and Eli Manning have flourished together in the Giants' passing game. Nicks has also helped tutor fellow wide receiver Victor Cruz, who finished third in the league in receiving yards in 2011. In Cruz, Nicks has found a friend and a kindred spirit -- someone as interested and invested in the wide receiver position as a craft to be honed and constantly worked on in search of the slightest improvement. The two make each other better, but Nicks is the veteran and the one who has set the example.

Nicks may have saved his best work for the Giants' playoff run last year. In four postseason games, including the Super Bowl, he averaged seven catches, 111 yards and a touchdown. One of those touchdowns was his Hail Mary catch at the end of the first half against the Packers at Lambeau Field. And his 10 catches for 109 yards in the Super Bowl may have made him a candidate for MVP if that hadn't, somewhere along the line, been changed to a quarterback-only award. Nicks is the division's best receiver and one of the best in the entire NFL.

Rankings so far:

7. Tony Romo, QB, Cowboys

8. Justin Tuck, DE, Giants

9. Jason Babin, DE, Eagles

10. Victor Cruz, WR, Giants

11. London Fletcher, LB, Redskins

12. Michael Vick, QB, Eagles

13. Tyron Smith, T, Cowboys

14. Brian Orakpo, LB, Redskins

15. Jason Witten, TE, Cowboys

16. Dez Bryant, WR, Cowboys

17. DeSean Jackson, WR, Eagles

18. Osi Umenyiora, DE, Giants

19. Evan Mathis, G, Eagles

20. Ahmad Bradshaw, RB, Giants

NFC East Top 20: No. 7 Tony Romo

August, 29, 2012
8/29/12
11:00
AM ET
In the final 20 days before the start of the regular season, we are counting down the top 20 players in the NFC East. For a full explanation, see this post.

Romo
No. 7 -- Tony Romo, Cowboys QB

Romo may be the ultimate example of a player whose reputation fails to jibe with reality. His inability to elevate the Dallas Cowboys to Super Bowl contenders during his time as their starting quarterback has come to define him. Critics ignore the facts of poor offensive line play and substandard defense and blame Romo for failing to win more than one playoff game to this point. Games such as last year's in which Romo helped blow second-half leads with interceptions against the Jets and the Lions don't help.

But the easy criticisms and unfair reputation obscure the reality that Romo performs pretty consistently as one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL. His career passer rating of 96.9 ranks among the greatest quarterbacks in league history. Drew Brees, Aaron Rodgers and Peyton Manning are the only active quarterbacks with a higher career completion percentage. His career fourth-quarter numbers are excellent. And for all of the talk about interceptions, Romo only threw 10 of them last year against 31 touchdowns. His career TD/INT rate is 2.07 to 1.

Romo deserves to have a lot of the same things said about him that are said about quarterbacks with better reputations. He moves well in the pocket. He keeps plays alive, makes something out of nothing. He has shown an ability to overcome poor line play and a revolving door at running back and still deliver top-level production. He has shown an ability to help make receivers better. He deserves to be ranked among the current greats at his position and, obviously, among the best players in the NFC East. And if he ever does find a way to lead the Cowboys to a championship, the reputation might finally match up with the reality.

Rankings so far:

8. Justin Tuck, DE, Giants

9. Jason Babin, DE, Eagles

10. Victor Cruz, WR, Giants

11. London Fletcher, LB, Redskins

12. Michael Vick, QB, Eagles

13. Tyron Smith, T, Cowboys

14. Brian Orakpo, LB, Redskins

15. Jason Witten, TE, Cowboys

16. Dez Bryant, WR, Cowboys

17. DeSean Jackson, WR, Eagles

18. Osi Umenyiora, DE, Giants

19. Evan Mathis, G, Eagles

20. Ahmad Bradshaw, RB, Giants

NFC East Top 20: No. 8 Justin Tuck

August, 28, 2012
8/28/12
10:00
AM ET
In the final 20 days before the start of the regular season, we are counting down the top 20 players in the NFC East. For a full explanation, see this post.

No. 8. -- Justin Tuck, Giants DE

Having apprenticed under Michael Strahan at an early age, Tuck seemed destined to emerge as one of the top all-around defensive players in the NFL. He has been one of the dependable anchors of the New York Giants defensive lines that have helped deliver two of the last five Super Bowls. And while teammates such as Osi Umenyiora and Jason Pierre-Paul may have produced more highlight plays or better sack numbers, Tuck has been the best player on the Giants' defense since Strahan retired.

He's made two Pro Bowls in the past five years, and unlike some of his 4-3 defensive end peers, he's known for more than just sacks. Tuck consistently grades out among the best at his position against the run. He's able to move inside and play defensive tackle when the Giants decide they need to load up on pass rushers. His versatility is a critical part of the Giants' team success and the individual success others have had around him. And he's a willing and sober voice of reason around younger players in a Giants locker room whose hallmark is cohesion and development.

A year ago, Tuck would have been higher on this list. He's coming off a down year that was plagued by injuries and, he says, forced him to consider his future in the game. But his reinvigorated return to action in late December coincided with the start of the Giants' run to the Super Bowl, and that's no coincidence. Teams have players without whom they just don't seem to operate correctly, and Tuck is such a player for the Giants.

Rankings so far:

9. Jason Babin, DE, Eagles

10. Victor Cruz, WR, Giants

11. London Fletcher, LB, Redskins

12. Michael Vick, QB, Eagles

13. Tyron Smith, T, Cowboys

14. Brian Orakpo, LB, Redskins

15. Jason Witten, TE, Cowboys

16. Dez Bryant, WR, Cowboys

17. DeSean Jackson, WR, Eagles

18. Osi Umenyiora, DE, Giants

19. Evan Mathis, G, Eagles

20. Ahmad Bradshaw, RB, Giants

NFC East Top 20: No. 9 Jason Babin

August, 27, 2012
8/27/12
12:00
PM ET
In the final 20 days before the start of the regular season, we are counting down the top 20 players in the NFC East. For a full explanation, see this post.

Babin
No. 9 -- Jason Babin, Eagles DE

Babin's game is pretty simple. Once he arrived in Tennessee for the 2010 season and teamed up with defensive line coach Jim Washburn, he was able to strip away everything he didn't do well and focus on the one thing he does extremely well -- get after the quarterback. Babin picked up 12.5 sacks that year with the Titans, and when Washburn jumped to Philadelphia in 2011, Babin followed and collected 18 more sacks last year for the Eagles. Only Minnesota's Jared Allen and Dallas' DeMarcus Ware had more.

A perfect fit in Washburn's Wide 9 defensive line scheme, which asks its ends to be fast and aggressive enough to speed around blockers and pursue the quarterback on every play, Babin has turned himself into one of the great sack artists in today's game. It's a passing league, as I'm sure you've heard, and of the eight players ahead of Babin on this list, only one is not strictly a passing-game player. It may well be that Babin doesn't play the run as well as some of his peers, or that he's not the same kind of all-around player that some of the other pass-rushers in his division are. But that misses the point.

Babin is a lethal pass-rusher at a time when rushing the passer is perhaps more important than it's ever been in NFL history. He's a lethal pass-rusher in a defense that can't function unless its ends are wreaking havoc on the backfield. He's a man for his time and his team, and because he's as great as he is at what he does, he deserves this spot on this particular list.

Rankings so far:

10. Victor Cruz, WR, Giants

11. London Fletcher, LB, Redskins

12. Michael Vick, QB, Eagles

13. Tyron Smith, T, Cowboys

14. Brian Orakpo, LB, Redskins

15. Jason Witten, TE, Cowboys

16. Dez Bryant, WR, Cowboys

17. DeSean Jackson, WR, Eagles

18. Osi Umenyiora, DE, Giants

19. Evan Mathis, G, Eagles

20. Ahmad Bradshaw, RB, Giants

NFC East Top 20: No. 11 London Fletcher

August, 25, 2012
8/25/12
10:00
AM ET
In the final 20 days before the start of the regular season, we are counting down the top 20 players in the NFC East. For a full explanation, see this post.

No. 11 -- London Fletcher, Redskins LB

Fletcher
The oldest player on this list, Fletcher is well known as the heart, soul, leader and conscience of the Washington Redskins' defense. The Redskins put rookie quarterback Robert Griffin III's locker next to Fletcher's because they wanted the future of their franchise to learn as much as possible about how to carry himself on and off the field. Fletcher is a vocal leader and a leader by example. If he's getting on a teammate's case to get in shape, the teammate is hearing it from someone who keeps himself in the best shape of anyone on the team. If he's getting on a teammate's case for not hustling, the teammate is hearing it from someone who flies to the ball at full speed on every play.

But Fletcher isn't just here for his intangibles. Fletcher remains, at 37, one of the most productive defensive players in the league. He was credited last year with a league-leading 166 tackles. He has not finished outside of the top seven in that category since 2003. He has not missed a single game in his professional career, which began in 1998 with the St. Louis Rams. Fletcher got a two-year contract from the Redskins this offseason because of what he means to the team on and off the field, and as the Redskins have spent the past couple of years overhauling the roster and transitioning to youth and a more promising future, he's only proven himself more valuable.

There is likely to come a time when Fletcher is no longer the player we've come to expect him to be. But 2011 showed no signs that that time is imminent, and there's little reason to expect anything less than continued excellence and dependability from the Redskins' leader in 2012.

Rankings so far:

12. Michael Vick, QB, Eagles

13. Tyron Smith, T, Cowboys

14. Brian Orakpo, LB, Redskins

15. Jason Witten, TE, Cowboys

16. Dez Bryant, WR, Cowboys

17. DeSean Jackson, WR, Eagles

18. Osi Umenyiora, DE, Giants

19. Evan Mathis, G, Eagles

20. Ahmad Bradshaw, RB, Giants

NFC East Top 20: No. 12 Michael Vick

August, 24, 2012
8/24/12
10:00
AM ET
In the final 20 days before the start of the regular season, we are counting down the top 20 players in the NFC East. For a full explanation, see this post.

No. 12 -- Michael Vick, Eagles QB

Vick
Vick
What's amazing about lists like this is the impact one season can have on them. There's a reasonable chance, if we'd done this exercise a year ago, that Vick would have ranked at or near its very top. He was coming off a 2010 season in which he was possibly the best all-around player in the entire league, a dual threat the likes of which we've rarely seen in NFL history. The mere fact that he still holds the potential to be that player on any given week is enough to warrant ranking him higher on this list than he is here.

But what 2011 brought for Vick was the resurrection of old concerns about his durability and his own personal determination to hone and refine his game the way the great quarterbacks do. There is no questioning his talent, and there never has been. Even in an off year in which he turned the ball over too much and missed three games due to injury, Vick still ranked in the top half of the league in passer rating and in passing yards per game, and third among quarterbacks in rushing yards. There were flashes, even as he struggled, of the great things he can still do.

And perhaps he will do them again. Perhaps 2012 will see a return to Vick's 2010 form. Perhaps a revitalized wide receiver corps will help pump his numbers back up. Perhaps all the talk about all of the offseason work he's done is legit, and this is the year he takes quarterback more seriously as a craft and elevates his game to an elite level. Perhaps he gets through the season without a major injury. His talent and potential land Vick on this list of best players in the division. The many question marks he carries with him into his 2012 season are what keep him from rising higher on it.

Rankings so far:

13. Tyron Smith, T, Cowboys

14. Brian Orakpo, LB, Redskins

15. Jason Witten, TE, Cowboys

16. Dez Bryant, WR, Cowboys

17. DeSean Jackson, WR, Eagles

18. Osi Umenyiora, DE, Giants

19. Evan Mathis, G, Eagles

20. Ahmad Bradshaw, RB, Giants

NFC East Top 20: No. 13 Tyron Smith

August, 23, 2012
8/23/12
10:00
AM ET
In the final 20 days before the start of the regular season, we are counting down the top 20 players in the NFC East. For a full explanation, see this post.

No. 13 -- Tyron Smith, Cowboys OT

Smith
Smith is the youngest player on our list and one of the youngest in the entire league. He doesn't even turn 22 until December, and he's only had one year as an NFL player. But what a year it was. The Cowboys' starting right tackle for the entire 2011 season, Smith ranked as Pro Football Focus' fifth-best tackle, equally tough in the run and pass games. What makes Smith so good is his innate physical strength and ability to eliminate a defender from the play once he gets his hands on him. If you can't get past Smith on your first move, he simply has you beaten. And he showed throughout the year that the speed of the NFL game was not too much for him.

Smith moves to left tackle this season, and there's little doubt he can handle the assignment. Once he gets used to the difference in the footwork and hand placement, which is what he was working on in training camp this year, it's not going to be difficult for him to apply the same strength and athleticism that served him so well on the right side to protecting Tony Romo from the league's top pass-rushers. He has been working against DeMarcus Ware in practice every day, after all.

Some will wonder about Smith's ranking on this list in the absence of the division's other brilliantly talented young left tackle, Washington's Trent Williams. Anyone who reads this blog regularly knows I'm a fan of Williams and his potential to be one of the best in the league at his position. But I would submit that neither of his pro seasons so far has risen to the elite level of Smith's first year in the league. I have no problem believing that Williams has the ability to surpass Smith on this and other lists. But at this point, with Philadelphia's Jason Peters out for the year, Smith is the best offensive lineman in the NFC East and one of its best players at any position.

Rankings so far:

14. Brian Orakpo, LB, Redskins

15. Jason Witten, TE, Cowboys

16. Dez Bryant, WR, Cowboys

17. DeSean Jackson, WR, Eagles

18. Osi Umenyiora, DE, Giants

19. Evan Mathis, G, Eagles

20. Ahmad Bradshaw, RB, Giants

NFC East Top 20: No. 14 Brian Orakpo

August, 22, 2012
8/22/12
10:00
AM ET
In the final 20 days before the start of the regular season, we are counting down the top 20 players in the NFC East. For a full explanation, see this post.

No. 14 -- Brian Orakpo, Redskins LB

In another division, one not overstuffed with so many of the game's elite pass-rushers, Orakpo likely would be more appreciated. He's racked up 28.5 sacks in his first three years in the league -- years that have seen him transition from a college linebacker to a professional defensive end and back to a professional 3-4 outside linebacker. He's one of the few holdovers in Washington from the pre-Mike Shanahan days, and he's one of the leaders of a group that's emerging as one of the better young defenses in the NFL.

Sacks aren't the only part of Orakpo's game. He's shown disruptive ability in pass coverage (which is where he was when he got injured in Saturday's preseason game), breaking up passes and forcing fumbles. He's been a sure tackler in the open field. He has the versatility to do whatever's asked of him in Jim Haslett's scheme. But he'll make his mark in the pass rush, and last season he graded out as fifth-best 3-4 outside linebacker in the league in that area. He can fight through a double-team or absorb blockers while Ryan Kerrigan gets free on the other side, and there are and will continue to be times when Kerrigan looks like the better player. The pair will, in the Redskins' ideal scenario, feed off of each other and excel as a team for years to come.

But Orakpo's the one who's been doing it longer, and while his stats may not rank him among the pass-rushers above him on this list, this is a very tough division in which to stand out as a pass-rusher. Orakpo is a dirty-work guy whose numbers are fine and poised to get better. And the complete package of what he brings to his defense makes him worthy of his spot in the NFC East Top 20.

Rankings so far:

15. Jason Witten, TE, Cowboys

16. Dez Bryant, WR, Cowboys

17. DeSean Jackson, WR, Eagles

18. Osi Umenyiora, DE, Giants

19. Evan Mathis, G, Eagles

20. Ahmad Bradshaw, RB, Giants

NFC East Top 20: No. 15 Jason Witten

August, 21, 2012
8/21/12
12:00
PM ET
In the final 20 days before the start of the regular season, we are counting down the top 20 players in the NFC East. For a full explanation, see this post.

No. 15 -- Jason Witten, Cowboys TE

The NFC East has more spectacular players, but there are few as reliable as Witten, who ranks third among tight ends in NFL history with 696 catches and fifth with 7,909 receiving yards. As the Cowboys' offense has shifted and changed around Tony Romo in recent years, Witten has hung in as the one constant, averaging 89 catches and 1,014 yards over the last five seasons. His numbers may have taken a step back last year, especially as Romo grew comfortable looking to Laurent Robinson in the red zone. But Witten was also needed more as a blocker last year as the offensive line struggled and the run game became a higher priority with the emergence of DeMarco Murray.

As the Cowboys approach 2012 with a plan to lead hard on Murray and with uncertainty in that No. 3 receiver spot vacated by the free agent Robinson, one of their chief reasons for offensive optimism has been the presence of the 30-year-old Witten. That's why his spleen injury, suffered in the preseason opener against the Raiders, is such a significant concern. Witten is the rare NFL player who can be counted on as a constant, and the Cowboys don't have anyone who can step right in and do exactly what he does for their offense. Without him, Romo would likely be at sea.

Assuming he comes back healthy and soon, Witten will be a vital contributor to this season's Cowboys. They might need him to stay in and block more, especially with Martellus Bennett having left via free agency for the Giants. But if that's the case, he offers value there. And when he's out running routes, his value to Romo is that the quarterback knows his tight end is going to be where he's supposed to be -- and that he'll almost certainly make the play.

Rankings so far:

16. Dez Bryant, WR, Cowboys

17. DeSean Jackson, WR, Eagles

18. Osi Umenyiora, DE, Giants

19. Evan Mathis, G, Eagles

20. Ahmad Bradshaw, RB, Giants

NFC East Top 20: No. 16 Dez Bryant

August, 20, 2012
8/20/12
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In the final 20 days before the start of the regular season, we are counting down the top 20 players in the NFC East. For a full explanation, see this post.

No. 16 -- Dez Bryant, Dallas Cowboys WR

Bryant
The rankings on this list are based on a number of things. Some of it is about what the players have done. Some of it is about what I believe they can or will do this year and into the near future. But at bottom, it's all just one man's opinion, and that man is me, and if you read regularly you know I have nothing but the highest regard for the talents of young Mr. Bryant.

To watch Bryant is to watch a 23-year-old wide receiver with physical gifts that could, if he is willing and able to work on and refine his game, that could make him the very best at what he does. He is a size and speed mismatch for any defensive back that tries to cover him. He has shown an ability to be a big-time red-zone target, a deep threat or a possession receiver -- whatever Tony Romo needs on a given play or in a given situation. All that Bryant needs is to refine his route-running, stay healthy and -- here's the big one -- stay out of trouble off the field, where his family background is a total wreck and he's already made news this offseason for a domestic-violence incident involving his 37-year-old mother.

Ranking Bryant here -- one spot ahead of DeSean Jackson, who has admittedly accomplished more in his career to date -- is a testament to my feeling about the player he is right at this moment and the player I believe he is about to become this season. Assuming the Dallas offense gets decent enough line play and stays healthy enough to function, it is my belief that Bryant will rank considerably higher on this list one year from now and that we'll look back and think 16 was low. He is entering his third year in the league. As a 21-year-old rookie, he caught 45 passes for 561 yards and six touchdowns. As a 22-year-old in 2011, he caught 63 for 928 and nine. There is plenty, as I've already discussed here, that could derail him. But if he can keep on track, I say he's a comet, and about to become one of the superstars of the NFL.

Rankings so far:

17. DeSean Jackson, WR, Eagles

18. Osi Umenyiora, DE, Giants

19. Evan Mathis, G, Eagles

20. Ahmad Bradshaw, RB, Giants

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