Leading Questions: NFC East

February, 17, 2011
2/17/11
1:00
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With the offseason in full swing, let's take a look at one major question facing each NFC East team as it begins preparations for the 2011 season:

DALLAS COWBOYS

Can Rob Ryan fix this defense?

I understand that folks are already predicting a bounce-back season under new coach Jason Garrett, but that would have to be fueled by the defense. The defense caused a lot more turnovers once Wade Phillips was fired at midseason, but teams still put up plenty of points.

The Cowboys gave up an embarrassing 27.2 points per game, which ranked 31st in the league. The passing defense was ranked 26th. And help might not be on the way when you consider the fact that a lockout could wipe out free agency this offseason. (Do we really think free agency could take place during a one-week period in, say, late August?) The Cowboys need to make changes at safety and cornerback. But at this point, their best hope is landing a starter in the draft.

The thought is that Ryan's fiery presence will spark some of the veteran players. Nose tackle Jay Ratliff's coming off a down season -- by his standards. Perhaps Ryan will turn him loose as a defensive end this season if the Cowboys can find a suitable replacement in the middle. And it will be interesting to see what Ryan does with second-year inside linebacker Sean Lee. Will this be the season when Lee supplants veteran Keith Brooking on the field?

NEW YORK GIANTS

What can GM Jerry Reese do about the back end of this defense?

It would be a mistake to make massive changes to this talented unit, but a major flaw was revealed down the stretch. With a chance to lock up the division, the Giants' defense out and out collapsed against the Eagles and Packers. It was a stunning turn of events for a team that had fed off its defense throughout the season. Reese has vowed to address the situation that allowed Michael Vick and Aaron Rodgers to put up monster numbers in consecutive weeks.

Defensive coordinator Perry Fewell was a head-coaching candidate after the 2010 season, but he'll be back with the Giants for at least one more season. I didn't like the fact that he was bemoaning the loss of the versatile Mathias Kiwanuka late in the season. Did anyone hear the Green Bay Packers complaining about losing all those starters to injured reserve?

As defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul continues to develop, it can only help this secondary. It took him a while to find the quarterback, but once he did, Pierre-Paul began causing havoc. I think this defense will be a lot more instinctive in its second year with Fewell. I like the three-safety look with Antrel Rolle, Kenny Phillips and Deon Grant, but Reese won't be complacent when it comes to acquiring talent. He needs more speed on the back end. Terrell Thomas has emerged as a solid cornerback, but he needs more help. Watch what the Giants do in this draft. Something tells me Reese will continue to focus on defense.

PHILADELPHIA EAGLES

How will Juan Castillo perform as defensive coordinator?

You have to hand it to coach Andy Reid. The man knows how to keep us on our toes during a coaching search. Who knew that he was disguising his future defensive coordinator as an offensive line coach all these years? I've discussed the O-line with Castillo over the years, and I believe him to be one of the most underrated offensive assistants in the league. How does that translate to defense? I have no clue.

I do think he'll bring a tremendous amount of energy to the job. Sean McDermott was undermined by injuries in his two years in that role. The Eagles didn't take enough quality cornerbacks into the 2010 season, and they paid dearly. You can't afford to send Asante Samuel and the Funky Bunch out there in 2011. Dimitri Patterson and Joselio Hanson are serviceable players, but they were eventually exposed. Howie Roseman and Reid have to address this position. And then Castillo has to figure out a way to put the teeth back in this pass-rush. At least the man knows what a quarterback sack looks like.

WASHINGTON REDSKINS

What will Mike Shanahan do about this quarterback situation?

Seems like we're asking this same question every year. It looked like the Redskins had the answer heading into 2010, but the Donovan McNabb experiment was an epic failure for all involved. Shanahan certainly bears a lot of the blame. Now we'll see what he can do with a young quarterback. Cam Newton's suddenly vaulted into the top five in some of the mock drafts, so the Redskins might be looking at Missouri's Blaine Gabbert.

Gabbert has less of a boom-or-bust factor, according to ESPN's Mel Kiper. He might be ready for prime time sooner than Newton. Shanahan and son Kyle will have to get Rex Grossman ready as the starter until a young quarterback is ready to take over. And that can't sound good to Redskins fans who are starving for a playoff appearance.

Dan Snyder told me two weeks ago that he hopes McNabb will return as his starting quarterback. That's nonsense when you consider what happened last season. But no matter who lines up behind center, Shanahan has to surround him with more talent. The Redskins might be able to re-sign Santana Moss, but he's no longer a true No. 1 receiver. The Redskins desperately need an impact player at that position. At running back, it looks like Ryan Torain will get a shot as the starter. The only way Clinton Portis is coming back is if he restructures his contract. He may have a season or two left, but you can't count on him to make it through 16 games anymore.

It's all about the quarterback, though. As usual.

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NFC EAST SCOREBOARD

Sunday, 10/26
Monday, 10/27