- Dan Graziano, ESPN Staff Writer
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The Philadelphia Eagles' Michael Vick is under the most pressure of any player in the NFC East this year -- and the most pressure of any quarterback in the entire NFL. I have written this many times and will continue to write it because I believe it sincerely. Everything is in place for Vick to have a big year with the Eagles, and if he fails -- if he's as sloppy with turnovers as he was this past September, say, or if he breaks his ribs in the first quarter of a game and doesn't tell anyone until after the game is lost -- blame will smother him, and the Eagles will enter the next offseason re-evaluating their plans at quarterback.
But none of this means that Vick is alone in this predicament. He is, in fact, surrounded by people in similar circumstances. Coming off their 2011 flop, the Eagles have a slew of players on their roster with a great deal to prove in 2012. So in the interest of fairness, and not harping on the same guy over and over again, I present the five non-Vick Eagles with the most to prove this year:
5. DeMeco Ryans, MLB. Ryans comes with a great résumé and all kinds of stirring testimonials about what a great player and leader he was with the Texans before his 2010 injury. But he also comes with questions such as: Is he fully recovered from that injury? Can he still be a three-down middle linebacker, as the Eagles need him to be? Why did the Texans trade him for so little? The likely answers to those questions are yes, yes and because they totally changed their defense, and he no longer fit. But Eagles fans don't go in for promises. They're going to need to see Ryans perform the way they've been told he can -- on the field and in the locker room. My money says he'll do it, but if he does not, he'll be the target of criticism and scorn.
4. Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, CB. A year ago, they traded backup quarterback Kevin Kolb for him, and now they don't appear to have a backup quarterback. A couple of months ago, they traded starting cornerback Asante Samuel in part because they believed Rodgers-Cromartie was capable of being a starter. But Samuel is a very good player and had fans, and no matter how much financial sense that deal made, the Eagles still dealt him for a seventh-round pick in an obvious dump. Rodgers-Cromartie will be eligible for free agency at the end of this season, so he's already playing under that pressure. But if he doesn't play well, people are going to be asking a lot of questions about why they dumped Samuel just before a win-now season.
3. Brandon Graham, DE. He was the Eagles' first-round pick in 2010. They traded up to take him, thinking they were getting a disruptive pass-rusher who could step in right away and make a difference. Instead, he got hurt and has had trouble seeing the field consistently. Through no fault of Graham's, the New York Giants took Jason Pierre-Paul two picks later, and he has already become one of the best pass-rushers in the league. This continues to hang over the Eagles' heads, as they have so far received almost nothing from Graham. He will have to push for playing time behind starting defensive ends Trent Cole and Jason Babin, but in today's NFL there's obviously room for a third pass-rusher to make an impact. Graham has to stay healthy and make himself a factor in that rotation, or he's going to be carrying the "bust" label around Philadelphia for a long time.
2. DeSean Jackson, WR. The dazzling dual threat of 2008-10 seems a distant memory. Jackson is no longer a feared return man, and he disappeared too many times in the offense last year. He has admitted on several occasions that his contract situation bothered him and distracted him from performing the way he and the Eagles believe he should perform. But the contract issue is settled now, as Jackson is signed long-term. And whether or not they use him on punt returns the way they used to, the Eagles need Jackson to be the game-breaking wide receiver he appeared to be for most of his first three seasons in the league. It's not enough for him to be a downfield decoy who holds safeties back and opens up opportunities for Vick in the middle of the field. Jackson has to do a better job of getting open and allowing Vick chances to get the ball to him. Because as we all know, once Jackson has the ball, incredible things can happen.
1. Nnamdi Asomugha, CB. The words "Dream Team" will stand forever as an ironic reminder of the failed 2011 season. Asomugha wasn't the one who foolishly uttered them (that was Vince Young, who's long gone), but he is the symbol of the high-hopes offseason the Eagles had in 2011. The biggest name among the free agents they brought in for what they hoped would be a Super Bowl run last year, Asomugha struggled in a new scheme and on a new coast. He was brought in not to be merely good but rather to be one of the best shutdown corners in the league. That is the standard at which he must perform in 2012, or he'll have to carry the label of free-agent bust in a town that doesn't take kindly to them.
What these players all have going for them is that they're very talented and well-coached and surrounded by talent all over the field. But in some ways, that only adds to the pressure they face. This is a big and important year in Philadelphia, and much is expected. There's more than enough pressure to go around.