NFC East: 2012 One big question

Eagles: One big question

May, 3, 2012
5/03/12
12:00
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Can we trust the Philadelphia Eagles this time?

The Eagles were, as you'll recall, the stars of the 2011 offseason. The lockout ended, and they started spending and signing. Coming off a 2010 division title season during which quarterback Michael Vick had emerged as one of the best players in the league, the Eagles believed they were going to be awesome. Instead, they were one of the league's biggest 2011 flops. Radical changes on the coaching staff and with defensive personnel failed to come together as quickly and effectively as the Eagles believed they would. They started out 1-4 and never recovered. This offseason, they've been more measured, expressing the belief that the 2011 roster was better than it played and deserves a mulligan. They added a great middle linebacker in DeMeco Ryans to address their biggest need, extended the contracts of some of their core players, and are coming off a draft that many have hailed as the best in the league. Once again, they believe they are going to be awesome.

But is it real this time? Will Nnamdi Asomugha play to his all-pro pedigree in his second Philadelphia season? Will former offensive-line coach Juan Castillo's second year as defensive coordinator be free from the growing pains of his first? Will the Eagles be tougher against the run? And perhaps most importantly, will Vick be more responsible with the ball? Because as much as the defensive lapses cost the Eagles in the early part of the 2011 season, the turnovers on offense might have been even costlier. The Eagles might not need the brilliant, electrified 2010 version of Vick, but they do need a version that's more careful and responsible -- with the ball and with his own body -- than the one who played for them in 2011.

Any and all of these things could happen. With all of their problems, the 2011 Eagles still finished 8-8, only one game out of first place in the NFC East. So it's not as though there's some huge mountain to climb to get into the playoffs. But owner Jeffrey Lurie was clearly upset about the way the high hopes of 2011 fizzled, and if the 2012 Eagles disappoint, this could be the first time in Andy Reid's tenure as head coach that his job is legitimately in jeopardy. There's a lot riding on this Eagles season for a lot of people. They didn't do much to correct last year's problems, having sold ownership and fans on the idea that they would correct themselves because of the talent on the roster. That's a big bet to make, and for the sake of Reid and the rest of the folks in charge in Philadelphia, it had better pay off.

Giants: One big question

May, 3, 2012
5/03/12
12:00
PM ET
Did the New York Giants get better?

History will make it easy to forget that the 2011 Giants were a 9-7 team that needed to win its final game of the season just to make the playoffs. Sure, they won the Super Bowl, and if you do that it doesn't matter how close you came to not getting the chance. But if the goal is to do it again (as I'm certain it is in the minds of those who play for and run the Giants), then it's fair to assume they'll need more than nine regular-season wins this time. So the question is not whether they've done enough to make themselves better than they were in January and February but whether they've done enough to make themselves better than they were from September to December.

The Giants are incredibly strong at certain key positions, such as quarterback, wide receiver and defensive end. They are wise to prioritize those positions, because in today's NFL, being ultra-strong in those areas can help you cover weaknesses in others. But that's not to say they can allow weaknesses elsewhere on the roster to fester, and that's part of the reason they took a running back in the first round and a wide receiver in the second. Will David Wilson be an upgrade over the 2011 version of Brandon Jacobs? Probably someday but not necessarily right away. Will Rueben Randle be an upgrade over the 2011 version of Mario Manningham? Maybe someday but not necessarily right away. Will the offensive line be better with Will Beatty back at left tackle and David Diehl replacing Kareem McKenzie at right tackle? Depends, in part, on whether Kevin Boothe can play as well as he did at left guard in December and January, and whether David Baas and Chris Snee can play better than they did at center and right guard.

The Giants don't panic, and they shouldn't. They have ample proof that their faith in themselves to replenish the roster and regenerate a contending team on the fly is fully justified. But they have a lot of questions to answer in the offseason and in training camp. They don't know whether Terrell Thomas can come back fully healthy and be the emerging star cornerback he was before last summer's knee injury. They don't know whether Corey Webster can repeat his career year. They don't know who the starting middle linebacker is, or how the alignment will work around newcomer Keith Rivers. They don't know whether Osi Umenyiora is going to hold out. They have questions at tight end, and elsewhere on the offense. The Giants don't know, right now, whether they're better than the team that won the division at 9-7 and then got on a roll and won it all. They've done the best they could this offseason to try to make themselves so, but they don't know yet whether they have.

Cowboys: One big question

May, 3, 2012
5/03/12
12:00
PM ET
Have the Dallas Cowboys really fixed their defense?

I'll give them cornerback. With the free-agent signing of Brandon Carr and the surprising trade up in the first round of the draft to pick Morris Claiborne, the Cowboys have worked hard to make sure that this year's starting cornerbacks will be much more difficult for Giants fullbacks to jump over. Assuming Claiborne is the instant-impact guy he was drafted to be, he, Carr, Mike Jenkins and Orlando Scandrick make one of Dallas' weakest 2011 units a 2012 strength.

But questions remain at other places on a defense whose total system failure was the sole reason the Cowboys lost four of their last five games and the division title. Is Brodney Pool an upgrade over Abram Elam at safety? Can they get reliable production from that other inside linebacker spot from the combination of Dan Connor and Bruce Carter? Will Anthony Spencer be a more effective pass-rusher? Do they have a plan for limiting the wear and tear on nose tackle Jay Ratliff, to help him maintain a high level of performance throughout the second half of the season?

The Cowboys' active and productive offseason has done nothing to directly address the pass rush. There is a theory that the improvements at cornerback will help the pass rush, since better coverage of receivers could give the men up front more time to get to the passer. And that may well be true. But any and all improvements the Cowboys have made on defense remain theoretical until we see that defense on the field. Last year, the party line in Dallas was that the defensive personnel were good and had underachieved and would improve in the first year under new coordinator Rob Ryan. That turned out not to be the case, and now some of the personnel have been changed. But it remains up to Ryan to put it together as a cohesive unit more capable of stopping opponents than the 2011 version was. Right now, we're taking the Cowboys' word that the new faces are dramatic enough upgrades to pull that off. But aside from the money spent on Carr and the high draft position of Claiborne, there's little outside evidence to support it. More could have been done to improve at safety, outside linebacker and defensive line, and it was not. Although Ryan may be able to make it all work, it's hard to feel too certain about it on May 3.

Redskins: One big question

May, 3, 2012
5/03/12
12:00
PM ET
Is Robert Griffin III's supporting cast good enough?

The Washington Redskins have made a big bet on the Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback from Baylor, trading three first-round draft picks and a second-round pick for the right to draft him No. 2 overall last week. He has all the makings of a star worthy of such a price, but if the Redskins want to make any real noise in the division race in 2012, he's going to need help. Washington spent big early in free agency on wide receivers Pierre Garcon and Josh Morgan, two dynamic young players they believe can grow and develop along with Griffin in Mike Shanahan's offense. But they didn't do much to make immediate improvements to the offensive line. And with Tim Hightower still unsigned, the running game looks a bit short. Griffin's short-term success could ride on the ability of a lot of returning Redskins players to take the next step in their own development.

There are good-looking pieces in place, to be sure. Left tackle Trent Williams, the No. 4 pick in the 2010 draft, returns from his drug suspension to reclaim his spot as the anchor of the line. The Redskins hope that he and tight end Fred Davis, who was the team's best receiver last year but lost those same final four games to a drug suspension as well, have learned their lesson and will be strengths of the offense (rather than ongoing concerns) from now on. Veteran receiver Santana Moss remains on the roster and should be a help to Garcon and Morgan as they work their way into the system. Even Rex Grossman, last year's 20-interception starting quarterback, should be an asset to Griffin, because Grossman understands the offense very well and will be an effective tutor for the rookie as long as Griffin tunes out the parts about throwing the ball to the wrong team.

The Redskins believed they had one of the league's better defenses in 2011, and up front they do appear to be very strong, especially if promising second-year lineman Jarvis Jenkins is recovered from the injury that cost him his rookie season and ageless linebacker London Fletcher continues to perform at his extremely high level. There are questions in the secondary -- both at cornerback and at safety -- that the Redskins hope quantity and competition will sort out in training camp, but overall the defense should be solid. The questions are on offense, where a rookie quarterback for whom expectations are high will need his supporting cast to be reliable if the Redskins are to take a step forward and have an outside chance at a playoff spot. In all likelihood, this is another year in the rebuilding process, and what the Redskins and their fans want to see is a clear step in the right direction. For that to happen, the pieces around Griffin will have to do everything they can to make him look as good as possible.

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