NFC East: 2012 pressure point

Pressure point: Redskins

May, 18, 2012
5/18/12
12:00
PM ET
NFC pressure points: West | North | South | East
AFC pressure points: West | North | South | East

Examining who faces the most challenging season for the Washington Redskins and why.

Trent Williams was the No. 4 pick in the 2010 NFL draft -- Mike Shanahan's first draft pick after he became the Redskins' coach. There were pre-draft questions about Williams' work ethic and focus, but the Redskins took him super-high because they saw a rare talent -- a franchise left tackle with enough athleticism, skill and technique to dominate at the position for years to come. Over the course of the 2010 season, they would see occasional flashes of brilliance, but Williams did not sustain those, and too often he struggled against the tough pass-rushers of the NFC East. In the early part of the 2011 season, he seemed to be developing greater consistency, and the Redskins began to think he would soon justify his draft position and their hopes for him.

Alas, there were injuries. And then that four-game drug suspension at the end of the year. And now Williams enters his third NFL season with a lot of those same old questions yapping at his heels. Can he stay focused? Heck, can he stay clean? Can he take another leap forward toward or even into that elite level of which his team believes him capable? Can he project himself as a responsible leader on a young team that needs him to be among its best players? The Redskins spent four very high draft picks on Robert Griffin III as their quarterback of the future, and the protection of that investment against injury falls to Williams as much as it falls to anyone in the organization. Does Williams understand the magnitude of his responsibility?

If he gets busted for drugs again, the problems are probably not fixable. He'd be banned for a year without pay, forfeiting a tremendous amount of the money he got on a rookie deal in the final year before the implementation of the rookie wage scale. But assuming he's not going to make that same dumb mistake again, the Redskins still need more from Williams in 2012. It's not about potential anymore. It's time for him to play like one of the best in the league at his position. We've seen him do it for a game or two here and there. The Redskins need to see it for 16.

Pressure point: Eagles

May, 18, 2012
5/18/12
11:20
AM ET
NFC pressure points: West | North | South | East
AFC pressure points: West | North | South | East

Examining who faces the most challenging season for the Philadelphia Eagles and why.

Some of these are easier to pick than others. This one, for example. The person under the most pressure to deliver big-time results for the Eagles in 2012 is clearly, without question, quarterback Michael Vick. The Eagles have put every conceivable piece in place around him. They kept wide receiver DeSean Jackson, giving him the long-term deal he wanted after he sulked through a disappointing 2011 campaign. They just locked up running back LeSean McCoy, who scored 20 touchdowns last season and showed he can alleviate any pressure Vick might once have felt to score on his own at the goal line. They beefed up on defense. They tried to keep the offensive line together, and when an injury to Jason Peters kept them from doing that, they went right out and signed the best left tackle still left on the market.

The Eagles watched what Vick did in 2010 and believed they had something special -- a quarterback of such unique talent that, if all else were equal, he could elevate them above the rest of the league and to Super Bowl glory. But the Vick of 2011 let them down. He was too turnover-prone during the team's slow start, helping cost the Eagles very close games in September and October. He got injured and missed three games late, denying the Eagles a chance to climb back into a winnable division race. He played fine and put up nice numbers when he was healthy, but he didn't do anything to make the Eagles extra-great, and too many times he did things that hurt the cause.

The Eagles have high hopes for 2012, and reason to believe they've addressed trouble spots on a leaky defense. They have star-caliber players at key spots on the roster -- running back, receiver, defensive end, cornerback. They believe they have the pieces in place to be one of the best teams in the league. But they need their quarterback to make it all go, and for that reason Vick faces more pressure this season than does any quarterback in the entire league.

Pressure point: Giants

May, 18, 2012
5/18/12
10:40
AM ET
NFC pressure points: West | North | South | East
AFC pressure points: West | North | South | East

Examining who faces the most challenging season for the New York Giants and why.

This was a tough one, since the Giants are basically playing with house money after their second Super Bowl title in five years. Sure, they're expected to defend that title, but if they don't, how disappointed can Giants fans really be? After everything the Giants' players proved in December, January and February, the roster isn't exactly loaded with guys who have much left to prove.

So to answer the question of who faces the "most challenging" season, I'm going with running back Ahmad Bradshaw. He's proved he's tough by playing through pain. He's proved he's good by putting up big numbers when given the starting job. He's proved he has leadership qualities by calling out his offensive line early last year. But with Brandon Jacobs gone off to San Francisco in free agency and a group of very young backups behind him, Bradshaw in 2012 has to prove he can handle a full season's workload without breaking down.

This isn't going to be easy. He has said the procedures he had done this offseason on his chronically injured foot have corrected the problem and he's going to be 100 percent going forward. But there's no way to know that until we see (and he sees) how this particular season wears on him. Jacobs got about 40 percent of the Giants' running back touches last year, and unless someone like Da'Rel Scott, D.J. Ware or first-round pick David Wilson is ready to step in and assume Jacobs' share of the work, more is going to fall to Bradshaw. He has the ability and the will to be "the guy" at running back for the Super Bowl champs, and he may well be able to pull it off. He could be one of the breakout offensive stars of the NFL season -- a fantasy sleeper, even. But he heads into the season with less help than he's had in the past and without the safety net that's always been provided by his friend Jacobs.

Pressure point: Cowboys

May, 18, 2012
5/18/12
10:00
AM ET
NFC pressure points: West | North | South | East
AFC pressure points: West | North | South | East

Examining who faces the most challenging season for the Dallas Cowboys and why.

The Cowboys' problems are defensive problems, and for this reason the man under the most pressure in Dallas in 2012 is second-year defensive coordinator Rob Ryan. Brought in to fix a defense that ranked among the league's worst in 2010, Ryan enjoyed some good early returns but saw his defense collapse and effectively give away a division title that was within the Cowboys' grasp with five games left in the season.

There was improvement, of course, as there almost had to be. The Cowboys allowed the second-most points in the league in 2010 and only the 17th-most in 2011. And in terms of yards allowed, they improved from 23rd in the league to 14th. But grading a defense against the one the Cowboys employed in 2010 is like grading a song against Rebecca Black's "Friday." Just because it's better doesn't mean it's acceptable. Ryan was brought in to be a savior -- to overhaul the defense and elevate it to a championship level. Not only did he not do that in 2011, but the defense was the clear reason the Cowboys failed to reach the playoffs. The Cowboys couldn't stop anyone in December other than the sorry Buccaneers, and that's why they lost four of their last five.

Now, if the Eagles are allowed to use the lockout and the reduced preparation time as an excuse for why things didn't work as well as they'd planned, the Cowboys can too. It's fair to assume that Ryan's defense will be better in his second year in Dallas, given a full offseason in addition to the year he's already spent installing and running it. And the additions at cornerback -- free-agent cornerback Brandon Carr and first-round draft pick Morris Claiborne -- address what was the defense's biggest problem. But Ryan's got to show something really impressive this year, because if the Cowboys' defense is costing them games again in December, his record and his pedigree aren't going to be enough to spare him the blame.

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