NFC East: nfc east position series

We have been looking at safeties today in our continuing, occasional position-by-position look at each of the teams in the NFC East, and the day concludes with an examination of the Dallas Cowboys' safeties.

Projected starters: Brodney Pool, Gerald Sensabaugh

Reserves: Barry Church, Matt Johnson, Danny McCray, Akwasi Owusu-Ansah

Potential strength: This is a problem position for the Cowboys, plain and simple. But Sensabaugh played pretty well overall for the Cowboys in 2011, and the upgrades at cornerback this year should allow him to roam a little more freely and make more plays. He had five interceptions and 10 pass break-ups in 2010, but those numbers dropped to two and three, respectively, in the first year under Rob Ryan. He's one of many players the team hopes will benefit from the additions of Brandon Carr and Morris Claiborne at cornerback.

Potential weakness: They haven't done much to try and replace Abram Elam, who was a bit of a letdown in his one and only season in Dallas. They signed Pool, who played for Ryan in Cleveland, but his spot is anything but secure. He could get a challenge from Church or from fourth-round pick Johnson, whose reputation as a big-time college playmaker convinced the Cowboys to select him well ahead of his consensus projected draft slot. The Cowboys' defense really craves that playmaking type, and it's possible that whoever looks the most active and disruptive in camp and in preseason games could get the start, which could make Pool a late cut.

Keep an eye on: Church. He's impressed first-year secondary coach Jerome Henderson, and he showed a lot of physical ability at the line of scrimmage when he played last year. Pool was signed because the team believed it had a need at that position, but Church could play well enough in training camp to convince them they were wrong about that. Again, his coverage deficiencies are what they are, but the corners are supposed to cover better this year and what the Cowboys want to see out of their safeties is game-changing ability.
Our position-by-position look at the NFC East takes a look at the safety position today, and it so happens that's one of the biggest question marks facing the Philadelphia Eagles as they head to training camp.

Projected starters: Nate Allen, Kurt Coleman

Reserves: Jaiquawn Jarrett, O.J. Atogwe, Phillip Thomas, Tom Nelson, Colt Anderson

[+] EnlargeNate Allen
Howard Smith/US PresswireNate Allen and his fellow Eagles safeties will get to be physical for the first time in training camp on Saturday.
Potential strength: Well, Allen, I guess. He's shown enough when he's been on the field to make the Eagles think he's a starting-caliber safety in the NFL, and the key now is for him to be able to stay on the field. The Eagles are counting on Allen to stay healthy and take a big step forward in his third year in the league, as he's the best of a somewhat questionable bunch at this position and their best option at free safety. Anderson, incidentally, isn't a contributor at safety. But assuming he's recovered from last year's injury he makes the team as a reserve because of his ability to dominate on special teams, where he's a major strength for the Eagles as one of the best in the league.

Potential weakness: They need either Coleman, Jarrett or Atogwe to assert himself in camp as the starting strong safety, or else that position will be a weakness again this year. Coleman has played more than Jarrett, and Atogwe just signed within the past couple of weeks, which is why Coleman is first on the depth chart now. But once the hitting and the preseason games begin, it's entirely possible that Jarrett, the 2011 second-round pick, could make a big leap and steal the job. Or that the veteran Atogwe, who struggled to stay healthy last year in Washington, could beat out both guys with his experience. Jarrett is the one with the most potential here to be a big-time safety for them for a long period of time, but he has to show it to beat out Coleman.

Keep an eye on: Thomas. Undrafted out of Syracuse, he's a prospect with a lot of raw talent who had off-field issues in college. Like a few undrafted rookies in Eagles camp (Chris Polk at running back, Cliff Harris at cornerback), he'll get a chance in camp to show that he can outperform his draft-weekend stock. And given that he's competing at a position of real need, that chance could pay off. He's probably a project guy who can help more down the road. But as we keep saying, you never know with safeties until the pads go on.

Position series: Giants safeties

July, 5, 2012
Our position-by-position look at the teams in the NFC East is checking out the safeties today, and here we examine the safety position on the Super Bowl champion New York Giants.

Projected starters: Kenny Phillips, Antrel Rolle

Reserves: Tyler Sash, Chris Horton, Stevie Brown, Will Hill, Janzen Jackson

Potential strength: Put simply, Phillips is one of the best safeties in the NFL. The Giants' first-round pick in the 2008 draft has recovered from his 2009 knee problems and become one of the quiet strengths of the defense. Pro Football Focus ranked him the No. 5 safety in the league against the run last year, No. 9 in coverage and the No. 6 safety overall. He's still just 25 years old, and there's little reason to believe Phillips won't or can't continue to blossom as an elite NFL defender.

Potential weakness: Depth. Should Phillips or Rolle have an injury, he would have to be replaced by someone unproven. And if defensive coordinator Perry Fewell wants to run the three-safety looks he's enjoyed running the past two years, he'll need someone like Sash or Brown to step into the spot vacated by still unsigned veteran Deon Grant. Now, with the team's improved depth at linebacker and cornerback, it's possible that they just won't need to have three safeties on the field as much as they did last year or the year before. But the lack of experienced depth behind the starters is a potential concern.

Keep a eye on: Sash. The team's sixth-round pick in 2011, Sash has a reputation as a hard hitter and could be in line to fill that No. 3 safety spot. But as we have discussed here many times, it's difficult to evaluate safeties until that point on the calendar at which they're finally permitted to hit people in anger. It may not be until training camp or even preseason games until the Giants know how confident they can be in Sash's ability to make a 2012 contribution on defense. If he's not, it's possible they'll look into re-signing Grant, assuming he's still out there.
It's been a little while, but I have not forgotten our attempt to look at each team in the division on a position-by-position basis. Today we're going to do safeties, and we're going to start with the Washington Redskins, who will have two new starters after cutting O.J. Atogwe and letting LaRon Landry leave in free agency.

Projected starters: Brandon Meriweather, Madieu Williams

Reserves: Tanard Jackson, DeJon Gomes, Reed Doughty

Potential strength: They like the depth they have at the free safety spot, and they hope a training camp battle between Williams, Jackson and Gomes produces a high-quality starter. Williams has impressed Redskins coaches with his on-field and off-field intelligence, and the speed with which he's not only been able to pick up the scheme, but help others learn it as well. More than one Redskins coach during minicamp called Williams "a coach on the field." Jackson is a top talent who ran into trouble in Tampa Bay, and the Redskins hope a reunion with former Bucs coach Raheem Morris (who is now their secondary coach) can straighten him out and bring out the best in him. And Gomes is a young player they like as a potential starter down the road -- they just don't know how soon he'll be able to be that. Doughty is seen as a reliable backup who can play either safety spot if needed.

Potential weakness: When they signed Meriweather, the Redskins saw a guy who'd been miscast in the Bears' two-deep coverage schemes last season and could flourish in their more varied and complex coverages. Rather than play a traditional strong safety role, Meriweather in Washington will be asked to rush more, help out with blitzes and work as part of different combinations in the coverage schemes. It could work, but it could also backfire. This is still a guy who was cut by two teams last year. And while the Redskins might have themselves convinced it was a personality conflict that got him booted out of New England, and a poor scheme fit that made him ineffective in Chicago, it's possible the problem is with the player himself. And if he can't handle the job, all they have behind him right now is Doughty.

Keep an eye on: Jackson. He's four years younger than Williams, and if he keeps his focus on the field and plays the way he's capable of playing, he's probably the better player at this point in his career. The Redskins aren't skeptical about his ability. They just wonder if a guy with his off-field history is always going to have those problems, or if he can really be counted on to change. It's hard to say what they'd have to see to convince them they can trust him. But if he outplays Williams and doesn't fail any more drug tests along the way, he could see a lot of time in that Redskins' defensive backfield, and potentially be a major help at a position that's a question mark right now.
Today's team-by-team look at the cornerback position in the NFC East wraps up with a check on the revamped secondary of the Dallas Cowboys.

Projected starters: Brandon Carr, Morris Claiborne

Reserves: Mike Jenkins, Orlando Scandrick, Mario Butler, C.J. Wilson, Lionel Smith

[+] EnlargeMike Jenkins
Jeff Fishbein/Icon SMIMike Jenkins is upset about his move to a backup role.
Potential strength: Sometimes change for change's sake can be a good thing, and that's the Cowboys' hope this year. Terence Newman was a major liability last season, and while Jenkins played well when healthy, he really almost never was. So they went out on the free-agent market and signed Carr, and then they used their first-round and second-round picks to move up and select Claiborne, the best cornerback in this year's draft. That pushes a grumpy Jenkins into a backup role and leaves Scandrick where he belongs, at the nickel corner spot. Assuming Claiborne plays the way he played in college right away in the pros, the Cowboys have transformed cornerback from an a significant weakness to a possible strength.

Potential weakness: Well, Jenkins doesn't seem overly motivated, now does he? He's refused the team's requests to spend any non-mandatory time at the team facility this offseason so they could help him rehab his shoulder. He's asked for a new contract, bristled at the backup role into which he's been forced, and demanded a trade that the team has no intention of making. He's behind in that shoulder rehab, and at this point the Cowboys have no idea whether they'll be able to count on Jenkins at the start of the season. And sure, you can say they're fine because of Carr and Claiborne. But Claiborne's a rookie who has yet to practice as he continues his recovery from wrist surgery, and part of the plan to overhaul cornerback involved having depth at the position. Jenkins needs to be healthy and have his mind right, or else they won't be as strong at cornerback as they need and intend to be.

Keep an eye on: Smith. An undrafted long shot, for sure, but he's got 4.44 40-yard-dash speed and could open some eyes in training camp. He'll have to make the team with his special teams play, but a guy with that kind of speed at that position could be helpful down the road if he develops.
Yes, the NFC East position series rolls on, a fine way to pass a slow offseason Friday. We're doing cornerbacks today, and this stop takes a look at those of the Philadelphia Eagles.

Projected starters: Nnamdi Asomugha, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie

Reserves: Joselio Hanson, Brandon Boykin, Brandon Hughes, Curtis Marsh, Trevard Lindley, Cliff Harris

[+] EnlargeNnamdi Asomugha
Drew Hallowell/Getty ImagesEagles cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha is at his best in man coverage.
Potential strength: Asomugha was signed as a marquee free agent last year, and should be one of the strengths of the entire team. As you know if you watched, he obviously had his moments, but he also had some rough spots. The conventional wisdom is that the Eagles played too much zone coverage last season, and that went away from Asomugha's strengths in an effort to minimize Asante Samuel's weakness. But with Samuel gone, it's possible the Eagles will play more man coverage, where Asomugha shines. With a full year in his new surroundings behind him, and assuming the coverage schemes are tweaked to make him more comfortable and use him the way he should be used, Asomugha should find himself in position to re-establish himself as one of the league's elite cornerbacks.

Potential weakness: The departure of Samuel not only eats at the team's depth at the position, it deprives them of the cornerback who actually played the best for them last season. Samuel's playmaking was an asset, and it remains to be seen whether Rodgers-Cromartie, whom they got in return for Kevin Kolb last year and is earning rave offseason reviews, can be the same kind of player. But the big question is that the nickel corner spot, where Hanson wasn't as good last season as he'd been the year before, and now faces a challenge from the rookie Boykin. With Samuel gone and Hanson a question mark, have the Eagles left themselves too thin at a critical position?

Keep an eye on: Harris. He was looked at as a first-round talent during a brilliant 2010 season at Oregon, but his 2011 season disappeared in a haze of suspensions and legal troubles. So he wasn't drafted, but the Eagles took a shot on him as an undrafted free agent. If he can keep himself out of trouble and focus on football, he could turn out to be a huge steal. He was an elite playmaker at a top college program just two years ago. And if not, no harm done. Lots of upside with this young man, and he's a guy to watch. ("Guy to Watch!")
Our position-by-position analysis of each of the NFC East's teams continues now with a look at the cornerbacks of the Washington Redskins.

Projected starters: DeAngelo Hall, Josh Wilson

Reserves: Cedric Griffin, Kevin Barnes, Brandyn Thompson, Richard Crawford, Morgan Trent, Jordan Bernstine, Chase Minnifield

[+] EnlargeDeAngelo Hall
Al Bello/Getty ImagesDeAngelo Hall, right, led the Redskins last season with three INTs and 16 passes defensed.
Potential strength: The secondary is not the strongest part of the Redskins' team. Wilson is an OK cover guy, and Hall is not, but he has in the past shown a knack for making plays on the ball. So they may use Hall inside more this year and go with Griffin on the outside. They believe Griffin can play bump coverage and that they can get him help with safeties, and if they do that his physicality could be an asset. The schemes are the key here. The key for the coaching staff will be to deploy the corners in ways that play to their strength and attempt to minimize the impact of their weaknesses.

Potential weakness: If Hall and Griffin get matched up in man coverage, they're going to be at risk of getting burned. Hall seems energized by the move inside, but we've not seen him play there for an extended period of time, and so there's no evidence that he can do it long-term. It makes sense that it could maximize his playmaking instincts, we just haven't seen it to know whether it works. Part of the motivation for the move is that Barnes played poorly in the slot-corner role last year, so if Hall isn't the full-time answer, they'll need to find one. They've used Crawford, Thompson, Minnifield and even Wilson there at times in the offseason, but that area of coverage definitely needs to improve.

Keep an eye on: Minnifield. Undrafted out of Virginia, Minnifield turned a lot of heads in minicamp, and the Redskins' coaches say they're thankful for the knee injury that led to his disappointing 40-time and dropped him out of the draft. They say they had a third-round grade on Minnifield and that the injury hasn't sapped him of his speed. It's clear there's opportunity in this group, and if Minnifield plays in training camp the way he played in OTAs and minicamp, he'll have a better than reasonable chance to make the team and see the field in the regular season.
Our occasional series examining each team in the NFC East position-by-position will continue today with a look at the cornerbacks for each team. We will start with the Super Bowl champion New York Giants.

Projected starters: Corey Webster, Terrell Thomas

Reserves: Prince Amukamara, Justin Tryon, Jayron Hosley, Antwaun Molden, Michael Coe, Dante Hughes

[+] EnlargeNew York's Corey Webster
Andrew Mills/US PRESSWIREAfter injuries ravaged the secondary last season, Corey Webster rose to the occasion and played like a No. 1 cornerback.
Potential strength: Webster really showed a lot last year, stepping up as the team's No. 1 corner in the wake of major preseason injuries to Thomas and Amukamara. The Giants used Webster in a number of ways, and he excelled all over the field. But the most eye-opening performances came in the weeks when he was assigned to "shut down" the opposing team's No. 1 wide receiver and did so, easing the pressure on Aaron Ross and the rest of the secondary. Webster is just 30 years old and there's no reason to believe he'll slow down this year. As long as they can feel confident Webster has his man covered, there's a lot the Giants' defensive coaches can do with the rest of their personnel.

Potential weakness: With Ross gone off to Jacksonville in free agency, Thomas says he's ready to reclaim the starting cornerback spot that was his before his preseason knee injury last year. The question is whether he's all the way back from that injury and will be ready to start the season as a starter. He says he is, but the team is likely to go easy on him in training camp and the preseason. If Thomas can't go, is limited or is just unable to play at his former level for injury or any reason, the Giants would hope that 2011 first-round pick Amukamara could play at a starter's level. But he had foot injury problems last year and didn't have a whole rookie season to get up to NFL speed, so they still don't know what they have there. They could be very strong at the spot opposite Webster, or they could spend much of the year trying to piece things together at that spot. They're optimistic on both guys' health, but right now they don't know for sure.

Keep an eye on: The personnel packages this year. The Giants liked to put three safeties on the field at the same time a lot the last couple of seasons, but they have yet to re-sign Deon Grant (if they're going to), and they look deeper at linebacker than they've generally been. So the three-safety looks could be a thing of the past, and if Thomas and Amukamara are healthy, you could see three corners on the field more than you have in recent years. Tryon and/or Molden could get into the mix, and Hosley, their third-round pick, projects as a potential nickel corner.
Our position-by-position look at the four NFC East teams makes a stop in the oddly crowded backfield of the Washington Redskins.

[+] EnlargeRoy Helu
Geoff Burke/US PresswireWashington RB Roy Helu had three games with 100 or more rushing yards last season.
Projected starters: RB Tim Hightower, FB Darrel Young

Reserves: RB Roy Helu, RB Evan Royster, RB Tristan Davis, RB Alfred Morris, RB Antwon Bailey

Potential strength: Depth. Assuming everyone's healthy (a big assumption, since Hightower, Helu, Royster, Davis and Young were all being held out of practice with injuries last year), the Redskins have three backs on their roster that they know are capable of rolling up 100 plus-yard games in Mike Shanahan's zone-blocking scheme. Hightower didn't quite reach that mark as the starter last year before an ACL injury ended his season, but both Helu and Royster did, and each showed the ability to fill in as the feature back if necessary. Hightower is viewed by the coaching staff as the most complete back -- i.e., an asset as a runner, a pass-catcher and a blocker -- and so he's the starter if his knee holds up through training camp. But even if he does start, you can expect the Redskins to find plenty of ways to use Helu and Royster to alleviate some of the pressure on rookie quarterback Robert Griffin III in 2012.

Potential weakness: The aforementioned health concerns. Hightower is not, currently, healthy, and if the overall health situation in the backfield doesn't improve over the next month the Redskins might need to bring in another back for training camp. What they want is quality depth at the position, but that takes a real hit if they can't get and/or keep all of these guys healthy. There's some concern that Helu would wear down if given a starter's workload at this point in his career, which is why he's not the projected starter over a healthy Hightower.

Keep an eye on: Young. Now in his second year as the starting fullback, he may be as critical as ever to the success of the run game. The zone-blocking scheme requires a fullback who can communicate effectively with the linemen and the tailbacks, and Young took to the role very impressively last year. He also showed, in that second Giants game, the ability to make a play with the ball when called upon. Don't be surprised if he gets more than a stray catch or carry, or if they've designed more ways to use his athleticism.
Our position-by-position analysis of the NFC East's four teams stops to take a look this afternoon at the running backs on the Super Bowl champion New York Giants.

[+] EnlargeDavid Wilson
Jim McIsaac/Getty ImagesThe Giants hope David Wilson develops quickly so he can provide backup to Ahmad Bradshaw.
Projected starters: RB Ahmad Bradshaw, FB Henry Hynoski

Reserves: RB David Wilson, RB D.J. Ware, RB Da'Rel Scott, RB Andre Brown, FB Joe Martinek

Potential strength: When healthy, Bradshaw is a top-level back, capable of high-end production, as his 1,235 rushing yards in 2010 attest. He's also an asset in the screen passing game, as he's Eli Manning's favorite screen target. And he's as good at blitz pickup as any back in the league. Bradshaw is tough and strong and 26 years old and more than capable of handling the full-time responsibilities as long as the foot injuries that have plagued him over the past couple of years are behind him. And he says they are.

Potential weakness: The issue in New York is replacing Brandon Jacobs, who had 40 percent of the team's running-back touches last year and left via free agency for San Francisco. Jacobs may not have been the dominating force he used to be, but he's still far more experienced and accomplished than any of the non-Bradshaw backs the Giants have left on their roster. Guys like Scott and 2012 first-round pick David Wilson have plenty of speed and explosiveness. Ware and Brown have experience in the system. Out of that group must come at least one running back capable of spelling Bradshaw for a play or two here and there. And given Bradshaw's recent history with those feet, they likely need to find a back who can do even more than that. As of now, they don't have a clear option to replace what Jacobs gave them in terms of workload or production.

Keep an eye on: Wilson. The Giants' ideal situation would be for their first-round pick to develop quickly in their system and be able to function as the explosive change-of-pace to Bradshaw. Not that Bradshaw isn't explosive, but if they plan to use him as the horse -- the tough, between-the-tackles guy, it might make sense for his backup to be a big-play-potential back who operates well in space. Meaning, the Jacobs replacement doesn't have to run like Jacobs ran. One of the big questions of Giants training camp will be whether Wilson is a legitimate option for them right away, or if he's going to need more time before he's a factor.
Another slow offseason day calls for another edition of the NFC East position series -- our position-by-position look at each of the teams in our division. There's no pre-planned order to any of these, so it means little that I've chosen to look at running backs today and to start with the Dallas Cowboys.

Projected starters: RB DeMarco Murray, FB Lawrence Vickers

Reserves: RB Felix Jones, RB Phillip Tanner, RB Lance Dunbar, RB Darrell Scott, FB Shaun Chapas

[+] EnlargeDeMarco Murray
Tim Heitman/US PresswireDeMarco Murray racked up 897 yards in his shortened rookie season.
Potential strength: Murray performed like an elite-level workhorse in the seven games he played as a starter before the Giants game in which he broke his ankle. He averaged 114.1 yards per game and 5.96 yards per carry during that seven-game stretch. And Jones, the fifth-year former starter, had two 100-yard games after Murray went down. So they have a high-level starter and an experienced, capable backup, and they believe Vickers will play even better than Tony Fiammetta did for them as the lead blocker last season. And Tanner is a good third running back who's shown encouraging flashes and should stick around due to his contributions on special teams. Assuming everyone's healthy, this is a unit capable of big things.

Potential weakness: Even while he was rolling up all of those yards, Murray scored just two touchdowns last year. And Jones only scored one. The Cowboys had just five rushing touchdowns as a team in 2011. Only the Cleveland Browns scored fewer. As good as Tony Romo, Dez Bryant, Miles Austin and Jason Witten can be in the red zone, it would help if the running backs posed more of a realistic threat to score at the goal line. Red-zone production is an area in which the Cowboys' running game must be better than it was last year.

Keep an eye on: The on-field relationship between Murray and Vickers. Murray and Fiammetta made a very productive team last year. The Cowboys believe that had more to do with Murray than it did with the fullback, and they think they've upgraded at fullback. But Murray had an innate sense of where Fiammetta was going to go and what would result in terms of opportunity for him thereafter. Murray said during minicamp that he's getting to know Vickers, and it's unlikely to be a problem. But that chemistry he had with the fullback last year was part of his success, so it's at least worth watching to make sure he finds something similar with the new guy.
Our position-by-position analysis of the NFC East's four teams wraps up its day on the defensive lines with a look at the most decorated one in the entire league -- that of the Super Bowl champion New York Giants.

Projected starters: DE Justin Tuck, DT Chris Canty, DT Linval Joseph, DE Jason Pierre-Paul

Reserves: DE Osi Umenyiora, DT Marvin Austin, DT Rocky Bernard, DT Shaun Rogers, DE Justin Trattou, DE Adrian Tracy, DT Markus Kuhn, DE Craig Marshall, DT Dwayne Hendricks

[+] EnlargeOsi Umenyiora
AP Photo/Bill KostrounOsi Umenyiora had nine sacks as Jason Pierre-Paul's backup.
Potential strength: In a league that prizes the pass rush more than it ever has, there's simply no team that can match the Giants' group's combination of talent, depth and championship experience. Umenyiora could start for almost any other team in the league -- 4-3 or 3-4 defense, and he's a reserve on the Giants behind Tuck and the sky's-the-limit ability of Pierre-Paul. Mathias Kiwanuka could be a starting 4-3 end for someone, but he plays outside linebacker on the defensive end-rich Giants, who can still move him up to the front line (and play Tuck at defensive tackle) when they want to really make a quarterback sweat. There is some concern about a loss of depth with Dave Tollefson having left in free agency, but assuming Tuck and Umenyiora are healthier in 2012 than they were in 2011, they should be able to cover that loss.

Potential weakness: Canty and Joseph are underrated players, likely because of their proximity to the superstars at the ends. But overall, the Giants weren't great against the run last year. They ranked 19th in the league in rush defense, and there were times during the first half of the year when they looked as though they were being pushed around physically by stronger offensive linemen. Like almost everything about the 2011-12 Giants, that issue got better in December and January. But they signed the veteran Rogers and brought back Bernard to make sure they had enough depth on the interior. The key to the whole thing could turn out to be Austin, the 2011 second-round pick who's missed the past two seasons (one college, one pro) due to injuries and could be a huge impact guy if he (a) can see the field and (b) isn't too rusty from all of that time off.

Keep an eye on: Tracy. He was a linebacker last year, but injury denied him a chance to make much of an impact in spite of a great opportunity to do so. This offseason, defensive coordinator Perry Fewell said last week, the Giants have been working Tracy as a defensive end, and they like him there. Fewell named Tracy and Trattou as candidates to take Tollefson's spot. And while Tollefson wouldn't have played as much as he did last year if the front-line guys had been healthy, it's possible that turns out to be an important spot. Watch Tracy in the preseason and see how he takes to playing up front.
Our position-by-position analysis of the teams in the NFC East takes a look this afternoon at the 3-4 defensive line of the Dallas Cowboys.

Projected starters: DE Jason Hatcher, NT Jay Ratliff, DE Kenyon Coleman

Reserves: DE Marcus Spears, DE Sean Lissemore, NT Josh Brent, DE Tyrone Crawford, DE Clifton Geathers, DT Rob Callaway, DE Ben Bass

[+] EnlargeJay Ratliff
Jim Rogash/Getty ImagesDallas needs to make sure Jay Ratliff does not wear down over the course of the season.
Potential strength: Ratliff is the line's strength, as he remains one of the league's elite nose tackles and one of the best all-around athletes at the position. There are very few, if any, nose tackles in the league that are as great an asset to the pass rush as Ratliff is, and the Cowboys' goal should be to keep him from wearing down as the season goes along. Part of the problem he and outside linebacker DeMarcus Ware had late last year was wear and tear as a result of constant double-teaming and extra attention. That's why Brent, as Ratliff's backup, must become a strength as well. Because it may start making sense to find strategic ways of getting Ratliff on the field on some running downs, at least early in the season.

Potential weakness: The Cowboys were tied for seventh in the league in sacks last season but 23rd in passing yards allowed. And while a lot of that had to do with a leaky secondary that has been addressed in free agency and in the draft, the guys up front need to find a way to create more consistent pressure on the passer. Hatcher grades out well in the pass rush, and we already addressed Ratliff. But the Cowboys need to find something scarier than Coleman at that other end spot. Spears doesn't appear to be the answer, which is one reason Lissemore is being talked up as an offseason sleeper. He played extremely well in limited action last season, and it remains to be seen how he'll hold up if given more snaps in 2012. He could push Coleman for his spot if he shows the ability to hold up week in and week out.

Keep an eye on: Crawford. The Cowboys' third-round pick in April's draft is likely a project player who will be groomed to be a pass-rush asset down the road. But there is talent there, and if he takes well to Rob Ryan's coaching and his system, he could be the kind of player who's deployed strategically in certain situations later in the year. The Cowboys would be thrilled if Crawford could make an impact for them in 2012, and while that's not really what he was drafted for, it's not completely out of the question given the opportunity he'll have if his learning curve is short.
Our position-by-position analysis of the teams in the NFC East takes a look at the part of the Philadelphia Eagles' roster that's generating the most buzz in NFL circles this offseason -- that very deep defensive line.

Projected starters: DE Trent Cole, DT Cullen Jenkins, DT Mike Patterson, DE Jason Babin

[+] EnlargeJason Babin
Drew Hallowell/Philadelphia Eagles/Getty ImagesJason Babin (93) and fellow end Trent Cole combined for 29 sacks in 2011 for Philadelphia.
Reserves: DT Fletcher Cox, DE Darryl Tapp, DE Brandon Graham, DT Antonio Dixon, DT Derek Landri, DE Vinny Curry, DE Phillip Hunt, DT Cedric Thornton, DE Maurice Fountain

Potential strength: The pass rush, from all angles. Starting ends Babin and Cole had 18 and 11 sacks, respectively, in 2011 as the Eagles tied for the league lead with 50. Jenkins added 5.5 of his own, playing mainly inside but also showing the ability to move outside and play end when it was called for. Adding 2010 first-round pick Graham (assuming he's finally healthy) and 2012 first-round pick Cox to the rotation should make the pass rush even tougher, as each of those players was selected mainly due to his ability to get to the quarterback. And Curry projects as a pass-rusher as well, though it's unclear how soon he'll be able to contribute. Assuming health, Dixon should be in position to make an impact this year. Defensive line coach Jim Washburn has a ton of talent through which to sort as he determines which players are on the field in various situations.

Potential weakness: Even though they improved in this area as the year went along, the Eagles still ended the year ranked just 16th in the NFL in fewest rush yards allowed. They should get some help in this area from an improved linebacker corps. And Washburn's "Wide 9" scheme does appear to leave itself vulnerable to the run. But the Eagles must be tougher up the middle if they're to be the elite defense they believe they can be. Cox was drafted to help with the pass rush but will need to show strength against the run if he's to factor into the rotation with regularity. I projected Patterson as the starter next to Jenkins because the Eagles like him against the run, but he's coming back from brain surgery, and even if he's 100 percent he could certainly lose that spot to Cox or Dixon if either outperforms him in training camp.

Keep an eye on: Graham. This guy was the No. 13 overall pick in the 2010 draft. The Eagles traded up to get him. And while it's tempting to label him a bust (especially since they really could have used No. 14 pick Earl Thomas or No. 15 pick Jason Pierre-Paul last season), the fact is that injuries have kept him off the field and we don't actually know what he can do yet. The Eagles were running a different defense in 2010 when they drafted him, so it's possible he might not fit into Washburn's scheme neatly. But if all he needs to be is a pure pass-rusher, then his raw athleticism could be an asset. Again, assuming he can get on the field.
As the news begins to dry up in the interval between minicamps and training camps, it's time to resurrect our position-by-position look at the NFC East's four teams. Today we'll do defensive lines, and we'll start with the Washington Redskins.

Projected starters: DE Stephen Bowen, NT Barry Cofield, DE Adam Carriker

[+] EnlargeWashington's Jarvis Jenkins
Rafael Suanes/US PRESSWIREA healthy Jarvis Jenkins adds depth to the Redskins defensive line.
Reserves: DE Jarvis Jenkins, DE Kedric Golston, DE Kentwan Balmer, DE Darrion Scott, DE Chris Wilson, NT Chris Neild, DT Doug Worthington, DT Delvin Johnson

Potential strength: They have good depth at the end spots, where the job in Jim Haslett's 3-4 defense is to clear space to allow the outside linebackers to get to the quarterback. Jenkins, the 2011 second-round pick who lost his rookie season to a preseason knee injury, certainly could push Carriker for his starting spot and will at least factor heavily into the defensive end rotation. Redskins coaches say the year away from football has put Jenkins behind the rest of the defensive players so far in the offseason, but that his speed and quickness have remained unaffected by the knee injury. Adding Jenkins, who was one of the stars of training camp last year before his injury, only helps the line. The Redskins believe the front seven of their defense to be a strength of their team, and the number of quality options they have for that defensive end rotation is part of the reason for that.

Potential weakness: Barry Cofield didn't grade out well in his first season as Washington's nose tackle after previously spending his entire pro career as a 4-3 defensive tackle with the Giants. Mike Shanahan says he's happy with Cofield in that spot, and calls him a "natural nose," but Pro Football Focus' rankings show room for improvement at the position. Again, it's not as though the nose in this defense needs to get pressure on the quarterback, so it might be that Cofield's being graded unfairly against nose tackles of whom different things are asked. But he did take time to adjust to the responsibilities of his new position last year and will need to show improvement this year. A second year in the 3-4 could help, as it did last year with other of the Redskins' defensive holdovers. Neild showed some good flashes at the position when he was on the field last year.

Keep an eye on: Carriker. There was some question about if the Redskins would re-sign him this offseason, and his is the spot on which Jenkins has his sights set. But don't assume the veteran gives up that spot just yet. Redskins coaches are extremely fond of Carriker for the role he's played as a leader as the team has transitioned from the 4-3 to the 3-4 over the past couple of years and for the flexibility he showed in changing positions. The Redskins' best-case scenario is that Carriker plays well enough to keep Jenkins in a bench role, and the rotation is stronger overall.