Wednesday, April 27, 2011

NFL Draft Preview: NFC East

Welcome to part five of our eight-part preview of tomorrow's NFL draft (ESPN, 8 P.M.). After focusing on the AFC for the past two days, we will take a look at the NFC over the next two days in four division-by-division increments. We continue our analysis with a preview of the NFC East.

Last year was wildly unpredictable in the NFC East. Preseason favorite Dallas sputtered out of the gates, and were out of contention by mid-October. The Donovan McNabb experiment in Washington was a great story, but his play never materialized and the Redskins once again remained at the bottom of the East. This left two teams, New York and Philadelphia, to battle it out for the division title. Heading into the season, New York had high expectations, and most experts were picking them to finish second in the division and grab an NFC wild-card spot. The Giants were the only team to actually perform as they were expected to in 2010, finishing a respectable 10-6, but missing the playoffs due to tiebreaker rules and a late-season collapse against the Eagles that will forever be remembered as "The Miracle in the New Meadowlands" by Philadelphia faithful. This left the Eagles, led by a resurgent Michael Vick, to surprisingly steal the division title in what was expected to be a slight transition year. With the NFC East appearing to be just as unpredictable in 2011, let's take a look at where each team might be heading early in this year's draft.

Dallas Cowboys
2010 Record: 6-10 (Missed playoffs)
Early Picks: 9th, 40th, 71st
Team Needs: Offensive Line, Defensive End, Safety

Maybe the only upside after last season's disaster in Big D is the fact that the Cowboys have some high picks in this year's draft. The roster actually is not that bad (most of it is the same that people were predicting would be Super Bowl contenders last season), so Dallas doesn't have an inordinate number of holes to fill this year. The Cowboys do have a new full-time coach in Jason Garrett, but there should be minimal roster turnover as a result of the transition. Therefore, with the 9th pick, Dallas has the possibility of adding an immediate starter for next year who could help the team return to prominence once again.

The one position of need that the Cowboys must address early on in this year's draft is offensive tackle. Luckily for Dallas, there are a number of tackles worthy of first-round selections this year. If Jerry Jones decides to go in that direction, he should have no problems finding a tackle that fits the bill. There is an outside chance that top-rated tackle Tyron Smith from USC could still be available at 9, but the more realistic option is Boston College's Anthony Castonzo. Unfortunately, Castonzo would be a reach if he were to be picked in the top ten, so it's possible the Cowboys will consider other positions with the pick. Regardless, if Jones targets the offensive line as I expect him to, do not be surprised to see either of these two to come off the board.

New York Giants
2010 Record: 10-6 (Missed playoffs)
Early Picks: 19th, 52nd, 83rd
Team Needs: Tackle, Middle Linebacker, Outside Linebacker

Like the Cowboys, the New York Giants have a fairly solid roster heading into 2011. New York sported the league's 7th-rated defense (310.8 ypg) and its 5th-rated offense (380.3 ypg), becoming one of those rare teams to rank in the top ten in both offense and defense and still miss the playoffs (Oddly enough, the Chargers did the same thing last season). That being said, the Giants' roster is far from complete, with a huge need for a new franchise tackle and added depth at the linebacker position.

New York has very specific needs, and therefore must hope the prospects they want are still there when it is their turn to pick. The Giants should be able to fill their tackle need with the 19th overall pick if Anthony Castonzo falls into their lap. If he is already taken by the time the Giants' pick comes around, Wisconsin tackle Gabe Carimi would be a reasonable selection as well. If none of the Giants' offensive line targets are still available, look for them to trade down or out of the first round and select a linebacker slightly later on in the draft.

Philadelphia Eagles
2010 Record: 10-6 (Lost in Wild Card Round)
Early Picks: 23rd, 54th, 85th
Team Needs: Guard, Tackle, Outside Linebacker, Cornerback

The Eagles headed into 2010 looking at a potential transition year with an extremely young roster. Heading into 2011, most of the same holes on last year's team are still there, with one notable exception: quarterback Michael Vick has given the Eagles a player to build around and will provide stability. The Bird's 2nd-ranked offense was explosive last season (389.4 ypg, 6.0 yards per play), while the 12th-ranked defense was only average. In fact, the statistics appear to show that the Eagles defense was fairly decent, but its inexperience showed throughout the season, especially in the secondary.

With the 23rd pick in this year's draft, the Eagles have a few options to consider. Like many other teams, Philadelphia has a need for offensive linemen. And Andy Reid is known for his penchant to select linemen early in drafts. However, the poor play of the secondary down the stretch has also exposed a need to upgrade at the cornerback position. There have been rumors that Philly might target prized free-agent Nnamdi Asomugha, but with the current labor situation limiting all personnel moves, it is impossible to tell. For this reason, look for the Eagles to select Colorado corner Jimmy Smith with their first-rounder. If not Smith, the Birds will almost certainly target an offensive lineman, possibly Colorado tackle Nate Solder or Baylor guard Danny Watkins.

Washington Redskins
2010 Record: 6-10 (Missed playoffs)
Early Picks: 10th, 41st
Team Needs: Quarterback, Wide Receiver, Offensive Line, Linebacker, Safety

After the failed Donovan McNabb experiment and releasing longtime running back Clinton Portis, Washington finds itself in a difficult spot. The offense was not great to begin with in 2010, ranking 18th overall, and 30th in rushing (only 91.3 ypg). But it was the 31st-ranked defense that was the weakest part of the team during last season's campaign.  Either way, the 'Skins have holes on both sides of the ball at some very important positions. There is a definite quarterback need, but it remains to be seen if Washington plans to take a quarterback of the future early in this year's draft.

There have been rumblings that Washington will trade up and select Missouri quarterback Blaine Gabbert early on day one. If this is the case, it will be risky, especially considering the team does not have a third round pick this year. But if they are confident enough that Gabbert is their man, the Redskins have a history of overpaying for their targets, both in the draft and in free agency (see Haynesworth, Albert and Archuleta, Adam). If their trade options go through, the tenth pick could very well be spent on Alabama receiver Julio Jones, who would provide a big target to build an offense around and provide good value for the pick.

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