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ESPN Offseason Overview


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This could easily be the most competitive division in the NFL in 2006, because there is very little to separate all four teams. The once-dominant Philadelphia Eagles could actually finish fourth in the division. Dallas, Washington, and the New York Giants have all been busy this offseason and upgraded their personnel, while Philadelphia is just trying to get healthy and forget a disastrous 2005 season.


All four teams have veteran head coaches who know how to win. We are likely to see a lot of close games that come down to coaching decisions and in-game adjustments.


Bill Parcells has an excellent young defense in Dallas and a potentially strong running game, but can he protect QB Drew Bledsoe and coexist with WR Terrell Owens? Joe Gibbs has an excellent defense in Washington and a potentially potent and balanced offense, but can aging QB Mark Brunell hold up for a full season?


Philadelphia's Andy Reid has a team with less controversy than a year ago, and the Eagles should be healthier and more balanced on offense. However, they must shore up an aging defense.


In New York, coach Tom Coughlin has an excellent offense, an underrated defense and a revamped secondary, but will young QB Eli Manning shake the mistakes and poor mechanics we saw in the second half of the 2005 season? As competitive as this division is, the most important players in 2006 may be the kickers, who will likely be the difference in a lot of close games.


New York Giants


As well as the Giants played for most of 2005, their bitter playoff loss to the Panthers left a bad taste and exposed some substantial weaknesses the Giants hope to have fixed. Will this veteran team enter training camp with confidence, in a division that is better than a year ago?


Offensively, everything revolves around Manning. He played with no consistency down the stretch in 2005, forcing the offense to rely too much on Tiki Barber. Barber touched the ball a ridiculous 411 times last year.


Manning has plenty of offensive weapons around him, but he must make better decisions and quit throwing off his back foot (that's when the ball sails). He must make better throws in the red zone (only 27 TDs in 59 possessions) and avoid locking on to his primary receiver, especially on third down. If he makes those adjustments, this offense will be potent.


Defensively, the Giants made wholesale changes in their secondary, after finishing 27th in the league in both pass defense and red zone defense in 2005. It was a unit without great playmaking skills and matchup capabilities. DC Sam Madison and FS Will Demps are two of the five new faces in the Giants' secondary who will give coordinator Tim Lewis more opportunities to play aggressive man-to-man coverages behind an attacking zone-blitz package.


A big key to that blitz package is OLB LaVar Arrington. He can make game-changing plays and his pass-rushing skills could really give a boost to an already explosive defensive line. Michael Strahan and Osi Umenyiora are the best set of defensive ends in the NFL and proved it by combining for 26 sacks in 2005. The rest of the talent and depth on defense is not overly exciting, but it's good enough to win and MLB Antonio Pierce is a tackling machine.


There is some pressure on offensive coordinator John Hufnagle to change up to a safer passing game with more intermediate routes to his big receiver, rather than taking so many deep shots.


The Giants will have to endure the toughest schedule in the league; their 2006 opponents had a combined record of 139-117 in 2005. Their September schedule includes a matchup with the Colts and road trips to Philadelphia and Seattle. We may know by early October how good the Giants will be.


Dallas Cowboys


Parcells demands a strong run game, an aggressive and attacking 3-4 defense and a minimum number of assignment mistakes and mental lapses. The Cowboys ran the ball an astounding 521 times, although they were only 14th in rushing and only averaged 3.6 yards per carry.


Defensively, they were sixth in third-down efficiency, second in first downs allowed and 10th in total yards allowed per game. They were also one of the least-penalized teams in the NFL, only being flagged for 739 yards. So why wasn't this team a Super Bowl contender in 2005? It all starts with an offensive line that gave up an incredible 49 sacks.


Bledsoe, who threw 17 picks in '05, did not play badlly; he was just a sitting duck in the pocket and his receivers rarely had enough time to get open. Dallas has worked hard in the offseason to address these deficiencies. The Cowboys acquired OT Jason Fabini and OG Kyle Kosier in free agency, and both will be immediate starters. They will also change their basic offensive formation to two tight ends and one back, which gives them a lot more flexibility.


A year ago, TE Jason Witten, who is a terrific pass catcher, had to spend all of his time pass blocking and the Cowboys rarely attacked the middle of the field in the passing game. Now, they have Witten and rookie TE Anthony Fasano to give Bledsoe safer throws from three- and five-step drops. They also have Owens.


While Owens can still get deep, he is fearless over the middle and great after the catch. He will take a lot of pressure away from deep threat Terry Glenn. The one-back set will also allow RB Julius Jones to use his good instincts and vision to hit the creases in the defense and not be forced to always follow a lead blocker. Look for Bledsoe to get the ball out quicker and cut down on his sacks in a dramatically improved offense in 2006.


Defensively, this is a good group that will only get better. It is young and active. Dallas now has the personnel to play the 3-4, two-gap scheme up front and the Cover 2 scheme in the secondary.


The Cowboys may play more Cover 1 and Cover 2, allowing SS Roy Williams to play more in the box in run support, which is his strength. The depth is excellent along the defensive line, so the Cowboys will play likely a 4-3 front more than you would think to get their best personnel on the field.


However, the biggest offseason move by the Cowboys may be the acquisition of veteran kicker Mike Vanderjagt from Indianapolis. For a team that will likely play in a lot of close games, his accuracy could result in a couple of wins.


Washington Redskins


All the pieces finally seem to be in place for Gibbs to take the Redskins deep into the playoffs, and their best offseason acquisition may not even be a player. New offensive coordinator Al Saunders is a terrific play caller with a creative offensive mind, and he will install a new scheme with three wide receivers and one running back. The personnel he will put on the field will be explosive.


For the past couple of seasons, the offensive line seemed to struggle in pass protection. The Redskins were forced to use a lot of max-protection schemes, featuring only one receiver. Those problems are less evident now and the receiving trio of Santana Moss and newly acquired free agents Brandon Lloyd (San Francisco) and Antwaan Randle El (Pittsburgh) can spread the field and give this offense and Brunell big-play capabilities.


The biggest benefactor may be RB Clinton Portis. He has great quickness and good vision, and now he can use his own run instincts to create seams and lanes versus a lot of soft nickel defenses -- although the patented Redskins' stretch play will still be their bread and butter.


Defensively, coordinator Gregg Williams loves the element of surprise and will change up his fronts, coverages and blitzes on a weekly basis. Although the Redskins are primarily a 4-3 defense, they will show some 3-4 fronts. Although they love to play man-to-man coverage behind their blitzes, we will see some Cover 1, Cover 2 and Cover 3 schemes in the secondary.


Arrington is gone, but Washington has two new impact players on defense who will give them great versatility. DE Andre Carter (San Francisco) can line up on the edge in the 4-3 defense and can move to OLB in the 3-4 front. In both schemes he can be a terrific pass rusher.


Strong safety Adam Archuleta is a great hitter and will form one of the best safety duos in the NFL with FS Sean Taylor. Because of Archuleta's toughness, look for him to play close to the line of scrimmage, which leaves Taylor to cover the middle of the field in either a "man free" or Cover 3 scheme. Taylor has the range to get it done. This will be a one-gap, penetrating defense with a lot of interchangeable parts.


The Redskins have the most experienced coaching staff in the NFL. In addition to being good strategists, they are also excellent teachers. They retained 18 starters from a year ago and two of their new starters -- Archuleta and TE Christian Fauria -- are actually upgrades. The schedule is favorable, with most of the tough nonconference games at home, and remember that these Redskins posted a 5-1 record in the division in 2005. If Brunell stays healthy, Washington is a Super Bowl contender.


Philadelphia Eagles


Entering the 2006 season, the Eagles almost seem like a forgotten team. With the Cowboys, Giants and Redskins all dramatically upgrading their talent level and also grabbing most of the preseason headlines, has the window of opportunity closed for the Eagles? Was the devastating 2005 season the beginning of a long slide, or will they put last year behind them and return to their customary role as a Super Bowl contender? The reality is that success or failure will fall on the shoulders of QB Donovan McNabb.


Although injuries certainly played a key factor, the Eagles finished in the bottom third of the NFL in several categories, including on defense, which has always been a huge strength in Philadelphia. They had to endure the Owens fiasco and the roster turnover was dramatic. By the end of the season, only 11 of the 22 starters from the Super Bowl run two years ago were still in the starting lineup. That's too much change for any organization.


This is an offense that threw the ball 620 times in 2005 and only ran 365 times. The Eagles have committed to running the ball more in 2006, but who will carry it? Brian Westbrook is a talented guy, but he is not a workhorse back who is going to give them 25 carries a game.


The Eagles also face questions at receiver. With WR Reggie Brown, TE L.J. Smith and Westbrook as the best three options, the Eagles lack a go-to guy. The Eagles do have a big and tough offensive line, and they need to pass protect well, because McNabb will likely become more of a pocket passer in 2006.


Defensively, injuries and a lack of depth really tied coordinator Jim Johnson's hands. He is a creative play caller who loves to blitz on nearly every down, but with injuries in the secondary he couldn't put his corners on an island and play man-to-man schemes behind the blitzes. As a result, the Eagles were forced to play a lot of simple zones and lost their element of surprise.


The defensive line has good depth and the potential to use a deep rotation, which Johnson loves. The addition of DE Darren Howard and rookie first-round draft pick Brodrick Bunkley, who should be effective in the Eagles' one-gap attack, will be key. This defensive line needs more big plays from DE Jevon Kearse. MLB Jeremiah Trotter is terrific, but does not have a lot of help at OLB. The secondary can be dominant again if the players stay healthy and play more consistently in man-to-man situations.


This division is solid and all four teams will likely take turns beating each other. However, if the Eagles are in the hunt late in the season, they will be forced to survive a brutal schedule that has them playing three consecutive division games on the road in December: at Washington, New York and

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