The fifth of eight divisional looks ahead at the upcoming NFL season. -----
DALLAS COWBOYS (8-8, t-2nd in NFC East, in 2011)
The good: Cornerback was a big problem for the Cowboys in 2011. Signing Brandon Carr and drafting Morris Claiborne should erase that problem. Incumbents Mike Jenkins and Orlandon Scandrick are still on hand as well to provide depth to go with the potentially elite talent. ... At 30 years old, DeMarcus Ware should start to slow down soon — but you'd have thought he'd start to slip prior to last season, and he went out and recorded 19.5 sacks. ... Tony Romo probably receives more unjust criticism than any quarterback in the league. Maybe he'd win something if he had less flawed teams around him. He's not in the very top tier of quarterbacks, but he's a good one.
The bad: Gone are the likes of Alex Barron, but this is still an offensive line that starts a 21-year-old, albeit a talented one (Tyron Smith), at left tackle, and he's not exactly surrounded by elite players (Nate Livings, Phil Costa, Mackenzy Bernadeau). ... At wide receiver, the Cowboys start the injury-prone Miles Austin and the trouble-prone Dez Bryant, and their depth behind them is pretty awful. It doesn't help matters that TE Jason Witten is on the wrong side of 30 and has a ton of miles. ... You expect a Rob Ryan defense to make opposing quarterbacks miserable, but other than Ware, the Cowboys totaled a mere 22.5 sacks last season. I'm underwhelmed by the rest of the front seven.
The verdict: Yeah, the Cowboys have much more talent than a six-win team. They also play in a loaded division and conference, and they've failed to put it all together before. I think it happens again. The finish: 6-10, 4th in NFC East
NEW YORK GIANTS (9-7, 1st in NFC East, in 2011)
The good: Most would start this section with QB Eli Manning. I'll go with the front four of the defense, and ends Jason Pierre-Paul, Justin Tuck and Osi Umenyiora in particular. Few, if any, teams get near the year-in, year-out pass rush of the Giants, at least not without blitzing heavily all the time. ... OK, Manning's pretty good, too. I've always found him overrated, but you don't throw for 4,933 yards in the same season you win your second Super Bowl without being a pretty awesome quarterback. ... There's no Mario Manningham to complement them anymore, but I'd probably take Hakeem Nicks and Victor Cruz as my starting receivers over any other duo in the league.
The bad: Assuming young CB Prince Amukamara, whose season was cut short by injury in 2011, is able to give it a go for close to 16 games, this secondary should be better, but it's still subpar. I'm just not a big fan of the back seven of the defense in general. ... What was once an elite offensive line is now a unit about which I'd worry if I were a Giants fan. The familiar names (Chris Snee, David Diehl) aren't getting any younger, and the less-familiar players on the left side (Will Beatty, Kevin Boothe) are underwhelming. ... That's only part of the reason that a once-fearsome running game will probably be bad again in 2012. Ahmad Bradshaw and David Wilson aren't going to remind us of the days when a younger Bradshaw and Brandon Jacobs were rolling over opposing defenses.
The verdict: Ten wins seems light for a team coming off a Super Bowl win that I expect to be very good again. Then again, I'm predicting an improvement for a team coming off a nine-win season. The finish: 10-6, 1st in NFC East
PHILADELPHIA EAGLES (8-8, t-2nd in NFC East, in 2011)
The good: One place — perhaps the only place — at which the Eagles didn't fail to meet expectations defensively in 2011 was at defensive end. Coming off seasons in which they recorded 18 and 11 sacks, respectively, Jason Babin and Trent Cole are monsters. ... The offensive skill-position talent around dangerous QB Michael Vick is staggering. RB LeSean McCoy is coming off a huge season, and WRs DeSean Jackson and Jeremy Maclin are among the league's best playmakers. ... Asante Samuel going to the Falcons might be addition by subtraction, and not just because Eagles coach Andy Reid thinks he's not the player he once was. It should also allow the Eagles to use CBs Nnamdi Asomugha and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie in a manner that better makes use of their skills.
The bad: I've long been a DeMeco Ryans fan, but the guy who once made getting 100 tackles look like child's play has 54 and 64, respectively, in the last two seasons. He may not be the answer for a linebacking corps that could still spell doom for this defense. ... Even if Asomugha and Rodgers-Cromartie play as they were originally supposed to for the Eagles, and that's a big if, the secondary could have issues as long as Nate Allen and Kurt Coleman are the starting safeties. ... LT Jason Peters' ruptured Achilles tendon is a huge blow to an offensive line that probably would have been pretty good. It's more likely below average without Peters.
The verdict: Can a team this talented really miss the playoffs for a second straight season? Given Vick's injury history and that the underqualified Juan Castillo is still calling the shots for the defense, I'd say it's not only possible, it's likely. The finish: 9-7, 2nd in NFC East
WASHINGTON REDSKINS (5-11, 4th in NFC East, in 2011)
The good: Between OLBs Brian Orakpo and Ryan Kerrigan and the ageless London Fletcher inside, the Redskins have the linebackers to make Jim Haslett's 3-4 defense work. I can see Orakpo and Kerrigan combining on a silly number of sacks this season. ... I can see QB Robert Griffin III hitting some bumps in the road during his rookie season, but I like his chances long-term, and he'll do some good things immediately. ... This has the chance to be the best offensive line in the division, and by a good margin. The unit has battled injuries throughout the preseason, and RT Jammal Brown just underwent hip surgery, but LT Trent Williams could lead the line to good things if it holds up.
The bad: It's not just as a fantasy player that I hate the Mike Shanahan approach to running-back use. Why give so many carries to Tim Hightower, he of the sub-4 career rushing average? Roy Helu is the only guy in this substandard collection of backs who's shown real signs of ability; Yahoo lists him third on the depth chart. ... Bears fans are probably amused that Washington brought Brandon Meriweather to start at safety. He's part of a secondary that could cause glee in plenty of Redskins' opponents this season. ... Just because you pay Pierre Garcon like a borderline No. 1 receiver doesn't mean he is one. It's still a position at which Washington, which still has Santana Moss and added Josh Morgan, could do better.
The verdict: I generally pick the Redskins to be OK most seasons and they're awful, but Griffin offers real hope of this being a team on the rise. They'll go as he goes, and that may be to the playoffs before much longer. The finish: 7-9, 3rd in NFC East