1. New York Giants 10-6
The Giants biggest problem is well documented; no one knows who will become Eli Manning's go-to-guy. The Giants have an array of #2 and #3 receivers, but whether any of them is capable of taking on a bigger role is still anyone's guess. First round pick Hakeem Nicks started very slowly in training camp but improved dramatically as the preseason wore on. Rookie receivers usually struggle but if he produces from the get go, the Giants will be just fine. The Giants will miss Derrick Ward tremendously as the season wears on. They could do worse than Ahmad Bradshaw, but Ward added another dimension that no other team in the league had. With Brandon Jacobs' injury history, the Giants have to be prepared to play without him for extended periods of time. Bradshaw has to be up to the task, or the offense could sputter mightily.
On defense, arguably the top defensive line in the league got even better with the additions of Rocky Bernard and Chris Canty, and the return of Osi Umenyiora. The Giants will have no trouble getting after the quarterback and both Tuck and Umenyiora could approach 15 sacks. The secondary is extremely young and talented, and with the constant pressure from the front four they could force a lot of turnovers. If there's an area of concern on defense, it's the linebackers. Antonio Pierce is a fearless leader and great tackler, but he lacks the speed of some of the league's best. After missing most of camp, free agent pickup Michael Boley must return from a one game suspension and have an immediate impact. Certainly, the Giants would like a little more depth at the position. The Giants have bigger flaws than the past two years, but they remain the most complete team in the NFC East and should squeeze out another division title.
Player to watch: Kenny Phillips. In Phillips' second year the training wheels will be off. Phillips will start from day one, and everyone around the league is predicting a Pro Bowl caliber season. Phillips had a nice rookie season with 62 tackles, but this year look for him to add some big plays and takeaways to his resume.
2. Dallas Cowboys 10-6
With Terrell Owens gone, the spotlight rapidly diminished on America's team. Despite their sparkling new stadium (and the amusing events of the preseason) the Cowboys haven't gone into a season this far under the radar in several years. All the hoopla surrounding the stadium should help the team come together, but more important will be the development of quarterback Tony Romo. The Cowboys have plenty of weapons on the ground and through the air, but Romo has to improve his decision-making. The Cowboys could have easily advanced much farther the past couple years, but they fell apart in pressure situations. Without Owens, that may get a little easier. Still, the Cowboys need Roy Williams to earn the huge contract he got when they traded for him last fall. He was invisible down the stretch and that can't happen again.
On defense the Cowboys are led by DeMarcus Ware and are a tenacious group of tacklers and athletes. They'd like to get more pressure from Marcus Spears, but they showed last year that they can bring it from a variety of places. Bradie James (eight sacks) and Jay Ratliff (seven) may not repeat their production, but the Cowboys should have no trouble getting to the quarterback. I like the acquisition of Keith Brooking who can stay play at a high level and will bring the leadership the Cowboys thought they would get from Zach Thomas last summer. The Cowboys can beat you in a variety of ways and will be in every game. But in the tough NFC East, they won't be able to overtake the Giants unless Romo achieves consistency.
Player to watch: Felix Jones. Like the Giants last year, the Cowboys have three running backs very capable of entering the game and dominating for long stretches. Marion Barber will pound opponents, Felix Jones will blow by them, and Tashard Choice has a nice mix of power and speed. But Jones will be the player that keeps defensive coordinators up at night. He left defenders in his wake several times last season, and many wondered why the Cowboys didn't use him more. This season they will and that will have defenses everywhere concerned.
3. Philadelphia Eagles 9-7
Unlike the Cowboys, the Eagles have gotten a ton of hype this summer. Partially because of the questionable signing of Michael Vick, the Eagles offense has constantly been under the microscope. The offense will be fine, but they should be concerned about the defense. Letting Brian Dawkins go was a terrible mistake. He was the heart and soul of the team and his game hadn't slipped enough to warrant the Eagles abrupt goodbye. With Dawkins gone, the defense just doesn't scare teams like it used to. The best wrinkle in the Eagles system was the ability to bring Dawkins out of nowhere to rush the quarterback from the blind-side. The defense was outstanding last year, but I doubt they can repeat that success with the talent currently assembled. The key to the offense will continue to be Brian Westbrook. If he's healthy, the Eagles will be fine. But coming off a major surgery, he may not have much left. The Eagles were wise to draft his replacement and to improve their receiving corps, but few players in the league have the impact on their team of Westbrook. He's simply impossible to game-plan. If he does stay healthy and LeSean McCoy becomes a viable option, the Eagles will be very tough to stop. But expecting the equally fragile Westbrook and Donovan McNabb to stay healthy is a leap.
Player to watch: Michael Vick. Can it be anyone else? Vick probably will only play a handful of snaps a game, at least at the start. But after being out of the league for so long everyone is wondering what he'll bring to the table. He couldn't throw the ball when he played before, so I don't expect that to change. But he could be an interesting piece of the Wildcat set.
4. Washington Redskins 8-8
The Redskins improved a formidable defense with two outstanding pickups, mammoth defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth, and rookie Brian Orakpo out of the University of Texas. The Redskins will regret the ridiculous deal they gave to Haynesworth down the road, but this season he may transform the defense into the best in the league. The Redskins have a wonderful collection of young and veteran talent, and all are capable of doing a variety of things well. They'll get much more pressure on the quarterback because of all the attention Haynesworth will attract. The defense will keep the Redskins from getting blown out, but the offense is in shambles. The Redskins failed attempt to land Jay Cutler means Jason Campbell will remain the team's starting quarterback. He just doesn't have enough talent to be a starter in the NFL, and the Redskins are wasting another season by not recognizing that. There seems to be a lot of worry about Clinton Portis, but the production is still there so I don't think that he should be at the top of the Redskins list of worries. The Redskins have assembled a great defense, but until they secure a good field general they can't compete in this division.
Player to watch: Chris Cooley. Cooley totaled an impressive 83 catches last season as a tight end, but only one touchdown. That's even more remarkable considering Campbell's ability. Usually quarterbacks on Campbell's level rely heavily on the tight end to provide an outlet, especially in the red zone. That single touchdown was a fluke, look for Cooley to get on the board early and often in 2009.