By Mike Harmon
July 12, 2005
Previews: NFC East | NFC North | NFC South | NFC West | AFC North | AFC South | AFC West
I continue my tour around the NFL with a look-in on the NFC East. The Eagles look to continue their dominance over the rest of the division, returning virtually all of their starters from last year's Super Bowl run. However, a number of key players are mired in contract disputes. Will discord cause the champs to unravel?
The Giants hope that the progress made by Eli Manning at the end of last season carries through to the new year, and they brought him a new, big target in Plaxico Burress. The Cowboys team second-year star Julius Jones with QB Drew Bledsoe, who looks for a fresh start with his third NFL team and a reunion with Bill Parcells.
And then there's Washington, who have a bunch of personnel concerns and a need to rebuild an offense that barely escaped the cellar in the points per game column. Joe Gibbs' team can't help but better this year, can they?
Let's get after it. We'll start with the reigning champs.
Philadelphia Eagles (2004 Stats: Rushing: 24th at 102.4 YPG, Passing: 6th at 263 YPG)
The Eagles finally reached the promised land in 2004, getting past the NFC title game for their place in the Super Bowl. They'll return 20 starters from a year ago, assuming that Terrell Owens returns to the fold. Donovan McNabb is coming off his finest season as a pro and will look to make the critics (teammates included) forget about the negativity following their Super Bowl loss. With 10 starters back on a defense that ranked second in points allowed (16.25 per game), the Eagles are in position for a fifth straight NFC title game.
Philadelphia will employ a full backfield with three components this season. Brian Westbrook remains the top option, but will be spelled by Correll Buckhalter (returning from injury) and Ryan Moats (third-round draft pick). Both Westbrook and Moats will be important pieces of the passing game, particularly if Terrell Owens follows through with an extended holdout.
Will he or won't he? If/when Terrell Owens returns to the field for the Eagles, they certainly have one of the top options in the game at their disposal. Behind him, RB Brian Westbrook is the most viable option. Todd Pinkston returns in the second spot, but he'll face challenges from Greg Lewis and rookie Reggie Brown. McNabb will be hard-pressed to repeat his dominant '04 numbers, but he's certainly distinguished himself as one of the top fantasy options at QB.
Fantasy Power List
Donovan McNabb (Second Round): The huge TD totals achieved by Peyton Manning and Daunte Culpepper in 2004 have moved the big three quarterbacks up the draft board this season. McNabb is the third off of the board, but fantasy owners are demonstrating that they expect more aerial assaults in '05. He put the struggles of 2003 (in fantasy numbers, anyway) behind him and put up the best totals of his career, tossing 31 touchdowns against just eight interceptions in 2004. Clearly the possibility of McNabb and the Eagles starting the season without Terrell Owens hasn't deterred owners in early drafts.
Terrell Owens (Third Round): He's playing coy in media events about his possible return to the Eagles. "Wait until July 29th," was all he had to say at a recent charity event. The reports are that he's 90% recovered from last year's ankle injury and will be ready to dominate whenever he dons a uniform. The expectation of a holdout has dropped his stock slightly in early drafts, as Marvin Harrison and Torry Holt are being selected ahead of him.
Brian Westbrook (Seventh Round): Westbrook averaged 4.6 yards per carry and hauled in 73 passes last season. He also scored six touchdowns via the air. A healthy Correll Buckhalter and rookie Ryan Moats will again give the Eagles a multi-faceted running game. Westbrook's role in the offense will be bigger if OWens follows through with his holdout.
L.J. Smith (12th Round): The Eagles are counting on big things from Smith in '05, as his role in the offense expands. Chad Lewis will take the second seat in the double tight end set and Smith will become the top receiving option. He caught 34 balls for five touchdowns despite a back injury last season.
Greg Lewis: Lewis ran routes in Owens' place in spring workouts and received tremendous reviews from Andy Reid and company. He showed great speed off the line, solid cuts and great hands. Lewis showed great promise down the stretch after Owens' injury and played well in the playoffs, including a TD in the Super Bowl.
New York Giants (2004 Stats: Rushing: 11th at 119 YPG, Passing: 25th at 193.6 YPG)
The Giants finished in a three-way tie for second (last) place at 6-10. Tom Coughlin and Ernie Accorsi acquired a number of players from free agency to improve all aspects of the game (Plaxico Burress, Kareem McKenzie, Antonio Pierce and Jay Feely among others).
Tiki Barber had a tremendous '04 season, rebounding nicely from a sub-par '03 campaign. The Giants ranked 11th in the league at 119 rushing yards per game and will continue to rely heavily on Barber again in '04. Ron Dayne left for Denver and will be replaced by Brandon Jacobs, a rookie from Southern Illinois who will look to take goal-line carries.
The Giants went through the entire season without a TD reception from a starting wide receiver. Ike Hilliard has moved to Tampa Bay and Amani Toomer will slide into the No. 2 role behind newly acquired target Plaxico Burress. The question is, how will he respond to the disciplinarian Coughlin? Eli Manning's confidence grew as the season progressed and he'll surely benefit from entering camp as the undisputed starter.
Fantasy Power List
Tiki Barber (Early Second Round): Despite the struggles of the Giants offense overall, Barber dominated in 2004. He achieved his third straight 1,000-yard rushing campaign (fourth overall) and caught more than 50 passes for the sixth consecutive campaign. There's some concern that Brandon Jacobs will be a factor in goal-line situations, but that's not stopping owners from selecting him early in the second round. With the addition of Plaxico Burress to the receiving corps, Barber should have more running room this season.
Jeremy Shockey (Fifth Round): It was sixes across the board for Shockey in '04. He caught 61 passes for 666 yards and six touchdowns. His production was consistent throughout the season and like Barber, his production will be aided by the addition of Burress.
Plaxico Burress (Seventh Round): Burress was an enigma during his five years in Pittsburgh. He achieved two straight 1,000-yard seasons for the Steelers in 2001 and 2002, but has battled injury and inconsistency the past two years. Burress had established a nice rapport with Ben Roethlisberger before being sidelined for most of the stretch run. He'll look to give Eli Manning the No. 1 receiving option that was missing for the Giants in 2004.
Amani Toomer (Ninth Round): Toomer's string of 1,000-yard seasons ended at five when he recorded only 51 catches for 747 yards. Most importantly, Toomer failed to reach the end zone for fantasy owners last season. He caught more than two passes just once in his final six games before missing the finale against Dallas.
Eli Manning (11th Round): Manning made tremendous strides during the latter part of the season while facing a rough string of defenses. He ended the season with a three-TD performance against the rival Cowboys and is primed to make great strides in '04. Fantasy owners are nabbing him as a backup with the anticipation that Burress, Shockey and Barber out of the backfield will help propel him to the next level.
Tim Carter: Carter is a big, fast threat ... when he can stay on the field. He's been sidelined by injuries for three straight years and will not likely receive much slack from the Giants coaching staff this year. However, if he can stay on track, he'll offer a great deep threat for Eli Manning.
Dallas Cowboys (2004 Stats: Rushing: 20th at 110.6 YPG, Passing: 15th at 227.3 YPG)
Bill Parcells is back for one another season at the healm of the Cowboys, trying to improve on a 6-10 season. The offense has its share of talent, but was pressed into bad situations and forced playcalling with a defense that allowed 25 points per game. He's been emphatic about his disappointment in the defense (a top-ranked squad in '03 and bust pick in '04 fantasy drafts) that yielded 31 passing touchdowns last year. They added Jason Ferguson to the defensive line, Anthony Henry to upgrade the defensive backfield and used six of eight draft picks to build the defense.
Eddie George started the '04 season as the top option in the Cowboys backfield, but gave way to Julius Jones upon his return to the field from a should injury. All Jones did was rack up yards and touchdowns in the final seven games, experiencing his coming out party on a Monday night game in Seattle. The Cowboys will ride Jones as far as his legs will take them.
Vinny Testaverde racked up 3,500 passing yards last season, but that failed to translate into fantasy or on-field dominance. Bill Parcells turns to another former student this year with the acquisition of Drew Bledsoe. They added Marco Rivera to the line and return a corps of veteran receivers with the speedy Patrick Crayton in the mix.
Fantasy Power List
Julius Jones (Third Round): Jones dominated over the final seven games of the year, leading all rushers with 192 carries during that stretch (27.4 per game). He also scored seven touchdowns and will be the workhorse this year.
Jason Witten (Sixth Round): Witten had a monster year in '04, piling up 87 catches, just under 1,000 yards and six touchdowns. He caught less than three passes once in 2004. Owners are banking that Witten will combine with new QB Drew Bledsoe to provide a balanced attack and a red zone threat.
Terry Glenn (11th Round): Glenn started strong (24 catches for 400 yards and two touchdowns), but missed the final 10 games of the season. Fantasy owners are drafting Glenn with the expectation that he and Bledsoe will recapture their chemistry from the late 90s.
Drew Bledsoe (11th Round): Bledsoe reunites with Bill Parcells and has the benefit of a top-tier back in Julius Jones to allow them to deploy a balanced attack. While owners aren't completely sold on Bledsoe, his strong second half in Buffalo last season (six straight games with at least one TD toss) has him on the radar. One positive note about Bledsoe. Save the 2001 season that signaled the end to his career in New England, Bledsoe is resiliant and does not miss games.
Keyshawn Johnson (12th Round): After leaving the tense situation in Tampa Bay, Johnson enjoyed his highest TD output since 2000. He fell just shy of his fifth 1,000-yard season and, despite the ineffectiveness of the Cowboys passing game, still snagged 70 receptions. Owners are acquiring the sure-handed receiver because catches are a sure thing when he's on the field. Save his suspension-shortened 2003 season, Johnson has caught at least 60 passes every season. Though he may not find the end zone with regularity, he's not getting shut out in the receptions or yardage columns.
Bledsoe: He was shut out in just three games last year and threw for multiple TDs on four occasions. He enjoyed his best season with the Bills in '02 when he topped 4,300 passing yards and 24 TD passes. Bledsoe's reunion with Bill Parcells and the receiving options of Glenn, Johnson and Witten should allow him to approach those heights again.
Washington Redskins (2004 Stats: Rushing: 21st at 110.3 YPG, Passing: 29th at 179.6 YPG)
Joe Gibbs would certainly like to forget the miseries experienced by his offense in 2004. The 6-10 record and anemic 15 points per game were forgettable for both Redskins fans and fantasy owners. The Redskins topped 20 points only twice last year. The defense has some issues to sort out with continued difficulties with LaVar Arrington's knee and Sean Taylor's continuing battles.
The running game suffered with the loss of Jansen in the preseason. Though Clinton Portis finished eighth in the league in rushing (1,315 yards), he managed just five rushing touchdowns. With more balance on the offense, a return toward Portis's Denver totals may be in the offing.
The Redskins look to improve on the 29th-ranked passing offense from '04. They signed Casey Rabach and welcome back Jon Jansen. Those additions, combined with the acquisitions of David Patten and Santana Moss, should help Patrick Ramsey's development.
Fantasy Power List
Clinton Portis (Late-Second Round): The yards piled up for Portis last season, but he failed to replicate his TD magic from Denver. The Redskins sorely missed tackle Jon Jansen on the O-Line and will rely on him to blow open holes for Portis in '05. The Redskins will look to spread the field with a revamped passing attack, allowing Portis room to run.
Santana Moss (10th Round): Moss joins the Redskins after four years with the Jets. After a strong 2003 season in which he posted double-digit touchdowns, his productivity was limited in '04. He was injured, the Jets lost Chad Pennington and, of course, the brilliance of Curtis Martin and the running game.
Patrick Ramsey (13th Round): Ramsey has the starting nod going into the season, but last season's big acquisition, Mark Brunell, is still on the roster. Ramsey has shown flashes that have fantasy owners intrigues (four games over 200 yards in nine starts with TD tosses in seven of them). Ramsey will have new receiving deep ball targets in Moss and David Patten and a stronger line protecting him.
Robert Royal (14th Round): He made only four catches last year, but four of those were rare Redskins touchdowns. Royal scored in four of the final five games of the year and will be a bigger factor in '05, as Coach Gibbs stresses the TE safety valve in Ramsey's development.
Rod Gardner: Gardner was once a given to be wearing a new uniform as the '05 season opened. However, no trade has been brokered, meaning that he'll likely return to the Redskins this year. Gardner is a big (6-foot-2) and fast target, who would be an important part of helping turn things around in Washington lined up alongside Moss and Patten. He failed to score a touchdown in the second half of last season as part of the dismal Redskins' season. In 2002, Gardner did reach the 1,000-yard mark with eight scores. If he can get past his difficulties with management, play-calling and well, general discontentedness, he could make for a solid sleeper pick in the late rounds.
Updated on Tuesday, Jul 12, 2005 9:53 pm, EDT
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