In my continuing series on impact players for the 2009 season, here's a look at the NFC East.Dallas Cowboys: OLB Anthony Spencer(notes)
The Cowboys have all but closed the book on OLB Greg Ellis(notes) – he's expected to be traded soon – and that leaves Spencer, the former first-round pick, to replace his production. As Michael Lombardi wrote Thursday morning, the Cowboys' defense is predicated on getting to the quarterback. They led the NFL in sacks last season with 59, but they also gave up over 22 points per game. This defense – although nasty when it gets to the quarterback – is the equivalent of a big-play offense. It's effective because it can provide the amount of pressure that can alter a ballgame – and that's where Spencer comes in.
He has only 4½ sacks in his career and only posted 1½ in '08. He's long, but he lacks the burst off the line of scrimmage to consistently create havoc in the backfield, which is something Ellis will take with him along with his 77 career sacks and the eight he recorded last season. We can all agree that Ellis might be at the end of his career, but the Cowboys still have to replace his production, and Spencer needs to show that he can consistently get to the quarterback in this attacking defense – because without that, the Cowboys will struggle.New York Giants: WR Hakeem Nicks(notes)
It isn't often that a late first-round pick is expected to contribute and produce immediately in an offense – especially at the wide receiver position – but that's exactly what the Giants were thinking when they drafted Nicks out of UNC.
As I wrote Wednesday when I discussed the Giants and QB Eli Manning(notes), this offense needs a big, physical No. 1 target – especially in the intermediate passing game. Nicks is long, and he has the body to shield defenders away from the football, plus he has the ability to go up and catch the ball, something former Giants WR Plaxico Burress(notes) possessed – but he's still a rookie wide receiver. Are the Giants asking too much?
Maybe, but that's really not the point right now. This team is loaded on defense and along the offensive line, and it might just have the best running game in the league, but Nicks is going to be expected to produce and play like a veteran immediately – or Manning and the passing game will struggle early in the season. Say what you want about Manning, but he plays at a higher level when he has a big receiver who can go get the football. Nicks has to be that player.Philadelphia Eagles: LT Jason Peters(notes)
Beyond the fact that the Eagles paid top dollar – plus traded away draft picks – to bring Peters in from Buffalo, the expectations for him will, and should be, immense for the '09 season.
Peters struggled in Buffalo last season, and now he comes to the NFC East, where he'll face some of the best pass rushers in the game. The Eagles used their top two draft picks on offensive talent – WR Jeremy Maclin(notes) of Missouri and RB LeSean McCoy(notes) of Pittsburgh – to give QB Donovan McNabb(notes) more weapons. But those additions won't matter if Peters doesn't return to Pro Bowl form and become a dominant left tackle in the Eagles' West-Coast system. I was a teammate of his in Buffalo, and I can attest to his athletic ability for a man his size, but he still has to prove that he can handle the pressure defenses in this defense.
There were a lot of reasons why Peters' game slipped in '08, but when you command the type of salary he now possess, the Eagles and the city of Philadelphia are going to expect major production. This team should be considered one of the contenders to not only win the East, but to go deep into January – but that will only happen if Peters plays at a high level and gives McNabb time to throw.Washington Redskins: RB Ladell Betts(notes)
As I've stated before when it comes to feature backs in the NFL, they tire over the course of a 16-game season when they don't have a complement in the backfield. Clinton Portis(notes) is the feature attraction in the Redskins' offense, but I felt that during the '08 season he wore down as the season progressed, and I started to question why Betts wasn't given more carries.
I have a lot of respect for the way Portis plays the game. I was his teammate for two seasons in Washington, and I still feel that he doesn't get enough credit for his toughness as a football player. But it doesn't hide that fact that Portis carried the football 342 times compared to Betts' 61, and his numbers drastically decreased over the last two months of the season.
This offense has plenty of question marks along the offensive line, and some in quarterback Jason Campbell(notes), but Portis is the real deal when he's fresh and when he's healthy down the stretch. Head coach Jim Zorn needs to work Betts into the rotation because he's a back who can run with power, can catch the ball out of the backfield and is more than capable of moving the chains.
The Giants led the league is rushing for a reason – they had multiple options out of the backfield. And Washington needs to follow their plan for this offense to move the ball on the ground, something that's essential to winning games in the NFC East.
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- The Cowboys