<
>

Eagles still class of NFC East

Something isn't right in the NFC East. In the past three years, the division reached out for proven winning coaches such as Bill Parcells, Joe Gibbs and Tom Coughlin – and, despite that, the Eagles' stranglehold only gets stronger.

The Eagles have won four consecutive NFC East titles and finished last season with a seven-game victory margin over the other three NFC East teams (13-3 compared to 6-10 for the Giants, Cowboys and Redskins).

While that gap likely will close some this fall, the question is whether the other division teams can catch up enough to make a real difference. Philadelphia clearly remains the NFC East favorite despite off-field contract concerns. The Eagles' schedule is the third easiest in the league, featuring teams with combined 2004 winning percentages of .453. They face only six teams that finished last season 8-8 or better, a league low.

Sure, the Eagles have some issues. Terrell Owens is threatening a long holdout and has been an offseason distraction because he wants more money. Defensive tackle Corey Simon is an unsigned franchise player who might miss a good portion of training camp. The Eagles tired of wide receiver Freddie Mitchell's mouth and released him. But they have the winning formula in this division, with quarterback Donovan McNabb, head coach Andy Reid and coordinators Brad Childress and Jim Johnson locked up with contract extensions for a long time.

Philadelphia Eagles
Best Move: Re-signing middle linebacker Jeremiah Trotter to a five-year, $15.6 million deal was the team's biggest transaction of the offseason. In fact, it was the only deal in which they spent more than $1 million. Former Lions quarterback Mike McMahon was their only free-agent signing, and he cost them only $940,000 (nothing if he fails to make the 53-man roster). It's not as though the Eagles weren't active. They did a bulk of their deals last season, re-signing cornerbacks Lito Sheppard and Sheldon Brown, guard Artis Hicks, defensive tackle Sam Rayburn and wide receiver Greg Lewis. Trotter was their most prominent free agent, and he was an important player to keep. His return last year was as important in the locker room as on the field because he's a great leader. On the field, Trotter helped to improve the run defense from 22nd in 2003 to 16th last year. Trotter is a big body who added bulk against the run. Plus, he added an element of toughness. The Eagles had their worst year against the run while Trotter was in Washington. Keeping Trotter was a key move.

Biggest Surprise: Not re-signing guard Jermane Mayberry wasn't surprising. The Eagles usually let aging veterans go when their contracts run out and they get past the age of 30. But not investing a little more for insurance along the offensive line has left the line a little thin. Left tackle Tra Thomas hasn't been allowed to participate in contact drills this offseason because he's on blood thinners from a blood clot behind his left knee. Right tackle Jon Runyan is in the final year of his contract, and this probably will be his last season with the Eagles. Right guard Shawn Andrews was a first-round pick in 2004, but he missed last season. The sixth offensive lineman, and the only backup with playing experience, is guard Steve Sciullo, who was claimed off the waiver wire from Indianapolis last season. The Eagles love to groom young offensive linemen. They took three on the second day of the draft and have three other second-day draft choices from 2004. If a few of those six aren't ready to step up and there are injuries along the O-line, the Eagles could have some problems.

Bottom Line: Owens helped carry the Eagles to their first Super Bowl since XV. But will he be a distraction who hurts the team this season? With a seven-game margin over the rest of the division, it's unlikely Owens will bring the team down. He might miss time at training camp in his futile effort to get a new contract, but no one expects him to miss regular-season games. In fact, his missing time in camp could actually be a positive in some ways, allowing second-round choice Reggie Brown enough time to play and become a valuable fourth receiver. Greg Lewis' development as a fast outside threat enabled McNabb to stretch the field occasionally. While Owens draws plenty of attention, McNabb makes the Eagles go. As long as he doesn't get hurt, the Eagles remain the favorite to win the NFC East.

Dallas Cowboys
Best Move: Jerry Jones let Bill Parcells have his way. After trying to make Bill Parcells win the Jerry Jones way with Jerry Jones-type players, the aggressive Cowboys' owner let Parcells bring in his type of players. Allowing him to switch to the 3-4 defense was the key. By doing that, the Cowboys had the best offseason in the division, and the second best offseason in the NFL next to the Minnesota Vikings. The first move was getting a nose tackle. Jason Ferguson cost them $8.125 million in signing bonuses as part of a five-year, $21 million free-agent contract, but he's worth it. A 3-4 can't operate unless the nose tackle occupies two blockers. No one on the Cowboys' roster could do that, so the Cowboys had no choice but to pay Ferguson. Parcells started filling the rest of the 3-4 in the draft. He drafted Demarcus Ware in the first round to be his pass-rushing linebacker. He drafted Marcus Spears and Chris Canty to develop as 3-4 defensive linemen. Adjusting to a 3-4 isn't easy. Defensive end Greg Ellis and defensive tackle La'Roi Glover are more natural fits in a 4-3 and might have some problems converting to a 3-4. But the linebacking corps is now the strength of the team, with Ware, second-round choice Kevin Burnett and veterans Al Singleton, Dat Nguyen, Bradie James and Kalen Thornton.

Biggest Surprise: It's still stunning that Anthony Henry received a five-year, $25.2 million deal. While Henry was a good player in Cleveland, he wasn't considered a shutdown cornerback. But if Terence Newman can be the shutdown corner the Cowboys thought they were getting when they drafted him 2003, Henry just has to cover and tackle well in zone schemes. In that case, he might be worth the big investment. The bonus for the Cowboys was getting Aaron Glenn as a third cornerback. Newman is coming off a disappointing season. He should bounce back because he has better players around him at cornerback. With Ware and some aggressive blitzing schemes, the Cowboys shouldn't finish 21st in pass defense, as they did in 2004.

Bottom Line: After a disappointing 6-10 season, it would be a major disaster if the Cowboys don't improve by at least three games. Jones spent almost $27 million on seven free agents. The key will be how well Drew Bledsoe does. He's certainly younger than Vinny Testaverde, but he isn't very mobile. Parcells was with Bledsoe in his formative years in New England, and they went to a Super Bowl together. Can they regain the magic? There isn't a lot of speed at wide receiver, so Bledsoe must release the ball quickly, something he didn't do in Buffalo. Julius Jones, who gained 819 yards last season in just eight games, should make Bledsoe's job easier. Picking up Anthony Thomas as a backup at running back was a smart move in case Jones wears down. Jerry Jones was spoiled in 2003 when Parcells won 10 games without shaking up the roster. But the drop to six wins last season forced him to get the type of players Parcells wants. The question facing the Cowboys this year is: Did they acquire enough Parcells guys?

Washington Redskins
Best Move: The success of the whole season could come down to Joe Gibbs' decision to switch the style of receivers in Washington. Going from Laveranues Coles and Rod Gardner to Santana Moss and David Patten was a bold move. If it works, the Redskins' offense won't repeat its woeful ranking of No. 30 in the league. Think about it for a second: Clinton Portis rushed for 1,315 yards and the Redskins still ranked 30th in yards per game. They looked anemic on offense. They were among the worst in yards after the catch and in big plays. Gibbs decided he needed smaller, quicker receivers. Moss failed to live up to his first-round billing with the Jets and was in the final year of his contract. He caught 74 passes in 2003, but that was his only 50-plus-catch season. But Gibbs believes Patten and Moss will create more excitement. Gibbs figured he has nothing to lose – with Coles and Gardner, the Redskins averaged only 10 yards per reception as a team. The two produced only six touchdowns. Offensively, the Redskins produced only 24 touchdowns all season. Something drastic had to happen.

Biggest Surprise: Jason Campbell has all the tools to be a great quarterback, but his presence on the Redskins is puzzling. Gibbs was hired by owner Dan Snyder to win now. Can Gibbs rush a rookie quarterback ahead of Patrick Ramsey and Mark Brunell and win now? And if he doesn't, why did Gibbs use a first-round choice on the quarterback of the future? The future is now in Washington. There is no guarantee Gibbs will want to coach past this season, which means Campbell would be the quarterback of the future for a new coach. It's apparent Gibbs doesn't have the greatest confidence in the world in Ramsey or Brunell. Campbell heads into training camp as the third quarterback, but if the Redskins still rank No. 30 in offense after a month or so, Campbell may get a chance.

Bottom Line: This is a make-or-break year for the Redskins. They structured contracts to make a two-year run at a Super Bowl. A 6-10 first season wasn't what Gibbs expected. The 'Skins were much better on defense thanks to the hiring of former Bills head coach Gregg Williams as the defensive coordinator. The D finished third overall, and a second year in the system should allow it to stay at that level. The key will be the offense – and don't expect Gibbs to be patient with his quarterbacks, which could lead to QB controversies. Ramsey heads into the season as the starter. While he's bright and completes 62 percent of his passes, he needs to come up with more big plays to keep moving the chains. The addition of Casey Rabach gives the Redskins the most talented offensive line in the division. Chris Samuels and Jon Jansen are healthy at tackle. Randy Thomas and Derrick Dockery are more than solid at guard. It comes down to the passing offense dictating how far this team will go.


New York Giants
Best Move: The strangest pairing in the league might be Giants coach Tom Coughlin and former Steelers wide receiver Plaxico Burress. Coughlin is a rigid disciplinarian who wants players to arrive early to meetings. Burress runs on his own schedule. But without a first-round choice, the Giants needed to get a first-round talent at wide receiver, and Burress was the perfect fit for quarterback Eli Manning. Leg and speed problems caught up with the Giants last year. Amani Toomer couldn't run because of a bad hamstring. Little else was happening at receiver, and it's tough for a young quarterback to grow if receivers are slow getting into routes. General manager Ernie Accorsi watched tapes of how Burress helped the development of Ben Roethlisberger last year. Though Burress isn't the fastest receiver, he offers size and some ability to stretch the ball downfield. The Giants are doing all they can to add some big targets for Manning, who is trying to improve his completion percentage from 48.2 into the 60-plus range.

Biggest Surprise: The addition of middle linebacker Antonio Pierce was a good surprise. Normally, teams don't pay big money in free agency to linebackers, but the Giants came up with a six-year, $25.7 million deal for Pierce. That's a lot of money at linebacker. A good tackler, Pierce was considered the sleeper of free agency. Undrafted when he came into the league, Pierce was a great success story in Washington. He's a good leader on the field, making sure teammates are lined up correctly and inspiring their play.

Bottom Line: It took until December for Manning to get into a comfort zone after he took over for Kurt Warner at midseason. Coughlin expects dramatic progress from his second-year quarterback this season. Tight end Jeremy Shockey has been working hard during the offseason in Miami to return to his Pro Bowl rookie form. Coughlin is designing more plays to get him into passing routes on a more consistent basis. If Toomer can regain some of his speed with a healthy hamstring, Manning has a lot of offensive weapons to use. Toomer, Burress and Shockey are big targets and good receivers. Running back Tiki Barber is coming off a 1,518-yard season and shows no signs of slowing down. The Giants could be the surprise team in the division, but everything revolves around the development of Manning, the division's youngest quarterback.

John Clayton is a senior writer for ESPN.com.