Today we continue our annual Battle of the NFC East articles, comparing all four NFC East division rivals — the Dallas Cowboys, New York Giants, Philadelphia Eagles and Washington Redskins — against each other, position by position. I will rank the teams in order of strongest to weakest at each position and will also choose the best player in the division at each particular position. We will start on offense and proceed to defense over the course of this week. Evaluations will be based not only on the strength of starters, but also reserves and may be influenced by current injuries.
We continue today with the offensive line.
1. New York Giants
In 2007 and 2008 there was no offensive line in the NFL as good as one the Giants had and it went a long, long way toward explaining why the team won the Super Bowl after the 2007 season and the NFC East in the 2008 season. Although the Giants have some very talented linemen it was good health and good luck that made the line so dominant in those two seasons. Through 32 games plus the playoffs the offensive line suffered virtually no injuries, allowing the same five linemen to play next to each other week after week. Continuity and health are the two of the biggest reasons why any offensive line succeeds or fails and good health meant good results for the Giants in 2007-08.
That came to an end in 2009, as RT Kareem McKenzie and LG Rich Seubert missed games to injury, contributing to season-crushing losses at the end of the regular season to the Vikings and the Panthers. New York's vaunted running game suffered and QB Eli Manning had to deal with more pressure from opposing pass-rushers. While Manning adjusted and took his game to a new, higher level, the running backs did not and the offense became too reliant on the passing game, forcing a shaky and injury-prone defense to spend more time on the field than was helpful.
The Giants offensive line is getting older -- when David Diehl turns 30 in mid-September, every OL starter will be at least 30 years old, an age when injuries become more common and last longer. The Giants continue to have top performers along the line, particularly RG Chris Snee and C Shaun O'Hara, both among the best in the NFL at their position. Diehl probably shouldn't be a starting left tackle anymore, but he may be the best they've got if Will Beatty cannot take the job from him. If Beatty does win the job at LT, it would allow the Giants to move Diehl inside, where he belongs. McKenzie is just an average player at RT and the team would be better with Seubert coming off the bench, with Diehl taking his job at guard. Nevertheless, these players are familiar with each other, the scheme and what is required of them. If they can stay healthy, they will be the strongest offensive line in the division. Injuries would be very damaging to the Giants because the depth did not perform well last year and Shaun Andrews, a former Pro Bowler who missed the last 2 seasons with injury, is pretty much the only semi-proven player on the bench.Injuries are already causing a problem, with Achilles tendinitis causing O'Hara to miss time during the preseason, following offseason injury problems for Snee and Seubert.
The Giants offensive line has not looked good in the preseason. Beatty has not played well in pass protection and Andrews looks better than McKenzie at this point. If the Giants can keep this line healthy, they should be in good shape and they should even be able to withstand an injury to one player, as long as that player isn't Snee or O'Hara. Injuries to more than one starter, though, and the line is likely to crumble as it did last year, taking New York's playoff hopes with it.
2. Dallas Cowboys
If the Giants hopes rest with a fragile and older offensive line, that goes double for the Cowboys, who perhaps do not deserve to be ranked this high. Dallas' offensive line enjoys a good reputation -- one it absolutely does not deserve. Flozell Adams, the team's penalty-prone 5-time All Pro is gone after 11 seasons, leaving the critical left tackle position unsettled. C Andre Gurode and G Leonard Davis have been to the last 4 and 3 Pro Bowls, respectively, but Gurode is already 32 and Davis will turn 32 during the season, as will LG Kyle Kosier and OT Marc Colombo, who suffered a broken leg last year. Kosier suffered an MCL sprain last month and could miss the season opener against the Redskins and possibly more games beyond that. Montrae Holland will step in for Kosier, but he's a definite downgrade in talent. Holland committed 4 penalties in two preseason games and hasn't been quick enough to get to linebackers on running plays. Marc Colombo and OT Alec Barron have also missed significant time this preseason and the complete lack of health and continuity along the offensive line is the major reason the Cowboys offense has been so awful in August. Left tackle is now manned by Doug Free, who filled in adequately for Colombo at RT last year. Free isn't a scrub, but he isn't Flozell Adams either and it is unknown how he will hold up during a 16-game season.
The Cowboys were one of the healthiest teams in the NFL last year, with only Colombo and safety Ken Hamlin missing significant time last year and that fact went a long way to explaining their success in 2009. The sudden rash of injuries to the Cowboys is probably no accident -- the team is older, particularly at the offensive line, where it is quite old indeed. If Dallas has the same luck with injuries in 2010 that it had in 2009, the offensive line should be good enough and the team should cruise to an easy NFC East division title. However, if their injury luck should run out and, as the preseason indicates, they lose more of their older offensive linemen to injury, the Cowboys will probably sink badly. We saw what happened to Dallas' offense in the playoffs against Minnesota, when the line collapsed and the Cowboys were shut down and humiliated. Without a mostly-healthy offensive line the Cowboys are in real trouble. The offensive line has not been healthy in 2010.
3. Washington Redskins
The Redskins offensive line looked solid with the starters last year, but the depth was questionable. As it turned out, the disaster threatening the Giants and the Cowboys truck Washington last season -- experienced and quality starters go down with injury and their inferior replacements drag the entire offense down with them. LT Chris Samuels and RG Randy Thomas both suffered serious injuries early in 2009 and never played again. Chronically mismanaged by owner Dan Snyder and GM Vinny Cerrato, the team was completely unprepared and had no decent replacements for either player. That was incredibly negligent considering the age of both players and the fact that Thomas, in particular, had become quite injury-prone.
The Redskins responded by signing RG/T Artis Hicks, drafting LT Trent Williams with the 4th overall pick in the draft and trading for RT Jammal Brown, a Pro Bowler in New Orleans who missed all of last season with a hip injury. With three new starters along the offensive line for 2010, continuity issues are sure to arise this season and Williams is only a rookie and likely to make rookie mistakes. Holdovers: C Casey Rabach and LG Derrick Dockery are both serviceable players, but nothing more. Both Rabach and Dockery are on the wrong side of 30 and must be considered prime bait for the injury bug.
The Redskins have had a bit of luck, however: the line has largely escaped injury during the offseason. Brown struggled a bit with his previous injury, but has come back and looked good in most of the preseason. Williams got schooled a bit by sack-master Terrell Suggs in the second preseason game, but has otherwise looked solid and defied his reputation by working and studying hard. Hicks is a very nice addition who has stayed healthy and is capable of filling in at either guard position or right tackle should the need arise. Rabach and Dockery have both been solid and healthy. The depth behind the starters is unproven and inexperienced so injuries would be a real problem. Unlike their division rivals, though, the Redskins offensive line has some continuity, health and momentum going into the regular season. If they can stay healthy the Redskins line should vault from bottom of the NFL to middle of the pack. If the preseason is a mirage and injuries mount up during the regular season, Washington will lose 10 games or more again.
4. Philadelphia Eagles
The Eagles offensive line was a force to be reckoned with a few years ago, with Tra Thomas and Jon Runyan dominating opponents so Head Coach Andy Reid could dial up a potent offense that helped lead the Eagles to one division championship after another. Those days are gone. The Eagles slipped to 20th in the NFL in pass protection last season and it would have been worse if not for the elusiveness of former QB Donovan McNabb. The team's rushing average is completely deceptive because defenses pay so little attention to the running game...because Andy Reid pays so little attention to it. The team has spent a ton of money to improve the line, but it hasn't worked. Jason Peters is a big name and he uses that big name to get named to Pro Bowls he doesn't deserve, as he did last year. Peters' was guilty of 6 blown blocks last year and he led the team with 11 penalties. That's continued into the 2010 preseason, as Peters has been unable to master something as simple as the snap count. Philadelphia's sack rate soared from 4.2 to 6.6 in 2009 and Peters was part of the problem, not the solution. Guard Stacy Andrews looks like a stiff to me, unable to protect his quarterback, open holes for the running game or get to linebackers. The return of Todd Herremans is a good thing, but he missed 5 games last year and had an injury-filled offseason. If he can't get healthy and stay that way, the offensive line is in real trouble. Nick Cole battled injuries throughout training camp and center Jamal Jackson tore up an ACL last year in a game against the Broncos and nobody knows if he can hold up for 16 games this season. He has missed a ton of work during the offseason while rehabbing and has little continuity with the other starters on the line. Jackson was a rock in the middle for Philadelphia, one of the best centers in the NFL. If he can't come back soon and play at a high level, the Eagles will suffer for it. The much-maligned RT Winston Justice turned into a decent player last year, playing all 16 games, proving he could be trusted in an NFL game and earning a new contract. Justice is not a top player and never will be -- he needs running backs and tight ends to help him out -- but he's much better than what he once was and definitely better than his reputation.
Depth is provided by Mike McGlynn and Max Jean-Gilles, players with potential, but who are unproven at the NFL level. Jean-Gilles has slimmed down and should be more mobile this year. McGlynn has looked good in the preseason but is an unknown quantity in the NFL.
Best Offensive Lineman in NFC East: Chris Snee, New York Giants
Best Offensive Line in the NFC East: New York Giants