A look at the NFC East

Took a little time away for the weekend. Let’s jump right back into it. This is Part IV of my midseason breakdown of all 32 teams in the NFL. I’ll take it position-by-position and keep it in terms of fantasy. Here we go:

DALLAS COWBOYS

State of the team: Like the Cowboys, Tony Romo owners were breezing along before tragedy struck three weeks ago when Romo broke his pinkie against Arizona. Since then Dallas has lost to the Rams and barely beat Tampa Bay at home. You can imagine the gnashing of teeth in Dallas as the Cowboys go from Super Bowl contender to also-ran. Now they’re talking about sitting back-up journeyman Brad Johnson for Brooks Bollinger. Not good times. Romo is expected back sometime in mid-November, but until then all of the Cowboys players and the Cowboys themselves will struggle.

Fantasy playoff schedule: at Steelers, GIANTS, RAVENS

QB: When Romo gets back in mid-November, you get him back in your lineup. It’s pretty simple. Before his injury, Romo had thrown for 300 yards and 3 touchdowns in four games. He’s an elite quarterback. His playoff schedule is pretty brutal, and he’s likely going to thrown a mediocre performance in their somewhere (especially if you get dinged for turnovers), but his upside, especially now with Roy Williams in the mix, is too great.

RB: As expected, Marion Barber has been a difference maker. He’s averaging more than 110 total ypg and has seven touchdowns. If you took Barber you’re getting what you expected and he’s in your lineup every week. Now just cross your fingers and hope his hard running style doesn’t result in a serious injury. Felix Jones brought some explosiveness out of the backfield until a hamstring injury caused him to miss the past two games. Surprisingly he’s been more effective as a runner than a receiver, having caught only two passes for 10 yards. He’s rushed for 266 yards and scored three touchdowns. When he’s healthy again (and Dallas’ offense is healthy again), Jones is an intriguing flex option if your league gives you points for special teams scores.

Receivers: Williams brings another dimension to an already potent passing game. It’ll be interesting to see how Romo spreads the ball around to all of his playmakers when he gets back. At full strength, this passing offense is scary. I think Williams’ addition does downgrade Owens and Witten a bit. The defenes won’t be able to be key on them as much, but Williams will likely take away a few touchdowns and yards from the duo, who, before Williams got there, were options 1A and 1B. There was no No. 2. Now Williams brings a legitimate threat to the other side. All three, especially Owens and Witten, are must-starts when healthy (Witten dinged up his ribs on Sunday, but should be OK).

Defense This unit hasn’t lived up to its preseason billing. Giving up more than 23 points pg, the Cowboys will likely continue to give up big plays and big points after the loss Pacman Jones and Roy Williams. And Dallas doesn’t force enough turnovers (eight in eight games) to be a good unit.

NEW YORK GIANTS

State of the team: A big win Sunday against AFC power Pittsburgh moved the Giants to 6-1 and put them atop the NFC East. Before Sunday, the defending Super Bowl champs hadn’t really played anybody (wins over Seattle, S.F., Cincy, St. Louis) but Washington in the opener and had a bad game on the road against Cleveland. Sunday’s win proves that the NFC is the Giants until somebody knocks them off. Eli Manning had a few hiccups in the previous two games but he made just enough plays to beat the Steelers. WR Plaxico Burress has been a bit of scoundrel this season. He’s already been suspended one game and he didn’t start against Pittsburgh because he missed a rehab appointment. New York has proved that it can play without Burress (Domenique Hixon had a good game in his stead against Seattle), but they’d probably prefer to have him on the field and in a good state of mind.

Fantasy playoff schedule: EAGLES, at Cowboys, PANTHERS

QB: Manning started the year with four games of more than 200 yards passing and seven touchdowns, including a rushing score. But he’s come back down to earth a bit over the past three, having failed to throw for more than 200 yards and a score per game. He’s going to be a roller-coaster for the rest of the season. The Giants just run the ball to well as long as Brandon Jacobs is toting the rock and there are going to be games that Manning just doesn’t attempt enough passes to make a difference. He’s proven that he’s a great NFL quarterback, but he remains just a mediocre fantasy QB.

RB: I don’t think anybody can argue with the talent of Brandon Jacobs. When healthy, the guys simply runs over people. He’s averaging 80 ypg on the ground and the Giants have built their offense around him. Derrick Ward and Ahmad Bradshaw haven’t poached as many carries as Jacobs’ owners worried and he’s remained surprisingly healthy. He doesn’t catch many passes (5 through seven games), but as long as he’s healthy he’s a must-start. Now the worry I’ve always had with Jacobs, and the reason I avoid him, is the health factor. He hasn’t been hurt this season, but that prospect is always there. But if you own Jacobs you know that, and probably have Ward as a handcuff.

Receivers: Burress is simply a headcase. But when he plays he’s great. If you own him, play him – that’s obvious. If Burress continues to mess around and gets suspended again or he gets hurt, Hixon proved that he can step into that role and produce. Of course he’d have to prove it against a tougher defense than Seattle’s, but he’s got skill.

We all know what Amani Toomer will give you: He’s going to catch some passes for around 50 yards and he’ll score a touchdown every full moon. Don’t bother. The more intriguing receivers here are Steve Smith and Kevin Boss. Smith isn’t ready to put up big numbers, but if Toomer gets hurt (always a possibility at his age) he could turn into the Giants version of Bobby Engram. Boss has tremendous upside. He’s only caught passes in four games, but it’s four of the past five and he’s got scores in two, including last Sunday vs. Pittsburgh (4/34/1). If you need a backup TE, go for Boss, he’s likely to improve down the stretch.

Defense The loss of Osi Umenyiora for the season was supposed to make this a vulnerable unit. Yeah, so much for that. The Giants lead the league with 26 sacks and are allowing just over 14 ppg. Their nine turnovers leaves room for improvement as well. If you own this D, play it with confidence.

WASHINGTON REDSKINS

State of the team: Jim Zorn looks like he’s building a winner in D.C. The offensive stars – Jason Campbell, Clinton Portis, Santana Moss – have all bought into the offense and the defense is playing great. Is this team likely to win the East? Probably not, but you have to like its chances for a playoff spot.

Fantasy playoff schedule: at Ravens, at Bengals, GIANTS

QB: Campbell is this year’s version of David Garrard: He’s made the leap into respectable fantasy quarterback (220 ypg) and he is simple not throwing interceptions (an astonishing 0 through eight games). But he’s not yet the kind of quarterback that’s going to lead you to a title. The Skins’ red zone offense is too run heavy for him to throw enough touchdowns (he’s averaging 1 TD pg). At this point he’s a great backup and a good bye week replacement, but don’t expect more – yet.

RB: If we could re-draft the first round, does Portis go No. 1? He’d be the leading candidate I think. He’s mowing over tackles and he looks re-energized in Zorn’s West Coast offense. He’s gone over 100 yards in the past five games, including 175 against the Browns, and his seven scores and 11 catches is respectable. He’s a no-brainer start every week. Shaun Alexander is a non-factor.

Receivers: Campbell’s emergence has helped elevate Moss back to must-start status. But be warned Moss owners he will burn you at some point. Moss is known for disappearing and he did just that in Week 5. Coming off three straight games in which he didn’t catch less than seven passes, Moss put up a goose egg against the Eagles and cost many owners tremendously. But throw out the goose egg and his two-catch performance in Week 6, and Moss is averaging 106 ypg and nearly a TD pg, which makes him a must-start. Antwaan Randle El is going to get you about 3-5 catches and 40-60 yards receiving per contest but he rarely scores and he’s not a difference-maker. Only use him if you’re desperate. Chris Cooley only has one TD, but he’s too good at the TE spot to not play. In fact, I see him scoring five TDs in the next eight games so be encouraged Cooley owners.

Defense In the real world, the Redskins’ defense has been solid, giving up a respectable 17 ppg. But in fantasy it’s been fairly awful. Moss’ punt return was the team’s first score (and that’s only if you get special teams points) and the team’s 11 sacks through eight games is terrible. Throw in the fact they have only eight turnovers and you have a defense that is basically doing it with smoke and mirrors or about to explode. With Jason Taylor undergoing more surgery and dealing with an infection now, I think it’s the former. Avoid unless you disagree.

PHILADELPHIA EAGLES

State of the team: Philadelphia seems to be the forgotten team in the East. Sitting at 4-3, the Eagles are definitely in the race for the division title, but people have basically written them off as a wild-card team at best. I don’t agree. If Donovan McNabb and Brian Westbrook can stay healthy, this team can win the division. The addition of DeSean Jackson and the return of Kevin Curtis makes the offense more explosive and the defense is always tough. But it always comes down to health with this team and I see a major injury in their future (McNabb or Westbrook), which will cause them to miss the playoffs. But I’ve been wrong before.

Fantasy playoff schedule: at Giants, BROWNS, at Redskins

QB: There’s no doubt: When healthy, McNabb is a good fantasy QB. He doesn’t run much anymore (although he went for 6/25/1 on Sunday) but he throws a lot in that offense and he puts up good numbers. But can he stay healthy. Apparently he’s been in great health all season, but this is a guy that failed to finish the 2005 and 2006 seasons and missed significant time last year. Sorry if I just don’t trust the guy to finish the year intact. But if he does he’s a must-start, of course.

RB: I could write the same paragraph in terms of Brian Westbrook, except the Eagles RB has already missed significant time with ankle and rib injuries. Westbrook looked completely healthy on Sunday and should be in your lineup for the rest of the season. The question with Westbrook is should owners trade him high? I say yes. There’s no doubt that he can lead you to a title. But the guy just misses too much time to be a factor. If you can get a great WR (Fitzgerald, Steve Smith, etc.) or RB (Portis, Barber, etc.) I say do it. Correll Buckhalter is a good start whenever Westbrook misses time.

Receivers: Throw out Jackson’s Week 5 stinker (1 catch, 8 yards) and the rookie from Cal has averaged more than 82 ypg and has been a playmaker in the Philly offense. The return of Kevin Curtis will hurt Jackson’s stats a little, but his 72 yards receiving Sunday showed that it won’t take too much. He doesn’t score enough to be a No. 2 WR but he makes a great flex option or No. 3 guy. Curtis caught three passes for 45 yards in his return Sunday, but he’s not going to put up the numbers he did in 2007 – Jackson’s the man now. He’s really only an option if you’re desperate. Hank Baskett, Reggie Brown and Jason Avant aren’t worth owning – even if Jackson gets hurt. LJ Smith has the tools, but he just can’t seem to put it together. He’s too inconsistent to be started in fantasy leagues.

Defense Philly D coordinator Jim Johnson gives offenses headaches. His blitz schemes get burned for touchdowns once in awhile, but often it creates turnovers and produces many sacks. As usual, this defense will score you points and is a must-start every week.

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