NFC East best bets to break through in 2011

Posted June 21, 2011 @ 9:19 a.m.
Posted By PFW staff

Pro Football Weekly presents the fifth of an eight-part divisional breakdown of the players most likely to be attending 2011 coming-out parties in the NFC East.

Dallas Cowboys

LB Sean Lee — Lee showed progress in increased snaps as his rookie season went on after battling injuries early on. The more Lee got on the field, the more the Cowboys started to think that he could play a major role in coverage and as a run stopper. Age has set in at inside linebacker with Bradie James and Keith Brooking getting up there in years, and Lee is expected to challenge Brooking for a starting spot. Even if he doesn't win it initially, expect to see Lee in on nickel packages, the role he played when he picked off two Peyton Manning passes in an upset win over the Colts.

New York Giants

DE Jason Pierre-Paul — Pierre-Paul started heating up the edges as a pass rusher in a reserve role as a rookie and might be in the perfect situation to thrive with expanded responsibilities in his second season. It's quite conceivable Pierre-Paul could break out the way Osi Umenyiora and Justin Tuck — now full-fledged stars — did in their second and third seasons. Although Pierre-Paul is just starting to scratch the surface and has much to learn, he is a freakish athlete who is dripping with upside. One interesting key will be to watch how the Giants handle Mathias Kiwanuka, who is coming off a serious neck injury and might not be re-signed once free agency opens. That could open the door for more snaps for Pierre-Paul.

Philadelphia Eagles

DT Antonio Dixon — Dixon came out of nowhere to start last season, pushing former first-round pick Brodrick Bunkley to the bench. Dixon is the team's biggest defensive lineman and was a force against the run last season. In his 10 starts, the Eagles' run defense allowed 97.8 yards per game. In the six games he did not start, that number was 131.3. In new defensive coordinator Juan Castillo's scheme, the assignments are expected to be simplified, and a player with such mass and force as Dixon has could be put in some favorable situations. He won't be asked to split gaps as much and could hold up well in the trenches.

Washington Redskins

OLT Trent Williams — Williams is the pick here by process of elimination, as years of thin drafts have left few breakout options on Washington's roster. Williams was thrown into the fire right away at left tackle as a rookie and held his own early on against a murderer's row of top pass rushers: DeMarcus Ware, Mario Williams, Trent Cole, Dwight Freeney and Julius Peppers, among others. But Williams struggled more as the season went on and got hurt, missing two games. He is a great fit in Mike Shanahan's zone-blocking scheme with excellent feet and long, strong arms, and he still has room to grow. But not everyone is convinced he's a future star, either.