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Inside The NFC

Today we're doing something a little bit new here at Behind The Steel Curtain. We've kicked off our AFC coverage with an early stab at sorting out the contenders, but as we begin our look over at the NFC, we thought we'd bring in someone who's more intimately familiar with the latest happenings. Today's interview features Grizz from SBN's excellent Dallas Cowboys blog, Blogging The Boys.

Behind The Steel Curtain: Grizz, welcome, and thanks for chatting with us. We'll start with an easy one for you. We're hearing a lot of buzz about the Cowboys this offseason. Expectations seem to be high, and barring a T.O. MeltdownTM, the Cowboys seem well positioned for an NFC title run. What are your early feelings on the Cowboys' roster, as well as their chance to win the NFC East?

Grizz: First, let me say thanks for inviting me to do this, and congratulations to the Steelers on their Super Bowl victory. They now join the Cowboys and 49ers on top of the Super Bowl mountain.

The Cowboys roster is loaded with talent this year, with the defense poised to become one of the best in the NFL. Several rookies from last year like DeMarcus Ware and Chris Canty have a season under their belt and are names that should show up consistently in the highlight reels. We re-signed Roy Williams to a long-term contract, and Roy's a big hitter, but has at times struggled in coverage. The deep middle of our defense is one of our soft spots so we are hoping for improvement in that area this season. Terence Newman and Anthony Henry are a solid set of cornerbacks, with Newman quietly slipping into the elite category.

On offense, all eyes are on Terrell Owens, who's been slowed by a hamstring injury in camp. We also have the 1-2 punch at running back of Julius Jones and Marion Barber, if Jones can stay healthy, and Pro Bowl TE Jason Witten just signed a long-term contract extension. But, the Cowboys will only go as far as the offensive line takes them, especially with Drew Bledsoe as QB, who needs stellar protection to operate efficiently. Frankly, this is the biggest area of concern on the roster. Flozell Adams is returning from and ACL injury and isn't up to speed yet, and we've been experimenting with different combinations along the line to find the right fit.

Dallas can be a formidable foe this year, and if the offensive line holds up, they will contend for the NFC Championship.

Behind The Steel Curtain: Another NFC that many feel are looking strong for a conference title run is defending NFC champ Seattle. Any thoughts on their prospects? In your view, who are the four or five best teams in the NFC heading into fall camp?

Grizz: I'm no expert on the Seahawks, so anything I say should be taken as purely observational without in-depth knowledge. But I feel like they had a good run last season but aren't the dominant team in the NFC. They will be in the mix though, when you have a back like Alexander, you've got something going. I wonder how much they will miss guard Steve Hutchinson along the line, though. Hasselback is a good QB, and they have a good but not great WR corp.

Looking at the top teams in the NFC, I think the Carolina Panthers are at the top of the list. They have a dominant defense, they added Keyshawn Johnson to compliment Steve Smith, and they picked up RB DeAngelo Williams in the draft. Just a solid overall team.

The final piece of Carolina's puzzle?

I like the Cowboys, of course, and the Giants could be good if the team doesn't implode from conflict from the likes of Jeremy Shockey, Plaxico Burress and Lavar Arrington. I loathe saying the Redskins could be good, but they could be, though I don't have much confidence in Mark Brunell. Chicago has a great defense, though they got exposed by Carolina in the playoffs, and I'm not sure how far Rex Grossman can lead them this year.

Behind The Steel Curtain: Is there any hope for improvement from the NFC North? Chicago's solid but not spectacular season aside, it was a notably weak division last year. Do you see any big improvements in the division?

Grizz: Not really, Green Bay and Detroit I can't see improving that much. Brett Favre should've called it a career because the Pack isn't going anywhere this year. Detroit is a mess; it will take time to fix that team. Minnesota is a team that could surprise some people, but I don't think they can rise to the top of the NFC mix. The Bears, as I stated above, rely heavily on a top-ranked defense, and until Rex Grossman can show me something in the NFL, the offense will continue to struggle (with apologies to my friend WCG who blogs the Bears for SB Nation). I guess they could turn to veteran Brian Griese, but the QB area just seems to be a big question mark.

Behind The Steel Curtain: Which NFC rookies have the best chance to make an immediate impact in 2006? Any Cowboy rookies you're especially excited to see take the field?

Grizz: On the Cowboys, we drafted talented linebacker Bobby Carpenter, but the Cowboys are so deep at linebacker right now, I don't know if he'll even be able to crack the starting line-up. He might spend the year as a top reserve, getting situational play in certain defenses. The rookie to keep an eye on from the Cowboys in terms of playing time and impact is TE Anthony Fasano from Notre Dame. Dallas is going to a base 2-TE set on offense so Fasano will be a starter along with Jason Witten. Thus far in training camp he has shown great hands and good route-running abilities. He also played under Charlie Weis in college who is a Bill Parcells disciple, so he came into camp knowing the offense and the terminology, giving him a huge head start. FS Pat Watkins from FSU is also someone we're excited about, but he'll probably work behind incumbent FS Keith Davis, limiting his playing time.

As for other rookies, TE Vernon Davis has a ton of talent and is a physical marvel, but I don't think the 49er QB is good enough to take full advantage. DT Brodrick Bunkley who went to Philadelphia is a kid I was high on coming out of college, but if I had to pick one it would be Reggie Bush. I know the Saints have Duece McCallister, but if Saints head coach Sean Payton (Parcells' former offensive coordinator) can find a way to get Bush enough touches per game, he'll make some highlight reel plays.

Behind The Steel Curtain: We'll conclude with one more Cowboys question. From where we're sitting, Julius Jones looks like the key to this team. What are your thoughts on Jones? Is he healthy? Is he going to wind up the starter?

Grizz: Julius Jones will be the starter, but he will share time with Marion Barber. Julius is healthy going into camp, but he's yet to make it through a season injury free. I've been watching him in camp and he looks as good as ever, and seems to be physically stronger this year, the guy's arms are ripped. You'll see him on 1st and 2nd down a lot, but Marion Barber is the 3rd down guy because he's better at receiving the ball out of the backfield and is better at picking up the blitz. My guess is Parcells will work them both into the game but Jones will take 60 - 70 % of the snaps on any given day.

Behind The Steel Curtain: Many thanks, Grizz, for stopping by to chat with us. We're as ready for some real, live football as you are!