After weeks of previewing the AFC, I’ve finally gotten around to starting my preview of perhaps the league’s most historic division in the NFC East. However, as of lately, this division has been one of the NFL’s most unpredictable. While last year’s division champ was Washington, the year before had the Dallas Cowboys taking the NFC East, 2013 had the Philadelphia Eagles. Curiously enough, the last team to win a Super Bowl, the New York Giants, won their last division title in 2011, the same year they ended the season as league champions.
So, who’s going to take the division this year? Let’s see who has the best case.
2016 Dallas Cowboys
Before going in-depth about the Cowboys’ strengths, it’s important to recognize that Dallas enters this season as the easy favorites to take the division. Outside of looking at its specific strengths as a football team, you can can take a look at many high-variance factors behind the Cowboys’ 4-12 record last season – and why that will likely not happen again.
One such high-variance factor in Dallas’ record last year was its 2-7 record in one-possession games, as well as a 29th place in toxic differential, which combines both turnover and big-play differential. This is not to say that the Cowboys were somehow significantly better last season than the results show, but a simple regression to the mean could be enough to at least bring them from having the No. 4 overall pick to being in contention for a playoff spot.
Even with Romo’s most recent back injury, there’s also every reason to believe incoming backup quarterback Dak Prescott has the support he needs to succeed. They’re aided by a dominant offensive line, anchored by the likes of elite left tackle Tyron Smith, right guard Zack Martin and perhaps the league’s best center in Travis Frederick. That’s not even going into “weak links” on the line being right tackle Doug Free and left guard La’el Collins, who is off an up and down rookie year.
This is a mammoth of a unit that was literally so good that they helped lead the No. 9 offense in rushing DVOA and practically carried Darren McFadden to a 1,000+ yard rushing season. Therefore, the odds could not look any better for rookie running back Ezekiel Elliot to have a Todd Gurley-esque breakout season. You obviously always have to take training camp rumors and pre-draft hype with a grain of salt, but Elliot in particular looks like the real deal so far.
If the running game gets going, it could give the passing game a chance to look fantastic. Think about a return to form for star wideout Dez Bryant, maybe another solid year for tight end Jason Witten and additional help from slot wideout Cole Beasley and Terrance Williams. This group has as good of continuity within its core as another other set of weapons in the NFL and could be part of an offense that is, even without Romo, certainly capable enough on its own to succeed.
Dallas’ defense last year ranked No. 19 in the NFL, showing that it wasn’t as bad as people thought. However, this year’s unit, held up by defensive coordinator and lineman guru Rod Marinelli, will have its work cut out as far as covering up weaknesses.
For instance, the Cowboys’ pass rush. Last year, Dallas finished 16th in adjusted sack rate, with DeMarcus Lawrence, Greg Hardy, Tyrone Crawford and Jack Crawford as its leading pass rushers in sacks. Hardy is now a free agent, finishing last season with the team’s second most sacks. I’m not arguing that Hardy is valuable as a locker room or even as a morally decent human being, but as a pass rusher, his kind of production, while clearly not elite any more, is still difficult to replace. That’s not even going into Lawrence being suspended for the first four games of this season.
Left on the line are the Crawfords, defensive tackle Cedric Thornton, an unproven and still-green second year end in Ryan Russell and the now-injured rookie defensive tackle Maliek Collins. Marinelli is a hell of a defensive coordinator and has a penchant for developing linemen, but he could be working with a defensive line that could look like the league’s worst.
The outstanding middle linebacker Sean Lee provides a glimmer of hope for this defense, but last year was his first season since 2011 of playing 14 games. This wouldn’t be such a big deal if Dallas had another linebacker to help him out, but linebacker Rolando McClain will be missing the first ten games of the season due to a codeine addiction that reportedly is crippling his NFL career. Instead of him, Dallas has the likes of Anthony Hitchens and Justin Durant to help out Lee, making this linebacking unit one injury away from becoming a disaster. That’s terrifying, considering the Cowboys already finished last year as the league’s 29th best second-level rush defense.
The secondary’s best player next year will probably be free safety (and fellow UConn alumni) Byron Jones, who looked versatile and great in his rookie season, but outside of Jones, the names are dauntingly uninspiring. Accompanying him deep is strong safety Barry Church, while the rest of Dallas’ defensive backs are essentially Brandon Carr (notorious for being murdered by Calvin Johnson), the disappointing Morris Claiborne and Orlando Scandrick, an otherwise solid cornerback that missed all of last year with a knee injury. If Dallas fails to get a pass rush, this is a secondary that could just as easily rank near the bottom of the NFL.
Best Case: Tony Romo comes back to form after Prescott holds the offense above water, with a breakout year from rookie Ezekiel Elliot – AKA LeSean McCoy 2.0. Marinelli somehow turns this ragtag group of defenders into a just below average defense for another year, as Byron Jones looks like the next Ed Reed. The Cowboys win the division title and go for a wild playoff run at 10-6.
Worst Case: With Romo missing a bunch of games or playing at less than 90 percent, the offense chugs along at just above league average with Prescott looking totally incompetent, while the defense completely collapses. With another disappointing season at 6-10, head coach Jason Garrett finally gets canned and owner Jerry Jones likely tries to find takers for Romo on the trade market.
2016 New York Giants
Although they were a talented team in a few ways, the 2015 Giants were also a team that had a tremendously unlucky record in close games. In one-possession games, they finished 3-7, a good amount of it due to luck and also former head coach Tom Coughlin’s inability to effectively close out games. Coughlin was a great coach in other ways, but at least you could reasonably see the Giants improving here in his absence. Especially if they can have the league’s No. 2 ranked special teams DVOA again as they face what is right now the league’ second easiest schedule. .
The Giants also have one of the league’s most electrifying receivers and a top ten talent in Odell Beckham Jr.. Across him on the other side of the line is Victor Cruz, who last looked like a superstar three years ago, but if healthy could provide meaningful minutes as a secondary option for quarterback Eli Manning to throw to, if not rookie Sterling Shepard. Manning will be given help by the Giants’ strong interior line, which features left guard Justin Pugh and center Weston Richburg, who went from looking like a replacement level player in 2014 to looking like a premier center last season.
Add in a solid running back crew of Rashad Jennings and Shane Vereen – this is a relatively high floor offense that could become even better with another year under former offensive coordinator and current head coach Ben McAdoo, who when signed by the Giants in 2014 brought them from No. 31 to No. 15 in DVOA. Though New York finished only No. 19 last year, it wouldn’t be crazy to see the team improve.
On defense, New York’s signing of Olivier Vernon adds an elite pass rush talent on a line that could end up as the best group of Giants pass rushers since its 07 season. Say what you want about the contract having the possibility to blow up in New York’s face later, but along with Vernon is another signing in Damon Harrison, whom the Giants stole from the crosstown Jets – and could possibly be an even more impactful at defensive tackle, given his dominance in rush defense game. Those two players are already a great duo on their own, but they’re joined by returning and now healthy Jonathan Hankins and Jason Pierre-Paul. This has a good chance to end up as the best defensive line in football, if it isn’t already. Considering where the Giants were at last year at this position (No. 30 in adjusted sack rate), that could be enough of a jump in production to warrant success.
New York also has one of the league’s better cornerback duos with Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and Janoris Jenkins. Neither of them are ace cornerbacks, but both are above average on their own and versatile in whom they can successfully defend. If the Giants pass rush can look as strong as its projected to, the team could have one of the league’s best pass defenses – a crucial strength to have in today’s league.
The problem with the Giants’ offense might just be Eli Manning. This sounds like heresy to say about someone who threw for 4,000 yards, 35 touchdowns and 14 interceptions last year, but Manning is also 35 years-old and has taken a lot of hits in his NFL career. How he does could be dependent on the kind of protection he gets from his offensive line, as well as his supporting skill position players.
But neither of these units are particularly that incredible. They have talents like Pugh/Richburg and Beckham Jr. at the top, but afterwards the talent drop is pretty enormous. For example, on the offensive line exterior, the Giants’ new right guard is John Jerry instead of Geoff Schwartz, which is basically the equivalent of going from a trusted starter to a below average player. It gets even worse when you look at their tackle duo of Ereck Flowers and Marshall Newhouse: maybe the worst exterior group of blockers on an offensive line in the NFL.
Moreover, if Cruz and Shepard don’t pan out, it’ll be another year of an offense being carried by Beckham Jr. If he gets hurt, New York could all of a sudden turn from an above average offense to looking like one of the worst in football, one led by Manning throwing bombs down the field under pressure and having more “bad Eli” games than Giants fans would like to see.
The defense also has enormous flaws behind its defensive line, which will pretty clearly be doing all the heavy work in covering them up. Take a look at the New York linebacking core, which composes of a suddenly resurgent Jasper Brinkley, but also JT Thomas, Keenan Robinson and Devon Kennard. That’s probably the worst group of linebackers in the NFL to back up the Giants’ stacked defensive line.
It gets only worse when you look at New York’s safeties, which look like a mess right now. Already worrying enough to return the disappointing safety Landon Collins, the Giants have a group of relative nobodies after him, with rookie free safety Darian Thompson and rookie defensive back Eli Apple. Having a pass rush can cover up bad defensive backs, but what happens if the rush never happens or if the opposing team starts throwing earlier in the play? The Giants could be trying an outdated strategy from 07 on defense.
Best Case: Manning proves me wrong and has a stellar year with Beckham Jr. looking like the best receiver in football and leading a high-octane offense, while the defensive line carries hard and single-handedly drags the Giants’ defense to a top ten finish. New York wins the division at 10-6 and could be in position to make a few playoff upsets.
Worst Case: Manning gets hurt or completely implodes ala 2013, while the offense completely tanks and the defense gets shredded across the middle of the field for 16 games, with a pass rush that only gets sacks in garbage time. The Giants finish 6-10, with little hope or any clue on what to do with their aging quarterback.
You would have had every reason to be skeptical of Kirk Cousins heading into last year, but Washington’s starting quarterback was phenomenal last season. After never having an interception percent of less than four percent, last season, Cousins threw only 2.0 of his passes for picks, while completing 69.8 percent of passes and throwing for over 4,000 yards.
A big part of that is the teams’ incredible receiving core. Their two wideouts in Pierre Garcon and DeSean Jackson complement are already effective enough as a respective possession receiver and deep threat, but Washington also has an effective slot receiver in Jamison Crowder, who had a solid rookie year last year. If that wasn’t enough, the team also has elite tight end Jordan Reed coming back, the team’s leader in receiving yards last year.
It’s also promising that Washington will have four returning starters from last year’s offensive line. That kind of continuity is already valuable enough to have on its own, but the returning players are also at the top or well above average for their position. Left tackle Trent Williams and guard Spencer Long anchor the weak side of the line, while Morgan Moses and Brandon Scherff anchor the strong side. Veteran center Kory Lichtensteiger is the only weak link on the line and looked awful last year, but given another year could at least go from game-breakingly bad to replacement level.
Of course, Washington also made arguably the offseason’s biggest splash when it poached star cornerback Josh Norman away from Carolina in free agency. Even if he isn’t the same kind of game-altering ballhawk and lockdown defender that he was last year, he’s already a huge upgrade over Will Blackmon, who is now back playing free safety. Norman being able to take opposing No. 1 wideouts should also free up the third-year Bashaud Breeland on the other end. DeAngelo Hall and David Bruton aren’t world-changers in the safety backfield, but with Norman, they won’t have as much to worry about and are decent enough to where Washington could boast one of the league’s most consistent secondaries.
While Cousins was phenomenal last year, it’d be a little silly to imagine that one breakout season would erase all kinds of doubts about him as a starting quarterback. His career interception rate still stands at about 3.2 percent, showing that the mean for Cousins to regress to could be a little more realistic of an expectation rather than his last season.
Moreover, Washington might have the worst running back core in the NFL to back him up in the non-passing game. In today’s NFL, offenses set up with rushing game with passing, but Washington has almost no one it can realistically trust as a feature back or part of a committee. After the fumble-heavy back Matt Jones, the team has to basically rest its biggest hopes on seventh-round rookie Keith Marshall or third-year Chris Thompson. As we have seen from past seasons with the Chargers, a team without a running game can only go so far. We could see another repeat last-place finish for Washington in rushing DVOA.
The Norman splash also might have helped Washington’s secondary, but it might go for naught if the defensive front seven plays as bad as it’s expected to play. While the pass rush should be still be at least decent (finished No. 9 in adjusted sack rate last season), there’s much else to be excited about. Veteran outside linebacker Ryan Kerrigan and defensive tackle Chris Baker are probably the best players in the team’s front seven.
As for everyone else? Well, if you thought the Giants and Cowboys were the only NFC East teams with bad groups of linebackers, take a look at Washington, who will likely be giving Preston Smith, Will Compton and Mason Foster significant minutes. If that wasn’t concerning enough, it also replaced Terrance Knighton with the likes of Kedric Gholston and Kendall Reyes on the defensive line. Washington might keep its pass rush, but it’s going to look vulnerable at times during a schedule that has the team facing Le’veon Bell and Ezekiel Elliot in its first two weeks.
Best Case: Cousins’ regression isn’t significant and Washington leads an above average offense and just around good enough defense carried by an elite secondary. The team finishes 9-7 with some good luck and gains a division title.
Worst Case: This is the same team from last year, but with an offense that isn’t as explosive and looks even more exposed without a running game, as well as a defense that can’t stop the run and can’t get off the field. 7-9 and out of the playoffs, barring some kind of miracle.
2016 Philadelphia Eagles
It’s fair to assume at this point that quarterback Sam Bradford did not live up to the hype of being a No. 1 overall pick for St. Louis. But while he’s left a lot to wish for in Philadelphia, it’s not as if he isn’t a serviceable quarterback. For reference, Bradford posted a 3,725 yard season in 2015, with 19 touchdowns and 14 interceptions. Those aren’t awe-inspiring numbers, but they at least show some form of capability – and even if you’re skeptical of the box score being misleading, keep in mind that Pro Football Focus ranked Bradford No. 12 out of all quarterbacks in the NFL last year out of starting players, based just on how he looked per play.
He’ll be helped by one of the league’s best and most experienced offensive lines as well. Left tackle Jason Peters and center Jason Kelce aren’t the stalwarts they were a few years ago, but they’re still extremely valuable at their positions, along with right tackle Brandon Brooks and right guard Allen Barbre. Rookie Isaac Seumalo or Stefen Wisniewski would likely take the left guard position, though that hasn’t been defined yet for the Eagles.
Similar to the Titans, the Eagles also have one of the league’s best and promising tight end duos. Formerly the nominal “fantasy sleeper” jokes, Zach Ertz finally looked among the best at his position, being a capable red zone threat and blocker down the field. He’ll be joined by longtime fan favorite Brent Celek, creating an extra duo of capable blockers who can also be red zone threats and safety blankets for Bradford to check down to.
The Eagles also have a secondary with the potential for greatness. With perhaps the league’s best safety duo in Malcolm Jenkins and Rodney McCleod, they’re already set with both defending opponents deep and being able to add an extra man in the box when they can, but take a look at their cornerbacks. Though neither Nolan Carroll nor Leodis McKelvin played particularly amazing (with McKelvin being hurt in the last two seasons and looking bad in 2015), they don’t have to be. If these two veterans can be just average, this secondary could look like one of the league’s best.
This strength would be highlighted even more if the Eagles can get the most out of their front four, with the presence of defensive left tackle Fletcher Cox and end Brandon Graham creating one of the league’s most devastating one-two punches on the strong side. That should free up defensive right tackle Bennie Logan and versatile edge rusher Connor Barwin (Philadelphia’s very own Rob Ninkovich) to wreak havoc. Not to mention, situational pass rusher Vinny Curry.
Add in a returning healthy Nigel Bradham, Jordan Hicks and Mychal Kendricks within Philadelphia’s linebacking core and defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz could have a front seven like the one he had in Buffalo for 2014, when the 4-3 mastermind masterminded the league’s No. 1 defense in DVOA. It’s not likely if Bradham and Kendricks don’t return in form, but Schwartz has another opportunity to be a part of something similarly dominating.
Can you think of another player with as many “last chances” as Sam Bradford? Although he’s shown promise at times as a decision maker, his inability to throw the ball down the field is less Alex Smith and more Matt Cassel. It frequently hurts his team in ways that don’t necessarily manifest themselves in his box score production, but definitely in his team’s lack of explosiveness on offense. Imagine if the offense just fails to show any kind of life and Bradford gets benched. Does that mean Philadelphia throws No. 2 pick Carson Wentz out on the field as the starting quarterback? What if he isn’t very good either?
Also consider last year, when the Eagles relied on the back of the washed up DeMarco Murray as their leading rusher. He was definitely a step below how he performed in Dallas, if not just bad at points in the season, but Philadelphia’s options at running back this year are still unpromising. Are its fans supposed to trust Ryan Matthews to be a new starting running back for 16 games, given his extensive injury history? The only other options currently on the roster are the pass catching specialist Darren Sproles and perhaps fifth-rounder Wendell Smallwood.
It’s also hard to tell whether Bradford can’t go deep or whether he lacks the receiving threats to do so. Other than his tight ends and Sproles, the other guys include the disappointing Nelson Agholar and Jordan Matthews.
Moreover, the defensive hopes for Philadelphia rests on the health of some of its newer players and veterans alike. What happens if Kendricks and Bradham struggle in what’s supposed to be their redemption seasons? All of a sudden, the Eagles look vulnerable in the middle of the field – and that’ll only get worse if McKelvin can’t stay healthy or plays like he did last season on the decline.
Best Case: 8-8 wild card winning team that somehow manages to have a top ten defense and an average offense, led by Wentz after Bradford gets benched early into the season.
Worst Case: The defense never gets the jolt it needed and the offense is the worst in football, with a totally wasted offensive line, tight ends and quarterback controversies throughout the season. Philadelphia finishes 4-12, but somehow lets Bradford return, wanting to give him another chance.