What are each team’s chances of winning the hotly-contested division?
The Sports Quotient’s annual Divisional Preview series is here. Over the next week, we’ll look at every NFL division and break down each team’s season-long prospects. Today, we’ll dive into the NFC East and determine how the year will play out in a division as up for grabs as any.
The Cowboys surprised the league last year on the backs of rookies Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott, finishing 13-3 and earning the one seed in the NFC, only to fall to the Packers in the divisional round. Elliott led the league in rushing by a wide margin, while the team’s run defense was the NFL’s best, allowing just 83.5 yards per game. Prescott was awarded Offensive Rookie of the Year and quickly made the Tony Romo era feel like a distant memory.
Let’s not get cute here. The Cowboys’ biggest strength is still their offensive line, despite the loss of starters Doug Free and Ron Leary. The importance of continuity along the offensive line shouldn’t be overlooked, but when the three returning starters are Tyron Smith, Zack Martin, and Travis Frederick, it makes any losses far easier to bear. Besides, Free was the offense’s weakest link in 2016 based on PFF grades.
Third-year pro La’el Collins will replace Free at RT and may very likely be an upgrade. Collins possesses elite athleticism for his size and plays with tenacity. His main challenge will be staying healthy after appearing in only three games last year due to a torn ligament in his toe.
Former first-round pick Jonathan Cooper will succeed Leary at LG. While Cooper has struggled as a pro, he was able to earn the starting spot over Chaz Green and Byron Bell, and will benefit greatly playing between Smith and Frederick.
A slight regression may be in order for the Dallas line, but the key blockers who led the team to second, ninth, and second place finishes in rushing the past three seasons will all be back. Look for similar results this year in Dallas’s run-heavy scheme.
With such an elite offense, it’s clear the team’s biggest weakness lies on the defensive side of the ball. Although no single unit looks significantly worse than the others, the group with greatest chance to derail the Cowboys’ season is the secondary. The team finished 26th in passing yards allowed per game in 2016, and that was before the losses of Brandon Carr, Mo Claiborne, Barry Church, and J.J. Wilcox in free agency.
The unit returns key cogs in FS Byron Jones, who finished last season with a PFF grade of 83.6, and CB Orlando Scandrick, who is the longest-tenured Cowboys defender and brings veteran leadership to the group. In addition, CB Anthony Brown remains after playing at an elite level down the final stretch of his rookie season.
Over the last five weeks of his rookie season, Cowboys CB Anthony Brown allowed the fewest yards per coverage snap of any NFL cornerback. pic.twitter.com/W9W0AjK88o— Pro Football Focus (@PFF) May 31, 2017
However, take a look at the rest of the group and concerns begin to arise. The favorite to start alongside Scandrick is newcomer Nolan Carroll. He brings starting experience to the table, but any positives end there. According to PFF, Carroll was the 92nd-ranked CB in football last season and will be a downgrade from Carr and Claiborne.
Other fresh faces will be CBs Chidobe Awuzie and Jourdan Lewis, selected in the 2nd and 3rd rounds of this year’s draft, respectively. Both rookies possess positional flexibility and have the team excited about their potential. Nevertheless, rookie defensive backs rarely shine right off the bat and Awuzie and Lewis are sure to have their growing pains throughout the season.
Lastly, Jeff Heath is the most likely candidate to fill the other safety spot but has just one game of starting experience over the past three seasons. He’s flashed playmaking ability before, but will remain a question mark until he can consistently prove he belongs in the starting lineup.
It’s not that the Cowboys defensive backfield can’t be a solid unit, but with lots of inexperienced pieces among the group it will likely be exposed in 2017 and should finish at about the same ranking it did last year.
The Dallas defense desperately needs a playmaker after finishing dead last in turnovers two seasons ago and just 19th last year. Luckily for the team, LB Jaylon Smith appears ready for Week 1 after missing the entirety of 2016 with a knee injury. At one point, it was possible the damaged nerve in Smith’s knee would never heal, but he has progressed nicely and finally made his pro debut in Week 2 of the preseason.
Before the injury in his final college game, Smith was known for his burst, athleticism, and outstanding coverage ability. He had even been in the top five on many teams’ draft boards. The Cowboys selected him knowing it’d be a long wait until Smith would see regular season action, and this year they’re hoping their patience pays off. If Smith can return to his pre-injury form, he’ll be an absolute game-changer in the middle of the Cowboys defense and could be just the player they need to make a deep playoff run.
The Key Number
Last season, Dallas finished 65.6% of its red zone drives with touchdowns, good for fifth in the NFL. Elliott had 12 red zone touchdowns alone, but as of now faces a six-game suspension for violating the league’s personal conduct policy. He has appealed the suspension and is currently waiting for the ruling, but his status may be up in the air for quite some time. For the Cowboys to replicate their team success from 2016, they’ll have to find ways to finish drives without Zeke on the field. Dallas’s dominant line should give Darren McFadden and Alfred Morris plenty of running room, but neither player is of the same caliber as Elliott.
As a result, look for OC Scott Linehan to explore other options inside the 20. These may include more QB draws with Prescott after he finished his rookie season with six rushing touchdowns, all from inside the 10-yard line. Other alternatives include throws to Dez Bryant, who is always deadly on the fade route, and Jason Witten, who finished top 10 in the NFL with 20 red zone targets last season and could see even more in 2017.
Once Elliott returns, the team should have no issue converting red zone opportunities. If the offense can get close to that 65% mark without Elliott, Dallas will be in great shape and near the top of the NFC once again.
Playoff Status: Automatic
Despite Elliott’s status and a so-so defense, Dallas has the pieces to make the playoffs once again. The team hasn’t featured a top tier defense in years and has still found a way into the postseason, relying on a run-first attack to dominate time of possession. Reports out of training camp say Prescott looks sharp and is ready to handle more responsibility in his sophomore campaign, which will be imperative during Elliott’s suspension.
Although the defense is unproven, it features several promising young players including Jones, Smith, and the entire rookie crop. It may take some time for them to develop, meaning Dallas could start slowly until the defense rounds into shape and Elliott returns. 13 wins would be hard to come by for a second consecutive season, but the 10 to 11 win range is a realistic expectation.
New York Giants
The Giants had a strong 2016 campaign, earning a wild card spot at 11-5 and finishing with the 2nd ranked defense by DVOA. Free agent additions Janoris Jenkins, Olivier Vernon, and Damon Harrison proved they were worth their contracts after the front office faced skepticism over handing them such hefty deals. Offensively, the Giants failed to develop much of a run-pass balance and it cost them in their wild card matchup with Green Bay, which they lost 38-13.
Just like with other great Giants teams this century, their biggest strength is the defensive line. GM Jerry Reese has always put an emphasis on the position group and it is paying off once again. The unit is led by Vernon and his bookend, Jason Pierre-Paul, who combined for 15.5 sacks in 2016. Harrison remains at the tackle spot after finishing as PFF’s top run defender last season. He was a large part of why New York’s run defense improved from 24th in 2015 (121.4 ypg allowed) to second last year (87.8 ypg allowed).
PFF) January 25, 2017
What’s even scarier is that the unit improved as the year went on, averaging 93.8 rushing ypg allowed in the first half of the season compared to just 83.3 in the second half. Given the defensive line had two new starters, it makes sense it took some time to reach peak form. Now, with more experience playing together and a full offseason of work, the Giants defensive line could reach new heights in 2017.
As if the unit wasn’t stacked enough, the team added DT Dalvin Tomlinson out of Alabama in the second round of this year’s draft. Tomlinson possesses tremendous power and leverage and will slide in nicely next to Harrison. He also had experience on the outside at Alabama, bringing the positional flexibility modern day coaches covet. Tomlinson may never be as good as the other stars along the New York line, but is yet another player teams will have to plan for.
For all the strengths of the Giants defensive line, there are just as many shortcomings along the offensive line. The unit failed to create much running room for its backs last season, finishing 24th in run blocking by DVOA. What’s more is that the team finished 29th in both second level rushing yards (gained between 5-10 yards past the line of scrimmage) and open field yards (gained more than 10 yards past the line). These figures indicate Giants ball carriers were consistently being bottled up for short gains thanks to their line.
On the surface, the team’s pass protection looks much better. After all, the Giants allowed the third-fewest sacks in the league last season (22). A closer look at the numbers, however, show that the offense was designed to get the ball out quickly, in part because of poor tackle play by Ereck Flowers (59 pressures allowed) and Bobby Hart (46 pressures allowed). Of the 30 QBs who attempted at least 300 passes last season, Eli Manning averaged the ninth-fastest time from snap to throw.
Last year’s line issues are likely to persist, as the team did little to address its needs up front. The Giants are banking on Flowers to develop into a quality blindside protector for Manning, but his league-leading 128 pressures allowed over the past two seasons combined with reports that he’s struggled in camp suggest the team may need to explore other options soon.
In order for the Giants to find balance on offense and keep defenses guessing, second-year RB Paul Perkins will have to seize early down opportunities and elevate his play in 2017. Last season, the team was abysmal in nearly every rushing statistic. New York finished 23rd in run play percentage (38.4%), 29th in rushing yards (1412), and dead last in both rushing TDs (6) and longest rushing play (25 yards). Entering 2017, Perkins is the clear-cut early down back and will be the closest thing to a workhorse the Giants have had in years.
Coming out of UCLA last year, Perkins was known for his vision and ability to make defenders miss. After a slow start to his rookie season, he received the bulk of the Giants’ carries late in the year and averaged an impressive 4.8 yards per carry over the final three regular season games. This stretch included his first 100-yard performance in Week 17 vs. Washington. If Perkins can build on his late-year production despite a shoddy offensive line, the Giants won’t have to lean so much on Manning to move the offense.
The Key Number
The 2016 Giants were dreadful on third downs, converting just 34.4% of the time (30th in the NFL). This low rate can be tied to their poor running game, which creates difficult third-and-long situations.
For New York to make the playoffs and go on a run, they simply have to improve when it comes to sustaining drives. For context, the teams ranked near the Giants in third down conversion rate last season were the Browns, Jets, Jaguars, and 49ers. The difference is those teams don’t have a top end defense to keep them in games. The Giants will have to fix their running game and use their talented pass catchers to help set up manageable third downs situations, or they’ll be looking at another early playoff exit at best.
Playoff Status: On The Bubble
Barring a disaster, New York’s defense alone will keep the team in the playoff hunt. The unit routinely held top-ranked offenses in check and will be returning its key players from last season. Ultimately, the Giants’ success in 2017 will be determined by the offense and how consistently they can move the ball.
The running game is still suspect and the offensive line is by far the worst in the division, but with one of the league’s best receiving corps, the Giants have reason to believe their offense will improve in 2017. A win total in the nine to ten range seems likely, putting the Giants right on the brink of a postseason berth depending on how the wild card race shakes out.
The Eagles entered 2016 with both a rookie head coach and QB, yet still managed a 7-9 finish with impressive wins over playoff teams like the Steelers, Falcons, and Giants. Carson Wentz played his best ball at the start of the season but began to struggle as the year went on. The same can be said of the Philadelphia defense, which surrendered an average of 267 yards over the first four games compared to a whopping 368 yards over the rest of the season.
Although Philly’s defensive line has a case for the team’s biggest strength, the offensive line holds that distinction, entering 2017 with three different players who finished top 10 at their position last season, per PFF (LT Jason Peters, RG Brandon Brooks, RT Lane Johnson).
After missing 10 games due to suspension last year, Johnson will be on the field this season. His importance to Wentz’s performance in 2016 was evident. The rookie QB had a 10:2 touchdown-to-interception ratio when Johnson played, compared to a miserable 6:12 ratio without him. Johnson could very well be the piece that allows Wentz to take a step forward in 2017.
There are concerns whether the 35-year-old Peters can maintain his effectiveness. After all, it’s rare to see an offensive lineman play well this far into his thirties. However, Peters continues to prove he’s an exception to the rule given his four straight Pro Bowl nods. He finished as PFF’s ninth-ranked tackle last year and there’s no reason he can’t be a quality blindside protector once again.
In the run game, the Eagles mainly utilize zone-blocking concepts. They ran inside and outside zone plays a combined 56.5% of the time and finished sixth and 13th in yards before contact using those concepts, respectively. This statistic is relevant because the higher the yards before contact, the better push the offensive line is getting at the snap.
Newly signed RB LeGarrette Blount will handle most of the early-down work, but many have questioned his ability to thrive in outside zone concepts due to his size. Head coach Doug Pederson reaffirmed Blount’s role in the offense will be significant, and Blount proved he could succeed in the outside zone concept with the Patriots:
With the talented Eagles line leading the way, Blount and the rest of the Philly rushing attack could be in for a big year. Rushing success is imperative because it will take pressure off of Wentz, who had the fifth-most pass attempts in the league last season (607), a figure the team would like to avoid in 2017.
Although the Eagles made moves to upgrade their defensive backfield this offseason, it is still the roster’s most glaring weakness. Last season, the pass defense was solid early on, yielding just 208 passing yards per game over the first six games. Like the rest of the team, it fell apart as the season wore on, averaging 261 yards allowed over the final 10 games.
The Eagles’ secondary was routinely burned on intermediate-to-long passes in 2016, finishing 24th in the NFL against passes of 16 yards or more, per Football Outsiders.
Week 10 at PHI: Matt Ryan Hits Taylor Gabriel for a 76-Yard Touchdown (24th TD pass) pic.twitter.com/dciDkbdbIz— Nathan Butler Jr. (@ATLSportsNate) December 1, 2016
The front office addressed the issue by letting CBs Leodis McKelvin and Nolan Carroll walk in free agency, bringing in former Bills CB Ronald Darby and second-round rookie Sidney Jones. While these were perceived as upgrades, the team might actually find themselves in the same position as last year.
After a strong rookie campaign in 2015, Darby’s play slipped in his sophomore year. He graded out as the 68th-ranked CB in football according to PFF, only marginally better than McKelvin last season.
Jones was an undeniably talented player at Washington and likely would’ve been a first-round selection if he didn’t tear his Achilles’ at his Pro Day. Unfortunately, an Achilles’ is among the hardest injuries to recover from and it seems more and more likely Jones will miss the majority of his rookie season, if he doesn’t redshirt it altogether.
Right now, the unit’s only real bright spot is S Malcolm Jenkins. The team will have to hope its stellar defensive line can make life difficult for opposing QBs because the secondary is unlikely to offer much resistance this season.
For Philly to be a legitimate playoff contender this season, the offense will need newly acquired WR Alshon Jeffery to be a reliable, playmaking target for Wentz. In 2016, Wentz was working with one of the worst WR corps in the league and it definitely contributed to his struggles throughout the year.
As a group, Philadelphia’s pass catchers dropped 24 passes in 2016, tied for the sixth-most in the league. The Eagles’ top-ranked WR by DVOA was Jordan Matthews at 76th in the NFL, further highlighting the unit’s inadequacies, considering he isn’t even on the team anymore. The front office had seen enough and went after Jeffery in free agency, signing him to a one-year, $9.5 million deal.
Jeffery provides Wentz with a huge target that can routinely win 50-50 balls and should do wonders in helping the talented QB take a step forward. A quick look around the league shows that nearly every promising young QB has a top flight WR at their disposal—there’s Prescott and Bryant in Dallas, Carr and Cooper in Oakland, and Winston and Evans in Tampa Bay.
Now, it is up to Jeffery to stay on the field and become the security blanket that Wentz so badly needs. With the eighth-most career receiving yards per game among active players, Jeffery should be up to the challenge.
The Key Number
In the 2016 season, the Eagles had the sixth-best starting field position in the NFL, beginning drives at the 30.3-yard line on average. Good field position typically comes from the defense and special teams making plays and putting the offense in favorable situations. Even with this added benefit, the Philly offense only managed 22.9 points per game, barely above the league average of 22.7.
The Eagles’ defense and special teams units should be as good if not better than last year, meaning the offense can expect to have an advantage in starting field position again. This year, it will be up to Wentz and the rest of the offense to capitalize on their opportunities and win more games by doing so.
Playoff Status: On The Bubble
Last year, seven different teams finished between 7-9 and 9-7 in the NFC alone, with the Lions grabbing the final wild card spot at 9-7. Despite a last place finish in the NFC East, Philly wasn’t all that far from playoff contention. Additions at RB, WR, CB, and DE, plus another year of experience for both Wentz and Pederson should have the Eagles around nine wins and in the wild card race.
The 2016 Redskins featured a high-flying offense led by Kirk Cousins, who finished third in the NFL with 4,917 passing yards on the season. On the other side, the defense couldn’t carry its own weight, finishing among the league’s worst in yards allowed. Ultimately, the team failed to repeat as NFC East champions, finishing 8-7-1 and falling just short of playoff contention.
Despite the losses of DeSean Jackson and Pierre Garcon in free agency, the Redskins’ clear strength is their pass catchers. The group starts with Jordan Reed, one of the most prolific TEs of this decade on a per game basis. Although he’s failed to play a full 16 game season in his career, Reed will be ready to go for Week 1 and remain heavily involved in the Redskins offense, having averaged 5.9 receptions per game over the past two seasons.
WR Jamison Crowder is also returning from last year’s team after breaking out with a 67/847/7 receiving line in just his second pro season. Standing at just 5’8, Crowder gets open with quickness and precise route running. With 214 targets up for grabs after Jackson and Garcon’s departures, there’s reason to believe Crowder’s yardage will approach the 1,000-yard mark in 2017.
If Reed and Crowder weren’t enough, Washington signed WR Terrelle Pryor to a one-year, $6 million deal this offseason. In his first full season playing the position with Cleveland, Pryor exceeded expectations by racking up 1,007 receiving yards. Keep in mind he did so with the likes of Cody Kessler, Robert Griffin, and Josh McCown at QB.
In Washington, Pryor will immediately start on the outside and have a far better QB throwing him the ball than anyone he’s played with before. Pryor is a massive target at 6’6, 240 pounds and is the perfect player to help cure the Redskins’ red zone woes (more on that later).
The forgotten man in this equation is second-year WR Josh Doctson, and rightfully so. He missed most of training camp with a hamstring injury and nearly all of last season with an Achilles’. In fact, Doctson has played just 31 live snaps since November ’15 when he was still at TCU. He may never pan out in the NFL, but if he can find a way to stay on the field, he has the talent to elevate an already elite Redskins WR corps.
While Washington’s pass catchers may be elite, their running back group leaves a lot to be desired. The team selected Oklahoma product Samaje Perine in the fourth round of this year’s draft to challenge incumbent starter Rob Kelley for the job. Perine failed to impress this preseason and it appears Kelley will hold onto the starting spot for now.
Kelley had bright spots in 2016, including a 137-yard, three touchdown performance against Green Bay in Week 11. After that, however, his play fell off a cliff. Over the season’s final six weeks Kelley averaged just 3.33 yards per carry and played how you’d expect an undrafted rookie to play.
Rob Kelley Weeks 12-17 in 2016 season
|Opponent||Attempts||Yards||Yards Per Carry||Touchdowns|
Third-down back Chris Thompson is coming off a 49-catch season and plays his role quite well. Nevertheless, he doesn’t get enough work to elevate the group by much. Washington has to hope Perine can emerge as their lead back. Otherwise, the offense may fall into the same tendencies as it did last season, when the team called rushing plays at the eighth-lowest rate in the NFL and became predictable for opposing defenses.
Last year, the Redskins pass rush led the division with 38 sacks, nine coming from OLB Trent Murphy. Unfortunately, the team lost Murphy for the season to a torn ACL and MCL in August and will need to fill the void with someone else.
The perfect candidate to step up and replace Murphy’s production is OLB Preston Smith, who has a combined 12.5 sacks in his first two pro seasons. While his first year was better than his second, Smith has consistently shown the quickness and point-of-attack strength needed to be an effective pass rusher.
He can’t transform the Washington defense alone, but if Smith can make a third-year leap and raise his sack total to double digits it will go a long way for a defense in need of a playmaker. Should he fail to improve, the defense will likely have the same results as last season.
The Key Number
Unlike the Cowboys, the Redskins had major red zone difficulties in 2016. Despite such an effective offense, the Redskins finished 30th in the NFL with TDs on just 45.9% of their red zone drives. Their performance was a far cry from the 58.5% red zone TD rate they had in 2015 when they won the division.
The team’s poor red zone success last season could very well be an outlier, but Washington will have to dramatically improve in that department in order to be a true playoff contender. Look for Cousins to lean on big body targets like Reed and Pryor in the red zone to avoid a repeat of last year.
Playoff Status: On The Bubble
Like New York and Philadelphia, Washington has too many question marks entering the season to call them a playoff lock. Even so, they only missed the postseason by half a game in 2016 and should be in the playoff race again come December. Cousins needs to reverse his red zone misfortunes and the young defenders have to make an impact, but a nine to ten win season is realistic in a division that’ll be as competitive as any.
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- Dallas Cowboys
- New York Giants
- Philadelphia Eagles
- Washington Redskins