Will the Eagles run away with the division once again?
The Sports Quotient’s annual Divisional Preview series returns! This week the focus is on the NFC East. Today, I’ll see whether the Eagles can claim the division as easily as they did in 2017, or if someone else has a shot to step up and take the top spot.
The Cowboys’ 2017 season was full of ups and downs. The team sputtered out of the gate to a 2-3 start, then won three straight before the season’s halfway point. It was then that Ezekiel Elliott’s six-game suspension kicked in, which ultimately derailed the team’s season. Dak Prescott struggled mightily in Elliott’s absence, including a three-game stretch during which Dallas scored 22 points…total. In the end, the Cowboys finished 9-7, just one game out of a wild card spot. For a team that entered 2017 with a bright-looking future ahead, the season felt like a step back.
The Cowboys’ rushing attack still remains their biggest strength, as it has for several years now. Elliott led the league in rushing yards per game in each of his first two seasons, and there’s no reason he can’t do it again. Unfortunately for Elliott and the offense, C Travis Frederick was recently diagnosed with a rare autoimmune disease and won’t be playing for the foreseeable future.
Dr. Chao on Cowboys’ center Travis Frederick, who has been diagnosed wirh Guillain Barre: “He is more likely to miss the entire season than be back for Week One. The best case would be a few games or first part of the season. But it could easily last much longer.” https://t.co/mvL8u80eyH— Adam Schefter (@AdamSchefter) August 23, 2018
With that said, the Cowboys still boast two perennial All-Pros along the line in G Zack Martin and T Tyron Smith. In addition, the team added G Connor Williams in the second round of this year’s draft. Williams is a former All-American who displayed his run-blocking chops throughout his time in school and will be a plug-and-play starter with upside.
Dallas had PFF’s best red zone rushing grade last season by a wide margin, and despite the loss of Frederick, the team can expect similar results as long as Elliott is on the field.
PFF DAL Cowboys (@PFF_Cowboys) August 24, 2018
After the departures of Dez Bryant and Jason Witten this offseason, the Cowboys enter 2018 with an exceedingly average group of pass catchers, to put it nicely. The wide receivers have a single 1,000-yard season between them (Allen Hurns, 2015), while the tight ends on the roster have just nine career catches combined. Hurns, Cole Beasley, and Terrance Williams are reliable veterans but fall well short of spectacular. Prescott will need somebody to emerge as a true No. 1 target or else the passing game could sputter like it did down the stretch in 2017.
The one person who could legitimately change the Cowboys’ fortunes at wide receiver is third-round rookie Michael Gallup. Gallup is a physical player and a more refined route-runner than most rookies. But more importantly, he has opportunity. Between Bryant, Witten, and Brice Butler, Dallas vacated a whopping 242 targets from last season. Gallup will have every chance to claim those targets and emerge as the team’s go-to receiver, but it’s up to him to take the role and run with it. If preseason is any indication, he looks to have a solid rapport with Prescott already:
Here is a video of all three of Michael Gallup’s receptions in the preseason: pic.twitter.com/4Rc5DE8oNU— Marcus Mosher (@Marcus_Mosher) August 21, 2018
There are also clear indications from the team that he’ll be involved starting Week 1. If Gallup can approach 1,000 yards this season, it’ll do wonders for an offense desperate for a weapon through the air.
Cowboys owner Jerry Jones praising rookie WR Michael Gallup on @1053thefan: “I think he’s going to start off opening day, I think he’ll be part of our plan. He’s really a lot better player than when he got here.”— Jon Machota (@jonmachota) August 24, 2018
The Key Number
In both 2016 and 2017, the Cowboys were third in the NFL in first quarter points allowed (3.4 and 2.9 points, respectively). This statistic is of greater significance to Dallas than other teams. With an offense built around the run, grabbing an early lead is imperative for the Cowboys. By doing so, they can control the possession battle and keep their young defense on the sidelines.
Cowboys fans are surely still haunted by the three-game stretch against the Falcons, Eagles, and Chargers from last year. What many people forget is that the Cowboys were only down three at halftime against Philadelphia and Los Angeles, and actually led at the half in the Atlanta game. With Elliott back in the fold for the full season, the Cowboys must seize early-game scoring opportunities in order to grab leads and keep them. The defense has granted such chances and should continue to do so with many promising young players growing into their own.
Playoff Status: On The Bubble
As it stands, the Cowboys are firmly on the bubble. The loss of Travis Frederick will surely be felt, and there are serious questions about the pass catchers and back end of the defense. One positive yet overlooked figure is Prescott and Elliott’s 19-6 record when on the field together. If defensive youngsters like Jaylon Smith, Chidobe Awuzie, and Taco Charlton can continue to take steps forward, they may vault what looks like an 8-8 team into an NFC contender.
New York Giants
Just a year after going 11-5, the 2017 Giants had their season unravel early with an 0-5 start. By the end of that stretch, the team had already lost Odell Beckham, Brandon Marshall, and Dwayne Harris for the season, leaving Eli Manning with the league’s least talented pass catching group. Sadly, the most memorable part of New York’s 2017 campaign might’ve been when Manning was benched for Geno Smith prior to Week 13, snapping Manning’s streak of 210 consecutive starts. Luckily for Giants fans, the head-scratching move was the final straw for former head coach Ben McAdoo, who was ousted just two days after the game.
Though not a totally stacked position group, the defensive line remains the strength of New York’s roster. The team switched to a 3-4 alignment this offseason, putting run-stopping extraordinaire Damon Harrison at nose tackle to eat up double teams and plug the middle of the field.
#Giants interior defender @snacks has led all interior linemen in Run-Stop Percentage for 5 straight years. 💪💪@PFF_Sam breaks down why Damon Harrison is the best 0-technique in the #NFL. https://t.co/rHVsj3pOpK pic.twitter.com/WFvE6rj5RH— PFF NY Giants (@PFF_Giants) June 16, 2018
Surrounding him will be Dalvin Tomlinson, who had an impressive rookie season next to Harrison, and rookie B.J. Hill, who is athletic for his size and has a chance to be a disruptor inside. Olivier Vernon will once again come off the edge, and despite a modest 15.5 sacks in two seasons as a Giant, he’s still a force teams will need to game plan for.
Harrison and Vernon anchored a Giants front that ranked third in run defense in 2016, before the team dramatically fell to 29th last year. If the unit can regain its form and stay off the field with help from the offense, the Giants’ defense will see far better results in 2018.
Despite a couple of intriguing additions this offseason, New York’s offensive line will likely hold the offense back. Nate Solder is an upgrade at LT, but giving record-setting money to a player in his thirties who allowed over 50 pressures last year seems ill-advised. The addition of Solder simply pushed perpetual turnstile Ereck Flowers to RT, when he really belongs on the bench.
On the inside lies C Jon Halapio and RG Patrick Omameh, who are below average at their absolute best. The most encouraging piece is second-round rookie Will Hernandez, a nasty run-blocker whom Saquon Barkley will enjoy running behind.
Nobody needs to be convinced of Saquon Barkley’s talent. His combine performance might have been the best of all time. However, he can’t be written in for elite production automatically. There were stretches last year at Penn State when Barkley’s production dipped, including a six-game skid during which he exceeded 63 rushing yards just once.
Barring injury, Barkley will almost certainly have a good season. After all, the last four RBs who were drafted in the top five have averaged over 1,300 rushing yards and ten touchdowns their rookie season. The question is if Barkley will be in the 1,000-yard neighborhood or if he can have a Zeke-like first year. Should he fall closer to the latter, he will completely open up an offense that has been far too pass-happy in recent years.
The Key Number
In 2017, the Giants converted on third down just 32.6% of the time — the third-worst rate in the NFL. That tends to happen when a team loses three of its top four receivers. However, the real key to a better rate in 2018 will be Barkley. With an all-world talent at RB, the Giants will surely be looking at more manageable third downs this year than before. Oh, and having Odell Beckham back healthy can’t hurt either. New York needs to approach a rate closer to 40% if they want to hang with the powers of the NFC.
Playoff Status: On The Bubble
Though the NFC is as strong as ever, the Giants have a great chance to bounce back from last year and make a little noise. They have several key players returning from injury and the team addressed its needs as best it could this offseason. Barkley and Beckham could be the most exciting RB/WR tandem in the league and will keep defensive coordinators up at night. The NFC East is more open than most believe, so don’t be surprised if the Giants are in contention come December.
The Eagles dominated from start to finish last season, going 13-3 and marching all the way to their first-ever Super Bowl victory. Carson Wentz was putting together an MVP-caliber season through 13 games before suffering a torn ACL. Despite a mediocre track record outside of his 2013 season, backup Nick Foles filled in admirably, throwing for 971 yards and six touchdowns over three playoff games and earning Super Bowl MVP for his big game performance.
Philadelphia has a few very strong position groups, but the defensive line is unlike any in the league. Their second unit alone could be a solid starting group. With such tremendous depth, the team can constantly rotate guys in and out to keep them fresh. The unit is led by DT Fletcher Cox and DE Brandon Graham, both of whom graded out as top-five players at their respective positions last year, per PFF.
Returning from last year’s team are Derek Barnett, Tim Jernigan, and Chris Long, who all played key roles during Philly’s championship run. If that wasn’t enough, the team acquired veterans Haloti Ngata and Michael Bennett back in March. The unit is arguably stronger than it was last season when it allowed the fewest rushing yards in the NFL. While there are some injury concerns around the Eagles’ roster, they can feel good entering the season knowing they have the league’s best depth at a crucial position group.
It’s quite the challenge to find a weakness on the Eagles’ roster, but if they had to have one it’s the linebacker corps. The team failed to replace Mychal Kendricks after cutting him in May. Jordan Hicks is returning from a season-ending Achilles’ injury but has now gone on injured reserve two of his first three seasons in the NFL and may be difficult to count on. Should Hicks or returning veteran Nigel Bradham go down, the Eagles will certainly be in a pinch. However, with the rest of the defense as loaded as it is, Philly should be able to cover up any deficiencies on the second level.
Recent reports indicate No. 1 WR Alshon Jeffery will miss at least two games to start the year, leaving the Eagles with a major void to fill. While Jeffery and Wentz don’t define the team, the Eagles could easily slip into a hole to start the year if others can’t elevate their play.
Eagles WR Alshon Jeffery is expected to miss at least the first two games of the season, but the team will activate him to the 53-man roster this weekend with optimism he could be back by week 3, per @mortreport and me.— Adam Schefter (@AdamSchefter) August 28, 2018
This is where Nelson Agholor comes in. After two underwhelming seasons to begin his career, Agholor made a big leap in 2017, posting a 62/768/8 line while running primarily out of the slot. He needs to continue to build on those numbers for the Eagles to start smoothly and ultimately reclaim the NFC East. Should Agholor approach his 65.3% catch rate from 2017 once again, the Eagles’ offense will be fine.
The Key Number
Last year, Carson Wentz had a TD% of 7.5, easily the best in the NFL and the highest since Tony Romo’s 7.8% in 2014. Considering QBs like Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers, and Drew Brees have two seasons combined with a TD% of 7.5 or higher, Wentz is an obvious candidate for regression. The question is, how much? There’s no questioning the talent on Philly’s roster, but it was Wentz’s MVP-worthy season that drove the team’s success before his injury. Odds are Wentz won’t sniff that 7.5% rate upon his return, but if he can exceed just six percent, the Eagles should have a high-flying offense once again.
Playoff Status: Automatic
Despite the injury questions, Philly’s playoff status should still feel secure. The team is loaded on both sides of the ball, but especially where it matters: in the trenches. While the rest of the division can’t say the same, those teams will pose a threat if Foles loses his magic or Wentz’s knee holds him back. There is a scenario in which things go south, but for now, the Eagles still look like a double-digit win team in a stacked NFC.
The 2017 Redskins were defined by injury. By the end of the year, over 20 players were on IR, including several key starters. What looked like a promising group of pass catchers to start the year turned out to be nothing, as both Terrelle Pryor and Jordan Reed struggled to produce before missing most of the season. Kirk Cousins declined in almost every major passing category, giving Washington reason to let him walk in free agency like it had hinted at doing for years.
A quick look at the Washington roster and it’s clear the most talented group is the defensive front. The front office has put an emphasis on building up the front seven, spending its last two first round picks on Alabama interior lineman Jon Allen and Da’Ron Payne. Combine that with a talented edge rushing duo in Ryan Kerrigan and Preston Smith, plus two rock-solid inside linebackers in Mason Foster and Zach Brown, and you’ve got a pretty complete unit.
Both Allen and Foster spent the majority of the season on IR so it’s not overly surprising the Redskins finished dead last in run defense last year. On the other hand, the pass rush was quietly one of the NFL’s best, as the team posted a 37.9% pressure rate. According to PFF, the Redskins have the sixth best pass rush in football entering 2018. In order to get the run defense up to that level, the unit will need rookie contributions and a clean bill of health.
Although it can be viewed as a “deep” group, the running back position will be a problem for Washington once again. The group looked to have new life when the team selected Derrius Guice in the second round of this year’s draft, and in limited preseason action, he looked like an animal:
If you want to bring Derrius Guice down, you better bring backup pic.twitter.com/9ini1BULRi— The Draft Network (@DraftNetworkLLC) August 10, 2018
Unfortunately, Guice suffered a torn ACL later in the game and destroyed any hope of a potent rushing attack. Washington signed Adrian Peterson to fill the void, but Peterson has little left to offer. Over limited action in the past two seasons, Peterson has averaged just 3.2 yards per carry. Behind him are Rob Kelley and Samaje Perine, who the team clearly lacks faith in given the Guice pick and Peterson deal. Alex Smith has had the luxury of playing with backs like Frank Gore, Jamaal Charles, and Kareem Hunt throughout his career. Now he must shoulder more of the load without anyone decent to hand the ball to.
The Redskins are still in need of an outside receiving threat after last year’s Terrelle Pryor experiment completely failed. Jamison Crowder and Jordan Reed are nice threats on the inside, but the pass catching group still feels incomplete.
For the passing game to really click, Josh Doctson needs to take a third-year leap. After playing just a handful of snaps his rookie year, Doctson posted a modest 35/502/6 line in 2017. He’s been a bust thus far but can’t be written off yet. Alex Smith can certainly spread the ball around, but Doctson will have to prove he’s worthy of more targets. If Paul Richardson surpasses Doctson in the pecking order, his future as a Redskin could very well be in jeopardy.
The Key Number
The Redskins allowed 7.8 fourth quarter points per game last season, which was tied for sixth worst in football. The team blew a fourth-quarter lead on multiple occasions, including a Week 11 matchup with New Orleans when it lost after leading by 15 with under six minutes to play.
Collapses like that are unacceptable and change the complexion of a team’s season. To claw into the playoff hunt, Washington needs to lock down in the fourth quarter all year, which can be done given the talent along the defensive front.
Playoff Status: Cellar Dweller
The Redskins have pieces to be excited about, but clearly lack the complete roster needed to win in the NFC. The secondary is mediocre at best, the offensive weapons are inconsistent or rarely on the field, and Alex Smith needs time to adjust to a new offense. Washington is still a couple of years away from fielding anything resembling a contender. Anything more than six wins would be a surprise.
Edited by Emily Berman.
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- Redskins, Week 7
- Giants, Week 15
- Cowboys, Week 17