The NFC East Won’t Be A Complete Dumpster Fire Again – Or Will It?
Aug. 9, 2016
The heavenly-panorama, above Richmond, Virginia was painted a steel gray. Every now and then, a drop of rain would pierce the cloudy skies, reminding those below that a wet encore was imminent.
This did little to dampen the enthusiasm at the Bon Secours Washington Redskins Training Center, where the outlook was much sunnier.
Several thousand fans had gathered for Tuesday’s practice; the team’s final tune-up before its first preseason game against the Atlanta Falcons.
Today was “Kids Day”, and you couldn’t walk ten feet without having to pause and yield to a scurrying pack of children. They laughed and screamed, clutching ice cream cones in one hand, foam footballs in the other.
The presence of youth was appropriate. On the heels of an NFC East title, Redskins’ fortunes seem primed to be rosy for the foreseeable future.
Training camp is the season of hope, a second spring. The same enthusiasm found in Redskins camp resonates elsewhere: in Oxnard, California, East Rutherford, New Jersey and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania for example.
These are the training camp locations for the Dallas Cowboys, New York Giants and Philadelphia Eagles, respectively. Collectively, those teams finished with a .354 winning percentage in 2015.
They are the Redskins companions in the NFC East, the NFL’s weakest division. As we know, however, the competitive-balance of the NFL is volatile. Teams oscillate from bad to good overnight. With that in mind, here is a look at what the rest of the division has been up to, this off-season:
The Philadelphia Eagles
The Eagles hired former Philly Quarterbacks Coach Doug Pederson, hoping a familiar face will bring them a little stability at the head coaching position after the Chip Kelly-experiment was mercifully put to pasture last December.
Restoring order is well and good, but a mountain of work remains to be done before the team returns to contender status, starting with addressing the most important position: quarterback.
The Eagles ranked 23rd in quarterback rating (85.6),and averaged a paltry seven yards per pass attempt. Using the eye test alone, it was clear that starter Sam Bradford was skittish in the pocket and reluctant to air it out.
General Manager Howie Roseman tackled this problem head on. When the dust settled, the Eagles had three quarterbacks on the roster, who will make a combined $43 million dollars this year.
First, they traded a small fortune (five draft picks) to the Browns for the number two pick, which they used to draft Carson Wentz. Second, they resigned Bradford to the tune of two-years, $22 million guaranteed. Finally, and most-damningly, they brought in Chase Daniel, who went from untested, Kansas City backup to overpaid and untested Philadelphia backup.
All in all, they will be paying the trio $43 million this season, with a $22.3 million cap hit. Pederson will also have to deal with bruised egos; Bradford was irked by the Eagles’ decision to draft Wentz, but was brought back anyway.
The quarterback drama stole most of the off-season headlines, but meanwhile the front brass did little to help out a defensive unit that last year “held” opponents to a shade over 400 yards a game (that’s terrible).
The running game will rely on the brittle legs of Ryan Matthews. With the RB depth chart barren behind him, Philadelphia will have to hope he can handle a full-time workload and chew out the clock.
Compounding matters, it was recently announced that offensive tackle Lane Johnson is facing a 10-game suspension for PEDs, an ominous sign for the Eagles, coming on the eve of the pre-season.
2015 Record: 4-12
2016 Record (projected): 5-11
Analysis: Not having the dysfunction and turmoil of the Chip Kelly era should be worth a least one notch in the win column. However, the defense won’t be much better, and the offense will struggle to move the ball downfield under Bradford’s watch. Expect local clamoring for Carson Wentz to begin as early as their bye in week four.
In 2015, Tony Romo’s battered, 100 year-old body gave out.
Sidelined for 12 games, he and the Dallas faithful watched solemnly as the Cowboys paraded out the Pupu platter deluxe of Matt Cassell, Kellen Moore and Brandon Weeden. That trio combined to win one game.
With Romo not getting any younger, certainly Jerry Jones and company did something to rectify the backup situation. Well, this year, he will be backed up by (drum roll, please)…Kellen Moore and Dak Prescott – not exactly a Montana/Young combo.
On defense, Dallas’ modus operandi has been to snatch up bargain bin players. Many of these individuals have been red-flagged by other organizations because of off-the-field concerns.
A perfect example of this was last year’s signing of DE Greg Hardy – a talented, but troubled player. His personality rubbed teammates the wrong way and, when he did play, the results were sub-par. He was not re-signed.
Randy Gregory, an uber-talented linebacker drafted out of Nebraska, was already facing a four-game suspension for violation of the league’s substance-abuse policy. He failed a drug test and entered rehab. He will almost certainly miss the entire 2016 season.
The disappointing 2015 season did yield the fourth overall pick – the highest the Cowboys have drafted. Fans of the blue and silver hoped their team would cash in on the rare chance to draft a stud defensive player, or at least a successor for Romo.
Defying logic, they snatched up tailback Ezekiel Elliott. It was a classic Jerry-signing: long on hype (Jones compared Elliott’s talent to that of Cowboy’s legend Emmitt Smith) but short in the value department.
But the Cowboys weren’t finished. They then went and signed free agent Alfred Morris, another running back. Morris’ former team thought so highly of him that they allowed him to drive off in his Mazda without so much as tendering the veteran an offer.
Meanwhile, Darren McFadden must be wondering what he did wrong. All he did was rush for 4.6 yards a carry, last season. Oh, and he’s just barely a year older than Morris.
2015 Record: 4-12
2016 Record (projected): 8-8
Analysis: It’s Romo or bust for Dallas. If he stays healthy, they have the weapons to put up numbers. If he’s banged-up, even Emmitt Smith won’t save them. Keep an eye on Jason Garrett if that happens; odds are he won’t survive another sub-.500 season.
New York Giants
Poor defensive play is the recurring theme for this division. The New York Giants were no exception; there were times, last season, when it seemed like they couldn’t have stopped your local high school team from rolling down the field.
They allowed a league-worst 4,783 passing yards, roughly 298.9 per game. On the ground, teams piled on for a weekly average of 121.3 rushing yards. Opponents converted an abysmal, 47 percent of their third-down chances.
Two-time, Super Bowl-winning coach Tom Coughlin was fired after the 6-10 campaign. This left General Manager Jerry Reese alone, atop the proverbial hot seat. His off-season directive: do something about the defense.
He did just that, taking the Mara’s money and treating it with the same callous-attitude the Joker displayed in The Dark Knight. When it was over, he’d re-tooled, with some big names attached to eye-popping figures:
DE Olivier Vernon (5 years, $85 million dollars)
CB Janoris Jenkins (5, $62.5)
DT Damon Harrison (5, $46.5)
LB Keenan Robinson (1, $2.6)
CB Leon Hall (1, $1.5).
Additionally, he paid $10.8 million to retain the services of DE, Jason Pierre-Paul.
Will it help? The Giants are exponentially-more expensive, but not necessarily better. You’d be hard-pressed to find an NFL article touting the success of an expensive free-agent binge.
New head coach Ben McAdoo is an offensive mind, so the molding of the defense will be up to Steve Spagnuolo, who retained his role as defensive coordinator.
Spagnuolo has been at the helm for some great Giants defenses (2007), but the 2015 debacle also occurred under his watch. This season will go a long way in determining whether last season’s woes stemmed primarily from lack of personnel.
Offensively, New York keeps chugging along, led by the seemingly-ageless Eli Manning. The Giants used a high, 2016 pick on wide receiver Sterling Shepard, hoping to find Manning more targets and open up more space for star wide-out Odell Beckham Jr.
For Beckham Jr., developing the ability to keep focus, and tune out distractions, will determine whether he becomes truly-elite or just very good.
2015 Record: 6-10
2016 Record (projected): 10-6
Analysis: The new blood will provide a defensive spark. The unit won’t be great, but they will be better (it can’t be much worse than last year). If it comes to a shoot-out, Manning, who has been remarkably-durable throughout his career, will keep them in games.