ALL 32 of the NFL’s franchises are making their final preparations for the regular season, having completed training camp and played their four preseason games.
With that in mind, it’s worth looking at the state of play in each division, continuing this time with the NFC East.
Please, please remember that for all articles the preseason games will be ignored, no matter how good or bad a team looks. That means stellar preseason performances like Dak Prescott’s unfortunately have to go unappreciated.
This article would’ve looked massively different if it was written two weeks ago, before Tony Romo went down injured. Much has changed in the last week over and above that, with the Eagles trading away their starting quarterback last week before making another trade on Tuesday. In between those two events, they named a rookie quarterback as their starter.
Not to focus too much on Philadelphia, in the last week Washington has been encouraged by their first-round pick’s return to full health but also signed and then released a veteran defensive lineman in a matter of days. In New York, while we said we’d ignore the preseason, we genuinely cannot ignore the fact that the first-team offense was dreadful. That may be worthless come Week One but it is something worth looking out for.
The Washington Redskins were the fixture of dysfunction in the NFL for over a decade. Even when they won the division title in 2012, led by the then-hero rookie Robert Griffin III, there were mumblings behind the scenes that all was not well. Then RGIII went down injured (three times) and never fully recovered (twice). Jay Gruden had enough after one year and eventually named Kirk Cousins the starter for 2015. That stability, coupled with the influence of second-year general manager Scot McCloughan, has flipped the Redskins fortunes and they are coming off a division title, a playoff appearance and – for the first time in a long time – an offseason with next to no drama. The biggest story was the arrival of Pro Bowler Josh Norman from the Carolina Panthers and his daily battles with Desean Jackson. Nothing to see here.
That stability at quarterback will be tested to the limit in 2016, however. Cousins and the Redskins couldn’t come to an agreement on a long-term deal and that means the fifth-year signal caller will play under the franchise tag. He has a lot to prove after an up-and-down start to 2015 but down the stretch – and this is no exaggeration – he was the best quarterback in the league. At least in terms of statistics, if not talent. For any lack of talent in Cousins, his receiving corps make up for it. Jackson remains the top legitimate deep threat in the league – rumour is he looks better than ever. Pierre Garcon is a wide receiver with a full back’s punishing mentality and Jamison Crowder broke records out of the slot position as a rookie. New recruit Josh Doctson is just returning to full fitness, coming off an All-American senior season at TCU. Add in the league’s best pure pass-catching tight end (that they still haven’t woken up to yet) and a young and feisty offensive line headed by Pro Bowler Trent Williams and you have the recipe for a Scotch Bonnet-like offense… Oh, wait, there’s no running game. Downgrade those peppers to jalepeno until Matt Jones answers those questions. The temperature will slump to plain green pepper levels if Jordan Reed can’t stay healthy, too.
The big question for the Redskins defence is the defensive line. Like, Dave Butz big. Chris Baker has went from undrafted nobody to solid starter but next to him is Kedric Golston, who’s not the longest-tenured Redskin on the roster because of his talent. The linebacker group was dealt a blow with the second season-ending injury in a row for Junior Galette, who was supposed to elevate the group led by Ryan Kerrigan and up-and-comer Preston Smith to the next level. Su’a Cravens, the rookie out of USC, will play a mixture of inside linebacker and safety as he and Washington find the best way to translate his dynamic talents. DeAngelo Hall moves to safety to accommodate the arrival of Norman, the All-Pro from the Panthers that should make the secondary feared. Can the pass rush help put that fear into practice? And will the line ever stop the run?
Every player on the New York Giants’ roster is playing for a new coach. But for some, like quarterback Eli Manning, they’ve only ever known one coach: Tom Coughlin. For the first time since 2004, Big Blue will be heading into a regular season with someone other than the Bill Parcells-mentored disciplinarian from Waterloo, NY, calling the shots.
Ben McAdoo steps up from offensive coordinator in a move that hopefully churns even more gaudy stats out of Manning, who had two of his best ever years under the former Green Bay Packers QB coach. Now he has new weapons like rookie Sterling Shepard from Oklahoma, and Victor Cruz finally looks ready to return. The question for the Giants offense, like Washington, centres on the run game. They needn’t worry about having difficulties in the pass game for as long as Odell Beckham Jr is around.
The Giants, like the Washington of old, hurled millions upon millions of dollars at free agents to upgrade their team. Their bill for focusing on the defensive side of the ball was in the region of $200million. The Giants are praying they will dine out on their new additions all the way to the Super Bowl, and that rookie corner Eli Apple defies his lack of experience to improve the secondary. It’s the only way that massive spending spree will pay off.
The Dallas Cowboys looked primed for a run at the division title and possibly even more because Romo was back, Dez Bryant was back and Ezekiel Elliott was going to take the NFL by storm as a rookie. Now: Romo is injured again, Bryant has a rookie throwing to him and Elliott has struggled with injury in the offseason. The latter did come back to full fitness in Week Three of preseason and looks sure to be the latest beneficiary of the league’s best offensive line. The Romo void is just too big to fill, for all of Prescott’s preseason hype and college heroics. Dallas has, quite plainly, sucked when Romo has been injured since he became the starter in Arlington. People forget that. This injury will signal the end of his career if Prescott plays well. It’s the beginning of the end even if he doesn’t and for Romo to play in 2016 it would mean the Prescott-led Cowboys would need to have a rough season. This team does still have the potential for an explosive offense with Elliott, Alfred Morris and Darren McFadden running the ball behind that o-line because Cole Beasley is improving into a Wes Welker/Julian Edelman type of receiver and future Hall of Famer Jason Witten still mans the tight end spot.
Dallas’ defence has so many holes it could put a golf course to shame. Greg Hardy left (after not doing much except cause trouble anyway); Randy Gregory is suspended again; Rolando McClain is suspended again; and DeMarcus Lawrence is suspended (for the first time). And even though Jaylon Smith was my favourite player in the draft, fact of the matter is he suffered an untimely injury and won’t play in 2016, if at all.
The Philadelphia Eagles must have bee looking enviously at Washington all those years that they made rash decisions in the offseason. The management has changed and there’s a new head coach at the helm but after Chip Kelly emulated a Redskins spending spree during his tenure, the new office gave up a litany of draft picks to take a dual-threat second overall who many weren’t sure was completely ready for the NFL and had been injured during his college career. Boy does that sound familiar.
The Eagles then went one up on their rivals by trading away their starting quarterback to a playoff rival, indeed to a team they’ll actually play this season. For all of Sam Bradford’s inconsistency and injury history, he improved towards the end of last season and was the most experienced QB on his team’s roster by a long shot. And that’s saying something, because he’s missed 17 games in five years (probably 18 or 19 if you round up the time missed by exiting a game that he started on a stretcher). And despite throwing $21million at Chase Daniel, the former Kansas City Chiefs back up never had a peep at the starting job before they handed it to rookie Carson Wentz. On a personal note, I like Wentz. I like him more than Jared Goff. But Philly are not putting him in a situation to succeed. If he doesn’t play the blame will crush him, and they can’t bench him for Daniel because that will crush him further. That is provided a shaky offensive line doesn’t allow him to be crushed by opposing rushers. Jason Peters is still a quality tackle but he’s the oldest starting left tackle in the division. Lane Johnson is suspended for ten games and Brandon Brooks has no formal accolades to show for his $40million deal. And who will he throw to and hand the ball off to anyway? There isn’t a stand-out name anywhere.
Jim Schwartz should make the Eagles defence downright nasty and it might be the team’s best unit in 2016. Mychal Kendricks is the main playmaker at linebacker and Connor Barwin and Fletcher Cox are two of the NFC’s better pass-rushing defensive linemen (the latter is one of the best against the run as well as the pass). Where the Eagles do totally differ from Washington is that their secondary is where the questions lie despite a menacing front seven. They just traded away promising defensive back Eric Rowe (no bias in the name, I promise) and is Rodney McLeod worth the $37million he’ll make over five years next to Malcolm Jenkins, who’s on a similar deal but is much, much better? (I do like the draft selection of Jalen Mills though, and Alex McAlister will make the front seven even better when he returns).
1st – Washington Redskins
2nd – New York Giants
3rd – Dallas Cowboys
4th – Philadelphia Eagles