I want to break down each division in the NFL by the time the regular season gets underway, and there’s no better place to start than the always-entertaining NFC East. It helps that the Dallas Cowboys are my favorite team, and yes I’m riding with them to win the NFC East. It’s going to be close, though, and I think them, the Giants and Redskins are going to compete for that top spot.
Expectations are always high in Dallas, and the spotlight always shines bright. This year, the spotlight will shine especially bright for first-round (4th overall) draft pick Ezekiel Elliott. Zeke’ is the first back taken in the top five since Trent Richardson went #3 in 2012. Dallas expects a lot more out of their investment, and they hope Zeke makes an immediate impact to put Dallas back atop the NFC East. It won’t be as easy as last year, though, when Washington stole the title with just nine wins. Nine wins won’t cut it this year; in fact, it’s only cut it twice since 1970 – the Skins last year and the Giants in 2011.
If Dallas wants to reestablish their dominance in the division like they did in 2014, Zeke will clearly have to be everything he’s advertised to be. But more so, Dallas needs their quarterback to stay healthy. Tony Romo’s dealt with injuries his entire career, but is it that crazy to expect the 36-year-old to stay healthy for 16 games and hopefully more? Before missing 12 games last year to multiple collarbone injuries, Romo started 62 of 64 regular season games from 2011-2014. He underwent surgery to repair and strengthen his collarbone this offseason, and he hasn’t had a true back problem in a couple years. I expect Romo to stay healthy in 2016 thanks to a dominant offensive line and true #1 running back.
So that should just about do it, right? If the Cowboys offense stays healthy, they are one of the best teams in the NFC. It’s just that simple, but unfortunately staying healthy isn’t. More unfortunate is this team’s defense.
Dallas’ 2015 defense was worst in the league at creating turnovers – they had just 11 takeaways. Compare that to 33 in 2014’s 12-4 season, and that’s pretty much all you need to know about what needs to happen for the Cowboys to be successful next season. Their defense is bad, and their pass rush is worse; but they can easily make do with who they have on the field, and in today’s NFL there’s no excuses. It’s a next-man-up mentality.
New York Giants
I truly think this Giants team can be special. The Giants offense was already good in 2015, finishing in the top eight in both points scored and yards recorded; but they couldn’t finish ball games. The Giants lost six games by a touchdown or less last season. That could be why legendary coach Tom Coughlin was shown the door, or maybe it was the fact that the Giants are coming off three consecutive losing seasons for the first time since 1978-1980. Either way, new coach Ben MaCadoo will have his opportunity to rewrite the script, and he’s got a talented roster to work with.
The Giants’ offensive line has taken a lot of heat over the past few seasons, but I expect them to be better this season as long as second-year Left Tackle Ereck Flowers grows and adapts to NFL play. Regardless, the Giants offense will be good. Their receiving core is extremely exciting on paper, and their star receiver is the most exciting player on the field come the Fall. Odell Beckham has 25 touchdowns in just 27 career games – he’s entering his third season and will have Victor Cruz and rookie Sterling Shepard to play alongside him.
The defensive side of the ball is the main reason the Giants have been so bad in the past three seasons. Last year, they gave up 27.6 points per game – that was bad enough to land them 30th in the entire league. They also allowed 307 passing yards per game, the worst in the NFL. In fact, it wasn’t close – they were the only team that allowed 300 passing yards per game against their weekly opponents. The Giants snagged Olivier Vernon and Damon Harrison in free agency. Pair them with Jason-Pierre Paul, Jonathon Hankins and Owamagbe Odighizuwa – who the Giants drafted in round 3 of the 2015 draft – and they have one of the more formidable defensive fronts in football. This should help their ailing defense tremendously, and if it does, the Giants are going to be a 10-win team.
I love (and as a Cowboys fan, hate) where General Manager Scot McCloughan has this franchise headed. McCloughan’s team won the division for the second time in 15 years. After doing so in his first year as GM, the former personnel executive for the 2010-2013 Seattle Seahawks took standout receiver Josh Doctson in the first round of the 2016 draft to make sure Quarterback Kirk Cousins has plenty of options to choose from. The Skins receiving options are certainly plentiful – they have DeSean Jackson, Pierre Garcon, Jamison Crowder, Doctson, and Tight End Jordan Reed, who made a name for himself last year.
The question mark on offense comes in the backfield. They don’t have a true starter unless Matt Jones proves to be that guy. Furthermore, is Kirk Cousins really that guy at quarterback? He put up great numbers in the second half of the season – he threw 19 touchdowns, only two interceptions, and led the NFL by averaging 9.3 yards per attempt in those games. But he didn’t really play any good defenses in that second half breakout, and the Packers exposed him in the first round of the playoffs. I’m not sold and apparently neither are the Redskins, who refused to give Cousins a long-term deal and are making him prove his play under the franchise tag.
On the defensive side of the ball, the Redskins will have to be exceptional for them to be truly successful this season. They let up 274 passing yards per game (27th in the league), and gave up 122 per game on the ground (26th in the league). They’ll have to be a lot better for Washington to compete with Dallas and New York this season.
The Eagles are in for a long season unless new head coach Doug Pederson is some kind of miracle worker. Quarterback Sam Bradford just isn’t that good, and rookie Carson Wentz just won’t be ready. Bradford threw just 19 touchdowns and a hefty 14 interceptions in 14 starts last season – the Eagles turned the ball over 31 times. It’s crazy to think Chip Kelly got the boot; he took a 4-12 Eagles team in 2012 to consecutive 10-6 teams in his first two seasons as coach from 2013-2014 before getting fired before the 2015 season even ended. Short leash in the city of brotherly love, and the leash is going to be real short for Bradford this season.
The Eagles’ defense were right with their division rivals at the bottom of league rankings last year. They finished 28th in the league in points let up and 30th in yards recorded against them. I think the defense will be significantly better, but their offense is always going to hold them back.
To sum: I like Dallas to win the division, but I think both them and the Giants make the playoffs one way or another. Washington will stick around, and Philly will enter in a new direction with Carson Wentz playing some games later in the season.
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