NFC East 2014 Season Preview
The NFC East wasn't a great division last season and the Philadelphia Eagles won it, almost by default. Now the Eagles are being picked to repeat as division champs, but there hasn't been a repeat champ in this division since the Eagles did it way back in 2004. The only two things we know for sure about the NFC East is that all four teams have good offenses and all four teams have terrible defenses.
With that in mind, let's take a look at the NFC East in their predicted order of finish:
Philadelphia Eagles (2013: 10-6 record, Won NFC East, Lost in Wild Card round)
Head Coach Chip Kelly came to the NFL with a reputation as an offensive mastermind and he didn't disappoint. In spite of picking the wrong quarterback to start last season, the Eagles finished second overall in yardage and fifth in points scored per game once Nick Foles took over. Now that Michael Vick is gone, Foles will have a chance to show what he can do over a full season.
Foles had 10 starts in 2013 and led the team to an 8-2 record while throwing for 2,891 yards with 27 TDs and only 2 INTs, for a league-leading 119.2 passer rating. He even added another 225 yards and 3 TDs on the ground. While Foles won't have that insane TD:INT ratio again, he's certainly capable of moving into the NFL's elite group of quarterbacks in Kelly offense. That's because he has a nice array of skill position talent around him.
LeSean McCoy led the entire NFL in rushing (1,607) and yards from scrimmage (2,146). His 52 receptions for 529 yards make McCoy one of the best, if not the best, offensive players in the NFL. He led the league in touches and didn't even slow down later in the year, as he averaged 5.9 yards per carry in December. The team traded for Darren Sproles to give McCoy an occasional breather. While Sproles hasn't been used heavily as a ball-carrier during his career, he is an elite pass-catching option out of the backfield. He will be a nice change-of-pace back for McCoy in what was the No. 1 rushing offense in the NFL last season.
Much is being made of the loss of receiver DeSean Jackson, but the truth is that Jackson is fast, a one-trick pony who never produces in the second half of the season. He only had one game over 53 yards receiving over the last six games in 2013. That continued a career trend. He also never caught more than 62 passes in a season before Kelly's spread attack. His production will be replaced by Jeremy Maclin, who returns after missing 2013 with a torn ACL. Maclin doesn't have Jackson's speed (who does?), but he is bigger and gets the tough yards. Riley Cooper starts on the other side again and presents a big target down field. The team drafted Jordan Matthews for the slot and they will employ more 2-TE formations to get Brent Celek and Zach Ertz on the field to create mismatches. Look for Ertz to have a break-out season.
The offensive line had all five starters start every game last season, but RT Lane Johnson will miss the first four games due to a PED suspension. While the line is filled with talent, like Pro Bowlers LT Jason Peters and LG Evan Mathis, they are getting old, with three of them being over 30.
The defensive side is where the Eagles ran into trouble last season. The unit ranked 29th overall in the NFL and dead last against the pass. Unfortunately, the team didn't do much to upgrade that unit other than signing safety Malcolm Jenkins, CB Nolan Carroll and drafting OLB Marcus Smith.
Jenkins fits what the Eagles want to do defensively at safety and he has already become a team leader. Carroll adds some needed depth behind average starters Cary Williams and Brandon Fletcher. And with nickel corner Brandon Boykin, the added depth will allow them to take DeMeco Ryans off the field in passing situations, where he struggled last season. This secondary couldn't get any worse.
The front seven still doesn't have the perfect pieces for the 3-4 defense coordinator Billy Davis installed last season, but they should be better. While Ryans is starting to show his age at linebacker, Mychal Kendricks is starting to blossom. They still don't have a stud pass-rusher, with OLBs Trent Cole and Conner Barwin, and Smith doesn't look like he'll be ready to contribute during his rookie season. The defensive line is solid but Cox is the only real impact player there.
The special teams units were putrid last season. Now the team goes into 2014 with a rookie kicker and questions at the return spots. They did sign a few players specifically for special teams, so there is some hope for improvement. And Donnie Jones is a great punter.
Kelly is going into his second season and while everyone says defenses will catch up to his offense, I have to believe he has plenty more tricks up his sleeve. After all, everyone thought he needed a mobile QB to succeed, right?
The Eagles will win the NFC East again because they are a talented team and the rest of the division stinks.
NFC East 2013 Final Standings
New York Giants
Who will win the NFC East i 2014
Washington Redskins (2013: 3-13 record)
Now we'll find out if it was the Shanahans or Robert Griffin III that was the problem. The Redskins ranked a respectable 9th in overall offense, but were a lowly 16th in passing and 23rd in scoring.
Mike Shanahan and his offensive coordinator son, Kyle were jettisoned in the offseason, because something had to change and the team gave up a king's ransom to draft RG3. So now it's time for RG3 to either sink or swim. It will be new head coach Jay Gruden's job to bring out the best in the franchise QB. RG3 never looked right last season, after that knee injury in the 2012 playoffs. As great as he looked as a rookie, RG3 looked lost in year 2. All of his stats went down and his standing with his teammates also suffered when he deflected any blame away from himself. If he's back to full health, maybe he can rebound. At the very least, the Redskins gave him plenty of weapons.
The Redskins added DeSean Jackson, after he was released by the Eagles, and he joins an already dangerous receiving corps. Jackson's (82 rec - 1,332 yds - 8 TD) elite speed will help open things up underneath for TE Jordan Reed, who had 45 catches for 499 yards and 3 TDs last season before missing the last seven games with a concussion. The problem there is that it was his fourth concussion, so his career might be in jeopardy. Opposite Jackson is Pierre Garcon, who led the NFL in receptions last season with 113 for 1,346 yards. The team also added Andre Roberts to line up in the slot. Receivers like that have the ability to make any quarterback look good.
Alfred Morris was fourth in the league in rushing last season with 1,275 yards and seven TDs. While he won't fit in as well in Gruden's offense as he did with Shanahan's scheme, he's still a legitimate threat that defenses need to account for in their game plans. He may lose more time in passing situations though, as Gruden like to throw the football. Roy Helu is sure to see his playing time increase as the pass-catching back.
The Redskins had to upgrade an offensive line that lacked talent outside of LT Trent Williams. They signed LG Shawn Lauvao and drafted two linemen in the third round, Morgan Moses and Spencer Long, who might not start until next season. The rest of the line is average at best. The line should be improved, but they will not be a strength of the team. At least not yet.
The Redskins defense may have been middle of the road in the yardage rankings last season (Overall: 18, passing: 20, rushing: 16), but they were downright awful as the 30th ranked team in points allowed per game (29.9). To remedy their terrible secondary they only signed safety Ryan Clark, who is turning 35 this season and struggled last season and CB Tracy Porter, who didn't play well for Oakland last season. Considering their starting CBs are DeAngelo Hall and David Amerson, the Skins pass defense might not be any better this season.
The strength of this defense is their pass rush, led by OLBs Brian Orakpo (10 sacks) and Ryan Kerrigan (8.5 sacks). But that just makes their first draft pick (No first-rounder thanks to the RG3 trade, remember?), OLB Trent Murphy a head-scratcher, since he won't see the field unless one of their best defenders gets hurt. Dan Snider strikes again. The retirement of London Fletcher will hurt more from a leadership standpoint than a production standpoint. Fletcher was clearly at the end of his career last season, but there really isn't anybody ready to step into his shoes either. The team signed Jason Hatcher away from the Cowboys and his 11 sacks last season will be a nice addition to the defensive line with Barry Cofield, who also can get after the passer.
The Redskins don't have any trouble getting to the quarterback, but they will have to be among the league leaders to cover up for their porous secondary.
The Redskins had one of the worst special teams units in the NFL. They gave up four return TDs and didn't score a single one themselves. Sav Rocca was the worst punter in the league and has been replaced by Tress Way. Kicker Kai Forbath was so bad that he had to beat out a kicker the team drafted.
Many think Snider signed the "Other" Gruden brother because he couldn't convince John Gruden to leave the broadcasting booth. We'll see. Jay never had a top offense in Cincinnati, but he did turn Andy Dalton into a playoff quarterback. Washington hopes he can return RG3 to his rookie season form.
The Redskins should score a ton of points, if RG3 doesn't turn out to be a huge bust, but their defense is going to let up almost as many points. This is not a good team, but in this division, mediocre could keep you out of last place.
Dallas Cowboys (2013: 8-8 record)
I almost want to predict that the Cowboys will be 8-8 again, but I don't think they'll even be that good.
Much like the other teams in the division, the Cowboys can move the ball and score points (No. 5 in points scored), but they can't stop anybody. They were the worst defense in the NFL last year and will probably be even worse this season.
Tony Romo can rack up the yardage and points, but it's become increasingly clear throughout his career that he chokes in the big games. The Cowboys could have made the playoffs with a Week 17 win in each of the last three seasons and came up short each time. Last year wasn't Romo's fault, as he missed the game with a back injury, but the entire team is stuck in mediocrity. And now Tony Romo is trying to come back from offseason back surgery. He did throw 31 TDs and only 10 INTs last season, but it remains to be seen if he'll ever be that player again now that he's 34.
With Romo's age and surgery in mind, owner, president, GM, head cheerleader, peanut vendor, ticket taker, Jerry Jones used his first draft pick on lineman Zack Martin, who will play RG next to RT Doug Free, who actually played his best football last season. On the other side, LT Tyron Smith is the lone Pro Bowler on the line. They are a good, not great group, but they don't have to be with the other weapons available.
Offensive coordinator Scott Linehan brings his pass-happy attack from Detroit and has the right personnel to make it work. Dez Bryant moved into the top tier of receivers in the NFL last season and he will be Linehan's new "Megatron". Terrance Williams mans the other side after a fine rookie season that saw him catch 44 balls for 736 yards and five TDs. He's sure to improve, now that Miles Austin is gone. And of course, Romo's security blanket, TE Jason Witten still roams the middle of the field. He slowed down last year, but Romo will still look for him under pressure.
Demarco Murray was actually healthy for a change last season and rushed for 1,124 yards and caught 53 passes in a career-high 14 games. That's just a glimpse of what he's capable of if he could ever stay healthy. Unfortunately, he can't. That's why Dallas will use Lance Dunbar as a change-of-pace third down back to try to keep Murray healthy. It won't work.
The problems for the Cowboys will once again be on the defensive side of the ball. They surrendered 6,645 total yards last season, which is the third-most ever allowed in NFL history. However, with all of their defensive losses this offseason, I wouldn't be surprised if they broke the 1981 Baltimore Colts' record of 7,042 yards allowed in a season.
This defense lost their best pass rusher, DeMarcus Ware, as a cap casualty. They lost their best run-stopper, Jason Hatcher to free agency. And they lost their best linebacker and team leader, Sean Lee, to a season-ending ACL injury in training camp. There simply isn't a good player among their starting front seven, other than possibly DE George Selvie. DE Anthony Spencer was just activated off the Physically Unable to Perform list, but he still hasn't practiced yet after microfracture surgery on his left knee last fall. Who knows if he'll ever be the same disruptive player again.
The Cowboys pass defense was ranked 30th against the pass last season and could be even worse this season. CBs Brandon Carr and Morris Claiborne have failed to live up to their expectations and slot CB Orlando Scandrick was suspended for the first four games this season after failing a drug test. It has been reported that he tested positive for amphetamines. Looks like the old Cowboys of Michael Irvin are making a comeback, huh? Anyway, the safeties, Barry Church and J.J. Wilcox, aren't much better. It really could be a historically bad season for this Cowboys defense.
The Cowboys special teams were mediocre, which makes them rock stars in the NFC East. They actually did well covering kicks and punts and even scored on a punt return. Punter Chris Jones is decent and kicker Dan Bailey has become one of the best kickers in the NFL since he entered the league as an undrafted rookie in 2011. He hit 28-of-30 last season, including 6-of-7 from over 50 yards.
Jason Garrett is nothing but a puppet for Jerry Jones and he probably won't last one more bad season of missing the playoffs. Of course, getting out of Dallas might actually be a good thing for Garrett. He should find out after this season, since the Cowboys most likely won't even be a .500 team with their putrid defense.
Nick Foles Highlights
New York Giants (2013: 7-9 record)
The Giants defense and special teams were bad, but the story of the 2013 season in New York was just how bad Eli Manning and his offensive line performed. The Giants offense was ranked a pathetic 28th in yardage and only 28th in scoring. Most of that had to do with the fact that Manning led the entire NFL in interceptions with 27. And part of that was probably due to the fact that he was sacked a career-high 39 times last season. No quarterback likes to get hit and Manning doesn't have the mobility to avoid the rush.
So you would think that rebuilding their offensive line would have been the Giants first priority in the offseason, and you would be right. The problem is that of the four free agents they signed for the offensive line, only LG Geoff Schwartz is even above average. LT Will Beaty returns from a broken leg, but he wasn't very good even when he was healthy. RT Justin Pugh returns after a mediocre rookie year. After the retirement of Chris Snee, the line is going to look different, but that doesn't mean it will be better.
The team drafted Odell Beckham in the first round, but he hasn't been healthy yet. It's realistic to wonder whether he'll be able to contribute at all this season. That would leave Victor Cruz and Rueben Randle as the top receivers. Cruz will be seeing constant double teams this season without anyone else to draw the coverage away. TE? Raise your hand if you've ever heard of Larry Donnell? Yeah, didn't think so.
The retirement of David Wilson really hurts the rushing attack, as former Raider Rashad Jennings is the only decent RB on the roster. I wouldn't expect much of an improvement from a running game that ranked 29th in rushing yardage last season.
As gloomy as those offensive predictions sounded, I don't think it will get much better on the defensive side of the ball. The front seven is almost completely devoid of any play-makers. They let DE Justin Tuck and DT Linval Joseph leave via free agency, which doesn't leave anyone to rush the passer. Mathias Kiwanuka was horrible last year and won't be any better this season. Jason Pierre-Paul has only 8.5 sacks the last two years combined. And the linebackers are among the worst in the NFL. John Beason is trying to return from a broken bone and torn ligaments in his foot and he was already a liability in coverage.
It almost doesn't matter that the Giants secondary is good. Safety Will Hill was suspended for the year for drugs and was promptly waived. That means Stevie Brown will start with Antrel Rolle. The Giants signed two CBs, but only one of them was a good signing. Walter Thurmond was an effective nickel CB in Seattle, but the team will regret signing Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie to a 5-year, $35 million deal. DRC has quit on two teams already in his career (Arizona and Philadelphia) and the only reason he played well last season in Denver is that the team was doing well and they had a strong locker room. DRC quits when things don't go well and things will not go well for the Giants in 2014. Just wait. It will happen.
The Giants followed the lead of the other NFC East teams by having bad special teams units. They allowed three return TDs and didn't score any themselves. Steve Weatherford was just 27th in net punting in 2013, but at least kicker Josh Brown is reliable.
Tom Coughlin is still around, but offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride stepped down after last season. The team brought in Ben McAdoo and his West Coast offense with the idea that shorter routes would allow Manning to get rid of the ball quicker to avoid sacks and turnovers. The only problem is that Manning isn't exactly adapting well to the first scheme change in his career. He actually had a preseason game where he didn't complete a single pass.
You knew the Giants were desperate when they shelled out over $100 million in free agency. They never do that. Unfortunately, all that money isn't going to help a team headed down. Manning's skills look to be in a steep decline, both lines are sub-par and there just are not enough weapons to make up for that. The Giants will finish in the basement in the worst division in football.