The NFC East has been one of the toughest divisions to predict over the past 4 to 5 seasons. Teams that we assume are favorites to win the division, end up underachieving and vice versa. This is a testament to its parity, but also for the incredible inconsistency of each team.
As we are approaching mini camps, here is a quick rundown of each team and what needs to happen for them to be division champions.
The Philadelphia Eagles with Chip Kelly will be employing an up-tempo offense that will be predicated on the run game, quick plays and a lot of misdirection. I do not envision it being a carbon copy of his Oregon offense, where the quarterback is running at least once per every 3 downs but regardless of whether the Quarterback is Nick Foles, Matt Barkley or Michael Vick, there will some read-option employed.
Kelly’s offense is predicated on getting rid of the ball quickly. That was an aspect of Michael Vick’s game that has been lacking and he has been underwhelming at best at identifying the blitz (As determined by his 49.6% completion percentage when the hounds are released). It was a common occurrence to see Vick get absolutely flattened by a corner blitz on his blindside and in turn, it resulted often time in an interception, sack or a fumble. With the return of Jason Peters to the left tackle spot and the drafting of highly athletic tackle, Lane Johnson, Vick has two bookend tackles to protect him better than he would have been last season.
Of course to alleviate Vick getting consistently flattened, the best course of action for any quarterback is increased reliance in the running game. With a thoroughbred runner in LeSean McCoy, he should be expected to have an increased workload and over 320 touches this season, as long as his slender body type holds up.
Defensively, the addition of Connar Barwin will be much needed as he fits nicely with the movement towards a 3-4 defense.
They also expect a lot from former first rounder Brandon Graham who will need to improve on his 8.5 sack total in 3 NFL seasons.
I love the addition of Isaac Sopoaga who will be stout up the middle and Cary Williams and Patrick Chung, both respectively come from great programs in Baltimore and New England and are more than solid players at the corner and safety positions.
The Eagles are rebuilding right now and have competitions at many positions. Michael Vick has the edge as the week 1 starter considering his experience, but do not be surprised if Matt Barkley gives him a run for his money. Barkley has great moxie and is a relentless worker and student of the game. As stated, Kelly’s offense will be more predicated on quick passing and no-huddles, therefore him being able to run with the ball will not be a necessity, but as Kelly said, a running quarterback is only an added bonus. Regardless of who is playing quarterback, protection will be key.
The New York Giants did not make any earth shattering moves in the offseason, but that is as per their typical method of operation. The defection of Chris Canty to Baltimore will hurt tremendously as he helped their run defense as soon as he came back from injury.
Mike Patterson is undersized, but athletic enough to make plays. He will be a nice rotational player as an interior defensive lineman in passing situations. It also helps that he has played in the NFC East previously with the Eagles.
Staying with the defensive line, Justin Tuck had an underwhelming season. There has been much talk about him needing a bounce back year, especially after registering only 4 sacks and being corralled by right tackles. It will be key for him to bounce back with the loss of Osi Umenyiora and be his normally typical stout self in the run game. The Giants do not have the depth at the defensive end position that they typically are accustomed to having, but with the additions of linebackers Dan Connor and Aaron Curry, look for Mathias Kiwanuka to move back down to his natural defensive end position and compliment Jason Pierre-Paul as an athletic defensive speed rusher. This is the type of move where small additions can shore up your entire defense.
Another key defensively will be the development of Prince Amukamara. He has shown flashes, but he still has a long way to go before he lives up to the hype that made him a first rounder. And with Corey Webster struggling mightily last season, and Terrell Thomas coming from back-to-back ACL injuries, it will be imperative for the secondary to return to form. I was extremely impressed with the play of Stevie Brown who made Kenny Philips expendable. He flat-out made plays last season, accounting for 8 interceptions and I expect another big year of ball hawking. Antrel Rolle, however, struggled for most of the season as he is getting up in age and cannot cover the way he used to. There may need to be a Stevie Brown-like mid-season player who can come up and supplant Rolle, in case he gets banged up or continues to struggle.
Offensively, it will be business as usual for the Giants. Eli Manning needs to continue to make good decisions and avoid reverting to “bad-Eli” where he dazzles you and makes you scratch your head at the same time.
I do not envision the Victor Cruz holdout to last much longer and a healthy Hakeem Nicks will free up even more room in the slot. Look for either Reuben Randle or former Raider and Panther Louis Murphy to take ownership in the 3rd wide receiver spot, opposite of the field to Nicks.
Although Brandon Myers cannot block a lick, he will catch 70 passes and is more of a pure tight end than Martellus Bennett with better size
The offensive line is getting younger with the drafting of Justin Pugh who will move in easily on the right side. Will Beatty was re-signed by the Giants and was one of the best-left tackles in the NFC last season.
David Wilson and Andre Brown are the x-factors. It is not a given to be able to replace the steady and reliable production that Ahmad Bradshaw brought to the table. Conversely, if you cannot pass protect in Kevin Gilbride’s system and most importantly in Tom Coughlin’s eyes, you will not see the field and that was one of the issues that plagued David Wilson and reduced his playing time. It is why I envision Brown being named the starter in training camp and Wilson eventually taking over as the lead man, but make no mistake about it; Wilson is the home run hitter on the team. The Giants have a player on their roster that can be a four-down player and a wizard in special teams. Look for him to backflip his way to over 10 total touchdowns this upcoming season.
When the Giants have their backs against the wall, they are always liable to make a run. Last season, it seemed that such urgency was missing and they faltered at the end. Blowout losses against the Bengals, Ravens and Falcons, all on the road, virtually derailed their season and their playoff chances. It will be absolutely important for them to get off to a fast start and avoid the ebbs and flows that often take them from playoff and Super Bowl contenders, to needing a win on the final day of the regular season to qualify for the post-season action.
The Washington Redskins are coming off a surprising division championship after a terrific rookie season from Robert Griffin III. Assuming that he is ready for training camp, it will be interesting to see how he develops as a quarterback. We all raved about his accuracy, but few people realize that of the started quarterbacks in the league, he had one of the lowest amount of attempts of passes that traveled 20 yards or more (36). The offense was structured for him to have 1 to 3 step drops, with quick reads predicated on a short passing game and getting rid of the ball as quickly as possible. Of course, when he does throw the long ball, he connects on roughly 50% of his targets, which was one of the best in the league. I would be remise if I didn’t mention that his receivers dropped more passes for him than receivers did for any other quarterback in the league. All that is to say, RGIII is really good and should be even better next season, with more focus on being a pocket passer and another year in Mike and Kyle Shanahan’s systems.
Alfred Morris had a great season and it helped to be in the zone-blocking scheme that has made many unknown and undrafted running backs into Pro-Bowlers. With no defections on the offensive line (A line that is very underrated led by Trent Williams, Tyler Polumbus and Kory Liechtensteiner), look for the Redskins to continue to be a top 10 rushing team, despite our pre-conceived notion that Griffin will run less. The Hogs absolutely dominated the line of scrimmage and pounded teams to the tune of 169 rushing yards per game.
Defensively, I cannot wait to see Brian Orakpo back. His return is like a free agency acquisition for the Redskins. He was an absolute terror in his rookie year and will dramatically improve a team that was in the wrong side of the 20’s in the sack rankings last season.
Schematically, Jim Haslett runs a terrific system that covers a lot of the weaknesses of certain players. He knows how to apply pressure and despite low sack numbers, Ryan Kerrigan and Lorenzo Alexander were top 20 in the league in QB hits. This scheme also masks some of the deficiencies they have in the secondary, with Brandon Meriwether and Reid Doughty, who are both average in coverage.
The return of DeAngelo Hall was needed and while he does not run as well as he once did, he is still a solid cover corner. On the opposite side of the field, Josh Wilson can make plays and is a good tackler.
The Redskins fortunes will rely on the growth of RGIII and their continued dominance in the run game. Their 30th ranked pass defense will have to be better in order for them to repeat as division champions.
Was there some amount of luck that factored into their division win? Possibly, as the Giants and Eagles both had underwhelming seasons and the Cowboys did what they usually do and choke away in the waning game and moments of the season. Everything needs to fall in place for the ‘Skins and they will need players like Pierre Garçon, Fred Davis and Orakpo to stay healthy.
The Dallas Cowboys have been the biggest enigma in the league over the past 4 seasons. They have not made the playoffs in that time frame and despite talented teams; they have seemingly choked and faltered in back-to-back NFC East season ending finales.
The way their seasons have ended would normally lead to a large exodus in players and coaching. The latter portion was true with Rob Ryan replaced with Monte Kiffin and Bill Callahan being the primary play caller in place of Jason Garrett.
We have no clue how Kiffin’s Tampa 2 defense will translate to the Cowboys. Will it be a true Tampa 2? Or will there simply be sprinkles of the scheme being implemented. The Tampa 2 is a defensive system that is predicated on simplicity, discipline and virtually running the same play over and over.
Personnel wise, on the defensive line, they have the talent. If you thought DeMarcus Ware was a terror in a motorcycle stance, rushing from the outside, imagine him being closer to the line, with his hand in the dirt, timing the snap count against opposing quarterbacks. Pencil him in for over 14 sacks, with relative ease. Anthony Spencer is the perfect left defensive end to go against the right tackles of the NFC East. The right side of the offense is the running side and your defensive end on that end of the spectrum, needs to be stout enough to hold off blockers and contain the edge to free up the outside linebacker. Spencer will do that and then some with his pass rushing talent.
The other parts of the defense, with regards to the Tampa 2 are still to be determined. Will the corners play the half and the safeties play two deep? That would be a waste of Brandon Carr’s and Morris Claiborne’s man-to-man skills.
The safety position has already been extremely important in Monte Kiffin’s scheme. Ideally, you want one player to be a battering ram hitter and the other to be a ball-hawking machine. The safeties will need to be rangy and physical and there is a lot of inexperience there with the retirement of veteran and long time Cowboys, Gerald Sensabaugh. The Cowboys passed on drafting one of the top 4 safeties in the first round and seem keen on going with players that have already been on their roster. The position has not be properly filled since Darren Woodson retired and Roy Williams started getting demolished in coverage on a week-to-week basis, which led to his release in 2008. The audition begins with the likes of Will Allen, Danny McCray, J.J. Wilcox, Matt Johnson, Brandon Underwood and Micah Pellerin as per Mac Engel of the Dallas Star-Telegram. A cast of characters that will need to prove that they can make plays and be solid against the pass and the run.
The linebackers will need to be fast and athletic. Sean Lee fits the bill and is a perfect Tampa 2 mike linebacker. That position has always been a key cog in providing help to the safeties by dropping back in a 5-10 yard hook zone and covering the seams. Justin Durant, signed from the Detroit Lions, is a solid linebacker who will play Sam linebacker and I presume Bruce Carter will have a weak side role with his speed and athletic ability that can cover the athletic tight ends and running backs out of the backfield. In other words, he will have the Derrick Brooks role on the defense. I presume the defense will be fine for the Cowboys. The talent is certainly there to be a mid-level team. Of course, most Cowboys fans are worried about….
How maddening are the Cowboys? All the talent at the skill positions, but there is a failure to make plays when it matters most. Much of the blame goes to Tony Romo, but the same amount of reproach needs to go to the play calling, in particular, Jason Garrett.
When Romo is forced into situations where he needs to throw the ball on virtually every down, he gets into trouble and forces bad throws into tight spots. Because his offensive line is still in flux, once he gets pressured up the middle, all best are off. The drafting of Travis Frederick was much maligned, but interior offensive line help was much needed, regardless of his perceived draft grade.
A decision was finally made on Doug Free who struggled for most of the season at the right tackle spot. He will need a bounce back year in order for their running game to flourish.
Speaking of the running game, DeMarco Murray has all the talent to be a top 5 back, but he needs to stay healthy. His inability to stay healthy and Garrett’s play calling, resulted in the Cowboys finishing the season 31st in the league in rushing and that must improve.
That is already two injuries in his first two seasons that have kept him out of action. The Cowboys lost the ineffective and inconsistent Felix Jones to Philadelphia, but I love the drafting of Joseph Randle out of Oklahoma State. The Cowboys have struck well with Big 12 players over the last few seasons and this is another solid addition.
Dez Bryant appears to finally have his life in track and off the field issues are the only impediments to him turning into an elite top 3 receiver. He is that good and we saw it during games against the Redskins (11 catches, 145 yards) and Saints (12 catches, 224 yards). Miles Austin’s best years seem to be behind him, but the drafting of Baylor speedster Terrence Williams, will be a welcomed addition for the oft-injured 2-time Pro Bowler who despite playing in all 16 games, struggled with hip injuries throughout the season.
The change in play calling for the Cowboys can be a positive one and still allow Romo to put up huge numbers. I do not anticipate a reduction in his throwing attempts, but rather better situational play calling something, which Jason Garrett, in my opinion, is one of the worst coaches at in the league. Rarely did he call the correct plays in the correct situation and such decisions not only put un-needed strain on your team, but even more on your much maligned quarterback.