The NFC East is shaping up to look like a very interesting division, as those that used to be at the top of the league find themselves struggling to make the playoffs, and those that had been on shaky ground stand firm above the rest. That describes the Dallas Cowboys and New York Giants, whose stock has tumbled, and the Philadelphia Eagles, who have become the division’s best team. Then there’s the Washington Redskins, struggling to get out of the cellar and, also, to hang onto their precious trademark, which is a racial slur.
Philadelphia Eagles (1st at 10-6)
The foundation of the Eagles attack will need to be an impressive running game. Last season, it was the passing game, which earned them a solid 10-6 record. That was good enough for second-place. The big question for this team is QB Sam Bradford. He looks to be the starter, but over the past two seasons he’s missed 25 games and torn his ACL twice. Also in the wings are Mark Sanchez, Matt Barkley, and, perhaps Tim Tebow.
The rush attack will feature last season’s standout on the Cowboys DeMarco Murray, a dual threat, who had 450 touches, 13 TD runs, and 57 receptions. Darren Sproles, who is also a dangerous runner and receiver, is revved to go too. On the receiving end, the Eagles have some good candidates to replace top pass catcher Jeremy Maclin. The O-line includes Pro Bowlers C Jason Kelce, OLT Jason Peters, and OLG Evan Brown. OG Todd Herremans, a top performer last season now gone, needs to be replaced.
On defense, it’s the Eagles high performance linebacking unit that earns them respect. Included are Pro Bowlers Connor Barwin and Brandon Graham, two athletic, speedy pursuers. OLB Kiki Alonso comes over from the Bills. The question is can he return to his rookie form after sitting out 2014 with a torn ACL? The D-back situation is scary for this club. There are new guys at the corners, including Seattle’s “Legion of Boom” enforcer Byron Maxwell. This unit will need to gel quickly. The frontline offers solid players who can pressure the QB.
For the Eagles, special teams are solid with PK Cody Parkey offering game-winning chops. The kick return unit is first rate, and can provide breakaway moments. Coach Chip Kelly is not one to let good enough alone; he’ll be challenging these guys.
Dallas Cowboys (2nd at 9-7)
QB Tony Romo, at 35, had a great season in 2014. He’s still got superlative down range ability, but Romo has slowed a step or two and is at that age where quarterbacks break. He does have excellent pass catchers to toss to, including the speedy Dez Bryant (16 TD catches) and reliable WR Terrance Williams (11 TD catches).
Pro Bowlers Tyron Smith, Travis Frederick, and Zack Martin are the foundation of a top O-line. The bad news is RB DeMarco Murray has to be replaced and no one is on the horizon. Perhaps aging and often-injured free-agent RB Darren McFadden can help?
The defensive situation makes the Cowboys a vulnerable team. Most of the D-line starters are gone leaving the club with a new group that will have to work hard to form a cohesive unit. Tyrone Crawford may be the line’s anchor at center. The LB squad looks good, and includes Sean Lee at SLB and Roland McClain at MLB. The secondary, at this point, appears weak. The corner spots are especially questionable.
Special teams have a lot to offer, including the very accurate PK Dan Bailey. L.P. LaDouceur is a Pro Bowl defensive specialist and especially consistent. There’s speed on returns. Coach Jason Garrett has some major areas that need improvement. Will owner Jerry Jones let him do his job?
New York Giants (3rd at 7-9)
In 2014, the New York Giants saw Eli Manning get back to his former self after a disastrous 2013 season. He’s 34, coming off an injury, and in a contract year. If he can focus and get some protection from his line, Manning will have a good year. On the receiving end, the Giants have quality performers, including the truly spectacular Odell Beckham Jr. In 2014, the leaping, acrobatic receiver had 91 catches for 1,305 yards and 12 TDs. Victor Cruz can be a go-to wideout if his questionable knees hold firm.
Rashad Jennings is back at RB and that can be either good or bad. If he stays healthy, that will be good. Jennings missed five games in 2014 due to knee problems. RBs Andre Williams and newly signed Shane Vereen could offer yards too. By the way, the all-important O-line that Manning needs so badly is a concern. It’s hoped that first-round pick Ereck Flowers can step in quickly.
The Giants post a less than average defense with the frontline being the most proficient. DRE Jason Pierre-Paul may not be a star stopper, but he’s consistent. Cullen Jenkins was hampered by injuries in 2014. Robert Ayers or Damontre Moore could possibly move into his starting spot. The LBs and D-backs are a worrisome lot. Three draft picks may occupy the CB and safety spots, while look for MLB Jon Beason, a fine performer, to create the right culture for success in his unit.
Special teams coverage has been a weakness for this club. Will it improve? Punting is average, while placekicker Josh Brown is better than good. The return guys, including Beckham Jr., can create some opportunities. Veteran coach Tom Coughlin is a NFL icon who gets the job done.
Washington Redskins (4th at 6-10)
This Washington club will be better than it was last season, but not good enough. QB Robert Griffin III, a talented player, has struggled to become a consistent drop-back passer. Colt McCoy and Kirk Cousins back him up. WR DeSean Jackson, who averaged 20.9 YPC, is an exceptional deep threat. It’s hoped that premium pass catcher Pierre Carcon can have a comeback season after under-performing last year.
At RB, Alfred Morris can certainly gain ground. He’s had three straight 1,000-plus yard seasons. But he offers little versatility. Rookie Matt Jones, a downhill, rough and tough yard-gainer, may be the solution to this team’s rushing game. The offensive line looks to first-round draft pick RT Brandon Sherff to have an immediate impact, while Pro Bowler Trent Williams returns to LT.
The defensive squad is uneven. As an example, the left side of the LB unit is fairly solid, with OLB Ryan Kerrigan returning after putting in a fine 2014 season. But the right side will depend upon two second-round picks to make the grade. The D-line offers some good pass rushing and QB harassing players, including free agents Terrance Knighton, Stephen Paea, and Ricky Jean-Francois. The secondary welcomes some new players too, including former 49er Chris Culliver, who starts at right corner, and former Tampa Bay free safety Dashon Goldson. Consistency and communication will be necessary for this unit to step up.
PK Kal Forbath had a tough start last season, but managed to improve over time. The return team is a big question mark, while punter Tress Way has shown potential but needs to develop more. Coach Jay Gruden has brought in Bill Callahan as his OL coach and Matt Cavanaugh as his QB coach. Both are big improvements.
One team from the NFC East makes it to the postseason and that’s the Eagles. The Cowboys and Giants may finish tied; it’s that close. The Redskins continue to show improvement as they search for a solution to their quarterback dilemma and ponder a developing trademark dilemma.