X-Philadelphia Eagles 11-5
2016 was supposed to be a rebuilding year for the Philadelphia Eagles as they were beginning life with a new head coach in Doug Pederson as well as a new starting quarterback in Carson Wentz. But whereas that the expectations were not that high for Philadelphia, they came out of the gate like gangbusters by winning their first three games. But with Wentz taking his lumps as a rookie quarterback, the losses began to show up for the Eagles. However the Eagles would remain a tough out in spite of the fact that they finished in last place in the NFC East. But Philadelphia’s last place finish was deceiving as they went 7-9 which included picking up victories over both the New York Giants and Dallas Cowboys who survived the riggers of the division en route to earning a playoff berth. And as Wentz is only going to get better, while the Eagles did a solid job in regards to putting a quality team around him heading into a new season, there is plenty to like about this team.
Wentz’s transition to the National Football League was made easier in part due to the fact that he played in a pro-style offense collegiately for the North Dakota State Bison, while now playing for a head coach in Pederson who himself played in the NFL adds to his transition. Wentz had his fair share of ups and downs as a rookie which was evident by him throwing 16 touchdowns and 14 interceptions, but he was able to hang in there and take his lumps. Through it all Wentz displayed solid pocket awareness and in the process the youngster was able to earn the respect of his teammates.
Now as Wentz’s sophomore campaign is beginning, credit to the Eagles front office in regards to putting talent around him on the offensive side of the football. This off-season saw Philadelphia and wide receiver Alshon Jeffery agree on a one-year deal for $14 million. At 6’3″, 218 lbs., Jeffery gives the Eagles a play maker at the wide receiver position which is something that they’ve lacked over the past few seasons. When healthy Jeffery can be one of the most productive receivers in football, however the operative term is when he is healthy. Over the last two years Jeffery has missed 11 games to either injury or suspension, but the fact that he only signed a one-year deal should put him in line to be extra motivated this season.
The past three years have seen running back LeGarrette Blount be a big contributor to a pair of Super Bowl Championships for the New England Patriots. But as much as Blount enjoyed his time winning with the Patriots, he decided that is was time for him to have a change of scenery. Blount is coming off of his best season in the National Football League as he gained 1,161 yards on the ground last year, while also leading the league in rushing touchdowns with 18. And Blount’s presence in Philadelphia should help to boost an Eagles rushing attack which was already 11th in the NFL last into possibility being a top-five unit.
The Eagles already had a solid offensive line and they received a boost during the off-season by signing guard Chance Warmack. Warmack may have never lived up to his full potential with the Tennessee Titans who made him a first-round pick in 2013, but now he has the opportunity to be on an Eagles offensive line which includes right tackle Lane Johnson as well as left tackle Jason Peters who is a nine-time Pro Bowl selection.
Philadelphia was only able to generate 34 sacks on defense last season, however their defensive line has been upgraded during the off-season. The Eagles used their first-round pick on defensive end Derek Barnett who has the potential to be an anchor on the defensive line for years to come, while they also signed veteran defensive end Chris Long. Like Blount, Long was a member of the Patriots Super Bowl Championship team last season, and his postseason experience as well as knowledge of what it takes to rush the passer will be a vital for an Eagles team that is looking to become a contender in 2017.
Strong safety Malcolm Jenkins continues to be a leader on the defensive side of the football, but Phiiladelphia will need young players such as cornerback Jalen Mills who is in his second year in the National Football League to be able to step up and take his game to the next level.
Two of Philadelphia’s first three games are within the NFC East, and a strong a strong start could put them in line for their first division title since 2013.
Y-New York Giants 10-6
The 2016 National Football League saw the beginning of the Ben McAdoo era as the head coach of the New York Giants. Under McAdoo, the Giants went 11-5 for their first playoff berth since their last Super Bowl Title in 2011. There were many positives for the Giants which included having a stingy defense as well as going 7-1 at MetLife Stadium. But New York would be one-and-done in the playoffs as a slew of dropped passes along with Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers would prove to be too much for them as they were eliminated in the NFC Wild Card Game. But as a new NFL season is set to begin, will the Giants be able to do something that they’ve been unable to do since 2008 which is to make the postseason in consecutive years?
One of McAdoo’s luxuries is that he has Eli Manning as his starting quarterback. Throughout Manning’s National Football League career he has had his detractors as he has led the league in interceptions three separate times. However Manning is 108-91 as starting quarterback and he’s also the most prolific quarterback in Giants franchise history. Manning is closing in on becoming just the seventh player in NFL history to pass for 50,000 career yards, while he still has the pocket awareness as well as the arm strength to get it done at the age of 36.
But even though that Manning is coming off of the sixth 4,000-yard passing season of his National Football League career, the Giants were still 17th in the league in passing. The Giants offense was inconsistent at times last year; especially in the red zone.
Giants general manager Jerry Reese has attempted to remedy this by upgrading Manning’s passing options. In free agency, the Giants signed wide receiver Brandon Marhsall who gives them size at the position. At 6’5″, 232 lbs., Marhsall is a matchup nightmare for most defensive backs in the National Football League due to his size and sheer athleticism. And this size should pay dividends for New York and Manning as the quarterback will definitely lean on him in the red zone in jump ball situations. The Giants will be the fifth NFL team that Marshall has suited up for, and when this season comes to an end, he will more than likely find himself in the NFL’s all-time top-20 list for receiving yards.
The Giants would also use a first-round pick in this past spring’s National Football League Draft on tight end Evan Engram. Since the Giants traded tight end Jeremy Shockey to the New Orleans Saints in 2008, they have used a “tight end by committee” approach which has not worked that often. And by not having a quality option at the tight end position, it has taken away from the Giants ability to have a more effective offense.
The Giants didn’t draft Engram for his blocking ability as he was used as more of an H-back in college for the Mississippi Rebels, but what he gives New York is a fluid receiver at the tight end position. And aside from the fact that Engram attended the same college that Manning did, he could become one of the quarterback’s favorite options in the passing game this year.
But you can’t talk too much about the Giants offense without mentioning the exploits of wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. In just three years with the Giants, Beckham is making a strong case to be recognized as the most prolific wide receiver in Giants franchise history. Beckham has already racked up 4,122 receiving yards and 35 touchdowns while getting the Pro Bowl nod in each of his three seasons. Beckham has become the most polarizing and exciting player that the Giants have employed since Hall of Fame outside linebacker Lawrence Taylor, and his rare combination of speed as well as elusiveness have made him one of the best wide receivers in the National Football League. Beckham falls into that category of being a “coverage buster” as it doesn’t matter if teams want to give him extra attention because he still finds a way to make the catch. But if opposing defenses want to pay too much attention to Beckham this year, the Giants have options in their passing game such as Marshall, Engram, and wide receiver Sterling Shepard who can make them pay.
There was a time when the Giants were primarily known for their ability to run the football, however they’ve now built a reputation the National Football League for the inability of their ground game. You have to go back to 2012 to find the last time that the Giants had a ball carrier gain at least 1,000 in a season, while they were 29th in the NFL last season in regards to rushing.
The Giants will once again use a running back by committee. But between Paul Perkins, Orleans Darkwa, and Shane Vereen, if one of these running backs gets hot for the ground attack, it would not surprise me to see McAdoo stick with the guy who is getting it done.
McAdoo’s offensive system is all about Manning getting the football out quickly which doesn’t put as much stress on the offensive line. Manning was sacked 21 times last year which was his lowest total since 2012. However for the Giants offense to be as productive as their potential adds up to, the offensive line must find to step up in big situations.
In 2015, the Giants used a first-round pick on left tackle Ereck Flowers. The Giants immediately plugged Flowers in at left tackle, but throughout his brief stint in the National Football League, he has lacked the footwork necessary to be a successful left tackle. And in order for Manning to find Beckham and Marshall for those big pass plays, it all starts with Flowers being able to protect Manning’s blindside.
Defensively the Giants were tenth in the National Football League as Steve Spagnuolo began his second stint as the team’s defensive coordinator. Spagnuolo’s first stint with New York was predicated by his ability to consistently create pressure with his defense. As a team the Giants had 35 sacks last year, but they knew how to consistently create pressure; sometimes with just their front four.
The Giants lost defensive tackle Jonathan Hankins in free agency as he signed with the Indianapolis Colts, but they still have a formidable defensive line which features defensive tackle Damon “Snacks” Harrison along with defensive ends Jason Pierre-Paul and Olivier Vernon.
New York has not had a strong linebacking unit in years, but they possess arguably the best secondary in the National Football League. The Giants were 23rd in the NFL in passing yards allowed, however they were second in the league in points allowed per game at 17.8. The Giants had a “bend, but don’t break” mentality as they stiffened in the red zone. And as cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie led the team in interceptions with 6, while strong safety Landon Collins has 5, along with the coverage ability of cornerback Janoris Jenkins, the Giants secondary dubbed themselves the NYPD (New York Pass Defense). This unit could get better, while Collins who barely missed out on being the NFL’s Defensive Player of the Year in 2016 is making his case to be recognized as the best safety in the game.
McAdoo was somewhat able to fly under the radar in 2016, but it will be important for him to bring all of the talent that the Giants have together in 2017 for a potential Super Bowl run.
Y-Dallas Cowboys 10-6
It’s been a topsy-turvy ride for the Dallas Cowboys as in 2014 they would go 12-4 to win the NFC East which was followed by them going 4-12 in 2015. Dallas would then respond by going 13-3 last year to not only win the NFC East again, but they also finished with the best record in the NFC. However the Cowboys would be one-and-done in the postseason as they fell at home to the Green Bay Packers, and you have to go back to the 1995 National Football League season to find the last time that they made it past the divisional round of the playoffs. The Cowboys enter this season with a very exciting team, but will they have enough in their arsenal to live up to the Super Bowl expectations that have been thrust upon them?
The Cowboys expected running back Ezekiel Elliot to have a strong impact in 2016 after they used the fourth overall pick in the National Football League Draft on him. Elliot was able to burst onto the scene as he led the NFL in rushing with 1,631 rushing yards, while he drew comparisons to Hall of Fame running backs in Tony Dorsett and Emmitt Smith who also played for the Cowboys. Elliot provided Dallas with a “home-run hitter” at the running back position as he was always a step away from breaking a big play. And in the process Elliot was able to make Cowboys owner/president Jerry Jones look like a genius after investing several first-round picks into his offensive line and coming to his senses by putting an explosive ball carrier behind the line after he let running back DeMarco Murray leave as a free agent in 2014.
Elliot was the engine for the Cowboys offense as he carried the football 322 times. And in the process his ability helps the passing game in Dallas due to the fact that opposing defenses must consistently focus on him.
Like Elliot, quarterback Dak Prescott was a part of the Cowboys draft class in 2016. But unlike Elliot, Prescott didn’t enter the National Football League with as much fanfare. Dallas used a fourth-round selection on Prescott who was simply expected to simply be a backup to starting quarterback Tony Romo. However when Romo suffered a compression fracture in his back during the preseason, the starting quarterback job became Prescott’s to lose.
After the Cowboys lost their first game with Prescott as their starting quarterback, Dallas would reel off 11 consecutive wins as they became the team to beat in the NFC. Prescott was not going to overtake Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers or New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady in order to be the top signal caller in the National Football League, but he was still effective due to his smarts. Prescott learned very quickly to allow the game to come to him which means not trying to win by himself. Prescott is not a “game manager” but he is someone who knows how to put the football into the hands of the play makers around which has seen him draw comparisons to another former Cowboys quarterback in Troy Aikman.
Prescott has the luxury of not only handing off to Elliot, but he also can pass the football to a talented trio of wide receivers in Dez Bryant, Cole Beasley, and Terrance Williams, while you cannot overlook the ageless one at tight end in Jason Witten who even at the age of 35 can still split the seams in a defense with the best of them. Witten continues to be “Steady Eddie” in the Cowboys offense, and by the end of the season he’ll be in the top five of the National Football League’s all-time list for receptions.
The current Cowboys offensive line might not be as good as the unit from the 1990’s which changed the game, but these guys are still very effective. The Dallas offensive line is littered with first-round selections which includes left tackle Tyron Smith. And as long as this unit can continue to effectively open holes for Elliot, pass protection for Prescott will be easier due to opponents being so conscience of the Cowboys running game.
For Cowboys defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli, he must find a way for his unit to wreak more havoc in order to offset the team’s explosive offense. Strong safety Barry Church led Dallas in interceptions last season with only 2, and he is no longer with the club, while no Cowboys defender was able to record at least 10 sacks last year.
Dallas should get a boost in their front seven with middle linebacker Jaylon Smith returning from injury. Smith would have been a first-round pick last year had it not been for him tearing ligaments in both his ACL and LCL during the 2016 Fiesta Bowl. The Cowboys would draft Smith in the second round last year due to his potential when healthy. And after Smith sat out the entire 2016 National Football League season while recovering, he is ready to be an impact player this year.
Dallas’ pass rush has the potential to be solid if everyone is able to get on the same page. There is potential in defensive end Taco Charlton who Dallas selected in the first round this year, but this team needs more depth in regards to pass rushers, and thus it is important for the Cowboys to get both defensive end Randy Gregory as well as defensive end Damontre Moore back as they are both currently suspended by the National Football League.
It will also be important for the Cowboys to create pressure with their front seven as the team’s secondary still has question marks after they were 26th in the National Football League last year in pass defense. And as this unit lacks play makers, the Cowboys could be susceptible to the deep ball.
The Cowboys will continue have one of the better special teams units in the National Football League due to the strong right leg of kicker Dan Bailey. In six years with the Cowboys, Bailey has become one of the most accurate kickers in league history which has also seen him make 24-of-35 attempts from beyond 50 yards. And that powerful and accurate leg of Bailey should help to win a few games for the Cowboys here in 2016.
After the Cowboys had the best record in the NFC last year, they have to be ready to take every opponent’s best punch. However all of the Cowboys losses last year came within the NFC East as it will be very tough for them to repeat as division champs.
Washington Redskins 6-10
Ever since the Washington Redskins won the Super Bowl at the conclusion of the 1991 National Football League season, things have gotten away from this once proud franchise. The Redskins only have six playoff appearances to their credit since then with just three postseason victories. Washington would come out of nowhere to win the NFC East in 2015, but when the expectations rose for them last year, they hung in there until the final week of the regular season when a loss to the New York Giants eliminated them from postseason contention. Now as Redskins head coach Jay Gruden and his team look to bounce back this year, they’ll have their work cut out for them with a team that will be much different from the squad that took the field last season.
Kirk Cousins has been the Redskins starting quarterback for the last two years, but his relationship with the organization has been contentious at best. After Cousins set a Redskins record by passing for 4,166 yards in 2015, the organization used the franchise tag on him for 2016. And after Cousins and Washington could not come to an agreement on a long-term deal, he went out last season and passed for 4,917 yards.
Cousins and the Redskins would continue to have problems as the team allowed his top two wide receivers in DeSean Jackson and Pierre Garcon to leave in free agency. Cousins was reluctant to sign his franchise tender as he was seeking to be traded to the San Francisco 49ers, but his request would not be obliged. Cousins is still on the Redskins roster, but generally nothing good comes when there is an unhappy camper on the team.
Cousins’ new go-to-guy in passing will be wide receiver Terrelle Pryor. Pryor initially entered the National Football League as a quarterback, but he was converted to wide receiver. Last year Pryor led the Cleveland Browns in receptions (77), and receiving yards (1,007). At 6’6″, 240 lbs., Pryor is an imposing figure, but it will be important for him to get onto the same page with Cousins early.
Tight end Jordan Reed will also be important to Washington’s passing game. Reed is listed as a tight end, but Gruden tends to use him in the H-back mode as he can do a little bit of everything. However Reed must find a way to stay on the field as he has never appeared in all 16 games during his five-year career in the National Football League.
But as sharp as Cousins can be in the passing game, he can’t do it by himself and the Redskins need their running game to improve in order to provide some balance. Last year Washington was 21st in the National Football League which is not going to cut if they intend to win the NFC East. Running back Robert Kelley should receive the bulk of the carries for the ‘Skins, but keep an eye on rookie running back Semaje Perine who at 5’11, 236 lbs., was a load to bring down during his collegiate career with the Oklahoma Sooners.
It’s been some time since Washington was solid on defense which included them being 28th in total defense last season. The Redskins defense suffered a huge blow when outside linebacker Trent Murphy was lost in the preseason to a torn ACL. As a rookie in 2016, strong safety Su’a Cravens showed the promise of being a difference maker, but now the Redskins are without his services as he is flirting with retiring. Washington still has outside linebacker Ryan Kerrigan who has tallied a combined 34 sacks over the last three years, as well as cornerback Josh Norman who is solid in coverage. However not having having more play makers on this side of the football will makes things tougher for Redskins defensive coordinator Greg Manusky.
In 2015, Gruden had the Redskins headed in the right direction, but things have gotten away from him rather quickly as another losing campaign appears to be on the horizon.