The Eagles won the NFC East last year and many experts expect them to duplicate that feat in 2014.
There is a lot of talent returning and optimism is high, both inside the team and from those on the outside. While you can make a strong case for the Eagles as the favorites to win the division, anybody who has watched NFC East football over the years knows that Washington, New York and Dallas aren't going to just lay down. The division isn't loaded with great teams right now, but the rivalries are very real and you'll have to earn the division title. Let's take a look at the competition.
New York Giants: Will Manning Have A Bounce-Back Season?
The team that is perceived by experts to be the Eagles’ primary challenger is the Giants. The big question for them is what happens with quarterback Eli Manning. He had a career year back in 2011 and then fell off a bit in 2012. 2014 was quite simply a disaster. Manning threw fewer than 20 touchdowns for the first time since his rookie year (when he only started part of the season). He threw 27 interceptions, which was a career high and a crazy total. Tom Brady has never thrown more than 14 in a season to give you an idea how high that total is.
To be fair to Manning, which is certainly no fun, he had very little help last year. The running game was non-existent. The entire Giants team ran for fewer yards than
If the Giants can block better and run the ball more effectively, will the Manning of old appear? That is certainly possible, but there are no guarantees. Manning is 33 years old and at some point quarterbacks decline quickly. Manning will also be adjusting to a new offense. Ben McAdoo came over from the Packers and is installing the West Coast Offense. Manning worked with Kevin Gilbride as his quarterbacks coach or offensive coordinator for his entire career. Now, Manning is trying to bounce back from the worst season of his career and learn a new offense at the same time.
It certainly appears that there is a bit of a youth movement going on in New York. Receiver Hakeem Nicks is out of there and will be replaced by second-year player Rueben Randle or rookie Odell Beckham Jr. The starting tight end could be Adrien Robinson, who has played in three games in two years and never caught an NFL pass.
The Giants had a top-10 defense in 2013, but I think that is a bit of fool's gold. They had one hot streak in the middle of the year. Take away those three games and the defense was near the bottom of the league. The pass rush produced only 33 sacks. Justin Tuck had 11 of those and he's now in Oakland. Jason Pierre-Paul had only two sacks last year, a far cry from his 2011 campaign (16.5 sacks).
The Giants are counting on Pierre-Paul making a big comeback and getting back to his Al-Pro form. They also hope young players Damontre Moore and Johnathan Hankins can be impact starters. Moore played in 15 games last year, but has yet to start or record a sack in the NFL. He is a talented pass rusher, but still a mystery for now. Hankins was dominant at times in college, but also inconsistent. Now he has to replace Linval Joseph, who was a powerful inside force for the Giants last year.
Middle linebacker Jon Beason got hurt this summer and could miss some time at the beginning of the season. That has the linebacker group in a state of flux. Free agent addition Jameel McClain could slide inside. Rookie Devon Kennard, who was more of a pass rusher at USC, could take over in the middle.
The secondary has some potential, but also plenty of questions. Can Stevie Brown and Prince Amukamara stay healthy? How will Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie play now that he's signed a big contract? There is no doubt that the Giants have talent on the back-end of their defense, but there just aren't many sure things.
As bad as things went for the Giants in 2013, the team still went 7-9. You can make the argument that this team could challenge for the division title this year. I just have concerns. The scheme on offense is new. There are new skill players. The defense has a lot of new faces. I don't know who/what the team can lean on when things go bad. If the young players step up and Manning has a major comeback year, watch out. That just seems to be asking a lot.
Washington: How Will Jay Gruden Fare In His First Season?
Washington is the team that scares me the most. They have some really talented pieces on both sides of the ball. The problem is that talent isn't normally an issue in Washington. Mike Shanahan is out, which means no more feuding between him and star quarterback Robert Griffin III. Jay Gruden takes over for Shanahan and will be more of a peacemaker than a dictator. While that is important, Shanahan was a brilliant offensive mind and proven head coach. Gruden has never run an NFL team before.
Gruden, who is the younger brother of Jon Gruden, will bring the West Coast Offense to Washington. Shanahan ran a version of it, but had made a lot of changes over the years and the offense was quite different. Gruden learned the offense from his brother, who learned it from Bill Walsh and Mike Holmgren. This will be a more traditional WCO.
Griffin is healthy this year, but now has the challenge of dealing with a new offense and one that doesn't fit him quite as much as the previous scheme. Shanahan had tailored some things to ease Griffin’s transition to the NFL. Anyone who saw him play as a rookie knows that offense worked very well and looked dominant at times. There is no doubt that Griffin has the skills to thrive in the WCO, but young quarterbacks can take time to adjust to new schemes. After a highly disappointing 2013 season, you have to wonder if Griffin can handle a slow start. There is no way his confidence could not have been affected by his play last year, as well as the reaction of his coach and some media/fans. Griffin took a lot of heat last year for how he played, but also for how he spent the 2013 offseason. He is under the microscope in Washington and the success of his rookie season must feel like it happened 100 years ago.
Luckily for Griffin, he will have some weapons to work with. Pierre Garcon set a franchise record last year with 113 catches. He now will have help in the form of DeSean Jackson. Garcon can be the underneath receiver with Jackson working more vertical routes. Tight end Jordan Reed is a player who might be overlooked by some, but who could be a difference-maker. He showed great potential last year and could thrive in the WCO.
The run game is a bit of a mystery. It thrived under Shanahan. Alfred Morris put up big numbers in the last two years. Roy Helu was a solid backup. Gruden loves to run the ball and will give his runners plenty of carries. The question is how they will adjust to the new offense. Shanahan's downhill offense with the built-in cutback lane worked great in Denver and Washington. It turned a lot of average runners into very productive players. Not all of them were quite as successful in other situations. Morris sure looks like a legitimately good running back, but he just might not be as good in a different system.
The offensive line needed help and the Washington spent a couple of draft picks on players to help matters. Gruden generally got good performances from his offensive line in Cincinnati. He understands the importance of protecting the quarterback and will use backs and tight ends to help with pass protection. That can help build the confidence of players who lack ideal talent. Gruden's offense will likely be less vertical, which should also ease some pressure from linemen needing to hold their blocks quite so long. The offensive line must play better in 2014 or all the talk of schemes and new weapons becomes irrelevant.
Washington’s defense will still be run by Jim Haslett, but there is talk that they will be more aggressive this year. Maybe. He hasn't had a unit finish in the top 20 in scoring defense since 2003. He hasn't had a unit finish in the top 12 in yards allowed since 2000. That's a long time ago. He does have talent to work with up front. Outside linebackers Ryan Kerrigan and Brian Orakpo are a duo that most 3-4 teams would envy.
Beyond that, things are less certain. Nose tackle Barry Cofield was inconsistent last year, but has been good in the past. Washington signed Jason Hatcher from Dallas to give them an end who can rush the passer. The problem is that he played defensive tackle in Dallas last year when he had his breakout season and he is now dealing with a knee injury. Hatcher is far from a sure thing. London Fletcher finally retired, leaving a hole at inside linebacker. His play fell off in 2013, but he was a great leader for the defense and the whole team.
The secondary is in a state of flux. DeAngelo Hall and David Amerson are the corners. When they are on their A-game, watch out. The safeties are both on the wrong side of 30. Brandon Meriweather has been inconsistent his entire career, but at least did stay healthy for most of 2013. Ryan Clark will turn 35 in October. He's tough as nails, but age has caught up with him. Washington does have young safety prospects in Phillip Thomas and Bacarri Rambo. Rookie corner Bashaud Breeland is a player I liked quite a bit coming out of Clemson. He could help the corner situation.
If things come together, Washington could bounce back in a major way. They do have some talented pieces in place.
Dallas: Too Much For The Defense To Overcome?
Finally we come to Dallas, the team we all love to hate. They finished 8-8 for the third straight year. They lost three of their final four games. Wait, Dallas struggling in December? That just doesn't sound possible. Still, they were competing for the NFC East title on the final Sunday. The Eagles won that game and saved humanity from a cloud of darkness.
The Cowboys should once again be good on offense. Tony Romo isn't the elite star who some Dallas fans would like him to be, but he is a much better player than his detractors make him out to be. Romo is good, but he needs help. He's not meant to carry a team on his back, like Donovan McNabb did in his prime.
Dallas has built up a strong offense around Romo. The offensive line should be a strong group this year, if rookie Zack Martin is as good as everyone expects. Left tackle Tyron Smith has emerged as a great player. Travis Frederick was a good center for the team last year and should be even better this season. DeMarco Murray is a dangerous running back, but it would help if they fed him the ball more. Receiver Dez Bryant is freakishly good. Terrance Williams flashed big play potential last year as a rookie. Jason Witten is back for another year as Romo's checkdown target. Age is catching up to Witten a bit, but he still had eight touchdown catches last year.
The Cowboys were fifth in scoring offense last year. They have good firepower and can have some amazing games, as we saw in the shootout with Denver. They scored at least 16 points in every game last year. If all the key pieces stay healthy, this could be a great offense. Depth is a concern for all 32 teams, but Dallas looks especially vulnerable if they lose any of their key skill players. Brandon Weeden is the backup quarterback.
As for the defense, they had a nightmare year in 2013. The Dallas defense was dead last in yards allowed. They were all the way up at 26th in scoring defense. The Lions put up 623 yards on them. I'm not making that up. And that was only the second-worst game. The Saints went for 625 yards. There were two other games where Dallas allowed more than 500 yards.
Monte Kiffin ran the defense last year, but is now be more of an advisor. Rod Marinelli will run the show. They worked together in Tampa and run the same system (for the most part), but are very different coaches. Kiffin is a teacher. Marinelli is an in-your-face, fiery coach who pushes his players relentlessly. Kiffin is among the best defensive coaches to ever work in the NFL, but change was needed. I don't know if Marinelli is the answer, but things almost couldn't get worse.
Dallas will have some new faces on the field. DeMarcus Ware is off to Denver. Jason Hatcher, who was so disruptive up the middle, is now in Washington. Sean Lee tore up his knee in the OTAs. Those were the three key pieces to a defense that couldn't stop anyone. Now they're gone. Dallas did bring in Henry Melton to replace Hatcher. That could turn out to be a good long-term move, but Melton is coming off an ACL injury. You never know how those guys will do the first year back. Anthony Spencer, who the team could use to help replace Ware's production, is coming off knee surgery and might not play early in the year. Dallas did spend a second round pick on Demarcus Lawrence from Boise State. They hope he can prove to be a disruptive force as a rookie.
Marinelli needs young players to step up in a big way. Linebacker Bruce Carter has big-time potential. End George Selvie is an overachiever who fits Marinelli's coaching style perfectly. Corner Morris Claiborne has been a disappointment, but was a high pick for a reason. He can be a playmaker. The one position where there isn't much talent or potential is safety. Barry Church is a tough guy who led the team in tackles, but lacks athletic ability and playmaking skills. J.J. Wilcox was a third-round pick in 2013 and started five games as a rookie. Dallas has their fingers crossed that Wilcox will turn out to be an above-average player. The players behind him are not very compelling.
If Marinelli can just get the defense to go from awful to bad, that will be a big help. The Cowboy offense will score points. They just need the defense to help them out. The team gave up 23 or more points 11 times last year. You can't count on out-scoring teams that often and having a winning season. If Romo gets hurt, Dallas could fall apart quickly. For now, Romo's back seems to be fine.
To recap, Washington is still the team that has me the most nervous, mainly due to Griffin. He showed special potential in 2012.