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Eagles A Factor In Wide-Open NFC East

Posted Jan 13, 2016

The NFC playoffs move on without the NFC East, which isn't really unusual given the results of the last decade. Only New York in 2007 and 2011 and the Eagles in 2008 have reached the NFC title game since Philadelphia's Super Bowl run in 2004 ...

The NFC playoffs move on without the NFC East, which isn't really unusual given the results of the last decade. Only New York in 2007 and 2011 and the Eagles in 2008 have reached the NFC title game since Philadelphia's Super Bowl run in 2004.

In 2015, as you well know, the NFC East played to the win-some, lose-some crowd for most of the season before Washington nudged above .500 and stayed there, capturing the division with a 9-7 record before falling on Sunday to Green Bay in an NFC Wild Card game.

And now? Now the division is as wide open as it has ever been. The Eagles and Giants are in the hunt for head coaches. Dallas has a bunch of holes after a four-win season and an aging, injury-plagued quarterback to boot. Washington is the class of the NFC East, but nobody pretends that the Redskins are anywhere close to an elite team.

Jumping ahead three moves and four countermoves and a few months of a coaching change and roster maneuvering, the question is this: Can the Eagles jump right back into the mix in the NFC East in 2016? The answer should be yes. A division that is the only one in the NFL to have four different winners in each of the last four seasons is as wide open as it gets, despite the uncertainty with coaches, rosters and next steps. The last time an NFC East team repeated as champion? The answer is at the end of this column.

The view here is this: A smart offseason with the right moves puts the Eagles right back in the mix in the division and, with that, the NFC playoff picture.

Let's take a look at the other three teams in the division:

DALLAS COWBOYS

Dallas is keeping Jason Garrett as its head coach, so there's that. The Cowboys have 20 potential unrestricted free agents, but most are sometimes-starters (example: linebacker Kyle Wilber) and starters who didn't figure into the future plans (example: defensive end Greg Hardy). Still, depth is vital in this league and the Cowboys want to retain some of those players -- starting linebacker Rolando McClain is on the list, along with valuable defensive linemen Jeremy Mincey and Jack Crawford and former first-round draft pick cornerback Morris Claiborne.

However, free agency is not the Cowboys' most pressing issue. Quarterback is. Tony Romo enters his 13th NFL season and is going to be 36 years old this year after missing most of 2015 with a twice-broken collarbone. How many more hits can he take? At the very least, the Cowboys must find a backup quarterback who can win if Romo is sidelined, and they must prepare for the future at the position.

The Cowboys have done a good job building up their offensive line, even if it took a mini-step backward in 2015. They need more talent at the skill positions and they must find some pass rushers and some interior help on the defensive side of the ball. Chances are, with all of that going on, that the Cowboys are going to be installed as the favorites in the division prior to the 2016 campaign.

NEW YORK GIANTS

Filling the coaching vacancy is the first priority, and then addressing a roster that has not performed is a huge task in New York, particularly on the defensive side of the ball. The Giants ranked last in the NFL in total yards allowed, passing yards allowed and were near the bottom in points permitted. The defense registered just 23 quarterback sacks and, truly, scared nobody.

So the emphasis for New York is to build the defense, starting with the front. There is no dangerous pass rusher, which doesn't help the secondary in coverage. In fact, there isn't a can't-replace player on this defense, and the expectation is that the Giants will address the defense heavily in the months to come.

On offense, New York relied heavily on quarterback Eli Manning, who threw 35 touchdown passes against only 14 interceptions. Odell Beckham, Jr. had a remarkable second season with 96 catches, 1,450 yards and 13 touchdowns, but he was pretty much the only weapon upon whom Manning could rely.

New York needs help along the offensive line, at wide receiver and at running back, in addition to making the defense sturdier.

WASHINGTON REDSKINS

Give credit to Washington's coaching staff for developing quarterback Kirk Cousins into a 4,000-yard passer who completed 70 percent of his passes and led Washington to the division title. Cousins is scheduled to be an unrestricted free agent in March, so his status tops the list of must-do's for the front office.

Cousins will remain with Washington, either as a franchised quarterback or armed with a long-term contract, and then the team will look to shore up some deficiencies that showed up in the loss to Green Bay in the postseason. The Packers pressured Cousins throughout the game and registered six quarterback sacks. Other than tight end Jordan Reed, who had nine catches for 120 yards, Washington didn't have much of a passing game down the field. DeSean Jackson caught just two passes for 17 yards in the loss.

Jackson's contract calls for an overall salary cap hit of $9.25 million in 2016, and that could be difficult for Washington to absorb, especially if Cousins assumes a large portion of the salary cap.

Other notable potential unrestricted free agents include running back Alfred Morris and space-eating defensive tackle Terrance Knighton. Cousins, though, is the top priority (this is not counting quarterback Robert Griffin III, who is all but gone from Washington after having been made inactive for all but one game in 2015). 

Washington made a huge jump in 2015 and now must try to do what no team in the NFC East has done very well in the last decade: Stay at the top for more than one season, something that hasn't happened since the Eagles captured the NFC East from 2001-04. It seems like yesterday in some respects, but the reality is that it happened a long, long, long time ago.

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