2013 NFL Season Preview: NFC East

Dallas Cowboys

Overview

The Cowboys are a fascinating team. The perception of Romo is far from the reality on Romo. Tony is a tremendous quarterback who has managed to elevate a team to playoff contention, even through decimating injuries on both sides of the ball. Tony Romo has essentially been the glue that has held the Cowboys together over the last few years. You may disagree, but what you or I think Romo is as a QB and what he is worth doesn’t matter. Owner/GM Jerry Jones thinks Romo is a franchise QB and is worth more than $100M. That’s all that matters – even if I do agree with him.

Beyond Romo, the Cowboys have a very talented roster and they’ve brought in a defensive coaching staff that has a tremendous reputation behind them. Defensive Coordinator Monte Kiffin is a Hall of Famer and he’s reassembled much of his old crew in Dallas. In players, the Cowboys didn’t add a ton in LB Justin Durant and veteran safety Will Allen. However, they did lose some significant contributors: RB Felix Jones (OK, so he’s not so significant), WR Kevin Ogletree, DE Marcus Spears, LB Victor Butler, LB Dan Connor, CB Mike Jenkins, and S Gerald Sensabaugh. Some of these guys played heavily in a defense that was shredded by injuries last year and would have provided great depth and upside had they stuck around.

The Cowboys still stayed competitive even while marred by injuries last season. The real additions lie in getting back LB Sean Lee, LB Bruce Carter, and CB Orlando Scandrick from the injured reserve list. If RB DeMarco Murray can stay healthy, he’s a phenomenal talent who is great at finding holes and getting to the second level. Dez Bryant also showed major promise towards the end of 2012 and looks to be poised for a major year.

Strengths

The Cowboys are loaded at the skill positions on offense: Romo, Murray, Bryant, Miles Austin, and Jason Witten. There is some sneaky talent behind those front line guys, too. Defensive ends Demarcus Ware and Anthony Spencer are going to have fun getting after the QB in this defense. Linebackers Lee and Carter are tremendous players and good fits for this new scheme. The cornerback duo of Morris Claiborne and Brandon Carr is one of the best in the league, while the rest of the unit is deep with Orlando Scandrick and rookie BW Webb as the first guys off the bench.

Weaknesses

The clear weaknesses of the Cowboys are at offensive guard and defensive tackle. There are major question marks in the talent at each position. One of the other positions to keep an eye on: safety. Will Allen is a veteran of the scheme and a smart player, but he’s 31 and not the same player he was 5 years ago. Barry Church impressed me during preseason but I’m still interested to see if he can maintain consistency or if he becomes a liability in coverage. Danny McCray is the back should either starter go down and there are two rookies who probably aren’t ready for the NFL yet.

Name To Know

Barry Church and Darrion Weems – Church is the starter at strong safety and will find himself in the box at times. He could be the guy that offenses choose to target. Weems is a backup offensive lineman that could be useful as a guard in what is an already murky situation. Weems played well in the preseason and should see his snaps increase if he makes the most of his opportunities. The Cowboys are rumored to be looking outside for an answer to their concerns at guard, but they may accidentally find out the answer is already in-house.

Prediction

The top three teams in the NFC East will be hard to predict. The teams finished close and the final game of the year decided whether it would be Dallas or Washington going into the playoffs. The Cowboys lost, finishing the season at 8-8. The Cowboys should be much improved on defense barring another set of catastrophic injuries to important starters. Dez Bryant was emerging as one of the best WRs in the NFL late last season and Miles Austin appears to be healthy. If Romo finds time to throw, this offense could be lethal. The special teams unit will be much improved with the addition of ST Coordinator Rich Bisaccia. He’s one of the best in the league and an eventual future head coach. The schedule sets up nicely for Dallas with a late bye week (week 11)and some good spacing between tough games. They also finish with Philadelphia at home in week 17, which should be a good opportunity for them to clinch a playoff spot if they haven’t already done so. Dallas is capable of winning 12 games. Realistically, the Cowboys are a 10 or 11 win team and will make the playoffs.

 

 

New York Giants

Overview

Considering a lot of the disappointment that surrounded the Giants, looking back at their 2012 season, it may be surprising to some that this is a team that finished 9-7 and missed the playoffs by one win. A humiliating loss in Atlanta (34-0) in week 15 may have skewed the perception in the wrong direction.

By many accounts, Eli Manning had an off year but the mainstream statistics don’t show it: 59.9%, 3,948 yards, 26 TDs, 15 INTs, and an 87.2 QB rating. Diving deeper, Manning accumulated a +31.7 PFF grade which ranks 8th among all quarterbacks. “Down year.” Where the Giants really lacked was in pass coverage, posting a -30.0 grade which was 3rd worst in the NFL.

This offseason New York lost some key guys on both sides of the ball. RB Ahmad Bradshaw was the starting running back, starting TE Martellus Bennett came for a season to up his reputation and then bolted for more money. On defense, the Giants will have to do without the likes of DE Osi Umenyiora, DT Chris Canty, DT Rocky Bernard, LB Michael Boley, LB Chase Blackburn, and S Kenny Phillips. That’s a lot of moving trucks. They tried to recuperate by bringing in TE Brandon Myers, DT Cullen Jenkins, LB Dan Connor, and CB Aaron Ross. Surprisingly, the Giants decided not to upgrade the secondary early in the draft, and instead went with OG/OT Justin Pugh, DT Johnathan Hankins, DE Damontre Moore,and QB Ryan Nassib. They did select a safety in Cooper Taylor in the 5th round.

Strengths

As usual, the Giants look to be strong in their front four. They have a multitude of talent that runs deep. They have Shaun Rogers and Mathias Kiwanuka, two players who probably could/should be starting elsewhere, as second teamers. The offensive skill positions look good up front should they stay healthy. The WR corps is an underrated crew and Hakeem Nicks has top five wide receiver potential (when healthy).

Weaknesses

The defensive back seven never seems to be a priority for the New York Football Giants’ front office. They’re very content with UDFA and other teams’ cast offs at LB. CB Prince Amukamara is a really good player and Corey Webster is solid opposite him. Beyond that, the Giants’ secondary becomes an area where they need to improve.

Name To Know

David Wilson – Most are probably already familiar with the Giants’ running back who didn’t see much action until week 14 last year. He seemed destined to share his workload with Andre Brown again this season until Brown fractured his leg. Wilson is a special talent. He’s smooth, agile, and has tremendous burst and vision. For a smaller back, he runs with power and can handle a full workload. I fully expect him to be the main workhorse even when Andre Brown returns from injury. This should be a big year for Wilson.

Prediction

The Giants’ offense works heavily off the running game. At times last season they strayed from the run too early and began having to toss the ball all over the yard the entire game. Without a threat of the run, teams began teeing off on Manning with the pass rush, severely debilitating the pass game at times. The offensive line isn’t a concern for me if the Giants aren’t afraid to stick with the run deeper into games. My major concern is the back seven of the defense. It’s incredibly hard to win in the NFL in this era if you can’t stop the pass. The defensive line is great but it’s asking a lot of them to take over every single game to protect the secondary. Being in the NFC East only exacerbates the problem. If the Giants’ scheme can protect their secondary, they could push for the division. That’s being optimistic. Right now, I think they’re the 3rd best team in the NFC East and finish around 8-8.

 

 

Washington Redskins

Overview

The ongoing saga revolving around Robert Griffin III’s knee is largely a media creation. If RG3 is able to go, he’ll go and all signs indicate that he will be able to. The only reason we doubt he might play is because the question has been asked so many times the staff can’t keep their story straight and give a consistent answer.

Washington is fairly similar to the same team that it was last season. There weren’t really any major additions as CB EJ Biggers and DE/LB Darryl Tapp are more for depth than anything. The Redskins lost a little more than they added in OT Jammal Brown, LB Lorenzo Alexander, CB Cedric Griffin, and S Madieu Williams. The Redskins did add CB David Amerson and S Bacarri Rambo in April’s draft and both look ready to contribute early.

Last season, Washington kind of took the NFL by storm because of such a dynamic playmaker at QB, but the truth is Washington was talented on both sides of the ball. They were hampered by injuries and inadequate QB play. That problem was solved and the Redskins began playing up to the potential the roster presented.

Strengths

The multiplicity on offense that Washington is able to hit opposing defenses is really their biggest strength. Griffin is a very good passer and not a “running QB.” He’s a QB that can run. Fred Davis went from overrated, to getting hurt, and now it seems like people are sleeping on his talent. The offensive line isn’t top echelon but it is very good at the zone scheme. The Redskins are getting LB Brian Orakpo back from injury which should help LB Ryan Kerrigan out on the other side even more. Add in the ageless wonder, London Fletcher and a very capable Perry Riley, and Washington has one of the best starting linebacking corps in the league. Nick Barnett and Darryl Tapp provide sufficient depth within the unit.

Weaknesses

There has been a lot of debate on how good DeAngelo Hall really is as a cornerback. The arguments stretch the ends of the spectrum further apart but the truth probably falls somewhere in the middle. Hall is a CB who is inconsistent and even with fantastic speed gets beat way too often. Fellow CB Josh Wilson showed a ton of promise last season but beyond those two, there are concerns at the position. Defensive ends Stephen Bowen and Chris Baker and DT Barry Cofield leave room for improvement along the defensive line, as well.

Name To Know

Bacarri Rambo – Rambo is a rookie safety out of the University of Georgia who is good in coverage and is a legitimate playmaker. He’s the type of player Washington needed and they stole him in the 6th round due to character issues. He’s not afraid to hit and will help in run support but needs more consistent when tackling.

Prediction

The NFC East standings are one of the most variable from year to year. This division can completely turn over in one offseason. It shouldn’t do that this season but I do think the Redskins have fallen slightly behind the Cowboys and still ahead of the Giants in terms of scheme and talent when added together. RG3 is a true franchise QB but there were concerns with his durability due to small his small frame and those concerns were validated last year. Washington knew it, that’s why they drafted Kirk Cousins in the same draft as Griffin. Washington is a 9-10 win season because they still could struggle a bit on defense. The offense has all the makings of a fireworks show but the scheme should help protect both the QB and the defense.

 

 

Philadelphia Eagles

Overview

If anyone tells you they know exactly how the Philadelphia Eagles will scheme this year, they’re lying to you. The only ones who know that are in that organization right now. New head coach Chip Kelly has openly said he can’t run the same offense in the NFL that he ran at Oregon. He’ll bring a lot of the same principles – TE usage, personnel packages, tempo – with him but it won’t be a mirror image. He’ll also be trying to patch together a defense that wasn’t very good in any phase.

At quarterback, there was an open competition that Michael Vick appears to have won. Vick is clearly the more gifted physically between Nick Foles and rookie Matt Barkley. The issue with Vick at QB is that Kelly’s offense requires quick and accurate decisions by the QB and Vick has made a living holding onto the ball and then escaping with his athleticism when necessary. Vick will need to speed up his decision making process and at this point in his career, it’s not a given that he will be able to do so. Foles actually provides the best fit for the offense even if he’s not the same athlete as Vick. It was interesting to see how different the offensive line looked with Foles starting versus Vick starting. The line looked better outside of the two games versus Washington and the Eagles’ game in Tampa when Foles was taking the snaps.

There was a major roster overhaul when Kelly was hired. 15 players were cut or released in the offseason alone, including headline-making free agent signings Nnamdi Asomugha and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie. There were a ton of additions but the most notable ones should be DT Isaac Sopoaga, LB Connor Barwin, CB Cary Williams, CB Bradley Fletcher, and S Patrick Chung, all of whom are listed as starters on the team’s week one depth chart.

Strengths

The offensive line should be better utilized and schemed this year and that should provide a significant upgrade in output. LT Jason Peters is one of the best in the NFL and LG Evan Mathis might have had the best season of any offensive lineman in the league in 2012, and that’s not hyperbole. The right side of Todd Herremans and Lane Johnson look to be very solid as well. Running backs LeSean McCoy and Bryce Brown provide one of the best 1-2 duos in the league.

Weaknesses

There are some familiar names along the Eagles’ roster but the actually production out of these guys has been less than ideal. Fletcher Cox and Sopoaga should be good up front but there are concerns about the rest of the defense. The lack of an ability to stop anyone on defense will really affect the offensive scheme and they’re ability to use their dynamic backs.

Name To Know

Bryce Brown and Fletcher Cox – Brown is a phenomenal talent. He has an incredibly height/weight/speed/agility combo for the RB position. He tends to want to bounce runs outside too early but his only real limitation lies in his propensity for fumbling. Should McCoy get hurt again, Brown could get the bulk of the touches and will shine in an offense that is expected to open up spacing for its playmakers. Cox is a force along the defensive line. He’s probably better suited for a 4-3 DT but he should have some good opportunities to make plays in this defense and will emerge as a great football player by year’s end.

Prediction

The Eagles just simply have too many holes to fill. The roster overhaul didn’t do much to improve over significant losses. The scheming should be better but this appears to be a team that will spend its season trying to find its identity on both offense and defense. The up-tempo style of Chip Kelly will keep defenses on its heels and should open up some throwing lanes for Vick, but there are concerns that Desean Jackson and Brent Celek won’t be enough outside of McCoy/Brown to really get attack a defense in the passing game. An inability to stop the run or the pass on defense spells doom for a team that had to have a competition to figure out who its QB would be to start the season. Philadelphia will struggle to find wins but should clamor to 4 or 5 of them.

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