2014 NFL Season Preview: NFC East

Philadelphia Eagles

Additions: QB Mark Sanchez, RB Darren Sproles, DE/OLB Bryan Braman, CB Nolan Carroll, S Malcolm Jenkins, S Chris Maragos.

Draft Picks: 
Rnd Pick#  Pos.     Player                              College
1          26       LB        Marcus Smith              Louisville
2          42      WR       Jordan Matthews      Vanderbilt
3          86      WR       Josh Huff                      Oregon
4          101     CB        Jaylen Watkins           Florida
5          141      DE       Taylor Hart                  Oregon
5          162      S          Ed Reynolds                 Stanford
7          224    DT        Beau Allen                    Wisconsin

Losses: WR DeSean Jackson, WR Jason Avant, S Patrick Chung.

Analysis:

Chip Kelly is going to change the NFL for the better. He’s a “why” guy. He questions everything. “Why do we do this? Why is this done this way? Why not do it that way?” Those questions will lead to some revolutions in the game that will change it to being more efficient and a much better product. I’m not talking about just on the field, but off of it, too. The Eagles were the healthiest team in the NFL last year, having fewer players miss fewer games than any other team in the league. Kelly and the players attribute it to Kelly’s data tracking of practice habits and analytics and using those to manage his players’ workload to keep them healthy.

It will be interesting to see how the NFL adjust to Kelly’s system this year and how teams will prepare for it. It seems that the Eagles will continue to struggle with getting receivers open vs. man coverage as they did last year. The addition of Jordan Matthews, who will play from the slot, should help with some of that. Philly can’t count on the good luck that Foles had last year either. Foles was phenomenal in Kelly’s system and executed very well but it takes some luck to be able to put up 26 touchdowns and only 2 interceptions. Foles does the boring but integral part of the position very well. He makes good presnap reads, efficient in his postsnap progressions, makes good decisions, and executes on time. He’s a great fit for the system and a legitimate franchise QB in this system.

Foles lost speedy deep threat Desean Jackson but in essence gains a receiver back after Jeremy Maclin returns from an injury that sidelined him for most of 2013. Maclin is a long strider who can get down the sideline in a hurry but does a good job working towards the middle of the field, too. Riley Cooper is a nifty receiver who will gives opposing defenses fits because he’s more physical than he gets credit for. Also look for tight end Zach Ertz to be a big part of this offense, especially down the seam. Ertz is a good redzone threat, too.

The offensive line is one of the most athletic in the league. When Jason Peters is healthy, he’s near the top of the league in terms of skill set as a left tackle. Evan Mathis was, again, Pro Football Focus’s highest graded guard. Jason Kelce is an upper echelon center. Todd Heremans is a savvy vet and at RT Lane Johnson looked good last year and should be even better with another year of progression.

LeSean McCoy will have a great time behind this line as he’s still a threat in every facet of the game. The addition of Darren Sproles is going to be a lot of fun to watch. Sproles will see a lot of receiving duties but he’s such a good pass blocker and doesn’t get enough credit for it.

The defense is the suspect part of the Eagles. The pass rush should be solid with Connor Barwin and Trent Cole bringing pressure from the edges. The defensive line is a little light. Fletcher Cox is a good player but needs more help. Backup DE Vinny Curry is a very good player but this system doesn’t fit him at all. It will be interesting to see how the Eagles use him throughout the season.

Demeco Ryans and Mychal Kendricks will hold the middle at the linebacker position. Ryans is a very smart player and helps get this defense in the right position for every play. For a team that knows opposing offenses are going to have to throw the ball a ton to keep up, the Eagles don’t have great cornerbacks. Cary Williams is streaky and the mix of Bradley Fletcher, Brandon Boykin, and Nolan Carrol shows depth but no real top-level talent. I love the addition of Malcolm Jenkins who will play free safety and give this defense some flexibility.

The Eagles are very clearly the best team in this division and have the fewest amount of warts. Aside from facing the NFC West, Philadelphia’s schedule is a fairly easy one. There appears to be a pretty big gap between the Eagles and the rest of this division.

Dallas Cowboys

Additions: QB Brandon Weeden, G Uche Nwaneri, DE Jeremy Mincey, DT Henry Melton, DT Terrell McClain, ILB Rolando McClain, ILB Will Herring, S Danny McCray.

Draft Picks: 
Rnd Pick#  Pos.     Player                               College
1          16        OT       Zack Martin                   Notre Dame
2          34       DE       Demarcus Lawrence  Boise State
4          119     LB        Anthony Hitchens       Iowa
5          146     WR      Devin Street                  Pittsburgh
7          231     DE        Ben Gardner                 Stanford
7          238     LB        Will Smith                     Texas Tech
7          248     SS        Ahmad Dixon                Baylor
7          251     DT        Ken Bishop                    Northern Illinois
7          254     CB        Terrance Mitchell       Oregon

Losses: QB Kyle Orton, RB Phillip Tanner, WR Miles Austin, G Brian Waters, C Phil Costa, DE DeMarcus Ware, DE Everette Brown, DT DeMarcus Ware, OLB Ernie Sims.

Analysis:

New year, same old song and dance. The Cowboys come in with a potent offense led by Tony Romo and a defense that has more leaks than iCloud. It will be interesting to see how scheme changes on the defense could help a group of players that looked lost last season.

The Cowboys lost Sean Lee to an offseason injury and that’s devastating. Orlando Scandrick is also suspended for violating the league’s substance abuse policy. For a team that isn’t deep on defense, they can’t afford to lose big time players like that.

The addition of Henry Melton could pay huge dividends this year. Melton was one of the best players at getting interior pressure 2 years ago before injury. However, there isn’t much help on the line next to him. Jeremy Mincey, Nick Hayden, and George Selvie will have to play far beyond their expectations for this defensive line to even be mediocre.

Bruce Carter is a guy that more fans should be aware of. He’s a big player with elite speed at the linebacker position that can chase down wide receivers and running backs. Rolando McClain is a veteran addition from Baltimore but he’s sitting behind Justin Durant at the MLB position. Again, depth is an issue at linebacker.

This was a secondary that looked lost last year. I still think Morris Claiborne and Brandon Carr are good players but had no clue how to play in the scheme last year. These guys need to be in man coverage. Putting them in zone coverage and off the line of scrimmage doesn’t suit them. Barry Church and JJ Wilcox just aren’t going to cut it at safety.

I don’t think the Cowboys are nearly as good at wide receiver as fans want them to be. Dez Bryant is a freak of nature and his progression last year was phenomenal. Romo has the ability to make bad receivers look pretty good (I’m looking at you, Kevin Ogletree), but outside of Bryant, Romo is lacking big time playmakers at the wide receiver position. Jason Witten is another year older but should still rack up a ton of catches while the Cowboys continue to wait for Gavin Escobar to develop into the receiving threat they hope he can be.

The offensive line is much improved and that is good news for DeMarco Murray. Murray is one of the better backs in the league when he’s fully healthy. He’s a big back with good power and balance, but also has plenty of juice to get to the edge or up the field for the big run. LT Tyron Smith looked great last year. Rookie RG Zack Martin is a nice addition. For all the flack the Cowboys took for taking Travis Frederick in the 1st round in 2013, Frederick was a really good player last year as a rookie. Doug Free isn’t the answer at right tackle but he’s at least serviceable there.

Dallas has finished 8-8 in consecutive seasons, but with a bad defense and even more questions on offense than they had last season, 8-8 would seem like a triumph in 2014.

New York Giants

Additions: RB Rashad Jennings, WR Mario Manningham, OT Charles Brown, G Geoff Schwartz, G John Jerry, C J.D. Walton, DE Robert Ayers, ILB Jameel McClain, CB Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, CB Walter Thurmond, CB Zackary Bowman, S Quintin Demps, KR Trindon Holliday.

Draft Picks: 
Rnd Pick#  Pos.     Player                              College
1          12       WR      Odell Beckham, Jr.     LSU
2          43       C         Weston Richburg        Colorado State
3          74       DT       Jay Bromley                  Syracuse
4          113     RB       Andre Williams            Boston College
5          152      S          Nat Berhe                       San Diego State
5          174     OLB     Devon Kennard           USC
6          187     CB       Bennett Jackson          Notre Dame

Losses: RB Andre Brown, WR Hakeem Nicks, WR Louis Murphy, TE Brandon Myers, TE Bear Pascoe, OT David Diehl, G Kevin Boothe, C David Baas, DE Justin Tuck, DT Linval Joseph, OLB Keith Rivers, CB Terrell Thomas, CB Aaron Ross, S Will Hill, S Ryan Mundy.

 Analysis:

The New York Giants are going to get back to Tom Coughlin’s favorite form of football: downhill running and defense. The run game has looked good this preseason with Rashad Jennings and Andre Williams running hard. The offensive line is still questionable at best. Will Beatty wasn’t good at left tackle and Justin Pugh is an NFL guard, not a tackle. The Giants would be better served kicking him inside in place of Dallas Reynolds or Brandon Mosley. It sounds great in theory but that puts Charles Brown at right tackle. Ew. This offensive line is built for run blocking, not pass blocking.

Eli Manning looked like he had a noodle arm in preseason and the offensive line problems won’t help him look any better. The receiving corps is a very good group. Victor Cruz, Rueben Randall, and rookie Odell Beckham, Jr. is a quality unit. Beckham could be the best receiver out of the group by year’s end.

Defensively the Giants have gone back to their formula of loading up on pass rushers. Jason Pierre-Paul is back from injury and showed no ill-effects in preseason. New York added Robert Ayers who was a very good situational pass rusher in Denver last season. Mike Patterson and Cullen Jenkins is an interesting duo inside but they could under up getting pushed around in the run game. Damontre Moore is a 2nd year defensive end who might end up taking snaps if the veterans up front don’t produce early.

Jon Beason was an incredible addition to the Giants’ linebacker unit last season. His presence helped shore up a leaky defense. Jameel McClain comes over from Baltimore this year and will start at SLB. Jacquian Williams is the WLB and is very good in pass coverage. He’s not much of a defender in the run game, though.

The secondary was much better last year than I anticipated. Antrel Rolle was great. Now the Giants have Dominic Rodgers-Cromartie made the trip over from Denver and Walter Thurmond came from Seattle. These are both good additions to go with Prince Amukamara who developed well for a young CB in 2013.

The Giants are a hard team to predict. If the run game is on this season, they could punch some teams in the mouth and make some upsets. The defense is better and upgraded. The one issue I have with the Giants is that I have zero confidence in Eli Manning the way he played last year and then didn’t look like he had improved at all in the preseason. It wouldn’t surprise me at all to see him benched in favor of Ryan Nassib at some point this season.

Washington Redskins

Additions: QB Colt McCoy, WR DeSean Jackson, WR Andre Roberts, OT Bruce Campbell, G Shawn Lauvao, G Mike McGlynn, DE/DT Jason Hatcher, DE/DT Clifton Geathers, ILB Daryl Sharpton, ILB Akeem Jordan, CB Tracy Porter, S Ryan Clark, S Brandon Meriweather.

Draft Picks: 
Rnd Pick#  Pos.      Player                           College
2          47       LB        Trent Murphy           Stanford
3          66       OT       Morgan Moses          Virginia
3          78        G         Spencer Long             Nebraska
4          102     CB       Bashaud Breeland   Clemson
5          142     WR      Ryan Grant                 Tulane
6          186     RB       Lache Seastrunk       Baylor
7          217      TE       Ted Bolser                  Indiana
7          228      K         Zach Hocker               Arkansas

Losses: WR Josh Morgan, TE Richard Quinn, C/G Will Montgomery, DE/DT Adam Carriker, DE/OLB Darryl Tapp, ILB London Fletcher, CB Josh Wilson, P Sav Rocca.

Analysis:

Robert Griffin III is back! And he has a new coach. With a scheme that I’m not sure fits RGIII’s skill set. Jay Gruden runs an offense that is based on timing and rhythm and the ability to perform from inside the pocket. Essentially Griffin is learning to play a new position. He’s used to being able to use his wheels to escape pressure and let his receivers get vertical but now he must operate from the pocket and deliver the ball to the right receiver at the right time. Washington is asking him to change his DNA as a passer and that takes time to evolve and get comfortable with.

The offensive line looked like different players when playing in front of Kirk Cousins vs. in front of RG3. They fit Kyle Shannahan’s zone running scheme very well. The changes that are being made to this offense means there could be some hiccups up front even though this group was really good last year. Trent Williams is still a stud at LT and Tyler Polumbus is pretty good on the right side. Will Montgomery is gone and that leaves some questions on the interior so whoever is at QB for Washington will likely get a lot of pressure in their face.

Alfred Morris and Roy Helu are the 2 running backs to be aware of in this offense. These guys will be instrumental in this offense as Gruden needs a run game to help keep defenders honest. There’s some great deep speed on this Washington offense with Desean Jackson and Pierre Garcon (who is actually a better route runner than he gets credit for). Gruden should be able to use the run game and those receivers to contrast each other and create some gaps in defenses to exploit. I also like the addition of Andre Roberts to this offense. It’s unclear what his role will be but he needs to get some touches because he’s pretty dynamic.

It’s surprising that Washington kept Jim Haslett as the defensive coordinator after firing Mike Shannahan as the head coach. That almost never happens so it had to be a decision that came down from owner Dan Snyder. It’s also an interesting move because Washington wasn’t very good on defense last year (ranked 22nd in DVOA).

At any rate, the defensive roster is slightly re-tooled with the addition of DT Jason Hatcher and S Ryan Clark. Ryan Clark is a good addition as the Washington safeties were overly aggressive and didn’t play with much discipline. He’ll help bring some leadership and will try to solidify the back end. Deangelo Hall isn’t a shutdown corner. He’s a decent corner but he still gets beat far too often and still can be beat consistently with double moves. There isn’t much depth at cornerback. David Amerson is the 2nd corner on the roster and that spells trouble. Brandon Merriweather is suspended to start the season so it looks like Trenton Robinson will start in his place, leaving Bacarri Rambo and Duke Ihenacho as reserves.

Brian Orakpo was clearly the best player on this defense last season. He was good in all facets of the game and that’s important for a defense that lacks real punch up front. Ryan Kerrigan is a terrific player that had a bad season last year because he saw a ton of double teams. He needs Jason Hatcher to be a force in the middle to take some heat off of him and let him excel.

It seems like this roster is a square peg and these schemes are round holes. It will be interesting to see how new head coach Jay Gruden approaches this dynamic early in the season. It’s reasonable to expect Washington to struggle early and potentially get better as the season goes on, if their confidence isn’t shot by the time they start figuring it out. The first four games are crucial – at HOU, vs. JAX, at PHI, vs. NYG. There’s potential to go 3-1 or 0-4. I’m leaning more towards 1-3 out of those games. If that happens, the calls for Kirk Cousins to replace Griffin will only get louder.

Overall NFC East Outlook:

Philadelphia Eagles (11-5)

Philly should run away with this division.

New York Giants (8-8)

I’m torn on the Giants but I think defense and the run game delivers an average season.

Dallas Cowboys (6-10)

I was higher on the Cowboys before doing this but looking at that roster just makes me worry. No defense and Romo’s is coming off back surgery from having to carry Dallas through last year.

Washington Redskins (4-12)

I don’t think Washington is this bad. I do think that the transition is going to be more painful than fans want to expect.

 

 

 

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