We begin our NFL division previews with a look at the NFC East, presented in order of predicted finish, with last season's straight-up, spread, and O/U records included.  Next up will be the AFC East; previews will continue into September and the first week of the regular season.

                                                           by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheetcom Editor

We know about the four-year cycles in the Olympics, World Cup, and US presidential elections. We also know about the four-year cycle as it relates to the New York Giants (2014 SUR 6-10. PSR 7-9, O/U 10-6), who won the Super, quite unexpectedly, in both the 2007 and 2011 seasons. The similarities between those title runs were almost eerie. Can the four-year cycle repeat in 2015 with the G-Men?

There remain a handful of pillars from both of those title campaigns, including HC Tom Coughlin and QB Eli Manning. Defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo, who was around for the Super Bowl XLII win over the Patriots eight years ago before embarking on a coaching journey that had him running the St. Louis Rams, among other jobs, for a few years, has also returned to the New York fold in his former d.c. role.

On the surface, however, it seems to be asking a lot to repeat the magical runs of 2007 and 2011. Especially with a defense that ranked 29th in the league a year ago, prompting Coughlin to go “back to the future” and re-recruit Spagnuolo, whose high-pressure platoon keyed the shock run to the title in Glendale over Tom Brady’s then-undefeated New England side. This after Perry Fewell, considered a sound defensive strategist, was relieved of his coordinator duties after last season because of the team’s poor performance on the stop end. Can Spagnuolo really reach into his bag of tricks, a la Felix The Cat, and pull out the same magic formula that worked eight years ago?

That became a bit more problematic on the 4th of July when start DE Jason Pierre-Paul, who had been franchise-tagged by the team, badly damaged one of his hands when unwisely playing with firecrackers, apparently confirming the rumor that he never paid attention to basic fireworks safety warnings when a child. This apparent act of stupidity might have cost Pierre-Paul one or more of his fingers; nobody in Giants camp is sure because Pierre-Paul has not let Giants doctors look at his hand since the mishap. Pierre-Paul had also yet to sign his new contract tender, worth a cool $14.8 million this fall, at the time of the injury. Though he has recently begun to speak with GM Jerry Reese and a handful of teammates, as of mid-August he remained out of camp and unsigned. No one seems to know the condition of his mangled hand, either, but word is he will be welcomed back to the team with open arms...whenever he is ready, that is.  Stay tuned for further developments.

In the meantime, Spagnuolo proceeds without last year’s sack leader JPP, who registered a team-best 12.5 QB takedowns in 2014. But the platoon was used to playing hurt a year ago when injuries decimated that side of the roster. Without another spate of injuries, things should improve; even with Pierre-Paul’s status remaining up in the air. Spagnuolo will at least have a healthy LB Jon Beason and CBs Prince Amukamara and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie on hand after all dealt with various maladies a year ago. Yes, the “D must tighten significantly vs. the rush after allowing an NFL-worst 4.9 ypg in 2014, but sources report that the players have quickly bought into Spanuolo’s aggressive attacking scheme that will bring corners and safeties on frequent blitzes. The same sources also believe Pierre-Paul eventually returns and provides Spagnuolo with the pass-rush demon he needs to make his schemes really click. As long as top-of-2nd round pick S Landon Collins (Alabama) can ease the FA departure of Antrell Rolle (who signed with the Bears), the G-Men might have a fighting chance to improve on the defensive side.

But it’s the offense that has them talking in the Big Apple, as improvements on the attack end were hard to camouflage down the stretch last season. It took a while for the G-Men to look comfy in the new West Coast offense that coordinator Ben McAdoo had imported from Green Bay last year, but the gears were finally meshing in the final month of the campaign, partly due to the emergence of highlight-reel rookie WR Odell Beckham, Jr. and his collection of circus catches. The thought is that Beckham, a healthy Victor Cruz (returning from knee surgery), and Reuben Randle could potentially provide Manning with the best group of targets in the NFC, which also includes emerging TE Larry Donnell, an obscure former free agent from Grambling who appeared out of nowhere to grab 63 passes a year ago.

After losing seven straight during the middle of last season, things did seem to come into focus in December, especially for Eli, who was piloting an “O” that scored 31 ppg and gained 427 ypg in the last four games (three of those winning efforts) of 2014, and Manning is now so comfy with a year under his belt in the new offense that he is making humor-laced TV commercials (the new Direct TV spot featuring the “two Elis” is must-see stuff). Eli would also cut his often-damaging pick total almost in half a year ago (from 27 to 14), while another rookie, ex-Boston College star RB Andre Williams, ran with plenty of flair in the second half of the season en route to a team-best 721 YR. A top FA addition in the offseason, ex-Patriot RB Shane Vereen, adds another dimension, including a reliable pass-catching threat out of the backfield (Vereen caught 52 passes a year ago). There is hope of improvement along the OL if one of last year’s top FA additions, G Geoff Schwartz, is beyond his own injury issues of 2014, while top top pick Ereck Flowers (Miami-Fla.) is expected to move in at RT and allow Justin Pugh to move inside to his more comfy position at guard.

Lastly, there is the venerable Coughlin, whose contract was extended in the offseason thru 2016, though many observers suggest that another playoff miss (which would be NY’s fourth straight) would probably end his era, and perhaps that of GM Reese, with the G-Men at the conclusion of this term. There has been a definite win-now feeling throughout OTAs and training camp in East Rutherford. But Coughlin has proven that he can win big when the dominoes fall correctly. And we have seen the Giants emerge and do some major damage in the postseason in recent memory...something none of the other East contenders can say.

We don’t expect to get much company in this projection of the Giants to win the East. But history also tells us this is just the sort of situation where the Coughlin G-Men have to be feared.

At Thanksgiving last year, there were not many NFL observers who would envision a playoff scenario without the Philadelphia Eagles (2014 SUR 10-6, PSR 8-7-1, O/U 10-5-1). After all, resplendent in their clean white unis and green pants, the Birds had dominated the Cowboys on Turkey Day by a 33-10 count to take what appeared to be control of the NFC East race. By Christmas, however, it had all gone pear-shaped, with three subsequent losses on the trot, including a return match vs. the Cowboys at the Linc, and suddenly a 9-3 record became 9-6 and the postseason plans were dashed even before the finale vs. the Giants at MetLife Stadium. The holidays thus became gloomy all throughout the Delaware Valley, confirmed by the callers to the venerable 610 WIP, or "The Fanatic" 97.5 FM (of course, they have two big-time sports talk stations in Philly!), as Howard Eskin, Angelo Cataldi, Mike Missanelli and other talk show hosts had to talk more than a few Eagles fans off of the ledge.

Injuries played a part in the late collapse, but HC Chip Kelly was not about to use that as an excuse in the offseason and he continued to re-make a roster that was now mostly constructed in his vision after Chip was given final say on all personnel matters, and former GM Howie Roseman (now simply the Executive VP of Football operations) had his duties redirected within the organization. And Kelly did not waste time, making several moves, including sending QB Nick Foles (who missed the second half of the season due to injury after mildly disappointing in the first half of the campaign) to St. Louis in a swap for the oft-injured Sam Bradford, who will get one more chance to prove he is durable enough to last an NFL season in what is also his contract year. Mark Sanchez, serviceable in relief of Foles a year ago, was brought back to the Philly bullpen, though much of the offseason chatter on WIP had to do with the addition of none other than Tim Tebow, who leaves the comfort of the SEC Network and the Saturday game-day show alongside Paul Finebaum to get one more shot in the NFL. Should he beat out former Southern Cal star Matt Barkley for the third QB spot on the roster, however, Tebow contributions are likely to be limited to short-yardage or two-point conversion situations.

Kelly did not limit his wheeling and dealing to the QB position, also trading RB Shady McCoy to the Bills while signing ex-Cowboy DeMarco Murray and his 1845 YR from a year ago, as well as adding ex-Charger Ryan Mathews, a star in San Diego before being slowed by his own ailments. The versatile Darren Sproles, who dealt with injuries last fall, remains in the RB mix as well. The WR corps would lose a second marquee performer in as many years after Jeremy Maclin signed with the Chiefs, a year after DeSean Jackson’s departure, but there is hope that Southern Cal rookie Nelson Agholor, the first-round pick who impressed in the preseason opener vs. the Colts, can effectively replace Maclin, and that ex-Cowboy Miles Austin can flourish in the uptempo Kelly offense. Ex-Vandy star Jordan Matthews, now in his second year, established himself a reliable intermediate-range receiving threat as a rookie when catching 67 passes (second on the team behind Maclin’s 85) good for 8 TDs. If all else fails, there is ex-Auburn PK Cody Parkey, who nailed 32 of 36 FG tries, including 4 of 4 from 50 yards or beyond, a year ago.

For the Eagles to move back into the playoffs, however, there must be upgrades in a defense that slipped to 28th overall a year ago and an even-worse 31st against the pass. The latter would prompt much emphasis in the draft, where three of the Birds’ six picks would be defensive backs, as well as free agency, where a pair of CBs, ex-Seahawk Byron Maxwell and ex-Giant Walter Thurmond, were added.and expected to prove upgrades over the departed Bradley Fletcher and Cary Williams.

Kelly also believes he has helped the “D” by adding LB Kiko Alonso, who moved from Buffalo in the McCoy trade and if healthy is the sort of downhill playmaker that could flourish in d.c. Bill Davis’ 3-4 alignments. But Alonso missed all of 2014 with an ACL injury and will need to stay on the field for the “D” to make any desired upgrades, and has already been sidelined this summer with concussion issues that kept him out of the preseason opener vs. the Colts. And it would also help of ILB DeMeco Ryans, who missed half of 2014 with an Achilles tendon tear and an impact performer when healthy, can also stay out of the medic's office this fall. 

With the defensive questions, the Eagles will have their best chance in the sort of track meets that Kelly prefers, but that usually isn’t a recipe for a deep playoff run, and there isn’t an NFC contender that enters the season with durability issues for so many key performers as do the Birds.

Are Kelly’s myriad personnel moves enough to get Philly back into the postseason mix? As usual, we suggest tuning into 610 WIP or "The Fanatic" 97.5 FM for an always-unique take on the Birds’ progress in the fall.

For a while last season, the Dallas Cowboys (2014 SUR 13-5, PSR 10-8, O/U 9-8-1) appeared to be the NFC favorite to reach the Super Bowl. The ‘boys rolled off six straight wins after an opening-week loss to the 49ers, whipping the Seahawks in Seattle en route, and for once became the top storyline in the league for on-field developments rather than some of the off-field stuff that has too often generated headlines in the Jerry Jones era. A midseason slump cost Dallas a chance to get home field edge throughout the playoffs, but for only the second time since 1996 and the Barry Switzer era, the Cowboys would win a playoff game (vs. Detroit in comeback fashion). Though the offseason would still have a bitter taste after a painful Division Round loss at Green Bay, when a video review overturned a potential game-changing reception by WR Dez Bryant in the final minutes.

While many believe last year’s near-miss suggests the Cowboys have returned to the top shelf of the NFL, we’re not so sure. After two back surgeries the previous two years, and playing through two fractures in his transverse process late last season, the durability of QB Tony Romo, now 35 and in his tenth year as the starter in Dallas (can it be that long?) remains a concern. Considering how the offense sputtered behind backup Brandon Weeden during the game Romo missed last season vs. Arizona, and Jones avoiding the QB spot completely in his offseason personnel moves, Dallas appears extremely vulnerable should Romo go down, a risk that could turn into a grave mistake, but one that Jones nonetheless appears ready to take this fall. (Romo and Weeden were both held out of the preseason opener vs. San Diego, when the Cowboys understandably struggled behind 3rd-string QB Dustin Vaughan.)

The dynamics worked in the Cowboys’ favor last fall, when Jones and HC Jason Garrett were finally able to take some pressure off of Romo with the league’s second-best rushing attack that would feature the NFL’s leading rusher, DeMarco Murray, who would gain 1845 YR and score 13 TDs in one of the top campaigns for a runner in league history. Having used three first-round picks on offensive linemen since 2011, Jones has built one of the NFL’s best forward walls, and Dallas was able to mostly keep the OL in tact in the offseason. The Cowboys were not, however, able to hold on to Murray, who bolted to the division-rival Eagles in free agency. The change this fall likely comes from how many carries the rushing leader will tote with a likely RB-by-committee approach led by returnees Joseph Randle and Lance Dunbar plus FA Darren MacFadden, the ex-Raider who has had problems staying healthy in the past. But almost all of the featured Dallas runners (including McFadden, slowed buy a hamstring pull) have been nursing injuries in summer camp, though Jones insists he is not interested in signing free agents such as Ray Rice (and his accompanying baggage) and Chris Johnson, both still on the market into mid-August.

Effectively forced into choosing between Murray and WR Dez Bryant due to salary cap considerations in the offseason, Jones opted for Bryant, though Dez, protesting the franchise tag designation, would hold out and miss the entire offseason regimen in a contract dispute that was not settled until the eve of training camp in July. Nursing a hamstring strain in August, Bryant could miss the entire preseason as he is prepped for the regular-season opener vs. the Giants on September 13. But having so many key offensive weapons already nicked up in training camp created an ominous vibe in Oxnard.

While Murray and the running game generated a lot of headlines last fall, stop-end upgrades were probably just as important for the Cowboys’ first playoff appearance in five years. After fielding one of the NFL’s worst defenses under Monte Kiffin in 2013, Jones re-assigned much of his defensive staff, with the sage Rod Marinelli assuming coordinator duties and shepherding an improvement all of the way up to 15th in scoring “D” (22 ppg). The biggest offseason issue was improving a pass rush that ranked 28th in sacks, and Jones gambled in free agency on ex-Panther DE Greg Hardy, who had double-digit sacks in 2012 & ‘13 but played only one game a year ago before going on the commissioner’s exempt list due to off-field controversies. Hardy’s 10-game suspension for 2015 was subsequently reduced to four games in the offseason, so he will not be scheduled to return until October 11 vs. the Patriots, the same game that re-signed MLB Rolando McClain also completes his own 4-game suspension. Along with second-round LB/DE Randy Gregory (Nebraska), saddled with his own behavior problems while in college, there are some potential character concerns within this platoon. There are some physical concerns as well, especially oft-injured OLB Sean Lee, who missed all 16 games last season after tearing his left ACL and has now missed 34 games in his five-year career.

Moreover, the secondary showed a nagging penchant for conceding the long ball last fall, allowing 14 pass completions of 40 yards or more. Former number one draftee CB Morris Claiborne returns from a torn patellar tendon that caused him to miss 12 games last fall, but has mostly failed to live up to his expectations (partly due to injuries that have caused him to miss 18 games over the past two seasons). Last spring’s first-round pick, UConn CB Byron Jones, will likely get his chance sooner rather than later.

A lot of things went right for Dallas to get back to the playoffs a year ago. But there also seem to be a lot of ways for the Cowboys to jump the rails and fall back into also-ran status, beginning with the QB depth and questions on defense. Mostly, however, relying heavily upon Romo, with a lot of mileage on his tires, and not upgrading the backup situation behind him, could come back to bite Jones hard this fall.

And then there were the Washington Redskins (2014 SUR 4-12, PSR 5-11, O/U 8-8), looking up at the rest as usual last season with their fifth double-digit loss season in the past six campaigns. So, after the Skins lost 7 of their last 8 games a year ago, HC Jay Gruden was fortunate to get one more chance from owner Dan Snyder, who has canned coaches after one year before (remember how Marty Schottenheimer walked the plank for lesser transgressions after 2001?). Gruden survived, but just by the skin of his teeth, and every football fan inside the Beltway suspects that Jon’s brother enters 2015 on a very hot seat.

For Gruden to have a chance at surviving into 2016, the Skins must resolve the merry-go-round of mediocre QB play that has plagued the team since Robert Griffin III’s knee injury in the 2012 wild card playoff game vs. the Seahawks, which now seems an eternity ago. RG III has not been the same since, and though his fifth-year option has been picked up buy the team thru 2016, he’s probably down to his last chance in D.C.; moreover, owner Snyder seems to have lost his affinity for Griffin, whose skill set doesn’t seem to fit Gruden’s offense. Neither Kirk Cousins nor Colt McCoy seems a long-term answer at QB, either, but both also return this fall. Is it folly for the Skins to stick with the same QB trio that could help the team to just four wins a year ago, or is there potential for an upgrade within that grouping?

No matter the developments at QB, issues along the OL make any potential offensive improvements appear problematic, especially after allowing a staggering 41 sacks over the last eight games of 2014. Seeking to address those concerns, the Skins opted for Iowa G Brandon Scherff in the first round of the draft, and added two more along the OL with their other nine picks, but improvements up front are mandatory for the team to even think about getting to the promised land of .500.

There are notable skill-positions weapons in the mix, especially homerun WR DeSean Jackson, who recorded an NFL-best 20.9 yards per catch last season, with 13 catches for 40 yards or more. And if he can stay healthy, TE Jordan Reed (with 95 receptions in 20 career games) could become a breakout star. But the infantry has been regressing since the 2012 playoff run, and top RB Alfred Morris (1074 YR in 2014) had his carries, yards, and yards per carry decline for the second straight year.

New GM Scot McCloughan (recently at Seattle and San Francisco) focused most of the FA activity upon an aging and slow defense that had prompted the dismissal of d.c. Jim Haslett, with the likes of DTs Terrance Knighton (ex-Broncos) and Stephen Paea (ex-Bears), DE Ricky Jean-Francois (ex-Colts), and CB Chris Culliver (ex-49ers) now on hand to aid new d.c. Joe Barry, recently Mike McCoy’s LB coach in San Diego. The personnel moves seemed to confirm McCloughan’s belief that the DL and secondary were the main problem areas to address on the platoon. With that in mind, second-round pick DE/LB Preston Smith from Mississippi State is likely to get a shot in the edge-rusher role formerly occupied by Brian Orapko, who never quite lived up to his hype and was allowed to walk to Tennessee in free agency.

The return of CB DeAngelo Hall from a ruptured Achilles tendon, and now likely pairing with new addition Culliver on the corners, plus OLB Ryan Kerrigan, a former Purdue All-American and one-time DE who emerged as the star of the "D" last season with 13.5 sacks and five forced fumbles, give new d.c. Barry some nice potential building blocks, but until further notice there appears to remain a lack of impact performers on the platoon, which will likely feature six new starters this fall, a staggering turnover for an NFL team...until considering how feckless the stop unit was a year ago.

If the myriad personnel issues aren’t enough of a concern, there’s also the matter of on-field discipline, as only the Rams were penalized for more than the 1130 yards worth of flags that the Skins received a year ago, and Washington’s 31 turnovers tied for third most in the league.

Come to think of it, maybe Dan Snyder is mellowing. A few years ago he might not have welcomed Gruden back for a second trip around the track. Rest assured, however, that Gruden doesn’t get a third chance with anything close to the train wreck the Skins were in 2014.

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