TGS 2017 PRO FOOTBALL PREVIEW...A LOOK AT THE NFC EAST
by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor
Following is our preview of the NFC East, with teams as usual presented in order of predicted finish. Last year's straight-up, spread, and "Over/Under" results are included.
It was a quiet recovery last season by the New York Giants (2016 SUR 11-6, PSR 8-7-2, O/U 5-12), who made it back to the playoffs for the first time since the 2011 Super Bowl season. The feckless national sports media, however, with its ongoing fascination with everything about the Cowboys, mostly ignored the bounce-back of the G-Men orchestrated by new HC Ben McAdoo, who was promoted after being Tom Coughlin’s o.c. the previous two years. The change on the sidelines from the autocratic Coughlin seemed to invigorate the team, which after a succession of close losses the previous year was able to win eight games decided by 7 points or fewer, while losing just three of those close-margin nailbiters. All after a succession of gnawing defeats helped prompt Coughlin’s resignation following the preceding 2015. (Coughlin, by the way, has resurfaced as head of football operation with the Jags, another of the teams he once coached.)
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New York’s near $200 million spending spree in the 2016 offseason helped fortify a defense that resurrected a year ago, but it was McAdoo’s offense that would eventually, and surprisingly, prove something of a stumbling block, especially in a maddening Wild Card round playoff loss vs. the Packers, which marked the sixth straight game in which New York scored fewer than 20 points. Though QB Eli Manning had adapted well to McAdoo’s version of the West Coast offense imported from Green Bay a few years before, and again posted better numbers than earlier in his career, he was not as productive as he had been the previous two years when throwing 30 and 35 TD passes, respectively; last year, just 26, while his “pick” total also rose slightly to 16. The late-season frustrations with the offense would prompt much of the offseason activity (more on that in a moment).
Part of the problem last year might have been the lack of a credible infantry diversion, as the G-Men ranked a lowly 29th in league rushing. By the end of last season, UCLA rookie Paul Perkins had assumed feature-back roles; in the offseason, GM Jerry Reese cut former starter Rashad Jennings, turning over the carries to Perkins, former Patriot Shane Vereen (limited to 33 totes last year due to a season-ending triceps injury), and rookie Wayne Gallman, an intriguing fourth-round draft pick from Clemson.
But unlike a year ago, when most of Reese’s offseason additions were on the stop unit, the G-Men spent money and draft picks in the late winter and spring upgrading their offense. In particular, WR Brandon Marshall made a convenient move from the Jets, while blocking TE Rhett Ellison was added from the Vikings and OT D.J. Fluker from the Chargers. Moreover, first-round pick TE Evan Engram from Ole Miss gives the G-Men the sort of field-stretching element in the middle of the pitch that they haven’t had since the days of Jeremy Shockey.
Marshall’s addition, however, looms as a potential homerun signing, as his presence likely eases some of the attention opposing defenses pay to the wondrous Odell Beckham, Jr., whose per catch average dropped to just 13.5 yards a season ago. If Marshall, who suffered with the Jets downturn and nabbed just 3 TDs a year ago but is just two seasons removed from catching 14 TD passes in 2015, still has some petrol in his tank, Eli (and Beckham) should greatly benefit, though the Big Apple tabloids are also likely to be salivating with the prospect of a pair of diva wideouts on the field at the same time. Slot receiver Sterling Shepard could also be part of the windfall after catching 65 passes as a rookie in 2016.
Still, for the attack to work better in 2017 will require more consistency from the line, which was erratic at best a year ago. McAdoo and Reese believe the pieces are in place, but can’t wait much longer for LT Ereck Flowers, the ninth overall pick in 2015 who has already twice led the league in penalties and also among the leaders in total backfield disruptions since arriving from the Miami Hurricanes.
The question looming over the entire organization, however, is if Eli still has another big season left in him. Manning, who has hit a couple of very high notes in his NFL career, is now 36, and Reese made a move to the future in the draft by nabbing ex-Texas Tech and Cal QB Davis Webb in the third round. Webb, however, remains a longer-term prospect; if Eli goes down this season, another ex-Jet, Geno Smith, makes the short move from the other locker room at MetLife and appears to offer an upgrade behind Manning after the G-Men employed Ryan Nassib (now battling to hang on with the Saints) lately in the same role. Reese and McAdoo, however, apparently believe Eli still has a couple of years left in his arm, so while the clock is ticking on the Manning era, the braintrust is counting on the title window remaining open for at least this season and next.
The improvement in the stop unit a year ago, when it ascended to a respectable tenth in total defense, was perhaps more important in the return of the G-Men to the postseason. As well as a rehabilitation of sorts for coordinator Steve Spagnuolo, still remembered fondly in the tri-state from his work with the 2007 Super Bowl champs, but who also entered last season on the hot seat. A year later, his status has been solidified, helped by a couple of last year’s FA additions along line, DE Olivier Vernon and DT Damon Harrison, who spearheaded a rise to third in NFL rush defense stats. Other imports such as MLB Keenan Robinson and CB Janoris Jenkins also made heavy contributions to the improved efforts.
Best of all for Spagnuolo, nine starters return on the stop end. On top of the aforementioned Harrison and Robinson, safety in-the-box Landon Collins and OLB Jonathan Casillias also finished with 80-plus tackles (Collins leading them all with 125). Collins and CB Jenkins were both Pro Bowlers last season and return as anchors in the secondary, but they will continue to benefit from a juiced-up pass rush that should again rumble with DE Jason Pierre-Paul signed to a big-money, $62 million contract extension.
The G-Men are also confident they can overtake Dallas in the NFC East, partly because they beat the Cowboys in both meetings a season ago, and they catch Dallas minus Ezekiel Elliott in the Sunday night opener on September 10. The addition of WR Marshall means Eli could have targets as good as any in the NFC, and New York’s defense is certainly playoff, if not title, worthy. It would be no surprise to us if the G-Men emerge from the crowded NFC East pack this fall. And let’s not forget how Eli has been able to wave a magic wand in the postseason in the past.
Note that the improved defensive work also resulted in a 12-4 “under” mark in the regular season a year ago, though if the offense is upgraded as we suspect, a repeat of that “under” trend might be difficult.
Repeating in the NFC East has been difficult, to say the least, for almost a generation; the last team to do so was the Eagles in 2003-04, during the heights of the Andy Reid-Donovan McNabb partnership. Thus, recent history would suggest that the Dallas Cowboys (2016 SUR 13-3; PSR 10-6-1; O/U 7-10) are going to have a tough time defending their division crown.
And that was even before events of August 11, when prized 2nd-year EB Ezekiel Elliott was handed a 6-game suspension by the NFL for his part in domestic abuse allegations stemming from an incident over a year ago. The DA in Columbus declined to prosecute Elliott, but in the post-Ray Rice NFL, Roger Goodell and the league police were not going to be as lenient. It hasn’t helped Elliott that various other acts of irresponsibility have seemed to follow him since leaving the cocoon of Ohio State; sources say those inside of the Dallas organization want Elliott to begin displaying some maturity ASAP. Suddenly, the Cowboys are going to be without one of their 2016 lightning bolts for almost half of the season, while Fantasy Football owners around the country fret about their draft boards that have to be re-arranged with Elliott on ice until almost Halloween. (Elliott’s scheduled return game is October 29 at Washington.)
The outcome of the league’s investigation into Elliott had hung like a low-cloud layer over the franchise the entire offseason, but there were already indicators that last season’s unexpected success had gotten into the heads of too many Cowboys. All the way up to a recent whirlwind trip to the Pro Football Hall of Fame; squeezing past an under-strength Arizona in the preseason opener in Canton, partying with Justin Timberlake and then celebrating the HOF enshrinement of owner Jerry Jones had Dallas running more than a bit slow when the team returned to practice in Oxnard, drawing the wrath of HC Jason Garrett.
It does not take a soothsayer to note that the dynamics are a bit different this summer with the Cowboys, who entered last season with few distractions other than the status of Tony Romo, whose bad back proved a bit of good fortune as it allowed Mississippi State’s Dak Prescott to move into the pilot’s chair and record one of the best rookie seasons for a QB in NFL history, and winning league Rookie of the Year honors (and prompting a new QB era in Dallas, confirmed when Romo retired to the CBS telecast booth in the offseason). Along with the electric contributions of Elliott, who led NFL rushers with 1631 yards, and general good health (with the exception of Romo) elsewhere on the roster, everything fell neatly into place in Big D as the Cowboys surged to the NFC East crown with a 13-3 mark.
But it has been a bit of a rollercoaster the past few years at AT&T Stadium; recall that the Cowboys endured a face-plant in an injury-plagued 2015, falling to 4-12 on the heels of a playoff appearance in 2014. While we hardy expect Dallas to sink as it did two years ago, some regression from last year’s breakthrough might be expected,
Not surprisingly, the “Dak-Zeke” offense generates the most headlines, but there are important questions regarding a “D” that does not yet appear to be title-caliber. Though improved last year for vet d.c. Rod Marinelli, there was significant outflow from the stop unit in free agency. Jones thus went almost straight defense in the draft, which was no surprise after ’ol Jer openly dreamed of adding a “war daddy”-type defensive force in the offseason. His rumored target was Texas A&M DE Myles Garrett, but unable to work a deal with the Browns for the top pick, instead settled on a consolation prize, Michigan DE Taco Charlton, late in the first round. While Charlton might eventually become that “war daddy” to which Jones referred, he’s probably nothing more than a rotation piece this fall, even with DE David Irving, a revelation late last season, opening the season on a four-game suspension.
Marinelli, however, has been able to benefit from a healthy OLB Sean Lee, hampered by injuries earlier in his career but able to record 273 tackles over the past two seasons, and helping key a platoon that led the NFL in rush defense. Another plus would be getting a healthy LB Jaylon Smith, the Notre Dame product who fell to the second round in the 2016 draft due to a horrific knee injury suffered in the Fiesta Bowl vs. Ezekiel Elliott’s Ohio State. Smith spent last season on the mend, and the rehab continues, though it would be a bonus if Marinelli is able to get anything from Smith this fall.
Four key contributors in the secondary (CBs Brandon Carr & Morris Claiborne, and safeties Barry Church and J.J. Wilcox) were among the offseason FA exodus, leaving a “D” that ranked 26th vs. the pass even more vulnerable. Jones used three of his first five draft picks on DBs, and it's time for 2015 first-round pick SS Byron Jones to step up for a unit that only recorded nine interceptions last season. Nolan Carroll, lured from the Eagles in free agency, will have to hold down one of the CB spots.
Remember, Dallas was also a bit helpless on the stop end against Aaron Rodgers in the Divisional Round, when the Packers moved almost at will, including a last-second drive to a winning field goal. Right now it is hard to suggest much improvement on that end of the field.
Meanwhile, for the first six weeks of the season, at least, Prescott (23 TDP vs. only 4 picks in his maiden voyage) will be minus the safety blanket that the explosive Elliott provided. Though Dak’s leadership skills are off of the charts, he was able to benefit from Zeke’s presence a year ago. Until Elliott returns, not sure former 1000-yard rushers Darren McFadden or Alfred Morris, or maybe ex-Bronco Ronnie Hillman, offer anything close to the Ezekiel diversion. The punishing Dallas OL, a centerpiece of the “Jones renaissance” in recent years, also must replace a couple of key cogs, G Ron Leary (FA to Denver) and T Doug Free (retired).
Thus, for much of the first half of the season, the pressure will be on Prescott to develop upon the rapport generated with possession receiver Cole Beasley (75 catches LY) and improve the downfield accuracy to big-play target Dez Bryant. Entering his 15th year, TE Jason Witten remains a reliable underneath target. If all else fails, prolific PK Dan Bailey (27-32 FGs in 2016) remains to salvage points from any drives that bog down in enemy territory.
After way overshooting last fall, we suspect the Cowboys undershoot this time around. The schedule also looms as more difficult this season, with several expected top-caliber defenses on the slate, as well as the difficult AFC West as inter-conference foes.
Some cracks in the foundation might have started to form late last season, when Dallas began to have problems covering numbers (the Cowboys dropped 6 of their last 7 vs. the line after covering nine in a row). Over-hyped expectations can distort Dallas pointspreads again until the betting public gets burned a few more times, though it remains to be seen how no Elliott impacts numbers (Las Vegas books responded to news of Zeke’s suspension by temporarily taking down Dallas season-win totals and the Week One spread vs. the Giants).
It’s Wentz-ational! (Use that with permission!) Expect to hear that catchphrase and others in coming years as QB Carson Wentz comes of age and perhaps harkens a return to the glory days for the Philadelphia Eagles (2016 SUR 7-9; PSR 8-8; O/U 8-7-1). Though let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves...after all, the Birds haven’t won a title in 57 years (1960), when legendary QB Norm Van Brocklin enjoyed a glorious last hurrah before retiring and becoming HC of the expansion Minnesota Vikings the following year.
Philly fans, however, have tired of hearing about 1960, much as they tired talking about the Phillies beyond April, long after putting to bed the latest disappointing campaigns for the Sixers and Flyers. The heartbeat of the Delaware Valley continues to be measured by the calls to the venerable WIP and 97.5 FM “The Fanatic” as the Eagles once again became the main topic of conversation by the time of the NFL Draft.
The Birds were also one of the main NFL storylines early last season, when after sweeping to a 4-0 preseason mark for first-year HC Doug Pederson would win their first three regular-season games in style, including a 34-3 thumping of the Steelers at the Linc. Then, while Al Morganti and Angelo Cataldi tried to keep expectations in check on WIP, the bottom fell out of the Philly season, with nine losses in the next eleven games before a mild recovery at the end of the campaign with a Thursday upset win over the Giants and a season-ending win over the hated Cowboys, who it should be noted were subbing liberally in a meaningless game (don’t bother trying to convince Mike Missanelli’s callers on 97.5 FM that Dallas low-keyed it, however.).
Along the way, Wentz, proving he could handle the jump from FCS North Dakota State to the NFL, was the centerpiece, though his hot start would fizzle after opposing defenses got to take a longer look. After beginning quickly following the surprise late preseason trade of Sam Bradford to the Vikings, Wentz hit the rookie wall, tossing just 9 TDs vs. 13 picks over his last 11 games. Though Pederson, who surprisingly opened the playbook almost all of the way for Wentz last September, put his rookie QB on something of a leash as the season progressed, with almost all of the designed pass plays out of the pocket as the campaign wound to its conclusion.
The mobility of Wentz, and his ability to make plays on the run, should be worked more into the Birds’ offensive repertoire this fall. Wentz has a strong and accurate arm and the ability to extend plays with his legs, and expect the ex-QB Pederson (who was Andy Reid’s first starter in Philly way back in 1999) to take better advantage. Just in case Wentz falters, or gets hurt, a past flavor of the month at the Linc, Nick Foles, has been brought back in a relief role after spending time with the Rams and Chiefs the past couple of years.
In the offseason, GM Howie Roseman, who had won a power struggle with Chip Kelly the year before, went about finding Wentz more help in free agency. The result would appear to be an upgraded receiving corps, bolstered by additions of ex-Bear Alshon Jeffery and ex-49er and Raven Torrey Smith. (Roseman was comfy enough with Jeffery and Smith and, apparently, third-year WR Nelson Agholor that he decided to offload last year’s top pass-catcher among the wideouts, Jordan Matthews, to the Bills in early August.)
Also added was chop-busting RB LeGarrette Blount, who rushed for a league-high 18 TDs last season with the Super Bowl champion Patriots, and who should answer what was a Philly problem last season around the goal line. Blount solves another dilemma for Roseman and Pederson after the Eagles seemed overloaded with versatile but undersized backs like vet Darren Sproles, who still excels at punt returns. Another of those darters, San Diego State rookie and NCAA all-time leading rusher Donnel Pumphrey, could emerge as an effective situational back this fall. The forward wall appears serviceable as long as 35-year old LT Jason Peters can give Pederson another Pro Bowl season and bookend RT Lane Johnson stays on the field after missing 10 games last year due to a second PED violation. Meanwhile, Caleb Sturgis has emerged as one of the league’s best PKs and made 35 off his 41 FG tries last season.
Roseman has also stayed busy fortifying his defense, which received attention with the first three picks in the draft and recently added CB Ron Darby from the Bills in the Jordan Matthews trade. Adding Darby was an important move by Roseman, who whiffed on most of his targets at the corner in free agency after last year’s starters Nolan Carroll (FA to Dallas) and Leodis McKelvin (released) did not return. A difficult training camp for 3rd-round draft pick CB Rasul Douglas from West Virginia added some urgency to finding an upgrade, especially since another CB, 2nd-round pick Sidney Jones from Washington, is likely out for the season as he rehabs an Achilles tendon injury. Darby now likely teams with one FA signee that Roseman did engineer, Patrick Robinson from the Saints, which appears a needed improvement on the corners in a division with wideouts like Odell Beckham, Jr., Dez Bryant, and Terrelle Pryor. They’ll team with established safeties Malcolm Jenkins and Rodney McLeod in what looks like a functional secondary.
Up front, it is hoped that first-round pick DE Derek Barnett from Tennessee will pace a reloaded DL and perhaps flourish in d.c. Jim Schwartz’s “Wide 9" schemes playing next to Pro Bowl DT Fletcher Cox. After allowing DT Bennie Logan (who moved to the Chiefs) and DE/LB Connor Barwin (who moved to the Rams) to walk in free agency, the Birds also added vet DE Chris Long (from the Patriots) to work off the edge and hopefully increase QB pressure after the Schwartz defense recorded only 14 sacks over the final ten games of the season. Schwartz would also like to get WLB Mychal Kendricks on the field more often after the Birds were in two-LB sub-packages much of the time last fall.
Philly has an intriguing look about it, with an apparently-upgraded supporting cast around Wentz and with defensive reinforcements added as needed with the recent acquisition of CB Ron Darby from the Bills. Now, the questions are if Wentz, who has been ahead of the learning curve to this point, can build upon the positives of his rookie season and take the next step to being a playoff QB, and if HC Pederson is really a playoff coach. We’ll see.
Spread-wise, Philly was streaky last season, with three-game cover streaks to begin and end the season, but dropping 8 of 10 vs. the number in between. The Pederson Birds also developed a home-road pattern, covering 6 of 8 at the Linc but dropping 6 of 8 vs. the points on the road.
As always, we suggest listening to WIP and 97.5 The Fanatic for a colorful commentary on developments this fall.
It was not the smoothest offseason for the Washington Redskins (2016 SUR 8-7-1; PSR 10-6; O/U 12-4). Things got bumpy when the Skins ended their working relationship with GM Scot McCloughan on March 9 after anonymous leaks (standard operating procedure everywhere in D.C. these days, it would seem) within the organization claimed abuse of alcohol. All after McCloughan had set both the draft and free-agent boards for the Redskins. Team prexy Bruce Allen has since handled personnel matters as the team continues to shop for a permanent GM. Earlier, HC Jay Gruden was signed, a bit unexpectedly, to a two-year extension, as o.c. Sean McVay was hired as the new HC of the Rams and d.c. Joe Barry was fired. Gruden subsequently promoted from within (Matt Cavanaugh for offense, Greg Manusky for defense) to fill the coordinator roles. Most of the FA headlines involved losing a pair of 1000-yard receivers (DeSean Jackson to the Bucs and Pierre Garcon to the 49ers), the first time that has ever happened in an offseason to a team in NFL history, though Terrelle Pryor, a 1000-yard wideout LY for Cleveland, was signed.
Then there was the matter of QB Kirk Cousins, still unable to arrive at a long-term deal with the team, but don’t feel sorry for the former Michigan State star; after getting franchise-tagged at around $20 million last season; Cousins will be getting nearly $24 mill in another one-year deal for this term. After making $600K in the last year of his rookie contract in 2015, Cousins has already hit the lottery. Washington, however, will be looking at an even-more expensive deal in 2018 if it again franchise-tags (at what would be over $34 mill), or instead uses the transition tag (which would cost just short of $29 mill), on Cousins. Whatever, many insiders believe that after this season, Cousins is most likely to walk in free agency, where several destinations (most prominently San Francisco) have already been mentioned as possible landing spots. All contributing to further uncertainty at Redskins Park.
Taken in full, it presents a potentially disturbing scenario for Skins fans who know that owner Dan Snyder is always capable of unwelcome meddling, with worries that Snyder is again becoming too involved in the decision-making along with Allen. Though there seems to be a desire to develop some continuity with Gruden as head coach, remember that no mentor has ever lasted beyond four seasons (including the iconic Joe Gibbs and two-time Super Bowl winner Mike Shanahan) on Snyder’s watch. And upon reflection, the surprise 2015 NFC East title had as much to do with the division collapsing around Washington, as Dallas endured an injury-plagued campaign, the Chip Kelly regime ran aground in Philly, and the Giants, likely the best team in the division, repeatedly shot themselves in the foot numerous times with a number of inexplicable close losses, prompting the departure of HC Tom Coughlin. Two years ago, merely getting to .500 would have been enough to qualify for the postseason, and those who suspected the Redskins were not a legitimate playoff team had those suspicions confirmed when the Packers rolled in the Wild Card round at FedEx Field.
A return to the playoffs still looked possible for much of 2016 until Washington faded down the stretch, losing 4 of its last 6, including misfires at home against the Panthers and Giants, the latter having already secured a postseason berth. Now many inside the Beltway are wondering if the Skins can even get that close to the playoffs this fall.
The questions of offense have mostly to do with new outside targets for Cousins after the departures of Garcon and Jackson, who combined for 137 catches a year ago. Ex-Brown Pryor might partly fill that gap after gaining 1007 receiving yards of his own last season in Cleveland, but another question involves the health of Josh Doctson, a first-round pick from TCU in 2016 whose Achilles tendon injuries wrecked his rookie campaign. Possession wideout Jamison Crowder (67 catches LY) and TE Jordan Reed are known commodities and have a comfort level with Cousins, but the offense could have a less-menacing look if Pryor and another wideout (Doctson or perhaps ex-Ram FA Brian Quick) can’t come close to replicating the big-play dimensions of Garcon and Jackson.
There is also a need for a featured RB to emerge; watch Oklahoma rookie Samaje Perine, with a combination of power and speed that could net him substantial carries by midseason. Because of inconsistencies in the ground game, the Skins ended 29th in red-zone efficiency despite owning the league’s 3rd-rated offense. (Cousins could also make better use of another 4917 YP than the 25 TDP he mustered a year ago.) The OL, tutored by ex-Raiders and Nebraska HC Bill Callahan, might be the most stable unit on the team, led by emerging G Brandon Scherff, but for all of the yards gained, the “O” probably should have scored more than 24.8 ppg a year ago.
Plenty of alterations have also been made on defense beyond the change of coordinators. The Skins ranked in the bottom ten vs. both the run and pass, and there could be an entirely new DL, with first-round pick DE Jonathan Allen from Alabama likely to be in the lineup alongside fellow DE Terrell McClain (FA via Dallas) and NT Stacy McGee (FA via Oakland). Another FA addition, ILB Zach Brown from Buffalo, is expected to add more sideline-to-sideline speed to the platoon, but OLB Preston Smith saw his sack total drop in half from his rookie year, and hybrid OLB/DE Trent Murphy, whose nine sacks ranked behind only fellow LB Ryan Kerrigan on the team last fall, starts the season on a four-game PED suspension.
The Skins are desperately hoping that another FA addition, FS D.J. Swearinger from Arizona, can solidify the secondary where former LB Su’a Cravens also moves from LB to SS to help in case DaAngelo Hall is slow to recover from last year’s ACL tear. Foes, however, often threw away from ex-Panther CB Josh Norman and picked on Bashaud Breeland on the other side, a tactic that might continue this fall.
Add it up, and it's no surprise that many inside and around the Beltway suspect that things might be ready to unravel at Redskins Park. It’s not as if we haven’t seen this before in the Dan Snyder era.
It’s worth noting that Gruden has opened the eyes of the sports book patrons in Nevada with his team covering 14 of its last 21 since late in the 2015 season, including 9-3 the last 12 as a regular-season dog. The Skins are also “over” 17-4 their last 21 games entering 2017. And Gruden has covered six straight vs. the NFC East rival Eagles.
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