TSN football analyst Chris Schultz breaks down all the teams and each division in the NFL leading up to the regular season. Next up, the Philadelphia Eagles, Washington Redskins, Dallas Cowboys, and New York Giants of the NFC East.
The Philadelphia Eagles will win the division because as the 2013 season progressed they definitely improved. In the first half of the season they went 3-5. In the second half, 7-1. Yes, teams will adapt to the speed and tempo that a Chip Kelly team plays with but now starting his second year that speed and tempo with just get faster, quicker and more polished. Jason Peters to me is the best left tackle in the business, but it is much more than him.
The Eagles have the best five "big athletes" in football with Peters, Evan Mathis, Jason Kelce, Todd Herremans and the No. 1 pick from last year, Lane Johnson. They as a group move exceptionally well in all facets of offensive line play and have to in order to keep up with LeSean McCoy and Darren Sproles. It is amazing to think that Sproles was abandoned in New Orleans for a fifth-round draft pick. But at 31 I imagine it was anticipated a "performance regression" would happen but I can see it myself. Sproles will help in the return game, especially on kick-off returns in a big way.
Philadelphia doesn't know what it has on defence just yet. There are questions about the secondary and if they are satisfied by the pass rush - otherwise they would not have drafted Marcus Smith out of Louisville as their top pick. Still, what has changed the organization around and maybe was the biggest surprise of last year was quarterback Nick Foles from the University of Arizona. We all know it, he had 27 touchdowns against only two interceptions - a staggering ratio of success over failure. With Foles what is surprising was the calmness under pressure. It just seemed natural and normal to be really good at difficult moments. The only game where he got rattled - and I mean physically - was game seven last year in a 17-3 loss to Dallas at home. That was followed by a Giants loss at home again and a 3-5 record. Then the Oakland game where they put up 49 points and seven touchdown passes. That was a turning point.
Certain cities are tougher to play in then others because of the intensity of the local media coverage. Philadelphia is one of those tough cities. Foles handled everything extremely well and there is no reason for him not to be able to handle it all extremely well again. The way Chip Kelly runs his team, practices and runs off-season procedures is a bit different. You could say it's the opposite of a traditional approach of a Tom Coughlin, yet it works. And consider he took over from Andy Reid who had run the course but was a very popular figure in Philadelphia.
A lot will depend on a duplication of efficiency but having Nick Foles makes success possible, and showing an improvement on defence - specifically pass defence which finished 32nd-best - again makes success very possible. Another first place finish in the NFC East becomes very possible and very likely. Eagles, first in the NFC West.
The most obvious comment to be made about Redskin success or failure is that it all revolves around Robert Griffin III and his relationship with new head coach Jay Gruden. While this is true I wonder if RG3 shouldn't look over his shoulder and see Kirk Cousins creeping up on him as a viable alternative. Griffin is the better quarterback and a much more spectacular pivot. But he must stay healthy and improve because that is what Cousins has done - stayed healthy and improved. Yes, Gruden will help RG3 reach his potential but the motivation comes from the presence of his own teammate over his shoulder in Cousins.
I thought this last year and I still think it this year, that Alfred Morris is the most important player with the Redskins. He is not a home run hitter type of running back, quite the opposite. He is a grinder that gets first downs or creates manageable distances by getting four yards on first down. All the publicity is around Redskins receivers and rightfully so. DeSean Jackson, Pierre Garcon, Santana Moss and Andre Roberts with Jordan Reed at tight end give RG3 deep, intermediate and shallow options but if third-year player Morris plays as he has then the Redskins roll.
On defence, signing Ryan Clark at free safety may also be of major benefit. A quarterback leads an offence but a safety leads a defence. Clark has 12 years of NFL experience and has played against every NFL offence there is. And he did it beside Troy Polamalu who played his own game so effectively as Clark adjusted. One of the great middle linebackers in football of all time, London Fletcher retired and a leadership void was created. Clark should fill that void. When the Redskins picked up Jackson they strengthened their team and weakened an opponent, the Eagles. When the Redskins signed Jason Hatcher they strengthened their team and weakened another opponent, the Dallas Cowboys. Both are effective moves that will make a difference.
The bottom line is that Year 3 for every NFL player is critical. By then the organization knows what it has in a player, whether that player will continue to improve or stay the same. Also at the end of Year 3 you are in position to renegotiate and sign your second contract and that is where the "for life" money comes into play. This is Year 3 for Robert Griffin and he first must stay healthy and second put his team in the playoffs, or at least ridiculously close to them. With all the ability in the world and good players around him you have to feel optimistic that this is the year. Redskins finish second in the NFC East.
Since 1996 the Cowboys' won-lost record is 136-136. In the last four seasons it is 30-34. And in each of the last three seasons they have gone 8-8 with a season-ending playoff "win and in" game that Dallas did not win. So is this the year to go from average to great, from building to dominating?
On offence I would say yes. As a starting group of 12 if they can stay healthy they are as talented as any Cowboy team in history. They have maybe the best young left tackle in the league in Tyron Smith and excellent depth across the front. Travis Frederick at centre has lived up to expectations. There's great experience at tight end and more depth. Dez Bryant changes his game in a single play and DeMarco Murray changes games when he hits 100. On offence the Dallas Cowboys are as good as any top NFL team. But can they stay healthy? Tony Romo has had his second back surgery in an eight-month period. Murray played in only nine games last season. And in a major setback, middle linebacker Sean Lee, who is probably their toughest player, will miss another year of football.
With the ball this is a great team, without the ball they are in trouble. First the suspension of Orlando Scandrick throws the secondary into a mess. There are also without the departed Jason Hatcher and DeMarcus Ware which creates a void on the defensive line. Also, in 2014 the Cowboys will start not only their third offensive coordinator but also their third defensive coordinator.
Continuity wins, not consistent change. This defensive issue is so critical when you consider the quarterbacks that Dallas faces this year. It starts with Colin Kaepernick in Week 1, Drew Brees in Week 4, Russell Wilson in Week 6, Nick Foles in Week 13, Jay Cutler in Week 14 and Andrew Luck in Week 16. To think Dallas is going to outscore all those quarterbacks and offences is unrealistic. Dallas would need two or three players on defence to become top players in one season. A pass rusher, a linebacker, and a defensive back. They have a trio of excellence on offence, but too many unknowns on defence. Dallas finished third in the NFC East.
New York Giants
I think the Giants could finish anywhere from second to fourth in the NFC East. I think they could finish second because I seriously doubt that Eli Manning will have a touchdown to interception ratio of 18 to 27. I think they will finish fourth because nine different Giants are now with different teams and one retired. And outside of Oakland the Giants spent $116 million on 10 other players to create immediate success.
I do think the Giants drafted well. Watch out for the fourth pick Andre Williams out of Boston College, at 5'11" and 230 lbs on contact he should move forward. He reminds me of Frank Gore in San Francisco.
This is a tough team to read in that they started the season 0-6 and ended the season on a 7-3 run. They picked up a good middle linebacker in Jon Beason last year but need Jason Pierre-Paul to regain his health and hunger from his rookie season. The trio of Victor Cruz, Rueben Randle and eventually Odell Beckham Jr. are all up-and-coming receivers but tight end is unknown and the offensive line will have three of five new starters to run a new offence with a new coordinator in Ben McAdoo. That is a lot of "new" for my liking.
Really the Giants over the last five seasons have struggled in the regular season. Yes, they won the Super Bowl in 2007 and yes, again in 2011 but over the last five years their regular season record is 8-8, 10-6, 9-7, 9-7 and 7-9. The NFC East is not like the NFC West with four good teams. The NFC East is a "what if" division. What if Philadelphia has a great year from Nick Foles? What if Dallas on defence is as good as Dallas on offence? What if Jay Gruden has a major impact on Robert Griffin III? And what about the New York Giants? It is tough to think it but it just may happen. Giants to finish fourth in the NFC East.