Who will win the NFC East?
By: Andy Davies
The NFC East was a much-maligned division last year, with Washington winning it despite just seven wins. This is a far cry for the only division where all four teams have won at least one Super Bowl. Both the Giants and Eagles lifted the Lombardi Trophy during the 2010s.
Often called the ‘NFC Least’ last season, it led to some questioning the playoff system and whether it should just be the teams with the seven best records rather than the division winners and three wildcard teams.
All four teams will want to prove the division is competitive. Here is a preview of the NFC East.
Dallas Cowboys (2020 Record: 6-10. Missed out on playoffs)
The Cowboys were massively disappointed after much hype going into the 2020 season, in a similar vein to the Cleveland Browns the prior season.
Quarterback Dak Prescott put up some good numbers before suffering a season-ending injury against the Giants in week 5. However, when the Cowboys went into the Giants game, they were still 1-3. This is despite Prescott’s statistics. At the end of the 2020 season, they may have been 11th in passing yards allowed but finished 31st in rushing yards allowed and 28th in total points allowed. Have they done enough to address their defensive issues from last season?
Former Atlanta Falcons head coach Dan Quinn is back as a defensive coordinator. Quinn, who was a coordinator for the Seahawks ‘Legion of Boom’, has been hired this summer by the Cowboys. Their draft has implied that they are looking to address this. 8 of their 11 picks were defensive players. Twelfth overall pick Micah Parsons is one of the best rookie prospects in the entire league and will be a brilliant replacement for the retiring Sean Lee, who struggled with injuries during his career. During the two seasons he played with Penn State, Parsons recorded 191 total tackles, 6 fumbles, 6.5 sacks and 18 tackles for loss.
Dallas may have their issues defensively, but Dak has some excellent offensive weapons to work with. This includes wide receivers Amari Cooper, Michael Gallup and second-year wideout CeeDee Lamb. Both Cooper and Gallup have combined for 32 touchdowns and 5,485 yards since they arrived in Dallas and Lamb had an encouraging rookie season. He was reportedly impressive in training camp this offseason. Running back Ezekiel Elliot and Dak had excellent debut seasons in the NFL, with the latter winning the Rookie of the Year award in 2016. Elliot has slowly regressed. He will hope for a bounce-back year in 2021 and doing so would be a huge bonus for Prescott and this offense.
The Cowboys were the featured team on the 2021 edition of ‘Hard Knocks’ and play in the season opener against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Thursday Night Football. Other games against the Seattle Seahawks, Cleveland Browns, a tough Pittsburgh Steelers defense, Baltimore Ravens, and the San Francisco 49ers will challenge the Cowboys’ defense.
Their offense will perform but not as well as people think they will. The defense has made improvements this offseason but the unit is still a long way off.
Prediction: 2nd in NFC East
New York Giants (2020 Record: 6-10. Missed out on playoffs)
It has been a tough few years for the Giants, who last had a winning season when they went 11-5 in 2016. Eli Manning’s form went downhill and he has since retired. Odell Beckham left for the Cleveland Browns. Daniel Jones was the replacement for Manning at quarterback but the 2019 sixth overall pick has flattered to deceive, with 35 touchdowns, 5,970 yards and 22 interceptions.
He has been backed this offseason, with the addition of wide receiver Kenny Golladay, who scored 21 touchdowns and caught for 3,068 yards during his four seasons with the Detroit Lions. Fellow receiver John Ross was added in Free Agency, with Kadarius Toney taken in the first round of the draft. Toney is reported to be set to have a “significant role” in the week one game against the Broncos. Tight end Kyle Rudolph joins the Giants after 48 touchdowns and 4,488 yards during ten seasons with the Minnesota Vikings. Running back Saquon Barkley had an impressive rookie season in 2018 but had an injury-hit 2020, where he played just two games.
On the other side of the ball, Leonard Williams will hope to build on an impressive 2020. After moving from the New York Jets last year, he recorded 11 sacks, 57 total tackles, 14 tackles for loss and 30 quarterback hits. However, despite these impressive numbers, the Giants still ranked 17th in passing yards allowed and 10th in rushing yards allowed. Head coach Joe Judge and general manager Dave Gettleman have attempted to address their defensive issues in the draft and free agency, with linebacker Azeez Ojulari (below) taken in the second round. He is a player that I feel is one of the biggest sleeper picks in the 2021 draft. Cornerback Adoree’ Jackson and nose tackle Danny Shelton were also added in Free Agency.
Their schedule isn’t too bad, with the Saints, Chiefs and Buccaneers presenting the biggest challenges, as well as their division games. They also get to face the Eagles, Denver Broncos and Falcons.
This is Jones’ time to shine. He needs to perform this year and has now been given everything he needs in terms of offensive weapons. He will see his performances improve but this won’t be enough for Joe Judge’s men to make the playoffs.
Prediction: 3rd in NFC East
Philadelphia Eagles (2020 Record: 4-11-1. Missed out on playoffs)
The Eagles had a very dysfunctional season in 2020, with the controversy surrounding their quarterback Carson Wentz and head coach Doug Pederson. Both are no longer with the organization as the franchise look to rebuild.
Jalen Hurts was the man to replace Wentz last season and be will look to improve on the 1,061 yards, 6 touchdowns and 4 interceptions he recorded in four games. He was sacked 13 times in those games, with 113 passes attempted. This amounts to be sacked every 11.4 passing attempts. With Wentz being the most sacked QB last season, this shows a problem with the Eagles offensive line, one that was around for most of Wentz’s Philly career. Free Agency signing Ryan Kerrigan will hope to improve the line between the trenches. Nick Sirianni has taken over from Pederson and will want to make an impression. However, he may find things tough for a team that ranked 24th for total offensive yards and 18th for total defensive yards allowed.
Heismann Trophy winner DeVonta Smith was taken twelfth round after the Eagles traded down via the Miami Dolphins. He recorded 1,856 yards and 23 touchdowns in 2020 with Alabama. His size has led to concerns over his durability at the NFL level. Becoming the first wide receiver for thirty years to win the award, he is not shy of breaking the trend. Running back Miles Sanders is another weapon for Hurts to hand the ball off to, with 867 yards and 6 touchdowns despite his the injury he suffered midseason. The Eagles are likely to be affected by the offseason departures of receivers DeSean Jackson and Alshon Jeffrey. Tight end Zach Ertz is still around, despite most feeling he would leave this summer.
The Eagles may face the Giants twice as well as the Detroit Lions and Denver Broncos but also face the NFC South teams. The Saints, Buccaneers and Carolina Panthers present difficult tasks, as does the game against the Chiefs. Philadelphia has a tough season ahead and these games do not help matters.
Prediction: 4th in NFC East
Washington Football Team (2020 Record: 7-9. lost in Wildcard Round)
Washington went from worst to first in 2020, losing to the eventual champions in the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the postseason. This is despite the valiant effort from Washington.
This is a credit to Ron Rivera, who did an excellent job during his first year in charge. He was fired by the Carolina Panthers in the 2019 season but it didn’t take him long to find work. Rivera came into a franchise with a lot going on during the offseason. They retired the ‘Redskins’ part of their team name and for now, are called the Washington Football Team until they decide on their team name for the future. There were also plenty of issues surrounding behaviour in the front office. Rivera also battled through some personal battles, overcoming cancer whilst on the job. He has installed good values back into this organization and is the perfect man to take Washington to the next step.
Dwayne Haskins failed to deliver and the 2019 fifteenth overall pick was cut by the franchise midseason in 2020. Alex Smith was the fairytale story, coming back from the career-ending injury he suffered. He came onto the field against the Los Angeles Rams in week 5 to a chorus of cheers. He would retire at the end of the season after winning Comeback Player of the Year. Both he and Kyle Allen suffered injuries, which meant Taylor Heinicke came in. He had the game of his life during the Buccaneers playoff loss, leading to some feeling he should have been given a chance to start this season.
Ryan Fitzpatrick is his replacement, arriving in Free Agency after two seasons with the Miami Dolphins. He recorded 13 touchdowns and 8 interceptions in 2020 despite spending the second half of the season mostly as a backup. He did come in midgame against the Denver Broncos and Las Vegas Raiders, the latter where he threw a heroic pass to Mack Hollins despite a facemask that put the Dolphins in field goal range. Jason Sanders converted the game-winning field goal that followed that pass. He threw for 8 touchdowns and 1 interception after the opening two games of the 2018 season with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and became the first quarterback to throw for more than 400 yards in three straight games. He is one of the most loved players in the entire league thanks to his infectious personality. Washington fans will take to him, especially if he plays as he did in 2020.
Fitzpatrick has plenty of weapons around him to throw the ball to and also hand the ball off to. Wide receiver Terry McLaurin recorded 1,118 yards and four touchdowns in 2020 and will want to continue the upward trajectory that his career has gone so far. Free Agency signing Curtis Samuel offers flexibility in the receiver position whether this is out wide, in the slot or the ground game. He had 851 receiving yards, three touchdown receptions and two rushing touchdowns. Adam Humphries arrives from the Tennessee Titans to add depth, most likely as a third or fourth choice wideout. Running back Antonio Gibson had 795 rushing yards and 11 rushing touchdowns in his 2020 rookie season, with J.D. McKissic a capable backup. Tackle Sam Cosmi was taken 51st overall and his biggest strength is said to be run blocking. If he is to fulfil his potential, then this could open things up for Gibson and McKissic.
Washington’s prize asset is their defensive line. Predominately using a 4-3 scheme, they have the threat of both Montez Sweat and Chase Young on the edge, who recorded 16 sacks between them in 2020. With Daron Payne and Jonathan Allen on the interior, there is no mercy for any offensive lines or quarterbacks that face this front four. It doesn’t get any easier for Washington’s opponents this season, with linebacker Jonathan Bostic having 118 total tackles, 3 sacks and 6 quarterback hits in 2020. Washington added to the linebacker room in the draft, with Jamin Davis being selected nineteenth overall. During his time in college with Kentucky, he had excellent numbers. This was especially the case in his 2020 season. He posted 102 total tackles and 3 interceptions combined for 90 yards, with one resulting in a defensive touchdown. Sweat also had 45 total tackles, one defensive touchdown, 20 quarterback hits and 12 tackles for loss, with Young tallying up 44 total tackles, 12 quarterback hits and one fumble recovery for a touchdown. Jonathan Allen had 63 total tackles and Daron Payne had one interception, 3 forced fumbles, 3 sacks, 7 tackles for loss and 8 sacks.
Washington faces the Buffalo Bills, Chiefs, Green Bay Packers, Buccaneers and Seahawks in 2021. This appears a hard schedule but as it will for any team in the NFC East, the two games against their division rivals will offer plenty of chances for wins.
Due to head coaching and a more complete roster than Dallas, Washington will take home a second consecutive division crown.
Prediction: 1st in NFC East