Thursday, July 30, 2015

Joe & Daphne's Preview: The NFC East

Us working hard on these NFL previews.
By Joe Parello (@HerewegoJoe) and Daphne Parello (@DaphnePup)

Monday we took an in-depth look at the AFC East, and today we turn our sights to the NFC East where Dallas, Philadelphia and New York all have legitimate playoff hopes, but also questions to answer in the early days of training camp.

The division is still the home of reigning rushing champion DeMarco Murray, but the 1,800-yard rusher has taken his talents from Big D to Philly, where offensive guru Chip Kelly has had one of the most interesting off-seasons in recent memory. The Giants are also in a period of transition, as they welcome back Victor Cruz to play next to instant star Odell Beckham Jr. at receiver, and bring in former Patriots running back Shane Vereen to make life even easier for Eli Manning.

One thing that hasn't changed: Robert Griffin III and Jay Gruden are still paired and probably hating each other. How will this confrontational relationship between quarterback and coach work out for Washington this season? If you know the recent history of this franchise, I think you can guess.

Without further ado, here are our thoughts on the NFC East.

The Favorites

Dallas Cowboys

The Cowboys are coming off a 12-win season, a division title and a playoff victory, and a season that saw Tony Romo lead the league in passer rating and yards per attempt, narrowly besting some guy named Rodgers in both categories.

Romo is coming back, and has already gone on record predicting a Cowboys victory in Super Bowl 50, but Dallas will have to replace last year's league-leading rusher, running back DeMarco Murray.

That is certainly the largest question mark Dallas has, but if any team can get by without an exceptional back, the Cowboys seem to be it. Dallas' offensive line was a revelation last year, led by tackle Tyron Smith, rookie guard Zach Martin and bulldozer center Travis Frederick, and should be even better this season.

The Cowboys also locked up star receiver Dez Bryant to a long-term deal that should keep the touchdown specialist happy for at least a few years, and Terrance Williams has been a sneakily efficient receiver in the red zone the last two seasons. Add in slot receiver Cole Beasley and the ageless wonder Jason Witten at tight end, and Romo will again have plenty of weapons.

Oh, but that whole running back question… Yeah, let's just say signing the oft-injured Darren McFadden isn't exactly a fool-proof plan, but perhaps Run-DMC can finally pull it all together and showcase his talent in Big D.

Defensively, Dallas will be relying on a slew of new faces after losing guys like Henry Melton, Anthony Spencer, George Selvie and Bruce Carter to free agency. That may not be such a bad thing, after the Boys finished outside the Top-15 in total, passing and scoring defense, and placed 28th in sacks last season.

The additions are interesting, but definitely talented. Troubled end Greg Hardy saw his domestic violence suspension reduced from 10 to just four games, which could give second-round pick Randy Gregory the chance to solidify himself at defensive end in the first quarter of the season.

The secondary fell apart last year, so Dallas drafted UConn corner Byron Jones in the first round, and the Cowboys will look for him to unseat either Brandon Carr or Orlando Scandrick early. The one spot on defense Dallas feels good is linebacker, where Rolando McClain seems to have resurrected his career and Sean Lee returns after a year lost to injury.

Lee's return, if the savvy 'backer is at full strength after a torn ACL, could be enough to make Dallas at least average on defense, which may be all the Cowboys need given their offensive firepower. Is this a Super Bowl contender? Only if Tony Romo puts together another career-best year, and if the defense takes a major step, but the Cowboys are still the favorites in the division.

The Question Mark

Can Anyone Get a Stop?

Unlike the AFC East, the NFC East is full of below-average to flat-out bad defenses. The best defense in the division last year was Dallas, which finished 19th in the league in total defense, just ahead of Washington at 20. The Eagles and Giants fared even worse, checking in at 28th and 29th, respectively.

Dallas is hoping a healthy Lee and some new faces can raise them up to the middle of the league, while the Giants brought back old defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo, who helped them win a Super Bowl in 2007. Unfortunately, his best pass rusher will be down a finger, but that's another matter.

Philly acquired Kiko Alonso in the LeSean McCoy trade with Buffalo, which could greatly improve their whole defense if the speedy middle linebacker is 100-percent, and the signing of corner Byron Maxwell from Seattle should tighten things up in the secondary as well. The Redskins gave up an opposing quarterback rating of over 108 last year (which means the average of all QBs that went against Washington would have been the third best QB in the league, between Aaron Rodgers' 112 and Ben Roethlisberger's 103), and I'm not sure the additions of Dashon Goldson and Chris Culliver will be enough to turn around such an awful secondary,

Washington also heavily invested in its defensive front, bringing in Terrance Knighton from Denver (signing a massively overweight defensive tackle to a big-money deal has NEVER blown up in Washington's face before), along with Ricky Jean-Francois and Stephen Paea.

So, which defense has the chance to be at least pretty good? Well, pretty much all of them except Washington (probably). Based on their early draft picks, the addition of Hardy and the health of Lee, Dallas should take a step forward defensively, and the additions of Alonso and Maxwell make Philly instantly better against the pass. New York gets an upgrade at coordinator, and may have an instant-impact rookie on their hands in safety Landon Collins out of Alabama.

The potential is there for all of them (again, except Washington), but none are a sure things either.

The Theme

Working Through Change

Each of these teams is in a period of major transition SOMEWHERE on the roster, and must make it smoothly to salvage the season. Dallas will replace Murray, who is now in Philly, while the Eagles are breaking Murray in, as he looks to replace a different style runner in Shady McCoy.

New York will likely start at least two rookies in tackle Ereck Flowers and safety Landon Collins, and must also deal with some new faces and firework induced injuries up front on defense. Washington is giving Robert Griffin III one more chance (seriously, just one more), and is rebuilding its pass rush around underrated linebacker Ryan Kerrigan (13.5 sacks in 2014) after the departure of Brian Orakpo.

Daphne's Superlatives, by Daphne Parello

Daphne's Underdog
 New York Giants

When he's bad, he's very bad, but when he's good, Eli Manning is "beat Tom Brady's ass" good. Well, that might be overstating it, but the younger Manning is 2-0 against Brady in Super Bowls, and is still the only QB to beat Tom Terrific on Super Sunday. We already discussed Monday how Chad Pennington is the only quarterback to win the AFC East other than Brady the last 14 years, so it is now clear to me that goofy looking quarterbacks who wear No. 10 and speak with southern accents must be Brady's kryptonite.

But that's neither here nor there.

What is here is a potentially lethal Giants offense, led by a resurgent Eli and a scary group of receivers. Then-rookie Odell Beckham Jr. took the league by storm last year, then revealed in the off-season that he had played most of 2014 on two torn hamstrings.

Just think what he could do with a year of experience and functional hamstrings underneath him!

But, perhaps more importantly, New York will also get Super Bowl hero receiver Victor Cruz back to complement ODB, and the Giants have also added versatile back Shane Vereen from New England.

Vereen is maybe the only player I've ever thought "Belichick could use this guy better" about, and his abilities as both a runner and receiver should tie together the Giants offense.

Defense is a major concern, but let's be honest, nobody in this division is any good on D. I'll take the Giants to surprise on the back of a Pro Bowl season from Eli and the development of his incredibly talented supporting cast.

Daphne's Alpha Dog
Tyron Smith, OT, Dallas

Dallas' offensive line asserted itself as the best in football last year, and Smith may just be the best darn left tackle in the league. The former USC standout and first round pick showed it all: Pop in the running game, quick feet and long arms in pass protection and the ability to block in space.

The only question now is, can he do it again with a bullseye on his chest? Smith, and indeed the whole Cowboy line, will need to be even better this year with DeMarco Murray in Philly, but the talent is there for Dallas to again dominate at the point of attack.

In the Dog House
Robert Griffin III, QB, Washington

RG3 was an instant star in 2012, dominating with his legs and ability to make plays out of the pocket, showing Washington fans glimpses of what may be a franchise quarterback.

Griffin put together respectable passing numbers as a rookie (3,000 yards, 20 TDs, only 5 INTs), but his skills as a runner made him lethal. The former Heisman Trophy winner rushed for over 800 yards and seven touchdowns, on an astonishing 7 yards per carry.

But, after tearing both his ACL and LCL while playing on an already injured knee, Griffin's legs have held up about as well as this old pair of socks my masters let me play with.
Not well.
The following year he again threw for 3,000 yards, but his touchdowns dropped by four, and his interceptions more than doubled to 12. Coupled with his now reduced speed (rushed for under 500 yards) Griffin was, at best, an average quarterback.

Then the bottom fell out in 2014. Griffin went 2-5 while throwing just four touchdowns and six interceptions last year, losing the starting job to both Kirk Cousins and Colt McCoy.

RG3 has also not exactly been coach Jay Gruden's best bud over the course of the last year, so this season will be huge for both player and coach. Will Washington bring back both, either, or neither? That will depend on if Griffin can become a serviceable quarterback while only being a "pretty good" runner.


Joe: 1. Dallas, 2. NY Giants (Wild Card), 3. Philadelphia, 4. Washington
Daphne: 1. NY Giants, 2. Dallas (Wild Card), 3. Philadelphia, 4. Washington

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