NFL Division Previews: NFC East

With the first preseason games last week, we turn our sights to the NFC East for our division by division previews. While the Dallas Cowboys struggled tremendously following Tony Romo’s injury last year and the Washington Redskins won the division, expectations from Las Vegas are for the Redskins to struggle while the Cowboys win the East. Is that what will happen? Let’s examine how the division breaks down:

Dallas Cowboys

In the pass-heavy NFL, the Dallas Cowboys tried something very different two years ago and it paid off in a big way. The 2013 Cowboys were the 2nd most pass-heavy team. The Cowboys went 66% pass in one-score games, and DeMarco Murray received only 163 carries, despite averaging 5.4 YPC. The team won just 8 games and decided to make a change.  They brought in Scott Linehan from Detroit to help coordinate plays.  In an awkward situation, outgoing OC Bill Callahan remained on staff, but the team had Linehan call the plays.  The team went run heavy to the extreme.  It protected Tony Romo and the Cowboys defense, as it controlled the clock, introduced more efficiency and lessened turnovers.  Dallas called run in one-score games 50% of the time, an incredible 16% decrease from the prior year, the largest drop of any team in the NFL by far.  Last year, Callahan formally departed and Linehan took over as the full OC, and the team continued the extremely run heavy approach.  For many of the same reasons as 2014.

The team drafted their future RB for years to come, taking Ezekiel Elliott 4th overall.  It was a pick they received only because their 2015 season ended so terribly (4-12), in large part because they saved money at back-up QB, a move many old school NFL fossils would consider unintelligent.  But let’s ignore the Elliott in the room for the time being, and discuss the biggest threat to a successful 2016:  the Cowboys defense.  The plan in 2014 was straight forward for the defense.  Play with a second half lead (thanks to the offense), rush the passer and force turnovers against a desperate offense.   The 2014 Cowboys’ defense held an average lead in the 2nd half of 8.2 points/drive, second best of any team behind the Patriots.  Their defense was able to gain takeaways on an insane 23% of opponent’s 2nd half drives, most of any team (Denver was #2).   But that won’t be quite as easy in 2016.  Their leading pass rusher, Demarcus Lawrence, is suspended for 4 games (though appealing).  Randy Gregory is also suspended for 4 games.  Their second leading pass rusher from 2015, Greg Hardy, is gone.  That’s a lot of pressure off opposing QBs to start the season.  Additionally, LB Rolando McClain has been suspended for 10 games, but his season is in doubt after gaining 40 pounds thanks to drinking “lean”.  And on the backend, the Cowboys have recognizable names, but with questionable performance.  They are paying too much for Brandon Carr, they paid too much in draft capital to take Morris Claiborne, and Orlando Scandrick is playing after missing the 2015 season with an ACL tear.  These issues raise question marks with the pass rush and the secondary, two of the most critical areas where they need strength when playing with a lead in the second half.

And that brings us back to the Cowboys offense and the Elliott in the room.  If the Cowboys offense is going to not only put up enough points themselves to win games, but to also do so in a physical, grinding, time consuming manner to help their defense, they will have to do an even better job than they did in 2014.  So there is no doubt the team will be just as run heavy in 2016 as they were in 2014 and 2015, despite Tony Romo and Dez Bryant both coming back to full strength this season.  Unlike many teams, Dallas is not bothered about playing to their atypical strength.  There is little doubt Elliott should be a fantasy stud.  Their red zone offense should be tremendous.  But they need to control the ball in the 2nd half.  That means converting 1st downs.  Even last year, the Cowboys were the NFL’s smartest (and best) team on 2nd and short, gaining first down on 94% of their run plays.  Perhaps the most of any team, how the offense fares in early down success rate (EDSR) will determine how the team fares in wins and losses.

Camp Notes:  With Tony Romo returning from injury, he appeared out of shape to start camp.  But the key injury was to RB Ezekiel Elliott, whose hamstring will cause him to miss the team’s first game and has cost him valuable reps.  Backup RB Darren McFadden is also projected to miss the first week at a minimum, coming back from an elbow injury.  Meanwhile, backup QB Kellen Moore, though far from a game-saving player, broke his right ankle and will be out for 3-4 months.

Vegas Perspective:  9 Wins, #1 in NFC East

With Tony Romo at the start of the season, Dallas won its first two games, but Romo was injured in his second game, and the Cowboys went on to lose 7 straight.  As crazy as the NFC East was, however, they still were in contention for a while, they just needed to win some of their close games.  Unfortunately, they played in 5 games decided by 7 or fewer games between weeks 4 and 10, and they lost all 5 games.  Remarkably, thanks to their impressive offensive line, they were not worse in sack margin, finishing only -2.  Penalties were even, but they were -4 in return TDs and -22 in turnovers.  It was brutal.  And it’s an easy way to lose a close game.  The Cowboys were surprisingly the 5th healthiest team in 2015, because despite the huge losses of Romo and Dez Bryant, they were better off than most teams.  Which tells you it’s not the number of games lost but the players who miss those games.  Their 2-6 record in one score games should return closer to normal w Romo in 2016 (They went 5-2 with him in 2014 and 5-5 in 2013).  However, with so many injuries up front to the defensive front-7, expect the Cowboys’ offense to be forced to produce even more efficiently.  The schedule is the lightest in the NFL, but it will still be a challenge with so many contributors missing time on defense.

New York Giants

The 2015 Giants finished with a losing record for the 3rd straight year, and another 6-10 season could not save Tom Coughlin’s job.  On the positive side, the Giants would have been 9-6 with one tie if games ended after the 3rd quarter.  But they went 1-5  in games with a final margin of a field goal or less, and couldn’t get out of their own way.  Last year, teams who won the turnover margin won 75% of their games, and historically the number is closer to 79%.  Instead, somehow the Giants went 4-5 (44%) in these games.

So out went Tom Coughlin, in came Offensive Coordinator Ben McAdoo as Head Coach.  Out went a conservative offseason, in came massive deals to free agent DE Olivier Vernon, CB Janoris Jenkins and NT Damon Harrison.  Historically, over-spending in free agency does not work but for rare situations.  And many of the players signed to lucrative deals get cut following half their planned duration.  But let’s assume that the Giants and their 30th rated 2015 defense improves to a league average because of the incorporation of these players.  

The offense must get better and more balanced.  But that is easier said than done.  The Giants will spend the 4th most QB cap thanks to Eli Manning’s cap hit which jumped form $14.45M last year to $24.2M this year.  $10M in cap space doesn’t grow on trees, so the Giants trimmed along the offensive line, taking the 12th most paid 2015 unit down to 30th this year.  The entirety of the 2016 offensive line is now hitting the cap for $15.9M, 2nd least in the NFL and $9.7M less than they are allocating to the QB position.

What is puzzling, however, is that only the Vikings and Panthers are allocating more to the RB position than the Giants.  Why is that strange?  Because the Vikings are the NFL’s most run-dominant offense, with a remarkable 49% of neutral play calls being passes.  The Panthers are at 48%, 5th most.  Meanwhile, the Giants are on the opposite end of the spectrum, with 64% of neutral situation play calls being passes, just 1% away from the most pass-heavy team in the NFL.  

Inside the red zone, where it pays to be balanced (if not slightly more run dominant vs today’s defenses) the Giants called 67% passes last year.  Removing the 4th quarter with leads, 70% of the Giants red zone plays were passes, by far the most in the NFL. For comparison, MIN and CAR were both 42% pass.  Game theory might suggest that a pass dominant offense would lead to larger gains on the ground due to the defense playing pass. That was not the case for the Giants, who gained 1.86 YPC on their red zone runs, 2nd worst in the NFL and over 40% worse than average.

At the most important position in the NFL, the Giants have the most stable player.  Eli Manning has started all 16 games dating back to 2005.  The last 5 years, he has made 84 starts for the Giants.  Tony Romo has 68, Kirk Cousins has 26 and Sam Bradford has 47 though they may turn to their rookie QB drafted 2nd overall this year.  The NFC East should be there for the taking for the Giants.  We know their passing game should be tremendous.  But their offensive line, particularly the weak right side, must step up & they must run the ball better.  And their free agents must earn their deals with immediate and strong impact this year.

Camp Notes:  The Giants have made it clear they expect RB Rashad Jennings to carry the bulk of the work this year, which should be a boost to their run efficiency, as rotating RBs as often as they did in 2015 was inefficient.  Rookie WR Sterling Shepard, their 2nd round pick, has shined this camp, and is receiving a ton of hype.  Any WR operating opposite Odell Beckham should be in favorable coverage situations, which will help Eli Manning develop a quick rapport with the young receiver.

Vegas Perspective:  8 Wins, #2 in NFC East

The Giants have a problem with injuries.  Unless the franchise is cursed, they must figure out a way to stay healthier.  They were the most injured team in the NFL the last 3 consecutive seasons.  If their health can improve in 2016, Ben McAdoo’s first season as head coach can be very successful.  The Giants went 1-5 (17%) in games decided by 3 or less points.  Those are toss up games at worst, and the Giants somehow wound up losing 5 of 6.  Despite that, they still won 6 games.  Injuries certainly played a role in the team starting 5-4 but ending 1-6, but just 1 of those losses was by more than 6 points.  The Giants would have finished 9-6 with one tie if the games ended after 3 quarters last year.  The Giants defense was the prime reason for 63% of their games going over the total.  In only 2 games did they hold their opponent’s offense to more than 3 points less than projected (BUF to 10 and TB to 18).  The Giants most difficult hurdle is back to back road games in Minnesota and in Green Bay, but fortunately face the Packers early in the calendar.  Playing only 3 teams projected to be .500 or better over their last 10 games, the Giants close the year with the 2nd easiest 10 game stretch, though they must be ready to play two NFC East foes on the road to close out the year (@ PHI, @ WAS).

Washington Redskins

For the diehard fans of the DC area, the Washington Redskins’ 2015 season was uplifting and fun.  The team won 9 games, the NFC East, and hosted a playoff game.  They finally saw entertaining and efficient quarterback play and an efficient offense which put up a lot of points and productivity.  But stepping back and looking at the season with a more tempered lens, several things about 2015 become more clear.

The Redskins beat up a bad schedule of opponents.  When they led by 6+ at halftime, they were an undefeated 8-0.  But these opponents were not strong at all, and included the Rams, Saints, Bears and Bills, as well as both games vs the Eagles, and a game vs the Giants and the Kellen Moore led Cowboys.  However, when leading by less than 6 points at halftime, when tied, or when trailing, the Redskins went 1-8 including their playoff loss to the Packers.  Their lone win was a remarkable 24-point comeback to beat the lowly Buccaneers by 1 point.

Aside from that comeback, the Redskins were 1-8 when their opponent held a lead at any point in time larger than 4 points.  For a team to make the playoffs despite that type of record was quite telling of how bad the NFC East was in 2015.  The Cowboys lost Tony Romo, the Eagles were a mess in Chip Kelly’s last season, and the Giants were once again the NFL’s most injured team with no clue how to win a close game (NYG went  1-8 in games decided by less than a TD last year).  

Despite playing an easy schedule, the defense was a disaster and the run game was non-existent.  The team became eternally dependent on the wicked tandem of QB Kirk Cousins and TE Jordan Reed.  And to no surprise, they compensated both in a big way this past offseason.  Jordan Reed’s catch rate is absurd, as he’s pulled down 78% of all targets within 15 yards of the line of scrimmage, by far the best rate of any NFL player.  He was literally indefensible in the first half of games before opponents began to employ new strategies at halftime.  As an example, when targeting Jordan Reed in the 1st half in opposing territory, Kirk Cousins went 28/33 (85%), 10 yds/att, 7 TD : 0 INT and a 149 passer rating, the very best in the NFL by a margin.  

GM Scot McCloughan understands the importance of efficiency from the QB position, and is willing to let Kirk Cousins test his repeatability in 2016 with an improved passing arsenal with which to work.  Josh Doctson could be an effective weapon for years to come and as Jamison Crowder works the inside with Jordan Reed lining up at various positions, the Redskins passing options are vast and diverse.  But 2016 is the money year.  DeSean Jackson and Pierre Garcon are in their final contract year.  It’s unlikely both stay, and possibly both leave.  But for 2016, Cousins has all the weapons a QB could ask for at his disposal, and it’s his time to shine and earn a long term deal.  McCloughan has improved this team dramatically since joining the Redskins.  This past offseason, he improved their ability to win passing the football, or by stopping the opposing passing offense.  There are holes in this team but if they can excel in their areas of strength, they will be competitive even against a tough schedule in 2016.  But predicting no regression to occur would be unwise.

Camp Notes:  Though only a 7th round selection, RB Keith Marshall has flashed in DC.  Already there is talk of him taking on significant work in the backfield, and his talent is undeniable.  The backfield is projected to be a “two-headed monster”, but the next few weeks in camp will really prove if Marshall can carry that load.  But with the Redskins being so entrenched at receiver and tight end, seeing how this backfield settles is one of the biggest points of interest.  The Redskins lost a talent when LB Junior Galette was lost for the year due to an Achilles injury in camp.  But this defense is more talented than the Redskins have had in several years if they can stay healthy.

Vegas Perspective:  7.5 Wins, #3 in NFC East

Despite a 9-7 season last year and the hopes and dreams in Washington seeking more, the Redskins are projected to reverse that record and finish 7-9 this year.  Why the down turn?  Their schedule is exceedingly difficult this year as compared to exceedingly easy last year.  33% of their wins last year came in games decided by 3 or less points, which was the 8th most of any team.  And, they won most of the key metrics that decide games, such as turnovers, penalties and sacks.  But there are positives.  The Redskins were one of the more injured teams last year, particularly on defense (2nd most defensive injuries), and they re-established a home-field edge, going 6-2 in DC after going 5-11 the prior 2 seasons.  But they opened as favorites in only 3 games, are projected to win only 7 in total, and worst of all, are favored in just 1 game vs NFC East opposition.  

Philadelphia Eagles

The Eagles played a game of chicken against themselves and lost.  It’s hard to imagine that happening, but put yourself in their shoes.  You are a professional football team.  And a professional football team needs a quarterback.  The prior year, you send your QB to the Rams in exchange for Sam Bradford, who can best be described as a below average QB on an above average deal who has not proven to be clutch, accurate deep or sturdy in the pocket.  He’s better than Nick Foles, but also more expensive.  And now his contract is up.  You’re contemplating signing him to a multi-year deal, but you don’t have much confidence in him.  Bradford is standing behind door 1.  Behind door 2 is a high risk, high reward move of packaging up a bounty of picks to draft North Dakota State product Carson Wentz 2nd overall.  Such trades rarely work, but hell, look behind door 1.  Why not give it a shot?  

Most teams would research the situation, figure out which door to open, and boldly make a choice.  The Eagles decided they were not capable of making the decision.  They built a third door, and stuck QB Chase Daniel behind that door.   The Eagles then decided they still were not capable of making a choice.  So instead of opening just one door, and instead of opening two doors, they decided to open ALL the doors.  What they got was a mess.  Now, they have a below average QB hitting the cap for $12.5M this year and a whopping $22.5M next year.  They have a backup QB on a ridiculous 3-year deal that averages $7M per year.  And they have a rookie QB from South Dakota State who is making their starting QB extremely jealous and already creating locker room tension.

The fastest way to make the messy quarterback situation disappear is to slap some lipstick on the pig and run the damn football.  The Eagles have the 3rd most expensive offensive line in the NFL and the 6th most expensive RB corps.  In his three seasons in Kansas City, Doug Pederson spearheaded one of the most balanced and conservative pass offenses in the NFL.  They attempted an early down deep pass in the first half just over 1 time per game on average, 2nd fewest of any team in the NFL.  In total, in the first half they attempted just 97 deep passes in his 48 games.  They were the only team below 120 attempts, and the NFL average for the other 31 teams was over 151 deep passes.  It’s very likely that this same strategy follows Pederson to the Eagles.  Coupled with tempo, the 2016 season will look very different on both sides of the ball.  In his 3 years in Philadelphia, the Eagles defense led the NFL each season with time on the field.  Opponent’s had a ton of possession with Kelly’s frenetic pace.  However, the Chiefs operated their offense with the NFL’s 2nd slowest pace in 2015 and in 2014.  New OC Frank Reich, from San Diego, saw the Chargers lead the NFL in offensive time of possession the last 3 years combined.  Thus, their defense was on the field the least time of possession.  Between Pederson and Reich, the plan will be simple.  Lower risk, higher completion percentage pass plays and a very sound run game that the offense can rely on to keep the time of possession on its side.  The game will look a lot different to Eagles fans, but it will feel very different to Bradford (if he starts) and to the Eagles defense, which finally might be rested and more focused mentally.  That plan works well if the offense can produce.  If it can’t, the Eagles have options of quarterbacks to turn to.  But they’ve merely spent a lot of capital to defer that decision one more season.

Camp Notes:  A key cog for the Eagles may be out for the first 10 games.  RT Lane Johnson was suspended based on amino acids testing positive for “peptide”, and while Johnson is fighting the ban, it is likely to be upheld.  At 6’6″, 317 pounds, he was one of the best run-blocking linemen in the NFL last year.  The Eagles will be without their #1 WR Jordan Matthews for the first couple of games, as he is dealing with a bone bruise in his knee.  This will cost key reps in the development of the QB-WR relationship between he and rookie QB Carson Wentz, should Wentz get inserted as the starter at some point early this season.

Vegas Perspective:  7.5 Wins, #4 in NFC East

After back-to-back 10 win seasons, the Eagles won just 7 games last year.  A lot of that had to do with efficiency.  Efficiency that can be improved through smarter use of players and play calling.  But a lot also had to do with a mediocre roster, and that has not changed.  The problem wasn’t injuries, as the Eagles were the 6th healthiest team.  It also didn’t really have to do with critical, game-deciding stats, as the Eagles were just fine on the season in sack margin, return TD margin and penalty margin.  They were -5 in turnover margin, but that was not terrible.  The 2016 Eagles are projected to be 7-9 again.  They are favored in 5 games, but last year 5 of their 7 wins came by 1 score or less.  Apart from playing the Browns in week 1, they are not favored in a single game until week 10.  Apparently linemakers have little trust in Sam Bradford, and just as little trust in what Doug Pederson might do based on what he did with Alex Smith and the Chiefs.  It will be extremely interesting to watch the pace of play offensively and how that differs this season.  If somewhat productive on offense, the defense should feel significantly more rested.  But if the offense struggles, the defense will once again find themselves in tough situations.

Written by Clay Travis

OutKick founder, host and author. He's presently banned from appearing on both CNN and ESPN because he’s too honest for both.