NFC East Preview: Will the Eagles Soar Again?
Throughout the 1990s and early 2000s, the NFC East was perennially one of the best divisions in football. In the 20 years from 1990 to 2009, at least one wild-card team emerged from the NFC East 16 times, and a representative from the division won the NFC eight times, including six Super Bowl victories - the most of any division in the NFL over that span.
In the four years since, only the 9-7 Super Bowl XLVI Giants have even made it out of the first round of the playoffs.
Last year, after winning seven of their final eight games, the Eagles won the division despite coming into the season with more question marks than hype. This season, many people feel as though the Eagles are primed to join the league's elite in their second season under Chip Kelly. Will Philadelphia be able to take back the chokehold they held over the division from 2001 to 2004? Or will the new look Cowboys, Redskins and Giants be able to overtake last season's division champs?
4. Washington Redskins
Chance of Winning Division: 17.8%
Offensive Rank: 23rd
Defensive Rank: 21st
After winning the division on the backs of rookie sensations Robert Griffin III and Alfred Morris in 2012, the Redskins finished 2013 with an abysmal 3-13 record. Griffin, who struggled throughout the season while recovering from the the torn ACL and LCL that ended his 2012 season, went from leading the NFL in Rushing Net Expected Points (NEP) and finishing 10th in Passing NEP to falling to 18th and 20th in those categories respectively. Morris also took a step back, dropping from sixth in Rushing NEP among running backs who rushed at least 100 times in 2012 all the way to outside of the top 20 in 2013.
Last season's train wreck led to major changes in the organization, specifically on the offensive side of the ball. The Skins replaced the Mike and Kyle Shannahan with new head coach and offensive coordinator Jay Gruden and Sean McVay. Gruden will enter his first season as an NFL head coach looking to improve upon a passing attack that ranked 22nd in Passing NEP at -8.18 by utilizing the explosive down filed passing game that posted a 56.65 Passing NEP last season in Cincinnati. This coaching change could mean a major bounce back year for RGIII, and monster years from his two favorite targets - Pierre Garcon and Jordan Reed - as well as newly acquired weapon Desean Jackson.
On the defensive side of the ball, nothing major has changed. Jim Haslett remains the Redskins defensive coordinator for his fifth season, and the defense is still built on strength at the linebacker position with Ryan Kerrigan and Brian Orakpo. Although they made few changes on defense, there is still a great deal of room to improve for a team which ranked 27th against the pass and 20th against the run according to our metrics.
With that said, our numbers still do not really like the Redskins on either side of the ball. Washington ranks outside of the top 20 on both offense and defense and, in result, finds themselves ranked 24th in the NFL in nERD and at the bottom of the NFC East.
3. Dallas Cowboys
Chance of Winning Division: 18.2%
Offensive Rank: 12th
Defensive Rank: 23rd
Despite going 5-1 against division opponents last season, the Cowboys finished the year at a mediocre 8-8. Much of the reason for Dallas' struggles last season was due to injuries on the defensive side of the ball, something that hasn't changed. The Cowboys have already lost star middle linebacker Sean Lee for the season with a torn ACL, rookie sensation Demarcus Lawrence for half the season with a foot injury, Orlando Scandrick for four games with a suspension. And they have a number of other players fighting through nagging injuries in camp.
Despite all of these injuries, our projections actually believe the Cowboys defense will improve slightly. Last year, the Cowboys ranked second to last in the NFL in Defensive NEP at 137.43, only 0.01 behind the league worst Vikings. Dallas ranked 29th against the run, and could be close to that ranking again this season, especially with Lee on the shelf.
The good news for the Cowboys defense is that their offense should be significantly better this season, which should force opposing teams to throw the ball more rather than attack their bottom-five rush defense. Just like the Redskins, the Cowboys brought in a new offensive coordinator this off season to shake things up.
Dallas' hiring of former Lions' offensive coordinator Scott Linehan could have a profound impact on the Cowboys offense this season. Our metrics have Dallas projected as the 12th overall offense, and much of that has to do with how Linehan is expected to use Tony Romo and his plethora of weapons.
DeMarco Murray ranked second among running backs with a 21.42 Rushing NEP last season, but only sixth at the position with a 39.45 Total NEP due to a rather low 18.03 Reception NEP. With Linehan calling the plays in Dallas, Murray's Reception NEP and Total NEP should increase substantially. Linehan loves to throw the ball to his running backs, targeting Reggie Bush and Joique Bell 149 times last season. This is certainly tremendous news for Murray owners, but also bodes well for Cowboys' scat-back Lance Dunbar, who could be in line for a breakout season of his own.
Number one wide receivers have also performed well in Linehan offenses, posting a Reception NEP of 100-plus 10 different times. To put that in perspective, last season only 15 wide receivers had a Reception NEP of at least 100. Dez Bryant was one of those 15, ranking 14th among wide receivers with a 107.91 score. Bryant could easily find himself inside of the top 10 this season, or even the top five under Linehan's tutelage.
2. New York Giants
Chance of Winning Division: 22.0%
Offensive Rank: 30th
Defensive Rank: 4th
Sticking with the theme of the division so far, after a disappointing 2014 campaign, the Giants made major offseason changes. New York brought in former Packers' offensive coordinator Ben McAdoo to revamp an offense that ranked 31st last year according to our metrics. McAdoo brings a quick-hitting, West-Coast style offense to a team that was long overdue for a change on the offensive side of the ball. This style should help Eli Manning be more efficient and turn the ball over less, following a 2013 season in which he led the league in interceptions at 27.
The Giants also spent three of their first four draft picks on the offensive side of the ball, adding former LSU Tiger wideout Odell Beckham Jr., former Colorado State center Weston Richburg and Boston College stand-out running back Andre Williams. Additionally, the Giants signed former Raiders' running back Rashad Jennings, who should bring consistency to a backfield that desperately needs it.
With that said, our metrics don't predict dramatic improvements for the Giants on the offensive side of the ball. So if Big Blue's offense is going to continue to struggle, why do we predict them to finish second in the division?
Huge improvements on defense.
The Giants spent a fortune this offseason on a new-look secondary. New York brought in Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie on a five-year, $39 million deal, and former Seahawk Walter Thurmond for added depth at the position. They also signed safety Quintin Demps to help sure up the back end of the defense.
New York actually wasn't an easy team to throw on last season, ranking well against the pass, and should be even tougher to throw on this season. That bodes well for a Giants' pass rush, which was once the cornerstone of a championship-caliber defense but has been unimpressive as of late. The Giants still have one of the most physically gifted pass rushers in the league in Jason Pierre-Paul and, after moving Mathias Kiwanuka back to his natural defensive end position, should have no trouble generating pressure on the quarterback.
While our projections don't have the Giants finishing the season with a winning record, if the defense is as good as we expect, they could be the one team in the division who may have a chance to give the Eagles a run for their money.
1. Philadelphia Eagles
Chance of Winning Division: 42.0%
Offensive Rank: 9th
Defensive Rank: 16th
As I just alluded to, the defending division champion Eagles are our favorite to win the NFC East this season. Coming off a season in which he led Philadelphia to the fourth-ranked offense in Net Expected Points, there are high expectations for Chip Kelly's offense in his second season on the job. Nick Foles posted nearly identical NEP numbers to Aaron Rodgers last season and, while we don't expect quite the same season out of the Eagles' quarterback, we do project Foles to lead the Eagles to another top-10 offense this season.
The Eagles ran the ball 500 times last year, which was good for fourth in the league. With Kelly calling the plays, it's likely they'll continue to run the ball at an extremely high rate. This is music to Lesean McCoy owners' ears in fantasy football. The Eagles traded backup running back Bryce Brown to the Bills this offseason, but signed Darren Sproles, who should be able to fill Brown's production and give Kelly another versatile piece to work with.
Sproles isn't the only added dimension to the Eagles' passing attack, either. Philadelphia gets back their leading receiver from 2012, Jeremy Maclin, after missing 2013 with a torn ACL, and they added former Vanderbilt superstar Jordan Matthews in the draft. Adding these players to an already efficient passing offense should go a long way to offsetting the loss of Desean Jackson, who is now playing a few hours south down I-95 in Washington.
The Eagles remain pretty much the same on the defensive side of the ball, and will be entering their second year in defensive coordinator Bill Davis' scheme. Philadelphia is loaded with young talent on defense, and having another year in Davis' system should go a long way for players like Fletcher Cox, Mychal Kendricks and Cary Williams.
The defending NFC East champs ranked 15th defensively last season according to Net Expected Points. Our metrics have them projected to finish in almost the exact same spot this season, at 16th in the league. If the Eagles defense can continue to play at the same level they did last year, and if the offense is able to post another top-10 finish, it will be extremely difficult for the Giants, Cowboys or Redskins to win this division.