2015 NFC East Preview: A Wide Open Race for First Place
Over the past four seasons, the NFC East has been one of the most exciting and least predictable divisions in the NFL. Last year, the Cowboys won the division riding DeMarco Murray all the way to a 12-4 record. The year prior, Chip Kelly exceeded expectations by turning the Eagles from a 4-12 team to 10-6 division winners in his first season in the NFL. In 2012, Robert Griffin III looked to have all of the makings of a franchise quarterback when he helped lead his team to atop the division with a 10-6 record in his rookie year. In 2011, the Giants won the division and then the Super Bowl.
So, over four seasons, we've had four different division winners. With such a high degree of parity within the division, in all honesty, I'd have more confidence betting on the name of the next Kanye West baby (my money is on 'Wilde') than I do on whoever is going to win the NFC East. Luckily, numberFire's advanced algorithm has got our backs.
Although, it appears the algorithm, too, conceded a high degree of uncertainty within the division. Three of these four teams just need a few things to go right for them, as only six-tenths of a win separates the projected third place team in the division from the first. However, one of these teams is not the Washington Redskins.
4. Washington Redskins
The Washington Redskins were the fifth worst team in the NFL last year, and proved to be an interesting case study in the importance of the passing game in the modern NFL.
Last season, the Redskins ranked 14th by our efficiency metrics in Adjusted Offensive Rushing Net Expected Points (NEP), yet, because they ranked only 25th in Adjusted Offensive Passing NEP, they ranked 25th by our metrics in total Adjusted Offensive NEP.
Even though pass-catching back and backup
Roy Helu has moved on to the Oakland Raiders, this year, the run game might even be more effective than last. The Redskins have scrapped the zone blocking scheme that has been in place the past three years and instilled, at the behest of new offensive line coach/guru Bill Callahan, a power running scheme more suited to lead-back Alfred Morris’ natural ability. During the draft, the Redskins also spent the fifth overall pick on offensive lineman Brandon Scherff and then two rounds later, took running back Matt Jones in the third.
Any chance of reaching the playoffs, however, lies in an increased efficiency on the passing side of the ball. It certainly wasn't there last year, as each of Robert Griffin III, Kirk Cousins, and Colt McCoy had at least four starts to their names. It looks like Griffin will be the starter this season, and if that's the case, he'll need to be more efficient than last year. Among all quarterbacks with at least 145 drop backs, Griffin ranked 38th out of 39 qualifying quarterbacks in terms of efficiency. To put that in perspective, Kirk Cousins ranked 17th and Colt McCoy ranked 19th. If my editor would have allowed it, this is where I would have inserted a frowny-face emoji. [Editor's note: here's your emoji, Scott.]
There still is some hope with Griffin, however, as just two years prior, Griffin ranked sixth among all quarterbacks in Total (includes passing and rushing) NEP. Despite the poor quarterback efficiency, Griffin's targets still ranked well last season. DeSean Jackson was the fourth most efficient receiver in terms of Reception NEP per target and both tight ends, Niles Paul and Jordan Reed, ranked in the top 20 by the same metric at their position. Though, our metrics were less favorable to Pierre Garcon, who finished 77th out of 81 qualifying receivers.
While the Redskins were effective running the ball but struggled with the passing game on offense, the same pattern persists on defense.
The Redskins' defense was above average against the rush last year, ranking 14th in the league according to our Adjusted Defensive Rushing NEP metrics. According to our Adjusted Defensive Passing NEP numbers, though, they ranked 25th. Showing again the importance of the passing game in the new NFL, this led us to rank them 25th overall in total Adjusted Defensive NEP.
Since last season, they’ve fired defensive coordinator Jim Haslett and replaced him with Joe Barry. In the second round of the draft, they took defensive end Preston Smith.
New GM Scot McCloughan also added to the defense by signing defensive lineman
Stephen Paea to a four-year, $21 million contract, and signed defensive end Ricky Jean-Francois to a three-year $9 million deal.
While it does appear as though they’ve made significant improvements up front, the Redskins still had major work to be done with their secondary, so they traded for free safety Dashon Goldson and signed cornerback Chris Culliver to a four-year, $32 million deal. Will it be enough? Not according to our projections.
Projected Record: 6.6-9.4
Division Probability: 8.2%
Playoff Probability: 15.9%
3. New York Giants
Halfway through the sixth week of last season, in one of the most heartbreaking scenes I’ve ever seen on a football field,
Victor Cruz tore his patellar tendon. The Giants would go on to lose that game and their next six in a row. Their offensive line looked terrible, Eli Manning struggled to learn the new West Coast offense installed by first year offensive coordinator Ben McAdoo, and starting running back Rashad Jennings had played in only one game during that time period. There was but one bright spot on the entire Giants offense...the emergence of Odell Beckham Jr.
Come on! You had to know where I was going with this, and if you're sick of hearing about OBJ by now, you're probably a Dallas fan, so you can just skip to the next section.
From Week 7 on until the end of the season, Beckham posted four multi-touchdown games, seven 100-plus yard games, and a string of nine straight games with 90 or more receiving yards. Eli Manning was far more effective as well -- during the stretch, he went from an average of 221 yards per game to 308 yards per game.
The Giants receiving corps with Beckham, a healthy Cruz, and the still only 24-year-old
Rueben Randle looks to be one of the better groups in the league.
The Giants ranked in the bottom 10 of the league in rushing efficiency last year, but should improve this year as they'll get back a healthy Rashad Jennings and a new weapon in the former-Patriot Shane Vereen, who can also serve as an effective receiving option. Second-year player Andre Williams looks to improve from his low efficiency last year -- he ranked 16th out of all 17 running backs with at least 200 carries in Rushing NEP per rush.
The offensive line is still a question mark with starting left tackle Will Beatty sidelined until at least October. The Giants, however, did spend their first round pick on an offensive lineman, with Ereck Flowers as the ninth pick overall.
As the Giants offense looks poised for a breakout, things might not be as rosy for the team on defense.
It's been a tumultuous offseason for the Giants, who lost a starting defensive end, both of their starting safeties, and at least one finger off of their star defensive player.
Outside of the bizarre offseason storyline surrounding Jason Pierre-Paul, Giants fans might still have reason to be optimistic about their defense. The team let go of defensive coordinator Perry Fewell and brought on new (old) defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo. While the Giants went offense with their first pick in the draft, they went defense on their next two. They traded up in the second round for strong safety Landon Collins and then in the third took defensive end Owamagbe Odighizuwa.
Although the Giants still have no idea who their second starting safety will be, that might be the least of their problems. The Giants defense ranked third worst in Adjusted Defensive Rushing NEP last season. With starting left defensive end, Mathias Kiwanuka, off the team and the gigantic question mark that is JPP, the Giants will need their younger defensive lineman (Damontre Moore, Odighizuwa, Johnathan Hankins) to step up.
Projected Record: 8.1-7.9
Division Probability: 24.8%
Playoff Probability: 40.4%
2. Dallas Cowboys
After letting DeMarco Murray walk this offseason and signing Darren McFadden -- who has ranked in the bottom-five of our efficiency metrics in each of the past three years -- it seems Jerry Jones is set in an attempt to definitively prove that it is an offensive line that makes an effective running game and not the running back itself.
Last season, Murray led the league in rushing with a ridiculous 484 yards over the second closest running back. Yet, as a team, the Cowboys only ranked ninth by our metrics. By all accounts their passing attack was far more efficient, ranking third overall, behind only the Packers and Broncos.
This year it looks like the ground game will be the hot hand or committee of Joseph Randle, Darren McFadden, Lance Dunbar, and possibly Lache Seastrunk. While it's unlikely any of these backs can replicate a Murray-like performance on any consistent basis, they will be running behind possibly the best offensive line in football, and one that has only gotten better since last year. This Spring, they drafted offensive tackle Chaz Green in the third round of the draft and then signed La'El Collins who many had given a first round grade to, before off-the-field concerns led to him going undrafted.
On the other side of the ball, Tony Romo will likely be handling a larger workload. Whether or not he can maintain his highly efficient numbers from last year (he was our second most efficient quarterback last season) will depend a large part in the receivers surrounding him. Luckily the Cowboys locked up our fourth most efficient wide receiver last year in Dez Bryant. Backing him up is our third ranked wide receiver in per target efficiency, Terrance Williams, and shifty slot receiver Cole Beasley. Although he'll be 33 this season, Jason Witten was still highly effective last season, as he finished as our sixth most efficient tight end.
Two years ago, the Cowboys fielded one of the worst defenses of all-time. Last season, they fielded only the seventh worst defense in the league according to our metrics – okay, so a minor improvement.
Despite the arguably glaring need at the running back position, the Cowboys instead decided to address the defense this past draft when they took defensive back Byron Jones in the first round and defensive end Randy Gregory in the second round.
While the defense may have over performed last year for new defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli, this year he likely won’t have the luxury of such an effective clock-grinding rushing attack. Still, there are reasons for optimism with this defense. They will get both Morris Claiborne and Sean Lee back from injuries this season and although both Rolando McClain and the newly signed Greg Hardy will be suspended to start the season, both will be big playmakers once they come back.
Projected Record: 8.5-7.5
Division Probability: 31.1%
Playoff Probability: 48.4%
1. Philadelphia Eagles
Chip Kelly and Stephen Hawking enter a bar. The bartender asks "What will you have?" Hawking orders a “screwdriver”. The Bartender replies, "Oh no, sorry, I was asking the smartest man in the room, Chip Kelly."
I just made up that joke, but I imagine it is Chip Kelly’s favorite joke of all time. I, like I imagine most of the NFL, have no idea if Chip Kelly actually is a genius or whether he just thinks he's a genius.
This sentiment has never been more apparent than earlier this offseason, when Chip Kelly has traded, released, or failed to sign the following players: Nick Foles, LeSean McCoy, Jeremy Maclin, Evan Mathis, and Brandon Boykin. In return, Chip Kelly has also signed or traded for the following players: Demarco Murray, Ryan Mathews, Tim Tebow, Miles Austin, Sam Bradord, and Kiko Alonso.
It is interesting to note the injury history of many of these players, whether it is hubris on Kelly's part or if his investment in sports science will prove fruitful, it is too early to tell.
Last year, the Eagles had the 13th most efficient offense in the NFL, but only the third most efficient offense in their division. It is also hard to tell whether a new starting quarterback and rookie wide receiver Nelson Agholor can improve on what we had ranked as the number-12 overall passing attack last year. Nor is it easy to tell if the tandem of Murray and Mathews can improve on a ground game that ranked 18th, but our projections like the odds.
Last season, the Eagles had the third best total run defense in the league, but like most of the division, they were somewhat lacking in pass defense, which only ranked 20th in the league. Still, the Eagles had easily the best total defense in the division, and one that ranked an impressive sixth overall in the league.
After signing cornerback
Byron Maxwell to a six year $63 million deal and trading up five spots in the second round to select cornerback Eric Rowe, Chip Kelly seemed none to worried about his team’s pass defense, trading cornerback Brandon Boykin to the Steelers for a fifth-round pick.
Both defensive end Fletcher Cox and inside linebacker Mychal Kendricks were not traded this offseason despite several rumors to the contrary. Joining Kendricks in what might be one of the strongest linebacking corps in the NFL is Kiko Alonso from Bills. Although he sat out all of last season with a torn ACL, he put together a strong rookie performance the year before recording a ridiculous 159 total tackles along with 2 sacks, 4 interceptions, and a forced fumble. Alongside Kiko and Kendricks will be, linebacker Brandon Graham, who reportedly came close to signing with the Giants, but ended up rejoining the Eagles on a four-year, $26 million deal. Outside linebacker Connor Barwin looks to see if he can improve on the impressive Pro Bowl 14.5-sack performance he displayed last season.
Although there’s been a major upheaval in terms of the roster, on paper it looks like the Eagles have the best defense in the division. Perhaps we don’t yet know what is up Chip Kelly’s sleeves, but our projections have faith.
Projected Record: 8.7-7.3
Division Probability: 35.9%
Playoff Probability: 52.4%