The division that used to be the most feared in the NFL has now become one that’s known more about making headlines in March and April than putting up wins in the Fall. Sadly, things didn’t really change all that much in 2016 for the four teams in the NFC East.
The Dallas Cowboys’ season was over before it really began in 2015, between the acquisition of defensive end Greg Hardy — which turned out to be karmic retribution and a PR nightmare for the Cowboys — and Tony Romo breaking his collarbone in Week 2 and reinjuring it in Week 12 (he was limited to four appearances and 216 snaps last season). On top of that, star receiver Dez Bryant played in only nine games last season because of a foot injury, and often didn’t look the same because of the limitations caused by his foot, or because of the merry-go-round of awful quarterbacks the Cowboys trotted out while Romo was gone. To help limit the amount of hits Romo — who turned 36 years old this offseason — takes during the season, Jerry Jones went into the 2016 NFL Draft looking to find the next Emmitt Smith to run behind the new version of “The Great Wall of Dallas” (their current Earth-moving offensive line, which is easily the best in the NFL), drafting running back Ezekiel Elliott with the fourth overall pick in the draft. Elliott was one of the most dynamic running back prospects to come out of the draft in years, and running behind the aforementioned offensive line, he’s a virtual lock to win offensive rookie of the year in 2016.
But, the Cowboys problems in 2016 won’t originate on offense. They’re very likely to originate on defense, the side of the football that was mostly neglected this offseason (and still took a few devastating hits). Dallas was ranked 23rd in the NFL against the run last season, and while free agent defensive tackle Cedric Thornton (from Philadelphia) was a nice acquisition, they did almost nothing else to shore up that weakness. What the Cowboys do at middle linebacker also remains to be seen, given that Rolando McClain — who they intended on being their middle linebacker — was set to serve a 10 game suspension by the NFL for violating the league’s substance abuse policy, and could now be released by Dallas because of reports that he put on anywhere from 30lbs to 40lbs of weight due to his addiction to “Purple Drank” (sprite mixed with prescription-strength cough syrup containing codeine, which is classified as an opiate by the NFL). Sean Lee might seem like the obvious replacement, but he’s proven that he’s just not big and durable enough to take the pounding associated with that position. As far as their fifth-ranked pass defense last year, the Cowboys also lost pass rushers Demarcus Lawrence (who led the team in sacks last year) and Randy Gregory (their second round pick in 2015) to suspensions also related to substance abuse. Lawrence will be out for four games, but Gregory could be gone for 10 games because of his latest misstep being his fourth transgression according to the league’s policy. In the secondary, they might have Bryon Jones — an emerging star that can play either slot cornerback or free safety — but not much else. Cornerbacks Brandon Carr and Morris Claiborne, both of who will be heavily relied upon in 2016, might not even be with the team past this year.
After finishing with their third straight losing season (and missing the playoffs for the fourth season in a row), the Giants dismissed two-time Super Bowl-winning head coach Tom Coughlin. Curiously, instead of cleaning house entirely, they retained General Manager Jerry Reese — who might’ve been as much to blame for the Giants lack of performance, given how depleted of talent the team became over the years — along with coordinators Ben McAdoo (who was promoted to head coach) and Steve Spagnuolo (who stays on as defensive coordinator); quarterbacks coach Mike Sullivan was also retained and promoted to offensive coordinator.
Perhaps sensing the fact that he was very much on the hotseat, Reese went out in the offseason and spent lavishly on upgrading the Giants talent, especially on defense; the Giants ranked 32nd in the NFL last season in yards allowed per game, and 30th in Football Outsiders Defense-adjusted Value Over Average (DVOA) metric. They signed defensive end Olivier Vernon (formerly with Miami), defensive tackle Damon “Snacks” Harrison (formerly with the New York Jets), cornerback Janoris Jenkins (formerly with the Rams), and linebacker Keenan Robinson (formerly with Washington), all of whom project to be starters in 2016. They also brought back defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul to a one-year deal, and drafted cornerbacks Eli Apple from Ohio State (their first round pick) and free safety Darian Thompson from Boise State (their third round pick) in the 2016 NFL Draft.
On offense, the Giants basically doubled-down on their seventh-ranked passing offense from 2015, retaining the services of McAdoo and drafting guys like wide receiver Sterling Shepard from the University of Oklahoma (the team’s second round pick in the 2016 NFL Draft who has been an absolute star in training camps so far) and tight end Jerell Adams from the University of South Carolina (a sneaky pick in the sixth round; he could be a gem of a find). Quarterback Eli Manning has enjoyed the best seasons of his career under McAdoo’s scheme and throwing the football to the virtually unstoppable Odell Beckham Jr., so the Giants are banking that an improved defense can get them where they want to go.
For what seems like the first time in the Dan Snyder era, the Washington Redskins have been one of the most quiet and under-the-radar teams in the NFL, all but eschewing any national spotlight or flashy free agent signings… with one exception. When the Carolina Panthers surprisingly decided to set free cornerback Josh Norman, the Redskins pounced on the opportunity and quickly locked up Norman to a five-year, $75 million contract. While many will point to that move as a “same old Redskins” acquisition, people may not realize that the addition of Norman gives the Redskins one of the best groups of cornerbacks in the NFL; he and up-and-comer Bashaud Breeland might be the best pair of cornerbacks in the NFC East. Outside of Norman, the Redskins defense remains largely the same, outside of signing reserve safety David Bruton Jr. from Denver to be the team’s starting strong safety, and sliding in reserve lineman Kedric Golston as the team’s starting nose tackle, in place of the departed Terrance Knighton.
But no question about it, this team will go as far as quarterback Kirk Cousins will take them. After signing the one-year franchise tender by the Redskins, he and the team are both operating with a “prove it” mindset: both sides want to confirm that the way Cousins played over the last eight games of the season — when he threw for over 2,200 yards and over 9.4 yards per attempt, along with 19 touchdown passes and only two interceptions — was the guy they’ll be getting in the future. He’ll have the luxury of throwing to perhaps the best collective group of wide receivers and tight ends in the NFL, comprised of DeSean Jackson, Pierre Garcon, tight end Jordan Reed, young receiver Jamison Crowder, and wide receiver Josh Doctson from TCU (the team’s first round pick in the 2016 NFL Draft). If Cousins can keep up his stats, especially in spite of the Redskins rushing attack that ranked 20th in the NFL last season, and might not be much better this season — the Redskins have plenty of pieces in place to repeat as NFC East champions in 2016.
The one team that’s almost certainly out of the NFC East race for now is the Philadelphia Eagles. After dismissing head coach Chip Kelly before the end of the season last year, they spent the offseason renovating much of what Kelly put in place, with the goal of taking one step back in order to take two steps forward.
Howie Roseman, the executive vice president of football operations for the Eagles, might as well have changed his name to “Trader Joe” after the litany of deals he struck this offseason. He dealt overpaid and disgruntled running back DeMarco Murray to Tennessee. He sent Kelly ex-pats Byron Maxwell and Kiko Alonso in a deal to the Miami Dolphins, which helped them move up to the 8th overall pick in the 2016 NFL Draft. He then sent a massive package of current and future picks to the Cleveland Browns, in exchange for the 2nd overall pick in the draft, in order to take quarterback Carson Wentz from North Dakota State University. Wentz will battle incumbent Sam Bradford — the one “Kelly guy” whom Roseman couldn’t find a new home for — for the rights to start at quarterback for the Eagles on opening day, but it’s painfully obvious that Wentz is the Eagles franchise player of the future.
Amidst all those trades, the Eagles biggest and best acquisition might’ve been the hiring defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz. Schwartz has done marvelous jobs with the defenses he coached in Detroit and in Buffalo (especially with their respective defensive lines), and he’ll get to work with a talented group in Philadelphia. Schwartz will have the opportunity to unleash the full fury of guys like Fletcher Cox and Vinny Curry along the defensive line, while Malcolm Jenkins and free agent acquisition Rodney McLeod (formerly with the Rams) gives Schwartz the best pair of safeties in the NFC, this side of Seattle. It certainly won’t be enough to win the Eagles any games while the offense sputters under Bradford or Wentz, but he’ll get that unit to keep them in games for sure.