Monday, August 7, 2017

NFL Preview: NFC East

Happy Monday everyone, and welcome to a new idea on the blog, the 1st Annual NFL Preview series.  My friend and West Point classmate Joe writes a sports blog called A Hoosier on the Potomac, and in course of trying to drum up traffic some traffic on both of our sites, we hit on the idea of doing a shared NFL football preview, and here we are.  We’ll preview the various division in the NFL over the course of the next eight weeks or so, alternating weeks by way of sharing—and hopefully growing—our mutual audience.  You can play along at home by either commenting on social media to tell us how crazy/insightful/wrongheaded we are or by sharing these previews with your friends at work, school, home, church, or even down at your local watering hole.  Bonus points if your church is also your local watering hole.
I’m up first with a preview of the old “Black and Blue” division, the NFC East.  

Division Overview
A major problem with previewing an NFL season is that most season previews start with the assumption that lacking other changes, next season will look exactly like last season.  This is particularly problematic in professional football, where roster churn is a fact-of-life and where age seems to catch up with players quicker than it would in, say, Major League Baseball.  It’s also true that the NFL is a copycat league, meaning that once one defense has figured out how to stop a specific offensive scheme, other teams immediately adopt those defensive adjustments as a matter of course.  I personally enjoy the “chess match” aspect of football, but it a defining part of what makes the NFL the “Not For Long” league.
I mention this because I’ve used two main sources to frame my thoughts on the coming season, ESPN’s Football Power Index (FPI) and Odds Shark’s over/under team win totals.  Both assume by default that the NFC East will finish 2017 roughly the same way it finished 2016.  It’s hard to argue with the specific predictions on a case-by-case basis, but it’s also extremely unlikely that the coming season will repeat 2016.  The NFC East hasn’t had a back-to-back division winner since the Eagles won four straight from 2001 to 2004.  2017 looks unlikely to break that trend.
Dallas Cowboys
The Cowboys finished last season 13-3 but lost in the divisional round to the Green Bay Packers.  When they weren’t playing the NY Giants, the Cowboys looked like the best team in football.  This owed to their outstanding offensive line, sensational rookie running back Ezekiel Elliott, and the unexpected emergence of 4th round pick Dak Prescott at quarterback.  All of which remains more-or-less in place, and as a result, most folks are picking the Cowboys to repeat as division champs.  
But.  Colin Kaepernick also took the League by storm in his rookie season, only to disappear into obscurity in the course of a disappointing sophomore slump.  Ditto for Robert Griffin III.  Because reality is that it’s hard as Hell to stay on top when the others guys know you’re coming.  In the cases of Kaepernick and RG3, their respective games suffered once teams got enough tape to study their styles.  I suspect that this will be slightly less true of Prescott, but as recent history has shown us, even an incremental change could cost the Cowboys the division.  That incremental change might not even come as a result of anything Prescott does himself.  Next year will see the Cowboys replace both of their offensive tackles on a team whose success starts with their O-Line.  Ezekiel Elliott faces a potential conduct suspension as well.  Either of these, combined with a year’s worth of tape on Prescott, tells me to be a little cautious about crowning the ‘Boys before the season begins.
ESPN’S FPI: +3.8; 9.4 wins
Over/Under: 9.5 (-150/+120)
As I said in the opening, I want to disagree with the idea that the Cowboys are going to repeat as NFC East champs.  However, they could easily win ten games, and that might just get it done.
New York Giants
The Giants bucked tradition last year on a couple of fronts.  Most unusually, they spent big money on defensive free agents and actually made that pay.  Second, they got Eli Manning into the playoffs with an ostensibly talented offense but then fizzled in the moment.  Third, they had a terrific receiving corps in a pass-happy league including arguably the best wide receiver in the game, but they still struggled to generate offense.  All of this was possible because the Giants’ O-Line was an unmitigated disaster.  The G-Men couldn’t run for consistent yardage even in the playoffs against a Green Bay defense playing its back seven some fifteen yards off the ball.
To address this, New York brought in free agent wide receiver Brandon Marshall, drafted elite pass catching tight end Evan Engram, signed free agent tight end Rhett Ellison to be the team’s new H-Back, and pinkie-promised to tinker with their O-Line until they found something that works.  This “tinkering” involves a few overlooked free agent tackles, both veteran and undrafted, and some game tape in which sabermetrics dudes swear to the Football Gods that what was really missing was talent out of their blocking tight ends.
ESPN’S FPI: +1.2; 8.2 wins
Over/Under: 9.0 (-105/-120)
The Giants were close last year, and if they can get their O-Line straight, they have elite talent on offense.  Against that, though, they were also maybe a half-dozen busted defensive stops from going 8-8 or worse last year.  So yeah, it’s good to win close games.  However, this team is not going anywhere if they can’t find a way to run the ball with a modicum of consistency.
Philadelphia Eagles
Of all the teams in the NFC East, the Eagles are the hardest to predict.  Philly has a passionate, big market fan base pulling hard for a historically successful franchise.  Perhaps for this reason, it seems like the Eagles always get a ton of favorable press in the offseason.  As a Giants’ fan, it’s felt at times like the Eagles win the offseason every year, only to fade once we get maybe six games into meaningful play.  If 2017 hasn’t seen quite that level of hype, still folks are mostly looking for the Eagles’ upside rather than the reverse.
So.  Doug Pederson is in his second year as a head coach, and one assumes that this can only help.  Pederson has one of the best defensive coordinators in the league in Jim Schwartz, who in turn has a good-looking first round pick in DE Derek Barnett to rush the passer.  Schwartz is a math guy who runs a 4-3 defense, and when he’s gotten good pass rush, he’s tended to be very successful.  The Eagles also signed free agents WR Alshon Jeffery and RB LaGarrette Blount, both of whom ought to produce, especially in the early going.  In particular, the reviews on Jeffery have been excellent.
Against this, the Eagles are basically stuck with Carson Wentz, who struggled last season down the stretch.  I wouldn’t panic about that, except that Wentz’s mechanics suffered as the season progressed, and that’s bad.  Philip Rivers is an elite-level quarterback with an unusual delivery, but he’s about the only guy I can think of who’s at that level—as a passer—without having first-rate throwing mechanics.
ESPN’S FPI: +0.2; 8.0 wins
Over/Under: 8.0 (-125/-105)
Personally, I think the media is a little inclined to love the Eagles because they’re a big market team with a big national following.  So if the preseason prediction is an uncertain 8-8, well, I don’t really love their chances if I’m being honest.
Washington Redskins
The Washington Redskins are my pick to overachieve in the NFC East.  Despite all the drama, Kirk Cousins is the division’s best quarterback, and he’s got two fine wide receivers in Terelle Pryor and Dez Bryant.  To this, the ‘Skins always seem to be able to add an at least above-average running game, and here we are.  
Washington struggled last year, but they were still in the playoff race at the end of the season.  They actually won the division just two short years ago with a team that is still basically intact.  This doesn’t mean they’re necessarily going to light the league on fire, or that they have the pieces in place for a sustained run of glory, but I think the Redskins’ minimum is a hard floor of eight wins.
ESPN’S FPI: -0.8; 7.3 wins
Over/Under: 7.5 (-125/-105)
Really, the Redskins have two issues.  First, they’re in win-now mode because they failed to sign Cousins long-term, but they probably don’t have the kind of doomsday defense they need to get deep into the pos-season.  They’re going to have to score a lot of points in 2017 to get above .500.  That possibility is real, especially with Cousins in another contract year, but it’s also the hard way to find success.
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Joe will be up on Thursday with his preview of the AFC East.  Check it out!

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