The NFC East is always a fight. Whether it is among the fans or on the field, it will never be claimed easily. Last season, it was taken via heist on the field, when a new arrival in Washington DC took the previous season’s bottom feeders to a level the organization had not reached in 13 years, and in a fashion they’d never seen before.
But staying on top has much more struggle than reaching it, and Robert Griffin III and his Redskins are primed to discover this. The battle to hold the crown will be highlighted by a brand new approach in Philadelphia, a coach that’s likely pushing to hold onto his livelihood in Dallas and a Giants team that’s search for a new identity with familiar faces.
There were some gutsy wins a year ago, such as the Redskins sweeping the season series from Dallas, and the Eagles pulling out their last win in what would prove to be in nearly a two month span over the Giants, which ultimately ended up costing New York a playoff shot. There’s not many division that break down the middle closer than the NFC East does, and once again there may very well be only one ticket to the Playoffs provided from this division. So there will be no love lost once again, not as if there ever was any in the first place.
QB: Robert Griffin III, RB: LeSean McCoy, Alfred Morris, WR: Dez Bryant, Victor Cruz, Hakeem Nicks, TE: Jason Witten, OT: Jason Peters, Trent Williams, OG: Todd Herremans, Kory Litchensteiger, C: David Baas
DE: DeMarcus Ware, Jason Pierre-Paul, DT/NT: Jay Ratliff, Issac Sopoaga, OLB: Brian Orakpo, Ryan Kerrigan, MLB: Sean Lee, Demeco Ryans, CB: Morris Claiborne, Brandon Flowers, FS: Nate Allen, SS: Brandon Merriweather
K: Dan Bailey, P: Donnie Jones, KR: David Wilson, PR: Desean Jackson
Coming off his second consecutive 8-8 year, Romo is facing the task of leading the way for what needs to be turning the corner season, as well as a return to the playoffs for the first time in four years.
DALLAS COWBOYS (8-8 in 2012)
The Good: It finally clicked for Dez last year, and he began to deliver on the warehouse full of talent that he’s had for years. In his breakout season, he posted totals of 1,382 yards on 92 catches and 12 touchdowns, and became a regular playmaker in an offense full of steady, but not game breaking talents. 16 games of him playing at the level he finished 2012 at could change everything about the potential of this offense, and yes, even Tony Romo.
The Bad: Are they ready to play hardnosed football yet up front? Two of their previous three first round picks have been dedicated to bettering the offensive line, between Tyron Smith and Travis Frederick, so the effort is on. But with the perennially fragile Demarco Murray and an immediate need to keep Romo upright to deliver to the plethora of targets on offense, the difference between a run for the division or not starts with the development upfront paying out.
X-Factor—Sean Lee: The rangy, tackling machine in the middle of defense is the key to the success of the unit. He ran up big games of 10 and 14 tackles early in the year, before heading the PUP list after a toe injury in week 7 a year ago. His health and availability is a non-negotiable element of the success of a team whose linebacker corps are young and now without DeMarcus Ware, who moves to defensive end.
Record: NYG (W), @KC (W), STL (W), @SD (W), DEN (L), WSH (L), @PHI (L), @DET (W), MIN (W), @NO (W), @NYG (L), OAK (W), @CHI (L), GB (L), @WSH (L), PHI
Prediction: There’s always going to be questions about the Cowboy’s consistency as long as Romo is calling the shots, but the biggest issue for them is finding consistency within the division. Jason Garrett is likely running short on opportunities to produce this, and health of his defensive unit will likely be the deciding factor for the season. A tough late season run with trips to Chicago and Washington, as well as hosting Green Bay will call the difference in a division title or the mud of a wild card push, with the former being more likely. 9-7
Cruz topped 1,000 yards for the second consecutive season, and has found the endzone 19 times in the previous two years. He returns to be responsible for more of the production in NY than ever before.
NEW YORK GIANTS (9-7 in 2012)
The Good: They have undergone a steady change over the past few years, and it has returned several promising offensive tools. Between Rueben Randle, Brandon Myers and Ramses Barden, the offensive unit has a lot of breakthrough potential this season. Add in the luxury of staying in complimentary roles around Victor Cruz and Hakeem Nicks leading the way, along with Eli Manning, who has an underrated ability to bring out the best in young receivers, calling the shots for them.
The Bad: Will the defense have found its identity this time around? Osi Umenyiora is gone, Jason Pierre-Paul is rebounding from back surgery and the secondary is in transition. In a division with the type of offense that the NFC East, not to mention dates with Green Bay, Seattle and Detroit, the will be tested often. There will have to be a unit that overachieves to help steady the team’s outlook.
X-Factor—David Wilson: Wilson showed his big play potential in open space last year, with an NFL-best 1,533 kick return yards, but never quite figured out the nuances of running between, off or anywhere near the tackles. But with Ahmad Bradshaw gone, he’ll be leaned on heavily to be the same type of all-purpose back that his predecessor was. Picking up the details in year two will be a must.
Record: —@DAL (L), DEN (L), @CAR (W), @KC (L), PHI (W), @CHI (L), MIN (L), @PHI (W), OAK (W), GB (L), DAL (W), @WSH (L), @SD (W), SEA (L), @DET (W), WSH
Prediction: They certainly could factor into the mostly even landscape of the NFC East, via the points potential of the best QB/receiver combo in the NFC alone. But they are thin on proven depth, as well as exactly what type of production they can count on from the defense week in and out. If everything goes right, they could steal the division. Yet if one unit lags, they could just as easily slide out of the playoff picture complete. This is likely a team that has stretches with both and has a record that reflects it. Record: 8-8.
McCoy has had at least 250 touches in each of the past three seasons, and is in line to be among the busiest backs in football in Philly’s new scheme.
PHILADELPHIA EAGLES (4-12 in 2012)
The Good: The new scheme certainly fits the pieces. It’s still not completely certain how Chip Kelly’s up tempo offense will be translated into the NFL, but he certainly has the right pieces to make it go. Desean Jackson, Michael Vick, LeSean McCoy and Michael Vick can be instant offense, and the return of Jason Peters, coupled with massive first round pick Lane Johnson gives them the right bookends to build a persistent threat on offense.
The Bad: Defensively, there’s been a major turnover in the secondary, and it could be a target early on often for Romo, Manning and RGIII for the majority of the season. Without a promise of consistent pass rush (a team total of 30 in 2012), nor much change that would change the league-worse 13 turnovers they scrounged together, they could still be among the worst units in the League.
X-Factor—Michael Vick: The enigma that is Vick continues to take on new faces. Ideally, he is the perfect option for the type of offense that is being installed. However, he hasn’t been the most flexible decision maker on the run, especially standing up to the constant pressure that he has been subjected to the last few years. If he can play within himself and put to bed the rumors of the looming Nick Foles (again), the entire picture for the team could change.
Record—@WSH (L), SD (L), KC (L), @DEN (L), @NYG (L), @TB (W), DAL (W), NYG (L), @OAK (W), @GB (L), WSH (L), ARI (W), DET (L), @MIN (L), CHI (L), @DAL (L)
Prediction: There are a lot of elements going on at once that are not point towards much of a step forward in Philly. There is unrest at quarterback, a completely new offensive scheme under a rookie head coach, an offensive line bookended by a comeback attempt and a rookie, as well as a thin defense. Add in the usual brutality of the NFC East, and you have another long season in PA. Record: 4-12.
Griffin lead the Redskins to heights they hadn’t reached in over a decade in route to becoming Offensive Rookie of the Year. But how much of a price did he pay?
Washington Redskins (10-6 in 2012)
The Good: For all of the steps forward that the Skins took last year with RGIII at the helm, they were never truly at full strength. Pierre Garcon, Fred Davis, Trent Williams and Brian Orakpo all spent significant time off the field. All are slated to be back and in the fold from day one this year, which along with a miraculously ready (we think) Griffin back from knee surgery, this could be one of the most explosive teams in the NFL, both again and on a new level.
The Bad: Is the defense ready to carry their part of the bargain? They return much of the same unit as last year, and didn’t have many early draft picks to get creative with to infuse new life into the mix. The team won last year in spite of a bland pass rush and porous secondary. The pass rush will be improved with Orakpo back, but there have to be more elements than himself and Ryan Kerrigan to it.
X-Factor—Fred Davis: When he tore his ACL in week 7 last year, he was averaging just over 13 yards per catch and was a major target over the middle for Griffin as defensive were stuck between guarding the run and fearing the bomb. If he stays healthy and still has his unique mix of size and separation speed, he could be one of the most productive tight ends in the NFL.
Record: PHI (W), @GB (L), DET (W), @OAK (W), @DAL (W), CHI (W), @DEN (L), SD (W), @MIN (L), @PHI (W), SF (W), NYG (W), KC (L), @ATL (L), DAL (W), @NYG (L)
Prediction: RGIII may be the biggest difference maker in the NFL, for any team. Regardless of how he is deployed this year, having his full selection of tools around him this year makes him that much more dangerous and primed for an even better season. Combined with a strong complimentary threat in Alfred Morris and the bonus of the division’s best linebacker group in Orakpo, Fletcher and Kerrigan, and the Skins look to be able to repeat what could be a regular position atop the East. Record: 10-6.
Stay locked over the next week, as the previews keep coming and I walk the prediction plank. Either I look dumb, great or like the Giants. For the real-time development, follow me on Twitter at @CheapSeatFan