Out of all the divisions in the NFL, The NFC East (or the Beast as it is commonly referred to) is more competitive than any other. The winner of this division has changed nearly yearly, and last year, the least likely team headed into 2012 ended up taking it by the skin of their teeth in week 17. Heading into 2013, three of the four teams could easily be seen as division favorites, while the fourth is in a retooling stage that could result in their eventual ascension back to the top of the heap. In terms of purely ranking the four teams, this is no doubt the hardest division for me to predict.
1 – New York Giants
The football Giants seem to take a step forward, then backward, then forward, in a strange cycle that has netted them two Superbowl championships and three seasons without a postseason berth since 2007. 2012 was a rough year for everyone in the East, and while their 9-7 record could have sent them to the postseason, it didn’t pan out that way. I expect the cycle to revert back in 2013, despite the heavy competition around them.
It all starts with Eli Manning, once a laughing stock and constant source of criticism, and today one of the NFL’s more steady and consistent QBs with a couple of rings to show for his improvement. When Eli drops back, he’s going to be looking at one of the most dangerous groups of passcatchers in the NFL, including Hakeem Nicks (who needs to stay healthy), Victor Cruz (who needs to live up to his new contract), ex-Raiders TE Brandon Meyers (who caught 79 passes in Oakland last year), and when things down the field look iffy, he’ll have a pretty good swing back in David Wilson to dump it off to. Wilson only caught 4 balls in 2012, but he averaged 8.5 yards per reception and should see his targets increase. There’s also a high level of expectation for him to shine as the starting RB, and he had some huge flashes of dynamic playmaking last year. Andre Brown is an excellent 2nd HB and could take more than a few carries away from Wilson, as Head Coach Tom Coughlin favors spreading the carries around anyway.
While the team was consistently put in bad situations due to their defense in 2012, certain players should help improve the unit. Jason Pierre-Paul’s season ending injury is a thing of a past, and he needs to return to his 2011 form, as he was one of the league’s most dominating defensive players that year. Justin Tuck may be past his prime, but if he can keep himself motivated, he’s still capable of disrupting things across the line. Overall, there isn’t a team in the NFL who isn’t envious of the Giants’ depth on their D-Line, and they’ve proven over the years to be adept at cycling players in and out and taking advantage of key mismatches. On the back end, Antrell Rolle is one of the better safeties in the league, and Stevie Brown is a ballhawk across from him, hauling in 8 INTs in 2012.
Causes For Concern:
All the skill position talent will mean nothing if the offensive line doesn’t come together, stay healthy and stay consistent. Throughout two preseason games, issues have already arisen, and between injuries to starters and key depth players alike, this unit could very well be the Giants’ undoing in 2013. Many were surprised to see the Giants take an offensive lineman in the first round, but Justin Pugh may have a lot of work ahead of him if, as it seems, he’ll be starting at RT.
The linebacking corps is one of the least flashy and vanilla in the NFL, and without improved play across the line, the weaknesses of this unit will be taken advantage of once again. Even with improved play from the front four, not being able to count on your LBs for anything more than (hopefully) meeting their assignments is a bad sign. The CB position is also iffy, with Corey Webster having a shaky 2012 and Prince Amukamara not quite living up to expectations to date. There is some…interesting…depth at the position, and maybe a young guy or two can step up and help round out the secondary. But that’s a big if at one of the most pivotal positions on the team.
I have them winning the division, but most certainly not homefield advantage. Even if my prediction is off, the team that does win the Beast will do it with a record no better than 10-6. The competition is going to be fierce, and if New York wants to rise above it, they’re going to need their stars to do what they do best, their offensive line to hold together, and the holes in their defense to be masked by improved D-Line play. Those are the keys to the division crown for the Giants.
2 – Washington Redskins
While it seems like everyone saw it coming, in retrospect nobody could have predicted that Robert Griffin III would lead the Redskins to the division crown in 2012. His emergence as both a solid passer and dangerous runner was only part of the equation, but it is the pivotal part nonetheless. Who nobody saw coming was Alfred Morris, the rookie RB who seemed to do everything right en route to a Probowl-caliber season. The Skins have just as much of a chance at the division as the Giants, but I am going out on a limb and saying they take a slight step backwards…or at least stay idle while New York takes the step.
Beyond RGIII and Morris, the team has some real weapons in the passing game. If Pierre Garcon stays healthy, he’s already proven the sort of dangerous deep threat he can be. Joshua Morgan and Leonard Hankerson are interchangeable at the 2nd WR spot, and both are improving talents. Fred Davis still needs to be accounted for at TE, and Darrel Young is one of the best lead blockers in the NFL at FB. The team is also stout on the left side of the O-Line, with Probowler Trent Williams keeping RGIII’s blindside clear and LG Kory Lichtensteiger a solid compliment. Will Montgomery completes the package and is a dependable center. Oh, and let’s not forget that this team has the sort of depth at QB that most teams would trade a couple year’s worth of 1st round picks for. Kirk Cousins may end up being the real deal as a starter on some other team down the line, and Rex Grossman is the sort of backup you want; one with experience and knowledge.
The return of Brian “Geico” Orakpo will help a defense that overachieved in 2012, and combined with Ryan Kerrigan they give the Skins a dangerous pass rushing duo. The ageless London Fletcher is returning for his 16th season, and his leadership and seemingly bottomless tank will be needed. The defensive line is underrated, especially with the strength of Barry Cofield in the middle. Washington is looking forward to seeing if Jarvis Jenkins can thrive at the right DE spot after a so-so 2012 campaign. On the back end, the team is crossing its fingers that their handful of draft picks and a healthy Brandon Meriweather, alongside the returning DeAngelo Hall, can help shore up the weakest part of the 2012 squad.
Causes For Concern:
Depth on the offense line is an issue, and the right side can often collapse, which necessitates the usage of the pistol offense even more so. Injury concerns abound on offense, from the centerpiece (and offseason go-to story for every sport media outlet known to man) RGIII to Garcon and a handful of others.
The secondary has to step up, along with the pass rush, or else the defense will once again have to play above and beyond themselves simply to keep Washington in contention. DeAngelo Hall is nothing more than a gambler, who will be burned about as often as he comes with with a big play. There’s simply no way to know, until the season starts, if the key pieces and rookies will come together and DC Jim Haslett’s job easier. Despite all the concern surrounding Griffin, this is the real question mark for the Redskins in 2013.
In an ultra-competitive NFC, projecting the two wild card teams is a tall order, but I fully expect Washington to be in the mix all the way into January. Whether or not they get over the hump, or possibly take the division again, will depend on a combination of staying healthy and making major strides defensively. Believe it or not, there’s also the issue of Mike Shanahan outsmarting himself, as he did more than once in his Denver days and showed signs of doing again in 2012. He needs to stick with what works, keep his injured players on the shelf until they’re cleared for action (and cleared again, just as a precaution), and more than anything stay out of the team he helped build’s way.
3 – Dallas Cowboys
Optimism, like every other season, is high and strong in Dallas coming into 2013. A change in offensive and defensive philosophies, a QB with more to say about what’s going on on the field, and a few key players returning from injury, and you’ve got a recipe for Jerry Jones and company to pat themselves on the back earlier than most teams would dare. The Cowboys have always given off a sense of confidence, but recent troubles getting to and then winning in the postseason have the doubters doubting and questions rising across the roster, and on the sidelines as well. This very well may be HC Jason Garrett’s last dance if some improvement isn’t seen from 2012.
While his critics are many, there’s little doubting that Tony Romo is a superior option to most QBs in the NFL. His tendency to collapse in pressure situations is a little overblown if you ask me, and the guy produces the sort of numbers that make most teams envious. Of course, he has some talent on the receiving end of his passes, including the suddenly emerging Dez Bryant, who has all the ability in the world and finally brought it to the field in the back half of 2012. Miles Austin, when healthy, is still a capable option, and despite Jason Witten’s age, he’s still Romo’s security blanket and puts up good numbers.
There is talent all across the defense, and it starts with a strong front seven. The transition to a 4-3 base defense will most likely incorporate plenty of 3-4 looks while talented LBs such as DeMarcus Ware and Sean Lee adapt to the change. The team took a sizable hit recently when they learned that DT Jay Ratliff will be lost for the 2013 campaign, but he hasn’t quite played up to his early production the past few seasons. Anthony Spencer is still with the team for at least another year, and the team will count on his disruptive abilities as he transitions to playing with his hand to the ground. The team has envious talent at the CB position as well, with Brandon Carr and the young and steadily improving Morris Claiborne manning the edges of the defense.
Causes For Concern:
The running game has been an issue in Dallas for years now, and if Demarco Murray can’t stay healthy and stay consistent, the depth behind him is rather shallow. What exacerbates this, and may even limit Romo’s ability to generate in the passing game, is an offensive line that has question marks at almost every position. The team reached a bit in drafting center Travis Frederick in the 1st round, but he’s expected to start immediately and contribute to an interior that lacks solidity. While Tyron Smith looks like a solid bookend at LT, Doug Free is a wildcard at the opposite tackle position. If the line can’t maintain, the Cowboys are going to be in a dire situation.
Beyond the health concerns and lack of depth on defense, the safety position is a gaping hole that the team amazingly felt no reason to address in the offseason. Barry Church has shown little in past seasons, but is penciled in as the FS as of right now. Opposite him, the aged and limited Will Allen offers little beyond run support. If the pass rush doesn’t help compensate for this weakness, the Cowboys will once again watch the middle of the field turn into a playground for opposing offenses.
While it’s entirely possible, almost as possible as the teams I have ranked above them, something tells me Dallas will be on the outside looking in once again when the regular season concludes. The offense has talent to spare, especially in the passing game, but it won’t matter if the line doesn’t do its job. And the defense is an injury or two from being in trouble, not to mention questions regarding the change in scheme. The cards are stacked against the Cowboys just a little higher than the Giants or Redskins, and if it all plays out the way I think it will, somebody else will be leading this team into 2014.
4 – Philadelphia Eagles
After three progressively worse seasons, with decisions that seemed counterproductive in retrospect, Andy Reid was jettisoned to mixed comments of “It’s about time” and “He was the best coach we ever had and we’re going to regret this”. You’ll get no argument from me about Reid’s early success, but now it’s college hotshot and revolutionary offensive mind Chip Kelly’s time to shine. The only problem is, with his current roster and all the changes in scheme and personnel, that time is most likely a year or three off.
While he disappeared for much of 2012, LeSean McCoy is still a premiere HB in the NFL, and I think he’s going to return to form in a major way this year. Kelly’s offenses have always leaned heavily on the run, and there’s no way he doesn’t utilize the sort of weapon McCoy represents. The passing game took a hit when projected starter Jeremy Maclin was lost for the year early in the offseason, but with DeSean Jackson, Jason Avant, Brent Celek and Riley Cooper, the options in the passing game are there. I’m especially looking forward to seeing if Jackson can return to his younger, more productive form, and if Cooper can build on some solid play in 2012. Believe it or not, the Eagles may, may, sport one of the best offensive lines in 2013, especially if the injury-ravaged portion of it returns at 100%. Reports have been good regarding Jason Peters, who was, prior to 2012, one of a handful of top LTs in the league. With Evan Mathis, Todd Herremans, Jason Kelce and 1st round pick Lane Johnson rounding out the line, there is potential for great things here. Health, of course, is the key.
Defensively, things start looking bleak. The new regime let go of more than a few players who either underperformed or proved they weren’t justified in being on the field at all in 2012, and went on a signing spree to help fill the gaps. The new 3-4 scheme may take some adjusting to, but signing Issac Sopoaga to clog the middle at DT was a wise choice. The LBs, especially if Trent Cole takes to playing from a stand up position (or if new D Coordinator Billy Davis is flexible enough to show more 4-3 looks), look to be the strength of the defense. DeMeco Ryans is solid but unspectacular in the middle, and newcomer Connor Barwin could help with the pass rush.
Causes For Concern:
For most fans in Philadelphia, another year of Michael Vick behind center is concerning for a number of reasons. First and foremost? Turnovers. Few players in the NFL give up the rock as often as Vick, and he’s being doing this since his Atlanta days so there’s no reason to expect it to change. Also, there are very few who expect him to last 16 games, and many who would rather see Nick Foles starting anyway, even if Chip Kelly didn’t see enough from him to name him the starter. Everything around the QB position seems to be at least potentially great, and all eyes will be on Vick (or Foles when/if Vick goes down) to make it all come together.
The defense is going to have some major growing pains, and will be the main reason why the Eagles will be out of contention for the division this year. The secondary, the weakest spot on the D in 2012, will probably continue to hold this distinction in 2013 despite the additions of Cary Williams at CB (Baltimore) and Patrick Chung at SS (New England). Williams has plenty to prove, but Chung has at least shown the ability to play at a high level, even if it was three years ago. If the new scheme doesn’t click, coach Davis is going to have to adapt, because the talent is there along the front seven to at least stay competitive. But competitive in a division featuring Eli Manning, RGIII and Tony Romo isn’t going to be good enough.
Not this year. In a division where anything can happen, the least likely would be the Eagles finding themselves in the postseason, as division champs or otherwise. It is going to take time and the inevitable growing pains for Chip Kelly to implement his plan, and at least one more offseason to assemble the talent (particular on defense) to make it happen on the field. If anything, the Eagles under Kelly will be one of the most intriguing teams to watch in 2013, even if the results aren’t what fans want to see.