By Michael McCarthy
DeSean Jackson recently said he thinks the Washington Redskins are the team to beat in the NFC East this year.
They went 4-12 last season, but Jackson plays for Washington. Of course he’s confident.
So, let’s take a look at the NFC East with a little more dispassion than D-Jax summoned up last week:
Last year: 13-5, including playoffs
Besides being the division’s top team in 2014, Dallas added three first-round talents on draft weekend: CB Byron Jones, OLB Randy Gregory (who fell into the second round because of character concerns) and T La’El Collins (who went undrafted because someone he was close to got murdered, and teams weren’t immediately certain he wasn’t involved). The Cowboys lost OLBs Bruce Carter and Justin Durant as free agents, but get ILB Sean Lee back from injury, and add DE Greg Hardy after he serves a 10-game suspension. Even their biggest offseason loss, NFL rushing leader DeMarco Murray, comes at maybe the easiest position in the game to find replacements on the cheap.
But the Cowboys will have to deal with astronomical expectations, and they’re one tweak of Tony Romo’s back away from handing the keys to a Super Bowl contender to Brandon Weeden.
Last year: 10-6.
What if Chip Kelly actually knows what he’s doing? What if he can get a full season out of QB Sam Bradford, and help him play like the No. 1 overall pick he once was? The Eagles no longer have Jackson or fellow WR Jeremy Maclin, or RB LeSean McCoy. But they’ve invested in replacements; drafting three WRs Day 1 or 2 the past two seasons and signing Murray and former San Diego RB Ryan Matthews. Not to mention they’ve added five cornerbacks this offseason to shore up the back end of what otherwise is a talented defense.
However, the injury histories of Bradford, ILBs DeMeco Ryans and Kiko Alonso, and Murray and Mathews are cause for concern. And so is the lack of depth behind the starters on a pretty good offensive line. If the offseason upheaval and continuing trade rumors leave a disjointed team, or if the young WRs aren’t very good, or if Tebowmania is an issue, or if OLB Brandon Graham and CB Byron Maxwell don’t live up to their contracts, this team could fail to match its 2014 win total.
Last year: 6-10
At first glance, there’s not much to like beyond QB Eli Manning and WR Odell Beckham Jr., the rookie who took the league by storm last season. But WR Victor Cruz is expected to be healthy and could form a formidable duo, with TE Larry Donnell also contributing. And New York has invested two first-rounders and a second in offensive linemen Ereck Flowers, Weston Richburg and Justin Pugh the past three seasons, and we saw how well bolstering the offensive line in front of a proven quarterback worked for Dallas.
But the Giants were 29th in the league in yards allowed last season, and may be depending on young players such as S Nat Berhe, OLB Devon Kennard, DE Damontre Moore and rookie SS Landon Collins to be key contributors on defense. There’s still DE Jason Pierre-Paul, CBs Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and Prince Amukamara and MLB Jon Beason, but this doesn’t look like a unit that can bail out the the offense if that unit doesn’t make the leap in offensive coordinator Ben McAdoo’s system.
Last year: 4-12
Washington focused its free-agent and draft moves in the secondary, and along the defensive and offensive lines, the areas primarily responsible for 2014 going off the rails. New GM Scot McCloughan also focused late in the draft on players who would give a boost to Washington’s awful special teams. The coaching staff is filled with former head coaches (OL coach Bill Callahan, the architect of Dallas’s successful running game last year) and coordinators (QB coach Matt Cavanaugh, DB coach Perry Fewell), so it’s reasonable to expect a new attitude to take hold, and players to develop. The pressure won’t be on the quarterback, whether it’s Robert Griffin III or not, to do so much if the rest of the team is solid. WRs DeSean Jackson and Pierre Garcon could reach their potential with solid quarterbacking, which comes with competent offensive line play.
It’s a high hill to climb, from four wins to the division pinnacle. Washington looks like it’s assembled a professional roster now, but it doesn’t mean every free-agent pickup (CB Chris Culliver, FS Dashon Goldson, NT Terrance Knighton) will look as good in action as he does on paper. There’s a defensive coordinator, Joe Barry, with a less-than-stellar track record, and three quarterbacks who all failed to establish themselves last season. If rookie RT Brandon Scherff isn’t immediately an above-average NFL player, the offensive line could struggle again. This looks like a team build on a more solid foundation than many of its predecessors, but we all know how ugly things get when the circus comes to town. Second-year coach Jay Gruden has to have some success early, or keep a lid on the negativity somehow.