By Ben Sullivan
Here’s how the NFC East is shaping up with the regular season only eight days away:
Ceiling: 11-5. Carson Wentz develops chemistry early and often with all his new toys, namely receivers Alshon Jeffery (above) and Torrey Smith and, perhaps, rookie running back Donnel Pumphrey. Jim Schwartz gets the same effectiveness out of his defense on the road this year as he did at the Linc last season (road: 26.9 ppg allowed, home: 15.5). LeGarrette Blount (30) is at least 80 percent of what he was in New England in 2016.
Floor: 5-11. Think the defense is going to be viable enough to win six games. That said, the Eagles could struggle if no hot hand can be found among Blount,Wendell Smallwood, Pumphrey and Corey Clement. Oh, and the 34-year-old Darren Sproles ends up showing his age (it was bound to happen eventually). The addition of Ronald Darby doesn’t lift the play of a middling secondary that’s waiting for rookies to flourish.
Tipping point: The December slate — at Seahawks, at Rams, at Giants, vs. Raiders, vs. Cowboys.
Ceiling: 13-3. If everything rolls right for the Cowboys, who could be without running back Ezekiel Elliott until Week 8, the best they can hope to do is equal last season’s record. The light bulb must turn on for first-rounder Taco Charlton (DE) quickly, while in this scenario, linebacker Jaylon Smith and right tackle La’el Collins (only three starts last year) play like vets.
Floor: 7-9. The 2017 campaign could go south quickly on theCowboys if the defense regresses without vets in the secondary (namely, Barry Church), and there is no pass rush to mitigate it. Also, in the 7-9 debacle, the Run-DMC-Alfred Morris sandwich struggles to a 2-4 record in Elliott’s absence.
Tipping point: The six-game set to open the season without Elliott — vs. Giants, at Broncos, at Cardinals, vs. Rams, vs. Packers, at 49ers.
NEW YORK GIANTS
Ceiling: 13-3. Eli Manning plays like the 2014-15 version of himself. Paul Perkins or Wayne Gallman run like Joe Morris on the old Giants stadium concrete … er … turf. The defense plays like it did last year, particularly in the middle of the defensive line, even without Johnathan Hankins. Evan Engram is emphatically not a bust.
Floor: 6-10. For the Giants to sink this low, more has to go wrong than simply yielding to the crushing pressure of the media and Manning showing his age in Year 14. Let’s start with a factor that Big Blue fans will educate you on very quickly: the offensive line. Ben McAdoo has been trying different hands there. The 1.6 yards per carry versus the Browns wasn’t promising.
Tipping point: Evan Engram and Wayne Gallman produce early.
Ceiling: 11-5. Much has to go right here, starting with the revamped pass offense. Terrelle Pryor is new, while Josh Doctson will be asked to take on a bigger role in Year 2 (he just needs to stay on the field).Jamison Crowder improves on last year’s impressive production, and Jordan Reed stays healthy all season. Rob Kelley? Fewer peaks and valleys.
Floor: 5-11. The Redskins own too much talent on both sides of the ball to finish with fewer than five wins. This was a team that went 8-7-1 last year. But playing the AFC West with a defense that finishes 28th again could mean going 0-4 against that division. Washington should be better on that side of the ball this season, but rookie defensive end Jonathan Allen must contribute early, especially if the first-team offense sputters like it did against Baltimore.
Tipping point: Jay Gruden’s squad follows the old-school formula of running the football and stopping the run — two things they struggled to do in last season’s losses to the division champion Cowboys. If Washington does that well, this team is playing in January.