2013 NFC East: Four Questions, Four Analysts
There’s not long to go now before the meaningful action begins with the start of the 2013 NFL season. To give you an idea of what our team is thinking heading into the season we’re asking four of them four questions, for every division.
It’s our Four Analysts, Four Questions season preview.
The analysts are Khaled Elsayed (KE), Sam Monson (SM), Steve Palazzolo and Ben Stockwell (BS), so let’s see what they’re looking forward to seeing heading into the year.
1. Which player from the division do you see having a breakout year?
Khaled: It’s an easy one, but with Hakeem Nicks not looking 100% and the Giants a team not afraid to use three-receiver sets, Reuben Randle (+5.3 in 2012) is a guy I’ll be watching. He looked a little raw but incredibly talented as a rookie, and now with an extra offseason of development under his belt he’s someone that could have a big impact.
Sam: I think Redskins WR Aldrick Robinson is a lot like Mike Wallace. He may not be able to run the complete route tree, but he runs the deep routes so well it scares the hell out of defenses. At any moment he can take the top off a defense and run in for a huge score. RG3 has a huge arm, and Robinson has the kind of deep speed to put up pretty big stats on a relatively low number of targets and catches. I think they’ll integrate him more into the offense because of the game-changing weapon he can be.
Steve: I’m a little hesitant to pick Fletcher Cox as this year’s breakout player, mostly because I’m not sure his talent will be best utilized in the Eagles’ new scheme. He had a nice rookie season, grading at +7.3, but he’s probably best suited as a penetrator and may be asked to play in a more reactive, five-technique role this season. Either way, he’s a versatile player and he played all over the defensive line when at Mississippi State, so chances are he’ll take to whichever role is thrown at him.
Ben: This is a key season for Tyron Smith in Dallas, and I think he’ll use it to re-establish the form he showed as a rookie for the Cowboys. At this point Smith has an interesting career parallel to Michael Oher in Baltimore. Both were excellent as rookie right tackles (+24.0 for Smith in 2011, +23.4 for Oher in 2009) but struggled by comparison in their sophomore seasons having been shifted over to left tackle (+3.8 for Smith in 2012, -7.7 for Oher in 2010). While Oher has never since settled on either side of the line for the Ravens, Smith showed signs of life for the Cowboys last season especially as a run blocker. After two seasons Smith is at a crossroads in his career, will he drift down the same path as Oher, never matching the form of his rookie season, or will he start to settle in at left tackle and establish himself as one of the league’s better tackles as his rookie season suggested he could be? I’m backing him to do the latter.
2. The over/unders are Dallas 8.5, New York 9, Philadelphia 7.5 and Washington 8.5. Which team would you put your theoretical $100 on?
Khaled: Seeing is believing, and I haven’t seen anything to forecast such a massive turnaround for the Eagles. Sure they seem, purely from personnel, a better team on offense, but that defense looks like a work in progress with a collection of guys out of position and new guys brought in who leave a lot to be desired. I’ll take them finishing below .500.
Sam: I try not to get too sucked into the Dallas hype every season, but for once I’m on board and buying. I think Dallas might be the best team in the division when it’s all said and done, and by default that probably puts them above the 8.5 wins Vegas thinks they’re worth.
Steve: The lines prove just how wide open the race for the NFC East crown will be this season. I’m going with the Eagles going over 7.5 wins as I think their offensive style and tempo has a chance to steal a few games for them while the defense gels. Make no mistake, the defense does have some work to do, but I’m trusting that their offensive talent, including Michael Vick playing in Chip Kelly’s scheme, leads them to more than seven wins.
Ben: Vegas has done a good job with these lines, there isn’t one team projection that looks miles off and the NFC East is always a tough division to grade with the teams tending to knock lumps out of each other rather than rack up the wins. I’m going to take my risk, tentatively, on the Cowboys going over 8.5 wins here though. Even though the defensive scheme shift is a fairly radical one I think the personnel fit it quite nicely, and with a dedicated offensive coordinator at the helm the team should have more direction with Jason Garrett being pressured to focus more on his tasks as head coach rather than trying to multi-task. I wouldn’t be confident on any of these over/under marks, but I think the Cowboys could sneak under the radar this year. Well, as much as the Dallas Cowboys can ever be under the radar.
3. Which rookie are you most looking forward to seeing in regular season action?
Khaled: Lane Johnson is a guy who interests me. The other tackles selected in the Top 5 are a little more polished by all accounts, while Johnson has the measurable but might be lacking in the resume department. He’s had some bad moments in preseason and while they’ll look to protect him in that offense, I’m interested to see how he does.
Sam: How can you not be intrigued by a player like David Amerson? He’s a guy who blew up one year with a 13-pick season, but was then beat like a drum the next. Did he get too cocky? Did he just start gambling on the first move every route that was run against him? He’s clearly a physically talented guy, but that’s only half the battle in the NFL. If he’s going to be successful at this level he needs to be disciplined too, and that’s sometimes tough for young corners used to relying on their physical tools. The Redskins are going to throw him in and see what happens.
Steve: Given the Cowboys’ maneuvering around the first round, I’m interested to watch Travis Frederick’s development. Is a center worth drafting in the first round? We’ll see how it plays out, but early returns haven’t been great with Frederick grading at -5.4 this preseason. However, there’s still a long way to go, and if Frederick does live up to his draft billing, it’ll go a long way toward shoring up the middle of the Dallas offensive line.
Ben: The NFC East is the division to watch if you like rookie offensive linemen with the first three picks spent by the division this April lining up in the trenches. Personally I’m intrigued to see how Damontre Moore not only performs but also figures into the Giants’ rotation at defensive end. In years past the Giants have made heavy use of as many as four different defensive ends, so if he can stay healthy he should get plenty of chances to shine. Moore whetted everyone’s appetite with a +5.0 grade (2 sacks, 2 hurries) against the Steelers in the Giants’ preseason opener, but injury has taken him out of the rest of exhibition season. The Giants’ pass rush has gradually eroded over the last year, is Moore the man to spark it back into life?
4. Who will make the playoffs and can they win it all?
Khaled: I like a lot of teams in this division, but more than anyone I’m backing the Giants to bounce back. Of all the quarterbacks in this division Eli Manning is the surest thing, and that defense should be better by virtue of some shrewd free agent picks, and hopefully contributions from guys like Damontre Moore. I don’t think they win it all though.
Sam: At the risk of making myself look foolish again, I think this is the year Dallas can at least win the division. Whether they’ll then be able to make any noise in the postseason is another matter, and to be honest I think they probably can’t in a loaded NFC. The Eagles will be fun to watch with Chip Kelly’s offense and I think there’s a decent shot one of these teams can push for a Wild Card too. This, as usual, will be a fun division to watch.
Steve: I really wouldn’t be surprised with any of these teams emerging to win the division, but I’ll pick the Giants. I think the Redskins and Cowboys are right there, with the Eagles just a tick behind. But as mentioned, if Philadelphia gets that defense straight, watch out. It’s certainly possible for two teams to emerge from the NFC East to make the playoffs, but the NFC is loaded, with the West and South shaping up to be heated battles for postseason spots. There’s a good chance these four teams beat each other up and only the divison winner makes the playoffs again.
Ben: I always think the NFC East is the toughest division in football to predict, and this season is no different. The divisional encounters are always brutal and you can easily see favorites get a couple of wins taken off of them that can prove brutal in the final reckoning. For me, the big question in this division is can the Redskins repeat or build upon their improbable late-season run that saw them steal the division away in the closing weeks? In my opinion no, I still don’t think the defense is very good and I think that unit will be found out more than the offense being found out as any sort of a gimmick. The Giants look like the best team in this division to me and unless they are hit with a spate of injuries up front on defense I think they look a good bet to be competitive when the playoffs roll around. With a home playoff game the Giants have the experience and pedigree to be a threat even if there might be stronger teams on paper.