2018 NFC East Preview

Welcome to the 2018 NFC East preview, the 5th installment of our 2018 NFL preview series.  If you haven’t had a chance to check out the earlier parts be sure to catch up on all the action.  We will be making picks against each team’s Vegas win total, looking in depth at the rosters, and making overall division predictions.  The order in which the teams appear is the order we are projecting as the final standings in the division.  Onto the 2018 NFC East preview.

Philadelphia Eagles – O/U 10 – Over

No one should overreact to 26 preseason pass attempts, but Nick Foles has looked bad this preseason.  I’m not here to tell you Nick Foles went on some Flacco run last year and is going to come crashing down while Wentz is out to start the year.  In fact, I was in the minority prior to the Super Bowl talking about how Foles has always been an above average quarterback whenever he has been on the Eagles.  However, Foles definitely punched above his weight during the Super Bowl run and has to regress some in 2018.

There are more concerns on offense.  Alshon Jeffery is going to miss at least the first two weeks due to a shoulder injury, and Jeffery has never been the picture of health.  Jeffery could easily miss more than just two games over the course of the season.

Another return from injury to keep an eye on is Jason Peters.  According to ProFootballFocus, the Eagles head into the 2018 season with the league’s best offensive line.  The projection, however, expects a full bounce back from Peters.  I would be skeptical of a 36 year old off a torn ACL and MCL immediately bouncing back to an All-Pro level.  The Eagles have the best center, right guard, right tackle trio in the league, plus a solid left guard, so regardless this will be a good offensive line.  But having the best line is a weapon, where as having a top 10 line is just very useful.

Philadelphia has a deep group of running backs but no true stud.  Ajayi finished 2017 ranked 27th in DYAR and 28th in DVOA among running backs.  I’m happy Darren Sproles is going to go out on his own terms as opposed to being forced out by injuries.

Speaking of the top unit in the trenches, according to PFF the Eagles enter 2018 with the best pass rush in football.  This doesn’t need to be over analyzed as we all now how deep this defensive line rotation is with talented pass rushers.

Behind them is the 18th best secondary in the NFL.  Losing Patrick Robinson was a massive blow, as he was the best slot corner in football last season.  Philadelphia is hoping that second year player Sidney Jones can slide into the nickel position and have it be a seamless transition.  For those that don’t remember, Jones was unanimously regarded as the 2nd best cornerback and a top 20 pick in the 2017 NFL draft before tearing his achilles at his Pro Day.

Philadelphia, like the rest of the NFC East, faces a difficult schedule.  According to Mike Clay, the Eagles have the 5th hardest slate in the league.  I’m not the biggest fan of narrative analysis, but if you believe that as the champion you get everyone’s best shot on a weekly basis, then a challenging gauntlet becomes even harder.

There is enough here to hit 11 wins, but this isn’t the slam dunk over most believe.  There are genuine causes for concern, but if the Eagles have the best offensive line, best pass rush, a good quarterback, and one of the better coaching staffs, then what, really, is their floor here?  High, their floor is high.

Dallas Cowboys – O/U 8.5 – Over

Guess who finished 4th in QBR last year?  QBR is not the end all, be all, and between DYAR, DVOA, PFF, and ANY/A, Dak finished last season as about the 19th best quarterback.  My point is that through two seasons of Dak’s career we have overreacted twice to Dak Prescott.  First we brought out our anointing oil prematurely, then without Zeke and Tyron Smith for a stretch of time we jumped off the Dak bandwagon, questioning if he is even good at all.

The truth, per usual, is likely somewhere in the middle.  Dak is the type of quarterback to limit turnovers but not take too many big shots.  He is at his best making quick decisions, as his passer rating plummeted on throws where he held the ball for 3.1 seconds or more in 2017.  Using Zeke to set up play action and then hitting quick throws will set Dak up for success in 2018.

The world is having a panic attack over Dak’s weapons.  Hurns shouldn’t be a #1 receiver but he is a decent starter.  Cole Beasley has had an up and down career but if Dallas makes it a point to get the ball out of Dak’s hands quickly then Beasley could have another solid season.  Michael Gallup is the best receiver on this roster and will end up a steal for Dallas.

The biggest concern on the team should be the state of health along the offensive line.  Dallas used to have the best line in the league, and prior to the preseason the unit was ranked 2nd in the NFL.  Since then Travis Frederick has been diagnosed with an autoimmune disease and his return timetable is unknown.  It is entirely possible he doesn’t play this year, and he shouldn’t rush to get back.  Joe Looney will start in Frederick’s place.

Zach Martin is dealing with a bone bruise which can take 2-3 months to heal.  Whether or not Martin can play will be based on pain tolerance, but considering he won’t be sitting around for 2-3 months and letting it heal, but instead playing professional football, this seems to be an injury that will be with Martin all season.  Even when Martin plays it’s wise to expect him to be at less than 100%, and at any point in time he could get shut down for a prolonged period.

This leaves Tyron Smith, Connor Williams, and La’el Collins as the remaining original starters that are uninjured.  Williams is a rookie who was a steal where Dallas landed him but is learning a new position.  Collins in three years has yet to post an at least decent starter level season.

Even without Frederick and with a hobbled Martin, Dallas figures to have a top ten offensive line, but like I said when discussing the Eagles, the best line in the league is a weapon, where as a top 10 unit is useful.

The Cowboys’ defense is flying under the radar.  Dallas has the 8th best pass rush in the league heading into the 2018 season.  Demarcus Lawrence enjoyed a breakout campaign in 2017 and was an elite edge rusher last season.  2018 will show if he can continue to play at such a high level, but he was drafted on his potential and he seemed to have reached it a year ago.  The Cowboys also get good pressure from the interior of their line with David Irving and Tyrone Crawford.  Irving, however, is missing the first four games of the season.

Dallas’ secondary is solid as the unit ranks 17th in the league.  The team seems to have hit on two corners last year in Chidobe Awuzie and Jourdan Lewis.  They join Byron Jones to give the Cowboys three viable cover corners.  Xavier Woods, a safety, was another impressive rookie last season.

As I’m sure you’ve noticed, I typically don’t talk about linebackers, but I feel the need to for Dallas.  I’m assuming at this point you have seen the numbers for this defense pertaining to when Sean Lee does and does not play.  Well, for the time being at least, Sean Lee is healthy.  Jaylon Smith will probably improve as well as he is now another year removed from his horrific knee injury.  The team also spent their first round pick on Leighton Vander-Esch as an insurance policy if Lee gets injured.

Dallas faces the 8th toughest schedule, so that isn’t doing them any favors.  Despite the injuries, the offensive line still has enough there to be one of the better units in the league.  Dak Prescott is a top 12 quarterback and Elliot is elite at his position.  This defense is solid and well balanced, with the best unit being the pass rush, which is the most important unit.  9 wins should be doable to hit the over.

Washington – O/U 7 – Over

As mentioned when talking about the Chiefs, Alex Smith was a legitimate MVP candidate last year.  He finished in the top ten of DYAR, DVOA, and QBR while finishing 3rd in ANY/A.  We saw Alex Smith be aggressive, taking shots downfield at a high rate, defying the type of career play that had defined him prior to 2017.

Expect more of the same in 2018.  Jay Gruden loves to push the ball and will look to have Alex Smith keep his new found talents rolling.  There is also a decent chance Smith regresses back to the player he was before 2017, but what if he was just never asked to push the ball down the field considering the defenses he has always had?

Smith has two perfect weapons for his skillset as well.  Clearly the quarterback has been very comfortable throwing to tight ends throughout his career.  Say what you want about Jordan Reed’s health concerns, but he is currently healthy and a top five talent at the position in the league.  And if Reed should go down, his backup is Vernon Davis, someone Smith already has chemistry with.

We also know Smith typically doesn’t like to throw into tight windows or heavy traffic, and prefers finding receivers that have created separation.  Jamison Crowder averaged 3.2 yards of separation per target last season, one of the better marks in the league.  For context, Tyreke Hill averaged 3.5 yards of separation in 2017.

Chris Thompson is one of the better pass catching backs in football, so as soon as he is 100% healthy Smith will have a real weapon out of the backfield.  But the running back situation on this roster is troubling.  After Derrius Guice tore his ACL the team went out and signed Adrian Peterson.  When you sign Adrian Peterson, it probably signals that you have the worst running back situation in the league.

Fortunately for Washington they have the 12th ranked offensive line according to ProFootballFocus.  They line may be even better if Morgan Moses can get back to his 2015-2016 form and Chase Roullier can improve in his second season.  Left guard is a major question mark, but there is a decent chance the line is completely set at four positions.

Washington enters the year with the 6th best pass rush in football.  Ryan Kerrigan had a tremendous season last year, and Matt Ioannidis is one of the better interior pass rushers in the league.  Jonathan Allen was having a fine rookie reason as an interior rusher until injuries got to him, so if he can stay healthy Washington can bring lots of heat.

In order to obtain Alex Smith the team traded away Kendall Fuller, weakening the secondary.  As a result, Washington will enter 2018 with the 20th best secondary.  On the bright side, this is right in the same range as the 17th ranked Cowboys and 18th ranked Eagles.  There is potential for the secondary to out play this ranking, as Josh Norman and Quinton Dunbar will provide solid play on the outside, but the team is presumably relying on Fabian Moreau to replace Fuller at nickel corner.  Should Moreau make a large improvement in his second year then Washington will run three deep at corner, but they are running the risk of continuously getting torched by slot receivers.

Washington is up against the 3rd most difficult schedule in football, but the 7 number is too low.  Smith could very well be an upgrade on Kirk Cousins, and for the time being Jordan Reed is healthy.  There are weapons on offense and the offensive line is solid.  On the other side, the team has a good pass rush and passable secondary, yet has the potential to become troublesome.  The schedule is rough, but there is enough here that getting to 8 wins should be doable.

New York Giants – O/U 7 – Push

That’s right, I’m calling a push.  I really wish there was a .5 attached to this number, but I guess that’s why Vegas is Vegas.

I would say the smarter bet would be the under, however.  I know how much faith half of Giants nation has in Eli and they were happy to see the team select Saquon Barkley over a quarterback, but at this point there is too much evidence to conclude anything other than the most likely scenario is Eli isn’t good anymore.

Here is where Eli ranks the past five years in some of the most important quarterback metrics:

2017 23 23 22 22 25
2016 20 20 27 37 22
2015 18 19 16 28 10
2014 11 16 14 20 12
2013 42 38 27 22 33

In 2013 he was terrible before bouncing back to have an above average 2014.  He has since declined in three consecutive seasons, going from below average in 2015 to just not good in 2016 and 2017.  His bounce back in 2014 happened at the age of 33.  Eli is now 37.  Given his age and downward trend of play, “it is more probable than not” that Manning won’t bounce back in 2018.

If you want to play the “look at all the weapons around him plus the offensive line upgrades compared to 2017” card, then ok, let’s do it.

OBJ is a top whatever receiver in the league.  Five, three, two, who cares?  He’s an elite talent, we all know this.  Sterling Shepard is criminally underrated, so the Giants have two really good receivers.  New York also drafted Saquon Barkley.  Whether or not they should have is irrelevant for the purposes of this discussion, what matters is Barkley is amazing (but dealing with a hamstring issue).

Evan Engram was a stat compiler last season on a large amount of volume with poor efficiency.  He is a clear regression candidate as he saw 115 targets but posted only a 56% catch rate.  He isn’t coming anywhere near that number with OBJ, Shepard, and Barkley now in the mix.  He still is talented so he’s nice to have, but the evidence so far suggests he isn’t the next big tight end star.

As for the offensive line, yes it is in fact improved.  The team locked up Nate Solder to the biggest deal in offensive tackle history (at the time), and then used a second round pick on Will Hernandez.  These moves got the Giants up to 25th in offensive line rankings, according to PFF.

These moves are similar to what the Bengals did to upgrade their offensive line, and I was bullish on them being even better.  So what’s the difference here?  Mainly Solder.  Solder has always been a better run blocker than pass blocker.  Don’t believe me?  Solder gave up 51 pressures a season ago.  Ereck Flowers has averaged 58 a season for his career.  I’m assuming Giants fans just cringed reading that.  I do think Flowers moving to the right side will let us see a better version of Flowers, but what does that even really get us?

This defense just isn’t the awesome unit from 2016 that you want it to be.  They boast the 29th ranked pass rush. The team has one decent pass rusher in Olivier Vernon, who in two seasons with the Giants has never repeated his best season (2015) in Miami.  JPP is gone, and Damon Harrison and Dalvin Tomlinson both are run stuffers.  At least the run defense will be good.

New York does have the 15th ranked secondary headed into the season, but there are causes for concern.  DRC is gone, which thrusts Eli Apple into a starting role.  Apple has looked both the part of a first rounder and unplayable at times during his Giants tenure.

Janoris Jenkins play fell back to his career norms last season, after a career best year in 2016.  The Giants may look to deploy William Gay as a safety/nickel hybrid, but if they plan to use B.W. Webb as the nickel corner that is troublesome.

New York faces the toughest schedule in the league this season.  Everything that was just laid out sounds rather pessimistic, and this team went 3-13 last year.  So why predict a push on 7 wins?

The Giants underperformed against their pythagorean win expectation, as they should have won 4 games.  4 wins to 7 wins is a decently large improvement, and the offensive line, defense, and Eli Manning are serious question marks.  However, the offensive line is better than last year, OBJ and Shepard return, Barkley is in town, and most importantly McAdoo is gone.  No one knows how good of a head coach Pat Shurmur will be, but he is an upgrade on McAdoo by default.

As said in the outset, the better bet would be to take the under as opposed to a push or over.  But with the upgrades (Solder, Hernandez, Barkley, Shurmur), and players returning from injury (Shepard, OBJ), getting to 7 wins should be doable.  The Giants will have a losing record, and taking a push is never a smart idea.  The Giants finished 31st in point differential last year, and 30th in DVOA.  How much of that was injuries, and how much of it was the team quitting on McAdoo?  I want to make one really bold prediction in all these previews, so here it is.

Quick Hitters

Offensive Rookie of the Year: Saquon Barkley, RB, New York Giants

Do I really need to elaborate?

Defensive Rookie of the Year: Lorenzo Carter, Edge, New York Giants

This is not the best division for defensive rookies.  I realize both Da’Ron Payne and Leighton Vander-Esch were first round picks, but how much of an impact will Payne make as a two down run stuffer, and how much will Vander-Esch see the field if Lee makes it through the year healthy?  Carter also has hurdles to playing time as well, but Kareem Martin has 4.5 career sacks in 4 seasons.  Counting sacks is a dumb, lazy way to evaluate a pass rusher, but Carter should be able to carve out a decent role by mid-season.

Breakout Player: Josh Doctson, WR, Washington

Jay Gruden likes to throw the ball.  Alex Smith likes to throw to the open guy, whoever it is.  Defenses will be paying more attention to Jordan Reed, Jamison Crowder, and Chris Thompson.  For what it’s worth, FantasyPros has Washington with the easiest WR fantasy schedule in 2018, and the second easiest QB schedule.

Over/Under 25.5 combined starts for Carson Wentz and Alshon Jeffery: Under

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