There was a time where the NFC East was once dubbed the "NFC Least", however that is no longer the case. 2016 was a very good season for the NFC East as it saw two teams make the playoffs. The first was the Dallas Cowboys who finished with a surprise record of 13-3 led by rookie sensations Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott. Making the playoffs as a wild card team at 11-5 were the New York Giants. In coach Ben McAdoo's first year at the helm, the Giants improved tremendously on defense, proving to be one of the NFL's elite.
The Washington Redskins narrowly missed the playoffs losing to the Giants in week 17. They finished 8-7-1 despite a strong season from Kirk Cousins. Finally, the Philadelphia Eagles finished last in the division at 7-9 but still showed promise under first-year coach Doug Pederson along with rookie Carson Wentz. 2016 is now in the books and far behind us and all these teams have made big changes since the conclusion of last season. Here at VAVEL USA, some of our NFL writers got together and shared our opinions for the upcoming 2017 season.
Which rookie in the NFC East will have the biggest impact?
Kudzi Musarurwa: The biggest impact rookie in the division will be Derek Barnett. The Eagles needed to upgrade their defense in the offseason and drafting Barnett was definitely a step in the right direction. Barnett was a great pass rusher in college at the University of Tennessee and depending on how things go for him during training camp, he should be ready to make an impact on the opening day of the NFL regular season.
Brighton McConnell: The NFC East as a whole had an impressive draft this offseason, with all four teams adding noticeable talent on the defensive side. There are tons of candidates in this rookie class that has a chance to break out in their first seasons, but I’m picking the defensive end Jonathan Allen of the Washington Redskins to provide the biggest impact. Although there were some injury concerns that dropped his draft position down to 17th overall, the Redskins likely got a steal by Allen falling that late in the first round. He was a monster on the defensive line while attending Alabama, collecting 10.5 sacks in 2016 to bring his collegiate total up to 28.5. Washington has needed that kind of disruption on their defensive front for a while, and Allen is naturally talented enough to step up and deliver in his rookie season.
Norman Tall: While every team in the NFC East did an extremely solid job addressing pressing needs in the draft, there was one pick that really stood out to me. That was the first-round pick by the New York Giants, tight end Evan Engram. As a four-year starter at Ole Miss, Engram improved every year and adds a new element at the tight end position and joins an offense that also features one of the NFL's best wide receiving trios in Odell Beckham Jr, Brandon Marshall and Sterling Shepard. Engram is a special talent and proved that at the college level finishing his senior season with 65 catches, 926 yards and 8 touchdowns. If Engram can step in and make an immediate impact it will help this offense be one of the most feared in the league.
Which free agent singing or player acquired via trade will have the biggest impact in this division?
Kudzi Musarurwa: With Odell Beckham Jr on one side, and now Brandon Marshall on the other, it will make a big impact for the Giants. Eli Manning now has his work cut out for him to keep his receivers happy with the amount of passes thrown at them. That's a good thing for the Giants who struggled to move the chains if the ball wasn't in Beckham Jr's hands last season. Marshall has turned his career around over the last few years and will help the Giants immensely on that side of the ball.
Brighton McConnell: If the New York Giants receiving corps were not impressive enough with the likes of Odell Beckham Jr., rising star Sterling Shepard and speedster Dwayne Harris, then the addition of wide receiver Brandon Marshall certainly moves them up into the highest tier in the NFL. Marshall brings a veteran presence to a group of younger receivers that needed it after the departure of Victor Cruz, and he should take some pressure off of OBJ by giving quarterback Eli Manning another dangerous target. Despite being 33-years old and suffering a slight drop-off last season, I fully expect Marshall to bounce back in 2017 and be an invaluable addition to the Giants offense.
Norman Tall: While I think the addition of Brandon Marshall to the Giants will be the best move, I don't think it will have the biggest impact. Even without Marshall the Giants still have one of the best offenses and receiving cores in the NFL. To me, the biggest impact will be from new Eagles receiver Alshon Jeffery. If healthy, although it is a big if, Jeffery can be one of the NFL's most talented and best playmakers. Jeffery missed 4 games due to a PED suspension and in those 12 games had 52 catches for 821 yards and 2 touchdowns. While that may sound like a down year it is easy to forget that he had to pay with quarterbacks like Jay Cutler, Brian Hoyer, and Matt Barkley. Now with the Eagles, Jeffery gives the Eagles and Carson Wentz a big bodied receiver, something they have lacked for the past few seasons. If Wentz and Jeffery can create good chemistry with one another it will be a big boost to the Eagles playoffs hopes.
Who will be the MVP of this division?
Kudzi Musarurwa: Assuming we see a repeat performance of Ezekiel Elliott this season, he will be the MVP of the East. His offseason may not have been what the Cowboys would have wanted but there is no denying Elliott's talent. The focus was on Dak Prescott last season so expect Elliott to take that up as a challenge to prove that HE is the main man in Dallas by producing the numbers on the field.
Brighton McConnell: This is probably one of the most popular picks for this position, but how can you pick against a guy who ran for more than 1,600 yards in his rookie season? Dallas Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott burst onto the NFL scene last year with incredible talent and stats that turned the heads of nearly every football fan. Behind a strong offensive line (which also contributed to rookie quarterback Dak Prescott’s emergence), the former Ohio State star gathered 16 total touchdowns in his rookie campaign on 5.1 yards per rushing attempt.
There is still a potential suspension looming over Elliott’s season due to domestic violence allegations against him and the 22-year-old has had a noticeable amount of off-field issues so far in his professional career. But if the league does not suspend Zeke and he can shape up during the season, the Cowboys’ star running back will be the clear favorite to win division MVP.
Norman Tall: While it isn't hard to argue Ezekiel Elliott as the best player in the division the question is about who the most valuable player is and that is why I am going to say Odell Beckham Jr. Without Elliott, the Cowboys would still be in a decent position with Darren McFadden and Alfred Morris backing him up. While the Giants have solid receivers behind Beckham, the team is just not the same without him.
He is a human highlight reel and is one of the biggest reasons for the Giants success. Without him, the Giants offense would struggle and they would not be a playoff team. In just 43 career games, Beckham has been incredibly dominant as he has already compiled 4,122 yards and 35 touchdowns. He has also won NFL Rookie of the Year (2014) and been selected to both the Pro Bowl three times (2014-16) and an All-Pro team twice (2015-16). Beckham will be dominant again in 2017 and prove he is the NFC East's most valuable people.
Which coach or player is most on the hot seat in the NFC East?
Kudzi Musarurwa: Jay Gruden has a lot to prove this season. Former Redskins GM Scot McLoughlin took to Twitter to say that the Redskins poor record was due to Gruden and not himself and while that may be a bit of 'sour grapes' talking, it shows that the spotlight is well and truly on Gruden this season to make the Redskins relevant again. There was also all the kerfuffle with Kirk Cousins earlier in the offseason and the Redskins have lost the services of DeSean Jackson, so in short, this season is make-or-break for Gruden.
Brighton McConnell: Despite years of reassuring fans that he had full support from the Redskins’ management, the 2017 season might be the most critical of head coach Jay Gruden’s tenure in Washington. The team has made the playoffs only once in his three years there, after missing the postseason 2016 thanks to a late collapse. This year, the team has franchised quarterback Kirk Cousins for the second consecutive year amid rumors that he will leave next summer to follow his former offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan to the San Francisco 49ers.
The Redskins also lost two of their top receiving targets from last season, as deep-threat receiver DeSean Jackson and veteran Pierre Garcon departed in free agency. With the 2018 season looking fairly bleak, Gruden will have to deliver good results this year to reassure fans yet again that there is some hope of eventually having a stable, competitive team.
Norman Tall: I would agree with my fellow writers in saying it has to be Jay Gruden. Despite his one playoff appearance he still has a record of 21-26-1 in his three seasons in the Nations Capital. In a division that is on the rise that is not enough to cut it.
Now with a quarterback who still does not have a long term deal and losing a bundle of key players (DeSean Jackson, Pierre Garcon, Chris Baker) Gruden will have to find a way to make it work with what he has and if he fails to do so, it could be the end of his time in D.C. There's no other way to put it than this is for sure a make or break season for Gruden and his whole staff.
Who will win the division and how many teams from the NFC East will make the playoffs this season?
Kudzi Musarurwa: The Dallas Cowboys will win the division unless the Eagles and/or the Giants improve drastically. Based on the expected performance levels of teams in other divisions, the Cowboys are potentially the only team I see making the playoffs from the NFC East.
Brighton McConnell: It’s hard to see Dallas recreating their 12-4 result from last season and it’s likely that Prescott and Elliott may regress a little towards the mean. Considering how strong they were last year, though, another year of experience for the young quarterback-running back tandem should certainly still lead to a playoff berth. The Cowboys roster did not see much turnover during the offseason, and the addition of a good draft class may even help fill some holes.
They are definitely the odds-on favorite to win the division for a second consecutive year, but Dallas is now firmly cemented onto every team’s radar. The remaining three teams all have a decent shot at making the postseason too, but the division does have matchups against a strong AFC West division through the year. If the Giants defense can continue their momentum from last season, though, they could easily reach the wild card game, with the Philadelphia Eagles’ sneakily good offense making them a dark horse candidate to make the playoffs.
Norman Tall: In a tight race, I see the Giants emerging victorious as NFC East champs. Last season their defense was in its first year together and now in its second, it should be even stronger. Led by Landon Collins and Jason Pierre-Paul, the Giants defense should be able to hold down opponents this season and if the offense can show up every week it will be enough to win this division.
I think the Cowboys should also be strong enough to make the playoffs as a wild card. While I don't see them going 12-4 again, and with a possible suspension looming for Zeke Elliott, it could spell early trouble for Dallas. Also, don't count out the Eagles or Redskins to also grab a wild card spot as they both have strong defenses that could carry them to the playoffs.