You could easily make the argument that the Dallas Cowboys were, in fact, the second best team in the NFL last season, behind the New England Patriots. They finished with 13 wins, which was more than anyone else in the NFC. They didn’t lose a single game between the middle of September and the middle of November. And they featured what was far and away the most dominant rushing attack in the NFL. So, the simple question for them is: what can they do in 2017 for an encore?
The Cowboys raised a few eyebrows around the NFL when they selected running back Ezekiel Elliott with the 4th overall pick in the 2016 NFL Draft, but Elliott repaid them in full by running for more yards than any player in the league, and simultaneously putting up the third highest rushing total of any rookie running back in the history of the NFL (1,631 yards). And yet, the rest of the league actually made the case that Elliott wasn’t even the best rookie on his own team. Quarterback Dak Prescott parlayed an injury to longtime incumbent Tony Romo, as well as a spectacular performance in the preseason, into a sterling 13–3 record as the starter of America’s most famous team, en route to winning the Offensive Rookie of the Year honors last season. He didn’t just “manage” an offense that was filled with stars; he threw for 23 touchdowns and just four picks, while completing 67.8 percent of his throws at a generous eight yards per attempt.
For as magical as the rookie seasons were for Prescott and Elliott, the harder part will be replicating their performances from their first year during their second year in the NFL, now that teams have much more film to study. Elliott is already dealing with the heat of the spotlight, amidst allegations of a domestic assault incident. Meanwhile, Prescott will have just turned only 24 years old right at the start of training camp, and he’s now going to be looked at as the face of the world’s most renowned franchise.
The Cowboys’ front office has done a very admirable job of restocking the defensive cupboard with lots of young talent, they’ll still enter 2017 with perhaps their best pass rusher suspended for the first four games of the year (defensive end David Irving), and brand new starters at three of the four positions in the secondary. Defensive ends Taco Charlton (their first round pick in the 2017 NFL Draft) and Demarcus Lawrence are both very talented players, but still have lots to prove. Their linebackers are fast and athletic, but somewhat injury-prone. And the aforementioned secondary? Safety Byron Jones looks like a stud, but everything after that looks like question marks. Anthony Brown and Nolan Carroll are decent enough cornerbacks, but you don’t want those two guys as your starters if you’re a team with serious playoff aspirations.
As always, there will be a big target on the backs of “America’s team,” especially given their success last year. Even with all those wins they accumulated, we still have to remember that they still have some very young players at their most important positions.
2017 Prediction: 11–5
New York Giants
During the opening weekend of the 2016–2017 NFL playoffs, it looked like the New York Giants were primed to advance to the NFC Semifinals, and take on the Dallas Cowboys for the third time that season. The Cowboys had won 13 games last season, but two of their three losses all years came at the hands of the Giants. In other words: New York could have been right on the doorstep of Super Bowl LI.
Of course, that will all go down as an interesting “what if,” thanks to the prolific efforts of quarterback Aaron Rodgers of the Green Bay Packers, who helped guide his team to a 38–13 shellacking of these same Giants. That loss marked the sixth straight game in which the Giants had failed to score 20 points, a fact which clearly stuck with them considering they spent a good portion of the offseason further retooling an offense that already had one of the game’s premier playmakers.
After finishing the 2016 season ranked eigth in the total number of passes thrown by any team in the NFL, the Giants apparently decided the solution to dethroning the Dallas Cowboys involved throwing the football even more. How else would that explain their acquisition of wide receiver Brandon Marshall, in what could have been the most underrated free agent acqusition in the entire league? Even at 33 years old in age, putting Marshall on the opposite side of Odell Beckham Jr. has the potential to create nightmares for any opposing defensive coordinator who even considers the idea of rolling their coverage towards Beckham’s side of the field. That will give the Giants one of the best pairs of split out wide receivers in the league, which subsequently should open things up for second year wide receiver Sterling Sheppard as well. But clearly, the Giants had even more than that in mind, given that they went and took tight end Evan Engram out of Ole Miss with their first round pick in the 2017 NFL Draft. Engram perfectly fits the mold of the new age, ultra-athletic tight end we’re seeing in the league. His combination of size (6'3 and 236lbs) and speed (a legitimate 4.41 in the 40 yard dash) will give quarterback Eli Manning a weapon the likes of which he’s never had in his career at tight end.
The Giants are hoping that those additions on offense will bring balance to a team that was ranked 10th in the NFL on defense last year, and will return eight of 11 starters from last year’s group. The defense once again features tremendous talent at the three most important areas on a defense in today’s NFL: pass rusher, cornerback, and safety. Bookend defensive ends Jason Pierre-Paul and Olivier Vernon will once again go after opposing quarterbacks this year. Cornerback Janoris Jenkins played his position like one of the best in the game last year, and opposite him will be Eli Apple, the team’s top selection in the 2016 NFL Draft. And the proverbial “cherry on top” is undoubtedly safety Landon Collins, who was legitimately in the mix for winning the NFL’s Defensive Player of the Year award last year.
The Giants might not win 11 games again this year, considering how deep the NFC appears to be. But, it would be somewhat of a surprise to see them not make the playoffs again this year.
2017 Prediction: 10–6
The 2016 Washington Redskins were effectively a tale of two teams last year. They finished with the third-ranked offense in the NFL, thanks in large part to a passing game that was the second best in the league (only behind that of the New Orleans Saints). In contrast, they were also a team with the fifth-worst defense last year, ranked 28th in the NFL in yards allowed per game, allowing the fourth most rushing touchdowns and sixth highest average yards per carry to opposing running backs last season.
So, it makes a lot of sense that the team essentially tried to keep the offense intact with with duct tape and cheap replacements, while devoting their offseason resources to fixing their highly-porous defense.
Alongside the offseason-long controversy around the Redskins reluctance in handing quarterback Kirk Cousins a long-term contract extension, one of the biggest storylines to follow with this team will be how the offense differs from last season’s version, given the departure of wunderkind offensive coordinator Sean McVay (who left to take the head coaching job with the Los Angeles Rams). The team will go back to Jay Gruden calling the plays, and elevated quarterbacks coach Matt Cavanaugh to offensive coordinator. Things seemed to look fine in the spring, but everything changes in the fall, when real football is being played.
The other major storyline on offense is how the Redskins will replace wide receivers Pierre Garcon and DeSean Jackson, who both left via free agency. In today’s pass-happy NFL, the Redskins were one of only four teams in the league to have two receivers (Garcon and Jackson) with more than 1,000 yards receiving. They’re hoping that Terrelle Pryor (signed in free agency) and Josh Doctson (their first round pick from the 2016 NFL Draft) will be able to pick up the slack, but that will require a big leap of faith. Thankfully, Cousins will still have the security of tight end Jordan Reed, who emerged as a bona fide top three player at his position last year.
The Redskins totally revamped the defensive line that was the source of much consternation last year, adding defensive linemen Terrell McClain and Stacey McGee via free agency, and pouncing on defensive lineman Jonathan Allen with the 17th overall pick in the 2017 NFL Draft (after he shockingly fell that far on draft night). On top of that, they added former Pro Bowl linebacker Zach Brown and safety DJ Swearinger to patch up a couple of their other major trouble spots from last year. The secondary is talented, with cornerbacks Josh Norman and Bashaud Breeland, as well as promising young safety Su’a Cravens. If the Redskins can get contributions from the oft-injured Junior Galette (who’s missed the last two seasons due to injury) and Ryan Anderson (their second round pick in the last draft) as pass rushers, the offense is still plenty good enough to help this team make some serious noise next year.
Washington essentially finished one game out of the NFC playoffs last year. Will all the changes this team made be enough to make up for that one win?
2017 Prediction: 8–8
For the Philadelphia Eagles, who are coming off back-to-back losing seasons (the only team in the NFC East with that dubious distinction), their modus operandi for the immediate future is simple: do everything they can to help quarterback Carson Wentz develop.
Taken with the second overall pick in the 2016 NFL Draft, after the Eagles surrendered a bounty of picks for the rights to go get him, Wentz started off the season by whipping the rest of the league in a frenzy, leading Philadelphia to three straight wins to start the year. He looked absolutely terrific for stretches of the first half of the season… but then, he hit the dreaded rookie wall, and looked much more like a rookie during the second half of the year. Philadelphia went on to lose nine of its next 13 games, mostly on account of a line that struggled to block for Wentz, and a cast of pass catchers that provided almost no help to Wentz for much of the season.
That’s a big reason why the Eagles went out and acquired wide receiver Alshon Jeffrey, the top ranked receiver in free agency last season, to a one-year, $14 million deal. While he’s playing on a “prove it”-type deal, he has all the potential to be the big, playmaking wide receiver the Eagles haven’t had since Terrell Owens was wearing Kelly Green. Philadelphia also decided to kick the tires on receiver Torrey Smith, which raised a few eyebrows from those observing the league, as Smith looked like he had nothing left in the tank during his last two seasons in San Francisco. But if Jeffrey and Smith both work out as the outside receivers, that’ll allow promising young receiver Jordan Matthews to operate from the slot, where he presents a major matchup dilemma because of his size advantage against nickel cornerbacks.
On the other side of the ball, head coach Doug Pederson allows defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz to run the show. Schwartz came in and installed his attacking, 4–3 style of defense last year, helping a few guys on the defensive line have career-best performances. Unfortunately, a couple of those guys — defensive end Connor Barwin and defensive tackle Bennie Logan — moved on to other teams. The Eagles will miss the pass-rushing presence and leadership provided by Barwin, but got an absolute steal when they acquired defensive tackle Timmy Jernigan from the Baltimore Ravens for nothing more than a pick swap. Next to Pro Bowl defensive tackle Fletcher Cox, he’ll help form a brick wall right down the middle of the Eagles defense. The back seven of the Eagles defense will look largely the same, though they still appear to have major question marks at cornerback, given that Jalen Mills (a seventh round pick in 2016) and Patrick Robinson (a former first round pick who’s struggled to stay healthy) are currently slated to start.
In the end, it’s hard to see this team emerging out of the brutal dogfight that is the NFC East. This year is more about the continued development of Wentz, with the team hoping he’ll take another step forward towards bringing the Eagles back into contention in the future.
2017 Prediction: 7–9