by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor

We kick off our previews of all of the NFL divisions by taking a look at the NFC East. Teams are listed in predicted order of finish, with 2015 striaght-up, spread, and over/under results listed...

Considering some of the dramatic year-to-year fluctuations in the history of the New York Giants (2015 SUR 6-10. PSR 9-7, O/U 10-6), bouncing back from last year’s 6-10 disappointment is nothing out of the ordinary. Why, in the first decade of TGS publishing back in the ‘60s, the annual G-Men rollercoaster ride resembled that of the old “Cyclone” at Coney Island. After winning a third straight Eastern Conference title in 1963, New York sagged to 2-10-2 the following season, prompting the retirement of key vets such as Y.A. Tittle and Frank Gifford. The Giants recovered to 7-7 the next season before completely collapsing in 1966, when the defense recorded one of the worst marks in NFL history (a then-record 501 points allowed in a 14-game schedule!). By the next season, however, the G-Men were competitive again at 7-7 in ‘67, the year QB Fran Tarkenton arrived at old Yankee Stadium.

In later decades, New York would be fluctuating wildly once more, following up its initial Super Bowl title in the 1986 season for Bill Parcells by falling under .500 in the subsequent ‘87 campaign. There is precedent, then, for New York’s form to hardly bear resemblance from one year to the next.


Which is all good for Giants fans who would rather forget last season’s 6-10 mark that could have, and should have, been so much better. Five leads were lost late in fourth quarters of games, and there were eight losses by six points or fewer. Hardly the way the Tom Coughlin era deserved to end at Met Life Stadium. Yet it was time to turn the page as the G-Men have failed to reach the playoffs since their Super Bowl XLVI win over the Patriots almost five years ago in what turned out to be the last high note of the Coughlin era.

Still, the Giants didn’t exactly clean house after last season, promoting o.c. Ben McAdoo, who had imported the West Coast offense from Green Bay two years earlier, to succeed Coughlin. The move was wholeheartedly endorsed by QB Eli Manning, whose input was apparently impactful. Thus, the new slogan at Met Life is “Evolution, not Revolution” as McAdoo would only turn over about half of the staff, with QB coach Mike Sullivan now inheriting the o.c. and play-calling duties. Also, GM Jerry Reese has been retained by owners John Mara and Steve Tisch, though with a win-now edict for 2016. More than McAdoo, Reese is on the hot seat this fall.

While McAdoo’s offense needed less upgrading in the offseason, the “D” was a different matter after contributing mightily to the many blown leads while falling to the bottom of NFL total defense stats a year ago. Thus, Reese would spend over $200 million in free agency to improve the stop unit while using two of New York’s top three picks on defense in the draft.

Another on the hot seat at the Meadowlands, d.c. Steve Spagnuolo, will have several new pieces at his disposal as he, like Reese, tries to save his job this fall. Retained by McAdoo, Spagnuolo and his platoon have been fortified by pass rush specialist Olivier Vernon (via the Dolphins), DT Damon Harrison (via the Jets), and CB Janoris Jenkins (via the Rams) as well as touted rookie DBs Eli Apple (first round, Ohio State) and Darian Thompson (third round, Boise State). Along with DE Jason Pierre-Paul hopefully having recovered from the fireworks injury that blew off part of his fingers last summer, and inked to a one-year deal after offseason surgery on the injured hand, the defense appears to have at least been somewhat fortified following the injury-plagued 2015 campaign.

Though it is not lost upon many Giants backers that Spagnuolo’s platoons have not overachieved in nearly a decade, or since during his first stint as Coughlin’s d.c. (including the 2007 Super Bowl season).

The addition of Vernon and full recovery of Pierre-Paul are crucial, as Spagnuolo’s schemes work best when he can bring pressure with his four linemen. Spagnuolo’s blitz packages have often lacked bite, as was the case a year ago when they could not generate consistent pressure. If ex-UCLA DE Owa Odighizuwa can also stay healthy after an injury-plagued rookie campaign, Spagnuolo’s new-look DL should be able to bring some heat. The addition of the mountainous, 350-lb. “Snacks” Harrison as a two-down, run-stuffing tackle to fit nicely with holdover Jonathan Hankins should hold down the middle.

The inconsistencies in the pass rush were partly to blame for a pass defense that finished bottom of the pile last fall when it performed in a ghastly manner and allowed nearly 300 ypg (ouch!). Ex-Rams CB Jenkins was a big FA score at one of the corners; along with Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, the G-Men should have plenty of firepower at the edges. Late signee Leon Hall, a longtime Bengal, provides more depth. Rookies Apple and Thompson also figure somewhere into the mix, with Apple likely to see early work in nickel packages as he learns to cover the slot.

The offense certainly has fewer questions after ranking 8th overall a year ago and with Eli posting his second straight big statistical season (4436 YP, 35 TDP and just 14 picks, the latter far below some past Eli mistake-filled campaigns, as well as a career-best 93.6 passer rating) in the McAdoo offense. Of course, it can be argued that wondrous third-year WR Odell Beckham, Jr. has kept Eli relevant; no one in NFL history recorded more receiving yards in his first 25 games than did Beckham, who, thru only 27 games already has 187 reception for 2755 yards and 25 TDs, many of the circus-catch variety. But the offense needs better balance and another wideout to take some pressure off of Beckham, who overheated late last season (in particular vs. the Panthers’ Josh Norman, now an opponent in the NFC East with the Redskins). It appears less likely that one-time homerun threat Victor Cruz, brought back on an incentive-laden one-year deal after a spate of injuries, will be that guy. Perhaps Oklahoma rookie Sterling Shepard, the G-Men’s second-round pick, fills that role. A return to top form by TE Larry Donnell, a key cog not long ago but slowed by neck injuries, would be a welcome development.

After rotating a 4-RB committee for much of last season, the McAdoo offense landed on Rashad Jennings as the feature back in the last month, and he responded by gaining 108 ypg in the last four, and enters 2016 as the top run option, though Shane Vereen and Orleans Darkwa and perhaps UCLA rookie Paul Perkins still figure to get some carries. Last year’s renovation project along the OL was stalled by injuries, though pieces of a potentially dominant forward wall are in place, pivoting around C Weston Richburg. Second-year ex-Florida State thumper Bobby Hart showed lots of promise as a rookie and McAdoo is hoping he can step in at either the guard or tackle spot on the right side.

A situation to monitor thru the end of August is the status of PK Josh Brown, who was dealing with a domestic abuse issue in the middle of the month that could impact his availability in the fall.

As last year, we don’t expect to get much company in this projection of the Giants to win the East. Still, with Eli remaining capable of a big year (at least with Beckham’s help), what appears to be an improved defense, and a potential spark from the new McAdoo regime, the G-Men could emerge. Remember, no team has repeated as East winner since 2004, and the Giants appear more than capable of usurping the Redskins atop the division.

At this time last year, the war drums were beating in D.C., as HC Jay Gruden looked to be another of the many short-term coaching hires that have marked the ownership regime of Dan Snyder since the late ‘90s with the Washington Redskins (2015 SUR 9-8; PSR 9-8; O/U 10-7). Lo and behold, however, collapses elsewhere in the division opened an unlikely lane on the rail for the Skins, who caught fire in December and in a stretch run reminiscent of Billy Mills in the 10,000 meter run at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics would overtake the floundering Giants and Eagles to steal the NFC East.

Still, the division was so submerged in 2015 that a mere 9-7 record was good enough to win, hardly a reminder of past East glory eras when coaching giants such as Tom Landry, Joe Gibbs, and Bill Parcells once prowled the  sidelines. Last year, however, no recollections of greatness were necessary to win the division, as merely getting to .500 would have been enough to qualify for the postseason. Many suspected the Redskins were not a legitimate playoff team, which was confirmed when they were whipped at home by the Packers, who had been limping down the stretch, by a 35-18 count in the wild card round.

No matter, for the first time in a while at FedEx Field, there is some stability, with no outflow on the coaching staff and GM Scot McCloughan now firmly entrenched in his role. (Though we warn that impulsive owner Snyder is still lurking not far away.) McCloughan, however, cannot rest on his laurels, as several upgrades can be used, especially on defense for a platoon that ranked rather low both vs. the pass (25th) and run (26th) in 2015. The expected release of QB Robert Griffin III opened some salary cap room, and defense got most of the FA attention, as McCloughan jumped at the chance to add Panthers All-Pro CB Josh Norman, who surprisingly became available after the FA period began. McCloughan also brought in S David Bruton, signed away from Denver where he was also a special teams ace.

Another big personnel story, however, involved QB Kirk Cousins, who flourished as the starter in a breakout 2015. Yet McCloughan might need a bit more convincing, as Cousins was given a franchise tag (though worth almost $20 million, a huge upgrade for Cousins, who made $600K while still on his rookie contract) for 2016, asking the former Michigan State man to prove himself again before getting a long-term deal.

Cousins appears to be comfy with the situation, as he has said repeatedly that he didn’t have a problem with having to prove himself all over again and then revisiting the contract situation in the offseason, a lot easier now that he will be making $19.95 million this fall.

Still, despite the fact that Cousins put up impressive numbers (4,166 yards, 29 touchdowns and 11 interceptions, while leading the NFL with a completion percentage of 69.8), sources said the Redskins had reservations about overpaying for a player with such a limited body of work.

Meanwhile, confident in his potential and ability to only further drive up his value through strong play in a second straight season, Cousins and his agent Mike McCartney felt no pressure to settle for less than what they perceived as the fair market value for a starting quarterback.

If he can produce statistics similar to 2015 or better, Cousins positions himself for either a 20 percent raise (which is what he would earn if Washington has to use the franchise tag to keep him a second straight offseason), or more (if the sides can agree to a multi-year deal). There’s also the possibility that Cousins gets an opportunity to test free agency. But if he plays well and Washington contends for the NFC East title for a second straight season, it’s hard to imagine team brass letting Cousins walk.

Of course, if Cousins doesn’t play as well as he did last season, he could see his value drop. But given the steady improvement he made down the stretch of 2015, and the massive contracts quarterbacks have received in recent years, this gamble of passing on a long-term deal and sticking with the franchise-tag deal for 2016 proved worth the risk in the eyes of Cousins and his advisers.

McCloughan and Gruden (the o.c. at Cincinnati before taking the Washington gig in 2014) kept the offense mostly untouched in the offseason save letting RB Alfred Morris walk (to Dallas) in free agency.  Gruden believes ex-Florida RB Matt Jones is prepared to handle a heavier workload as the featured back.

Still, how far Cousins can take the Skins remains a legit question, as he beat the teams he should have beaten last season, but has yet to ascend to the elite level. Some in D.C. wonder if he is bound to be the NFL version of the Bengals’ Andy Dalton. He appears to have the needed weapons around him, with vet wideouts DeSean Jackson (in another contract year) and Pierre Garcon established threats, and TE Jordan Reed was one of the breakout stars of 2015 with a team-best 87 catches and 11 TDs. A new face to watch at WR is that of TCU rookie Josh Doctson, the Skins’ first-round pick, though he began camp on the PUP list due to Achilles tendinitis and might miss the entirety of the preseason. Considering Jackson’s and Garcon’s history of injuries, getting Doctson healthy for the regular season will be an important development in August.

Meanwhile, the OL, which shifted away from zone-blocking last season under new position coach Bill Callahan, still needs to upgrade, especially with the run, though star LT Trent Williams believes the forward wall can become “Hogs 2.0,” an ode to the legendary OLs of the Gibbs era.

As mentioned, the stop unit did not have stellar stats last season, but did rank a respectable 17th in points allowed despite placing 28th overall. Now, the addition of the aforementioned Josh Norman adds a new dynamite element to the secondary which already had a top CB in Bashaud Breeland. The addition of Norman means Will Blackmon likely becomes the nickel back, a role in which he should excel. The addition of ex-Bronco Bruton at SS, and with longtime CB DeAngelo Hall having transitioned to FS, suggests the Skins might have the best secondary in the division, if not the entire NFC. More help might come from second-round pick Su’a Cravens, a hybrid LB/S from Southern Cal who figures to come in handy somewhere for d.c. Joe Barry, who will be tempted to unleash the pass rushers and blitzers more often this season with Norman making the Skins less vulnerable in single coverage.

Free agency, however, did cost Washington run-stopper deluxe DT Terrance Knighton, once of Bridgestone Tire commercial fame but now with the Patriots, potentially leaving the Skins a bit vulnerable in the middle. The move of OLB Trent Murphy to DE has been put on hold with another Achilles tendon injury to pass-rush specialist OLB Junior Galette, who missed all of last season with a torn left Achilles before tearing his right Achilles just before training camp. For the time being, Murphy moves back to OLB, where depth became an issue after the Galette injury.

Along with Murphy, Ryan Kerrigan and Preston Smith should provide QB pressure from their OLB spots, while Chris Baker has emerged as an impactful DE. There is plenty of depth along the DL, most of it power rushers, which concurrently also leaves the Skins a bit vulnerable vs. the run.

While schedule forecasting in the NFL can be tricky, it is safe to say that Washington would be advised to have some cushion heading into late November when it embarks upon a key 3-game road trip to Dallas, Arizona, and Carolina. If the Skins can get through that gauntlet relatively unscathed they should have a decent shot at a return to the playoffs, and the division might be decided by the season-ender at home vs. the Giants on New Year’s Day.

Will the real Dallas Cowboys (2015 SUR 4-12; PSR 5-11; O/U 6-10) please stand up? Are they more like the 2014 version when a whisker away from qualifying for the NFC title game? Or like a year ago in an injury-fueled collapse to the franchise’s worst record since 1-15 in 1989, the first season with Jerry Jones as the owner?

True, we can give Jones and his boys a mulligan for last season because of the myriad QB problems that began with Tony Romo limited to four games due to twice breaking his collarbone. Without Romo, the Cowboys were 1-11 SU a year ago. The cracks in the foundation, however, went deeper than injuries to Romo, key WR Dez Bryant (who played barely half of the season), and others, as the defense also leaked too much. There were off-field issues that will carry into this season, too, with LB Randy Gregory and DE Demarcus Lawrence each looking at four-game suspensions and MLB Rolando McClain docked a big ten games to start the new season due to violations of the NFL’s substance-abuse policy. (McClain is a candidate to be released, though it would cause Jones a mild cap hit of near $1 million.)

Indeed, the latter types of personnel issues continue to haunt the organization, which has had six players suspended in the last three seasons. Moreover, top draft pick RB Ezekiel Elliott from Ohio State could be looking at a domestic abuse charge that might cloud his availability. Hardly the sorts of examples that Jones and HC Jason Garrett like to preach about character and getting the right types of guys in the Cowboy locker room.

Back to the topic of mulligans, the QB issues a year ago apparently granted another of those to Garrett, whose SU record over the past five seasons is only 40-40, with a mere one playoff win. The notoriously impatient Jones, who at an earlier stage went through coaches as fast as George Steinbrenner once went through managers with the Yankees, has apparently mellowed with age and willing to give Garrett a lot more rope than with his previous mentors such as Chan Gailey and Dave Campo. Some sources believe Jones sees Garrett as something of an extension of himself and views the ex-Ivy Leaguer as his own coaching discovery, hence the patience. Many of the same sources also said that Jones was nonetheless very exasperated last fall after other teams, such as the Texans, were able to function and even make the playoffs with their backup QBs, while the Cowboys faltered sans Romo.

If the same thing happens at the QB spot this fall, however, Jones will have himself to blame for not providing proper cover to the injury-prone Romo, who hasn’t played a full season since 2012. Jones was slow on the draw in the FA market and was recently beaten to the punch for potential backup QB Nick Foles (ex-Rams) by the Chiefs. Former Boise State lefty Kellen Moore, who was only borderline serviceable late last season when he took his turn in place of Romo after Brandon Weeden and Matt Cassel had flopped, appeared to be the backup by default before he broke a leg in camp. For the moment, Jones continues to look for a veteran reliever (perhaps the Browns’ Josh McCown now that RG III has apparently won the starting job in Cleveland) while likely taking long looks at fourth-round pick Dak Prescott (Mississippi State) and ex-UTEP Jameill Showers (who played last preseason) in the exhibition slate as Romo likely gets exposed to few snaps in August.

The plan, however, is to have a healthy Romo (with a 78-49 SU record in the regular season) in the saddle this fall, but at 36 years of age and unquestionably fragile, Jones is courting disaster without proper depth at the position. Getting WR Bryant healthy, after he was effectively hurt all season despite playing in nine games, will also be key after he emerged as one of the NFL’s top targets in 2014. Without Bryant to draw double teams a year ago, the production of fellow wideouts Terrance Williams and Cole Beasley both dropped. There is always reliable TE Jason Witten, heroic again last season when catching 77 passes, but now at 34 years of age, how long he can continue to produce at that level remains a question.

It is also hoped that ex-Buckeye Elliott can revive the infantry that sagged last season after DeMarco Murray high-tailed it to Philadelphia (and subsequently Tennessee) following his huge 2014 season of nearly 1900 YR. With Murray in the fold, the Pokes ranked second in red-zone scoring in 2014; without him in 2015, they fell to 28th. Running behind what is still considered one of the top OLs in football, Elliott could post big numbers, though his off-field issues and upright running style, which could shorten his NFL shelf life considerably, are concerns. Last year’s starter Darren McFadden (elbow injury likely rendering him out for the preseason) is now being counted upon for depth, as is ex-Redskin Alfred Morris, a FA whose numbers have dropped considerably the past few seasons.

It is no secret that Jones believes Elliott, picked in the first round instead of the expected reinforcements for the defense, is a key to a quick turnaround. Which is why Elliott’s potential off-field issues have them worried in Big D.

While keeping Romo and Bryant healthy, and Elliott out of court, are immediate concerns for Jones and Garrett, at least they have reliable PK Dan Bailey, whose 90.566 % accuracy on his FG tries is an all-time NFL best.

As for the defense, plenty of questions remain entering the fall. On top of those aforementioned suspensions, CB Orlando Scandrick is recovering from a torn Achilles tendon, second-round pick LB Jaylon Smith from Notre Dame is not likely to be ready until 2017 as he continues to rehab from serious knee surgery suffered in the Fiesta Bowl vs. Ohio State, and third-round pick DT Maliek Collins (Nebraska) is recovering from a broken foot and likely won’t be ready for the start of the regular season. At the outset, DT Tyrone Crawford is likely to be moved outside to DE until the Lawrence and Gregory suspensions are complete.

The pass rush questions, exacerbated for the first month of the season by the suspensions, have not likely been solved, nor were they addressed in free agency by Jones, who seemed to think that Lawrence was the answer after his seven sacks in the final eight games of last season. But on top of his 4-game suspension, Lawrence is also returning from offseason back surgery. Moreover, key LB Sean Lee, who has had injury problems in the past but managed to play in 14 games a season ago and mostly flourished switching to the weakside in d.c. Rod Marinelli’s Tampa 2 scheme, is off of his own knee surgery in May.

While the DL is in chaos in training camp due to the injuries and suspensions, and the LB corps crosses its fingers that it has a healthy Lee in the fall, the secondary also has question marks. After Jones bypassed several cornerbacks in free agency and skipped Florida State CB Jalen Ramsey (whom many considered the proper pick at the fourth spot in the first round for Dallas) in favor of RB Elliott on draft night in Chicago, the Dallas defensive backfield has a familiar look, not necessarily a good thing, with CB Brandon Carr taking a pay cut to stay, fellow CB Morris Claiborne inked to a one-year extension. Both have been mild disappointments from past Jones-influenced drafts, not quite the playmakers once envisioned.

Though d.c. Marinelli has brought some structure to the platoon, Dallas has not had a top ten defense since 2009, and that does not figure to change much in the fall.

While Jones doesn’t want to hear this, the Cowboys’ mostly-floundering ways since the mid ‘90s can be traced to ol’ Jer himself, who has been pushing all of the personnel buttons since moving out Jimmy Johnson in an ego move following the Super Bowl XXVIII win over the Bills. Dallas has won all of three playoff games in the 20 seasons since the Super Bowl XXX win over the Steelers in Tempe, and has not reached a conference title game in that span. Without adequately addressing the QB, pass rush, or secondary issues in the offseason, and spending the first-round pick on a boutique selection such as Elliott, the offseason pretty much encapsulated the last 20+ years of the Jones regime.

There are no elections for Cowboys ownership; unlike Ted Cruz, Jones cannot get voted out of office by the support base. Which has been an unfortunate fate for Dallas fans, whose last glory era came during the first term of Bill Clinton, a long time and more than two decades ago.

If you think we’ve had trouble trying to figure out what the Philadelphia Eagles (2015 SUR 7-9; PSR 7-9; O/U 8-8) have been doing in the offseason, try listening to venerable WIP radio, where the ruffled Bird fan base in the Delaware Valley has been blasting away, led in chorus by Angelo Cataldi, Howard Eskin and others.

And there was a lot to talk about after owner Jeffrey Lurie pulled the plug on the Chip Kelly regime after a penultimate-week loss to the Redskins knocked Philly from the playoff picture in late December. Shortly thereafter, defrocked GM Howie Roseman, who had lost a personnel tug-o-war with Kelly the previous year, was reinstated as personnel boss and proceeded to wipe away most of Kelly’s major roster moves (save QB Sam Bradford–more on him in a moment) in a matter of weeks, trading away RB DeMarco Murray, CB Byron Maxwell, and LB Kiko Alonso.

First-time HC Doug Pederson, the Birds’ starting QB for a very short while in 1999 at the beginning of the Donovan McNabb era, and a longtime backup QB in the league before moving to the sidelines and most recently a stint as Andy Reid’s o.c. with the Chiefs, at least knows what he is getting into with the often-delusional Birds fan base.

As for Bradford, he was the center-piece of some of the curious personnel moves by Roseman, who signed the former Heisman winner to a pricey, though shorter-term, contract extension after he stayed healthy for a full season for the first time in his pro career and set franchise records for completions (346) and completion percentage (65%) in the Kelly offense a year ago. That was before Roseman signed FA Chase Daniel, who worked in the Andy Reid/Pederson system with the Chiefs, to an expensive FA deal, ostensibly to be the backup. And all of that before trading up with the Browns for the second pick in the first round, used to take QB Carson Wentz from North Dakota State.

The plan, at least at the outset, appears for Bradford (who at one point in the spring requested a trade after the Eagles traded up for the shot at Wentz or Cal QB Jared Goff, taken first by the Rams), to keep the seat warm for Wentz, though for this season at least, Daniel would appear to be the more-likely to step into the breach should Bradford suffer a familiar injury. Most NFC East observers believe this will be Bradford’s last year with the Birds, but others believe the situation will remain fluid until at least 2017, as the timetable for Wentz, who hails from an FCS program that rarely played FBS competition, is hardly etched in granite. Stay tuned for further developments.

Meanwhile, the Birds are holding their breath that their OL can stay in tact, which was looking increasingly doubtful as preseason approached. Starting RT Lane Johnson is reportedly looking at a 10-game ban as a second-time offender of the league’s banned substance rules. At the same time, oft-injured LT Jason Peters, an eight-time Pro Bowl pick, was dealing with quad issues that were likely to keep him out of early preseason action and could jeopardize his availability in the regular season after he missed nearly 400 snaps a year ago with back and similar quad injuries.

Other changes are in store with the Pederson regime, which will junk Kelly’s high-tempo offense and zone-blocking schemes and focus more on power blocking after Chip’s offense posted progressively-worse rushing stats each of his three seasons in charge as foes got keen to the minimal number of run plays. Key FA additions were Gs Steven Wisniewski (via Jacksonville) and Brandon Brooks (via Houston) who will help shift the infantry focus to more off-guard runs. Expect more work for RB Ryan Mathews, a FA signee last season from San Diego who carried the ball just 106 times in 2015 but did gain 5.1 ypc. The slashing Mathews and still-effective scat-back Darren Sproles should be decent fits for the Pederson version of the West Coast offense.

Pederson will also adjust roles in the passing game, with Jordan Matthews likely to be used more on the outside after Kelly preferred to deploy him in the slot, from where Matthews caught 85 passes a year ago. Matthews will need some help, however, and since Pederson and Roseman are not sure second-year ex-Southern Cal star Nelson Agholor can become a proper diversion, WRs Reuben Randle (via Giants) and Chris Givens (via Ravens) were added as reinforcements in free agency. Ex-Andrew Luck Stanford target Zach Ertz should stay productive at TE after last year’s 75 catches.

The change theme continues on defense where Pederson has enlisted the well-respected former Lions HC and recent Bills d.c. Jim Schwartz to coordinate the platoon. Which needs some help after raking a poor 30th overall, including dead last vs. the rush and 28th vs. the pass, in 2015. That’s equal-opportunity bad.

Schwartz wasted no time junking the previous 3-4 preferred by predecessor Bill Davis and will reintroduce the 4-3 alignments to the Philly defense for the first time in four years. The Schwartz pet “Wide 9" will attempt to install an attack-minded identity, though the Schwartz style relies on intense pressure from four-man rushes, not extra-man pressure.

Fletcher Cox, an active DT who lined up all over the place in Davis’ 2-gap scheme, should be a load inside of the Schwartz Wide-9. Brandon Graham and Connor Barwin, who were the starting OLBs in the Davis 3-4, will move up and become DEs in the Schwartz stop unit. An x-factor will be second-year LB Jordan Hicks, who flashed plenty of upside as a rookie and will take over for DeMeco Ryans in the middle.

The questions for the Eagles are probably going to be in the secondary, where their corners like to press but are not elite athletes and were often burned deep a year ago, hastening Maxwell’s exit. Improvement from second-year ex-Utah CB Eric Rowe, who started five games last season, will be imperative for any upgrades. Nolan Carroll also showed promise at the other corner in 2015 before breaking an ankle. Ex-Ram Rodney McLeod arrived as a high-profile FA to team with holdover Malcolm Jenkins at the safety spots, but things must tighten considerably after the Birds allowed a franchise-record 36 TD passes last fall.

Given the number of changes and the fact this appears to be a potentially-awkward transition year at QB, the Eagles seem to have more questions than any team in the division. On the plus side, the Redskins looked a less-likely contender a year ago, and we know what happened last season. These days, with the league’s power base having temporarily abandoned the NFC East, we suppose anything is possible, though we aren't holding our breath for the Eagles to make the playoffs.

As usual, we suggest tuning into WIP or 97.5 FM “the Fanatic” for an always-unique take on the Birds’ progress in the fall.


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