TGS 2018 NFL PREVIEW...A LOOK AT THE NFC EAST
by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor
We continue our TGS NFL previews by taking a look at the NFC East. As always, teams are listed in order of predicted finish, with 2017 straight-up, spread, and "Over/Under" (O/U) records included.
What’s this? Nothing to complain about on 94.1 WIP for the past six months? Well, check it out. The Sixers are well beyond “The Process” from a few years ago and now a dangerous NBA playoff team. The Phillies were leading the NL East into mid-August. Villanova just won its second NCAA basketball title in three seasons. And the Flyers made it into the Stanley Cup playoffs. With not much reason to bellyache on the airwaves of the Delaware Valley, why not center all of the discussion, as usual, on the Philadelphia Eagles (2017 SUR 16-3; PSR 13–6; O/U 9-9-1)? After all, the Birds are off of their first championship in 57 years, since Norm Van Brocklin and Chuck Bednarik beat the Vince Lombardi Packers in the 1960 NFL title game. Indeed, the Super Bowl buzz has yet to wear off in Philly after that thrill-packed win over the Patriots last February 4 in Minneapolis. Along the way, normally understated HC Doug Pederson has allowed himself a bit of an indulgence (if you want to call it that), as his old salt-and-pepper colored hair seems to have been replaced by a Boris Johnson shade of blond. Normally, that might not sit well with the blue-collar types at the Linc, but these days we suggest that after his kamikaze game-planning that outflanked Bill Belichick in the Supe, Pederson could borrow the hairdo of the long-ago “Rainbow man” Rock'n Rollen Stewart (remember his rainbow-colored wig at sporing events of the ‘70s?) and they wouldn’t complain in the City of Brotherly Love.
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We haven’t had the chance to experience the Eagles fan base the year after a Super Bowl win in the sports talk era, so we will be tuning in with some interest at how Angelo Cataldi, Howard Eskin, and the rest of the hosts in Philly are going to deal with things if the Birds fall short of last year’s accomplishments. But they might not fall short, given that they succeeded down the stretch and into the Super Bowl without QB Carson Wentz, who arrived as MVP-caliber by his second full season as a starter before going down with a knee injury in early December, only to see backup Nick Foles seamlessly pick up the baton and perform near flawlessly thru the postseason and into the “Supe” vs. the Patriots, when Foles was deservedly named the MVP. Whenever Wentz is ready after his knee injury (not yet given the green light in preseason, though most believe he’ll be good to go in the regular season), the job is again his, but Foles is a nice fall-back, and it was a good bit of business by GM Howie Roseman to keep Foles in the fold in the offseason. The offense can obviously hum with either QB, and the pieces seem in place to give it another go. (Just in case, ex-Jet Christian Hackenberg was signed after the preseason opener vs. the Steelers, adding more depth if Wentz isn't ready or Foles get hurt before the Sept. 6 Thursday night FB kickoff vs. the Falcons.) Last year’s midseason addition Jay Ajayi (one of many personnel moves that worked like a charm for Roseman) is back along with Corey Clement and now-healthy Darren Sproles to form another capable committee at RB, while newly-added WR Mike Wallace, though playing for his third team in four years, provides another downfield threat along with Alshon Jeffery and Nelson Agholor for Wentz or Foles. The Birds’ fairy-tale ride last season was also reflected in new media darlings TE Zach Ertz and photogenic soccer star wife Julie (Johnson), who are now one of America’s couples. For those who recall the Norm Snead and Pete Liske years of the '60s and early '70s, seeing the Eagles fly at this sort of altitude must seem like a dream. Meanwhile, as long as vet LT Jason Peters can return from season-ending knee surgery, there are few concerns along the forward wall. Even sub PK Jake Elliott delivered last fall after the Caleb Sturgis injury, hitting 26 of 31 FG tries including a 61-yarder at the gun to beat the Giants. Pederson also recruited in-house to replace o.c. Frank Reich, now HC at Indy, with WR coach Mike Groh taking Reich's place. The strike force, however, remains mostly a Pederson production.
After Roseman struck gold on several of his low-risk, potential high-reward personnel deals last term, he went out on the limb a bit more this offseason when nabbing ex-Seahawks DE Michael Bennett in free agency. The addition of Bennett and his lightning-rod persona should at least provide an extra edge and spark to help avoid any Super Bowl hangover complacency, but is also a practical move with Vinny Curry having moved to the Bucs in the offseason and Super Bowl hero Brandon Graham recovering from knee surgery. At the least, Bennett (8.5 sacks last season in Seattle) provides another disruptive force along a line that also includes DT Fletcher Cox, who had a case for Defensive MVP of the league last season, all fitting into the high-pressure style that d.c. Jim Schwartz prefers. Looking to add some depth at the LB spots in case MLB Jordan Hicks is slow to reocver from last year’s Achilles tendon tear, Roseman inked LBs Paul Worrilow and Corey Nelson in free agency just in case. Schwartz had a Super Bowl-winning defense with Malcolm Jenkins and Rodney McLeod one of the top safety tandems in the league, while CB Ron Darby, a preseason trade addition from the Bills, was another of those moves that worked for Roseman last fall. The “D” led the league vs. the run, was fourth overall a year ago, and should be similarly robust this fall.
Though there is often an ebb-and-flow in the NFL from season to season, and one we saw quite clearly in 2017 when several teams emerged and others submerged simultaneously, the Eagles look built for another title run. We know that MVP candidate Wentz (assuming he's back to 100%) is going to be extra hungry after having to watch the playoffs and Supe from the sidelines. We’ll be surprised if Philly doesn’t again with the East, though unless you’re the Patriots in a lesser AFC, getting to back-to-back Supes is easier said than done.
Spread-wise it was also “super” for the Birds last season as they covered 13 of 19. In the Pederson (as head coach) era, Philly is 13-4-1 vs. the line at the Linc. Though we don’t think the Eagles will be underdog often this fall, they covered their last six getting points a season ago if excluding the throw-away Week 16 game vs. Dallas in which Nate Sudfeld started at QB. Oh yes, all three playoff wins, including the Supe, came as an underdog!
Last year’s NFL version of Florida State would have been the Dallas Cowboys (2017 SUR 9-7; PSR 8-7-1; O/U 6-10), as much that could have gone wrong did go wrong in Big D. That the Cowboys still scrapped to a 9-7 record and came close to surviving the Ezekiel Elliott 6-game suspension with a playoff reward actually might speak well for HC Jason Garrett, though there are signs that the seemingly endless rope he has been given by owner Jerry Jones might be running short. Indeed, Jones was said to be more upset in a hard-to-fathom penultimate-week loss to the Seahawks that deep-sixed the Dallas playoff hopes than he was back in December of ‘69 when his alma mater Arkansas lost that “Game of the Century” by a 15-14 count vs. Texas. (In case you’re reading, Jerry, sorry to have brought it up). Though there has been talk before in Big D of Garrett’s job being on the line, most in the Metroplex suggest that it would be hard to envision Garrett, with only one playoff win in seven-plus seasons on the job, surviving into 2019 if Dallas again misses the postseason party.
Of course, getting “Zeke” for a full season (and without the distraction of wondering when a suspension might actually get enforced) would figure to be a plus, but there were other problem areas for ‘ol Jer in 2017, as the “D” regressed and the OL did not dominate as it did in 2016. Dak Prescott also didn’t take a step forward at QB last fall, though there were some forces working against him. Indeed, Dak’s recovery back to his rookie form of two years ago would be most welcome in Arlington, though he won’t have Dez Bryant (who remains unsigned into mid-August, and not on Dallas radar) or Jason Witten (now in the Monday Night Football booth) anymore as targets. There are no clear-cut replacements for either Bryant or Witten; Cole Beasley did catch 75 passes as recently as 2016, but is considered more of an underneath threat. FA ex-Jag WR Allen Hurns will try to step into the Dez breach, and third-round pick Michael Gallup from Colorado State has impressed in summer, but it’s quite a leap to equate either with Bryant at his best. Meanwhile, there is so little experience at the TE spot that a former Baylor hoopster, Rico Gathers, might get first shot to replace Witten. (Note: Dallas has a history of hoopsters-turned-gridders, as Cornell Green and Pete Gent, two keys to early Cowboys powerhouses in the 60s, were both more known for basketball exploits in college.) Then there’s the OL, even flush with three past first-round picks, that wasn’t opening holes the same way for Zeke or his replacements a year ago, either, though 2nd-round pick G Connor Williams from Texas was regarded by most as a steal and could bolster the forward wall. Even normally-automatic PK Dan Bailey made only 15 of 20 FGs a year ago, and was off-mark twice in that bitter loss to the Seahawks.
If the “O” drags a bit, it’s going to be up to the “D” to pick up some of the slack. To that end, hiring DB Coach Kris Richard (most recently Pete Carroll’s d.c. in Seattle) is thought to be a plus, allowing sage d.c. Rod Marinelli to concentrate more of his attention up front, his area of expertise. Richard was also part of the latest round of staff changes that some observers confirms Garrett is on a short leash from Jones this fall. Jones did move to improve his pass rush in free agency by inking ex-Jets DE Cony Ealy, a previous Dallas target, but that was an area of strength last fall in Big D after DE DeMarcus Lawrence registered a career-best 14.5 sacks. As expected, Jones went for a potential impact defender early in the draft with big, versatile first-round pick LB Leighton Vander Eesch from Boise State, though he still might be a work in progress as he only had one year as a starter on the blue carpet. Keeping oft-injured MLB Sean Lee in one piece will be key (Dallas was 8-2 in games Lee played last season and 1-5 in games he didn’t), but depth is an issue at the LB spots after Anthony Hitchens moved to the Chiefs in free agency. Meanwhile, Richards will be overseeing a rebuilt secondary, with CB Orlando Scandrick off to Washington in free agency and S Byron Jones being mvoed to CB in fall.
Without a distracting backdrop like Zeke’s suspension, and noted Omarosa-ish diva Bryant having left town, things seem a bit more calm than usual in Dallas. But these are the Cowboys, Jones is still around, and there always seems to be some drama. We suspect that this fall will be more about a referendum on Garrett’s future as coach, and at this point, we’re not sure Dallas bounces back to contender-like status as in 2016.
Spread-wise, the Cowboys have cooled since running off nine covers in a row into midseason 2016; Dallas has covered just 9 of 22 since. But the 'Pokes were 5-1 SU and vs. the line within the NFC East last season, and have beaten old, nasty foe Washington in 8 of 10 SU since 2013.
When comparisons were being made to Allie Sherman’s 1-12-1 entry from 1966 as the franchise’s worst-ever team, you knew things didn’t go too well last fall for the the New York Giants (2017 SUR 3-13; PSR 7-9; O/U 6-10). It got so bad that even Kathie Lee and Hoda were relieved that ill-suited HC Ben McAdoo was relieved of duties in early December, but that was just part of the behind-the-scenes doings at MetLife Stadium as GM Jerry Reese also got the boot. Former Carolina GM Dave Gettleman, who had worked for the Giants earlier in his career, now calls the front office shots, while Pat Shurmur, most recently o.c. for the Vikings and a former HC of the Browns (where he failed...but once so did Bill Belichick), not to mention the dad of Vanderbilt QB Kyle, tries to succeed where McAdoo couldn't. Shurmur won’t have to work too hard to be an upgrade from the ill-suited McAdoo, whose appearance alone made him a target for Jimmy Fallon and the local late-night comics. Now, Gettleman and Shurmur are designing a makeover that could be a work in progress the entire fall after bypassing the conventional wisdom that an early-round successor to Eli Manning at QB was going to be a sure thing at the draft in April.
Not so, though the G-Men did eventually get around to selecting a QB in the 4th round (Kyle Lauletta from Richmond). But plucking Penn State RB Saquon Barkley with the third pick of the draft signaled a change in philosophy on the offensive end, where pounding the rock is going to be the first objective, which in turn hopefully extends Eli’s shelf-life another year or two. Barkley already has them lining up back-page headlines at the Post after he wowed the MetLife crowd with a 39-yard run vs. the Browns on his first carry of the preseason. If all goes to plan, Barkley becomes the fulcrum on the attack end, with the FA addition of LT Nate Solder from the Patriots and RB depth with Jonathan Stewart from the Panthers, plus drafting big UTEP G Will Fernandez in the second round, further confirming the updated strategy for the G-Men and new o.c. Mike Shula. There is a bit of urgency, however, to make some hay while the window is still open (though it might be closing rapidly) for 37-year-old Eli, whose good games have become further and further between in recent years. How soon WR Odell Beckham, Jr. and his various acts of pass-catching wizardry gets back to 100% after last fall’s broken ankle (and holdout threat in the offseason) will be another key to any bounce-back.
The stop unit will have a different look, too, under former Cards d.c. James Bettcher, whose Arizona platoons brought lots of heat and preferred to work out of 3-4 alignments, which are now en vogue at MetLife. In an early nod to the new Bettcher scheme, Gettleman moved out DE Jason Pierre-Paul, not considered a good fit in the 3-4, to the Bucs. Ex-Ram LB Alec Ogletree, added via trade, is a noted run-stopper and the type of addition that Bettcher will appreciate. After ranking a poor 30th in sacks lest season, Bettcher knows where upgrades must materialize. Holdover Olivier Vernon moves from DE to OLB in the new look that could also at some point feature impressive Georgia rookie LB Lorenzo Carter. Likely to be moved like a queen-on-the-chess-board will be do-everything S Landon Collins, a big-enough hitter that Bettcher might slide him at times at a LB spot. Better seasons from CBs Janoris Jenkins and Eli Apple than a year ago would help the pass defense that also moves forward minus Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, who started 8 games at a corner last fall and was being considered for a move to FS before a contract impasse and becoming a salary cap casualty.
The G-Men were one of those teams to dip unexpectedly a year ago, with most of the blame rightly on McAdoo, who proved a poor fit. It won’t be hard for New York to be better than 3-13 this season, but how much better might depend on what Shurmur can squeeze out of Eli, who looked past his sell-by date last fall. Barkley and the run-game upgrades ought to help, but should the G-Men really have gone “all in” on Eli at this stage of his career? We’ll see.
Spread-wise the G-Men weren’t quite as bad (7-9) as they were straight up (3-13) a season ago, when most of the close decisions (five losses by seven points or fewer) all went against them. Throughout his career, Eli has often provided decent value as a dog, and the G-Men have finished with a winning spread mark getting points each of the past three seasons. Is Eli up to continuing that trend?
Already, HC Jay Gruden has beaten the odds by lasting into a fifth season for notoriously tempestuous owner Dan Snyder, who has never kept a coach beyond four years for his Washington Redskins (2017 SUR 7-9; PSR 7-9; O/U 8-8). And that includes some pretty big names like Steve Spurrier, Mike Shanahan, and Joe Gibbs (who wisely resigned and moved over to his profitable NASCAR business, sparing Snyder from ever considering a pink slip for his admitted coaching hero). But Gruden can be excused for wondering when the war drums might start to beat after a devastating blow in the first preseason game when 2nd-round LSU RB Derrius Guice, considered a draft steal and penciled in to become the bell-cow back Gruden has been looking for, went down with an ACL tear in the preseason opener at New England, lost for the season. A bad omen for the fall? Or a temporary setback in a recovery year at FedEx Field?
If it’s the former, as many in D.C. seem to expect, Gruden might be looking for a job on Capitol Hill after the season as few seem to believe the Skins have made much, if any, of an upgrade with the switch from Kirk Cousins to Alex Smith at QB and, of course, the loss of Guice. Regarding the latter, barring a later preseason trade, it will be up to holdovers Rob Kelley and Samaje Perine to handle the overland chores, with Chris Thompson a situational-alternative on 3rd downs, hardly the exciting prospect that was Guice. As for Smith, he’s now working with a longer-term deal, in itself a bit of relief for the Skins after the year-to-year proposition that was Cousins (and his consecutive franchise tags) that always made his appointment seem temporary. To Smith’s credit, he has taken care of the ball slightly better in his career than Cousins, but is not considered the same sort of downfield passing threat. Can FA ex-Seahawks WR Paul Richardson, or oft-injured 3rd-year WR Josh Doctson, provide downfield threats for Smith as they could have been for Cousins? Smith also might not have the type of weapons he had at his disposal with the Chiefs (especially with Guice going down), though the Gruden offense is similar in design to the Andy Reid offense, and WR Jamison Crowder (66 catches LY) and former Pro Bowl TEs Vernon Davis and Jordan Reid can be functional targets. Still, the OL no longer looms as a strength, and a running game that ranked 28th a season ago was hoping for a boost (that it now won’t get) from Guice. Hardly good news for new QB Smith.
Meanwhile, a “D” that was last in the league vs. the run immediately addressed its shortcomings in the draft when tabbing Alabama DT Da’Ron Payne in the first round, while another Bama product, last year’s first-rounder DE Jonathan Allen, hopes to be more productive this fall after missing 11 games with injury in 2017. But GM Doug Williams didn’t add a top-flight pass rusher to take some heat off of DE/)OLB Ryan Kerrigan. And time might be running out on CB Josh Norman to reprise his starring role with the Panthers in their Super Bowl run three years ago; he’s been a mild disappointment since the move to FedEx. Moreover, promising CB Kendall Fuller was moved to the Chiefs as part of the Alex Smith deal, putting the pressure on FA and ex-Cowboy Orlando Scandrick to immediately step into the breach. (Ed. note: Scandrick, running with the first team, was surprisingly released after the first preseason game vs. the Patriots, signaling that d.c. Greg Manusky is willing to go with 2nd-year Fabian Moreau from UCLA, or perhaps training camp star FAs Ranthony Texada or Danny Johnson, opposite Norman.)
We’re trying to look for areas in which the Skins might have made an upgrade from a year ago, but we instead think it might be the opposite, as with no Guice at RB, and the Smith-for-Cousins switch at QB, plus the “D” still with questions, this is one team that looks to us like it could regress. Whether owner Snyder has mellowed with age and decides to keep Gruden around in such a scenario remains to be seen.
Spread-wise, Gruden has been treading water, exactly 24-24 vs. the line over the last three regular seasons. Note that he hasn’t covered an opening game in any of his four campaigns on the job, something perhaps to consider for the September 9 lid-lifter at Arizona.
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