(CBS DFW) — The NFC East was widely considered the worst division in the NFL last season. The Washington Football Team backed into the title with a 7-9 record, after losing two of their last three games. A scenario where a 6-10 record qualified a team for the playoffs and a Wild Card round home game was on the table for a time. Injuries certainly contributed to the poor showing across the division. The Dallas Cowboys with quarterback Dak Prescott would have been the NFC East’s best team, but a serious ankle injury ended his season in October. The New York Giants lost running back Saquon Barkley to an ACL tear in Week 2, hindering their prospects.
“It was the NFC Least last year,” according to CBS Dallas sports anchor Bill Jones. “And I think a lot of people are looking at it the same way this year. A lot of it has to do with who stays healthy. One of the reasons that the division was bad last year… when you look at Philadelphia, they had a lot of injury issues, especially in their offensive line. You look at the Giants they lost Saquon Barkley, two games into the season. And then you look at the Cowboys, besides losing Dak Prescott, they had a whole bunch of injuries on their offensive line and elsewhere on their team. So I think things could be different this year if these teams stay healthy.”
The Cowboys are a different team without Prescott. And his return should be enough to push Dallas back to the top of the division standings. The Cowboys have plenty of offensive weapons to keep the ball moving. Ezekiel Elliott is one of the NFL’s better backs, when he’s not fumbling. Amari Cooper is Prescott’s top target at wide receiver, though CeeDee Lamb put up veteran numbers in his rookie season. A healthy offensive line will help keep this unit clicking.
“If Dak Prescott stays healthy for the Cowboys, I think the Cowboys are the team to beat,” as Jones sees it.
It may depend on whether Dallas did enough to improve last season’s horrendous defense. The unit gave up close to 30 points per game, which was among the NFL’s worst . Dan Quinn, former head coach of the Atlanta Falcons, takes over at defensive coordinator for the departed Mike Nolan. The Cowboys also added plenty of young defenders in the draft, including linebacker Micah Parsons with the 12th overall pick and cornerback Kelvin Joseph a round later. In fact, their first six picks were all defensive players.
The Cowboys will need the defensive unit to gel early to have any hope of a strong start. Prescott has seen very limited action in training camp due to a right shoulder strain, so the offense may not be up to speed by their season opener in Tampa Bay. “They start the season at Tom Brady and the Buccaneers on the road in the Thursday night opener,” Jones points out. “And then they play on the road again against the Chargers and another very good quarterback, who was the Offensive Rookie of the Year last year in Justin Herbert. Then the third week they come back and play Philadelphia in the Sunday night game. That, of course, being a big rivalry game. They need to get off to a good start this year.”
Unlike Dallas, Washington does not want for defensive talent. They had the NFL’s second-best defense last season, led by a defensive line filled with first-round picks. “They’ve got not only the best defense in the division, they almost had the best defense in the entire league last year,” Jones notes. “They were second in the league in total defense, second in the league in pass defense. There’s no reason to think that they won’t be just as good defensively, unless there’s some injury issues there. They spent a first-round draft pick on a linebacker, Jamin Davis. They’ve got a guy at defensive end in Chase Young, who just might be the Defensive Player of the Year, going into his second year. He was the Rookie of the Year last year. So they’re strong defensively.”
Despite the strength of the defense, the offense struggled to get on the scoreboard, averaging just 21 points per game. The team has a few young playmakers in running back Antonio Gibson, wide receiver Terry McLaurin, and tight end Logan Thomas. But quarterback play was a major issue. The addition of veteran Ryan Fitzpatrick may solve the problem in the short-term, though it may not. This will be the ninth team of his pro career.
The Giants seem to think they have their quarterback of the future in Daniel Jones and going into his third season as starter, he may finally have some weapons at his disposal. Tight end Kyle Rudolph comes over from the Minnesota Vikings. Wide receiver Kenny Golladay arrives from the Detroit Lions. Wide receiver Kadarius Toney was drafted in the first round out of Florida. Of the three, only Rudolph has seen the practice field in camp. According to Bill Jones, “if Barkley can stay healthy, the big X-factor there with them is quarterback Daniel Jones, and whether their offensive coordinator, Jason Garrett, can get the most out of him. So there are big question marks there with them.”
The biggest question mark may be the offensive line, which the team didn’t add to in the draft. They were among the NFL’s worst last year. But the unit does have a little more experience going into the season. Andrew Thomas, Matt Peart, and Shane Lemieux are no longer rookies, and Nick Gates is more used to playing center. Nate Solder also returns after taking the year off due to COVID, though not likely to the starting lineup. The success of the offense depends on this unit making progress.
The Giants defense was better than expected last season, and could very well improve again. Cornerback James Bradberry showed himself to be the lockdown corner the team needed. Linebacker Blake Martinez piled up 151 tackles last season, his first with the team and defensive tackle Leonard Williams had a career year of his own. With safety Jabrill Peppers entering the final year of his rookie contract, this unit might be even better.
The Eagles welcome in new coach Nick Sirianni after last year’s disaster of the season. “No one knows much about him,” Jones acknowledges. “He was with the Colts the last three years as an offensive coordinator. Jalen Hurts at quarterback, there are lots of question marks about him. And so, Sirianni is inheriting Hurts and he’s got Joe Flacco as the backup.”
The Eagles’ offense wasn’t good last year, with or without Carson Wentz. They averaged 20.9 points and 334.6 yards per game. With Wentz now in Indianapolis, Sirianni will look to leverage Hurts’ strength as a runner as well as a passer. That could open things up a little more. Philadelphia also drafted Heisman Trophy-winning wide receiver DeVonta Smith out of Alabama. Like the Giants, however, any improvement hinges on the play of the offensive line. Decimated by injuries, the unit allowed a league-worst 65 sacks in 2020. That number should improve, but will it improve enough to allow Hurts room to develop?
They shouldn’t expect that much help from what promises to be an average defense adjusting to a new system. The line, led by Brandon Graham and Fletcher Cox, is strong and Ryan Kerrigan, coming over from Washington, is a nice addition. The secondary should improve with the arrival of safety Anthony Harris from the Minnesota Vikings. Early reports from training camps have been positive.