all statistics via ProFootballReference.com unless stated otherwise
The NFC East was not a very competitive division as usual in 2017 as the four teams combined for a total record of 32-32, good for fifth best among all eight divisions. With each team showing vast improvements through free agency, I want to grade and rank each positional group from all four NFC East teams and compare them to their rivals. For my first NFC East Preview, I want to start with the quarterback position. These grades will be purely based off of play for next year and next year only, meaning age does not play a factor. Make sure to let me know on twitter if you disagree (@BrianBoyle_). With that being said, lets get into the rankings.
#4: New York Giants
Eli and the Giants had very high expectations for the 2017 season following a playoff appearance the year prior. Boy did they surprise everyone, and not in the good way. The Giants took home the second worst record in football this past year, mainly due to the offense’s play. Injuries to Odell Beckham Jr and veteran Brandon Marshall, the team’s two starting wide receivers, made it very hard for Eli to produce anything offensively. The New York offensive line was just flat out bad from start to finish, and this prevented any run game from happening as well. Rookie tight end Evan Engram was one of the few bright spots of this disastrous New York team, and his play should only improve to support Eli for the upcoming season.
The Giants should have a very good offense for Eli to run in 2018. I like the potential here a lot. Odell Beckham is an absolute game changing wide receiver one, and his return should have a huge impact. His return should also open up the passing attack for other weapons such as talented and young wide receiver Sterling Shephard and tight end Evan Engram. Left tackle Nate Solder was brought in to cement the left side of the offensive line, which is a massive upgrade. The Giants were also able to sign guard Patrick Omameh to a light deal to even further improve the line for aging Eli. To fix their broken running game from years past, Jonathan Stewart was signed to hopefully bring some sort of ground game to support the Giants’ vertical offense. They also hold the second overall pick which could go to Penn State running back Saquon Barkley, a rare talent.
So what does this mean for Eli? This could all accumulate to be the best offense Manning has ever been apart of. The Giants have playoff potential going into 2018. Eli’s play has shown signs of regression, which is why he is ranked at four for me. His deep ball has lost it’s zip and his pocket presence has slowly deteriorated from what it once was due to the countless hits he’s taken in past years. His intelligence and decision making are something I’ve always admired, however. I love his knowledge of his surrounding weapons and their skill sets. Unlike Matt Ryan, Eli knows how and when to throw to his star receiver. I do feel like he will succeed statistically as he is in a great situation, but I do not feel as if his skill outmatches the opposing starting quarterbacks in the NFC East.
#3: Dallas Cowboys
Dak Prescott and the Cowboys were the favorite to win the NFC East this past year. With two outstanding rookies and a rock solid offensive line, the boys in blue had enough to be the first back to back division champ since the early 2000’s. The only thing standing in their way was the six game suspension that star running back Ezekiel Elliot was facing for domestic violence. The Rookie of the Year Dak Prescott faced more pressure and attention with the absence of Zeke for the six game stretch. Dak’s play decreased quickly and made Cowboys’ own fans question whether he was good enough to be a starter. With Ezekiel Elliot in the lineup in 2017, Dak was able to post a 17/6 touchdown interception ratio. When Zeke was removed that ratio plummeted down to 5/7. His passer rating drops immensely from 104.6 with Elliot, to 77.2 without. That is almost a 30 point difference.
The Cowboys should be able to improve in all facets of their game in 2018. Their offensive line is not as amazing compared to their 2016 set, but still are one of the best units in the NFL. Bringing in Allen Hurns should be huge for Dak’s play. I love Hurn’s skillset at the outside receiver position. This year could be the year where Ryan Switzer takes over the slot role in place of Cole Beasley. Assuming Ezekiel Elliott plays all 16 games in 2018, Prescott should be able to produce enough for a Cowboys playoff push.
I disagree with anyone who says that Dak is not a starting quarterback. He has great arm strength and mobility. I like his ability to improvise and make plays on the move, but his pocket presence needs to return to his rookie year form. During 2016 he stood in the pocket and made all the throws necessary, but this past year Dak was moving out of the pocket earlier than needed. This could be partly due to the fact that he dealt with more pressure than he would have received with Elliott’s presence. I have him at number three because his decision making needs to improve, and I do believe it will over time. Dak had countless ill advised throws that caused turnovers all season long. If he can limit these, Dak and the Cowboys could be back in business.
#2: Washington Redskins
With the Redskins refusing to pay Kirk Cousin’s massive price, they went out and acquired veteran quarterback Alex Smith from the Chiefs. Once this trade went through, my twitter feed was filled with fans claiming that the Redskins made a huge mistake. They acquired a quarterback older and less talented than their previous quarterback. However you want to view the trade, Smith had a very good 2017 campaign that went highly unnoticed. During the Chiefs’ 5-0 start to the season, Alex Smith was solidly in the MVP conversation. He was able to beat both Super Bowl teams (the Patriots and Eagles) during the early win streak. Once the Chiefs went on a huge losing streak, Smith picked up a lot of the criticism. A perfect example of this is the Chiefs-Jets game from weeks 13. Alex Smith was able to post four touchdowns to zero interceptions, completing 57% of his passes for 366 yards. On top of that, he had a 70 yard rushing attempt. The Chiefs still ended up losing that game due to very poor defense. Alex Smith played great for most of the season and that gets overshadowed due to the teams losing run during the middle of the season.
For 2018, Smith enters a good situation. The Redskins had a large amount of injuries to their offensive line in 2017. With the offensive line becoming healthy again, Alex Smith has a very solid unit in front of him. Wide receiver’s Josh Doctson and Jamison Crowder proved in 2018 that they can be productive playmakers in Washington’s offense. The addition of Paul Richardson is a great move as his play should replicate the role that Tyreek Hill served last year for Alex Smith. Chris Thompson also returns from injury next year. He is a versatile pass catching back that should alleviate pressure off of Smith. Running back could also be addressed in the draft with LSU’s running back Derrius Guice most likely available at 13th overall for the ‘skins. The biggest question mark is tight end Jordan Reed, who is an elite talent if healthy. That is a big if though, as Jordan Reed has missed 28 games since entering the league in 2013.
I place Alex Smith at the second slot because I feel like he can do a little bit of everything that a quarterback is asked to do. He has a beautiful deep ball and has great ball placement. His ability to use his legs and run when needed is also a plus. With loads of talent around him, Smith should have no problem replicating his 2017 success over to this upcoming season. Jay Gruden should be able to capitalize on all of Smith’s abilities and form a great offense.
#1: Philadelphia Eagles
As everyone knows, the Eagles’ were majorly successful in 2017 as they brought home a Lombardi Trophy to Philadelphia for the first time in franchise history. A major part of this success was due to quarterback play for Philadelphia. Wentz enjoyed a tremendous sophomore campaign, being thrown in to the MVP conversation with the likes of Tom Brady and Russell Wilson. Before falling to an ACL tear in week 13, Wentz led the NFL in touchdown passes and garnered a 101.9 passer rating. With Wentz at the helm, the Philly offense was number one in the entire NFL in points per game. Wentz was able to elevate the play of the other 10 players around him so well, you could barely tell that their 9 time Pro Bowl left tackle and hall of fame all-purpose running back were missing.
The Eagles core weapons are relatively the same on the offensive side of the ball for 2018. The biggest change being the Torrey Smith trade, sending him to the Panthers. The Eagles did replace Smith’s old role with another veteran deep threat, adding Mike Wallace from free agency. There will also most likely be an uptick in snaps for the sophomore receiver Mack Hollins, who had a very strong connection with Wentz when thrown to in 2017. The loss of Trey Burton hurts as he is a very talented young tight end. The signing of Richard Rodgers at tight end should patch up this hole. At running back, Ajayi and Clement along with the return of Sproles should shape up to be a talented backfield. With no Legarrette Blount for the 2018 season, I look for Jay Ajayi to carry the bulk of the carries with Clement getting a share. The Eagles possess one of the NFL’s best offensive line units, and since no changes were made there during the offseason this should remain true.
Wentz is truly an elite talent. He can make every single throw asked of him. When in the pocket, Carson is able to deliver accurate strikes down the middle or to the sidelines. What elevates him over the other three is his elite ability to constantly keep eyes down the field while maneuvering around in the pocket. His escape antics are with the likes of Wilson and Rodgers and it is only his third year approaching. With the season he had, its hard to find negatives in his play. One knock on Carson’s play was his occasional errant throws. With more experience and repetition, this should be cleaned up and not be seen as a problem anymore. It shouldn’t be long before Carson Wentz is standing atop the entire NFL at his position.
all photos via Flickr