2015 NFC East Preview: Just Chip being Chip

NFL, Peter Curtin

chip-kelly

After an offseason marked by big changes from the division’s best teams, the NFC East once again looks like one of the NFL’s most interesting heading into 2014.

The two real contenders for the NFC East championship have made big personnel gambles since February. The Cowboys have moved on from DeMarco Murray and placed their bets on an elite offensive line and another great season from Tony Romo. Meanwhile the Eagles have moved on from many great players of the Andy Reid era and gone all in Chip Kelly being the smartest kid in class. It should be fascinating to see which team, if either, will be vindicated at season’s end.

Dallas Cowboys

Offense

Led by the NFL’s best offensive line, the 2014 Cowboys featured one of the League’s best offenses, ranking 4th in Offensive DVOA, per FootballOutsiders. (DVOA – Defense-adjusted Value Over Average. “DVOA measures a team’s efficiency by comparing success on every single play to a league average based on situation and opponent.”.

Much has been made of the departure of DeMarco Murray, and rightfully so. Murray was the centerpiece of the Cowboys’ offense last season, and while Joseph Randle represents a significant drop-off in raw talent, Murray was running behind the best offensive line in football. Cowboys’ fans shouldn’t expect that to change in 2015 as all five of its members return this year with talented rookie La’el Collins filling out depth.

Tony Romo was one of the NFL’s best Quarterbacks one season ago, completing almost 70% of his passes for 8.52 yards/attempt. His QBR of 83.6 was the best in football and a full 6.2 points ahead of second-placed Aaron Rodgers.

Although WRs Terrance Williams and Cole Beasley leave something to be desired, Romo does have the benefit of having one of the NFL’s best receivers in Dez Bryant and future Hall of Famer TE Jason Witten as options 1 and 2. Barring a catastrophic string of injuries, there is no reason to think the Cowboys will not have another high-scoring season in 2015.

Defense:

Despite the 2013 version being one of the worst of all time, the Cowboys managed to cobble together a below-average defense in 2014, ranked 22nd in the NFL in defensive DVOA.

To improve the secondary, the Cowboys drafted cornerback Byron Jones in the 1st round of this year’s draft. Jones will have his rookie struggles, but he should be an upgrade over Morris Claiborne, one of the worst Cornerbacks in the NFL.

The front seven should also be improved. Sean Lee is back from injury, they drafted DE/OLB Randy Gregory in the 2nd round and signed DE Greg Hardy in free agency, both huge talents who should see significant playing time this season. Don’t be surprised if either or both are starting by the season’s midway point if they can avoid any off-field issues.

Best-Case Scenario

The offensive line stays healthy, Joseph Randle effectively replaces 90% of what was lost in DeMarco Murray, the offense is nearly unstoppable, and the defense creeps up to league-average status.

12-4

Worst-Case Scenario

The offensive line is decimated by injuries, Tony Romo has to do everything on offense by himself, and the defense spends 35 minutes/game on the field, having to rely on conventional methods of stopping opponents

7-9

HBT’s Prediction

The offense takes a small step backward, but remains among the League’s best. Improvements in the front 7 help mask the shortcomings in the team’s secondary, but a natural regression in turnover ratio keeps the defense around 20th-best in the League. The Cowboys win 11 games and repeat as NFC East Champions.

11-5

 

Philadelphia Eagles

Offense:

The Eagles are coming off a year when they finished 13th in the NFL in offensive DVOA. Chip Kelly has gotten a lot of flak for his personnel moves this offseason, but 13th is an impressive finish for an offense led by a combination of Nick Foles and Mark Sanchez.

Foles is gone and Sanchez has been relegated to the bench where he belongs, leaving the oft-injured Sam Bradford running the show. You’d expect Bradford will be better working behind the Eagles’ offensive line than what he had in St Louis. However, one must wonder what the ceiling is on a 27 year-old who can’t stay on the field .

Jeremy Maclin and LeSean McCoy are gone, but the Eagles now have a stellar stable of running backs that will be relied on. DeMarco Murray, Ryan Mathews, and Darren Sproles are all good, versatile backs who can do any job if called upon. If Murray, an injury-prone back coming off a 392-carry season, cannot stay healthy, Ryan Mathews and Darren Sproles should be able to be an effective duo behind him. The Eagles drafted Nelson Aghalor to bolster their receiving corps, but there is no one who looks poised to replicate the contributions of Jeremy Maclin.

There are health concerns at running back and there are big questions at the QB position, but if Mark Sanchez can run this offense then anyone can. They will be expected to have another good year.

Defense:

The Eagles defense was a solidly above-average unit in 2014, ranking 10th in the NFL in defensive DVOA. The main reason they were so effective was because of a very good front 7 that ranked 7th against the run. The addition of 2013 Defensive Rookie of the Year Kiko Alonso should strengthen an already stout front 7, assuming he’s fully back from the torn ACL that cost him his sophomore season.

The Eagles were not as effective defending the pass, ranking only 18th in DVOA and 31st in total yards surrendered. The Eagles will be counting on improvements in their secondary, namely Byron Maxwell and Walter Thurmond to fix this. However, it remains to be seen if Byron Maxwell can succeed away from Seattle’s system surrounded by Richard Sherman and Kam Chancellor and become a true #1 corner.

The Eagles’ raw, unadjusted totals on defense should be much improved this year to more accurately reflect their skill level, but it’s hard to envision a scenario where they top last season’s 10th-best schedule-adjusted defense. There are just too many variables to rationally expect that kind of jump.

Best-Case Scenario

This is the highest-variance team in the NFL. Bradford, Murray, the offensive line, Ryans, and Alonso all stay healthy. The secondary is competent and rides a great front-7 and pass rush all the way to finishing just outside the top 5 in defense. Sam Bradford becomes the efficient passer he was projected to be. DeMarco Murray picks up in Philadelphia right where he left off in Dallas. The offense also ranks just outside the top 5. Chip Kelly REALLY knows what he’s doing and this is one of the League’s best teams.

13-3.

Worst-Case Scenario

This is the highest-variance team in the League. Bradford, Murray, the offensive line, Ryans, and Alonso all get hurt. The secondary and inside linebackers are incompetent and the pass defense kills a solid defensive line. Sam Bradford is glass. DeMarco Murray is glass. Chip Kelly’s hubris offends the Gods of ancient Greece.

6-10.

HBT’s Prediction

I don’t know, man. And if anyone says they do, they’re lying. Some of the moves will work. Some won’t.

9-7. Sure. Why not?

 

New York Giants

Offense:

Let’s start with the good. Eli Manning had a very nice rebound season in 2014, finishing with a QBR of 65.9, 11th in the League, despite missing Victor Cruz for 10 games and Odell Beckham Jr. for 4.

Victor Cruz will be back in 2015 and while we shouldn’t expect him to tear it up quite as much, Cruz is a better secondary option than Rueben Randle. The Giants also brought in Shane Vereen, who will provide help out of the backfield in the passing game as both as a route runner and pass blocker. Eli is expected to get a full season of Odell Beckham Jr. this year and man, oh man, the guy is incredible at professional football. With Manning, Vereen, Beckham, Cruz, Randle, and Larry Donnell at Tight End, this should be a good passing offense, improved from their finish one year ago as 12th- best in passing DVOA.

However it’s not all sunshine and roses for the G-men in 2015. This could be a very bad offensive line, and even though I consider Rashad Jennings good and underrated, I don’t think of him as a difference-making back who can really overcome his offensive line’s shortcomings.

The Giants were 23rd in the NFL in rushing DVOA last year, and I think the only shot they have to improve on that is the passing game being SO terrifying that teams have no choice but to empty the box. The passing offense will be good but it won’t be that good. The offense should finish around league-average much like last year when they finished 15th in offensive DVOA.

Defense:

This is where this preview gets a lot less fun for Giants fans. The Giants’ defense was not good in 2014, ranking 24th in defensive DVOA, and there are few reasons to expect improvement in 2015. Simply put, if Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie might be your best defensive player, that’s not a good thing.

If you’re looking for reasons to be hopeful about this defense, then the young talent in the secondary is the place you’ll probably find it. Despite making a joke at DRC’s expense above, he is a solid if unspectacular Cornerback. Former first round pick Prince Amukamara should take a step forward this year and 2015 first-round pick Landon Collins should be a badly needed upgrade at Safety.

And that’s where the hope stops. This front 7 was ugly against the run a year ago. Despite their inefficiency against the run, the Giants managed to cobble together a good pass rush, however, more than 1/4 of their 47 sacks came from Jason Pierre-Paul, who does not have 10 fingers anymore and who knows how well he will play upon his return. It could be a long year for the Giants’ defense.

Best-Case Scenario

The Giants excel at passing the football. Odell Beckham is the League’s best receiver, and Manning has a career year, finishing 5th in the NFL in QBR. The secondary makes a leap forward with huge contributions from Amukamara and Collins, forcing opponents to be overly dependent on the run, incapable of consistently putting up the big scoring totals it takes to keep up with one of the League’s best passing attacks.

10-6.

Worst-Case Scenario

The offensive line is a complete disaster. The running game is a non-factor and Manning makes rushed decisions all season, comfortably topping 20 Interceptions. The defense’s inability to stop the run or pressure the Quarterback leaves a talented secondary hanging out to dry all season, and the Giants have another bottom-10 defensive finish.

5-11.

HBT’s Prediction

The Giants will sport a good enough passing offense to keep them in enough games to avoid a double-digit loss total, but the shortcomings on the offensive line and in the defensive front 7 will prove too substantial to finish at or above .500.

7-9.

 

Washington Redskins

Offense:

And so the Post-RG3 era for the Washington Redskins begins. Obviously, the biggest difference on that list of names from one year ago is the transition from Robert Griffin III to Kirk Cousins as the team’s starting QB.

And this offense will hinge on Kirk Cousins’ play. Alfred Morris is a solid running back. DeSean Jackson, Pierre Garcon, and Jordan Reed make up a solid set of receiving options. With the addition of first-round pick Brandon Scherff, this has the potential to be an above-average offensive line. If Kirk Cousins plays well, this will be a good, solid, above-average offense.

Now, personally, I don’t believe that will happen. To this point in his career, Cousins has shown the ability to move the ball and generate offense (an impressive 8.38 yards/attempt last season), but he has also shown a remarkable knack for throwing the ball to the other team. In his first 407 career passing attempts, Kirk Cousins has thrown 19 interceptions for a STAGGERING 4.7% Interception rate that ranks among the worst of all-time.

Cousins gives Washington the best chance to move the ball and score points among their 3 QB options. Whether he gives them the best chance to win comes down to whether or not he can cut down on the turnovers. Some young QBs have succeeded in doing so, many more have not. I know where my money is.

Defense:

Projected Starters:

The Redskins’ defense does not have much place to go but up, finishing 27th in defensive DVOA and dead last in DVOA against the pass.

It’s hard to imagine the secondary being any worse than it was a year ago. Second-year Cornerback Bashaud Breeland was a rare bright spot on the defense last season as a rookie and Chris Culliver is also a massive upgrade over former starter David Amerson, who was abysmal last year.  The secondary should be better, but that doesn’t mean that it will be good. It just means that it can’t possibly be worse.

The Redskins were actually pretty good against the run one year ago, ranking 9th in DVOA. They should be even better this season thanks to the additions of Terrance Knighton and Stephen Paea in free agency. Adding Preston Smith in the second round of the draft also provides depth at linebacker that has been sorely missing. The front 7 has been good at stopping the run, but a general lack of pass rush is a big problem for a team with as many secondary problems as the Skins. Perry Riley and Keenan Robinson are good run defenders at inside linebacker, but both have real problems in pass coverage, resulting in huge games from opposing Tight Ends and slot receivers entirely too often.

With how good the Redskins could be at stopping the run this year, they don’t need anything more than a halfway-decent secondary to make the important leap from abysmal to below-average as a collective unit. However, it is also entirely possible (and probably more likely) that once again, the pass defense will be so bad that it renders their strength against the run completely irrelevant.

Best-Case Scenario

Kirk Cousins cuts down on the Interceptions significantly and emerges as a league-average starting QB. The offense finishes around 10th and the changes on defense provide a big enough improvement to finish around 20th in the League. The Redskins have a nice season and just miss out on the playoffs.

9-7.

Worst-Case Scenario

Kirk Cousins continues to throw Interceptions at an all-time bad clip and is benched for Colt McCoy by Week 6. The Redskins still can’t generate a pass rush or cover receivers and are again at or near the bottom of the League in pass defense. They spend another season constantly playing from behind with Colt McCoy throwing 40 passes/game en route to a bottom-5 offensive finish, and this is the worst team in football.

2-14.

HBT’s Prediction

The defense will make a small improvement. Cousins’ Interception rate will be harmful enough to keep the Skins in the division cellar, but his ability to move the ball will give the Skins a good enough offense to avoid contention for the 1st pick in 2016’s Draft.

6-10

Author

Peter Curtin

Peter Curtin is a working professional based in Washington, DC. A life-long sports fan, he has previously written as a contributor for Philadelphia-based sports site, thewoodercooler.com. Follow him on Twitter @Pete_Curtin.

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