2021 NFL Preview: NFC East

Matthew King

Fans are back and most players are back and ready to roll. We are just days away from what should be one of the most exciting seasons of football in a long time. The countdown is on.  Every day leading up to the NFL season I will post a preview of each division with records and breakdowns of each team. It will all culminate on opening day with my playoff predictions where I will give you my pick to hoist the Lombardi Trophy this season. Think of these as little appetizers to help pass the days.

The wildest division in the league in 2020 was easily the NFC East. It really seemed like nobody wanted to in. Eventually, Washington’s defense carried them to the division crown. This season we will see a couple new gunslingers in town and the return of the best quarterback in the division. Still, this division is up for grabs and anyone could end up as the NFC East champions. But who will come out on top?

 

1. Dallas Cowboys (2021 Prediction, 10-7)

The Cowboys had a very good offense last season. The defense was laughably bad. When Dak Prescott went down, the writing was on the wall that they were gonna free fall down the standings. Dak is back in 2021. How will that gruesome injury affect him though? And can Zeke get back to his rookie form?

Dak Prescott finally got a big contract this offseason. A four year, 160 million dollar deal ties Dak to Dallas for the foreseeable future. Now a massive cause for concern is the broken ankle suffered less than a year ago. Has he completely recovered from that injury? It will also be interesting to see how much he trusts that ankle. Prescott is very mobile and that is one of his best skills. When he is healthy, he has shown the capability to put up big numbers which I think we will see once again this season. The turnovers have been what have killed this team since 2016. If Dak can be smarter with the football, this offense will be one of the best in the league.

Ezekiel Elliott looked like he was going to be one of the best running backs in the league for a long time. After a great rookie season, Zeke has really regressed. Now he hasn’t been a bad running back at all. He has failed to break 1,000 rushing yards in just two of his five career seasons. One was in 2017 when he only played 10 games and still finished with 983 yards. The other was last season. He needs Dak to take the focus off of him. When the defenses key on Elliott, he is not too difficult to contain. The fumbles are another problem. Six fumbles last season was the most among all running backs. Elliott needs to protect the ball as well. He will get his yards, but to really get back to that elite level, he has to protect the football.

Weapons are not an issue at all in Dallas. This receiving corps is one of the top three in the league from top to bottom. Amari Cooper has a great connection with Prescott already. Those two are one of the better QB-WR duos in the league. Cooper was on his way to a career year before Dak’s injury and still put up respectable numbers with Andy Dalton. CeeDee Lamb is looking to take a big step this season. A lot of people think Lamb will end up being the top receiver from the loaded class of 2020. He showed his potential last season and should only get better. Michael Gallup is probably the best number three receiver in the league. He can do a lot of damage down the field but can also hurt you across the middle. I don’t think Dalton Schultz or Blake Jarwin will do much damage at tight end. They are both acceptable at the position but nothing to worry opposing defenses.

The offensive line was just battered last season with injuries. When healthy, this line is one of the better lines in football. That is already an issue though. The best player on this line, right guard Zack Martin, is already beat up. Tyron Smith is looking to bounce back from an injury plagued season, but he is not the player he once was. Still, he is not a weakness for the O-Line. The center position is. Travis Frederick through a wrench in the Cowboys’ plans a couple years ago when he retired abruptly.  Those are some very big shoes to fill and so far nobody has. Tyler Biadasz will likely be the starter for the opener in Tampa. He will get tested immediately with that pass rush. This line is good and should be great when healthy. The issue is so far, they can’t seem to stay healthy.

If you watched any NFL football last season, you likely know how bad the Dallas defense was. They gave up 473 points last season which was the 5th most in the league. The defense will definitely look different this year. Mike Nolan is gone and Dan Quinn takes over as the defensive coordinator. Quinn was the defensive coordinator in both of Seattle’s Super Bowl appearances in 2014 and 2015. The Cowboys look for DeMarcus Lawrence and Randy Gregory to be able to create more pressure on opposing quarterbacks this season. At linebacker, Leighton Vander Esch is extremely physical and should play well with Keanu Neal. I really like the addition of Micah Parsons in the draft. I think he will be a superstar in this league. The secondary is still below average. They need to rush the passer successfully to make life easier on this secondary. If they can’t they will get picked apart even with Dan Quinn’s new scheme. 

With a division as weak as the NFC East, everyone is a contender. I just trust Dak Prescott more than any other quarterback in the division. If he is healthy, this offense should be good enough to win the division. The defense will determine how far they can go in the playoffs.

2. Washington Football Team (2021 Prediction, 9-8)

The defending NFC East champions have a different vibe about them this season. Adding Ryan Fitzpatrick immediately makes this offense more explosive than they have been in a long time. The defense is also one of the best in the league and should give opposing quarterbacks nightmares. But do they have enough to retain their division crown?

Ryan Fitzpatrick will finally get his opportunity to be a starter in the NFL. Fitzpatrick has bounced around from team to team over the last few years and has finally settled down in Washington.  Taylor Heinicke did steal the show in the playoff game with Tampa Bay but will now take a backseat to Fitzpatrick. Fitzpatrick is the definition of the old gunslinger mentality like Brett Favre. He will take plenty of chances downfield which can result in turnovers but can also result in a big play offense. The bearded quarterback is either going to put up 40 points or turn the ball over five times per game. With the talent Washington has around him, if he can cut down on the turnovers just a little bit they should be in a good position to try and take this division for the second straight year. 

At running back Washington has themselves a potential big-time breakout candidate in Antonio Gibson. Gibson finished in the top 10 in rushing touchdowns last season despite not being the starter for the first half of the year. Gibson is another guy that can hurt you on the ground or in the passing game out of the backfield. Defenses will have to respect Gibson on the ground which will result in some big-time play action opportunities for Fitzpatrick and company. Backing up Antonio Gibson in the backfield will be JD McKissic. McKissic may not be as explosive as he once was but he should still be a nice addition to gift gifts in those well-deserved breathers. If last season is any indication of what Gibson can do he should be able to take another step forward this season and wind up being a top 10 running back in 2021. 

The player who might be the most excited out of anyone for the addition of Ryan Fitzpatrick is Terry McLaurin. McLaurin Is a high receptions guy who’s going to bring down anything you put in the area around him. He has all the tools to be a top-tier wide receiver in the league and now he has a quarterback who’s going to give him the opportunity to really showcase his talent. They also added wide receiver Curtis Samuel to the receiving corps. Samuel is coming off a career year in Carolina and now looks to carry that talent and success over to Washington. Samuel finished with career highs in both receptions and yards hauling in 77 catches for 851 yards. Heading into only his fifth year in the league Samuel is only getting better and looks to prove that with more opportunities downfield from Fitzpatrick. Logan Thomas, the tight end in Washington, is coming off his career best season as well. Thomas finished top five in catches as a tight end last season as well as finishing in the top 10 in receiving yards. Some believe it was only a flash in the pan for Thomas but he’s looking to prove the doubters wrong and show why he’s an elite tight end in this league. Everyone in Washington should see their numbers go up with Fitzpatrick now under center. An average receiving corps should be more than enough for Fitzpatrick to keep this team in the playoff race throughout the season

Washington had a top 10 offensive line last season. I don’t believe that we will get the same result this year. They do have a lot of depth so it won’t be a liability either. Brandon Scherff is a fantastic right guard who should be once again playing at an elite level. Charles Leno Jr. should once again be a reliable option at left tackle. Left guard and right tackle are a little bit more foggy. On the bright side they do have veterans on both sides of the line that should be able to mask any sort of issues that may arise.  I don’t think this line ends up in the top 10 but they will be in the upper half of the rankings at the end of the season.

The Washington defense is about as good as it gets. Chase Young is going to be an absolute superstar for the next decade plus. He already improved so much in just his rookie season last year and will look to carry that over this season. The defensive rookie of the year had 7.5 sacks and forced four fumbles. Joining him on the defensive line are Jonathan Allen, Daron Payne and Montez Sweat. When they are healthy they are in my opinion the best defensive line in the league. In the secondary they are also improving. William Jackson III and Kendall Fuller at corner should upgrade the secondary from last season. Add in Landon Collins at safety and this defense should once again be a top-five unit. They have the talent to potentially put this team back in the playoffs for the second straight year.

With this defense, Washington is a threat to win this division. They were very close to taking out Tampa Bay last season in the Wild Card round. This is a team that can win any week. Washington will be a very exciting team to watch this year.

 

3. New York Giants (2021 Prediction, 8-9)

The New York Giants really felt like they were going to end up winning the division. Then the Eagles changed quarterbacks in their week 17 matchup with Washington and Washington ended up winning the division. It is a do or die year for Daniel Jones. Does he have what it takes to get this team back to the playoffs for the first time since the 2016 season?

The third year quarterback, Daniel Jones struggled last season. He only threw 11 touchdowns compared to the 10 interceptions he also threw. Jones has above average mobility but his arm and decision making are more below average. I am a firm believer the Giants took Jones too early in the 2019 draft. To win in the NFL, you can’t turn the ball over. So far in his career, Daniel Jones has not proven that he can avoid doing that. If he has another year being hurt by turnovers, the Giants should be looking for a new QB in 2022.

What should help Jones out is the return of Saquon Barkley. Barkley tore his ACL in week 2 last season and that took away the Giants best weapon. Barkley is so good at running the ball and catching the ball out of the backfield. He is extremely strong and you have to wrap him up or else he’s gonna break your tackle and run you over. Just by having his presence on the field changes everything. Teams really didn’t have to respect the Giants running attack in 2020. Now with Barkley back, he will draw most of the attention. That will allow Jones to be more relaxed and doesn’t have to worry about being keyed in on. Saquon Barkley makes this offense go and he is looking to remind the league how good he is.

The Giants front office went out and got a pretty good receiver for Daniel Jones this offseason. Kenny Golladay was the top target for Matthew Stafford in Detroit. Now he looks to boost this receiving corps for New York. Sterling Shepard wasn’t able to live up to the pressures of being the number one receiver. He now doesn’t have to be. Golden Tate couldn’t be the number one guy for this team either. Golladay is different from both of those guys. He is a really good wide receiver that can do it all. Teams have to plan on how to slow this guy down. Opposing defenses also have to worry about Darius Slayton. Slayton is a playmaker. He can take a slant and turn it into a 40 yard play. He also has good speed to beat you down the field. Evan Engram is once again being hyped up to have a big year. He just drops too many passes for me to trust him to be a playmaker for this team. They did add Kyle Rudolph at tight end so the pressure is on Engram. If he doesn’t make plays, Rudolph will no doubt be thrust into the starting lineup.

Now we get to the worst offensive line in football. The Giants have had this problem for many years. They just don’t protect the quarterback very well. The entire O-Line are either young guys or below average veterans. Nate Solder is gone now and he was their best lineman. Nick Gates moved to center last season and he really struggled. To be fair, that is a hard position to move to. I expect Gates to get somewhat better this season as he grows into his new position. Matt Peart will be at right tackle and he might be the guy with the most potential. He is still very young and will see some good pass rushers. Peart is being thrown right into the fire and we will learn quickly if he can handle it. Unless all of these guys have the best seasons of their careers, the Giants offensive line will once again rank towards the bottom of the league.

The Giants had a pretty good defense last season. That defense was the reason that they were in the hunt for the division title until the very last game of the regular season. They defended the run extremely well and the secondary didn’t allow the big plays. They kept everything in front of them and they tackled well as a team. James Bradberry had a big breakout year playing as one of the top corners in football. If that’s the player he really is, he will be a top ten corner in this game for a long time. Jabrill Peppers, Logan Ryan and Adoree’ Jackson round out the secondary who all are physical and great tacklers. Blake Martinez is a mad man at middle linebacker and always finds himself towards the top of the league in tackles. They don’t have any elite pass rushers, but if they can get creative up front, this defense has the potential to be a top 10 defense.

Saquon Barkley alone gives Giants’ fans a reason to be optimistic this year. He will be the centerpiece of this offense for a long time to come. It is all up to Daniel Jones this season. If he can cut down the turnovers, the Giants should win the division for the first time since 2011.

 

4. Philadelphia Eagles (2021 Prediction, 6-11)

In Philadelphia they are going to have some kinks to work out in 2021. Jalen Hurts will be in his first full year as the starting quarterback. However this season he will have a new head coach. Nick Sirianni gets his first gig as a head coach. A young unproven quarterback and a rookie head coach should make things interesting in the City of Brotherly Love

Jalen Hurts won his first start last season in an upset over New Orleans. In week 16 he really struggled against a bad Dallas defense and was controversially benched in week 17 against Washington. Now Hurts will be the starter but has both Joe Flacco and Gardner Minshew II backing him up. There isn’t much room for mistakes so Hurts really needs to prove that he has what it takes to be the quarterback of a team in a city like Philadelphia. He is at his best when he’s using his legs to scramble and has the arm strength to throw on the run as well. He rushed for over 100 yards in the game against New Orleans which is the best outing of his young career. If he uses his legs the defense will be drawn in and he will have more opportunities to let it rip down the field. There is much less room for mistakes now with a hungry Minshew waiting in the wings. In Philadelphia there isn’t time to learn and grow. It’s now or never for Jalen Hurts in Philly.

Miles Sanders will once again lead the backfield for the Eagles. he actually had a pretty good season last year finishing with 867 yards on the ground with six touchdowns. He did miss four games last season due to injury which is a little worrisome. When he’s healthy though, he is a solid primary running back. Boston Scott should see his fair share of touches as the back up. Scott is quicker and is a little bit better in the pass game. The two backs combine for a respectable one two punch that can either grind it out or break away with explosive plays. If they let the running game take some of the pressure off Hurts it could give the Eagles a greater opportunity to have success.

The Eagles have had a tough go of things in the receiving corps over the past couple of seasons. That could be the case once again as they rely heavily on young talent to provide the offense of spark through the air. First round pick DeVonta Smith will lead the receiving corps as a rookie. He has all the potential in the world but won’t have much time to acclimate to the league. Smith will be going up against some of the top corners in the league right out of the gate. Jalen Reagor is another guy who looks to take a step forward from his rookie season last year. He had 31 receptions last season for 396 yards. At tight end is where Philadelphia has that veteran experience in the lineup. Zach Ertz has regressed from the top level tight end he was a few years ago but is still a viable option in the passing game. Dallas Goedert will be the primary tight end mainly due to his blocking ability. He is also a good option in the passing game for a young quarterback. There’s a lot of unproven talent in the receiving corps for the Eagles. If they can live up to their potential they should have a solid season. Rookie mistakes will have to be minimal for this team to compete in the NFC East.

The offensive line might not have been as bad as the numbers showed last season. Carson Wentz hung onto the ball way too long and made it difficult for this line to protect him long enough for him to find a receiver. There is still room for improvement though in 2021. A big issue last season were the injuries. Former first round pick Andre Dillard missed all of last season but they hope to have him back this season. If he can get back to the form he had in college he will be one of the top pass protectors in the league. Brandon Brooks also missed all of 2020 and should be able to slide right back in and be the high-level pass protector he’s been throughout his entire career. Jason Kelce is looking for a back year after a rough 2020. He has the experience though to be able to move past that and come into this season refreshed and ready to go. If they can stay healthy this line should be just fine this season. Jalen Hurts shouldn’t hang onto the ball as long as Carson Wentz did which will make the Eagles a potential top 10 offense O-Line.

On defense, the Eagles bread and butter is the pass rush upfront. The defensive line is the best pass rushing line in the league. Brandon Graham and Fletcher Cox both regressed last season but are looking to have a big bounce back year. I still think Derek Barnett can be an elite pass rusher in the NFL. He showed a ton of potential at Tennessee and now just needs to translate that potential into the NFL. In the secondary Darius Slay also looks to bounce back after a rough 2020 campaign. Anthony Harris came over from Minnesota and he should solidify the secondary. The defense is good enough to keep this team and games but without that elite pass rush upfront they won’t be able to carry the team. 

The Eagles look to be a team in rebuild mode. They won a Super Bowl just a few years ago but most of those guys are gone or don’t have another run in them. In a wide open division, this looks to be the one team that won’t be in the race down the stretch.

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