Cover 3: Previewing the NFC East competition

In this edition of “Cover 3” on Giants.com, the crew previews the state of the NFC East. The Giants, Eagles and Redskins are looking to dethrone the Cowboys, who will try to become the first repeat winner in the division since the early 2000s.

John Schmeelk: The Cowboys are coming off a division title, their second in three years, and they haven’t won fewer than nine games since Dak Prescott took over at quarterback in 2016. They won a playoff game last year and are trying to figure out how to go from being a playoff team to a real Super Bowl contender. It will likely come down to quarterback play, where they’ll need Prescott to take a jump from being a good quarterback to the top tier. The Cowboys surrounded him with new coaches this year in an attempt to unlock his potential. Dallas promoted Kellen Moore to offensive coordinator and hired Jon Kitna to be quarterbacks coach. They added a top wide receiver in Amari Cooper last year, sacrificing a first round pick in the process. The offensive line should be healthy, with Travis Frederick returning from his illness. Ezekiel Elliott is back. Prescott will have to be accurate more consistently to get where the team needs him to be in order to make a Super Bowl run.

Much like the Cowboys, the Eagles have established themselves as a winning football team, making the playoffs two straight years. Unlike Dallas, they got to the top of the mountain and won Super Bowl LII. They are trying to recapture that magic and it starts with keeping quarterback Carson Wentz healthy. Recently signed to a long-term contract extension, Wentz is a top quarterback and can get the Eagles where they need to go behind a good offensive and with weapons around him. Defensively, the Eagles need to make sure their secondary can cover well enough to allow their excellent pass rush to be a factor. Aside from Malcolm Jenkins, there have been constant questions in the defensive backfield. They hope to have those issues resolved this year with healthy seasons from Ronald Darby, Rodney McCleod and (an improved?) Sidney Jones. If the Eagles can cover well on defense, they will have one more of the complete teams in football and will be a force to be reckoned with in the NFC East.

The Redskins and Alex Smith caught some terrible luck when he suffered a catastrophic leg injury late last season. He will not play this year. This offseason the Redskins added veteran Case Keenum and drafted Ohio State standout Dwayne Haskins in the first round. Those two joined incumbent Colt McCoy. All three can be capable players, with Haskins having the potential to be much more than that, but is there enough around them to succeed? They should have a good enough offensive line in front of them, assuming the Trent Williams contract issue is worked out and Ereck Flowers plays better at guard. Derrius Guice returns for his second year off of an ACL injury. At receiver, however, are a lot of questions. Jordan Reed and Vernon Davis are good tight ends, but they’ll need some help from Josh Doctson, Terry McLaurin and Paul Richardson on the outside. Every offense needs to be able to create mismatches, and I’m not sure Washington has enough weapons to score the points needed to win consistently. 

Dan Salomone: I distinctly remember writing this stat when I was an intern here 10 seasons ago, and it only grows in craziness with each passing year: No team has won back-to-back NFC East titles since the Eagles won four in a row from 2001 to 2004. This division, which two seasons ago became the only one to boast four Super Bowl winners, is as unpredictable as it is historic. Dallas, the defending NFC East champion, is practically on a biennial plan, winning in 2007, 2009, 2014, 2016 and 2018. It will look to break the streak and repeat after a 10-6 campaign highlighted by the emergence of linebackers Leighton Vander Esch and Jaylon Smith at the heart of a top-10 defense.

In what has become a rite of autumn, the Giants will get a crack at the dynamic duo and the rest of the Cowboys to open the season in Dallas. The Giants have been dogged by slow starts in recent memory, winning just two of their last 10 games in the month of September. They have lost six of the past seven season openers, the lone victory coming in 2016 at Dallas. That season, the Giants made their first and only postseason appearance since winning Super Bowl XLVI. Pat Shurmur has made it a point of emphasis to start fast this season. At the annual town hall for season ticket holders a few weeks ago, wide receiver Sterling Shepard said starting fast is written on the board every day, so it is in their minds.

Dallas, of course, won’t be the only threat to the Giants in a division that sent two teams to the playoffs last year. Philadelphia, which said goodbye to Super Bowl LII MVP quarterback Nick Foles, is banking on Carson Wentz to stay healthy and lead the team back to January success. Washington, meanwhile, is hoping to put an injury-plagued 2018 in the rearview mirror and look ahead to the future with Dwayne Haskins, the 15th overall pick and the third quarterback taken in the 2019 draft behind Kyler Murray and Daniel Jones. We’ll see when and if he makes his first start this season, but in the meantime, the Redskins have running backs for days with the likes of Adrian Peterson, Derrius Guice, Samaje Perine, and Bryce Love. Like always, health will go a long way in determining their success, which has been hard to find on a year-to-year basis for all four NFC East teams.

Lance Medow: Until a team wins back-to-back NFC East titles, I’ll continue to say this division is wide open. That’s why it’s not a stretch to say each NFC East team has its fair share of strengths and weaknesses. In 2018, the Redskins were plagued by injuries in the second half of the season and that’s a big reason why a team that started 5-2 and looked like it was in control of the division went 2-7 in its final nine games and fell out of the race. Entering 2019, while durability remains a question mark, the biggest mystery is who will emerge from the receiving corps and will that group consistently produce. Paul Richardson was banged up last season and limited to just seven games; Josh Doctson is entering his fourth season in the league but has yet to fulfill expectations and has struggled with drops; last year’s seventh round pick, Trey Quinn, is an intriguing player, but due to injury, his sample size is just three career games; this year’s third-round pick, Terry McLaurin, has yet to play a game and tight end Jordan Reed has struggled to stay healthy.  While most will turn to the quarterback position, the receiving corps remains the biggest question for Washington.

Like the Redskins, the Eagles also had to deal with their fair share of injuries in 2018, specifically in the secondary. Since Jim Schwartz took over as defensive coordinator in 2016, Philadelphia has always had a strong pass rush, but will the secondary complement that facet of the team? Aside from safety Malcolm Jenkins, who has yet to miss a game in his five seasons with the Eagles, the rest of the group hasn’t proven they can remain healthy. Fellow safety Rodney McLeod was limited to just three games in 2018, corner Ronald Darby has yet to play in at least 10 games in either of his two seasons in Philly, and Jalen Mills, Rasul Douglas and Sidney Jones have also all been in and out of the lineup. That’s a big reason why last season the Eagles finished 30th in the NFL in passing yards allowed per game

As far as the Cowboys go, when you look at the whole division, I think they have the fewest questions, and part of that is because they are the defending NFC East champs, acquired Amari Cooper at the trade deadline last year and showcased one of the best defenses in the league. If you’re looking for a question or storyline, I’d go with the center position. Travis Frederick missed all of last season due to an autoimmune disease and is also recovering from offseason shoulder surgery. While he’s done some on-field work this offseason, the big test will come in training camp. If the Cowboys get Frederick back in the mix, that will bolster an offensive line, which has been a major part of Dallas’ identity over the last few seasons.

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