2013 NFC East Predictions

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In 2012 the NFC East was one of the NFL’s most competitive divisions, with just two wins separating the top three teams in the division. The Washington Redskins clinched the division, finishing 10-6, with the New York Giants and Dallas Cowboys finishing closely behind with 9-7 and 8-8 records respectively. One of the shocks of the season was the poor play of the Philadelphia Eagles, who struggled throughout the year and finished with a 4-12 record, their worst since the 1998 season. In 2013, I expect the division title to be hotly contested by New York and Washington; I expect Dallas to compete but fall short, while the Eagles will improve, but wont challenge. Ultimately, I expect Washington to clinch the division for the second consecutive year.

In the 2012 season the division-winning Redskins were hampered by injuries to several of their star players. Two-time pro bowl linebacker Brian Orakpo tore his left pectoral muscle in week two, causing him to miss the remainder of the season. As a result the Redskins were forced to rely more heavily than they would have liked upon Ryan Kerrigan as a pass rusher.

The Redskins’ poor play in the secondary can also be attributed in part to Orakpo’s injury due to the lack of pressure on opposing quarterbacks – the Redskins ranked twenty-ninth in passing yards allowed.

Moreover, quarterback Robert Griffin III lost his number one receiver Pierre Garçon for six games due to a foot injury, and number one tight end Fred Davis in week seven to a torn Achilles tendon. Garçon returned and played an important role in the Redskins’ seven game win streak that cemented their place atop the division. The return of both offensive and defensive playmakers in 2013 will bolster an impressive Washington roster.

The Redskins attempted to address their poor secondary in the draft by taking cornerback David Amerson (N.C State) along with safeties Phillip Thomas (Fresno State) and Bacarri Rambo (Georgia). Expect this trio to compete for starting roles in 2013, and most importantly for the Redskins, create turnovers.

Ultimately, much of the Redskins’ success depends on the recovery and subsequent play of Robert Griffin III this season. Coming off a torn ACL and LCL in his knee, Griffin III must learn to protect himself, which means learning to rely more on his arm talent than his speed. After a 2012 campaign that earned him the Offensive Rookie of the Year award, I think RG3 will continue to improve, which makes Washington a formidable force in the NFC East.

The 2012 Super Bowl winning Giants couldn’t quite pull it together last season, however, they were, and still remain, the Redskins’ biggest threat for the NFC East title. Quarterback Eli Manning had another solid season, which saw him selected to his third Pro Bowl. Assuming the Giants resolve the contract dispute with Victor Cruz – which I expect them to because Cruz is one of the NFL’s most complete receivers – Eli will retain his favourite target and the Giants’ best offensive threat.

Defensively, in 2012 the Giants were poor; they ranked second worst in the NFL in average yards allowed per game, with 383.4. In order for the Giants’ to improve, Jason Pierre-Paul’s recovery from back surgery is of importance. Pierre-Paul’s production decreased in 2012 as teams constantly double-teamed him, which resulted in his sack total falling from 16.5 in 2011 to 6.5. If he can recover anything like his 2011 form, this unit’s production will improve.

Like Washington, New York’s secondary play must improve. The Giants ranked fifth in average passing yards allowed per game. This season is a make or break year for 2011 first-round pick Prince Amukamara, who has struggled to remain healthy thus far in his career, and has failed to display the ball skills to merit a first-round selection when he has played. The Giants lack a number one corner, and they drafted Amukamara to be that guy; he needs to step up this season.

I like what the Giants did in the draft this year; they got great value in the third-round with defensive end Damontre Moore (Texas A&M), and further bolstered their defensive line in the second-round with Johnathan Hankins (DT, Ohio St.). The pass rush these two can provide should ease some of the pressure on the Giants’ secondary. The Giants and the Redskins are both strong teams and it is possible that the race for the division could come down to their week seventeen meeting at the MetLife Stadium.

The 2012 Dallas Cowboys finished .500, which came as another disappointment to Jerry Jones. This offseason, the Cowboys signed quarterback Tony Romo to a six-year contract extension worth a whopping $108 million with $55 million guaranteed. After signing such a huge deal, there is great pressure on Romo’s shoulders to come in and lead the Cowboys to the playoffs. He is, however, helped by the play of Jason Witten (TE) and Dez Bryant, who is emerging as one of the game’s most talented wide receivers. Moreover, the addition of Terrance Williams (WR, Baylor) in the third-round of this year’s draft gives Romo another weapon.

In order to provide offensive balance, the Cowboys’ running game must improve after finishing thirty-first in rushing yards with 1,265 – a team total that was less than the individual total of Alfred Morris, Washington’s halfback. The health of running back DeMarco Murray is important to Dallas’ success in the running game. Murray has shown signs of greatness, however, he has been hampered by injuries in the last two years.

Another area Dallas must improve is on their offensive line. Poor play resulted in less running-lanes being opened for the team’s halfbacks and more pressure being put on Romo, who was hit seventy-five times last season. Despite the selection of Travis Frederick (C, Wisconsin) in the first-round of the NFL Draft being a reach, he does fill a need and should help their offensive line improve.

On the defensive side of the ball, the Cowboys must adapt to a 4-3 scheme under new defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin. Despite this switch to a four-man front, DeMarcus Ware and Anthony Spencer will continue to provide excellent pass rush from the defensive end position. The additions of J.J. Wilcox (S, Georgia Southern) and B.W. Webb (CB, William & Mary), along with the improving Morris Claiborne should solidify the Cowboys’ secondary.

There is pressure on Dallas for immediate success, and, if it does not come, Jason Garrett’s dismissal is a possibility. Despite his large contract extension, I don’t think Romo’s play will greatly improve. Therefore, Garrett’s future may well rest on Romo’s shoulders.

The Philadelphia Eagles represent an unknown quantity in the NFC East; they have a stacked roster but they finished with a poor 4-12 record in 2012. The offseason coaching change from Andy Reid to ex-Oregon coach Chip Kelly provides more confusion over how the 2013 Eagles will play.

There is currently a quarterback battle occurring in Philadelphia, with veteran Michael Vick and second year player Nick Foles competing for the starting role. I expect Vick to emerge as the starter, however he must learn to protect the ball after throwing ten interceptions and fumbling seven times in just ten games. This year’s fourth-round draft pick Matt Barkley (QB, USC) should be the team’s third-choice quarterback this season, which will give him the chance to learn the Eagles’ offense.

Moreover, after an average 2012 season in which he missed four games due to a concussion suffered in week eleven against the Redskins, LeSean McCoy is poised for a break out season in Kelly’s offense. McCoy amassed only 840 rushing yards in twelve games, which is a poor total for a running back of his calibre. Much of the Eafles’ success depends on McCoy’s play.

Like the Cowboys, the Eagles’ offensive line must improve in 2013. The group allowed a league-high 118 quarterback hits and the NFL’s fifth highest sack total. First-round selection Lane Johnson (T, Oklahoma) brings great athleticism to the Eagles’ offensive line, and the expected return of five-time Pro Bowl tackle Jason Peters from a rupture Achilles tendon should help solidify this group. Moreover, the predicted improvements of the Eagles’ offensive line will aid McCoy greatly.

The Eagles’ defense actually played better than their record suggests, finishing eighteenth in the NFL in average yards allowed per game. Look for Brandon Graham (DE/OLB) to contribute this season, along with Connor Barwin (DE/OLB) and Fletcher Cox (DT). Ultimately, it will be interesting to see how well Chip Kelly’s system transfers to the NFL.

In 2013, all NFC East teams will benefit from players returning from injury. However, I expect the Redskins to retain the NFC East. Their potent offense led by Griffin III, along with their returning starters makes them the strongest team in the division on paper. Much of their success depends on how their rookies in the secondary can play, as Washington has lacked a real enforcer at the safety position since the death of Sean Taylor in 2007. New York will make a strong push and possibly finish with a wildcard slot; I feel they will beat the Redskins in week seventeen at the MetLife Stadium, which could indeed decide the division.

Unfortunately, I feel Dallas fans – along with Jerry Jones – will be left disappointed again in 2013, and will miss out on the playoffs for a fourth straight year. Murray’s health remains an issue, and Romo can only rely upon Bryant, Witten and Terrance Williams so much. The Eagles will improve in 2013, however, they will not compete for the division title and they will remain the weakest team in the NFC East for another season. The start of the Chip Kelly era in Philadelphia signals a large change from that of Andy Reid’s era, thus Philadelphia fans must remain patient, but this team will emerge in time.

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