NFL Nation: 4 Downs -- NFC East

June, 12, 2014
Jun 12
10:00
AM ET

The NFC East is not what it once was, and there have been plenty of changes in the division.

Since 2010, the NFC East is the only division not to have a team post more than 10 wins in a season.

The Washington Redskins hired a new coach in Jay Gruden. The Dallas Cowboys and New York Giants have added new playcallers. The Philadelphia Eagles have added several key free-agent pieces while also saying goodbye to DeSean Jackson.

How will these changes impact what happens in the NFC East in 2014?

NFL Nation reporters Phil Sheridan (Eagles), Dan Graziano (Giants), John Keim (Redskins) and Todd Archer (Cowboys) take a look.

First Down

Can Jay Gruden and DeSean Jackson help Robert Griffin III regain his form and bring Washington back to the postseason?



Todd Archer: If Gruden can't, he was the wrong hire. Adding Jackson to Pierre Garcon will help. Jackson is a big-play receiver, and in Cincinnati, Gruden was unafraid to take shots down the field with A.J. Green or Marvin Jones. It has been a quiet offseason for RG III compared to last season, when there was so much focus surrounding his rehab from knee surgery, how much he would or would not do, whether he would or would not wear a knee brace, whether he liked Mike Shanahan or Shanahan liked him. For Griffin, it's good that the focus has been on football. This is a critical year for him. If he does not return to form, the Redskins won't return to the playoffs.

Dan Graziano: I think Jackson will help, as will a less toxic relationship with the coaching staff than RG III had last season. Gruden got a lot out of Andy Dalton in Cincinnati, and I think he could work magic with a talent like Griffin, especially with Jackson added to a receiving corps that already includes Garcon and Jordan Reed. Griffin remains a great talent who I think will have success long term in the NFL. But I think not enough is being made of the offensive line issues in Washington. The Redskins did not protect the quarterback well in 2013, and I'm not convinced they've done enough to improve the line for this year. If they have, the sky is the limit for that offense. But if they struggle again up front, the young QB could be in for another rough season.

John Keim: They can -- to a degree. But if he regains his form, it'll also be because he's had a full offseason, something he did not have last season, and he'll be playing without the brace on his right knee. He's used the offseason to tweak his mechanics, but he also needs to use it to read defenses quicker, which, in turn, will allow him to use all the new weapons around him. Jackson provides Griffin a consistent big-play target whose presence will make it tough for defenses to stop everyone. If the receivers and tight end Reed stay healthy, there will be mismatches. As for Gruden, his style of coaching might be a better fit for what Griffin wants and needs. He still understands a quarterback's mindset and has a good handle on what Griffin needs.

Phil Sheridan: They can't hurt. But really, this is about Griffin becoming the quarterback he's capable of being. We've all seen the signs that he can be special. It's hard to believe that Mike and Kyle Shanahan were entirely to blame for every hitch in Griffin's progression. That said, he now has a fresh start. He is Shanahan-free. There is an opportunity for him to redefine himself. Will Gruden and Jackson help? They really should. Jackson still has elite speed that puts pressure on every defense charged with covering him. It is up to Griffin to develop a strong connection to his new teammate. There is no reason to suspect that he can't. As for the postseason, the Eagles will not willingly give up the progress they made last season under Chip Kelly. But the NFC East is not exactly the most daunting challenge in the NFL. There will be space for Griffin in the playoffs if he earns it.


Second Down


Who will be the best rookie in the division?



Archer: Best or most impactful? It's hard to say a guard will be the best rookie in the division, but I think the Cowboys' top pick, offensive tackle Zack Martin, will be the most impactful. He is the third first-round pick on the line and will be a day-one starter. If he plays well, Tony Romo will have more time, DeMarco Murray will have more room and indirectly the defense will be better because it will be on the field less. But if we're looking for the best, I'd go with Giants wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. or Eagles wide receiver Josh Huff. They will get plenty of opportunities. If Eli Manning is to bounce back, Beckham will do things Hakeem Nicks didn't do. I think Huff will benefit from playing for Kelly at Oregon and will make a smooth transition into the offense. Why didn't I mention any Redskins? I was underwhelmed by their top three picks and they didn't have a first-rounder thanks to the Griffin trade.

Graziano: I'll go with Philadelphia's Jordan Matthews, because the idea of a 6-foot-3 slot receiver in Kelly's offense is a scary one for defenses to ponder. I considered Beckham of the Giants, but I think he's going to struggle more with press coverage than the Giants anticipate. I considered Demarcus Lawrence of the Cowboys, because SOMEBODY has to rush the passer in Dallas, and opportunity could help Lawrence pile up the sacks. And the easy answer likely would have been Martin. But it's hard to imagine getting to the end of the year and proclaiming a right guard the best rookie in the division. I'm betting on Kelly finding ways for Matthews to shine as the Eagles pile up points again.

Keim: I was all set to pick Matthews because I love the total package there: speed, size, smarts, work ethic. He'll be a good one, but the Eagles also have several weapons, and that could detract from his ability to make an impact. I really like linebacker Marcus Smith in Philadelphia; he and Washington's Trent Murphy will have opportunities, too, as pass-rushers. But the guy I'll go with is Martin. At No. 16, Martin should make the most impact. But his presence gives Dallas one of the best offensive lines in the NFL. Eventually he could shift outside, but Martin should be a solid player up front for many years, and he'll help immediately.

Sheridan: The easy answer is Beckham. He is the only first-round pick in the division who is likely to make a major impact as a rookie. Even if Martin and Smith have good seasons, they won't show up on the stat sheet the way a wide receiver will. That's what makes the dark-horse candidate Matthews, the Eagles' second-round pick. A wide receiver from Vanderbilt, Matthews is likely to start out playing in the slot. The Eagles almost always had three receivers on the field under Kelly last season. If Matthews can earn the playing time, he'll get some exposure.


Third Down

Will Scott Linehan help the Cowboys take advantage of all their weapons on offense?



Archer: On the surface, the Cowboys' offense was not a problem last year. Romo threw 31 touchdown passes in 15 games and was intercepted 10 times. Murray had his first 1,000-yard season and went to the Pro Bowl. Dez Bryant, Tyron Smith and Jason Witten also went to the Pro Bowl. But there were issues. The red zone offense was a lot better, but the third-down offense was awful. It couldn't stay on the field enough. It was too easy for teams to take away Bryant and Witten in the passing game. The Cowboys did not run the ball enough when they had leads in games, like against Green Bay. Linehan inherits a talented group, and he is known for his ability to adjust in-game. If there has been a criticism of this offense, it is that the only answers to double-teams were to throw it to the other guys. They did little to help Bryant and Witten break free. Linehan had to deal with double coverage with Calvin Johnson a ton when he worked in Detroit. Although he threw it a lot with the Lions, he has shown a willingness to run it in the past, be it in Minnesota or St. Louis or even last year with the Lions. Reggie Bush had more than 1,000 yards. Unlike last year's playcaller, Bill Callahan, this will truly be Linehan's show. That will help him break free from Jason Garrett's shadow.

Graziano: Oh, yeah. The tools Linehan has to work with here are dazzling, when you think about Romo throwing to Bryant, Terrance Williams and Witten or handing it off to Murray. The Cowboys are loaded with skill-position talent on offense, and they've made the offensive line better each of the last four years. Behind that talented line, the offense should flourish, especially the passing game. Dallas' defense looks so rotten that the Cowboys and Romo will be forced to play from behind and throw the ball a lot, and I think that's a situation in which Romo, Linehan and the offense will thrive. People forget that for all the acclaim the Eagles' offense got in 2013, the Cowboys scored only three fewer points than Philadelphia did. Offense hasn't been the problem in Dallas for some time, and it'll be far from it in 2014.

Keim: Maybe, but the thing I worry about with Linehan is his tendency to become so pass-heavy. Dallas' offense already relied a lot on throwing the ball, and that seemed to be a problem. The Cowboys averaged only 94 rushing yards per game, but they gained 4.48 per run. That's pretty good. With the line they're building, I would think they'd want to run the ball a bit more, but that goes against Linehan's history. But what I like, possibly, is getting the backs more involved in the passing game (another Linehan staple from his past). That would enable Murray to stretch his game -- and give defenses more to worry about. The Cowboys have the ability to diversify their offense, but Linehan can't just fall in love with the pass.

Sheridan: You would certainly think so, but then you'd have thought all those weapons would have produced a bit more over the last few years. Indeed, you'd think the same of the Detroit Lions, whose offense Linehan was most recently running. The Cowboys did the right thing by drafting to rebuild their offensive line. That would go a long way toward giving Romo the time to do what he does. And that would go a long way toward helping Linehan succeed. The bigger question is whether all those weapons are really as dangerous as they appear. Romo is at the point where many quarterbacks have begun their decline. Witten is 31.  Bryant is in his prime, but he needs another wide receiver to draw some of the attention from opposing defenses. Murray had a good 2013, but Linehan wasn't exactly devoted to the running game in Detroit. Until proven otherwise, the Cowboys continue to look like a lot of exciting elements in need of a coherent plan.


Fourth Down

Who was the better secondary signing: Malcolm Jenkins or Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie?



Archer: In a division with Bryant, Jackson, Garcon, Jeremy Maclin and Riley Cooper, I'm going with Rodgers-Cromartie. I know safeties are the "it" deal now because of what Earl Thomas has done in Seattle, but cornerbacks are more important. Jenkins fills a need the Eagles haven't filled since losing Brian Dawkins. He will bring stability to the secondary, and that will help the front seven. But Rodgers-Cromartie can do more. Cornerback has been a problem for New York because of injury, poor play or both the past few seasons. Rodgers-Cromartie has good length and speed to handle different kinds of receivers. He will gamble, but he is an upgrade at an ultra-important position.

Graziano: I know all about Rodgers-Cromartie's red flags, concerns about consistency of concentration and effort. And I know there are a lot of fans in Philadelphia who'll say Jenkins because they don't have fond memories of the way Rodgers-Cromartie played there. But all of that said, he's just the better player, and that's why he's my answer. The Giants spent big to get him, but when you look at what cornerbacks are starting to get paid around the league, the deal isn't necessarily going to look crazy a year or two down the road. And if Rodgers-Cromartie plays to his talent level more consistently than he has in previous stops, the Giants won't regret a penny of it. They believe that having him in their program, with early-career mentor Antrel Rolle in the same secondary, will keep him focused. And if it does, this will be a no-contest. I like Jenkins fine as a player, but Rodgers-Cromartie will have a greater impact simply because he's better.

Keim: I have questions about both players, although Rodgers-Cromartie is more talented. Jenkins gives the Eagles a versatile safety, someone who can revert to his corner days and cover. He's coming off a solid season but has been inconsistent. As for DRC, he's also on his fourth team -- something few elite corners at age 28 have ever said. Double moves will get him, and he will be beaten deep. But his length and athleticism make him dangerous, and maybe he's found a permanent home. DRC's presence enables the Giants to use Rolle only at safety -- before now, he's played mostly man. They can now use Rolle better when it comes to disguising coverages. By a hair, I'll go with DRC.

Sheridan: As a member in good standing of the Philadelphia sports community, I'm going to have to say Malcolm Jenkins. Not because the safety from New Orleans signed as a free agent with the Eagles but because Rodgers-Cromartie spent two of the most mystifying seasons imaginable here. Jenkins appears to be a smart, tough safety who will help solidify the Eagles' secondary. We'll take that over Rodgers-Cromartie's skill set -- especially because he demonstrated to Eagles fans how useless a skill set can be when its owner is jogging after ball carriers and declining to do anything so demeaning as tackle an opponent.

SPONSORED HEADLINES

Comments

Use a Facebook account to add a comment, subject to Facebook's Terms of Service and Privacy Policy. Your Facebook name, photo & other personal information you make public on Facebook will appear with your comment, and may be used on ESPN's media platforms. Learn more.


Roster Advisor