NFL Nation: 4 Downs -- NFC East

July, 17, 2014
Jul 17
11:00
AM ET
For years the NFC East was one of the best divisions in football, but the four teams are going through different stages of transitions.

The Philadelphia Eagles won the division last year in Chip Kelly's first season, but do they have staying power?

Alfred Morris has eaten up yards on the ground in his first two years with the Washington Redskins, but can he do it without Mike Shanahan's system?

The New York Giants' offense grew stale under Kevin Gilbride. Can new coordinator Ben McAdoo get Eli Manning back to a top level?

The Dallas Cowboys' defense was bad in 2013 and have pinned their hopes of improvement on new coordinator Rod Marinelli. Just how much can Marinelli do?

John Keim, Kieran Darcy, Andy Jasner and Todd Archer look at what can be expected from the Redskins, Giants, Eagles and Cowboys with training camp just around the corner.

First Down

Will Rod Marinelli improve an already poor defense having lost DeMarcus Ware, Jason Hatcher and Sean Lee?



Todd Archer: I believe the Cowboys will be better with Marinelli serving as defensive coordinator instead of Monte Kiffin in part because it can't be worse. It can't be worse, right? Ware, Hatcher and Lee were part of last season's poor defense and missed time. Lee will be missed the most because of his playmaking ability. Ware's pass rush will be missed even if he had just six sacks in 2013. I believe the Cowboys have Hatcher's replacement in Henry Melton. He might not get 11 sacks, but he'll be fine. Marinelli does not have the talent he had to work with in Chicago, but he is a top coach. He can coax the ability out of these guys. Does that mean the Cowboys will be a top-10 or even top-15 defense? Not really. If they can get in the low to mid 20s, then that's improvement. He is more in-tune with today's game than Kiffin and will be more willing to adjust if necessary. The Cowboys had no answers last season. I think Marinelli will have more answers but not enough pupils to earn an A.

Kieran Darcy: The Cowboys gave up 6,645 total yards last season -- the most in the NFL, and the most in franchise history. That leaves a whole lot of room for improvement. Looking back, though, Ware was subpar in 2013 anyway. Hatcher had a career-high 11 sacks, but never had more than 4.5 in his previous seven seasons, and he just turned 32. And perhaps Rolando McClain can finally live up to his talent and capably replace Lee at middle linebacker? Marinelli did a great job running the Chicago Bears' defense from 2010-12. And a change at coordinator often reinvigorates a unit, at least to some degree. Dallas has some very talented players on defense, particularly in the secondary. They should be at least a little better in 2014.

Andy Jasner: It's hard to imagine the Cowboys' defense getting any worse. Well, anything is possible. Four different quarterbacks threw for 400 or more yards in a single game last season. The New Orleans Saints had 40 first downs against the Cowboys' defense in November. Even with some key pieces missing from the defense, they should be improved for one simple reason: work ethic. Marinelli has been part of some bad teams in the past but not because he didn't work hard. Marinelli will instill good habits in his defensive players and improvement throughout the unit will likely be visible. Four years ago in 2010, Marinelli was promoted to defensive coordinator with the Bears. That defense steadily got better as the season moved on. The Cowboys allowed 388 first downs last season, the second-most in NFL history. Even with Ware, Hatcher and Lee, the defense was awful. Good work habits should help across the board.

John Keim: Man, how bad will the Cowboys' defense be if he can't help them improve? Does that mean even more quarterbacks throwing for 400 yards after a record-setting four did a year ago? That was a defense in transition last year, going from a 3-4 to a 4-3 under coordinator Monte Kiffin, who had been out of the NFL since 2008. The problem is, they've lost their most productive players in the front seven. Losing Lee is a huge blow because he was the one of this group who was going to return. Marinelli has done good work as a coordinator in the past and was excellent as Dallas' defensive line coach in 2013, despite needing to use 20 players because of injuries. If the Cowboys stay healthy and their defensive backs respond to different coverages they'll improve. But they have such a long way to go.


Second Down

Will the rest of the division figure out Eagles coach Chip Kelly and make him a one-hit wonder?



Archer: The second time around against the Redskins and Giants, the Eagles' offensive performance slipped in 2013. The numbers against the Cowboys were better in the rematch only because the Cowboys were so good in the first meeting. In what was their best showing of 2013, Dallas gave up only 3 points and 278 yards in the first meeting. In the de facto NFC East title game to close the season, the Eagles scored 24 points and put up 366 yards. That's still respectable for a defense, especially one that was as bad as the Cowboys' last season. Kelly is innovative and appears to know how to stay ahead of the curve. He did that at Oregon in the Pac-12. But it will come down to Nick Foles. If he is a franchise quarterback and not a one-hit wonder himself, then the Eagles will struggle. Having LeSean McCoy, Darren Sproles, Jeremy Maclin, Riley Cooper, Zach Ertz and Brent Celek will help Kelly and Foles. With everybody wanting to hand them the division in the offseason, I think it's best to tap the brakes a little.

Darcy: Prior to the start of last season, Giants coach Tom Coughlin said he and his staff had watched countless hours of tape of Kelly's offense at Oregon, hoping to be as prepared as possible -- and the Giants surely weren't alone in that regard. Yet the Eagles still racked up the second-most yards in the league (6,676), behind only Peyton Manning's Broncos. I'm sure coaching staffs -- the Giants' included -- were again hard at work this offseason, dissecting what the Eagles did in Year 1 under Kelly. But there's no reason to believe Kelly won't continue to be successful, with a young quarterback coming off a remarkable season and the NFL's leading rusher last season, LeSean McCoy. If Philadelphia takes a step back, it'll be because DeSean Jackson's now in Washington, not because of the coach.

Jasner: Everything seemed to click in Kelly's rookie season as running back LeSean McCoy rushed for a league-high 1,607 yards and quarterback Nick Foles threw 27 touchdowns against just two interceptions. Foles began the season as a backup to Michael Vick, who now plays for the New York Jets. Kelly took his high-powered offense from Oregon and made the seamless transition to the NFL. Kelly did a stellar job of adjusting to defenses last season and there's no reason to believe that won't happen again. The rest of the division has plenty of film on how to stop the Eagles' offense. Doing it is another thing altogether. Don't expect Kelly to be a one-hit wonder. However, repeating the feat is always more challenging with defenses keying in more closely. The Eagles may not put up the same huge numbers in Kelly's second season. With talent such as McCoy, Foles, Jeremy Maclin and Darren Sproles, the Eagles will still be able to score plenty of points.

Keim: I'm assuming Kelly will have some changes for defenses in order to build on what the Eagles accomplished last season. What he can't do is fall in love with his "system" and forget it's the talent that made it work. The tough part is expecting Nick Foles to post similar numbers as in 2013. And you can't minimize the loss of receiver DeSean Jackson, even in terms of his impact on others. That said, I still expect them to be a potent offense. They do a good job manipulating defenses and they still have one of the best all-around players in the NFL in running back LeSean McCoy -- not to mention a terrific line. So even if teams think they've figured out Kelly's offense, I'd expect the Eagles to keep doing well.


Third Down

Was Alfred Morris just a product of Mike Shanahan's system and will his effectiveness decrease under Jay Gruden?



Archer: So is he Tatum Bell, Mike Anderson or Reuben Droughns? Is that the question? Those three guys combined for four 1,000-yard seasons under Shanahan and never really performed well again. There is definitely something about the Shanahan system that makes it seem like any back can rush for 1,000 yards. But I think Morris could be more Clinton Portis than those other three. Portis was outstanding in Denver before his trade to Washington. The question, however, with Jay Gruden isn't so much the system as it is his willingness to run the ball enough. The Bengals ran for nearly 1,800 yards last year but it seemed like Gruden went away from the running game in the big moments. When you have a guy like A.J. Green that can be understandable, but is Andy Dalton good enough to carry the show? Now the question is can Robert Griffin III carry the show? The best way to help Griffin is to make sure Morris is a big part of the plan. If Gruden is smart, then he makes Morris the centerpiece of the offense.

Darcy: It depends on how you measure effectiveness. Morris was second in the NFL in rushing yards in 2012 (1,613), and fourth in 2013 (1,275) -- I wouldn't expect him to be ranked that high this season. Gruden's rep is he likes to pass the ball, he was brought in to continue developing young quarterback Robert Griffin III, and he added a big weapon at wide receiver in DeSean Jackson. That being said, Gruden wasn't averse to running the ball with the Bengals -- in his three years as offensive coordinator in Cincinnati, they were ranked 10th, 17th and eighth in rushing attempts, respectively. Morris averaged 4.8 yards per carry in 2012, 4.6 in 2013, and I'd expect a similar average this year. The question is, how many touches does he get?

Jasner: It shouldn't. Morris racked up 1,275 yards rushing, 4.6 yards per carry, and 7 touchdowns last season. He was selected to the Pro Bowl for the first time and was arguably the Redskins' most consistent offensive player. Gruden will expect Morris to become a complete player with the ability to run block and pass block. Gruden is a meticulous coach whom expects his players to be all-around competitors. Gruden has always leaned heavily on running backs in his system and it would be foolish not to have Morris do the same thing in 2014. Morris has played all 32 games in two seasons, resulting in 2,888 yards rushing and 20 touchdowns. Morris' effectiveness should increase under Gruden as long as he's healthy. When there's an ultra-talented player such as Morris, you give him the football as often as possible.

Keim: I don't think so. Gruden used his backs differently than Washington has with Morris, but in Cincinnati he did not have a similar runner. Nor in Washington does he have a Giovani Bernard (at least not yet anyway; maybe Lache Seastrunk becomes that sort of player in 2014) to take a ton of work away from Morris. The Redskins will use other backs, especially in the pass game. But they kept the run game the same for a reason: They want to feature Morris. He makes the offense go. Last season, Bengals running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis carried the ball 278 times two years ago; that's two more than Morris had in 2013. If healthy, and if the Redskins want to win, then Morris will still be in that 280 carry, 1,300-yard area.


Fourth Down

Will Eli Manning revert to Pro Bowl form in Year 1 under new offensive coordinator Ben McAdoo?



Archer: Having worked with Aaron Rodgers in Green Bay for two seasons, McAdoo should have the benefit of the doubt with Manning. There is no doubt Manning was bad last season and his 27 interceptions are proof of it. He took too many chances. He didn't get help from his receivers at times. His line didn't help him. His eyes were on the rush a lot. Rodgers has been sacked a lot in Green Bay, but some of that is because he won't take chances. He will eat the ball and move on to the next play. Can Manning do that? if he doesn't, then it will be another long season for the Giants. I believe Manning will have a bounce-back year, but I don't know if it will be Pro Bowl form. It will be good and solid form and that could get the Giants back into the playoffs.

Darcy: Manning will play better in 2014 than he did in 2013 -- the question is, how much better? And the revamped offensive line is the key to answering that question, not McAdoo. The Giants gave up 40 sacks in 2013 -- twice as many as they did in 2012. That extra pressure had a lot to do with Manning's league-high 27 interceptions. Geoff Schwartz should be solid at left guard, and Chris Snee -- if healthy -- will get the job done at right guard. But center J.D. Walton hasn't played a game in two years, and left tackle Will Beatty is still working his way back from a broken leg. Manning sounded re-energized by learning a new offense during organized team activities, but without better protection and a stronger running game, he won't have a Pro Bowl-type season -- no matter what McAdoo calls.

Jasner: Maybe not Pro Bowl form, but it has to be better than last season's debacle with 27 interceptions. Yes, 27. To be fair, Manning had poor pass protection on a week-in and week-out basis. He was never able to locate his rhythm. McAdoo has a reputation of building a strong rapport with his players and that was evident when he was the quarterbacks coach and worked with Aaron Rodgers with the Green Bay Packers. Manning must keep his interception total down and the Giants can't give the ball away 44 times like they did last season. Manning will have more options on offense in 2014 and some early-season success will be a boost to his confidence. This team doesn't resemble the two Super Bowl-winning teams under Manning. Don't expect a Pro Bowl season from Manning, but it should be a whole lot better.

Keim: One thing that hurt Manning, against the Redskins at least, was the defense's familiarity with Kevin Gilbride's system -- and, more important, his tendencies. They had a strong handle on what to expect. My guess is other teams did as well. But it sounds as if McAdoo will focus more on shorter passes which, the Giants have to hope, will help Manning cut down on his interceptions. Yes, he's learning a new system, but Manning is a smart player so I don't think it will hold him back that much. I'm looking for a big bounce-back year from him, but whether he reaches the Pro Bowl will depend on how his line improves and how the questions at receiver are answered. I'm not ready to go that far just yet.

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