The NFC East has quite a way to go, but won’t be as historically bad in 2021 as it was in 2020.
The 2021 NFL season is upon us, We’re here to make sure you’re prepared.
We’re breaking down the teams that make up each of the league’s eight divisions. In this instalment, we’re taking a look at the NFC East.
Washington hilariously won this division last season with a 7-9 record. The defense that carried them there is back (and probably better). Meanwhile the Cowboys boast a potentially devastating attack… though their defense is unlikely to keep many opponents out of the end zone.
Elsewhere, in New York and Philly, hopes are pinned, disproportionately, to the progress of young quarterbacks who’ve yet to prove themselves worthy of such treatment.
Washington Football Team
- 2020 regular-season/playoff finish: 7-9, lost in Wild Card round to Buccaneers
- Head Coach: Ron Rivera
- Starting Quarterback: Ryan Fitzpatrick
- Predicted 2021 finish: 12 wins, and top spot in a moderately more respectable NFC East
The top two in the NFC East are each REALLY good at one thing. In the nation’s capital, a young star-studded defense will wreak havoc. Washington captured a division title in 2020 thanks solely to that defense – which ranked second in yards allowed and fourth in points allowed. They’re probably going to be better in 2021.
Led by second-year superstar and soon-to-be-perennial Defensive Player of the Year candidate Chase Young, the precocious Montez Sweat, and a strong interior, Washington may have the NFL’s most disruptive pass rush.
The linebacking corps are uncertain, though first-round pick Jamin Davis is a huge talent, and could shine right away. The secondary, among the NFL’s top ten in 2020, upgraded at one cornerback spot, replacing Ronald Darby with free agent William Jackson III, and also welcome back former All-Pro safety Landon Collins, who missed most of the 2020 season with an Achilles injury.
There’s very little to not like with Washington’s defense.
On offense, after an awful season at quarterback, with Alex Smith, Dwayne Haskins and Kyle Allen sharing duties, Washington are betting on a bit of Fitz-magic.
There’s plenty to dislike about Ryan Fitzpatrick’s game. He’s entertaining and popular, but he’s also one of the streakiest NFL QBs. His runs of devastating productivity often give way to spectacular meltdowns. This ethos is unlikely to change at age 38.
The good news is that the offense almost certainly can’t be worse than it was in 2020, when it ranked 25th in points scored, 28th in both yards per rush and passer rating, and 30th in both total yards and yards per pass. Even the biggest Fitzpatrick skeptic would assume some improvement.
Fitz will be lining up behind a strong line, which should be no worse than middle-of-the-pack, and could rank in the top ten. Where things get very interesting is at the skill positions. Wide receiver Terry McLaurin is a true #1 receiver. Over his first two seasons, he’s put up over 2,000 yards and caught 11 touchdowns. This is particularly impressive considering the QBs who threw those balls were Case Keenum, Dwayne Hawkins, late-period Alex Smith, and Kyle Allen. With even average QB play, he’s in for a breakout season.
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Opposite him is newcomer Curtis Samuel, who’s coming off his best NFL season, in Carolina, where he had 835 yards. Tight end Logan Thomas, who only recently converted to the position full time, had a very good 2020 season (72 catches, 670 yards, 6 TDs), and should continue to improve. At running back, powerful (6-foot-2, 220 pounds) Antonio Gibson just had an excellent rookie season, with nearly 800 rushing yards and 11 TDs over 14 games.
Last season, Washington’s defense dragged maybe the NFL’s worst offense to a division title. Sure, they did it with a 7-9 record, but they did it. Fitzpatrick doesn’t need to be great for results to improve.
The Bottom Line: Washington only need competence at quarterback to be very good in 2021. The defense is that good.
The move from last season’s hodgepodge to a polarising-and-flawed, but capable veteran in Ryan Fitzpatrick is an upgrade.
Of course, Fitzpatrick must limit his mistakes, which is never a guarantee. However, a solid line and a quality skill position cast, and another weak division, should make life easier for him. All that should be enough for a double-digit win total and a second straight NFC East title.
- 2020 regular-season/playoff finish: 6-10, missed playoffs
- Head Coach: Mike McCarthy
- Starting Quarterback: Dak Prescott
- Predicted 2021 finish: 10 wins, and a playoff berth
After an injury-ravaged 2020 campaign, Dallas return, perhaps with the NFL’s most potent and well-rounded offense. In a deeply-flawed division, that could be enough.
Of course, this assumes that freshly-minted quarterback Dak Prescott bounces back from a gruesome ankle injury that cost him eleven games last season. Prior to going down, he was in ridiculous form, having thrown for nearly 1,500 yards in three games. The buzz out of camp is that the ankle is all set, as is a minor shoulder issue from the preseason. When healthy, he’s a top-ten QB and a legitimate difference-maker.
Another huge plus is the return of three-fifths of an excellent offensive lines from injury. Tackles Tyron Smith (a seven-time Pro Bowler) and La’el Collins appeared in just two 2020 games, while All-Pro guard Zack Martin missed six games (and at least the season opener against Tampa, due to COVID). Provided he returns to full strength, and injury woes don’t persist (never a sure thing), the Cowboys’ offense is a juggernaut.
That’s because Prescott is tossing the ball to the NFL’s best receiving corps outside of Tampa. With Amari Cooper (92 catches, 1,114 yards), CeeDee Lamb (74 catches and 935 yards in a fantastic rookie season) and Michael Gallup, moving the ball should be hilariously easy. For good measure, inside they’ve got a solid pair of tight ends, in Dalton Schultz (615 yards and 4 TDs) and Blake Jarwin.
Running back could pose some questions. Ezekiel Elliott’s production has slipped over the past two seasons, and 2020 was his worst season as a pro, with career lows in rushing yards, yards per attempt and yards per catch. The hope is that the injuries to Prescott and the line – and not Elliott’s insane early-career workload – are at fault. All’s not lost if Zeke isn’t his old, dominant self, though, as backup Tony Pollard is very capable.
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If these guys (especially Dak) stay healthy, this offense is unstoppable.
The defense is another story.
Other than pass rusher Demarcus Lawrence and linebacker Jaylon Smith, there’s not a reliable NFL defender on the roster. The run defense was miserable in 2020, finishing 31st in the league in rushing yards allowed. A #23 overall ranking flattered a defense that allowed the most points and second-most yards in franchise history.
It’s going to take luck to see major improvement. Rather than address their issues with proven, big-money signings, the Cowboys opted for several unremarkable free agents, a LOAD of rookies, and a new coordinator.
The big move was using the 12th overall pick in the draft on ultra-talented linebacker Micah Parsons. A LOT will be expected of Parsons, who’s an early Defensive Rookie of the Year favourite. He’s got a shot at making an immediate impact, and will be counted on to do so, as there’s not a lot of depth.
The Cowboys also used their next five picks (all in the top 115) on defenders (another linebacker, two defensive linemen and two defensive backs). This should pay dividends down the line, but hardly guarantees a quality defense today.
Up front, rather than getting proven pass-rushing help, Dallas will be counting on Randy Gregory, who was out of the league in 2019 and played just 25% of the snaps last year. That’s far from ideal.
The secondary, somehow, is an equally big question mark. A unit without a single recognised difference-maker will be relying almost entirely on bargain free agents and rookies. That’s an awfully dicey proposition.
For good measure, the Cowboys are switching to a new defensive coordinator in Dan Quinn. A defense that was already really bad, is also in massive flux.
The Bottom Line: The Cowboys are a mirror image of Washington.
Points will not be a premium in any Cowboys game in 2021 – for either side. New defensive coordinator Dan Quinn is an upgrade, but he alone can’t offset a serious talent void, especially in the secondary. A bounce to middle-of-the-pack is too much to ask, but the Cowboys really only need this unit to be ‘below average’.
However, the attack, when healthy, is one of the best in the league, with no glaring holes. If Dak Prescott is healthy and at his best, this unit will mask a lot of defensive issues and keep the Cowboys in just about every game.
There are some real issues here, but, with such a phenomenal offense in a division that’s hardly a gauntlet, it’s easy to buy into the Cowboys’ chances.
- 2020 regular-season/playoff finish: 4-12, missed playoffs
- Head Coach: Nick Sirianni
- Starting Quarterback: Jalen Hurts
- Predicted 2021 finish: 6 wins, without a spot in the playoffs
It’s tough to believe that in February 2018, the Eagles looked like a budding dynasty.
After a 7-9 record in his first season in Philly, ascendant head coach in Doug Pederson had guided the Eagles to a 13-3 regular season mark, and a Super Bowl victory over the Patriots.
A lot of that success was owed to young franchise quarterback, Carson Wentz, the #2 overall pick in the 2016 draft. Though he had to watch the team’s title run from the sideline after tearing his ACL late in the season, Wentz was certainly the long-term face of the franchise.
Three years later, all that seemed so secure, is gone. Almost without a trace.
Wentz came back for two individually productive seasons, during which the Eagles posted underwhelming 9-7 records, and struggled to score in a pair of playoff losses. Then came the debacle of 2020. On the field, Wentz fell apart, completing just 57.4% of his passes, for 6.0 yards per attempt, throwing nearly as many interceptions (15; tied for most in the league) as touchdowns (16), and fumbled ten times. Unsurprisingly, the Eagles won just three of his twelve starts.
More troubling is what took place off the field. Amid well-documented institutional chaos, Wentz’s relationship with Pederson deteriorated to the point where the two no longer spoke to one another. Additional details revealed that teammates and coaches questioned Wentz’s “leadership, accountability and willingness to be coached”.
In a city as passionate about its sports as Philadelphia, it’s unfathomable that the authors of the Eagles’ first-ever Super Bowl win left town as anything other than icons.
Alas, both coach and franchise quarterback are now gone.
The writing was on the wall before Wentz was traded to Indianapolis, when the Eagles selected QB Jalen Hurts in the second round of the 2020 draft. Pederson, meanwhile, was also replaced this offseason, by Nick Sirianni, who comes from Indianapolis, where he worked with former Eagles offensive coordinator (now head coach) Frank Reich.
Hurts started four times in 2020 after Wentz was benched, and enters 2021 as the starter. Accuracy (just a 52% completions) is a major issue, but he’s aggressive in trying to get the ball downfield and, most importantly, is a dynamic playmaker with his feet. Hurts topped 100 yards in his first start, ran for 63 and 69 the next two weeks, and ended his four-start run averaging nearly six yards per carry, on an 1,100-yard full season pace. He’s raw as a passer, but his athleticism and feel are exciting.
However, exciting as the prospect of Hurts is, it’s tough to reconcile where his promotion leaves the Eagles. On the one hand, this type of hard pivot, to an inexperienced and unpolished quarterback screams “rebuild”. At the same time, given the depth and talent on hand, some injury luck and progress as a passer from Hurts (admittedly large “ifs”), could turn the Eagles into a fringe playoff team.
Injuries took a toll on the offensive line in 2020, but this unit should return to being one of the league’s best. Tackle Lane Johnson and guard Brandon Brooks are an elite pairing on the right side, and veteran Jason Kelce is still an excellent center. The left side is less proven, but features a lot of young players who’ve flashed potential.
There’s also a diverse collection of receiving options. The vital piece here is 2021 first-rounder (#10 overall) DeVonta Smith. It’s said that Smith is undersized (6-foot and 170 pounds), but no one who just watched him put up one of the best receiving seasons in college football history would dare doubt him. He’s got legitimate superstar potential. Opposite him is 2020 first-rounder Jalen Reagor, who underwhelmed as a rookie (31 catches, 396 yards), but has the skill and speed to be a top receiver.
Veteran tight end Zach Ertz is still around, though the top spot now belongs to Dallas Goedert, who’s both an excellent run blocker and receiver. He’s caught 70% of his targets over three seasons, at an excellent 10.7 yards per catch clip. He’s poised to be a star at the position.
The defense, though stocked with top-end talent, is counting a bit on bounce-backs and breakthroughs.
None of this refers to the defensive line, which, led by Pro Bowlers Fletcher Cox and Brandon Graham, anchors this team. Add to that duo outstanding talents in Javon Hargrave, Derek Barnett and Josh Sweat, and this group is one of the NFL’s best.
The linebacking corps and secondary were both weaknesses last year, but should benefit from the free agent additions of ex-Vikings Eric Wilson (at LB) and Anthony Harris (a star safety), and solid cornerback Steven Nelson. Ultimately, though, the Eagles are counting on lead corner Darius Slay to return to elite form.
There are questions, but given the talent and experience on hand (every projected starter is in at least his third NFL season), this defense could rank in the top ten.
The Bottom Line: The Eagles are at a fork in the road. Three years removed from the NFL’s apex, they are fresh off a four-win campaign, with a rookie head coach and an almost-rookie QB.
Rather than bite the bullet and commit to a full rebuild, the Eagles chose to keep the rest of a talented veteran core together, and hope that Hurts sparks a quick return to contention.
There’s a chance that it all goes terribly wrong. It’s not tough to imagine a slow start, compounded by some injuries, and a loss of confidence in Sirianni, Hurts, or both, leading to some serious frustration among a veteran squad. Plus, with Jeffrey Lurie still the owner and GM Howie Roseman forever happy to do his bidding, expecting organisational stability would be naïve.
That being said, while the Eagles won’t be good in 2021, they shouldn’t be a disaster. Their experience and talent on the offensive and defensive lines, combined with a young QB whose raw skill set at least inspires some excitement (stay tuned) warrants a certain level of optimism.
New York Giants
- 2020 regular-season/playoff finish: 6-10, missed playoffs
- Head Coach: Joe Judge
- Starting Quarterback: Daniel Jones
- Predicted 2021 finish: 3-4 wins, without a playoff spot
A 6-10 record in an historically weak division, in which your team is outscored by 77 points – with 23+ in a game just twice, and fewer than 10 four times – isn’t usually cause for optimism.
And yet, the 2021 Giants are striking an upbeat tone. Second-year head coach Joe Judge earned the respect of his players in a tough season, and he sees promise. The 2020 Giants, while not good, played hard. Those holdovers, plus some talented newcomers, could take a step forward.
The return of running back Saquon Barkley, who was limited to two games last season by an ACL injury, is vital. To a solid receiver duo – Sterling Shepard and Darius Slayton – the Giants added first round pick Kadarius Toney, veteran tight end Kyle Rudolph and, most importantly, a genuine #1 receiver, Kenny Golladay, who signed from the Lions on a four-year, $72 million deal. Golladay was limited to five games in 2020, but put up a combined 2,223 yards and 16 TDs in the two years prior. He’s the Giants’ best receiver since Odell Beckham, Jr.
Of course, this stuff only matters if Daniel Jones not only bounces back from an awful season, but actually builds on a promising (if inconsistent) 2019 rookie season. Despite similar yards-per-attempt and completion percentage, his output plummeted, from 24 TDs and 12 interceptions, to a a meagre 11, with 10 INTs.
Whether this was due to a lack of talent on offense, the bizarre COVID-impacted season, or simple regression, Jones must make progress in his third season. Depending on how he starts, we may quickly be discussing career crossroads – for both Jones, and GM Dave Gettleman, who selected him 6th overall in the 2019 draft.
The gang up front is unlikely to help. The Giants’ offensive line has ranked among the league’s worst, across all positions, over the past two seasons. In 2021, they’re unlikely to be much better. Starting tackle Nate Solder returns after opting out of the 2020 season, but there’s not much else that’s new or exciting.
The defense was good in 2020, finishing ninth in points allowed, eighth in rush yards allowed per attempt, 11th in passing yards allowed, and 12th in total yards allowed. However, despite a fantastic season from DT Leonard Williams (11.5 sacks, 30 QB hits), the pass rush was one of the worst in the league. No external steps were taken to bolster it, though edge rusher Lorenzo Carter’s return from injury and another step forward for gifted third-year man Dexter Lawrence should help.
The strength on defense is in the secondary, where Pro Bowl cornerback James Bradberry is joined by talented, if frequently injured free agent Adoree’ Jackson. Supporting them is a talented trio of safeties in Logan Ryan, Jabrill Peppers and Xavier McKinney.
The Giants’ defense probably won’t take a big step forward in 2021, but it’s also not likely to slip much.
Again, though, it’s all going to come down to Danny Dimes.
The Bottom Line: The 2021 Giants will go as far as Daniel Jones can lead them.
On the bright side, he’s got a true #1 receiver, complementary receivers and, by all accounts, a healthy Saquon Barkley. The skill position talent for success is in place.
The line, however, remains a massive concern, with little upside. For a young QB in a make-or-break season, that’s frightening. For a young QB who struggles to generate big plays and has never shown the ability to elevate an offense? It’s potentially disastrous.
Incremental positive moves help. However, for them to matter, quality QB play is also needed. The Giants can’t be confident that they’ve got that in Jones. In fact, there’s a better chance they enter 2022 season in search of their next quarterback of the future.