Welcome to the first instalment of my 2018 NFL season preview series, featuring the NFC’s vaunted Eastern division. The NFC East, of course, provided last season’s Superbowl champions in the Philadelphia Eagles, but there’s intrigue elsewhere in the Dez Bryant-less Dallas Cowboys, New York Giants rookie running back sensation Saquon Barkley and the Alex Smith led Washington Redskins. Keep reading to find out what to expect from each team, ranked by my projected final standings.
1. Philadelphia Eagles
Notable Additions: Dallas Goedert (TE), Michael Bennett (DE), Haloti Ngata (DT), Mike Wallace (WR)
Notable Losses: LeGarrette Blount (RB), Patrick Robinson (CB), Mychal Kendricks (LB), Vinny Curry (DE)
Go ahead and call me biased, but it would take a brave man to pick against the reigning Superbowl champions in a division featuring a number of rebuilding clubs. Philly returns Carson Wentz from a torn ACL, with Superbowl MVP Nick Foles ready to go in case the Eagles play it safe with their star QB once the season is underway. Philadelphia remains strong on both the offensive and defensive lines, where the majority of games are won and lost, and managed to avoid any serious departures over the off-season. Michael Bennett was added from Seattle, although it remains to be seen how much the former stud pass rusher has left in the tank. Perhaps the biggest challenge for Doug Pederson’s squad will be dealing with heightened expectations following February’s breakthrough victory in Minnesota.
2. New York Giants
Notable Additions: Saquon Barkley (RB), Nate Solder (OT), Alex Ogletree (LB), Jonathan Stewart (RB), Will Hernandez (OG)
Notable Losses: Jason Pierre-Paul (DE), Brandon Marshall (WR), Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie (CB), Weston Richburg (OL), Justin Pugh (OG)
Saquon Barkley is an elite running back talent. The merits of drafting a running back so high (second overall) have been much discussed, but regardless of the value of the pick New York, and Eli Manning, have to be excited to have added such an explosive offensive weapon. Couple Barkley’s addition with the return of star wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. from injury and the Giants should boast a more potent offense than they were able to in 2017. Nate Solder was paid big bucks to bolt New England for New Jersey, and while he should provide a boost for the offensive line it’s also worth noting that Big Blue have lost two starters, Justin Pugh and Weston Richburg, from the unit. Will Hernandez was drafted to create holes for Barkley, making New York’s intentions clear for the upcoming season as they attempt to take some responsibility off of the clearly declining Eli Manning’s shoulders. Jason Pierre-Paul will be missed on defense – the pass rush was already a weakness for the Giants – and how that unit performs will go a long way to determining whether New York finish above or below .500.
3. Washington Redskins
Notable Additions: Derrius Guice (RB, out for the year with a torn ACL), Pernell McPhee (LB), Da’Ron Payne (DL), Alex Smith (QB), Paul Richardson (WR)
Notable Losses: Kirk Cousins (QB), Su’a Cravens (S), DeAngelo Hall (CB), Terrell Pryor Sr. (WR), Kendall Fuller (CB)
The big question heading into the 2018 season for Washington is whether or not Alex Smith represents an upgrade at quarterback over the departed Kirk Cousins. Cousins spent the last couple of seasons playing under the franchise tag and it had become increasingly clear that the team hierarchy had little faith in his ability to lead the team deep into the playoffs over the long-term, despite Cousins consistently delivering 4,000 yard campaigns and showing incremental improvement from year to year. Smith has developed a reputation as a somewhat cautious QB, and the loss of second round draft pick Derrius Guice to a torn ACL figures to harm Smith and the Washington offense. Elsewhere on the roster, the Redskins lost arguably their best CB Kendall Fuller in the Smith trade, while the defensive line should be improved with the addition of top draft choice Da-Ron Payne. Paul Richardson is a wide receiver who never quite fulfilled his potential in Seattle, so head honcho Jay Gruden will be hoping he can get the most out of the talented pass catcher, a direct replacement for the disappointing Terrell Pryor Sr.
4. Dallas Cowboys
Notable Additions: Allen Hurns (WR), Leighton Vander Esch (LB), Connor Williams (OL), Michael Gallup (WR), Kony Ealy (DE), Tavon Austin (WR)
Notable Losses: Jason Witten (TE), Dez Bryant (WR), Orlando Scandrick (CB)
Dallas turned the page on storied careers from franchise stalwarts Dez Bryant (released) and Jason Witten (retired) this off-season, bringing third year tandem Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliot into focus as the dual-faces of the Cowboys. Both regressed slightly in their second year as pros, and it’ll be interesting to see how the offense functions without any recognised talent at the tight end or wide receiver positions. Defensively, DeMarcus Lawrence was retained and he’ll be counted on to provide the pass rush for a unit that is still overly reliant on the playmaking ability of oft-injured linebacker Sean Lee. Dallas returns one of the better offensive lines in the game, although it hasn’t performed quite as well over the past two seasons as it did earlier in the decade. Still, expect holes to open up for Zeke in a ground-heavy offense that’ll focus on chewing clock and keeping the ball out of Prescott’s hands where possible.
Who do you think will win the NFC East this season? Have your say in the comments, or tweet @fredjstanley with your take.