The East is home to arguably the most surprising team in 2016 — the Dallas Cowboys. Powered by two standout rookies and the best offensive line in football, the Boys led the NFC East, and the NFC as a whole, with a 13-3 record. But they showed their inexperience when they couldn’t get past the Packers in the divisional round of the playoffs. The questions going into this season are whether the line will be as robust minus a couple starters, and whether the rookies can avoid a sophomore slump. If they can, Dallas could romp to another division crown. If not, the Giants, Eagles, or Redskins all have the potential to pull a (mild) upset.
As far as betting goes, only putting your cash on the Super Bowl winner is a low percentage play. By making bets on division winners, odds go down but steady ROI should improve. Here’s my take on whether you should trust Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott to lead Dallas back into the playoffs, or if your money is better spent elsewhere.
The Cowboys were once utterly predictable, going 8-8 for three straight seasons before putting up a 12-win campaign in 2014. They followed that up with a 4-12 mark in 2015 (thanks to a Tony Romo injury), before bouncing back under Dak Prescott and going 13-3 last year. The rookie skill position talent got a ton of credit, but one of the best offensive lines in the NFL, coupled with a defense that limited opponents to under 20 points a game, was a big part of that 2016 success.
There will be some changes on the field come September: tackle Doug Free retired and guard Ronald Leary departed, but La’el Collins is back from injury and Jonathan Cooper has re-signed with the team, so the line should still be potent. The losses in the secondary (Morris Claiborne, Brandon Carr, Barry Church, JJ Wilcox) are the most concerning, with underwhelming additions Nolan Carroll and Robert Blanton signed as replacements. But the Cowboys went heavy on defense at the draft with their first three picks, and six of their top seven, on that side of the ball, with a special emphasis paid to improving a meager pass rush.
A few factors will have to be considered when looking at Dallas: will the combination of new and returning players equal enough quality pass rushing? Will the loss of Free leave a hole on the offensive line? And will Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott suffer any sort of regression? That lattermost question is especially concerning for Elliott, who has had a tumultuous offseason and could find himself suspended for at least a game or two this season.
When casual fans think of the Giants, they probably think of two-time Super Bowl-winner Eli Manning and the constant highlight reel that is Odell Beckham Jr. While OBJ is worthy of the recognition, Manning is not, at least not anymore. Eli has become an anchor on this offense; the G-Men reached the playoffs last year thanks to the combination of Beckham’s brilliance and a revamped defense that ranked second in the NFL in scoring, allowing only 17.8 points per game.
The emphasis following their 11-win season was to get more help for Manning, who needs all he can get. Instead of beefing up an abhorrent run-game (88.2 YPG; 3.5 YPC), they stuck to receivers. Brandon Marshall is a big upgrade on Victor Cruz at wide receiver, and first-round tight end Evan Engram has a chance to be game-changer, but the offense will still be one-dimensional, and that’s concerning when the one dimension is so heavily dependent on Manning’s arm.
Both lines were given small boosts with guard D.J. Fluker signed to help keep Manning upright, and second-round defensive tackle Dalvin Tomlinson shoring up the rush defense. He will mix nicely with Jason Pierre-Paul and Olivier Vernon on a very strong defensive front. As long as the talented (but shallow) secondary stays healthy, the Giants’ defense should be formidable once again.
Doug Pederson probably deserves a lot of credit for going 7-9 last year. When you go from Chip Kelly’s system to anything else, you need to make significant adjustments, and often need to overhaul the roster. Philly allowed a respectable 20.7 points per game despite being a year removed from giving up nearly 27 per contest under Kelly. They also traded starting quarterback Sam Bradford just weeks before the year began, opting to start rookie Carson Wentz. The North Dakota State product had a solid first campaign even though tight end Zach Ertz was his top target for much of the year. Management remedied that situation in the offseason bringing in Alshon Jeffery and Torrey Smith at wide receiver. The Eagles also added LeGarrette Blount to run the ball. The end result is that the skill positions have been significantly improved and Wentz’s numbers (79.3 passer rating; 3,782 passing yards; 62.4 completion percentage; 16 TDs to 14 INTs) should significantly improve, in turn.
The defense will be aided by first-round defensive end Derek Barnett up front, and Sidney Jones in the secondary. Chris Long and Timmy Jernigan were also signed for help in the trenches. There could be some issues in the secondary, but as long as Wentz improves, the Eagles will too — particularly with more skill position players for him to utilize.
Washington is one of the biggest mysteries of the NFL. It appeared they had no plan before hiring Scot McCloughan in 2015 and dumping him two years later. It was the same fate for defensive coordinator Joe Barry. The team also parted ways with wide receivers DeSean Jackson and Pierre Garcon, and has allowed quarterback Kirk Cousins’ contract situation to continue to be the top story for two years running.
All that said, they had a winning record last season (9-7), the second-best passing attack in the league, and have added some replacement talent this offseason in the form of Terrelle Pryor and Josh Doctson. Coupled with Jordan Reed and Jamison Crowder, the passing game should be strong again. The defense, which needed a lot of help, added Alabama tackle Jonathan Allen in a first-round steal, plus linebacker and fellow Bama product Ryan Anderson in the second. Washington also signed linebackers Stacy McGee and Terrell MccLain, and added D.J. Swearinger at safety.
Washington is a wild card and could win the division just as easily as they could go 6-10.
The Cowboys got all the headlines last season, which was justified. Their offensive line could be as good as last year, or might take a step back. The same can be said for their young stars. Washington could be a factor, but has too many question marks to wager on comfortably. In Philly, the transition from Chip Kelly is going to take more than one year to be fully recognized. That leaves the Giants, who have made clear improvements to a team that was already a contender and beat Dallas twice last year.
I don’t love betting on Manning’s bum arm, but the Giants at 5/2 are a very reasonable play.
Photo Credit: By Keith Allison [http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0]
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