This is our sixth in a series of eight divisional previews. We will review all 32 teams via the 8 NFL divisions over the summer. Reviewing the league this way helps for a couple obvious reasons. Teams in the same division play essentially the same schedule and teams will many times be built in a way to try and win that division. Also, it’s easier to think of the league in 8 parts instead of 32. We’ll review each team, the players to consider, and finish it up with a best of divisional team. I use a variety of sources to build my analysis including DVOA from Football Outsiders, average draft position from Fantasy Football Calculator, and offensive line rankings from Pro Football Focus. As always, civil discourse is welcome. We continue our coverage of the National Football Conference today with the East. They draw the NFC West and the AFC South this year.
2017 DVOA – 23rd; Passing DVOA – 25th; Running DVOA – 20th; Offensive Line – 26th
The Giants looked at their 2017 season, a record of 3-13, with an aging, deteriorating quarterback and said – we need a new running back! Maybe Saquon Barkley will become a generational player, but I’m still shocked that he was taken as the second overall pick in a draft with no less than 4 if not 5 highly rated quarterbacks. The best thing about Barkley’s situation is that the Giants offensive line is likely to be a better unit this year. Offseason signings of Nate Solder and Patrick Omameh and drafting rookie Will Hernandez gives this unit a badly needed infusion of competency. Those upgrades might allow them to contend for the 3rd best offensive line in the division, but I digress. Barkley is currently the RB5 smack in the middle of the first round and at that price – no thank you. This is not Ezekiel Elliot stepping into a stacked Cowboys offensive line. Context and scheme matter and the odds are just as likely he returns RB2 numbers as he does to justify that price.
The aforementioned aging quarterback is, of course, the Eli Manning. The younger Manning has been a remarkably durable player in his career, missing his first start in forever due to Ben McAdoo’s last ditch effort to burn bridges on the way out of town. The reaction to that benching, and Manning’s admittedly professional handling of it, led to what I think is an overreaction by that front office. It’s almost as if the benching by McAdoo saved Eli Manning’s job. Manning has turned in two bad years in a row and if your league carries a significant tax on interceptions, he’s an even great detriment. Eli is the type of guy that can lose the week for you – not something you want on your roster.
If you can’t tell by my thoughts on Eli Manning, I’m not particularly excited about this passing game. However, it would be irresponsible to not mention one of the games stars, Odell Beckham Jr. The man known as OBJ is drafted on average at the end of the first round and while I might end up ranking him below Julio Jones and Michael Thomas, it’s tough to go lower than that. Hurt for most of last season, Beckham’s first 3 stellar years in the league give him the benefit of the doubt, averaging over 90 catches, 1350 yards, and 11 TDs per year. Sterling Shepard is an end of the draft pick that hasn’t really done much with the opportunities he’s been given. He’s better left to rot on someone else’s bench. One player I would target on this roster is Evan Engram. The big receiver who gets to be slotted in as a tight end is a real matchup nightmare. If you miss out on the Gronkowski / Kelce / Ertz tier, he’s an excellent option.
2017 DVOA – 20th; Passing DVOA – 22nd; Running DVOA – 14th; Offensive Line – 21st
The big change in Washington was letting Kirk Cousins walk to Minnesota and trading for the services of Alex Smith. The former #1 overall pick enters his 14th year with a fresh extension signed and a new team to infuriate fans with his efficient and effective play. Smith is coming off arguably his best season as a pro, leading the league in QB rating and interception percentage and finishing a stunning 3rd at his position in our fake football game. If you’re willing to give Smith the stats that Cousins put up last year plus some savings in turnover tax, you’re talking about a guy we should be much more excited about than the QB19! Look, I get it if you think about Alex Smith and shake your head, I’ve been there. But with the cheap price at the draft table, there’s nothing wrong with taking a shot on Smith in a platoon approach.
The top option in the passing game might be the oft-injured Jordan Reed. I love the talent but the guy just can’t stay healthy. The injury is priced into the draft position and maybe an 8th round pick is enough to lure me in somewhere. By drafting Reed, you almost have to carry a second tight end as insurance and that’s tough on roster management. The traditional receiver group offers three names to know – Josh Doctson, Paul Richardson, and Jamison Crowder. Let’s start with Crowder, who will primarily fill the slot role in Jay Gruden’s offense. His ceiling is probably Jarvis Landry production and seems like the type of guy Alex Smith would love to target. He’s been a steady performer and worth a look in PPR leagues as a WR4 type. I asked our resident draft guru about how Richardson might fit in with Doctson and what to expect in terms of target share in the passing game. He explained that while Richardson showed steady growth in Seattle, he still projects as more as a WR2 in the offense with the speed to make a few big plays. Doctson is built more like the traditional #1 and while injuries derailed his rookie year, he started to show flashes of what made him a first rounder in 2016. None of these receivers are particularly expensive at the draft table with Crowder the first off the board. My favorite of the bunch is probably betting on Doctson to make the leap, but we’re talking about a round 10 or later before I’m willing to take the dive.
Washington spent a second round pick on Derrius Guice, running back out of LSU. Guice steps into a good situation with a clear path to carries. Chris Thompson is one of the best third down backs in the league, so there will be a role for two backs in this offense. It’s not crazy to think that both backs could have fantasy relevance, but it should temper your expectations for Guice to return RB1 numbers. Drafting Guice as an RB2 is a fairly safe bet where Thompson is still the kind of guy that plays better in a PPR league in your flex position. It’s not a crazy thought to take both as insurance for one another with the added benefit that Washington plays some bad defenses this year.
2017 DVOA – 10th; Passing DVOA – 12th; Running DVOA – 18th; Offensive Line – 4th
Speaking of bad defenses, the Cowboys were something of a disaster last year on defense. That led the Cowboys to take Leighton Vander Esch, linebacker from Boise State, in the first round of this year’s draft when I was sure they were taking wide receiver D.J. Moore. Instead, the Cowboys waited until the 3rd round before they added to their receiving corps and drafted Michael Gallup. With Allen Hurns the big offseason signing, the Cowboys will start some combination of Hurns, Terrance Williams, Cole Beasley, and Gallup. Add in the tight end project Rico Gathers and you’ve got an underwhelming group of pass catchers. Beasley had a productive 2016 but was a huge disappointment last year. Williams is a perennial tease and it’s tough to trust too much in the rookie Gallup. That leaves us with Allen Hurns who had a very productive 2015 for Jacksonville but after two disappointing campaigns was released. Hurns is currently getting the most love from the fantasy community as the WR37 with Gallup a late round sleeper.
Despite the issues with wide receivers, Dak Prescott was able to put up his second straight top ten finish at the position. Dak has added 6 scores on the ground in each of his first two seasons, and with the Dallas defense likely to remain a problem unit, he should continue to have plenty of volume in the passing game. The problem is that Dak’s interception rate skyrocketed last year, and all of the nerdy quant stats we all love fell to pedestrian levels. Now in his third season, it’ll be interesting to see if Dak can return to the efficiency monster of his rookie year or if he can at least by more productive with the increased volume. As the current QB20 on draft boards, I absolutely love the value he provides.
The strength of this team, once again, is the running game. With a very good offensive line unit already in place, the Cowboys added a guard in the second round to add strength to strength. That only adds to the Ezekiel Elliot hype machine. The on again, off again saga of his 2017 suspension is in the rearview mirror, the talented comes in healthy and hungry – or at least I think that’s why he’s always pantomiming an eating motion after every carry. In his rookie season, Elliot finished just shy of 2,000 yards from scrimmage and that’s what you’re expecting with a top 3 pick in drafts. He probably isn’t going to win many hearts and minds from his performance on Amazon’s All or Nothing, but he’ll win you plenty of fake football games behind this o-line.
2017 DVOA – 8th; Passing DVOA – 8th; Running DVOA – 6th; Offensive Line – 1st
We end, appropriately, with the World Champion Philadelphia Eagles. I will humbly remind you that I was the only writer on staff last year to predict Philly would win the NFC East. That was in part because I love the defense and was fully on the Wentz Wagon. Carson Wentz was putting together a dominant second year and headed towards an MVP award when he tore his ACL scrambling against the Rams. Love the competitive nature, hate to see that injury happen on a play like that. Because the injury happened so late in the season, the idea that Wentz will be back for week 1 is probably wishful thinking. The Eagles kept Super Bowl MVP Nick Foles this offseason instead of flipping him for picks heading into the draft. I think what that tells me is the Eagles are willing to wait until Wentz is completely ready and won’t rush him back. Foles is obviously a capable replacement and an incredible insurance policy should Wentz miss additional time when he does return. All this is to say if you’re going to take Carson Wentz in your draft, you better act like the Eagles and back him up with an appropriate replacement. This might be the only time I ever say this but you might even want to handcuff that pick with Nick Foles.
Our old friend Alshon Jeffery checks in as the WR18 and as much as I’d love to go higher on him, he wasn’t exactly a pillar of production and efficiency last year. With his catch rate dropping below 50%, Alshon had his lowest yardage total since his rookie year. He did manage to score 9 TDs and if nothing else, he’s a great red zone threat. Nelson Agholor is a much cheaper alternative if you want an Eagles receiver and he had essentially the same statistical line as Alshon in 2017. From strictly a value standpoint, Agholor is a good investment in the late rounds. The best piece of this passing tree is Zach Ertz. The tight end has been remarkably consistent over the last three years, topping 800 yards in each campaign. Last year he managed to find the end zone a career high 8 times. He’s my third ranked tight end and worth grabbing in the 4th or 5th round of your draft.
I might ruffle a feather or two with this prediction, but I would draft Jay Ajayi before Saquon Barkley in a draft. Ajayi came over in a midseason trade and steadily earned more carries as the year and playoffs progressed in 2017. He brings a Pro Bowl season on his resume, faces less competition with LaGarrette Blount gone, and runs behind the best offensive line in football. It’s not like this guy has too many miles on the tires – he’s young, he’s got game breaking ability, and plays for the defending world champs who will likely be trying to take the ball out of the air late in games. He’s currently the 19th RB off the board and for what? Fear of Corey Clement? Okay, I kinda like Corey Clement, but I don’t think he’s enough to worry me about Ajayi. Maybe this will be a silly paragraph that we’ll all laugh about at the end of the year, but I’m planting my flag for Ajayi to beat his draft position comfortably.
The All NFC East Squad
QB – Carson Wentz, Eagles
RB – Zeke Elliot, Cowboys
RB – Jay Ajayi, Eagles
WR – Odell Beckham Jr., Giants
WR – Alshon Jeffery, Eagles
WR – Josh Doctson, Washington
TE – Zach Ertz, Eagles
D – Eagles