Look for the Favorite to Fall Short of the Division Crown
The once mighty NFC East has fallen on tough times lately. Once universally recognized as one of the NFL’s strongest divisions on an annual basis, the NFC East has become one of the NFL’s weak sisters in recent years. In the last four seasons, NFC East teams have won a total of just two playoff games and have not had a team advance past the Divisional round of the playoffs. In that same span, they have sent multiple teams to the playoffs just twice and in 2020 featured a division winner with a sub .500 record (7-9 Washington). The 2022 season looks to be more of the same for the NFC Least, with both the Giants and Commanders likely finishing below .500 while the Cowboys and the Eagles battle for divisional supremacy. How exactly will it all shake out?
2021 Record: 9-8
The Eagles galloped to a Wild Card berth last season on the strength of the NFL’s top rushing attack. Philadelphia churned out 159.7 ypg last season and an even more impressive 170.6 yards per contest over the last eight games. The Eagles fearsome ground game was led by dual threat quarterback Jalen Hurts and running back Miles Sanders. Both return along with reserve running backs Kenneth Gainwell and Boston Scott as well as a very stout offensive line, so look for the Eagles to continue to dominate on the ground.
The concerns about Philadelphia offensively are consistency and explosiveness in the passing game. For all the splendid work Hurts did on the ground for the Eagles, through the air was a different story. The Eagles passing game ranged from competent to brutal during the 2021 season. Much of the blame should be put squarely on the shoulders of Jalen Hurts, but a share of the culpability must be shouldered by a substandard group of receiving threats that were unable to put a young, developing quarterback in a great position to succeed. The Philly front office believes that they have solved this problem with the offseason additions of star wideout A.J. Brown and former Colt wide receiver Zach Pascal to go with 2021 first round pick DeVonta Smith and Quez Watkins. If Hurts and company can improve the passing game from its 2021 rank of 25th in yards per game to near the league average, while also improving its consistency, and maintaining an elite rushing attack the Eagles should have a top 10 offense on their hands.
Philadelphia had an excellent and very balanced unit in 2021, ranking 10th in total defense and 9th in both rushing and passing defense. The 2022 Eagles defense should be even better thanks to some key offseason additions meant to address their few weaknesses. The addition of elite edge rusher Haason Reddick and his 23.5 sacks over the last two seasons should bolster a pass rush that recorded just 29 sacks in 2021, good for 31st in the NFL. Another big offseason addition, cornerback James Bradbury should be a huge upgrade over Steven Nelson opposite Darrius Slay. That pair along with nickelback Avonte Maddox should give the Eagles one of the top cornerback trios in the NFL. The Eagles improved the safety spot as well, cutting Jaquiski Tartt and Anthony Harris while trading a pair of late round draft picks to the Saints to add Chauncey Gardner-Johnson to pair with Marcus Epps. With the additions at safety and corner, Philadelphia should have one of the elite secondaries in the NFL in 2022. The draft added quality depth pieces who could play big roles in former Georgia Bulldog teammates DT Jordan Davis and LB Nakobe Dean. Look for Davis to get significant snaps as part of an interior line rotation with Fletcher Cox, Javon Hargrave and Milton Williams, while Dean could take the starting middle linebacker job from T.J. Edwards.
The weakest part of this Philadelphia club in 2021 was arguably special teams and this was the one spot the Eagles did not address in the offseason. The placekicking situation is in good shape with Jake Elliot. Elliot converted all his extra point attempts and made 30-33 field goal tries. Punter Arryn Siposs had a net of just 38.7 yards per punt last season. To make matters worse the Bird’s coverage units on both punt and kickoff returns were in the bottom quarter of the league in 2021. The Jalen Reagor led return units did not distinguish themselves either, with the punt return units averaging just 7.24 yards per return while the kick return group tallied just 18.5 yards per return, both figures land in the bottom quarter of the NFL.
The growth of quarterback Jalen Hurts and the passing game will determine just how far the Birds will go in 2022. With the NFL’s 2nd easiest schedule and the fact that they reside in the weak NFC East, even if there is only minimal growth in Hurts and the passing attack, the returning talent coupled with the offseason upgrades should assure this squad double digit wins and a return to the playoffs. If Hurst and the passing game evolve as the Eagles hope in 2022 this team will win the NFC East and at least one playoff game. My belief is that they will.
12-5, 1st Place in the NFC East
2021 Record: 12-5
The Cowboys took the top spot in the NFC East in 2021 thanks in large part to the number one ranked offense in the NFL. However, all was not rosy for Dallas as they again failed to win a playoff game, falling to the San Francisco 49ers in the Wild Card round. Quarterback Dak Prescott leads on offense that had the 3rd ranked passing attack in the NFL in 2021 but due to personnel changes is unlikely to match that production this season. Dallas parted ways with top receiver Amari Cooper and now will count on CeeDee Lamb to be the team’s top receiving target. Behind Lamb, the Cowboys have the returning Michael Gallup and the newly signed James Washington. Neither Gallup or Washington will be playing Week 1, with Gallup likely to return by Week 3 and Washington probably not seeing the field before the end of September. With Dallas letting the quietly productive Cedrick Wilson leave for Miami via free agency, Lamb and Noah Brown will be the only Cowboys receivers suiting up on opening day who will have caught a regular season pass from Dak Prescott. The Boys did add Jalen Tolbert in the 3rd Round of the 2022 draft, but even at full strength this wide receiver room looks inferior to last season’s unit. Fortunately, Dallas was able to resign starting Tight End Dalton Schultz, who has grown into one of the top pass catchers at the position and Wisconsin rookie Jake Ferguson looks like he could be an early contributor to the passing game.
The 9th ranked rushing attack is in capable hands as Ezekiel Elliot and Tony Pollard will once again be the top two backs for Big D. Although Elliot eclipsed 1,000 yards in 2021, he lacked the explosiveness of years past and will likely split touches equally with the younger, more dynamic Pollard. The once mighty Dallas offensive line has now become a below average unit. They still have All-Pro guard Zack Martin, but the departures of right tackle La’el Collins and left guard Connor Williams coupled with the torn hamstring suffered by left tackle Tyron Smith, an injury likely to keep him sidelined until December, have put the line in a state of flux. The addition of first-round pick Tyler Smith will help, but not enough for there not to be serious concerns about this position group.
The 2021 Cowboys defense was a middle of the road unit, ranking 19th in total defense, 16th against the run and 21st versus the pass. Outside of adding the once elite Dante Fowler to replace the departed Randy Gregory at defensive end and reinforcing the edge group further with 2nd round pick Sam Williams out of Mississippi, Dallas pretty much stood pat on defense this offseason. With defensive end Demarcus Lawrence, linebacker Micah Parsons and cornerback Trevon Diggs, the Cowboys have a star on each level of the defense and quality supporting pieces but do not appear to be as deep or as talented as the Eagles unit. And even if they are healthier than 2021, resulting in some improvement from last season, the lack of impact additions this offseason likely makes this a sub top 10 unit.
The Cowboys should have solid special teams with Pro Bowler Brain Anger doing the punting and electric rookie KaVontae Turpin handling both the punt and kickoff returns. The concerning aspect of the special teams is placekicker where the strong legged but inconsistent Brett Maher will get the nod.
Dallas has the best quarterback in the division and that usually gives you a leg up in the division race. It seems that the work the Eagles did in fortifying their roster around their young quarterback will give them the edge over the Cowboys in most of the position groups outside of quarterback. With less talent at receiver and offensive line than in 2021 a small step back for the Boys offense seems likely and without significant upgrades from last season on the defensive side of the ball, that group is unlikely to improve drastically upon their 2021 performance. Dallas is still a playoff team, but as is the norm when they reach the playoffs, look for them to bow out quickly.
10-7, 2nd Place in the NFC East and a Wild Card berth.
2021 Record: 7-10
While Taylor Heinicke was a pleasant surprise in his 15 starts for the Commanders in 2021, Washington didn’t feel he was the answer at quarterback, so the Commanders acquired Carson Wentz from the Indianapolis Colts and drafted UNC signal caller Sam Howell in the 5th round of the 2022 NFL Draft. Heinicke will now serve as Wentz’ backup as Wentz tries to resurrect his career after back-to-back down seasons. While Wentz is an upgrade over Heinicke, it is unlikely that Wentz can take this passing game much beyond its performance last season. The stud of this 22nd ranked passing attack from 2021 is wideout Terry McLaurin. McLaurin had his 2nd consecutive 1,000-yard season. Rookie first-round pick Jahan Dotson will get the starting nod opposite McLaurin with Curtis Samuel joining them in the frequent three receiver sets Washington favors. Depth is provided Cam Simms and Dyami Brown. Tight End Logan Thomas, who is returning from a late season knee injury, could be limited early in the season. Thomas along with running backs J.D. McKissic and Antonio Gibson are the other key cogs to the Commanders passing game.
Gibson & McKissic are joined by rookie third-round pick Brian Robinson Jr. in what should prove to be a diverse and potent trio. Gibson & McKissic led a rushing attack that ranked 12th in the league in 2021 and with the addition of Robinson Jr should be even better. If Gibson’s fumbling problems continue at the start of the season (6 fumbles in 2021), Robinson could be elevated to lead back status once he returns from the injuries sustained in an attempted robbery on August 28th. The Commanders return tackles Sam Cosmi and Charles Leno Jr. along with Chase Roullier at center. Washington added Andew Norwell and Trai Turner to man the guard spots. The 2021 OL group struggled with pass protection but was a solid run blocking unit and it’s likely to be more of the same in 2022, so a top 10 performance in the run game is a distinct possibility.
This unit was a big disappointment in 2021, ranking 22nd in total defense. If Washington is going to have any chance of avoiding yet another below .500 season, the defense must rebound in 2022. The Commanders have an elite defensive line on paper with Chase Young and Montez Sweat starting at the ends and Jonathan Allen and Daron Payne staffing the defensive tackle spots. Well paper doesn’t play, and this unit didn’t live up to expectations last season. Young was the largest offender, recording just 1.5 sacks and 3 tackles for loss in nine games before tearing his ACL. For this group to meet expectations, Young must return to his 2020 form. This may be something of a tall order as Young will start the year on the PUP list and won’t be eligible to return to the lineup until Week 5. The linebacker corps for Washington is the clear weakness of this defense. Cole Holcomb exceeded expectations in the middle but 2021 first round pick Jamin Davis had a poor season on the outside. The loss of hybrid linebacker/safety Landon Collins will be felt by a run defense that ranked 8th last season. The Commanders have a trio of excellent corners in emerging star Kendall Fuller, William Jackson III and Benjamin St-Juste. The starting safety spots are held down by Kamren Curl and Bobby McCain with Percy Butler seeing regular reps in three safety looks.
The kicking game is in capable hands with the dependable Tres Way handling the punting chores and Joey Slye taking care of the placekicking duties. The return duties are up in the air with Alex Erickson, Antonio Gibson and Jahan Dotson all possibilities.
The Commanders don’t look much different than last season’s 7-10 club. I don’t expect the change from Heinicke to Wentz to improve the quarterback play very much in 2022. As a result, the offense will likely produce results similar to last season. The most likely path for improvement this season is for the defense to return to its 2020 form when it ranked 2nd in the NFL in total defense. With questions surrounding Chase Young’s health and a poor linebacker corps that is not likely to happen.
7-10, 3rd Place in the NFC East
New York Giants
2021 Record: 4-13
To call the Giants offense brutal in 2021 is an insult to brutal offenses. From Jason Garrett’s antiquated scheme to Joe Judge coaching all the aggressiveness out of Daniel Jones, to injuries forcing the Giants to field a USFL level offense led by Jake Fromm at quarterback by Week 17, the New York offense was unwatchable and eliminated any chance this team had to win games late in the season. Former Bills offensive coordinator Brian Daboll takes over as the head coach of the Giants and along with offensive coordinator Mike Kafka will install an offense that will mix elements of the Bills and Chiefs schemes. If Daniel Jones is in fact a starting caliber NFL quarterback, this will be his chance to prove it. Jones will have a decent array of weapons to throw the ball to in 2021 free agent acquisition Kenny Golladay, 2nd year man Kadarius Toney, 2nd round pick Wan’Dale Robinson and veteran Sterling Shepard. Jones will have more time to throw thanks to an improved offensive line. LT Andrew Thomas is developing into an elite blind side protector for Jones. He is now joined by 1st Round pick RT Evan Neal along with veteran RG Mark Glowinski, center Jon Feliciano and a group of possibilities at left guard. Injuries in the preseason have stripped this unit of any depth so the starters staying healthy is vital.
Saquon Barkley is now two years removed from ACL surgery and the Giants believe that between the return of his athleticism and confidence in his knee, an improved offensive front, and a new scheme, Barkley will return to his 2018 NFL Offensive ROY form. Behind Barkley is an intriguing mix of backups led by Matt Breida.
New defensive coordinator Donald “Wink” Martindale will install his blitz happy scheme and while he will have some good pieces to bring pressure, the lack of depth all over the field, an array of nagging training camp injuries, and a shortage of starting caliber secondary talent is going to make Martindale’s man coverage scheme’s a challenge for this unit to execute. Leonard Williams and Dexter Lawrence lead the defensive line with a mix of veteran career backups, late round draft picks, and UDFA’s filling out the position group. The most intriguing part of this defense is the edge rushers lead by 1st round pick Kayvon Thibodeaux and 2021 2nd round pick Azeez Ojulari. A sprained MCL for Thibodeaux and leg injuries for Ojulari could cause them to miss time early in the season. Depth is provided by Jihad Ward, Oshane Ximines, Elerson Smith and rookie UDFA Tomon Fox. With the shocking release of Blake Martinez on September 1st, the Giants inside linebacker situation is in a state of flux. The only sure starter on the inside is third year man Tae Crowder. Carter Coughlin, Austin Calitro and Micah McFadden will battle for the spot next to Crowder. Adore Jackson will start at one outside corner with 2nd year man Aaron Robinson starting at the other boundary corner. Darnay Holmes who had a great camp will be the nickel back. Depth will come from a host of young unproven talent that if forced to see the field could put the Giants in a very difficult spot. Xavier McKinney is an emerging star at safety. The other starter will be the versatile Julian Love. Andrew Adams and Dane Belton, once he recovers from a fractured collarbone will be the primary backups.
New York’s special teams should be ok with the terrific Graham Gano handling the kicking duties. The Giants will trust young Jamie Gillan with the punting duties. Gillan has looked good in camp leading the New York to believe they have found something. C.J. Board and Richie James will shoulder the load in the return game.
The Giants have an entire new regime in place with a new coaching staff and front office and are in the initial stages of a complete rebuild. As a result, this roster is simply not very good. There are a few quality veterans and some intriguing young players, but not enough to win very many games. On top of that, these team has precious little depth and holes all over the depth chart. If the rebuild progresses as the organization hopes, signs of progress will show in 2023. In 2022, wins will be few and far between.
5-12, 4th Place in the NFC East