It’s the most wonderful time of the year!
Football is back, and with lots of off season changes. Big free agency signings came in waves, and suspensions were thrown around like putty. But the regular season is here. That means teams will clash on the field rather than off.
In Part 2 of my NFC East Preview, I’ll take a look at the Cowboys and Giants with a Good/Bad run-through. The ‘Boys lost a big piece in DeMarco Murray, and the Giants suffered hits to their depth with significant losses across every position.
Are the Tony Romo/Dez Bryant and Eli Manning/OBJ combos elite enough to slip into the playoffs? Let’s see.
RB Darren McFadden, FB Jed Collins, DE Greg Hardy, OLB Keith Rivers, ILB Jasper Brinkley, ILB Andrew Gachkar.
Early Draft Picks:
CB Byron Jones, DE/OLB Randy Gregory, OT Chaz Green, ILB Damien Wilson, DE Ryan Russell.
RB DeMarco Murray, OT Jeremey Parnell, DE Anthony Spencer, DE George Selvie, DT Henry Melton, OLB Bruce Carter, CB Sterling Moore, CB Corey White, KR Dwayne Harris.
DeMarco Murray Flew to the Eagles (Bad, But Not Really)
Dallas has a capable set of receivers, a consistent quarterback, and the best offensive line in the NFL. The running game allowed their deep run last season, and a big part of that was the line. Murray is overrated due to his fantastic rushing yardage — he also had the most carries out of all backs last year, folks. The not-as-polished line in Philly will expose his weaknesses, and the replacement backs in Dallas will enjoy a jump in their numbers.
The line was great last season (guard Zack Martin allowed zero sacks) and got even better in free agency. Jerry Jones jumped on La’El Collins after many teams passed on him due to his — false — involvement in a homicide. The 6’5″ 322 pound left guard probably won’t start immediately, in favor of Ronald Leary, the weakest of the best bunch last season. Collins will serve as injury security.
Joseph Randle, Darren McFadden and Lance Dunbar will take over for Murray. Randle showed incredible potential in 2014 as a backup, and will start this season. The infamous McFadden will make a better-than-average backup if he can stay healthy.
Evaluating only Murray’s talent is a mistake; the surrounding unit is so good, the 28.4 points per game the offense scored last season should barely go down. His departure isn’t as bad as it may seem.
The Tony Romo/Dez Bryant Duo Isn’t Going Anywhere (Good)
Romo signed a 6 year, $108 million contract extension in 2013, and Bryant signed for 5 years, $70 million in July. This team’s most important players are here for good (at least Romo is), and that is crucial for chemistry. While Romo is fighting Father Time at 35 years old, Bryant (26 y/o) is one of the better young receivers in the league.
Romo knows how to be efficient: he threw 34 touchdowns compared to only nine interceptions last season, while completing 69.9 percent of his passes. He’s dealt with multiple injuries during past off-seasons, but he’s fully healthy right now. All indicators point to an even better year in 2015.
Bryant caught 16 touchdowns last season, and racked up 88 total receptions and 1,320 yards. He’s not just one of the most athletically dominant receivers in the game – he’s the most consistent. Bryant hasn’t missed a game since 2011, and has improved upon his numbers each year. He is even more of a #1 target than last season. It looks like more career-highs are coming.
Bryant…Then Who Else? (Bad)
Cole Beasley and the aging Jason Witten are the only other proven and capable targets for Romo. Defenses will be able to focus even more resources on Bryant, and he is bound to under-perform in a couple games as a result.
- Terrance Williams hasn’t shown that he can produce in the regular season, (but did show flashes in camp this year).
- Witten’s speed and elusiveness is quickly deteriorating.
- No other receivers were picked in the draft in favor of defense and depth.
It’s not a stretch to predict some decrease in the passing numbers after Bryant. I’d even expect the run/pass splits to tip even further toward the run. Dallas was 66/34 just a couple of years ago, but got much closer to 50/50 last year. Garrett finally realized his line’s potential, and capitalized on it. With the thin depth at receiver, expect Dallas to employ a big ground and pound attack, with deep routes to Bryant off play action.
Fans can expect better from the defense, even after last season’s suprise. Greg Hardy and Randy Gregory are huge additions. Dallas’ first round draft pick was intelligently used on the solid Byron Jones, a freakishly athletic cornerback. The safety position was left untouched, however; that could really hurt them if Sean Lee once again goes down, as the linebackers aren’t the best in pass coverage.
I see 12/13 wins for this team if everything goes right, and 9 if doesn’t. Success in the playoffs will once again depend on Romo and the defense (and no game-deciding calls going the other way).
RB Shane Vereen, OT Marshall Newhouse, DE George Selvie, NT Kenrick Ellis, OLB Jonathan Casillas, ILB J.T. Thomas, CB Josh Gordy, KR Dwayne Harris.
Early Draft Picks:
OT Ereck Flowers, S Landon Collins, DE Owa Odighizuwa, S Mykkele Thompson.
RB Peyton Hillis, WR Jerrel Jernigan, OT James Brewer, G Adam Snyder, C J.D. Walton, DE Mathias Kiwanuka, DT Mike Patterson, OLB Spencer Paysinger, OLB Jacquian Williams, CB Walter Thurmond, CB Terrell Thomas, CB Zackary Bowman, S Antrel Rolle, S Stevie Brown, S Quintin Demps.
It’s All About That Beckham (Good and Bad)
Eli Manning’s favorite targets over the past few years: opposing cornerbacks/safeties/linebackers, Mario Manningham, Hakeem Nicks, and Victor Cruz.
Odell Beckham Jr. rose to the top of the short list in just the second half of last season. The fact that he’s already gracing the cover of Madden should tell you all you need to know.
The Giant’s offense was literally shot out of a cannon when Beckham started making catches (with one or both hands) last season. Manning and Co. were stuck at the bottom of that artillery through three of their first six games last season, when they scored 14, 14, and 0 points. But Beckham, with his speed, sticky hands, and ability to get those ever so precious YAC (yards after catch), allowed New York to build tons of momentum for this season.
While Rueben Randle, Larry Donnell, and Victor Cruz have shown they can be productive, they aren’t guys you know are going to bring it every Sunday. Dominant receivers like Beckham and Bryant have a magnetizing effect on defenses; coverages shift to whatever side they line up on. Therefore, Manning’s other targets have a chance to surprise for a full season with Odell on their side.
But if Beckham goes down with an injury, there isn’t a true #1 for Manning to rely upon other than Cruz, who isn’t a sure bet. He’s had that problem before and gotten it done, but more often than not the team sputters to a losing record.
It’s one or the other this year.
Goodbye To…A Lot of Defenders (Bad)
The Giants were forced to attend to the defense in this year’s draft instead of the offense, which also underwent significant losses. While fans bid a goodbye to players like Antrel Rolle, the other 14 departures hurt depth. Six defensive backs (including Rolle), five linemen, and two linebackers are gone, and have been replaced with a crop of rookies.
S Landon Collins was selected with their second-round draft pick. Experts had him as one of the top safeties available, despite his inconsistency in coverage. He’ll take over for Antrel Rolle at safety, but he might not be much of an upgrade in the short-term; Rolle was a liability in coverage despite being a positive locker room presence. Cooper Taylor, chosen in the 2013 fifth-round, and Brandon Meriweather, a 9-year-veteran, are in the mix for the other safety spots.
While the cornerbacks look decent with both Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and Prince Amukamara returning, there are injury and work ethic concerns with both.
Needless to say, the secondary is not looking good for neither Dallas nor New York.
The Giants used their third-round pick on defensive end Owa Odighizuwa, hoping that he would compete with former third-rounder Damontre Moore to take the place of Mathias Kiwanuka’s. Like Rolle, Kiwanuka was a major liability last season, so any new blood can be seen as an upgrade.
But better depth is needed across the line, especially behind Jason Pierre-Paul and Robert Ayers. This is a problem that will likely plague the defense as whole after a couple of injuries.
Hello To…A Lot of Veterans (Good)
The Giants focused mostly on defensive backs and the line with draft picks instead of linebackers. To address that vacancy, they shelled out 3 years and $10 million in free agency to J.T. Thomas, who will most likely start at one outside linebacker in the 4-3. While he does have four years of experience in Jacksonville, he simply can’t protect against the run; he’s decent with pass coverage though.
Thomas will start along with Jon Beason and Devon Kennard. Kennard, a former fifth-rounder, has suprised coaches with his run defense. Beason, meanwhile, has been sidelined by numerous injuries, and has missed around 40 games over the past four years. But with Kennard’s strength against the run and Thomas’ against the pass, this just might work.
On the offensive end, Manning will — once again — have a new running back out of the backfield. The playoff-tested Shane Vereen left the Patriots for 3 years and $12 million and a more significant role in the offense. He can provide a spark in the passing and outside-running game, but is the farthest from a Brandon Jacobs run-between-the-tackles guy that you can get. It’s important for Manning to always have a checkdown in the flat.
Other than Vereen and Thomas, New York has six new veterans on the roster across many positions. It remains to be seen whether than will alleviate the depth issues after losing 16 players, but it’s a good start.
Eli Manning has his fare share of critics. Sometimes rightfully so. But when surrounded with a well-bonded, capable supporting cast, he’s shown that he can get the job done. Shane Vereen and the emergence of Beckham Jr. helps him tremendously.
But the defense and depth across the board are major question marks. Can crucial players such as Rodgers-Cromartie stay healthy? They’ll need to if this team wants to make a run at the division title.
A wild-card berth is certainly within reach if the offense continues its white hot run from last season. I see 11 wins for this team if everything goes right, and 8/9 if it doesn’t.
18 year old Washington sports fan and Penn State freshman. I'll cover the MLB, NFL, and NBA.