It has to feel awkward for the NFL to see the NFC East in such a poor state of affairs. For so long it's been one of the most competitive divisions in all of football, but not so much as of late. And in 2020, the wheels essentially fell right off of the wagon -- as all four teams stumbled over themselves en route to being mostly manhandled by clubs outside of the division. Hell, even the division games weren't always as exciting as they usually are, and you can look no further than the Week 17 match between the Dallas Cowboys and New York Giants as evidence (the Cowboys barely put up a fight in a must-win game).
But wait, there's more, because the Giants ended up losing any shot at making the playoffs when the Philadelphia Eagles intentionally laid down and died against the Washington Football Team -- clinching the division for Ron Rivera in the process. That decision was the end of Doug Pedersen's career in Philly, and became an exclamation point for a division whose best team record was 7-9, the owners of that being Washington as they were then met with an exit on Super Wild-Card Weekend.
But now, it's time to hit reset, and every team in the NFL has a record of 0-0. And with 17 games now on the schedule, the landscape is different for every NFC East team -- be it due to key players returning, free agency and draft additions and/or coaching changes -- leaving some very real questions to be answered as training camps get underway.
The road to the playoffs and the NFC East crown and the playoffs officially begins now -- in camp.
1. How quickly can Dak Prescott return to prime form?
There is no question on what Prescott can be for the Cowboys. The two-time Pro Bowler led the No. 1 offense in the NFL in 2019 and again through the first five weeks of 2020, before going down with a compound ankle fracture that ended his season. One mandatory surgery to repair the damage and one voluntary procedure to strengthen it beyond pre-injury form later, and Prescott is arguably better than 100 percent as he wraps his new ankle in Jordan's -- having divorced from Adidas this offseason. With a historic four-year deal finally in hand, there's a lot of pressure on Prescott to, at worst, be what he was and, at best, to take another step forward in 2021. And considering his war chest of receivers , the stage is at least set for it, with the biggest question being on if it'll take him a few weeks to hit stride or if it'll be as early as Week 1 in his battle with Tom Brady.
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2. Can the defense excel under Dan Quinn?
Rod Marinelli and Kris Richard were sent packing in 2020 to make room for Mike Nolan on the defensive side of the ball, and it turned out to be a recipe for unmitigated disaster. Nolan didn't go over well in the locker room and his attempt to force feed an entire scheme change down the defense's gullet in an offseason that lacked minicamp, an entire preseason and a traditional training camp ended exactly as you would've predicted it did, but now it's Dan Quinn's turn in Dallas and -- also having the added benefit of a traditional and complete offseason -- is an instant hit in the locker room and has the pedigree (as a coordinator) to turn things around quickly in Dallas. It won't be easy though, asand his still unsettled corps of defensive backs.
3. Will Mike McCarthy avoid the hot seat?
The first year under Mike McCarthy was quite unpleasant, but it's being viewed as a mulligan. McCarthy had a lot working against him, but as to avoid allowing him to escape all accountability, some of the wounds were self-inflicted. After all, he's the one who hired Nolan in the first place, so he's gotta eat that crow with a rusty fork. That said, he was also torpedoed by a rash of injuries to key and cornerstone players -- including his QB -- so owner Jerry Jones is willing to ignore the 2020 season altogether when it comes to assessing McCarthy as the right hire. Having fired Nolan and gone heavy on defense in this year's draft, along with the return of Prescott and Co. from injury, if the Cowboys don't contend in 2021, McCarthy will discover that mulligan suddenly counts as added fuel beneath what will be a seat hot enough to give him backside third-degree burns in 2022.
1. Is Daniel Jones the right man for the job?
This is easily the most pressing question for Big Blue, and that's saying a lot when considering the one listed next. But the fact is that an NFL team will only go as far as their starting quarterback takes them -- barring the club having a legendary defense that can carry mediocre QB play. The good news for the Giants is Jones has shown flashes of being all they want and more, but the bad news is he's been inconsistent, albeit not entirely because of his own doing. Jones needs to improve his decision-making, but the Giants need to improve the protection in front of him and the receiving corps on the whole. They've already taken a huge stride toward upgrading at WR by signing Kenny Golladay in free agency and have had an aggressive offseason that now puts the ball squarely in Jones' lap regarding his future with the team.
2. Will Saquon Barkley be ready for Week 1?
There's simultaneously both hope and concern swirling about the status of Barkley going into training camp. For while the uber-talented running back is posting vids of workouts that show tons of quickness and mobility, but he's also unsure when he'll get back on the field. Neither he nor the Giants know if he'll be ready in time for camp or even Week 1, for that matter, and the fact the season opener is in question -- be it still several weeks away -- doesn't make the club feel all warm and fuzzy inside. The presence of Barkley will be paramount to the success of Jones and the offense as a whole, and there's the added variable of his looming contract talks. The Giants want to see him fully healthy, and time is ticking.
3. Can the pass rush level up?
The saga with Leonard Williams ended in a longterm deal, and that bodes well for the beleaguered pass rush when considering Williams is coming off of a very strong year that saw him deliver 11.5 sacks. He would've liked to have more assistance though, considering the three players in that category -- Dexter Lawrence, Kyler Fackrell and Dalvin Tomlinson -- had 11.5 sacks combined. To make matters worse, both Fackrell and Tomlinson are now gone and so others will now be tasked with stepping up and ultimately besting those numbers, because Williams needs a complementary piece (or two). Enter rookie second-round pick Azeez Olujari, whom the Giants hope can be the combo punch with Williams. They'll also need Lawrence, a former 17th-overall pick (2019) to put on a big show in a pivotal third year, with his fifth-year option set to become a discussion next offseason.
1. Can Jalen Hurts be the franchise QB?
Carson Wentz is now gone -- traded to the Indianapolis Colts -- and the quarterback the Eagles said wasn't drafted to replace him has now done just that. The problem is, well, newly-installed head coach Nick Sirianni hasn't and won't proclaim Hurts the starter just yet. That's gotta be coach speak at this point, you would think, unless Sirianni actually believes a tractionless Joe Flacco (who signed this offseason to a one-year deal) or Nick Mullens can not only compete with Hurts, but also potentially bump him aside to take over as QB1 for the 2021 season. And so it goes, the Eagles publicly aren't giving Hurts the nod after having done so on the back end of last season and benching Wentz in the process, a move that started the end of the Wentz and Doug Pedersen era. We'll find out soon enough just how much the Eagles do or do not believe in their 2019 second-round pick.
2. Will Nick Sirianni boom or bust as an NFL head coach?
He entered the position with quite the viral press conference, and again stole headlines with his pre-draft scouting techniques that included using games of "Rock, Paper, Scissors" to gauge competitiveness. What Sirianni will find, however, is that the City of Philadelphia will only tolerate quirkiness when there are wins attached. Otherwise, things could get ugly and fast. Sirianni has the added challenge of not only replacing the franchise's only Super Bowl-winning coach, but in having never been a head coach himself to this point. His most recent role was as offensive coordinator for the Indianapolis Colts, and he's only ever been varying types of an assistant going back to 2004 (when he started coaching). The expectations in Philly are as high as their fans are brutal, and Sirianni won't be given a long rope by anyone outside the franchise, not that we can assume he'll be allowed one inside of it, either.
3. Will DeVonta Smith break out as a rookie?
You know what would help Hurts excel? A dynamic WR1, and Jalen Reagor has already admitted he wasn't what the Eagles hoped he'd be in his first year -- while other former first-round picks CeeDee Lamb and Justin Jefferson broke out in a big way as rookies. it led the team to double back and address the position by drafting Heisman Trophy-winner DeVonta Smith to be what Reagor isn't, or at least that's the plan. But unlike Reagor, Smith enters the league with ceiling-shattering potential and the only question is will he realize it now or later? Will he immediately find chemistry with Hurts (assuming he's QB1) or will it take a few weeks, if not a tad bit longer? What's clear is using the 10th-overall pick on Smith puts the Eagles all-in on him being the best wideout on the roster for a long time to come. Quarterback play will factor into that outcome in a massive way, though.
1. Is Ryan Fitzpatrick a viable QB1 option?
As it stands, Fitzpatrick is the starting quarterback for the Washington Football Team in 2021. Things can change and rapidly, however, as he can attest to from his most recent season with the Miami Dolphins -- when he was pulled to be replaced by Tua Tagovailoa and made his displeasure with it known. He's now standing in front of Taylor Heinicke, a team- and fan-favorite who flashed in short duty last season and parlayed it into a contract extension. That means Fitzpatrick likely won't be given much room for error, and he's been known to make his fair share between bouts of wand waving during the times of "Fitzmagic." Having named Heinicke as a potential breakout candidate in 2021, I'm of the belief that while Fitzpatrick will begin the year as starter, he probably won't end the season with the crown -- especially considering he's not the longterm option at QB and Washington still needs to figure out who might be (or they'll be atop the 2022 NFL Draft grabbing one).
2. Can the new-look offensive line hold up under pressure?
You know what's a really, really bad idea? Transitioning to yet another starting quarterback -- having jettisoned Dwayne Haskins and opted to move on from Alex Smith -- in the same span of time in which your offensive line is also in upheaval. With Trent Williams now a very well-paid tackle for the San Francisco 49ers and Morgan Moses suiting up for the New York Jets in 2021, both Williams and Moses leaving on bad terms with the club. To make matters that much more unsettled, All-Pro guard Brandon Scherff is franchise tagged with no multi-year deal and, as such, is heading to free agency in 2022. Ron Rivera must now decide if Charles Leno Jr. and Cornelius Lucas will start at the edges or if rookie second-round pick Samuel Cosmi is ready, and the return of Ereck Flowers could be viewed as an act of desperation -- in a year where they also currently have a stopgap QB in place.
3. Can Ron Rivera deliver back-to-back division titles?
Speaking of Rivera, kudos to him for what he was able to achieve in a pandemic season that also happened to be his first year with the team. Despite a list of team issues on the field, and most certainly off of it, Rivera navigated the minefield en route to leading Washington to a division title in 2020. What he'll soon discover is how difficult it is to repeat this feat in the NFC East -- a division that hasn't seen the same team win back-to-back division titles since the Eagles earned four straight from 2001 through 2004. Since then, it's been a free-for-all in the chase for the NFC East crown, with Washington winning only three since the turn of the century. Dak Prescott (and his protectors) returns to a loaded Cowboys offense, the Giants went all-out in free agency and should have Barkley back on the field soon, and even the Eagles are trying to make it difficult for Rivera. He's definitely got his work cut out for him (again).