NFC East was a ridiculous last season, with the Washington Football Team winning the division by a 7-9 record, but the 2021 NFL season promises promise of change and optimism.
Washington has one of the best defenses, and perhaps veteran forward Ryan Fitzpatrick can add some stability at quarterback. The New York Giants (6-10) look set to rise with second-year coach Joe Judge and the return to running back Saquon Barkley. The Dallas Cowboys (6-10) will return a host of players from injury, especially quarterback Dak Prescott. The Philadelphia Eagles (4-11-1) may look like they need the most to go right to them, but if quarterback Jalen Hurts hits, they can get a quick turnaround.
With the offseason programs finished and training camps on the horizon, ESPN NFL Nation reporters Todd Archer (Cowboys), Jordan Raanan (Giants), Tim McManus (Eagles) and John Keim (Washington) predict what to expect in 2021
Who is considered the division’s MVP?
Archer: Prescott is the easy choice. There are obvious questions as he returns from a compound fracture and sprain of his right ankle a bit in October last year, but he has shown he has all the answers so far. If Prescott returns to the form, the Cowboys are the favorite to win the division. They were terrible without him last season, but were not eliminated from the playoffs until the final weeks of the season. If Prescott returns to Prescott form, the Cowboys are the team to beat. So not only will he be the division’s MVP, he may also be in the running for the league MVP as well as the NFL Comeback Player of the Year.
Raanan: Chase Young had 7.5 sacks and four forced fombs as a rookie in 15 games for Washington last season. If he stays healthy, his sack will double and Washington’s defense will be one of the league’s best. In fact, it was already last season and there is little reason to believe it will not be again in 2021. Only this time it will be with Young taking it to the next level and putting huge numbers while Washington wins back to -back division titles.
Germ: Prescott feels like a safe choice because of what he means for the Cowboys’ offense and franchise. Washington, driving back Antonio Gibson, is another to see here, but Prescott will put big numbers, provided he is completely healthy. In his last 21 games, Dallas’ offense ranked first in the yard and second in points. The Cowboys’ defense needs to get through in a big way to win the division, but Prescott will be the reason they fight.
McManus: Offensive players get all that love, and Prescott will understandably be the consensus choice here, but I roll the dice on Young, a budding superstar. (How many other players in the division fit the description?) He matched the hype that came out of Ohio State by collecting 7.5 sacks, 4 coercions and 10 tackles for losses en route to the NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year honors in 2020. It’s not hard to imagine him jumping to the top of the sack leaderboard this season as he develops into the most disruptive defensive player in the NFC East.
Marcus Spears and Domonique Foxworth reveal their expectations for the Dallas Cowboys this season.
Which newcomer in NFC East will rise above the rest?
Germ: Choose your wide receiver choice from Philadelphia’s DeVonta Smith, Washington’s Curtis Samuel and New York’s Kenny Golladay. I take Golladay, who is 27 years old and continues to develop. He is a large body outside the goal that showed that he can also run routes from the castle, and which has grown into a downward threat. Giants quarterback Daniel Jones ranked seventh among quarterbacks last season after completion percentage of throws by 20 or more air yards; he and Golladay are connecting a few of these this season.
McManus: Smith, the reigning Heisman Trophy winner out of Alabama, will not face much of a learning curve as he moves from the SEC to the pros in Philly. He is already a polished route runner who has sound technique and insidious speed, and he uses top-level body control and sticky hands to snare almost anything he has thrown himself. His weight (166 pounds) is the biggest knock on him, but his small frame did not prevent him from beating the pressman and thriving against some of the best corners in college football.
Archer: For the Cowboys, it could be a defensive coordinator Dan Quinn. For the Eagles, it could be Smith. For Washington it could be, hmmm, Fitzpatrick? For me, it’s Golladay. His impact on New York’s offense could change the composition of the division. He needs to make Jones better, which will make Barkley better on his return from a torn anterior cruciate ligament, making playcaller Jason Garrett better.
Domonique Foxworth explains why he is not sold on Daniel Jones having a great season this year.
Raanan: Golladay. He’s exactly what the Giants needed. That’s why they paid him $ 72 million so Jones can throw the ball up in his direction and expect Golladay to make the tough, contested catch. The last time we saw Golladay play an entire season in 2019, he led the league in receptions with a touchdown of 11. He gets his impression right away in NFC East by reaching double digits again this season.
Of all the big names, who will break out in 2021?
Raanan: Gibson was good as a rookie for Washington, averaging 4.7 yards per game. Bear and finished with 795 yards rushing and 11 touchdowns in 10 starts. The converted wide receiver will burst in year 2 as the clear starter in a much less restricted Washington offense. In fact, Gibson will be one of the NFL’s most productive running backs and a fantasy monster. Think 2,000 yards in total and between 15 and 20 touchdowns. It’s a pretty good breakout.
Germ: In Washington’s last seven games in 2020, Young recorded four sacks, forced three fumbles and recovered three others – and returned one for a touchdown. His play against the race was excellent, as were his instincts. Young began learning more about speeding passers-by in the NFL; he studies and trains all the time. It will all add up to a great second season.
McManus: Cowboys wide receiver CeeDee Lamb. It was hard to sled on offense when Prescott was lost by injury week 5, but Lamb managed to finish with 74 catches, 935 yards and five touchdowns as a rookie. Imagine what those numbers might look like if Prescott and the offense stay healthy. A notable difference in his stats from college is that he averaged 12.6 yards per carry. Reception for the Cowboys last season compared to 19 yards per game. Catch in Oklahoma. This average should come closer to his Sooners days with Prescott airing it out.
Archer: How do we not say Young? Well, maybe he’s already broken out for some and does not qualify. If the saying that a player makes his biggest leap from his debut year to his second year is true, the rest of the NFL and not just the NFC East should look.
It’s early, but which seat starts as the hottest?
McManus: Hurts. While not really fair to the young quarterback, who has four career starts and made the most of a bad situation as a rookie in relief of a struggling Carson Wentz. Hurts’ teammates have pulled against him and he should have some leeway when the offense learns coach Nick Sirianni’s system. But the plan seems clear: The Eagles have stockpiled three first-round picks in the 2022 draft and will not be shy about using them to acquire a quarterback – by either trading up the draft or swapping them for a veteran QB like Russell Wilson or Deshaun Watson – Hurts should fall below expectations in 2021.
Bart Scott explains why Jalen Hurts might be out of the league if he can not fully develop as a pocket passer.
Archer: Outside expectations appear to be low for Philadelphia, and much of it is due to the decisions general manager Howie Roseman has made since the Eagles won the Super Bowl in 2017. Wentz was signed by a massive deal by the Eagles and then traded after two seasons. Coach Doug Pederson is out and Sirianni is in as a rookie head coach along with Hurts as a quarterback. Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie has stuck with Roseman over the years, but at some point, everyone runs out of patience.
Raanan: It’s a close call between Cowboys coach Mike McCarthy and Jones, the Giants QB. There’s just no way McCarthy can survive other than making the playoffs this season with Prescott healthy and the talent on that list. Jones can make progress and be a midfield quarterback in a losing season and get another season. McCarthy does not have that luxury. It is now or never with the Cowboys coach being exposed.
Germ: The Giants added receiving help through the NFL-free agency (Golladay) and the draft (Kadarius Toney) and expect Barkley’s return. In two seasons, Jones has thrown 35 touchdowns for 22 interceptions, but he has also lost 14 fumbles. Can he cut back on revenue? In that case, the Giants’ offense will be hard to stop (of course, the line is still an issue). If not, the Giants have a decision to take Jones.