Reason to be cheerful: young ‘guns’
After a much-mocked trade for Amari Cooper during last season, Dallas has some of the explosiveness back in its offence which helped it make the playoffs in 2016, Dak Prescott’s first year as starter at quarterback.
We know what Prescott and running back Ezekiel Elliott can do from their award winning 2016 season. During that season the former Mississippi State QB finished the regular season with a 67.8% completion percentage; 104.9 passer rating; and 23 TDs to 4 INTs. Elliott rushed for over 1,600 yards and 15 TDs. Both suffered a down year in 2017 (Prescott completed 62.9% of his passes; accumulated a rating of 86.6; and gave up 13 INTs. Elliott only played in 10 games due to suspension rushing for 983 yds and 7 TDs). 2018 saw the pair both rebound, though not quite to the same heights as their excellent rookie seasons.
A big factor in that improvement was the addition of Cooper who became the focal point of the passing game, giving Dallas the dominant receiver it lacked since jettisoning Dez Bryant.
Inevitably, if teams had to respect Dallas’ passing game, it would open up more running lanes for Elliott, as well as Prescott.
On defence the team also has what is undeniably the most promising linebacker tandem in the league with Leighton Vander Esch and Jaylon Smith who combined for 261 tackles last season (over 25% of the team’s total tackles!)
The other young star is defensive end Demarcus Lawrence who racked up 10.5 sacks and will be looking for a lucrative multi-year contract this offseason.
Reason to be fearful: is Prescott a difference maker?
Prescott has shown he can be effective at the most important position in football. That, however, has been when he has tight end support (Jason Witten in 2016 accrued 673 receiving yards compared to Blake Jarwin’s 307 yds last season); and effective play out of the slot (Cole Beasley had 833 yds the same year as Witten compared to 672 last year and appears to be on his way out of Arlington). In fact, in 2017 when Prescott’s QB play fell off, Beasley only went for 314 receiving yards.
It seems imperative then that Jerry Jones and Jason Garrett add to the receiving corps in Dallas. The team hasn’t replaced Witten since he retired, with the Dallas legend being a crucial part of the offensive game plan. Could the team look at adding Raiders tight end and journeyman Jared Cook? At slot receiver, perhaps former Rams first round pick Tavon Austin could be an option.
In addition, last season Prescott was sacked 56 times and fumbled 12 times. The Cowboys must look at the film and consider whether that is because the line has struggled to return to the dominance it showed in Elliott and Prescott’s rookie season, whilst also missing centre Travis Frederick, or if it is down to Prescott not developing as a quarterback who can operate in the pocket.
New York Giants
Reason to be cheerful: offensive focal points in place
Instead of taking Eli Manning’s eventual replacement in the draft, new general manager Dave Gettleman decided to draft the transcendent Saquon Barkley out of Penn State. It can’t be denied that Barkley has already emerged as a premier talent in the league after just one season.
He put together over 2,000 yards from scrimmage showcasing his threat as both a runner and receiver whilst establishing himself as a cornerstone of the franchise as they look to the future without Eli. That was despite the team’s continued troubles on the offensive line, which we will come to shortly.
At the wide receiver position Odell Beckham Jr gained 1,052 receiving yards (plus a 100% pass completion percentage and 2 passing TDs!) The number two receiver Sterling Shepard managed 872 receiving yards and tight end Evan Engram, a respectable 577 yards in the passing game. That is pretty impressive considering the fact that Manning hasn’t been producing at the level Giants fans have experienced from him in the past.
At the offensive skills position, this team is definitely playoff worthy.
Reason to be fearful: line play
The Achilles heel of New York’s offence is without a doubt its offensive line.
It was a problem before Gettleman got to the Big Apple, and despite significant investment in free agent left tackle Nate Solder, and the drafting of Will Hernandez in the second round, the unit actually performed worse last season.
Manning was sacked 47 times last season, compared to 34 in 2017, whilst the number of QB hits allowed increased from 70 to 97. It makes it very difficult for the front office and coaching staff to evaluate whether Manning’s production is part of the decline that comes with a 38-year-old quarterback or is simply due to the fact that he is being knocked to the turf continuously.
On the other side of the ball, the G-Men lost pass rusher Jason Pierre-Paul to Tampa Bay and traded Damon ‘Snacks’ Harrison to Detroit. Defensive end Olivier Vernon led the team with 7 sacks, though the team hasn’t had a player put together a double-digit sack season since 2014, when JPP managed 12.5.
The Giants don’t have the cap space to solve the problems on both their lines during free agency, though I can’t see them throwing cash at the problem on offence for a second offseason running. Gettleman famously loves his ‘hog mollies’, particularly on the defensive line, so it could be interesting to see if he tries to bring in an affordable veteran such as Cameron Wake to provide some juice to the pass rush.
Reason to be cheerful: pass offence
Before injury ended his season for a second year running, Eagles quarterback Carson Wentz put together a 102.2 passer rating, with a 69.6% pass completion percentage and 21 TDs to 7 INTs. When Wentz is healthy, the passing game can be dangerous in Philly.
Wentz’ primary target, tight end Zach Ertz had 1,163 receiving yards, going over 1,000 yards for the first time in his career. He is clearly in that upper echelon of players at his position with contemporaries like Travis Kelce out in Kansas City.
Receiver Alshon Jeffrey had over 800 receiving yards despite missing three games, and his teammate Nelson Agholor, arguably the third option in the pass game, had over 700 yards.
That is despite the line giving up over 100 QB hits during the regular season, though some of that can be attributed to Wentz’ tendency to sometimes play ‘backyard football’, putting him at risk of more hits from opposing linemen and linebackers.
Reason to be fearful: lack of cap room to fix weaknesses
The run game was poor in the City of Brotherly Love last season. The Eagles lost multiple options to injury, including lead back Jay Ajayi and finished with the 28th ranked run game, averaging under 100 yards per game.
Another area of concern, and a more longstanding issue, is at cornerback. Philadelphia ranked 25th in the league in interceptions last year with 10 in total. That’s a huge contrast to 2017 when the team ranked 4th with 19 INTs. As many pundits are keen to point out, it’s difficult to maintain consistency in turnover levels on defence, but GM Howie Roseman should be keen to add talent to the secondary this offseason.
Given how tight the Eagles are against the cap due to Roseman’s (admittedly fantastic) wheeling and dealing, as well as devotion to resources along the defensive line, additions at these two positions may need to come in the draft.
Reason to be cheerful: the pass rush
Washington has done a great job of putting together a young group of players who can get after the quarterback through the draft. Outside linebacker led the team with 13 sacks, whilst 2017 first round pick Jonathan Allen followed him with eight of his own. That should reassure fans given that Allen only managed 5 games in his first season before going down with a Lisfranc injury and came into the draft with injury concerns related to arthritis.
Allen’s partner at defensive end, and 2016 5th round pick, Matt Ioannidis, wasn’t far behind his team mate with 7.5 sacks, and 2018 first round pick Daron Payne put together 5 sacks in his first season too.
Washington’s defensive unit ranked 7th in the league in sacks and 5th in forced fumbles, showing that when the team focus on drafting well, rather than shelling out for expensive free agents, they can give the otherwise fairly anonymous franchise an identity.
Reason to be fearful: what to do at QB
Washington traded for QB Alex Smith from the Chiefs last offseason only to see him suffer a gruesome broken leg which is likely to keep him out in 2019 as well.
The question is what the team does in the meantime. They can’t sign a placeholder for a year hoping that Smith returns to form in 2020, when he will be 36. It’s unlikely they can afford to get in the Nick Foles sweepstakes, unless they trade or release other key players like leading tackler Mason Foster (which would only save them around $4m according to overthecap.com) or Kerrigan. The team’s best bet might be a low-cost veteran like Ryan Fitzpatrick or hoping they can get Teddy Bridgewater on the cheap.
In the draft, the Redskins pick first at 15 overall and would therefore need to trade up if they want to find Smith’s replacement in the draft.
However, all those QBs come with a question mark and certainly wouldn’t be considered day one starters in the league. That is particularly a problem at FedEx Field where the team have few weapons at tight end or wide receiver to help the development of any first round QB they might take.
The team’s leading receiver tight end Jordan Reed has significant injury issues meaning he has never completed a full season since being drafted. It speaks volumes that a player who only started 8 games, playing in 13, led the team in receiving with 558 yards.