Organized team activities are officially underway making it time to start breaking down the NFC East; which was considered one of the weakest divisions in the NFL last year.
The Dallas Cowboys are the favorites to win the NFC East in 2016 by many outlets due to the expected return of franchise quarterback Tony Romo, Pro Bowl wide receiver Dez Bryant, and their top corner, Orlando Scandrick.
In order for me to make that determination, I need to study the entire landscape of the NFC East. The best way to do so is by taking an in depth look at what each team did to improve in the off-season via free agency and/or the 2016 NFL Draft. The Giants appeared to be the most active in free agency so let’s start there.
The Giants have always been a defensive minded team and many analysts such as myself attribute their recent Super Bowl victories to smash-mouth defense more-so than elite quarterback play. The fact of the matter is: defense still wins championships as proven once again by the Denver Broncos despite some very unsavory quarterback play by Peyton Manning. Only once in NFL history has the #1 ranked offense beaten the #1 ranked defense in the Super Bowl. On average, the teams that got to the big dance had a defense that was top 5 in sacks/pressures and/or allowed 17 or less points per game.
The Giants finished dead last in the NFC East last year despite ranking 6th in the NFL averaging 26.2 points per game on offense. Sound familiar? Pretty much every year since Tony Romo has been the quarterback of the Dallas Cowboys they have had that type of success on offense, but only walked away with 2 playoff wins. Jerry Jones hasn’t figured that out yet and continues to use his first round picks on offense. The Giants had their worst season in recent years and immediately loaded up on defensive studs both in the draft and via free agency.
The Giants ranked 30th in the NFL allowing 27.6 points per game and dead last allowing 420.3 total yards per game and 298.9 passing yards per game. Lets take a look at what they have done to fix it.
The Giants started off by replacing future Hall Of Fame head coach Tom Coughlin and bringing in Ben Mcadoo. To me, this is the perfect example of the coach being the fall guy. Ever since Antrel Rolle departed last March, the Giants have struggled to find a vocal leader in the secondary and their CB play has been suspect. Let’s be honest here, Coughlin didn’t have a whole lot to work with. .It’s a weakness that contributed to a pass defense that allowed an ungodly 4,783 yards passing last season.
Jerry Reese gave defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo a bunch of nameless late-round picks (Mykkele Thompson, Nat Berhe and Bennett Jackson) to start 2015. Then handed him two over-the-hill vets (Craig Dahl and Brandon Meriweather). Once the kids got hurt we watched the secondary fall apart; allowing numerous late-game defensive collapses.Sound familiar?
Educated football minds know that pass rush and the secondary go hand in hand. I don’t care if you have Revis and Norman back there, if the QB has time to step up and eat a sandwich, he will pick you apart. Unlike Jerry Jones, Reese realized his fatal mistake and went to work during the off-season. Lets take a look at what he did.
Big Blue Interactive actually did my homework for me on this one, so let’s give them the credit. The Giants made a ton of moves, so I am only including the players I believe will make an immediate impact for the defense.
LB KELVIN SHEPPARD (Unrestricted Free Agent from Dolphins): Sheppard was originally drafted in the 3rd round of the 2011 NFL Draft by the Buffalo Bills. He was traded to the Indianapolis Colts in April 2013 and signed with the Dolphins in September 2014. In five NFL seasons, Sheppard has only missed three regular-season games, starting 45 contests. In 2015, he started 13 games and finished the season with 105 tackles and two pass defenses. Sheppard has good size, but he’s a journeyman who doesn’t make many game-changing plays.
DE OLIVIER VERNON (Unrestricted Free Agent from Dolphins): Vernon was originally drafted in the 3rd round of the 2012 NFL Draft by the Dolphins. In the last three seasons, he has played in every regular-season game with 46 starts, averaging 55 tackles and 8.5 sacks per year. Vernon is a very good two-way player who is disruptive against both the run and the pass. He can get heat on the quarterback from both the end and tackle positions, similar to Justin Tuck, and gets a lot of hits on the quarterback.
DT DAMON HARRISON (Unrestricted Free Agent from Jets): Harrison was originally signed as an undrafted rookie free agent by the Jets after the 2012 NFL Draft. In the last three years, Harrison has started every regular-season game for the Jets. In 2015, he accrued 72 tackles and 0.5 sacks. The 6’4”, 350-pound Harrison is one of the NFL’s best run-stuffing nose tackles. He does not get much heat on the passer.
CB JANORIS JENKINS (Unrestricted Free Agent from Rams): Jenkins was originally drafted in the 2nd round of the 2012 NFL Draft by the St. Louis Rams. In his four seasons with the Rams, Jenkins played in 60 regular-season games with 58 starts. He has 49 career pass breakups and 10 interceptions, five of which he has returned for touchdowns. Jenkins is an average-sized corner with excellent speed and quickness. He is an instinctive coverman who has gotten better each year. Jenkins plays well in both man and zone coverage. Jenkins makes plays on the football, but is known as a bit of a gambler and will also give up the big play. He is not a physical run defender or strong tackler. Jenkins plays with a cocky swagger, but there are also some character concerns, including a drug charge in college.
DE JASON PIERRE-PAUL (Re-Signed Unrestricted Free Agent): Pierre-Paul suffered serious and permanent injuries to his right hand from a July 4th fireworks accident, including the amputation of his index finger and severe damage to his thumb and middle finger. He returned to the playing field halfway through the 2015 season, wearing a large club that made it impossible for him to grab and tackle with his right hand. Pierre-Paul started the eight games he played in and finished the season with 26 tackles, 1 sack, and 6 pass defenses. Pierre-Paul was drafted in the 1st round of the 2010 NFL Draft by the Giants. His best season came in 2011 when he accrued 86 tackles and 16.5 sacks. After two down seasons in 2012 and 2013 (total 8.5 sacks), Pierre-Paul rebounded in 2014 with 77 tackles and 12.5 sacks. Pierre-Paul had surgery in June 2013 to repair a herniated disc in his lower back and suffered a shoulder injury that caused him to miss the last five games of that season. Pierre-Paul has an excellent combination of size, strength, and athleticism. When healthy and focused, Pierre-Paul can be an explosive, disruptive difference-maker. His tremendous wingspan helps him to bat passes down at the line of scrimmage (34 career pass defenses and 2 interceptions). As a pass rusher, he can beat blockers with both power and movement skills. Pierre-Paul is a very good run defender, both at the point-of-attack as well as in backside pursuit.
DT BARRY COFIELD (Street Free Agent): The Giants signed Cofield in December 2015. Cofield was originally drafted in the 4th round of the 2006 NFL Draft by the Giants. He started 78 regular season games in five years in New York, accruing 210 tackles and 10.5 sacks. He signed with the Washington Redskins after the 2010 season and played four seasons in Washington, starting 51 games and accruing 100 tackles and 9 sacks. Cofield missed half of the 2014 season with a high ankle sprain and groin injury and was released by the Redskins in February 2015. In March 2015, he underwent surgery to repair a torn labrum in his hip. Cofield is an average-sized defensive tackle, but he is strong, consistent, and occasionally flashes the ability to penetrate and make plays behind the line of scrimmage. While Cofield is not overly stout at the point-of-attack, he is a better-than-average run defender who fights hard and hustles. Cofield is smart and team-oriented.
The Giants spent a pile of money in free agency but did more to bolster their defense in one off-season than Jones has done in years. They signed 3-4 Pro Bowl caliber players and some solid rotational guys. But Reese wasn’t finished yet. Let’s take a look at the draft:(Draft results are courtesy of NFL Draft Tracker.)
2016 NFL Draft
|Round 1, Pick 10 (10)||Eli Apple||CB||6’1″||199||Ohio St.||6.0|
|Pick Analysis: “He’s only three years removed from high school. He has all kind of potential and is clean off the field. His tape is up and down. He’s tall, fast and physical, but inconsistent and it’s all because of a lack of reps.” — Mike Mayock|
|Round 2, Pick 9 (40)||Sterling Shepard||WR||5’10”||194||Oklahoma||5.9|
|Pick Analysis: “He’s only 5-foot-10, 194 pounds, but he is a competitor, especially in the slot. He also brings value in the returns game. He is one of the most feisty competitors in the entire draft.” — Mike Mayock|
|Round 3, Pick 8 (71)||Darian Thompson||S||6’2″||208||Boise St.||5.5|
|Pick Analysis: “When the ball is in the air, he wants it. He struggles a bit in the tackle game. A safety has to tackle. He’s your last line of defense. So, I love the ball skills, but want to see him tackle.” — Mike Mayock|
|Round 4, Pick 11 (109)||B.J. Goodson||OLB||6’1″||242||Clemson||5.5|
|Pick Analysis: A defense that gave up well over 400 yards/game last season can use all the help it can get, particularly in the middle of their linebacking corps. Goodson is a downhill thumper who will get a chance to compete for significant playing time this year. -Mark Dulgerian|
As you can clearly see, despite loading up on defense in free agency, Reese used 3 of their first 4 draft picks on defense. The disgruntling part of it is, 2 of those players were among my favorite in the entire draft. Despite having him lower on our board, we believe that Eli Apple will develop in to the best press corner in this class. Darian Thompson was my pet cat this year. We had him as the #1 ranked free safety on our board ahead of Jalen Ramsey, who has proven to be a disgruntling pick. Following the draft, it was discovered in mini-camp that he had a preexisting fracture in his foot that had to be repaired with a screw. His timetable to return is unknown at this time.
Thompson is an outstanding cover safety with excellent ball skills. He is very intelligent, a vocal leader, and was the signal caller for the Boise secondary. He amassed 17 interceptions, 6 pass defenses, 209 tackles (15 for losses) 1 sack and forced two fumbles over the course of his career there. You have got to love the work ethic and quality coaching that comes with Boise players. Thompson was given his play book the day before OTA’s started, and during the very first practice he was already calling out plays, schemes and formations.
“That’s something I’ve been doing before I got here,” he said. “It’s something I did (at Boise State) and it stayed with me.”
“I got the playbook (Thursday), so I had time to go over it (Thursday) night,” he said.“Then we did the install (Friday) morning.
“First thing’s first, I have to learn the playbook as much as possible before I get out there,” he added. “So the communication comes natural.”
The coaches noticed too.
“It’s just a 30-minute deal, but Thompson, I thought, was barking out,” said Giants defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo. “That’s the first thing I look for in a safety. Will you be loud? Are you not afraid to make a mistake? I think that’s huge, and that stuck out a little bit.”
Day one, Thompson let it be known that he is already claiming the free safety job. Taking all of this in to consideration, combined with the Cowboys suspensions and the fear of Rolando McClain receiving a minimum 10 game suspension for another failed drug test (rumor has it that his sudden personal leave is to clean up his urine) I find it pretty darn tough for the Cowboys to not only beat the Giants in the season opener, but be able to clinch the NFC East.
If I had to decide now, I would hand the NFC East to the Giants: simply because they are loaded with depth across the board on defense and bolstered an already high-octane offense. At the end of the day, the Giants have sacked Tony Romo 4 times for every time the Cowboys have sacked Eli. They have managed to injure Tony Romo twice. The thought of them not only beefing up the pass rush, but adding top tier CBs and a solid cover safety to the secondary could spell disaster for Tony Romo week one. If they don’t get to him with the rush, there is always coverage sacks to worry about. We all know how much they love to go after an already fragile Tony Romo.
Rather than add some much needed depth on defense which would have most certainly locked up the NFC East for the Cowboys, Jerry Jones opted to add a RB to an already crowded room. If anyone thinks that Ezekiel Elliott will not only completely grasp a pro-style offense week one, but have a complete understanding of NFL blitz packages, enabling the coaches to trust him in pass protection, they are pretty damn green.
The Cowboys used the 4th overall pick in the draft on a RB who is currently sitting at 3rd on the depth chart behind the veterans, Darren McFadden and Alfred Morris. He is currently taking reps with the 2nd team. If you look around the league, 1st round picks are taking 1st team reps and expected to start week one. I need to see what the Cowboys look like in pads, but the depth in the secondary is suspect at best, and they are missing two of the top pass rushers due to suspension. I find it impossible to believe that Elliott will make more of an impact this year than Apple or Thompson who are both taking 1st team reps.
The Cowboys used their 2nd round pick on a LB who may never be able to play again, and if he does play, there are no guarantees he will be the same player. Meanwhile, if RoMac gets suspended, week one or two, they have no solid depth at the Mike LB position making Smith a wasted pick in my mind. Their decision to add yet another RB to an already crowded room rather than draft a solid proven MLB like Scooby Wright to add some depth, only adds to my misery. We maintain he was the best LB in this class, and despite being a 7th round pick, he is getting 1st team reps with the Browns. I Digress. You can’t win the NFC East with that type of thinking process.
If Brandon Carr or Mo Claiborne get injured: who do they have to step up? We all watched Kurt Cousins put up 21 points in the 1st quarter week 17 with our other options on the field. Looking at this objectively,, right now, outside of a miracle, I find it impossible for the Cowboys to win the NFC East. Especially if the Giants get the division win week one and they struggle defensively over the course of the next three weeks. The media can spin the first two picks any way they want to, but the Giants did what Jones should have done on defense.
At this point, there is a lot of pressure on the Rookie Charles Tapper to make something happen week one. I love the player, but he is still raw technique wise. I am going to say it: Scooby Wright will more than likely make more of an impact this year than Ezekiel Elliott. Unless he is just penciled in, I find it impossible for him to beat out two proven veterans as a rookie. There is just too much for him to learn in terms of the playbook and understanding NFL blitz packages that he never saw in College.
Once again, the weight of the entire season is on the shoulders of Tony Romo because the Cowboys are severely lacking depth on defense. He has had them top 5 in scoring for much of his career and still hasn’t sniffed a Super Bowl. I don’t think Jerry will ever figure out that Tony has been a smash-mouth defense away from a Super Bowl for most of his career.
If the Cowboys sustain any injuries or more suspensions on defense, they can kiss any hopes of winning the NFC East goodbye. A championship isn’t even in the conversation. Defense Wins Championships!