With the NFL season nearly upon us, it’s time to take a look at each division and point out the difference-makers who will help their teams the most this fall. Ever wonder which side to take when talking Kaepernick vs. Wilson? Nick Foles vs. RG3? Isportsweb has you covered.
The NFC East has recently been one of the worst divisions in football, but it will always be the most scrutinized. Four marquis league franchises battle it out, and each of its last three seasons has been decided in Week 17.
Despite its mediocre records, the East is loaded with talent. What follows is a list of the best NFC East players by position–11 offensive guys, 11 on defense, and three special-teamers. I didn’t include injured players like Sean Lee. This list is of guys you’ll see on your TV this fall. We begin, of course, with the most important position on the field.
Quarterback: Nick Foles, Philadelphia Eagles
The first and most important position on the list may be the hardest one to call. The NFC East features four unique starting quarterbacks–two veterans with something to prove, and two upstarts looking for a breakout year.
Foles and RG3 are the upstarts–and they’re quickly supplanting Romo and Manning at the top of the NFC East. They quarterbacked the last two division champions and are two of the new, more mobile NFL QBs.
Foles so far has proven to be the better of the two. While Griffin’s Redskins regressed last season, Foles led the Eagles to the playoffs and tossed 27 touchdowns to just two interceptions. He’s got nowhere to go but up, and watching him compete with Griffin should make the East interesting for years to come.
Running back: LeSean McCoy, Philadelphia
No question here. McCoy had a breakout 2013 in Philly and looks to continue the momentum this season. With 1,607 yards and 9 rushing touchdowns last year, McCoy is obviously a threat on the ground, but he’s also a solid receiver who will give Chip Kelly lots of options and force defenses to keep him honest.
Shady’s name has started to be tossed around among the league’s best. Time will only tell if the talented back can stay healthy and productive for the Eagles.
Though I cover the team, I don’t think anyone will fault me for this selection. Bryant has matured into the monster receiver the Cowboys were hoping for when they drafted him back in 2010, catching 93 passes for over 1,200 yards last season.
He’s big, physical and a pain to cover. And at only 25, Bryant will be playing in his prime for years to come–so the rest of the division had better figure out a way to limit him.
Jackson’s inclusion on this list has nothing to do with the fact that he is a knucklehead. Obviously Jackson is a knucklehead. But he’s a very talented knucklehead who, statistically, is clearly the best speedy receiver in the NFC East.
Jackson last year was rewarded with his first Pro Bowl since 2010 after hauling in 82 passes for 1,332 yards. He will be a valuable tool for the Washington offense and RG3, who could use more big-play ability. Washington fans can only hope that his off-the-field problems will stay there and that he’ll mesh with new head coach Jay Gruden.
Cruz has been one of the division’s best for years. Even as his former partner-in-crime Hakeem Nicks struggled, Cruz continued his production last season for New York and would benefit immensely from some better Eli Manning play.
Tight End: Jason Witten, Dallas
He’s lost a step over the past few seasons, but Witten is still among the NFL’s elite and no tight end in the NFC East means as much to his offense. The rapport between Romo and Witten is like that between Brees and Graham–each knows where the other will be and what the other will do, and that translates into lots of receptions for the veteran TE.
In 2013 Witten gained fewer yards (851) than he had since 2006, but also caught more touchdowns (8) than he had since 2010, proving that while his role may be changing, it’s certainly not diminishing in Big D.
The NFC East features some talented tackles, and leaving Jason Peters off this list was tough. Williams and Smith, however, are the future of the left tackle position in the division. Both made the Pro Bowl in 2013, Smith’s first, and Smith just recently signed a long-term extension with Dallas that made him the highest paid O-lineman in the league.
Both tackles are extremely important to their quaterbacks–Williams’s is mobile, and Smith’s is getting old. Expect another stellar season from these two, and many more in the years to come.
Mathis really is the gold standard here, coming off his first Pro Bowl campaign and having cemented himself among the league’s best guards. His Eagles averaged a league-best 160 yards/rushing per game in 2013, largely because Mathis so thoroughly dominated the left side. Look for Shady McCoy to take advantage again this year.
And beyond that . . . things get a little thin. I was tempted to give the other spot to Dallas draftee Zack Martin, but let’s give Schwartz the benefit of the doubt. After a solid season in Kansas City, where he blocked for the breakout star Jamaal Charles, Schwartz is set to take over at left guard in the Big Apple.
Center: Jason Kelce, Philadelphia
There’s not a ton of star-power at center in the East, though Dallas’s Travis Frederick and Washington’s Kory Lichtensteiger certainly get the job done. But Kelce looked healthy in 2013 after missing 14 games the season before, and his contributions to the Philadelphia run game have been huge.
Now that DeMarcus Ware has moved on to the AFC West, two-time Pro Bowler Jason Pierre-Paul has become the division’s best defensive lineman. He was slowed by shoulder injuries last season, though, and his health is something to keep an eye on heading into 2014.
Hatcher put up monster numbers last season in Dallas, and though he left like Ware, he was nice enough to stay within the division. Cowboys fans will grimace at the prospect of playing him twice a season, especially if he can stay on the field.
Jenkins is the obvious choice here after a 2013 with five sacks and two forced fumbles. He is a veteran presence who will anchor the Giants D-line.
Melton is more of a wild-card, but he’s already proven his talent. Injury forced him from the field after just three games last season, but he’s young enough to view his torn ACL as more of a fluke than the beginning of a trend. If he can return to Pro Bowl form, his signing will have been well worth the risk.
Orakpo finally made it back to the Pro Bowl last year after a three-season absence, and he deserved it. He racked up ten sacks, 43 tackles and even a pick-six.
Cole transitioned beautifully from defensive end to outside linebacker under Chip Kelly and ended the year with eight sacks, showing that any 2012 struggles were only a blip on the radar.
Barwin, finally, is a four-year league veteran who came to Philly from Houston last season and totaled five sacks with 48 tackles. He may not be a household name, but his value to the Philadelphia defense can’t be overlooked. In a year without Sean Lee, he’s one of the best linebackers in the division.
Cornerback: Brandon Boykin, Philadelphia and Prince Amukama, New York
While Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie is the obvious choice behind Boykin on this list, I believe Amukama’s youth and pass defense ability will push him ahead of his journeyman teammate this year. Amukama allowed only two touchdowns last season and teams will learn to avoid throwing his way.
Boykin, meanwhile, is a small slot corner with big talent who will see Pro Bowl soon if he continues to improve. He makes interceptions and tackles hard, limiting offenses by forcing them to throw outside.
Three-time Pro Bowl safety Rolle returns for another season in New York, and his workload just got bigger with Will Hill gone to Baltimore. As he enters his thirties, can he keep pace with his old numbers?
Allen isn’t a picks machine, but he is a versatile corner who tackles well and plays smart. In a division without many superstar safeties, that’s enough for this list.
Kicker: Dan Bailey, Dallas
Bailey is the envy of the NFC East. He’s never missed an extra point, and last season he went a perfect 10 for 10 on field goals between 40 and 49 yards. He hit 93.3% of his field goals last season, which makes him the least of the Cowboys’ concerns.
Punter: Steve Weatherford, New York
By a narrow margin, Weatherford is the best statistical punter in the East. He’s been through several teams, but may finally have found a long-term home in the Meadowlands where he enters his fourth season.
Returner: Quentin Demps, New York
In 2013 Demps returned 33 kickoffs for an average of 30.1 yards each, good for third in the league among qualified players. He also scored a 95-yard touchdown. Don’t play around when you boot the ball to this guy.
The Best Players in the NFL by Division