NFC East preview: Kelly's genius (or madness?) will decide division race
To put it simply, the NFC East is a two-horse race. The Giants and Redskins might as well prepare to settle for those participation trophies James Harrison doesn't like, because they won't be in the hunt come November and December. The Cowboys and Eagles have too much firepower on offense and enough defense to fill in the blanks. Both teams lack the obvious personnel holes that eventually hold back lesser teams on their journey to the postseason, but they took very different paths to get to that level. The Cowboys are dealing with one major defection—league-leading running back DeMarco Murray to the Eagles—while Chip Kelly spent the spring and summer engineering a full-scale personnel overhaul in Philly.
The Eagles stand to have a new starting quarterback, two new starting guards, at least one new starting running back, several new starting cornerbacks and at least one new starting linebacker. In the case of quarterback Sam Bradford, running back Ryan Mathews and linebacker Kiko Alonso, Kelly is betting on his sports science background and fortunate injury rates through two seasons in the NFL to keep three crucial incoming players on the field. The Cowboys are just hoping that former backup back Joseph Randle and the ghost of Darren McFadden can replace Murray's 2,261 yards from scrimmage, which would prove that just about anyone can produce behind their vaunted offensive line. The scary thing is that they might be right.
At the bottom of the 2014 division standings, Washington is still trying to find a way for Jay Gruden and Robert Griffin III to co-exist, and the Giants can only hope they've improved their defense enough to take advantage if Eli Manning puts together another career year. Manning had his most efficient and productive season since Big Blue's last Super Bowl in 2011, and the Giants still finished with just six wins—their third straight year with a declining win total. Washington will look to improvements on defense and along the offensive line to pay dividends, while the Giants simply hope last year's rash of injuries won't repeat itself—even as Jason Pierre-Paul's playing status remains up in the air.
Barring a major surprise, the NFC East is set up for the same two-team duel that supplied its drama down the stretch last season.
The Cowboys' main concern in losing Murray to the Eagles is not replacing his offensive production but replacing his value to their defense, which surprised many in 2014 thanks to favorable time of possession splits, veteran coordinator Rod Marinelli's coaching and a few standout performances. If they suffer any backslide in those categories, the Eagles could easily take the division. Of course, Philadelphia's ability to capitalize on regression in Dallas depends a great deal on the health of aforementioned new arrivals Bradford, Mathews and Alonso.
Here's what the Eagles seem certain to have: an improved secondary that welcomes former Seahawks corner Byron Maxwell, a potentially dominant front seven even if Alonso can't fully recover from the torn ACL that robbed him of his 2014 season, and a rookie pass-catcher in USC's Nelson Agholor who could make Philly's passing attack even more dynamic. Add in the three-headed backfield monster of Murray, Mathews and Darren Sproles, and it's definitely the deepest team Kelly has had as an NFL coach.
Dark horse: Cowboys
The defending division champs took a backseat to the Eagles in the headlines for most of this off-season, but the gap between the two teams personified by Philadelphia's splashy signing of Murray is being overstated.
The rich got richer when the Cowboys added yet another first-round talent to their offensive line in LSU's La'el Collins, who will either replace left guard Ronald Leary or right tackle Doug Free in due time. Based on his college tape, Collins was worthy of a first-round grade, but he went undrafted after he was named a person of interest (not a suspect) in the death of his former girlfriend. The news spooked teams into letting Collins go undrafted after the league refused to let him participate in the supplemental draft and receive more time to clear his name. It was an unfair situation (especially if Collins had nothing to do with the crime) that cost the rookie millions of dollars, but all he can do is take it out on the rest of the league until it's time for his second contract.
It's all great news for Randle and McFadden. Randle stands the best chance of benefiting from this starting opportunity. He has shown flashes of speed and agility in between plays in which he stalls at the line when he should be moving forward. On defense, the hope is that first-round cornerback Byron Jones can supplant the highly ineffective Brandon Carr sooner rather than later, and that the combination of free agent Greg Hardy and second-round pick Randy Gregory will shore up a formerly inconsistent pass-rush. With Tony Romo and Dez Bryant in the fold, the Cowboys have fewer question marks than the Eagles, but that one uncertainty at the running back position is a doozy.
Division MVP: Sam Bradford
If Bradford can stay healthy behind a line in transition, he's a perfect fit in the Eagles' offense with a great chance to hand Kelly the division crown. Kelly prefers quarterbacks who deal well with play-action, can throw on the move and hit targets accurately; consistency is more important than pure arm strength. It's easy to forget now that when Bradford was tearing it up at Oklahoma, he was a highly mobile quarterback who could threaten defenses with play fakes or boot action and throw downfield on a dime. He was a deserving No. 1 pick in the 2010 draft, but the Rams saddled him with a highly ineffective line, receivers in name only and offensive coordinators who, for the most part, were operating at cross purposes.
It's a shame that Bradford couldn't have had Kelly as his first NFL coach, but here we are. Bradford's value will be apparent whether he stays on the field or not, because there's no way the Eagles will go as far with Mark Sanchez or Tim Tebow.
Breakout player: Jordan Matthews, Eagles
Matthews was one of the most productive slot weapons in the NFL last season, catching 67 passes for 872 yards and eight touchdowns in his rookie campaign. Given Kelly's preference for three-receiver sets and Matthews's potential as a receiver who can take on more outside reps, it's fair to wonder if the second-year receiver out of Vanderbilt won't be the most prolific target in this high-volume offense. This off-season, Matthews worked with Hall of Fame receiver Cris Carter, perhaps the best boundary receiver in NFL history, so Matthews may be expanding his repertoire for a larger role.
“I think you would think that I might get a whole lot more outside reps now just because [free agent receiver Jeremy] Maclin is gone, but I already had talked to coaches, and they were already going to implement me more on the outside as opposed to just the inside regardless,” Matthews said in April. “I don't think that's a crazy, huge deal.”
It could be a huge deal for Philly's passing offense, to be sure.
Rookie to watch: Brandon Scherff, OT, Redskins
Over the last few seasons, left tackle Trent Williams has been Washington's only consistent blocker, and he underperformed a bit in 2014 while playing through various injuries. New general manager Scot McCloughan selected Scherff out of Iowa with the No. 5 pick not only because he presented the best combination of power, consistency and athleticism among tackles at the top of this draft class but also because he can easily kick over to the left side if Williams misses action. And if Williams is healthy, the Redskins have two potentially elite tackles for the first time in a long time.
Some questioned the decision to pick Scherff with so many skill position players left on the board, but McCloughan had no hesitation.
“There's a premium on great offensive tackles,” he said after making the selection. “They're hard to find. When you have a chance to get one, you have to stand up and take him. When you have a guy this tough and it just echoes every play that he plays, it only makes your football team better.”
Coach with most to prove: Chip Kelly
Kelly gained total personnel control in the off-season after winning a power struggle with former general manager Howie Roseman. As is his wont, Kelly did not hesitate to create the team he wanted, though all those new additions brought about the departure of several meaningful contributors. Trading LeSean McCoy to the Bills for Alonso is a great move if Alonso is healthy. Moving Nick Foles out in favor of Bradford is an upgrade with that same health caveat. The Eagles hope Connor Barwin and Vinny Curry can fill the void left by pass rusher Trent Cole. Losing cornerbacks Bradley Fletcher and Cary Williams amounted to net gains in the secondary, though Kelly's cavalier dismissal of slot cornerback Brandon Boykin's value was interesting, to say the least. Boykin was traded to the Steelers for a mid-round pick, and the Eagles don't have anyone obvious to replace his acumen and consistency. Guards Evan Mathis and Todd Herremans were shown the door, with journeyman Allen Barbre and youngster Matt Tobin as the leaders to replace them.
It's the first step in a process that will eventually prove Kelly to be more on the side of Bill Belichick as a team-building mover-and-shaker, or more like any one of Belichick's acolytes, who managed to overdraw on their mentor's alleged inflexibility without taking his genius out the door. There's no middle ground, because Kelly has drawn his line so immediately and definitively.
Can't-miss divisional game: Eagles at Cowboys, Sunday, Nov. 8
The two division favorites split their 2014 series, and Dallas's Week 15 win put Jason Garrett's team in control of the division for good. Down 21–0, Sanchez helped pull the Eagles back in front in the third quarter, but then Dez Bryant caught his career-high third touchdown pass and Murray scored his second rushing touchdown of the day to lock up a 38–27 win. For the Eagles, the loss came in the middle of a three-game slide that broke the momentum of their 9–3 start and ultimately left them outside the playoff picture at 10–6.
In many ways, Kelly's off-season decisions were reflective of the assets he didn't have to pull this game out, and this season's second meeting with the Cowboys will go a long way toward determining if he's on the right track.