Washington has one of the best defenses, and perhaps veteran journeyman Ryan Fitzpatrick can add some stability at quarterback. The New York Giants (6-10) appear on the rise with second-year coach Joe Judge and the return of running back Saquon Barkley. The Dallas Cowboys (6-10) will return a bevy of players from injury, most notably quarterback Dak Prescott. The Philadelphia Eagles (4-11-1) might look like they need the most to go right for them, but if quarterback Jalen Hurts hits, they can have a quick turnaround.
With the offseason programs complete and training camps on the horizon, ESPN NFL Nation reporters Todd Archer (Cowboys), Jordan Raanan (Giants), Tim McManus (Eagles) and John Keim (Washington) are forecasting what could be in store for 2021.
Who will be considered the division’s MVP?
Archer: Prescott is the easy choice. There are obvious questions as he returns from a compound fracture and dislocation of his right ankle suffered last October, but he has shown he has all the answers so far. If Prescott returns to form, the Cowboys are the favorite to win the division. They were awful without him last season but weren’t eliminated from playoff contention until the final weeks of the season. If Prescott returns to Prescott form, the Cowboys will be the team to beat. So not only will he be the division’s MVP, he could be in the running for league MVP as well as the NFL Comeback Player of the Year.
Raanan: Chase Young had 7.5 sacks and four forced fumbles as a rookie in 15 games for Washington last season. If he stays healthy, his sack tally will double and Washington’s defense will be one of the league’s best. Actually, it already was last season, and there is little reason to think it won’t be again in 2021. Only this time, it will be with Young taking it to the next level and putting up massive numbers while Washington wins back-to-back division titles.
Keim: Prescott feels like a safe pick because of what he means to the Cowboys’ offense and franchise. Washington running back Antonio Gibson is another to watch here, but Prescott will put up big numbers, provided he’s fully healthy. In his past 21 games, Dallas’ offense ranked first in yards and second in points. The Cowboys’ defense must come through in a big way to win the division, but Prescott will be the reason they contend.
McManus: Offensive players get all the love, and Prescott will understandably be the consensus pick here, but I’ll roll the dice on Young, a budding superstar. (How many other players in the division fit that description?) He matched the hype coming out of Ohio State by racking up 7.5 sacks, 4 forced fumbles and 10 tackles for loss en route to NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year honors in 2020. It’s not hard to envision him springing toward the top of the sack leaderboard this season while developing into the most disruptive defensive player in the NFC East.
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Which newcomer to the NFC East will rise above the rest?
Keim: Pick your choice of wide receiver among Philadelphia’s DeVonta Smith, Washington’s Curtis Samuel and New York’s Kenny Golladay. I’ll take Golladay, who is 27 years old and continues to develop. He’s a big-body outside target who showed he can also run routes from the slot and who has grown into a downfield threat. Giants quarterback Daniel Jones ranked seventh among quarterbacks last season on completion percentage of throws with 20 or more air yards; he and Golladay will connect on a few of those this season.
McManus: Smith, the reigning Heisman Trophy winner out of Alabama, won’t face much of a learning curve as he transitions from the SEC to the pros in Philly. He is already a polished route runner who has sound technique and sneaky speed, and he uses top-level body control and sticky hands to snare just about everything thrown his way. His weight (166 pounds) is the main knock on him, but his slight frame didn’t stop him from beating press man and thriving against some of the best corners in college football.
Archer: For the Cowboys, it could be defensive coordinator Dan Quinn. For the Eagles, it could be Smith. For Washington, it could be, hmmm, Fitzpatrick? To me, it’s Golladay. His impact on New York’s offense could change the makeup of the division. He has to make Jones better, which will make Barkley better in his return from a torn anterior cruciate ligament, which makes playcaller Jason Garrett better.
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Raanan: Golladay. He’s exactly what the Giants needed. That is 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 a full season in 2019, he led the league in touchdown receptions with 11. He makes his impact felt immediately in the 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 carry and finishing with 795 yards rushing and 11 touchdowns in 10 starts. The converted wide receiver is going to blow up in Year 2 as the clear-cut starter in a much less limited Washington offense. In fact, Gibson will be one of the NFL’s most productive running backs and a fantasy monster. Think 2,000 total yards and between 15 to 20 touchdowns. That’s a pretty good breakout.
Keim: In Washington’s last seven games of 2020, Young recorded four sacks, forced three fumbles and recovered three others — and returned one for a touchdown. His play against the run was excellent, as were his instincts. Young started to learn more about rushing the passer in the NFL; he studies and works out all the time. It will all add up to a big second season.
McManus: Cowboys wide receiver CeeDee Lamb. It was tough sledding on offense once Prescott was lost to injury Week 5, yet Lamb managed to finish with 74 catches, 935 yards and five touchdowns as a rookie. Just imagine what those numbers could look like if Prescott and the offensive line stay healthy. One notable difference in his stats from college is he averaged 12.6 yards per reception for the Cowboys last season compared to 19 yards per catch at Oklahoma. That average should move closer to his Sooners days with Prescott airing it out.
Archer: How do we not say Young? Well, maybe he has already broken out to some and doesn’t qualify. If the adage that a player makes his biggest jump from his rookie year to his second year is true, then the rest of the NFL, and not just the NFC East, should look out.
It’s early, but which seat starts out as the hottest?
McManus: Hurts. Though, it’s 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 gravitated toward him, and he should be granted some leeway as the offense learns coach Nick Sirianni’s system. But the plan seems clear: The Eagles have stockpiled upward of three first-round picks in the 2022 NFL draft and won’t be shy about using them to acquire a quarterback — by either trading up in the draft or swapping them for a veteran QB such as Russell Wilson or Deshaun Watson — should Hurts fall short of expectations in 2021.
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Archer: Outside expectations appear to be low for Philadelphia, and a lot of that is because of the decisions general manager Howie Roseman has made since the Eagles won the Super Bowl in 2017. Wentz was signed to 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 the quarterback. Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie has stuck with Roseman over the years, but at some point everybody runs out of patience.
Raanan: It is a close call between Cowboys coach Mike McCarthy and Jones, the Giants QB. There is just no way McCarthy can survive anything but making the playoffs this season with Prescott healthy and the talent on that roster. Jones can make strides and be a middle-of-the-road quarterback in a losing season and get another season. McCarthy doesn’t have that luxury. It’s now or never with the Cowboys coach being exposed.
Keim: The Giants added receiving help through NFL free agency (Golladay) and the draft (Kadarius Toney) and anticipate Barkley’s return. In two seasons, Jones has thrown 35 touchdowns to 22 interceptions, but he has also lost 14 fumbles. Can he cut down on turnovers? If so, the Giants’ offense will be difficult to stop (of course, the line remains an issue). If not, the Giants have a decision to make on Jones.
From Dak Prescott to Chase Young, the NFC East in 2021 is up for grabs
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