2015 NFL Season Primer: NFC East

Dan Kitchen, Contributor

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As the NFL season kicks off this week, it is fun to look ahead and project what the storylines at the end of the season will be. Instead of picking who will play each other in Super Bowl L this year, this exercise will go division by division looking at the players each roster has to offer, including who could breakout or breakdown this year, who the best rookies are, and where the best rookies of next year will likely play on each team. This piece highlights the NFC East.

Dallas Cowboys

Surprise Player: Terrence Williams, WR

Williams has shown some promise in his first two seasons, recording at least 600 yards in each and earning the starting job opposite Dez Bryant to start this season. Dallas will not have a ground game that can be relied on this year, and an offensive line that can give Tony Romo all the time he needs to pass. With the likely increase in passing from this offense, expect Williams’ numbers to increase this year.

Bust: The current starters at linebacker

Dallas’ opening week starters at linebacker should all be nervous for their jobs. Sean Lee hasn’t played a full season since entering the league, so as long as he stays healthy for the first time, his job is secure with the level he plays at. It is the other two linebackers who need to be worried. Kyle Wilber is a new starter with limited experience, and Anthony Hitchens is entering his second year after starting eleven games last season. Neither has their starter title set in stone, and Dallas is going to want to see some results from the collective of Demarcus Lawrence (last year’s second-rounder), Randy Gregory (this year’s second-rounder), and Greg Hardy (a controversial signing who had recorded double-digit sacks in each of his last two full seasons). All three of those men can’t play defensive end at the same time, and Gregory came out of college listed with the potential to play end or outside linebacker. If Wilber or Hitchens leaves the door open for Gregory, they may be playing as a back-up for most of the year.

Best Rookie: Byron Jones, CB/S

Morris Claiborne hasn’t been anything close to what Dallas wanted (and needed) him to be when they picked him sixth overall. Truthfully, the majority of the Cowboys’ secondary has been disappointing at one point or another during their duration on the roster, and Jones was drafted to provide an athletic, stabilizing presence. Jones will see an expanded role after the team lost Orlando Scandrick for the year, and the team has been playing him at both corner and safety this preseason. Whether or not the Cowboys give Morris Claiborne another full year to start is unknown, but Jones will be one of the most-used reserves in that secondary.

Projected 2016 First-Round Picks: Running Back, Linebacker, Cornerback/Safety

 

New York Giants

Surprise Player: J.T. Thomas, LB

The Giants are a team devoid of veterans who could break out this year. Thomas, a player signed away from Jacksonville this offseason for ten million, offers their best bet. Thomas recorded 84 combined tackles and started ten games last year for the Jaguars, and those numbers will likely increase with more time as “the guy” at the position in a weak linebacking group.

Bust: Brad Wing, P

Yes, I actually picked a punter. Just as the Giants have few players who could break out, they have few veterans who are likely to drop off the face of the earth. They are a team of players who carved out their roles and are unlikely to deviate from them, hence the selection of Wing here. Wing was one of the worst punters in the league last year for the Steelers, and was on his way toward being released after losing the job in Pittsburgh. A change of scenery is unlikely to have that much of an effect on Wing, and the pick the Giants agreed to give up for him, even if it is late, seems like a poor investment.

Best Rookie: Ereck Flowers, OT

Flowers wins a close contest between himself and safety Landon Collins. Both will have their fair share of poor plays this season as they grow into starters, but Collins has the disadvantage of the other safety (likely) playing with him every week being as inexperienced as he is. Both players should have very bright futures in New York, and both should have similarly worthy cases for the Giants’ best rookie in 2015.

Projected 2016 First-Round Picks: Linebacker, Cornerback, Tight End

 

Philadelphia Eagles

Surprise Player: The offense (if Sam Bradford stays healthy)

This is a big if, given Bradford’s history, but Chip Kelly completely renovated the Eagles’ offense, and thus far it has looked like a mad scientist’s experiment done to perfection. The offense has clicked, and so long as the centerpiece of it stays healthy, the Eagles will be a team no one wants to face. If not, we will see how talented Kelly is at managing things on the fly.

Bust: The secondary

Chip Kelly should have done a better job in investing in his secondary. Byron Maxwell was a nice pick-up, but they paid a lot to get him, and he alone can’t keep four guys (minimum) afloat. Nolan Carroll and Walter Thurmond are question marks, and Eric Rowe is no guarantee to get starter-level playing time early on. Expect this unit to still need upgrades next offseason.

Best Rookie: Nelson Agholor, WR

After watching Chip Kelly completely flatten the Eagles’ offense this offseason and mold it from the ground up, you have to imagine that he has big plans for first-round pick Nelson Agholor. After three receivers and a tight end all notched at least 570 yards last year, it appears those numbers will only increase this season. Agholor may need to compete with Josh Huff initially for time, but the team couldn’t have spent a first round pick on him (especially with some of their issues on defense) to stash him as a fourth or fifth receiver for the majority of the season.

Projected 2016 First-Round Picks: Defensive Line, Safety, Cornerback

 

Washington Redskins

Surprise Player: Jordan Reed, TE

Reed only got the starting job because Niles Paul went down, but he is more than capable of performing at Paul’s level. Reed has started just six games in his career, but has caught at least 45 passes for 465 yards each year. Given a full 16-game slate to be the safety valve for a weak passing offense with shaky quarterbacks, Reed will almost certainly get more than 45 catches and 500 yards this season.

Bust: The quarterback situation

I don’t need to spell this out for even the casual NFL fan. Kirk Cousins had some potential, but the Redskins didn’t capitalize on it at the right time. Now they are using him as the best of a bad situation, and are likely keeping every top quarterback in this year’s class on speed dial. I tried to be creative and find another bust to highlight here, but so many other potential choices would merit selection simply because they depend on the quarterback to succeed. The best advice for Redskin fans this season: grin and bear it.

Best Rookie: Brandon Scherff, OG

Scherff won’t step in from the first snap and play like a Pro Bowler; he has plenty of growing to do. But a major part of Robert Griffin’s career decline was the beating he took behind many different editions of a subpar offensive line, and Washington made an excellent pick in Scherff, one of the top talents at the position in this year’s draft. The course of the season should see Scherff show more and more flashes of the potential that got him drafted so high this year, and this pick looks like a great one for Washington.

Projected 2016 First-Round Picks: Quarterback, Offensive Line, Cornerback

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