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The 5 O’Clock Club: The Athletic revisits 32 teams’ preseason concerns - what did they say about the NFC East?

It’s 5 o’clock somewhere…

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Los Angeles Rams v Washington Football Team Photo by G Fiume/Getty Images

The 5 o’clock club is published from time to time during the season, and aims to provide a forum for reader-driven discussion at a time of day when there isn’t much NFL news being published. Feel free to introduce topics that interest you in the comments below.


Mike Sando of The Athletic published an article this week in which they evaluated all 32 NFL teams against what had been identified as each team’s biggest concerns back in the pre-season. Here it is in Sando’s own words:

Before the 2020 NFL season, we enlisted execs around the league to identify one primary worry for each of the 32 teams. Now, 10 weeks into the season, we revisit those worries, applauding those teams that overcame them. But more often than not, preseason worries became in-season problems.

I thought it might be worth taking a look at the comments for the four teams that make up the NFC East.

Dallas Cowboys

The worry: The Cowboys peaked in July.

In-season reality: The summer was unkind to the Cowboys as injuries sidelined Gerald McCoy, Sean Lee, La’el Collins and others. All signs were pointing to the Cowboys failing to meet expectations, which was certainly the case, even before quarterback Dak Prescott was lost for the season.

I spent the entire off-season saying that Washington and New York had young rosters and new coaches, and that the Eagles had an aging and underpowered roster going into 2020. By default, I felt like the Cowboys would win the NFC East with the most complete roster, despite a head coaching change. I never felt like the Cowboys would be able to win a playoff game — just that they would be the best of a bad division.

The bad roster news started early for the Cowboys with the surprising retirement of Travis Frederick this off-season, and the injuries piled up early. By the time Dak Prescott was lost for the season, he was the only thing keeping the team competitive on the field.

At this point, Dallas fans have embraced the idea that they are the worst team in the division and on track for a top-5 pick.

Consider this article from Blogging the Boys this week:

Here is what you need to root for in Week 11 in order for the Cowboys to have the best possible 2021 draft position

As things stand in the aftermath of Week 10 the Dallas Cowboys hold the fourth overall pick (this season really is like 2015 in a lot of senses). You can view the entire current order at Tankathon and if you do you will see that the New York Jets, Jacksonville Jaguars, and Washington Football Team are the squads in front of Dallas.

It goes without saying that we want the teams near the Cowboys to all win so that their draft position can be worsened.

I don’t think my preseason expectations for the Cowboys were unreasonable, but the injuries they have suffered this season certainly have been. Washington will be in Dallas on Thursday next week for a Thanksgiving Day game that the good guys have a rare chance of winning. It may be a bit ironic that a home loss may be exactly what many Dallas fans will be rooting for. It probably doesn’t matter how good their draft position is, however, as Jerry Jones has proven that without Jimmy Johnson, he’s incapable of building a championship roster.

New York Giants

The worry: So much is riding on a head coach, Joe Judge, who remains an unknown.

In-season reality: Judge has shown himself to be a promising new coach at this early stage, fielding a team that is strongest on special teams, his area of expertise, and improved on defense. The Giants rank 12th in combined EPA on defense and special teams. That’s an improvement from 26th last season.

I have to say, I was expecting Joe Judge to fail in New York. He seemed to be doomed by two trends: the recent inability of the Giants franchise to make a good head coaching decision (Ben McAdoo, Steve Spagnuolo, Pat Shurmer), and the long-standing tradition of Bill Belichick assistants failing as head coaches.

Some of the early reports this off-season indicated that Judge was likely to be the latest in dual series of head coaching train wrecks.

In-season reports indicate the opposite. Players seem to like Judge, and the Giants, after looking absolutely horrible in the early going of the 2020 season, have played much better (even in games that they’ve lost) in recent weeks. Judge appears to be finding his rhythm as a head coach — although there has been a bit of a ‘red flag’ this week, as reported by the Athletic:

When informed of DeGuglielmo’s addition on Tuesday night, Colombo had a heated verbal exchange with Judge, according to sources. The Giants vehemently denied a report that Judge and Colombo had a “fistfight.” But Judge responded to the confrontation by firing Colombo and replacing him with DeGuglielmo on Wednesday.

That was a bit of an upset, since DeGuglielmo worked alongside Judge for two years in New England, serving as the Patriots’ offensive line coach from 2014-15. Judge leaned heavily on coaches he was familiar with when assembling his staff.

Colombo, 42, had no ties to Judge, but he has a lengthy history with offensive coordinator Jason Garrett.

DeGuglielmo and Judge should be on the same page philosophically due to their shared background in New England. But it will be interesting to see how the new coach jells with Garrett and the players after coming aboard midway through the season.

The firing of Colombo in favor of the abrasive DeGuglielmo could be a blip on the radar or it could be the first crack in the armor that eventually proves that Judge is just the next failure in the Giants/Belichick series of bad head coaches.

For the moment, I’m inclined to think that New York made the right decision and “got their guy”, though I’m encouraged by my ongoing personal impression of Dave Gettleman as a bumbling and inconsistent GM who should continue to cripple Judge with bad roster decisions.

Philadelphia Eagles

The worry: Age in key spots undermines the offense, which could affect the quarterback.

In-season reality: Our item before the season noted that Jason Peters was 38, Jason Kelce was 33, Brandon Brooks was 31 and Lane Johnson was 30, to say nothing of aging receivers Desean Jackson and Alshon Jeffery. Injuries have indeed affected the offense in a manner harmful to quarterback Carson Wentz. The injury tracking site Man-Games Lost notes that Philly had lost more games to injury than any team but San Francisco entering Week 10.

I was wrong about the Cowboys waltzing to a 2020 division title, and I was wrong about Joe Judge being a sure-fire failure as a head coach, but I was right about the Philadelphia Eagles. I spent the off-season asking what it was that other people saw in this roster that I didn’t.

What I saw was a mediocre, overpriced and aging roster with suspect coaching. While many fans and pundits around the NFL saw an Eagles team for whom the 2017 super bowl run was the norm and the ‘18 & ‘19 seasons were outliers driven largely by injury woes; while they saw a team that would compete for the division title and make noise in the playoffs, I saw the opposite. The architects of 2017, John DeFillippo and Nick Foles, are gone. Howie Roseman has made free agency decisions in each of the past three seasons in an effort to try to stack a second super-bowl win on top of 2017, but has only succeeded in building an increasingly mediocre,aging and expensive roster.

Where other people saw Roseman playing 4-dimensional chess, I saw a GM that was behaving like a blackjack player trying to recover his losses from the previous hand by increasing his bet and hoping for better luck. I thought it was inevitable that the Eagles would struggle with injuries this season and find it hard to break .500.

Per Over The Cap, the Eagles are currently projected to be $69 million OVER the 2021 estimated cap with just 44 players under contract — the worst projected position of any team in the league except for the Saints. By contrast, Washington is projected to have the 5th BEST cap situation in the league, and can probably jump to third on the list simply by parting ways with Alex Smith. The writers at OTC have said repeatedly that the Eagles have plenty of options for attacking the cap situation, but getting under the cap limit and re-building an ailing roster are two different things. The Eagles front office looks set to have to do the job with both hands tied behind their back, as they seem likely to win enough games to not have great draft position, and no money to spend in free agency.

Right now, the NFC East division title looks like a poison pill for whichever team wins it, given that it automatically puts that team’s draft position among the playoff teams. If the Eagles manage to win the division, the relatively poor draft position will likely not be a good trade off for the pleasure of hanging a 2020 division title banner in the stadium.

Washington Football Team

The worry: A leaky defensive secondary compromises an otherwise talented defense, putting too much pressure on a young offense — and specifically a young quarterback in Dwayne Haskins — to outscore opponents.

In-season reality: The secondary has had issues at times, most recently in key moments at Detroit, but cornerbacks Kendall Fuller and Ronald Darby have exceeded expectations. Washington has allowed 36 pass completions longer than 15 yards. That is tied for third-fewest in the league. Washington also ranks tied for third in percentage of opposing pass plays producing favorable EPA.

Frankly, I was shocked when I read that the preseason worry was the secondary. I thought sure that it would be (in order): (1) Dwayne Haskins’ ability to develop as the franchise quarterback; (2) lack of receiving weapons on offense, or (3) a suspect linebacker group in a new defensive scheme.

I always expected Fuller and Darby to play well, and had expected a safety pairing of Landon Collins and Sean Davis to play solidly as well. I’m still puzzled by the coaching staff’s decision to roll with Apke over Davis, but I’m gratified to see that by most statistical measures, the Washington secondary has played well this season, and that Fuller and Darby pass the eye test as well. Kamren Curl has looked good as a rookie, being called on to step up in the wake of Apke’s poor play and Collins’ injury.

As to my own top concerns heading into the season?

Haskins - I had high expectations for the second year quarterback, and expected him to build on his accomplishments from late in the ‘19 season. I had expected him to be given the entire 2020 season to prove himself, and, while I was really disappointed with the decision to bench him after 4 games, that had less to do with doubting that Rivera had made the appropriate decision and more to do with the idea that Washington again found itself unable to solve the quarterback issue.

Lack of receiving talent - In the wake of the Kelvin Harmon injury, it was tough to see how the team was going to put the receiving firepower on the field needed to win ball games. I had expected it to be the Terry McLaurin & Steven Sims show. Sims has underperformed against my expectations, but Logan Thomas, J.D. McKissic and — recently — Cam Sims have all stepped up and outperformed my expectations.

Linebacking - I wasn’t sure what to expect for the LB corps in 2020. I struggled to understand who would be the starters, who would be the backups and how the 4-3 would be implemented on the second level. In my preseason projections, I had Kevin Pierre-Louise on the training camp bubble, and he has ended up playing a key role for the team. The huge problem defensively for Washington this season seems to have been primarily at the linebacker position, with poor run fits and poor pass coverage. Personally, I would describe the linebackers as the most disappointing position group on the team in 2020 (followed closely by the placekicker).

If Ron Rivera and Jack Del Rio want to have a playoff-competitive team next season, they need to figure out the quarterback position (I’m leaning towards sticking with Alex Smith if they don’t believe in Haskins) and fix the linebacker group. I wouldn’t be disappointed to see a high-quality free agent linebacker signed and another one drafted in the first two rounds ahead of the ‘21 regular season. I also wouldn’t rule out a position change for Landon Collins (when he gets healthy), who seems more suited to linebacker than to safety.

Poll

Which team will win the NFC East in 2020?

This poll is closed

  • 32%
    Philly
    (95 votes)
  • 51%
    New York
    (151 votes)
  • 14%
    Washington
    (44 votes)
  • 2%
    Dallas
    (6 votes)
296 votes total Vote Now

Poll

How many NFC East teams will be picking in the top-8 selections of the draft?

This poll is closed

  • 0%
    0
    (0 votes)
  • 0%
    1
    (2 votes)
  • 42%
    2
    (124 votes)
  • 56%
    3
    (165 votes)
291 votes total Vote Now