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Monday, Sep 12th

2022 NFC East

Dallas Cowboys

Mike McCarthy returns for his third season as head coach of the Dallas Cowboys amidst growing impatience from their fan base. Joining him will be fourth-year offensive coordinator Kellen Moore and second-yard defensive coordinator, Dan Quinn.

The Cowboys started their draft with the selection of offensive tackle Tyler Smith with the 24th pick in the first round. Defensive edge Sam Williams came off the board next for Dallas in the second round (56th overall), followed by wide receiver Talen Tolbert in the third (88th overall), tight end Jake Ferguson in the fourth (129th overall), offensive tackle Matt Waletzko in the fifth (155th overall), cornerback DaRon Bland in the fifth (167th overall), inside linebacker Damone Clark in the fifth (176th overall), defensive tackle John Ridgeway in the fifth (178th overall), and linebacker Devin Harper in the sixth (193rd overall).

The Cowboys started their offseason by releasing kicker Greg Zuerlein, wide receiver Robert Foster, tight end Blake Jarwin, and offensive tackle La’el Collins and lost wide receiver Amari Cooper via a seemingly lopsided trade with the Browns (gained only a fifth-round pick and a sixth-round swap). They brought in wide receiver James Washington, linebacker Luke Gifford, safety Jayron Kearse, and outside linebacker Dante Fowler, Jr.

Interpretation

Dallas continues trying to force round pegs in square holes via the run game as both their lead running back and offensive line decline. That was most evident in their explosive play ratings from 2021, where they ranked just 17th in the run game and 14th in the pass game. They struggled through offensive line injuries and COVID issues in 2020, which saw them rank 23rd and 22nd in those marks, but they ranked fifth in explosive play rating via the run in 2019 and fourth via the pass. They then decided to deal Amari Cooper away for peanuts, likely induced by the lucrative contract they gave to a declining running back in Ezekiel Elliott. Dallas finished right around league average in personnel usage rates a year ago. It will be interesting to see how those play out this season with very little depth on the roster outside of running back. Even with Zeke and Tony Pollard on the roster, the Cowboys ran only 26 plays the entire season from 21-personnel.

Wide receiver Michael Gallup is highly likely to miss the start of the regular season after offseason surgery was required to repair his torn ACL. That leaves some combination of CeeDee Lamb, James Washington, rookie Jalen Tolbert, and Noah Brown to handle wide receiver duties in his stead. To me, that benefits Tolbert the most, who is now likely to begin the season highly involved in this offense (it at least gives him a clear path to 11-personnel snaps alongside Lamb and Washington). Dalton Schultz burst onto the scene last year, amassing a whopping 990 offensive snaps and a solid yet unspectacular 53% route participation rate. Gallup’s likely absence to start the year also greatly benefits Schultz, particularly considering the high 59% situation-neutral pass rate from 2021 and 61% value from 2020.

The Dallas defense has been on the opposite trajectory than the offense, holding teams to only 21.8 points per game and leading the league in turnover differential last year, forcing a league-high 34 turnovers last year. The ball-hawking nature of the secondary and consistent pressure on opposing quarterbacks led to this success. What’s more, the defensive personnel continuity ranks as tops in the league, with every starter from a year ago returning. 

New York Giants

The Giants have assembled an entirely new coaching staff, bringing in Brian Daboll as head coach, Mike Kafka as offensive coordinator, and Don Martindale as defensive coordinator. I was more impressed by these hires than any other team across the league, not to mention the positive switch at GM. GG Giants.

New York had quite the draft, both from a sheer volume perspective and the quality of players drafted. They began in the first by selecting edge rusher Kayvon Thibodeaux with the fifth overall pick and offensive tackle Evan Neal with the seventh overall pick. Both will immediately contribute. Thibodeaux was possibly the most talented player in this year’s draft so getting him at five was an overwhelming victory for the Giants. They continued with wide receiver Wan’Dale Robinson in the second (43rd overall), offensive lineman Joshua Edeudu in the second (67th overall), cornerback Cor’Dale Flott in the third (81st overall), tight end Daniel Bellinger in the fourth (112th overall), safety Dane Belton in the fourth (114th overall), linebacker Micah McFadden in the fifth (146th overall), defensive tackle D.J. Davidson in the fifth (147th overall), offensive lineman Marcus McKethan in the fifth (173rd overall), and linebacker Darrian Beavers in the sixth (182nd overall).

The Giants saw tight end Evan Engram leave via free agency and replaced him with Ricky Seals-Jones, brought in quarterback Tyrod Taylor, guard Mark Glowinski, and guard Max Garcia, and declined the fifth-year option on quarterback Daniel Jones. There haven’t been many moving pieces for this team from a player personnel standpoint, with the biggest moves coming in the front office and coaching staff.

Interpretation

The Giants had a rough go of it last season, ranking dead last in the NFL in overall explosive play rate as well as explosive play rate through the air, and finished in the 28th spot in explosive play rate on the ground. Enter the offensive mastermind that is Brian Daboll. One of the biggest issues is the fact that he’ll have to design this offense behind the league’s projected 25th-ranked offensive line. The good news is the Giants actually have a solid group of offensive playmakers in Saquon Barkley, Kenny Golladay, Kadarius Toney, and Sterling Shepard for Daboll, and quarterback Daniel Jones, to work with. Since we’ve continuously talked about Daboll’s ability to tailor his offense to the offensive personnel on hand, we should first look to that personnel when analyzing how this offense might look to begin the season. With that in mind, paired with early reports from offseason workouts suggesting Saquon Barkley is being moved all around the formation, we can start to picture more of how the tantalizing ceiling might look. That said, we can’t neglect the fact that this is still an offense captained by a fifth-year quarterback that has not shown any semblance of consistency, so much so that his team didn’t pick up his fifth-year option this offseason. All of that meandering discussion to say, this offense has one of the wider range of outcomes present in the league landscape heading into the season. Keep that in mind when drafting season-long teams and pay particular attention to how the field views this team heading into the first few weeks of DFS play.

The highlight of this team and offense is most definitely running back Saquon Barkley, whose tantalizing upside and dynamic skillset come together to provide one of the highest ceilings of any running back in the league. The risks are simple: there is a new regime in town and Barkley has experienced a number of injuries over the previous two seasons. That said, he has RB1 overall upside very much within his range of outcomes for 2022. As alluded to above, he’ll be running behind a mediocre at best offensive line so the ceiling will be influenced by the creative ways Daboll can get and keep him involved. Matt Breida was brought in to serve as the primary backup/change of pace back, further indicating that this team plans on riding their former number one overall pick. As in, there isn’t much in the way of viable depth in this running backs room.

Kadarius Toney flashed his dynamic play-making ability early in the season last year before succumbing to a couple of injuries, eventually being lost for the year. He adds a valuable set of skills over the intermediate areas of the field. Kenny Golladay should work primarily intermediate-to-deep in a hybrid possession role, similar to how Stefon Diggs was utilized in Buffalo. That leaves Sterling Shepard to handle slot duties in what is likely to be an offense heavily based out of 11-personnel. Expect a 70-80% snap rate as the norm. Primary tight end duties should land on the duo of newcomers at the position in Ricky Seals-Jones and Jordan Akins, with fourth-round rookie Daniel Bellinger likely a couple of years away from meaningful production.

Philadelphia Eagles

Head coach Nick Sirianni, offensive coordinator Shane Steichen, and defensive coordinator Jonathan Gannon enter their second season at the helm of the Eagles.

The Eagles made only five draft picks in this year’s draft, starting things off with defensive tackle Jordan Davis in the first with the 13th overall pick. They continued with center Cameron Jurgens in the second (56th overall), inside linebacker Nakobe Dean in the third (83rd overall), inside linebacker Kyron Johnson in the sixth (181st overall), and tight end Grant Calcaterra in the sixth (198th overall).

Philadelphia made two major offseason moves by prying away A.J. Brown from the Titans and signing cornerback James Bradberry away from the Giants. To say each was a massive “win” is an understatement. The team also signed linebacker Kyzir White, who is also expected to immediately step into a starting role.

Interpretation

Philadelphia has done an amazing job rebuilding their roster over the previous three seasons, investing in talent at the skill positions, and retaining elite athleticism on both lines. DeVonta Smith and A.J. Brown combine to form one of the most dynamic wide receiver duos in the league, while slot-man Quez Watkins and tight end Dallas Goedert offer valuable mismatches all over the field. Quarterback Jalen Hurts provides a unique combination of escape ability, pocket presence, and a cannon for an arm but needs to improve his ability to read a defense and his deep ball accuracy before he can confidently be viewed as a top-tier quarterback.

The biggest question marks from this offense come via a rather ambiguous backfield consisting primarily of Miles Sanders, Kenneth Gainwell, and Boston Scott. Last season, no back eclipsed a modest 422 offensive snaps, with Sanders averaging the most touches per game at 13.6 on a modest 40.5% snap-to-touch rate. Considering the fact that the coaching staff remains the same, we’re likely left with a head-scratching split in running back opportunities that saps the upside from all parties. The offensive line is expected to be one of, if not the top, units in the league. 

The quarterback keeps linebackers honest and lanes light, and the wide receiver trio and tight end should stretch defenses in every direction, leaving the only knock on the backfield being expected usage. Taking that one step further, many will point to Sanders’ injuries as the reason he didn’t see better usage last season, but the fact of the matter is that he saw 20 running back opportunities or more in only three of his 12 fully healthy games, with two of those three landing at exactly 20 opportunities (carries plus targets).

We saw how fluid both game planning and play calling were for the Eagles last season after they completely flipped their offensive strategies on their head. It’s fair to think we see a bit more aerial aggression heading into 2022 than we saw at the end of 2021 considering the moves they made during the offseason. Whether or not Brown, Smith, and Goedert see enough volume to return value remains to be seen, but the team is now set up well to stretch defenses in every direction, not to mention their offensive line is almost assuredly a top-five unit. Volume remains the biggest unknown. To close that loop, I gave up trying to pretend I knew how volume will shake out for individual players and requisite teams long ago. Follow talent, as situations change, and this team has a lot of it.

Washington Commanders

Ron Rivera, Scott Turner, and Jack Del Rio return for their third season together in Washington, serving as head coach, offensive coordinator, and defensive coordinator, respectively.

The Commanders wasted no time upgrading their offense in the draft, selecting wide receiver Jahan Dotson with the 16th overall pick in the first round. Expect him to immediately step into a starting role on the perimeter. The team continued with defensive tackle Phidarian Mathis in the second (47th overall), running back Brian Robinson, Jr. in the third (98th overall), safety Percy Butler in the fourth (113th overall), quarterback Sam Howell in the fifth (144th overall), tight end Cole Turner in the fifth (149th overall), guard Chris Paul in the seventh (230th overall), and cornerback Christian Holmes in the seventh (240th overall).

All-Pro guard Brandon Scherff left town for the Jags and is likely to be replaced by former Jaguar Andrew Norwell. Carson Wentz comes to town at quarterback while Ryan Fitzpatrick retired. The Commanders were relatively quiet in free agency outside of those two moves.

Interpretation

Washington’s entire defensive front four and linebacker Jamin Davis were drafted by the organization in the first rounds of five consecutive drafts from 2017 to 2021. It then becomes pretty clear how this team wants to approach winning games. They haven’t necessarily had the offensive personnel nor secondary to win consistently and have also dealt with a myriad of injuries over the past three seasons. Based on what we’ve seen, the game plan this season should be to bring unique pressure into opposing backfields in an attempt to disrupt opposing quarterbacks, and play a more ball control-style offense. New quarterback Carson Wentz has never been known for making a ton of mistakes (exactly seven interceptions in four of six complete seasons), but he’s also never really been known for pushing the envelope downfield nor ready to check the ball down to running backs. To me, it is likeliest we see this offense tailored to what Carson is good at – making it through progressions and decision-making with his head up. That requires an above-average offensive line, which the Commanders should have this coming season (ranked as the eighth-best unit entering 2022).

The running back room got a bit of a wrench thrown in this offseason with the selection of Brian Robinson in the third round. I’m not sure how much to read into that situation considering lead back Antonio Gibson enters year three of four on his rookie deal and is under cheap team control for another two seasons. He was also fed a whopping 300 touches a year ago under the same coaching staff. I tentatively expect Gibson to remain “the guy” here, meaning he should once again approach 280-300 touches. J.D. McKissic remains on hand to handle change of pace and third-down duties, but I am pretty much off him entirely considering the change at quarterback.

The wide receiver trio of Terry McLaurin, Jahan Dotson, and Curtis Samuel is, without a doubt, one of the most electric trios in the NFL. All three receivers are crisp out of routes, have shown solid football smarts, and are dangerous with the ball in their hands. I have to say I’m excited to see how these three are utilized this season, if only purely from a “fan of the game” perspective. Expect McLaurin and Dotson to start on the perimeter, with Samuel running primarily out of the slot. The biggest issue I see with the primary pass-catching corps is health, as Samuel has struggled through injuries each of the past two seasons. They are likely to be joined by tight-end Logan Thomas, who has really struggled to stay on the field over the previous two seasons as well. His athletic profile and the state of this offense most certainly can support a return to form, but he’s got to stay on the field. In all, the Commanders appear to be in good shape to improve on the modest 19.7 points per game scored in 2021.