The NFC East was more known for its play on the offensive side of the ball in 2016 having two teams (Washington and Dallas) finish in the top five of the entire league in total yards. While the offenses got most of the attention, quietly three teams in the East finished in the NFL’s top 14 (Redskins finished 28th) in total yards surrendered on defense while two teams (New York and Dallas) finished in the top five in terms of total points allowed. All four teams have undergone changes this offseason with the Redskins and Cowboys making the most adjustments to their defensive roster. Below is a breakdown of all four teams and the moves they made this offseason in terms of how they correlate to who will be viewed as the top defensive unit heading into 2017.
The Cowboys cleansed their roster this offseason cutting defensive backs J.J. Wilcox, Brandon Carr, Morris Claiborne, Barry Church, and defensive linemen, Ryan Davis, Terrell McClain and Jack Crawford. McClain signed a deal with the Redskins and it’s unclear how much he’ll play outside of a rotational situation in Washington. After busting onto the scene in late 2016, David Irving will have to wait to find out what his extended role will be with Dallas this season as he will be suspended for the first four games of 2017.
The Cowboys added veteran defensive end’s Damontre Moore and Stephen Paea, along with cornerback Nolan Carroll in free agency. The idea in the Cowboys secondary is for a healthy Orlando Scandrick and Carroll to cover the outside while a ton of young guys round out the depth chart with Chidobe Awuzie, Anthony Brown, Jourdan Lewis, Leon McFadden, Jeremiah McKinnon, Sammy Seamster, Duke Thomas, and Marquez White as the Cowboys look to completely re-tool their roster at corner. The re-tooling should lead to more competition across the board at Cowboys training camp. A lot of people in Texas are focusing on how well linebacker Jaylon Smith will play after missing all of his rookie season and hoping Sean Lee can stay healthy again.
Recently both Carroll (driving while intoxicated) and linebacker Damien Wilson were arrested. Wilson was arrested on two counts of aggravated assault. A fourth-round draft pick out of Minnesota in the 2015 draft, Wilson played in all 16 games, starting six, last season with Dallas. He was credited with 35 tackles, 1/2 sack, four tackles for loss and three quarterback pressures. Wilson also added six tackles on special teams. The Cowboys were already going to have to deal without having defensive end David Irving, who was suspended for the first four games of the 2017 season for violating the league’s performance-enhancing substances policy. Now they will have to wait on the league to decide if Carroll or Wilson will miss any time.
The Washington Redskins entered the 2017 offseason with one major objective…fix their defense. The Redskins have finished near the bottom of the league the last few years and felt the need to build their defense from the ground floor, up. Gone from the Redskins defense of 2016 are defensive lineman Chris Baker, Ricky Jean-Francois, defensive backs Donte Whitner, Duke Ihenacho, David Bruton, Greg Toler, and linebacker Lynden Trail. The team shifted Su’a Cravens over to safety from linebacker and signed D.J. Swearinger from Arizona in an attempt to strengthen the safety position. The Redskins also signed defensive linemen Stacy McGee (Oakland) and McClain, along with inside linebacker Zach Brown (Buffalo). The Redskins then used their top two picks in the NFL draft on two high-end Alabama defensive prospects in defensive linemen Jonathan Allen and linebacker Ryan Anderson.
The strength of the Redskins beyond Josh Norman in the secondary is their rotation of edge rushers which currently includes Ryan Kerrigan, Trent Murphy (suspended first four games), Junior Galette, Anderson and Preston Smith. That unit should benefit from the additions of Allen, McGee, and McClain in the trenches.
The New York Giants have the distinction of being the top statistical defensive unit in the East in 2016. The Giants ranked tenth in total yards surrendered, while only giving up 17.8 points a game (second in the league). From that division best unit, the Giants only lost only backup corner Coty Sensabaugh and starting defensive lineman Johnathan Hankins who started every game and finished the 2016 regular season with 43 tackles, three sacks, and one forced fumble. The Giants added defensive linemen Corbin Bryant, Devin Taylor, Kerry Wynn, and Robert Thomas, secondary players Duke Ihenacho, Saqwan Edwards, Valentino Blake, and Rahim Moore, while also re-signing defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul, and linebackers Keenan Robinson and Mark Herzlich.
No one has been close to Damon Harrison as a run defender the past five seasons pic.twitter.com/1UQrcqdpqp— Pro Football Focus (@PFF) July 2, 2017
The Giants will attempt to be the top defensive unit once again in 2017 despite having to take on the collection of offensive weapons the division brings with each game. Led by safety Landon Collins and defensive tackle Damon “Snacks” Harrison the New York Giants defensive unit should be tough to deal with in 2017.
The 2016 Philadelphia Eagles were improved on defense, but not as much as they would have hoped heading into the season. The team finished near the middle of most team defensive stats and needed some changes as the franchise was looking to move into the future along with finding players that fit defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz’ scheme. The front office started by not bringing back defensive linemen Connor Barwin and Bennie Logan as well as cornerbacks Nolan Carroll and Leodis McKelvin. To offset those losses, the Eagles added defensive linemen, Chris Long and Timmy Jernigan, while drafting future star defensive end Derek Barnett, who has drawn praise and comparison to former Eagles star pass-rusher Reggie White. The Eagles also added injured cornerback Sidney Jones (Achilles) in the second-round and Rasul Douglas in the third; both players aren’t expected to make a major impact until 2018. Still though, having Fletcher Cox alongside Jernigan and Barnett should give the Eagles a formidable line even if they have a less than stellar set of corners. For now, the Eagles will go with Jalen Mills, Aaron Grymes, Ron Brooks, Randall Goforth, Dwayne Gratz, Patrick Robinson, C.J. Smith, and Jomal Wiltz at corner. While safeties Rodney McLeod and Malcolm Jenkins will continue to be the strength of Philadelphia’s secondary.
The Eagles front office started by not bringing back defensive linemen Connor Barwin and Bennie Logan as well as cornerbacks Nolan Carroll and Leodis McKelvin. To offset those losses, the Eagles added defensive linemen, Chris Long and Timmy Jernigan, while drafting future star defensive end Derek Barnett, who has drawn praise and comparison to former Eagles star pass-rusher Reggie White. The Eagles also added injured cornerback Sidney Jones (Achilles) in the second-round and Rasul Douglas in the third; both players aren’t expected to make a major impact until 2018. Still though, having Fletcher Cox alongside Jernigan and Barnett should give the Eagles a formidable line even if they have a less than stellar set of corners. For now, the Eagles will go with Jalen Mills, Aaron Grymes, Ron Brooks, Randall Goforth, Dwayne Gratz, Patrick Robinson, C.J. Smith, and Jomal Wiltz at corner. While safeties Rodney McLeod and Malcolm Jenkins will continue to be the strength of Philadelphia’s secondary.
After looking over each team’s roster, numbers, and game-film, it looks as if the NFC East may have more than one good defense in 2017. Below is a ranking of where each team appears to be right now, on paper.
- New York Giants – Coming from a stance that has New York with the most returning starters from last year this ‘paper-ranking’ is a bit of a no-brainer. They may have the best secondary in the NFC East.
- Washington Redskins – The Redskins appear to have made the best improvements to their roster on paper. A lot of Washington’s improvement will be based on how well Swearinger and Cravens play at safety and how much pressure they can put on opposing QB’s. Last year the Redskins had issues stopping teams on third down…that must change if Washington wants to challenge for the division in 2017.
- Philadelphia Eagles – While the Eagles will look to improve on their “middle-of-the-road” 2016 defensive campaign, they look like they may have some holes at the cornerback position. If someone can step up Philadelphia could move up this list fast.
- Dallas Cowboys – The Cowboys made a ton of changes this offseason and have one the most inexperienced teams in the division on the defensive side of the ball. On paper, it looks like they may struggle with a few rookies possibly getting a chance at some playing time early on.
[Featured Image by Al Bello/Getty Images]