[dt_divider style=”thick” /]New York Giants
Rookie Who is Needed Early: Evan Engram
Veteran Who May be Ready to Decline: Eli Manning
Most Intriguing to Study: Darian Thompson
Excited About Expanded Role: Paul Perkins
Make or Break Year for the Team: Devon Kennard
The 2016 season was far from perfect for the New York Giants. Despite the offense finishing 26th in points for and 30th in 3rd down conversion rate (34.4%), the Giants managed to finish 11-5, with one of the top defenses in the league. New York was 29th in the league in rushing yards per game (87.2) and they were too one-dimensional on offense. Opposing defenses would key on star wideout Odell Beckham Jr. (28.3 % of teams’ target share), while committing to the pass and forcing Eli Manning into poor situations. There are so many variables when it comes to winning and losing in the NFL, but the Giants chances of bringing home their fifth Lombardi trophy are significantly increased and contingent on the Development of tackles Ereck Flowers and Bobby Hart. Solid play from the tackle position would improve the rushing attack and provide Manning with more time to find the open receiver. The addition of Brandon Marshall should help the Giants in the red zone and on third down, while the mere presence of the Rookie Who is Needed Early, Evan Engram, will significantly benefit the offense. Having a field-stretching tight end that can split Cover 2 defenses and keep the safeties honest is invaluable. The weapons listed above, plus Sterling Shepard (17.6 % target share) in the slot, will help extend Eli Manning’s career. The QB’s yards and touchdowns were down from his 2015 season and it’s not a secret that Manning is getting old and May be Ready to Decline; though hopefully for the Giants sake, these weapons will only lengthen Manning’s time in the Big Apple, but it is more than evident that he is on the back nine. With the release of Rashad Jennings, the Giants are hoping that 2nd year running back out of UCLA, Paul Perkins, takes the Expanded Role he will inherit and run with it (literally and figuratively). Perkins will provide quickness and the one-cut agility that has been lacking in New York’s backfield.
One of the most intriguing situations for Big Blue is their safeties. Landon Collins solidified himself as a star in the league last season, while Andrew Adams, an undrafted rookie out of UConn, filled in very nicely for the player I am Most Intrigued to Study, 2016 3rd round pick out of Boise State, safety Darian Thompson. Thompson is a ball hawking centerfield type of safety that had 19 interceptions in college. He should complement the hard-hitting Collins perfectly and he is ready for 2017 after suffering a season-ending foot injury in Week 3 of 2016.
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How defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo utilizes Thompson, Adams, Duke Ihenacho, and the oft-injured Nat Berhe will be interesting to dissect through the preseason. One player that is entering his Make it or Break It Year is linebacker Devon Kennard. Drafted in the 5th round of the 2014 NFL Draft, Kennard has flashed, but has struggled to stay healthy. He was able to put together a full 16-game season in 2016, while logging 47.8% of the defensive snaps. After having 4.5 sacks in his rookie campaign, he only has one to his name since, so I would say he has something to prove entering a contract year with a cap strapped team like the New York Giants.
[dt_divider style=”thick” /]Dallas Cowboys
Rookie Who is Needed Early: Chidobe Awuzie
Veteran Who May be Ready to Decline: Orlando Scandrick
Most Intriguing to Study: Byron Jones
Excited About Expanded Role: Jaylon Smith
Make or Break Year for the Team: Demarcus Lawrence
The future is bright in Dallas after a 13-3 2016 season, where two rookies took the league by storm. The storm turned into a hurricane when suspensions surrounded the Cowboys, with Randy Gregory and David Irving missing significant time in the upcoming season, plus the recent Ezekiel Elliott 6 game suspension to start the season (currently under appeal). The Cowboys also lost significant pieces of their 2016 team, with guard Ronald Leary going to Denver, right tackle Doug Free retiring, cornerbacks Morris Claiborne and Brandon Carr finding new homes, and veteran presence Barry Church taking his talents to Jacksonville. Rob Marinelli’s secondary took a significant hit and that is why 2nd round pick Chidobe Awuzie is a Rookie Who is Needed Early. Awuzie is a versatile defensive back that can play outside and in the slot, which is critical in today’s NFL; especially in the NFC East where the Giants and Washington roll out 11 personnel more often than not.
Orlando Scandrick is a Veteran Who May be Ready to Decline. He has battled a hamstring injury throughout 2016 and missed all of 2015 with a torn right ACL and MCL. Scandrick, who is now 30, needs to stay healthy for the veteran leadership of Dallas’s young secondary. A young group that includes Anthony Brown, a 6th round pick in the 2016 NFL Draft from Purdue that Needs to Develop Quickly. Brown showed promise in his rookie campaign and will be looking to build on the solid season with Claiborne and Carr gone. Replacing Free and Leary may not be easy, even though Dallas still sports one of the most athletic and intimidating offensive lines of the era. Chaz Green, 25, will have to Develop Quickly as a consistent starter, to help fortify one of the best overall units in football. Green started two games at left tackle for Dallas in 2016 when Tyron Smith was injured. I am very Intrigued to Study Byron Jones as the leader of the Cowboys secondary in a full-time safety type of role. Jones, who is an absolute freak athlete, has the pedigree of a former 1st round pick and Cowboys brass has been speaking very highly of the former Husky. He has been used down in the slot and at cornerback, due to the injuries the Cowboys secondary has suffered over his first two season, but looks poised to take on a full time safety role.
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I am intrigued to see how Marinelli uses Jones on 3rd down and in the red zone, with Awuzie and 3rd round pick Jourdan Lewis now on the team, and I am excited to see how Jones progresses and grows in his role as a safety. I am more than Excited to See the Expanded Role of the one, the only Jaylon Smith, who was a top 5 talent in the 2016 NFL Draft, but fell to the second round because of a gruesome knee injury that involved nerve damage. The former Golden Dommer had 284 tackles and 23.5 tackles for a loss in his three seasons in South Bend and showed sideline-to-sideline speed, so his recover from this injury and how the Cowboys bring him along is something to watch through camp and the preseason.
Defensive end Demarcus Lawrence is entering a Make or Break Year for The Cowboys. Lawrence couldn’t build upon his 2015 season, in which he had eight sacks. He was suspended for the first four games of 2016 for violating the substance abuse policy of the NFL and he only recorded one sack, while undergoing offseason back surgery in January. If Lawrence is healthy, he will have the opportunity to make an early impression, with Taco Charlton being a rookie and Gregory and Irving being suspended to open the season. Lawrence will be a free agent at the end of the year, so returning to 2015 form would behoove him.
[dt_divider style=”thick” /]Philadelphia Eagles
Rookie Who is Needed Early: Rasul Douglas
Players Who Needs to Develop Quickly: Issac Seumalo and Jalen Mills
Veteran Who May be Ready to Decline: LeGarrette Blount
Most Intriguing to Study: Timmy Jernigan
Excited About Expanded Role: Torrey Smith
Make or Break Year for the Team: Nelson Agholor
With new head coach Doug Pederson running the show and a new face to the franchise, rookie Carson Wentz, Philadelphia was ready for the new era of Eagles football in 2016. The team finished last in the division, despite showing promise in the strong NFC East. The offense couldn’t surround their rookie signal caller with sufficient weapons, but now that Howie Roseman is calling the shots again, weapons were provided. Alshon Jeffery (22.5% target share for Bears) was signed to a one-year deal and I am Excited About the Expanded Role for Torrey Smith (13.4% target share), who signed a three-year, $15MM deal. Smith was an important part of the Ravens super-bowl winning offense, but he was somewhat lost in San Francisco the last two seasons, so I am excited to see how he is utilized alongside Jefferey and Nelson Agholor (12.2 % target share), who is in a Make or Break Year with the Eagles. Agholor needs to show this coaching staff, whom did not draft the young receiver, that he is reliable and confident. Agholor has struggled with inconsistency and drops through his first two seasons. He must earn his keep and prove to the Eagles that they don’t need to heavily pursue other talent to potentially replace Jefferey, who is set to be a free agent in 2018.
Super-Bowl champion running back, LeGarrette Blount, was signed to a one-year deal, worth up to $2.8MM this offseason, and he is a Veteran Who May Be Ready to Decline. The 30-year-old running back had a career year with 299 carries for 1,161 yards (3.9 YPC) and 18 rushing touchdowns in New England. Blount accomplished these statistics on a Patriots offense that became very familiar with the red zone and often faced favorable fronts between the 20s, due to the Patriots plethora of receiving weapons. Blount will be a short yardage specialist for the Eagles, but 18 touchdowns is not attainable and is an anomaly in Blount’s career. One thing that will help the offense, and Blount, is the Eagles offensive line, which was rated #1 in the NFL by Pro Football Focus. The unit returns mostly intact, besides left guard Alan Barbre, who was traded to Denver. Issac Seumalo is expected to be the starter and is a Player Who Needs to Develop Quickly. The 23-year-old should earn the starting job in training camp and his quick feet and understanding of angles should help him prevail in Pederson’s zone blocking scheme.
Any defense lead by Jim Schwartz is a defense that I love to watch, but the Eagles cornerbacks seem to be their Achilles heel. The unit is raw and filled with youth. Rasul Douglas, a 3rd round pick out of West Virginia, is a Rookie Who is Needed Early. Sidney Jones will not be available early in the season, if at all this year, and another player Who Must Develop Quickly is 2nd year corner Jalen Mills. Both Douglas and Mills join free agent addition Patrick Robinson to form one of the thinnest defensive units in football. Luckily for Philadelphia, Rodney McCloud and Malcolm Jenkins is one of the better safeties duos in the game. Schwartz runs combinations of zone and man coverage concepts, while relying on front four pressure from a wide-9 alignment: Curry, Barnett, Long, and Graham can provide that pressure, but the development of Mills and Douglas is imperative; especially in a division that features Odell Beckham, Dez Bryant, Brandon Marshall, and Terrelle Pryor.
The addition of defensive lineman Timmy Jernigan did not get much recognition, but is very valuable to the Eagles. I am very Intrigued to Study Timmy Jernigan in Schwartz’s attacking 4-3 system. Alongside Fletcher Cox, who played over 50% of the snaps at three technique last season, Jernigan will apply pressure from all over the defensive line and I wouldn’t be surprised if Jernigan is signing a big contract come 2018
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[dt_divider style=”thick” /]Washington
Rookie Who is Needed Early: Jonathan Allen
Players Who Needs to Develop Quickly: Su’a Cravens and Terrelle Pryor
Veteran Who May be Ready to Decline: Terrell McClain
Most Intriguing to Study: Samaje Perine
Excited About Expanded Role: Jamison Crowder
Make or Break Year for the Team: Ryan Grant
Since the calendar year ended, there hasn’t been a team with more dysfunction than Washington. The departure of former general manager Scott McCloughan and the Kirk Cousins’ contact situation has left a stain on the organization’s already flawed reputation under owner Daniel Snyder. Coveted offensive coordinator Sean McVay accepted the head coaching job of the Los Angeles Rams and two 1,000-yard receivers from 2016 don different uniforms. Washington’s run defense struggled mightily last season allowing the ninth most yards against, but to Washington’s credit (and with a little bit of luck), Jonathan Allen fell to their pick at 17, and they didn’t hesitate. Allen is a Rookie Who is Needed Early and will bring his football intelligence and excellent hand usage to the nation’s capital, while helping to replace the departed Chris Baker. Baker, who was a respected two-way player for Washington, signed a three-year, $15.75MM deal with the Buccaneers. Washington precariously replaced him by signing former Cowboy Terrell McClain to a four-year, $21MM deal this offseason. The 29-year-old journeyman is a Veteran Who May be Ready to Decline. He has only played a significant role once in his six-year career, while recording 4.5 sacks over that span of time.
2016 Second round pick, Su’a Cravens, is a Player Who Needs to Develop Quickly for the Redskins. The hybrid linebacker/safety played in 11 games, while only going over 50% of the defensive snaps twice. In the offseason, Cravens has said that he’s going to focus on developing as a true safety instead of an inside linebacker. Cravens’s athleticism and size would gravely help Washington’s secondary, so expediting his development is valuable. Another Player Who Needs to Develop Quickly for his new team is Terrelle Pryor (25.3% target share with Browns). The former Buckeye quarterback made an impressive transition to receiver and even posted a 1,000 plus yard season in 2016, but he is still relatively raw and needs some refinement. Pryor, who is no longer under the tutelage of Hue Jackson, will be working with new offensive coordinator Matt Cavanaugh. There could be a learning curve for the receiver, but with Pierre Garcon (19.2% target share) and DeSean Jackson (17.9% target share) gone there are plenty of targets available in Washington. Some of these targets will be funneled to the successful slot receiver Jamison Crowder (16.7% target share), who will be in an Expanded Role for Washington’s offense. He should continue to thrive underneath and provide security for Kirk Cousins.
I am very Intrigued to Study 4th round running back Samaje Perine’s running style under Bill Callahan’s predominate gap scheme.
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Perine is a 5’11” 233-pound power back that can grow with this impressive young offensive line that includes Brandon Scherff, Trent Williams, and Morgan Moses. Coaches darling, Ryan Grant, enters a Make or Break Year. Grant has been lauded by Washington’s coaching staff for his route running and consistency. In three seasons, Grant has 39 career receptions to his name, so 2017 will be a big year for Grant as he looks for a new contract. 2016 first round pick, Josh Doctson, has significantly struggled to stay healthy and he must prove that he can stay on the field. Grant has a legitimate shot as the number three receiver in Jay Gruden’s offense.