Examining the critical issue for each NFC East team

Examining the critical issue for each NFC East team

You could make a strong case from head to toe, the NFC East is the best division in the NFL. Some may argue the NFC South, but in these parts, we are locked in on the division the Eagles call home. So let’s dive deep into the No. 1 issue for each team entering the 2017 season.

Eagles: Pass rush
We begin, naturally, with the Eagles. As has been Howie Roseman’s style since his return from exile, it was an extremely busy offseason for his club. Alshon Jeffery, Torrey Smith and Ronald Darby were added to the team that went 7-9 last season. All are major upgrades from what inhabited those positions last year. 

So while I fully expect Carson Wentz and the Birds' offense to be much improved, the key to the season lies with the men up front on defense. Pass rush is the name of the game if the Eagles want to reach their first postseason since 2013. Jim Schwartz's unit was tied for 16th in the NFL in sacks – and middle of the pack isn't going to cut it again this year. A strong pass rush cures a lot of ills, specifically a secondary that, despite the addition of Darby, has major questions at cornerback. 

The NFC East is loaded with talent at receiver, not to mention the Eagles' out-of-division foes. Fletcher Cox and Timmy Jernigan will be a force inside, but the Eagles' defensive ends need to get to the QB. If that group, including rookie Derek Barnett – the best natural pass rusher of the lot – delivers, the Eagles are a playoff team.

Cowboys: Elliott's suspension
The Cowboys have a lot of talent on offense, but Ezekiel Elliott is the straw that stirs Jerry Jones' Johnny Walker Blue. A judge blocked Elliott's six-game suspension Friday that will set the stage for the battle to play out in court. If Elliott ends up on the wrong end of a final verdict and has to miss games, what is the trickle-down effect on the rest of that offense? Dak Prescott was great in his rookie year, but he attempted only 459 passes. Compare that to Wentz's 607, and you see the impact the NFL’s leading rusher had on the entire unit. Prescott had a 23/4 touchdown-to-interception ratio last year. An ineffective run game could cause him to throw more and increase the odds of a turnover. 

Giants: Running game
Much like the Cowboys, the Giants' return to the postseason could hinge on their running game. New York spent lavishly and wisely on defense heading into last season and it paid off in a big way. But the Giants ranked 29th in rushing. Can Paul Perkins or rookie Wayne Gallman become a consistent force? And perhaps the bigger issue is can their offensive line open up the holes? Eli Manning is now 36, and despite excellent weapons to throw to, a balance will be the key for Old Man Eli.

Redskins: New-look wideouts
To the Birds' opponent Sunday, the Redskins. They lost two productive receivers in DeSean Jackson and Pierre Garcon. No one in the NovaCare Complex is shedding any tears over their departures (see story). Now in their place for the Redskins is a much bigger and stronger pairing in Terrelle Pryor and Josh Doctson. The question is can Pryor, the converted quarterback who burst onto the scene last year in Cleveland and signed a surprisingly low one-year deal, deliver in his new surroundings? And what kind of leap can Doctson, who played in just two games his rookie year because of an Achilles injury, make now that he’s a starter?  

Week 1 prediction: The Eagles beat the Redskins, 24-22, in a game that will come down to the final possession.           

More money might not be enough to keep Chris Long in Philly

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More money might not be enough to keep Chris Long in Philly

The Eagles have given veteran defensive end Chris Long a raise, but according to one report, Long is concerned enough about his playing time with the Eagles that he's mulling his options regarding his future.

What is certain is that at some point before March 15, Long signed a new contract with the Eagles that increases his 2018 base salary from $1 million non-guaranteed to $2½ million fully guaranteed.

However, NFL Network's Michael Silver reported Monday that Long may decide he doesn't want to accept the new contract — which he already signed.

According to Silver, Long is concerned about how many snaps he would get as a third-down rusher following the addition of Pro Bowl pass rusher Michael Bennett.

The Eagles officially acquired Bennett on March 14, although the deal was reported a week earlier. Long's new contract was filed with the NFLPA on March 15, but there is a good chance he agreed to it and signed it before the Bennett acquisition.

Whether or not Long knew Bennett was coming to the Eagles when he signed the restructured deal is unknown. But at some point Long knew about their interest in Bennett and even gave Bennett a "glowing recommendation" when the Eagles asked, according to an interview Long gave to SBNation.  

Long wouldn't appear to have many options. He could retire, in which case he would have to return the $500,000 bonus he received from the Eagles last week.

He could request a trade, which would be bizarre for someone who signed a contract extension just a few days earlier.

Or he could simply play under the terms of the contract restructure and pay increase, which was first reported by Field Yates of ESPN and confirmed by NBC Sports Philadelphia with a source familiar with the renegotiation.

As for the contract itself, including that $500,000 roster bonus — which was also in the previous version of the contract — Long would receive $3 million guaranteed this year instead of $1.5 million non-guaranteed plus $750,000 in easily achieved roster bonuses.

Long had five sacks and forced four fumbles last year as a rotational defensive end. He wound up playing 496 snaps, 10th-most on the defense and only about 10 per game fewer than starter and Pro Bowler Brandon Graham and five per game fewer than starter Vinny Curry, who the Eagles released.

Long, who turns 33 next week, has 63½ career sacks. His 5.0 sacks last year were his most since 2013. He's won back-to-back Super Bowls the last two years with the Eagles and Patriots.

What happens next?

Long has demonstrated that the money is secondary to him. He donated his entire 2017 base salary to charity.

At some point very soon, the Eagles will need him to decide whether he's even going to have a 2018 base salary.

Terrell Owens digs deep to find his Hall of Fame presenter

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Terrell Owens digs deep to find his Hall of Fame presenter

A day after we found out that Brian Dawkins picked Troy Vincent to introduce him at the Pro Football Hall of Fame induction ceremony this summer, Terrell Owens has picked his presenter. 

No surprise: It's not Donovan McNabb.

After alienating many people in the league throughout his tremendous career, Owens picked a name from his early days. Longtime NFL assistant coach George Stewart, who was Owens' receivers coach in San Francisco, will introduce T.O. at the 2018 induction. 

In a video released by the Hall of Fame, Owens said Stewart "knew what to get out of me."

Now special teams coordinator and assistant head coach for the Chargers, Stewart has been an NFL coach for three decades. He began his time in San Francisco in 1996 (Owens' rookie season) as a special teams coach but was their wide receivers coach from 2000-02.

"Things that George Stewart may say, it may be shocking to a lot of people, but not to him because he knows who I am," Owens said. "... To know who Terrell Owens is, you really have to spend some time with him. Fast forward, George Stewart became a father figure to me."

The first season Stewart became the 49ers' receivers coach, Owens went to his first of six Pro Bowls and was named an All-Pro for the first of five times in his career. Owens was a Pro Bowler and an All-Pro in all three of the seasons that Stewart held the position in San Francisco. 

Of course, Owens' growth under Stewart led to his becoming one of the biggest stars in the NFL.

Eventually, Owens forced his way out of San Francisco and got to Philadelphia. With the Eagles, Owens had a short and tumultuous two seasons, but was also dynamic on the field and nearly helped them pull off a Super Bowl win over the Patriots. 

Owens averaged 93.5 receiving yards per game during his time in Philadelphia, the highest average in franchise history. It wasn't his play that led to his downfall in Philly. It was his beef with McNabb, along with his attempt to strong-arm the Eagles into a new contract. 

Owens was a divisive personality for his entire career. It's likely the reason it took him three tries to make it into the Hall of Fame. Because his numbers don't lie: He's one of the best receivers of all time.