Terrelle Pryor

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.           

DeSean Jackson, Pierre Garcon gone, but Redskins still have weapons

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DeSean Jackson, Pierre Garcon gone, but Redskins still have weapons

The Redskins have won five straight games against the Eagles, but extending that streak to six Sunday is going to prove difficult without DeSean Jackson and Pierre Garcon.

Jackson and Garcon were two of the only constants for Washington’s offense during a winning streak that spans over parts of three seasons. Kirk Cousins was not the starting quarterback in 2014. Jordan Reed was a little-known tight end prospect at the time, and slot receiver Jamison Crowder was still in college. That first win over the Eagles was so long ago, running back Alfred Morris was still fantasy-relevant.

But Jackson and Garcon were the wide receivers through it all, accounting for nearly 50 percent of Washington’s production through the air during the streak. And now, both players are gone, departing for greener pastures as free agents – Jackson to Tampa Bay, Garcon to San Francisco.

The Eagles couldn’t be more thrilled by those developments.

“I'm not sorry to see [Garcon] gone,” Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz said. “DeSean, the same way. They've replaced those guys and moved up draft picks and things like that, but I think that I'm not going to be disappointed not to see those guys on the field.”

You could always count on one or both of them giving the Eagles fits. In the last five meetings, Jackson and Garcon accounted for 40 percent of Washington’s completed passes (44), 47 percent of the receiving yards (655), and 50 percent of touchdown catches (8).

“Those two were great receivers,” Redskins coach Jay Gruden said. “They had both over 1,000 yards (in 2016). DeSean had big-play ability, and obviously, Pierre’s deep-end ability were very good for us.”

It’s not as if the Redskins aren’t trying to replace them. The concern in Washington is whether Terrelle Pryor and Josh Doctson are up to the task and if those changes threaten to alter the entire look of the offense.

Washington certainly added more size on the perimeter. Jackson is listed at 5-foot-10, 175 pounds; Garcon, 6-0, 211. Pryor is 6-4, 228 pounds; Doctson, 6-2, 206.

As Eagles cornerback Jalen Mills astutely observed: “You can’t teach height.

“It’s a lot different trying to go at DeSean Jackson than the guys they have because he was just a natural sprinter, so for sure, it’s a lot different,” Mills said.

“I think they’ll definitely use [Pryor and Doctson] differently just because of the body types. Some guys do good things better than others. DeSean, he was a streaker. Garcon was a big, strong guy. You have different body types from last year to now, so I think they’re just going to use those guys the best way they can.”

What Washington’s offense gained in stature, it might be losing in big-play ability. With 57 receptions of 40 yards or more in nine NFL seasons, Jackson is one of the league’s preeminent deep threats. His speed forces opponents to defend every blade of grass on the field.

As the Eagles found out firsthand after Jackson’s release in 2014, his presence changes the game. Now, Washington is counting on Pryor to instill the same fear in defensive backs and coordinators.

“He runs a 4.3 (in the 40-yard dash),” Gruden said. “He’s 6-foot-5. I think he can stretch the field. It’s just a matter of him getting into the system and becoming comfortable with Kirk.”

The Redskins signed Pryor to a free-agent contract in March.

“They’re different-type receivers, these big receivers with the long strides,” Gruden said. “They run a lot faster than it looks, so it just takes a little bit of time for us to get used to each other. We’re going through that right now, but he definitely can stretch the field.”

For what it’s worth, Eagles safety Malcolm Jenkins still thinks Washington is going to try to push the ball downfield and agrees Pryor has that ability (see five matchups to watch).

“Their offense has always been built on that, even when it was D-Jack and Garcon,” Jenkins said. “Terrelle Pryor is still someone who can stretch the field. He’s a long strider who can cover a lot of ground, so he’s probably going to be the guy to take the top off and allow Crowder to work underneath. I don’t see that part of their game changing.”

Even conceding Pryor and Doctson are big and can run fast, there is a massive drop-off in experience from Jackson and Garson as well.

Jackson is a three-time Pro Bowl selection, and Garcon averaged 70 receptions and 880 yards over the last eight seasons. A converted quarterback, Pryor eclipsed 1,000 yards receiving for the first time last season with the Browns, where he was the offense’s only viable weapon, and Doctson – a first-round draft pick in 2016 – has two career receptions.

At the very least, Pryor and Doctson are an unknown, and Washington’s offense will be entering uncharted territory when it takes the field in Week 1. The lack of continuity alone could cause problems getting out of the gate – never mind Jackson’s and Garcon’s outsized roles in beating the Eagles in the past.

Fantasy implications in Eagles' Week 1 matchup with Redskins

Fantasy implications in Eagles' Week 1 matchup with Redskins

If you have Kareem Hunt, Tyreek Hill or Mike Gillislee in fantasy, you're off to a great start heading into the first NFL Sunday of the season. (Here's a crazy stat on Hunt.)

Each week, we'll take a look at the Eagles and their opponent from a fantasy perspective to help with any lineup-related decisions.

Obviously, Alshon Jeffery is a must-start, but what should we expect in his Eagles debut? Which Redskins are in position to feast this Sunday?

We'll evaluate the key players on a matchup scale from 1 to 5 stars:

WR Alshon Jeffery
Jeffery is likely to get a heavy dose of Josh Norman in Week 1. When they last matched up on Christmas Eve 2016, Jeffery caught 5 of 10 targets for 92 yards, including a 37-yarder. 

As Doug Pederson said earlier this week, neither player won the matchup but both had their moments.

Obviously, Jeffery is playing with a better quarterback than he had last season in Chicago. And because his size always makes him a threat in the red zone, one play could allow him to overcome a tough matchup on any given week.

Jeffery has a 3-inch and 18-pound advantage on Norman. But Norman is used to holding in check bigger opponents, and last season he allowed completions on just 45 of 84 targets (53.6 percent).

Because the Eagles have other weapons that match up well with the Redskins' weaknesses, this might not be an explosive debut for Jeffery.

Matchup: 3 stars

Projected Jeffery stat line: 5 catches, 80 yards, 0 TD

• • •

TE Jordan Reed
Reed is a monster when healthy and was Kirk Cousins' favorite target even when he had DeSean Jackson and Pierre Garçon. Reed doesn't have huge numbers against the Eagles because he's had so much trouble staying on the field, but he did destroy them two meetings ago with 9 catches, 129 yards and two TDs on Dec. 26, 2015.

Reed last season missed four games altogether and played sparingly in three others. But in his nine healthiest games, he averaged 7 catches for 70 yards and scored five touchdowns.

Cousins especially likes to involve Reed early in games. Last season, 38 of his 53 catches came in the first half. The year before, when he scored a career-high 11 TDs, he had his most receptions (25), yards (300) and touchdowns (4) in the first quarter.

In 2016, the Eagles' defense actually surrendered the fewest catches (44) and yards (414) to opposing tight ends. The flip side of that fact, though, is that they didn't face many good tight ends. They saw Kyle Rudolph and Jimmy Graham — and that was pretty much it. Reed missed one of the meetings and barely played in the other. 

Matchup: 4 stars

Projected Reed stat line: 7 catches, 90 yards, TD

• • •

TE Zach Ertz
The Redskins last season were so, so, so much worse against tight ends than the Eagles were.

TEs vs Eagles: 44 catches, 414 yards
TEs vs Redskins: 108 catches, 1,119 yards

You did not read that wrong. 

The last three seasons, Ertz has done little against the Redskins in the season's first meeting, then torched them in the second.

2014: 3 catches for 14 yards, then 15 catches for 115
2015: 2 catches for 11 yards, then 13 catches for 122
2016: 1 catch for 22 yards, then 10 catches for 112

The guess here is that the pattern changes in 2017 and Ertz opens up with a big game. The Redskins have a weak defense and won't be able to commit an over-the-top safety to Ertz much if at all. Why? Because the Eagles have a speed threat on one side in Torrey Smith, a deep threat on the other side in Jeffery, and Washington will have to stay home, especially in play-action situations, because of its shaky run defense.

Ertz's matchup: 4.5 stars
Projected Ertz stat line: 6 catches, 80 yards, 0.75 TDs

• • •

RB LeGarrette Blount
There might not be many great matchups for Blount this season because of the Eagles' crowded backfield, but this is one of them. 

Washington's run defense last season was abysmal. The 'Skins allowed 1,741 rushing yards (4.52 per carry) and 15 touchdowns to running backs. And, quite frankly, the run defense could be even worse this season. Chris Baker is now in Tampa Bay, and nose tackle Phil Taylor is out for the season. Washington will go with a weak front three of Jonathan Allen, Ziggy Hood and Stacy McGee. 

I like Blount to score a TD this week and have one of his better rushing afternoons of 2017.

Matchup: 3.5 stars 

Projected Blount stat line: 75 rushing yards, TD, 5 receiving yards

• • •

WR Terrelle Pryor, WR Jamison Crowder
Crowder has the better matchup this week, both because of the cornerback matchup and the fact that he has much more of a rapport with Cousins than Pryor.

Pryor finished with 1,007 receiving yards last season but his year wasn't as impressive as many think. He scored just once in his final 10 games, and in his last eight games averaged 4.5 catches for 59.5 yards. Those aren't even WR2 numbers in fantasy.

Pryor is playing with a better quarterback this year, so I do expect him to exceed last year's totals. But in Week 1, I'd rather be the Crowder fantasy owner than the Pryor fantasy owner.

In three-receiver sets, Crowder will likely spend much of his time in the slot against Patrick Robinson, a winnable matchup for the third-year WR. 

Crowder is listed as questionable for Sunday's game with a hip injury, but he expects to play.

Pryor matchup: 2.5 stars
Projected Pryor stat line: 4 catches, 52 yards

Crowder matchup: 3.5 stars
Projected Crowder stat line: 6 catches, 90 yards

• • •

RBs Rob Kelley, Chris Thompson
Kelley hurt the Eagles last season, rushing 21 times for 122 yards and a TD in the two meetings. When the Eagles and 'Skins first played on Oct. 16, he wasn't yet the feature back, but a 45-yard run late in that game helped push him up the depth chart.

Kelley had a couple huge games last season, notably the 137-yard, 3-TD performance vs. the Packers. But he also averaged less than 4.0 yards per carry in four of his final six games, which is why a lot of fantasy analysts are high on his backup, rookie Samaje Perine.

This isn't a great matchup for Kelley against a strong Eagles defensive line. Pass-catching back Chris Thompson could end up with the juicier stat line.

Kelley's matchup: 2 stars
Projected Kelley stat line: 45 rushing yards, 0 TD

Thompson's matchup: 3 stars
Projected Thompson stat line: 20 rushing yards, 4 catches, 45 receiving yards