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NFC East Notebook: Major questions surrounding each team as training camp wraps up

With one preseason game left, let’s dive into the headlines from around the division

NFL: Cincinnati Bengals at Washington Football Team Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

With one preseason game left on the schedule, looking ahead to the start of the 2021 season is inevitable.

For the NFC East in particular, that desire to look forward might be stronger than most. The division was the worst in football last year as no team finished above .500 and they became the joke of the league. For the Dallas Cowboys, New York Giants, Philadelphia Eagles and Washington Football Team, this upcoming season is about re-establishing credibility.

ESPN ranked all eight NFL division this past week from the best to worst. The NFC East, perhaps surprisingly, did not come in last. They are ranked seventh ahead of the AFC South.

Here is an excerpt:

The Cowboys should field an elite offense, but there are major questions on the defensive side of the ball, where they were abysmal last season. Washington should field an elite defense, but it is counting on the addition of Ryan Fitzpatrick at quarterback to elevate the offense. Fitzpatrick has a career 1.32 touchdown-to-interception ratio and has never — not once in 16 seasons — played on a team that reached the playoffs...The seasons for the Giants and Eagles depend almost entirely on the extent to which their young quarterbacks make a jump.

While every team in the NFC East should improve this season, the bigger question is whether or not these teams will be competitive outside of their own division. All four teams collectively won 11 games against non-division opponents last season and it was those victories that proved to be the difference.

Now, let’s consider the major question marks that surround each team as training camp concludes. Remember, each team will have to trim its roster down to 53 players by next Tuesday.

Washington Football Team

Major questions as training camp wraps up:

  • Can Ryan Fitzpatrick lead this team to the playoffs?
  • Can the offense improve enough to keep the team competitive in games?

Training camp and preseason games are, of course, not accurate predictors of how a team is going to perform in the regular season - but both can provide insight.

Through two preseason games, Washington’s offense has not scored a touchdown. Fitzpatrick has participated in six drives and engineered a total of three points. It’s not an encouraging look for an offense that ranked in the bottom 10 of the league in every offensive category last season.

Fitzpatrick’s take?

“I don’t really put much stock into it,” Fitzpatrick said to the local media this week. ”When we get into the season, we’re going to rely more on certain playmakers, we’re going to have certain schemes. There’s just different things we’ll do. It’d be nice to be able to do some of that stuff in the preseason but I don’t think it’s that big of a deal right now.”

He’s right. It’s not a big deal - yet. But Washington’s backup QB situation is not exactly comforting. Playoff hero Taylor Heinicke has played in just eight regular-season games in his three-year career and Kyle Allen has never completed a full season, playing in four games last season before missing the remaining games due to injury.

Fitzpatrick has not looked particularly accurate in his limited preseason appearances, but that may not be cause for concern for a signal caller who is about to enter his 17th NFL season. The Football Team is betting on the value of experience as they hope to see some “Fitzmagic” on the field next season.

Dallas Cowboys

Major question as training camp wraps up:

  • Is the defense strong enough to keep the team competitive in games?

Meanwhile in Dallas, the concern is on the other side of the ball after a historically bad performance by the defense in 2020. Our colleague at Blogging the Boys, Aidan Davis, put together a projection of just how good the Dallas defense needs to be in order for the team to be successful next season.

Blogging the Boys

When Dak Prescott went down with an injury in Week 5 of last season, the Cowboys were averaging 32.6 points per game. Aidan used a more conservative number as an estimate for this exercise, reducing Dallas’ points per game to 28.6 in 2021. The main takeaway is that because of this scoring production, the defense only needs to improve slightly.

Based on this projection, if the defense allows 23 points per game next season - an average amount - the team will win about 11 games. The projection is also based off of the assumption that the Cowboys will be a top-10 offense next season, which they are expected to be.

While there are many unpredictable factors in this study, it’s important for the NFC East at large to consider that a strong, Prescott-led offense might be enough to carry the Cowboys to the top of the division.

Philadelphia Eagles

Major questions as training camp wraps up:

Can first-year head coach Nick Sirianni turn the Eagles - a team that won just four games last season - around in 2021?

With Carson Wentz now in Indy, will Jalen Hurts be able to lead this offense?

Meanwhile, the Eagles are a very different team than when the Giants last saw them. Doug Pederson, who led the club to a Super Bowl victory in 2017, is gone and Carson Wentz, who was expected to be the franchise QB, is with the Colts.

This is Hurts’ year where he will prove whether or not he can be the Eagles’ long-term solution at quarterback. Because with potentially three-first round draft picks in the 2022 NFL Draft, Philly is well-positioned to draft a QB at the end of this season if Hurts is not their guy.

One of Hurts’ biggest tests will be reducing the turnovers. Between Wentz and Hurts, the Eagles turned the ball over 29 times despite recovering more than 70% of their offensive fumbles a year ago (the league average was 53.7%.), per ESPN. They finished with a turnover margin of minus-10 which was fourth-worst in the league. Meanwhile on the defensive side of the ball, Philly recorded just eight interceptions last season, which ranked 29th.

Based off of just four starts last season, it is difficult to know what to expect from Hurts in 2021. Time will tell how he responds to being Philly’s primary signal caller.