When you consider every division in the NFL, the NFC East is quite possibly the most entertaining and unpredictable of all. It seems that, year after year, all four teams in this division are doing everything in their power to keep things close, clinging onto slivers of playoff hope right up until Week 17. It's not always pretty, either, as Washington won the division last year with a mere 9-win season under their belt. Here's another fact that I find remarkable: Since 2008 (8 seasons total), every NFC East team has been crowned division champ twice. Injuries, suspensions, and dramatic endings all define these four teams, and in the eyes of a fantasy football GM, those are the main ingredients for a excitingly chaotic season.
*This particular series of articles is intended to break down every NFL team's 2016 offensive playmakers and discuss what impact they'll have on the wonderful world of Fantasy Football. In each divisional write-up, I predict player outlooks for the upcoming season by separating each team's offense into two parts: Passing Game + Running Game. I'll update each divisional article as news and reports surface, so don't forget to check back regularly.*
This team needs Tony Romo. It has has become so obvious in recent seasons that there simply isn't a more delicate way to phrase it, and the Dallas Cowboys have learned the hard way. In 2010, Romo broke his left clavicle and missed 10 games - the Cowboys finished 6-10. This past year, Romo had a myriad of clavicle woes en route to missing 12 games - the Cowboys finished 4-12. Still, Tony Romo is an upper-echelon QB in both fantasy and real life whenever he's on the field. Going into the 2016 season, he's a borderline top-12 QB with Dez on the outside. That is, until his clavicle breaks...
Dez Bryant is another one of the Cowboys' core difference-makers who battled injuries in 2015, and his numbers show just that. A foot injury that required surgery limited this superstar to only 9 games, only one of which he played an entire game with Romo throwing him the ball. Backups in Dallas just don't have the ability to utilize Dez and his uniquely physical skill set. A full 16-game season with Romo tossing him the ball would result in top-notch WR1 numbers, but injuries to either party would crumble his outlook once again: High risk, high reward.
In his absence, Terrance Williams stepped in and finished 2015 with a 52-840-3 receiving line, placing him more in the WR4 range than WR3. With Dez back, he won't be improving upon those numbers. Cole Beasley is a small-framed, chain-moving receiving option with sure hands out of the slot. He can be a valuable in deeper PPR leagues, but he's not on the standard format radar. One WR to keep an eye on is Brice Butler. A sneaky athlete who was hindered by injury in 2015, he could easily make some big plays on this thin depth chart.
Last but not least, good ol' reliable Jason Witten is coming off a 700-yard campaign and heading into his 14th rodeo in 2016. Unable to top 1000 receiving yards since 2012, Witten obviously isn't what he used to be. Still, he's one of the most injury-proof players in NFL history; Witten trails only only Eli Manning and Philip Rivers in consecutive games started among active players - 147 and counting. One has to wonder how much gas he has left in the tank, but in such a shallow position, perhaps Witten can still provide borderline TE1 numbers in 2016 with a healthy Romo.
The Cowboys' backfield always seems to find itself in the spotlight, and this offseason is no exception. In this year's draft, Jerry Jones went ahead and took Ezekiel Elliot with the 4th overall pick, signifying a tremendous amount of confidence in the rookie from Ohio State. Right after being drafted, it seemed that Elliot would have to earn a starting role during the season by outplaying Dallas' veteran RBs. While that still might hold true, Zeke has had an easier early path to stardom after Darren McFadden broke his elbow and is expected to return in mid-August. With the Cowboys' 2015 workhorse shelved til then, Elliot can soak up more first team reps before the season and catapult his way to the hefty role many are expecting him to achieve. With immense talent and seemingly untapped upside, Zeke should prove to be a solid RB1 by the end of his rookie year. However, I believe Elliot will have to show and prove his abilities in the early parts of the season before being promoted to bellcow duties - something he can certainly do. He's currently dealing with a domestic abuse investigation, but assuming he's off the hook, Zeke should be one of the first five runners selected in your fantasy league.
Darren McFadden came in behind Dallas' elite O-Line and rattled off 1400+ yards from scrimmage last season, much of it without a healthy supporting cast (Romo & Dez). Regardless of his stellar offensive line, if DMC was able to put up those numbers with Matt Cassel and Kellen Moore at the helm, it's clear that he can still produce at an above-average level. Before injuring his elbow, McFadden looked primed for a meaningful workload until Elliot grew into the offense, but now he's likely serve as a change-of-pace handcuff for Zeke. While Elliot learns the playbook and acclimates himself with the offense early on, McFadden should still retain a moderate role for the Cowboys when he returns, which should be in time for Week 1. As a veteran receiving back with solid pass protection skills, he should be drafted as a valuable fantasy handcuff for Elliot owners in 2016.
Don't worry, I didn't completely forget about Alfred Morris, who was signed by Dallas after his career-worst season in Washington. After recording 751 rushing yards, a 3.7 YPC mark, and a measly 1 touchdown, it's safe to say Morris will be looking forward to a change of scenery in Dallas. Before the selection of Elliot in this year's draft, Morris was on track to compete with McFadden for every-game touches behind the league's premier offensive line. Worst case scenario, he would have been a handcuff for an injury-prone starter. Now, with Elliot in town, Morris is trying to seize the backup job from DMC while he recovers from surgery until August. Still, with a year of productive experience in Dallas, I'm giving McFadden the nod even if he sits out until the regular season. Morris looks like a late-round flier that will only get a few carries per game when everyone is healthy.
New York Giants
In a season that the Giants racked up the 8th highest net total yards on offense with the 6th most points in the NFL, New York could pick up only 6 wins versus their 10 losses. Still, in the NFC East, they were in the hunt and competitive until the last whistle of the season. Eli Manning has elevated his play in recent years with Ben McAdoo as the offensive coordinator. With Tom Coughlin out the door this off-season, McAdoo steps in as the Head Coach of the NY Giants. Manning is coming off a career-high 35 TD campaign that saw him throw for over 4400 yards. With at least a few good years left in him, Eli has the looks of a mid-to-low range QB1 in 2016.
The offensive scheme adjustment isn't the only thing that has revived Manning's numbers after a mediocre 2012-2013 stretch, as the jaw-dropping Odell Beckham Jr. has exploded onto the NFL scene. The ex-LSU Tiger quickly rose to stardom both in real life and fantasy football alike, making seemingly unthinkable grabs to go along with sprinter speed in the open field. He has the talent to challenge anybody in the league for the top scoring skill player in fantasy football, making him a sure-fire top 3 wideout, and an easy first round pick in any draft format.
The wideout who will look to step in and take some pressure off Odell is rookie WR Sterling Shepard. A lot of buzz has been circulating around this former Sooner, and there is some serious justification. He's an all-around receiver that racked up almost 1300 yards and 11 TDs in his last season at Oklahoma. Although lacking in height, his speed, route-running, and solid hands will surely give him every chance to become the Giants' second wideout. With ODB drawing attention on the other side of the field, he could easily approach WR3 value as a rookie.
After two stellar seasons in 2011 and 2012, Victor Cruz has struggled mightily to stay on the field. He's had a myriad of serious injuries to the lower body, including a brutal patellar tendon injury to pair with his already-woeful calves. It would be a great comeback story in 2016, but even if he's up to full speed heading into camp, he'll still only be worth a late-round gamble.
After playing only half the 2015 season, the always-underwhelming Larry Donnell is off the fantasy map for me. Will Tye, who filled in for Donnell, is a better overall tight end who comes with a bit more upside for fantasy purposes. An undrafted free agent signing last season, Tye should have the edge over Donnell for Eli Manning's top tight end option. Still, he's nothing more than a TE2 lottery ticket late in fantasy drafts.
Led by Rashad Jennings' 863 yards and 3 total TDs, the Giants were below-average in terms of running the ball last season, finishing 19th in the NFL in rushing yards (1609). Throwing the ball is clearly what the G-Men prefer to do on offense, and a backfield that rosters zero RBs with 900+ yards in a season is a backfield that fantasy owners can forget about in the early rounds of their draft. Jennings should enter the season as the starter, but he's a relatively injury-prone player without a 900-yard campaign on his resumé - no more than a lackluster RB3/4 in my books.
In 2015, the Giants also trotted out the ineffective Andre Williams and receiving back Shane Vereen. After averaging 3.3 and 2.9 yards per carry in his first two years, Williams shouldn't even be on the roster when the season starts. Vereen is an interesting option in PPR leagues, coming off a 59-catch season with 495 yards and 4 TDs. He also added 260 yards on the ground, but he's not your traditional running back. Never surpassing 5 touchdowns or 400 rushing yards in a season, Vereen won't be much of an asset in standard scoring leagues.
Although the Giants are telling us he won't be heavily involved during his rookie season, Paul Perkins out of UCLA is a "complete" back, according to NY's team sources. If he catches fire in the preseason or needs to fill in for an injured R. Jennings at some point this year, I think Perkins will definitely carry the highest upside of Giants' running backs. Jennings is average, Vereen is a receiver, and Williams is totally ineffective. Add all of that up, and Paul Perkins is a quality roll of the dice later on in your fantasy football draft.
As it stands, new HC Doug Pederson is calling Sam Bradford "the guy" heading into 2016. Well-known for his injury-proneness, Bradford has never lacked arm talent, but he simply can't stay on the field thus far in his career. In 2015, he played in 14 games and threw for 3725 yards, but his 19:14 TD to INT ratio was unimpressive and his value as a fantasy QB never came to fruition. He reached the 3-TD mark in only one game all year, and couldn't even manage to finish as a top 20 fantasy Quarterback. Bradford will be hard-pressed to perform like anything better than a low-end QB2 in 2016, rendering him a mere waiver wire option in leagues that don't use two QBs. Drafted second overall in this year's draft, Carson Wentz undoubtedly has more upside at this point of their careers, but even if he makes a few starts this year, it's hard to see him being any more useful of a fantasy player than Bradford. He'll need injuries and an impressive preseason to make starts in 2016.
After being drafted as a borderline WR1 in many leagues, Jordan Matthews started off 2015 sluggishly and never really hit his stride until weeks 12-17, where "J-Matt" hauled in 30 balls for 430 yards and 6 TDs. If he were to pace that for a 16-game season, he'd have a whopping 80-1146-16 receiving line. While the 16 TDs are probably out of the question, he has WR2 upside and currently has an undervalued ADP of WR31.
Now in Philly, Reuben Randle was a regular underachiever with the Giants, but he should get a chance at the starting job across from Matthews. If everything breaks right, Randle has decent upside in fantasy, but his inconsistency in the past makes him nothing more than a late-round dart throw. Perhaps a more comforting scenario for the Eagles would be if Nelson Agholor, heading into his second season out of USC, could take hold of the No.2 WR job. In 13 games last year, Agholor failed to surpass 300 receiving yards and netted only a single score. Still, as a well-polished youngster with upside, he's worth a WR4/5 bench spot in most leagues.
Is it just me, or does Stanford product Zach Ertz has the looks of a stud tight end in the making? With 35 catches for 450 yards and a touchdown over the last four games, Ertz finished 2015 on an absolute tear and was rewarded with a fat contract this off-season. A young talent in a shallow position who the Eagles should be dead-set on heavily targeting this year, Zach Ertz has all the tools to finish 2016 as a mid-range TE1.
Chip Kelly's high-paced running attack is no longer in Philly, which means a decline in rushing attempts is inevitable. With the Demarco Murray project a complete fail, the Eagles will surely have a new-look backfield in 2016. Ryan Mathews is usually very effective in limited doses, but he's too brittle of a player to be a true workhorse back. Although he heads into this season with a tentative grip on the starting job, I can't see it lasting for the entire year. He's currently being ranked and drafted as a borderline RB2 on most sites, but I see him more of a risky RB3 who is being overvalued by many.
Darren Sproles is 33 year old a change-of-pace RB who shouldn't be on many fantasy radars this season. Although his passing game role won't completely disappear, it is sure to diminish. His YPC and YPR both went down by at least two full yards from 2014 to 2015, and now the Eagles drafted a talented young runner out of WVU by the name of Wendell Smallwood.
The Big 12's leading rusher last season, Smallwood landed in an ideal spot for his fantasy football outlook. With a fragile Mathews and aging Sproles in front of him on the depth chart, it really wouldn't surprise me if he ended 2016 as the Eagles' leading fantasy scorer. Currently, his ADP is outside of the top 50 for his position, a draft stock he'll surely outperform. A speedy rookie who showed between-the-tackles ability at WVU, I'm on the Wendell Smallwood bandwagon and it won't be shocking to see him enter the RB3 discussion at some point this season.
After RG III rose to Redskin fame and then flopped emphatically, Kirk Cousins took over the starting Quarterback job in Washington before last season began. He proceeded to severely outplay expectations en route to a top 10 fantasy QB performance. Throwing for 4166 yards and 29 touchdowns, Kirk also scored 5 times with his feet, showing sneaky versatility near the goal line. His 11 INTs were perfectly acceptable, so if he could bring up his passing TD total by a small amount, Cousins would be worthy of QB1 consideration on a weekly basis. I'm going to temper my confidence for 2016, as the rushing TDs seemed a bit fluky. Still, I see him as a borderline top-12 fantasy QB in most matchups.
His weapons in the passing game should be even better this season after drafting TCU WR Josh Doctson in the first round of the NFL draft. Doctson is a high-flying receiver with great hands, immediately making him a target in the red zone. If he can quickly learn the Redskins' playbook, he should creep up the depth chart with a chance of consistent snaps. Doctson is obviously a riskier fantasy selection than D-Jax and Garcon, but he comes with plenty of upside.
DeSean Jackson is coming off a disappointing 2015, where durability issues limited him to only 9 games played. Nevertheless, J-Jax still has game-breaking speed and should see softer downfield coverage with Doctson's arrival and a big weapon at the tight end position. Even with his nagging injuries last year, which led him to the worst statistics in his 8-year NFL career, Jackson was still on pace for a respectable 940 yards and 7 touchdowns. Those numbers would have made him a top-30 fantasy WR in 2015. With an improved Kirk Cousins throwing him the ball, I look for Jackson to match those totals in 2016 with a chance for more.
Playing in a full 16-game campaign, Pierre Garcon had only 249 more yards and 2 more TDs than Jackson. Averaging less than 50 yards per game with only 6 TDs in 2015, he's a WR4 with predominantly possession receiver traits. His value might be limited to deeper PPR leagues this season.
The best pass-catcher in Washington may not be a true wideout by position, but he sure plays like one of the league's best receivers. Jordan Reed, had he not missed 2 games last year, would have surpassed 1000 receiving yards with ease in 2015 to go along with his 11 scores. As Kirk Cousins' preferred target in the passing game, I label the fourth-year tight end from Florida as a legitimate top-3 fantasy option at his position. Health is the only glaring risk factor with Reed, albeit a major one, as he's yet to play a full NFL season.
With the departure of Alfred Morris, there are 200+ carries up for grab in 2016. Although, Morris didn't exactly impress anyone last year after a career-worst season in basically every statistic, so his absence might not be as damaging to the Redskins as originally thought. Next in line for work is Matt Jones, the second-year back from Florida. His rookie season wasn't overly impressive, as he dealt with a hip injury while averaging a subpar 3.4 yards per carry. Still, he showed flashes of being an effective runner in the NFL and added 304 receiving yards to his 490 rushing yards, totaling 793 yards from scrimmage in a year he that he touched the ball 49 times less than "Alf". His 4 lost fumbles are certainly an area that needs polished, but with little to no competition for touches heading into training camp, Matt Jones has the looks of a workhorse in Washington. A veteran RB signing could tick his value down a tiny bit, but as it stands now, he should be able to provide RB3 value right away with 15+ attempts per game, and could certainly slide into RB2 territory early in the season if he's more successful at toting the rock on a per-carry basis.
Speaking of the minuscule RB competition in Washington, the only other players worth mentioning are Chris Thompson and rookie Keith Marshall. Doing most of his work in the receiving game, Thompson is a deeper-league option in PPR formats and could have respectable value if Jones misses time. Georgia product Keith Marshall has serious jets (4.31 40-time at the combine), but isn't a guarantee to make an impact in 2016. If he can make a splash in the preseason, Marshall could be worth a late-round dart throw. As of now, he still needs to prove himself to Washington's coaching staff.