Insiders

6 Things To Know About The NFC East

on

When the Philadelphia Eagles officially opened training camp over the weekend, it marked the last camp opening in the NFC East and the league.

So now it’s time for every team in the East and the NFL to get down to business and there will be plenty of storylines to follow at each training camp. Over the next several weeks, as camp rolls on toward the season, Football Insiders will be keeping you up to date with everything that’s going on throughout the league from coast to coast.

Right now, here are six things you need to know about the NFC East:

1) The lead running back job in Dallas is Joseph Randle’s to lose

The Dallas Cowboys opened their camp in Oxnard, Calif. last week and the biggest plot point so far has been at running back, where third-year back Joseph Randle has quickly emerged as the favorite to get the bulk of the carries for Dallas in 2015. Meanwhile, free agent acquisition Darren McFadden opened camp on the physically unable to perform list.

We probably should’ve seen this coming after the Cowboys not only let DeMarco Murray walk in free agency but then decided not to address their need at running back in the draft and took only a slight dip into the free agent pool by signing McFadden. But everyone seemed to be waiting for Dallas to make a trade or announce another signing that never came.

Truth is, the Cowboys like Randle a lot and there’s plenty of reason to believe the 2013 fifth round pick can be a breakout candidate this season. For one, there are the running lanes created by Dallas offensive line, the league’s most dominant. Randle also has the benefit of fresh legs. He carried the ball 564 times in three college seasons and over his first two NFL seasons he has just a shade over 100 touches. Murray carried the ball 436 times last season alone.

The third factor working in Randle’s favor is the production he’s already accumulated out of those limited NFL opportunities. The 23-year-old tallied 343 yards on just 51 carries last season, a 6.7 yards per carry average and he has shown a unique blend of vision and explosiveness that has Dallas salivating about what he might be able to do given more opportunities.

However, Randle isn’t without his drawbacks. His limited experience leaves some question marks about what Dallas can expect out of the running back in the long term. There’s also the matter of his growing off the field rap sheet. Last October, Randle was arrested for shoplifting, a charge for which he recently received a deferred adjudication. He was also involved in an incident in Wichita, Kansas this past February, which produced a drug charge that was later dropped.

The running back is now charged with proving he can stay out of trouble, but Dallas seems willing to give him every opportunity to redeem himself. Cowboys Executive Vice President and Director of Player Personnel Stephen Jones spoke highly of Randle at the outset of camp.

“When we did our homework on Joe, a lot of people thought Joe was one of the better backs they’d seen in a while in the Big 12,” he said. “Off the field he’s got to mature. He’s learned a lot this offseason, and according to the coaches they see a change.”

Dallas will likely keep their options open both by trying to get McFadden healthy and in terms of a possible free agent addition of Chris Johnson or Steven Jackson. But it seems likely right now that Randle will open the season as the lead back with a healthy McFadden and Lance Dunbar getting some carries as part of a Cowboys committee to replace Murray.

2) Sam Bradford looks the part of Eagles starting quarterback

Skill position battles are often the lead stories of camp, but the ones in the NFC East have gotten off to a pretty tame start. In Philadelphia, the talk after minicamp was of a wide open quarterback competition. But as the Eagles opened training camp over the weekend, Sam Bradford was getting all the reps with the first team, with no battle for the spot in sight.

That’s the way it should be if Bradford is ready to go, and so far he looks healthy. After all, the Eagles didn’t send Nick Foles to St. Louis for Bradford so he could ride the pine while Mark Sanchez starts. The former Rams quarterback is in the final year of his contract and set to make nearly $13 million in 2015, so if healthy, Bradford is the guy. He was always going to be the guy, regardless of what Philadelphia said about a competition.

Bradford was limited somewhat during OTAs and minicamp, but has come out no worse for wear after taking all the first team snaps over the first few days of camp.  Bradford only suffered his latest injury last August 23, so he’s less than a year removed from it making the fact he’s already able to fully participate in training camp an encouraging sign. Still, Philadelphia is taking it slow with their new quarterback and continually monitoring the status of his knee, with a plan in place to adjust if need be.

“We don’t have any restrictions in talking to the trainers and doctors on him right now,” Eagles coach Chip Kelly said Sunday. “If two days from now, something flares up, we’ll have to handle it. But right now, we are not anticipating a situation where we say, ‘Hey, he is going to practice today and tomorrow we’ll take him off.’ Right now he’s going to go until we see how his knee responds. He’s had a great [offseason] when you talk to him, he feels really confident. I think he’s right on track to where he wanted to be.”

In fact, the Eagles are so pleased with Bradford’s progress that talks of a contract extension have picked up. Extending Bradford now — when his value is still a relative — would be a smart “buy low” move for Philadelphia, just like the trade for him was. That’s especially true if they can insure themselves against further injury by working some incentives into the contract.

It’s not every day that a quarterback the caliber of Bradford is available on the open market. The Eagles know this well because they have been frequent shoppers on the free agent quarterback market since the end of the Donovan McNabb era. In fact, Sanchez was probably the best quarterback available on the market this year, which speaks to the lack of options. So taking on some risk by locking up Bradford would be well worth the possible reward.

Still expectations about what exactly Bradford can be for Philadelphia should be tempered until he makes more progress. Bradford hasn’t played a regular season game since October of 2013, two knee injuries ago, so there is still quite a bit of rust to shake off and a lot to learn about what type of player Bradford can be after those injuries. But the Eagles have to be elated with his progress so far and they can’t ask for much more than that at this point.

3) The Giants have made contact with Jason Pierre-Paul

Nearly a month to the day of the fireworks accident that left Jason Pierre-Paul with a fractured right thumb and without a right index finger, the New York Giants officials finally got a chance to speak with star defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul.

Giants owner John Mara said in a radio interview on Monday morning that New York representatives, including general manager Jerry Reese and Ronnie Barnes, the Giants’ VP of medical services, spoke with Pierre-Paul on Sunday. It’s the first contact anyone in the organization has made with JPP since the incident, which occurred over the July 4th weekend.

While lighting fireworks at his Florida home in celebration of Independence Day, Pierre-Paul suffered severe damage to his right hand, the extent of which is still somewhat unknown. What we do know is that he has since undergone multiple surgical procedures on the hand, including one to amputate his right index finger and another to repair a fracture in his right thumb. We also know, thanks to photos from the New York Daily News, that the hand remains heavily wrapped, which seems to indicate JPP is still a long way from taking the field.

The Giants sent a group of team officials, including Barnes, to Florida to meet with Pierre-Paul just days after the incident, but they were denied access to the player and his medical records, a curious move that led many to believe the damage to his hand might be worse than initially reported. Though they’ve now spoken with him, the Giants still aren’t sure the extent of the damage. Mara was asked how the injury could affect Pierre-Paul’s play and responded with a sense of wonderment that he couldn’t even begin to answer that question.

“You say ‘this kind of injury,’ we don’t know how extensive the damage is. That’s the problem. I don’t know how many fingers he has,” Mara said. “I can’t recall ever being in a similar situation.”

Despite his absence from New York’s training camp, Pierre-Paul is not considered a holdout because he has not signed his franchise tag tender, which means that technically he is not under contract. The Giants simply hold his rights until he signs that tender. Pierre-Paul was initially holding off on signing the franchise tender, which would pay him $14.8 million for the 2015 season alone, because he was hoping for a long-term contract.

Now his absence is perhaps even more strategic. If Pierre-Paul reports to camp and signs his tender, the Giants can put him through a series of tests that would almost certainly land him on the Physically Unable to Perform/Non-Football Injury list. Once placed on that list, money would be deducted from that $14.8 million sum for each day he misses.

So the standoff continues. At the very least, the Giants have made contact and you could say that’s progress. But with each passing day that Pierre-Paul remains absent, New York gets closer to the reality that they’ll have to go to battle this season without their star defensive end, a fixture in their pass rush and on their defense. And that’s going to be tough for the Giants to overcome.

4) The Redskins are taking a big gamble on Junior Gallette

The Washington Redskins entered training camp with by far the weakest roster in the NFC East, one that almost resigns them to another finish in the division’s basement for the upcoming season. Desperate times call for desperate measures and Washington made a move last Thursday that reeks of desperation, signing linebacker Junior Galette to a one-year contract just days after he was released by the New Orleans Saints.

Galette has been of the league’s most active players this offseason, but not in a good way. In January, he was arrested on a domestic violence charge that was later dismissed. Then a video surfaced from a fight at a 2013 beach party that appears to show Galette brandishing a belt to fight off several people, including a woman who was lashed with the belt several times. Gallette and his representatives maintain that the man in the video is not him, but some internet sleuthing connected Galette to that same beach that day, wearing the same clothes as the man brandishing the belt.

The NFL is still investigating both that incident and the January domestic violence arrest with a possible suspension to come for violating the league’s personal conduct policy. Galette met with NFL officials last month and both incidents were discussed but no punishment has been handed down.

Galette, a 2010 undrafted free agent signing by the New Orleans Saints, has emerged as one of the league’s pre-eminent pass rushers over the last two seasons. He started 28 of 32 games for the Saints over those two years and compiled 22 sacks in the process.

At 27 years old, Galette appeared to be just hitting his prime and New Orleans inked him to a four-year, $41.5 million contract extension last September. The circumstances surrounding both incidents were enough for the Saints to cut ties with the talented pass rusher before that extension even officially began.

However, because of that extension, Galette’s release carried a $12 million cap hit for New Orleans. That the Saints — an organization with plenty of demons of their own — felt the need to move on before any discipline was agreed upon is a strong indication that there is something to one or both of the allegations Galette is facing, and a suspension may be coming.

But that didn’t scare away the Redskins. After conducting their own investigation into the incidents and Galette’s character, including a face-to-face meeting between Galette and Redskins GM Scot McCloughan, Washington happily signed him to a contract with a minimum salary for 2015 while the Saints foot the tab for his services.

“We feel very comfortable bringing him on board. Very comfortable. The decision was made because we really believe he’s a Redskin and that’s why I signed him,” McCloughan told ESPN. “I can tell you, when he left my room, the guy was crying, the guy was sweating. He was so excited to be a Redskin. That’s passion. That’s what I’m looking for: competitiveness, toughness. He has to walk the line and he knows that. If he doesn’t, then he’s gone.”

It’s a low-risk move for Washington from a financial perspective, as they add an extremely talented player to their defense and any games he misses they won’t be on the hook for. The only place the Redskins suffer is in the court of public opinion, where signing a player tied to such incidents has drawn much ire. But that doesn’t seem to bother them much.

5) Chip Kelly made another trade, angered another player

Trader Chip Kelly was at it again over the weekend. Before the Eagles officially opened their third camp under his watch, Kelly sent cornerback Brandon Boykin to the Pittsburgh Steelers in exchange for a conditional 2016 fifth round pick.

After a slew of moves this past offseason, Philadelphia has a glut of cornerbacks, and despite the team’s struggles at the corner position last season, Boykin wasn’t able to get on the field as more than a slot corner — so this move shouldn’t come as much of a shock. But for Philadelphia fans and some players, including Boykin himself, it was another strange step taken by Kelly to move on from a player who wasn’t one of his own.

The Eagles drafted Boykin out of Georgia in the fourth round of the 2012 draft, their last under Andy Reid. After a decent rookie season, Boykin emerged as a potential star and fan favorite in 2013, Kelly’s first season in command. He led the team that season with six interceptions and 17 pass defensed, and his play seemed to be the precursor to a bright future in the Philadelphia secondary. Despite that success, he never saw his role with the Eagles grow. Though he played in all 16 games for Philadelphia last season, he was down the depth chart seeing action only in and nickel and dime passing situations and on special teams, despite the repeated struggles of the team’s top corners. He finished the 2014 campaign with just one interception and nine pass defensed and expressed doubt about his role at minicamp in June.

“It’s two years running with this story and it’s getting real old for me,” he said then. “I’m just going to continue to be the best slot in the NFL. I feel like I am. I feel like my statistics show that and that’s what I’m focused on.”

Boykin was also entering the last year of his contract in 2015 and because his role hadn’t changed, he’d lost interest in returning to the team, planning to play out his contract and then explore free agency. The fracture became such in the month since those comments that Kelly decided the team was better off without Boykin and sent him on his way to Pittsburgh.

After the trade, Boykin remarked that Kelly is “uncomfortable with men of our culture” stoking the flames on a topic opened by the departure of LeSean McCoy that Kelly might be racist. Boykin later clarified his remarks, noting that he wasn’t not insinuating racism and instead described Kelly as “unrelatable” to his players, which made it tough to have a strong relationship.

However Boykin feels about his relationship with Kelly and how that impacted his departure, the truth is that, at 5-9, 183 lbs, he wasn’t really a fit for the physical way the Eagles want to have their outside cornerbacks play. That’s why they went out and nabbed 6-1 Byron Maxwell in free agency from the Seahawks and drafted 6-1 Eric Rowe out of Utah. The Eagles like 2015 sixth round pick JaCorey Shepherd a lot anyway. At 5-11, Shepherd is another taller corner who can play in the slot, and they also have Nolan Carroll for depth purposes, so they won’t miss Boykin much. There was still a place for Boykin starting in the slot this season, but if he didn’t want to play there, then Kelly made the move that was best for his team and for Boykin by trading him to Pittsburgh.

6) The wide receivers in the East are crazy confident

When Odell Beckham Jr. emerged as a legitimate star caliber wide receiver as a rookie last season it furthered the NFC East’s status as division steeped in talent at the wideout position perhaps now more than any other division in the league.

From New York to Washington to Dallas, the receivers of the Eastern Division stand out in many ways and early in 2015 training camp, all of them have already grabbed headlines.

Down at Redskins camp, DeSean Jackson made waves on Monday by boasting that he is an unstoppable force at the wide receiver position. Jackson led the league last season in yards per catch and catches of 40 yards per more, both by wide margins. He hauled in just 56 passes for the season but accumulated 1,169 yards anyway, and he points to that as evidence of his talent regardless of who he is covered by.

“I don’t think no one can guard me. It’s how I feel about myself. I don’t feel no one can stop me. You can get Darrelle Revis, Richard Sherman — whoever you want to get,” Jackson told ESPN. “Whatever opportunity I get to make a play, I’ll make the most of my skills.”

Down in Dallas, Dez Bryant was boasting on the field, lighting up Cowboys reserve cornerback Tyler Patmon in one-on-one drills to the point that the two came to blows at practice on Sunday. Bryant recently signed a lucrative five-year, $70 million contract extension with Dallas after hauling in a league-leading 16 touchdowns as part of an 88-catch, 1,320-yard 2014 campaign. Patmon was an undrafted free agent signing of the Cowboys last season, who played in 11 games and logged just one interception, and apparently Bryant let him have it both on the field and via verbal jabs throughout the competition. In the end, the two hugged it out and Bryant spoke after practice about the respect he has for Patmon.

“If you would’ve seen the play before, I was giving him a little bit of mouth, just talking a whole bunch of stuff to him. He was talking back to me and it just escalated over to the next play. That’s what happened,” Bryant told the Dallas Morning News. “It’s just two great competitors going at it. We were chirping a little bit back and forth, but at the end of the day, that’s what you want…that’s something that you really need for a team to try to win ballgames….He is fighting his way and he’s fighting for respect. You can go to war with a guy like that any day of the week.”

Over at Giants camp, Victor Cruz is working back from a knee injury that ended his 2014 campaign early and Beckham is working back from a hamstring strain. The two receivers could make up the best 1-2 punch in the league if both are healthy. Over his three full seasons, Cruz has averaged 80 catches and 1,209 yards per season. Last year, in just 12 games, Beckham hauled in 91 passes for 1,305 yards. But for now as they make their way back, both are letting their work do the talking.

Cruz has gone through full practices during each of the first several days of camp and the results have been impressive, as documented by NJ.com from Sunday’s practice. Then on Monday, it was Beckham getting on the same page as Eli Manning to wow the fans at the Giants complex in East Rutherford, NJ. The Giants have to be thrilled with what they’ve seen from both players so far in a year they may need all they can get from their offense.

The only team in the East without a star wideout — or two — at the moment is Philadelphia. But first round draft pick Nelson Agholor is looking to change that in short order. Agholor hauled in 104 passes for 1,313 yards and 12 touchdowns last season at USC, but flew under the radar somewhat going into the draft before the Eagles swooped in to take him at No. 20.

The move looks like a genius one right now. Onlookers at Eagles camp have raved about Agholor’s talent and preparation and the rookie is getting ready for a potential breakout season that would round out the division’s talent at the position quite nicely.


About Devon Jeffreys

Devon Jeffreys