The time for talking is nearly over, with the 2021 NFL season just around the corner. And as kickoff edges ever closer, Sky Sports NFL writers are breaking down all eight divisions from the key men to the marquee acquisitions.
Thursday, September 10 is the date to mark in your diaries as the reigning Super Bowl champions Tampa Bay Buccaneers host the Dallas Cowboys, which you can see live on Sky Sports NFL from 1.20am in the early hours of Friday morning.
For now, let’s take a look at the contenders – beginning with the Cowboys and co. in the NFC East.
Head Coach: Mike McCarthy
Key Man: Absence makes the heart grow fonder, and the Cowboys learned that the hard way last season after Dak Prescott went down with a year-ending injury in Week Five. Year-ending for both him and, ultimately, for the team. But he is back, and handsomely funded by the four-year, $160m deal he signed in March. Andy Dalton did as well as he could in his place, but it was during Prescott’s recovery that the Cowboys were reminded of how important he is to the franchise. This team runs through No. 4.
Major Additions: The Cowboys could not stop anybody in 2020. Their response? Six consecutive defensive picks in the Draft. Among those was Penn State’s coveted linebacker Micah Parsons at No. 12 overall followed by fourth-round linebacker Jabril Cox to add to the signing of safety-turned-linebacker Keanu Neal in revamping the position group. Injury to Neville Gallimore in training camp means third-round defensive tackle Osa Odighizuwa could have a key role to play from the off, and second-round cornerback Kelvin Joseph looms as a long-term partner for Trevon Diggs.
Last Season: Not great, Bob. 6-10, third in the NFC East, one of the league’s worst defenses, fifth-most giveaways, a decimated offensive line, injury to their star quarterback, a fumbling former first-round running back, a Thanksgiving Day humiliation against Washington and immediate question marks for their first-year head coach. Rookie receiver CeeDee Lamb was one of few flashpoints, as was tight end Dalton Schultz following the injury to Blake Jarwin and defensive end Randy Gregory’s return from suspension late in the season.
Dallas Cowboys: 2020 Tale of the Tape
Prospects: The return of offensive lineman Tyron Smith, Zach Martin and La’el Collins from injury is a game-changer for Dak Prescott and this offense, which has no excuses not to be among the league’s most potent in 2021. Instead the focus reverts to the Cowboys defense, now governed by newly-appointed defensive coordinator Dan Quinn following the exit of Mike Nolan. Quinn helped guide the Seattle Seahawks’ famous “Legion of Boom” and is met in Dallas by expectations of a similarly blockbuster influence, which should be aided by a reportedly fully-fit Leighton Vander Esch alongside Jaylon Smith and Parsons.
Prediction: 1st (10-7)
New York Giants
Head Coach: Joe Judge
Key Man: This is it for Daniel Jones, make-or-break time for the third-year quarterback. General manager Dave Gettleman clawed back some support in his corner by surrounding his play-caller with talent this offseason (more on that in a second) and the turnover-savvy defense is in place to put the ball in Jones’ hands. You may point to the eagerly-awaited return of Saquon Barkley as the defining cog, but this offense does nothing unless the one they call Danny Dimes drowns the errors with the arm talent and athleticism those in East Rutherford knows he has.
Major Additions: The Giants went shopping. Dinner dates courtesy of Jabrill Peppers and Darnay Holmes helped sweeten the deal as Big Blue signed Detroit Lions receiver Kenny Golladay on a four-year, $72m contract, while Florida yards-after-catch demon Kadarius Toney arrived as something of a surprise first-round pick in the Draft. Veteran tight end Kyle Rudolph, though hindered by injury throughout training camp, was acquired as a proven security blanket and former Tennessee Titans first-round cornerback Adoree’ Jackson was snapped up to gloss what looks a top 10 secondary.
Last Season: Joe Judge’s first season in charge was a tale of two halves, the Giants losing seven of their first eight games before winning five of their last eight including a victory over the Seattle Seahawks to finish 6-10 and second in the division. Within a fourth straight losing campaign and eighth in the last nine years came clear signs of progress, namely the influence of Leonard Williams and Dexter Lawrence and immediate impact of new additions James Bradberry, Blake Martinez and Logan Ryan as talismanic figures on Patrick Graham’s free-flowing defense. The season-ending injury to Barkley in week two meanwhile set the tone for another stuttering year for one of the NFL’s worst offenses.
New York Giants: 2020 Tale of the Tape
Prospects: Between the addition of Jackson, the return to health of Oshane Ximines and Lorenzo Carter and Xavier McKinney coming off an injury-disrupted rookie campaign, this defense only looks like getting stronger. For the Giants, their season hinges on not only the marriage of Jones and offensive coordinator Jason Garrett discovering a spark, but a youthful offensive line taking a necessary leap. Protect No. 8, carve those lanes for Barkley and the Giants have the talent on both sides of the ball to go playoff chasing.
Prediction: 2nd (9-8)
Head Coach: Nick Sirianni
Key Man: It’s over to you, Jalen Hurts. Carson Wentz is out of the picture and this offense belongs to the second-round quarterback. The story is Hurts, and how Sirianni, offensive coordinator Shane Steichen – who oversaw Justin Herbert’s exceptional rookie year in Los Angeles – and quarterbacks coach Brian Johnson can develop and nurture him in what is set to be his first full season as a starter. He gained a taste while starting the final four games of the 2020 season, a 51.88 percent completion percentage and 10 sacks evidence of a rocky situation. But within that came glimpses of the 1,000-yard rushing threat he showcased at college; for the purposes of helping him get comfortable, there’s no harm in letting him run riot.
Major Additions: For starters, they went for drafted Heisman Trophy-winning wide receiver DeVonta Smith, whose slick route-running and knack for hauling in everything thrown his way will soon trump mundane doubts over his size. Second-round center Landon Dickerson may be clouded by a rough injury history but he is a bully capable of entering the elite bracket in his position, and third-round defensive tackle Milton Williams lingers as a potential draft steal with measurements remarkably similar to Aaron Donald. The Eagles also signed veteran defensive end Ryan Kerrigan and former Minnesota Vikings safety Anthony Harris, before addressing a priority position by signing veteran cornerback Steven Nelson in July.
Last Season: It was dark and dingy in Philly. The Eagles plummeted to 4-11-1, their worst record since 2012, and fourth place in the division as an injury-stricken offensive line gave up a league-high 65 sacks (15 more than the next nearest team), wide receivers dropped like flies, first-round pass catcher Jalen Reagor endured a flat rookie year, the Wentz era came to a bruising end and head coach Doug Pederson was fired after five seasons in charge. So yeah, room for improvement.
Philadelphia Eagles: 2020 Tale of the Tape
Prospects: With a first-time head coach at the helm and an unproven starter at quarterback, launching a postseason pursuit looks a mighty ask of the Eagles. It feels every bit a transition season, but this is the NFC East, after all. The departure of long-term left tackle Jason Peters has made for an intriguing battle between Andre Dillard and Jordan Mailata, the potential committee rushing threat of Hurts, Miles Sanders, Boston Scott, Jordan Howard and rookie Kenneth Gainwell is an exciting dimension, the Eagles have a formidable trio in Brandon Graham, Fletcher Cox and Javon Hargrave manning their defensive line and a corps of Smith, Reagor, Travis Fulgham, Dallas Goedert and Zack Ertz looks, health permitting, promising on paper.
Prediction: 4th (7-10)
Washington Football Team
Head Coach: Ron Rivera
Key Man: To go down the quarterback route here would be to overlook the likelihood of the starter changing on more than one occasion. Ryan Fitzpatrick looks like the man for now, how long that remains to be the case we will find out, with both Taylor Heinicke and Kyle Allen lurking. The departure of Ryan Kerrigan meanwhile increases Chase Young’s rocketing value, but let’s go with Terry McLaurin. With a phenomenal 2020 campaign behind him and new pieces to free him up a little more, the third-year wideout is ready for the next step as one of the NFL’s most prolific playmakers.
Major Additions: Speaking of those new pieces, Washington sought to strengthen around McLaurin by signing former Panthers third-down maestro Curtis Samuel and veteran Adam Humphries in free agency, as well as drafting deep-threat receiver Dyami Brown out of North Carolina in the third round. First-round linebacker Jamin Davis adds to a monstrous defense and Washington are hoping second-round offensive tackle Sam Cosmi can develop into a long-term staple alongside Brandon Scherff.
Last Season: 7-9, division winners and unlikely beneficiaries of the jokingly-named NFC Least’s ugly deficiencies. It wasn’t always heading that way, Ron Rivera’s side dropping eight of their opening 10 games before miraculously salvaging their season with five wins in their last seven having moved on from Dwayne Haskins, played stage to Alex Smith’s extraordinary comeback from a life-threatening injury and flaunted one of the most ferocious defensive units in the league.
Upon Wild Card weekend reserve quarterback Taylor Heinicke saw his heroics unrewarded as Washington were beaten by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in arguably the latter’s toughest playoff obstacle on their road to Super Bowl glory.
Washington Football Team: 2020 Tale of the Tape
Prospects: There is an argument Washington are a good quarterback play away from being perhaps the most trustworthy playoff contender in the NFC East. But the questions over how things play out under center makes it difficult to pin them as postseason certainties. While Rivera and Jack Del Rio orchestrated one of the league’s elite defenses, Scott Turner’s offense endured a struggle it cannot afford to repeat this season. If Fitz can turn on the magic, the blend of McLaurin, Samuel, Brown, tight end Logan Thomas and rising star running back Antonio Gibson has the yards and scoring power to coincide with its playoff calibre defense.
Prediction: 3rd (8-8-1)