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NFC East Outlook: The top player at every offensive position

How many Eagles claim the top spot?

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Washington Redskins v Philadelphia Eagles Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images

Looking ahead to the 2019 NFL Season, where do the Philadelphia Eagles’ possess the top talent at their position? Narrowing that down some, how do they rank against their fellow NFC East rivals? Some are easy to call, but at other spots there’s some serious competition.

Let’s take a look at how my list shook out so that you may be angry online.

QUARTERBACK: Carson Wentz (Eagles)

There’s a reason every time you see Dak Prescott’s stats favorably compared to other quarterbacks, they always include his rookie year. It’s because for the last two years he hasn’t been able to duplicate that success. Meanwhile, Wentz had a more typical rocky rookie season and followed up with two stronger performances than Prescott has been able to string together.

This isn’t a matter of “Eagles writer favors Wentz”; you’ll be hard pressed to find a credible analyst, outside of the Cowboys media, that would argue Prescott is the better of the two. The question at this point comes down to future health and I’m not a doctor. The book isn’t fully written on those two, but if I had to pick right now, I’m going with Wentz.

RUNNING BACK: Saquon Barkley (Giants)

It only took one year for Barkley to take the league by storm and dethrone Ezekiel Elliott. Barkley’s dynamic skill set was underutilized in New York, but his elite tackle breaking ability led to the highest yards after contact average (3.34) in the division.

If Barkley’s role as a receiver expands in his sophomore campaign, he can put up truly gaudy numbers from scrimmage. It would also help if he became more efficient, but you get the feeling that the boom-bust aspect of his game will always be there. Not that anyone is really complaining.

X RECEIVER: Alshon Jeffery (Eagles)

There’s no other big-bodied receiver in the East that can touch Jeffery’s talent and production. His impact on the Eagles’ offense has been clear, as he provides a reliable target capable of consistently hauling in tight window throws and contested catches.

Where Jeffery excels is working the intermediate areas of the field. According to Pro Football Focus, his 72.4% catch rate in those areas ranked third among all receivers. Overall, his 70.7% catch rate was the best in his career, quieting concerns after a sub-50% 2017 campaign.

Z RECEIVER: Amari Cooper (Cowboys)

Possessing the cleanest routes among NFC East receivers, Cooper is the smoothest of the bunch. After a down year in 2017, Cooper was acquired by the Cowboys mid-season for a first round pick. Leading up to the trade, Cooper was on a two-game stretch with only two combined targets. After the trade, he wouldn’t go a week without at least five. Once it was said and done, he eclipsed 70+ receptions and 1,000+ for the third time in his career.

A major key for Cooper’s resurgence was yet another large swing in reliability; this time in favorable direction. This has always been a concern for Cooper with seasons of 20% and 17.2% drop rates on his résumé. That number dropped to 5.7% in 2018, which is a much more respectable number.

The other aspect of Cooper’s game can be overlooked is his ability after the catch. For the second year running he placed in the top three for Next Gen Stats’ expected yards after catch differential (xyac/r), averaging 2.0 yards more than expected with the ball in his hands.

DeSean Jackson may be the biggest home run threat, but Cooper has shown that he’s an ascending talent that can be a focal point of a passing game. If Cooper ends up signing a new contract with the Cowboys, he’ll be difficult to dethrone for years to come.

SLOT RECEIVER: Golden Tate (Giants)

Even after his least productive season in several years – in part due to a rocky transition to the EaglesTate gets the edge over Nelson Agholor. He led all remaining NFC East slot receivers in yards per route run from the slot (1.44) along with coming in 4th in the division overall for yards per route run (1.74).

The concern with Tate moving forward has to be after the catch. Known as the “YAC King”, Tate’s performance dropped off significantly in this area. This included a full yard being lopped off his expected yards after catch differential (+1.8 > +0.8). Still, Tate is a dependable, veteran receiver that should continue to be productive.

If Agholor can be the deep threat he was in 2017, he has a chance to unseat Tate. As a final note, Sterling Shepard should see significantly more work on the outside with Tate in town, but regardless I’d still rank him below Tate (and above Agholor) if he remains slot heavy.

TIGHT END: Zach Ertz (Eagles)

It’s simple: set records for your position and you’re pretty much a lock. Ertz at least doubled the receptions (126) and yardage (1,265) of the other contenders in this exercise, making this an easy selection.

Much was made over the Wentz-Ertz connection during the season, despite Ertz’s target share being nearly the same with Nick Foles over the last two years. Now’s not the time for narrative busting, but it’s a preemptive strike to those pesky commenters who wholeheartedly buy into anonymous quotes and sports talk radio talking points.

Lazy jibber-jabber aside, Ertz is an elite route runner that is among the best at finding space while also providing a serious red zone threat.

LEFT TACKLE: Tyron Smith (Cowboys)

Easily in the conversation for best tackle in the league, nobody in the East can contend with Smith. With Trent Williams unable to stay healthy and Jason Peters past his prime, Smith reigns supreme.

Smith allowed the least pressures (15) of any ingrained starter in the East and blew away the competition with an 86.6 pass block grade from PFF. He’s no slouch at run blocking either, keeping the Cowboys as a top ten team in Football Outsiders’ adjusted line yards (4.61) on the ground.

LEFT GUARD: Will Hernandez (Giants)

This might be the weakest position in the division. Isaac Seumalo, Ereck Flowers and Connor Williams as his competition, Hernandez’s rookie season was solid enough to give him the nod. The 327-pound dancing bear needs to improve his consistency as a run blocker, but he proved solid in pass protection and has the tools and demeanor necessary to be a plus starter in the long-term.

CENTER: Jason Kelce (Eagles)

There hasn’t been a better or more consistent center than Kelce, not only in the East, but in there NFL. We’ve dedicated multiple articles to the greatness that is the stiff pourin’ Kelce and that will only continue for as long as he continues to lace ‘em up.

Kelce will be challenged for the top spot with Cowboys’ center Travis Frederick returning after missing 2018 with Guillain-Barré syndrome.

“[Frederick] played 1,000 or more offensive snaps in each of his first five years in the league and earned 85.0-plus overall grades every year. Only former Houston Texans center Chris Myers and Frederick have at least five single-season overall grades above 85.0 across 600-plus offensive snaps in the PFF era (2006-18).” - PFF50

RIGHT GUARD: Zack Martin (Cowboys)

Not many guards in the league can challenge Martin for pass blocking prowess and he remains the best run blocker in the East. There isn’t much else to say here about Martin; he’s just a stud.

If there’s another right guard that can overtake Martin, I’d put my money on the RedskinsBrandon Scherff before the Eagles’ Brandon Brooks. Both are returning from injury, but I’d expect Scherff to be fully ready by Week 1 after his torn pectoral in 2018 and I can’t say the same for Brooks and his torn Achilles. Then again, the Giants’ Kevin Zeitler has been healthier and more consistent than both of them, giving the Giants one heck of a guard tandem.

RIGHT TACKLE: Lane Johnson (Eagles)

Morgan Moses, La’el Collins, and Mike Remmers(?) are the competition, and Johnson crushes all of them. That’s even after a bumpy (for his standards) start to 2018. PFF gave him his worst overall grade since his rookie season, but it was still good for second best among tackles in the division. What’s weird was seeing him improve upon his play after spraining his MCL.

“Johnson had a rough go early last season when he allowed four sacks in games against the Buccaneers, Colts and Titans, but then got things back on track and didn’t allow another sack from Week 6 through Philadelphia’s divisional-round loss to the Saints. Overall, he allowed five sacks, six quarterback hits and 29 quarterback hurries, providing good run-blocking despite the fact that the Eagles struggled to put a consistent run game on the field.” - Doug Farrar, Touchdown Wire

With the differences between left and right tackle blurring more every season, Johnson stands head and shoulders above the group at a premium position.

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