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NFC East Outlook: The top player at every offensive position in 2020

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Crowning the kings of their position and diving recklessly into a massive, never ending debate...

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Looking ahead to the 2020 NFL Season, where do the Philadelphia Eagles’ possess the top talent at each position? More importantly, how do they stack up against their NFC East rivals?

Every year I do my best to predict the best player in the East at each position for both offense and defense. Since it matters more, we’ll start this years’ experiment with the offense. Here’s how the list shakes out...

Note: rookies do not qualify, * = repeat selection from 2019

QUARTERBACK - Dak Prescott (Cowboys)

It’s just a take; it can’t hurt you.

Looking back to 2019 before we gaze forward to 2020, the case that Prescott was the better quarterback is straightforward.

Using key metrics from PFF’s QB Annual, the analytics show that Prescott was substantially better than Carson Wentz from a clean pocket, produced more positively graded plays, avoided negative plays, was on target more often, had a better adjusted completion percentage and was more efficient on third down.

The areas where Wentz rated higher, like when under pressure and with big time throws, it’s much tighter. Thus Prescott graded higher as a passer (13th vs. 18th) and had added value as a quality runner. It’s not just PFF either. DVOA, QBR, QB Rating, ANY/A, and so on all favor Prescott.

The all-mighty film also favors Prescott. He was the more consistent of the two, hitting the proverbial ceiling and avoiding the floor more than Wentz.

With all of those factors leaning Prescott the onus would be on me to make the case for Wentz, if I chose to do so, not the other way around. Even Vegas has the odds favoring Prescott to be MVP over Wentz. Still, I’ll try to explain my rationale while providing as much context as possible.

Where it went wrong for Wentz wasn’t the high leverage drops at the end of games. In fact, I thought he played better for the early stretch of the season than many gave him credit for.

Beyond a nasty fumbling habit, the problem for Wentz shines harshest on three big games in the middle of the season. The first tilt against Dallas in Week 7 was a truly abysmal performance that saw the Eagles and Wentz falter early and never get going. That was followed soon after by two consecutive games against the Patriots and Seahawks where he looked mentally shot as the situation around him crumbled.

Wentz should get credit for rebounding and ending the season with 10 touchdowns and 1 interception over the last 5 games to drag his team to the playoffs. I’d argue it was more impressive from a leadership perspective than an execution standpoint. For example, during that stretch he never played a DVOA pass defense ranked higher than 23rd. The Giants and Dolphins check in at 31st and 32nd respectively, and they represent three of those five match-ups.

Prescott’s worst game came in a big moment too, but it was a shoulder injury that limited him against the Eagles in Week 16. Like Wentz, Prescott suffered from a plethora of drops, leading the league by a wide margin with 43. His receivers had 5 against the Eagles in that game alone, leaving the banged up Prescott without the support to triumph in the must-win divisional showdown.

Outside of that late failure in Philadelphia, you’re only left with a shaky performance on the road against the Patriots as games where Prescott came up noticeably short by his own doing. Even then, he never hit the lows Wentz achieved multiple times in 2019.

Projecting to 2020, situation is a key factor in quarterback success and these two are no different. The Eagles are on their third cycle of “Weapons For Wentz” and their third cycle of offensive coaches under Doug Pederson. It likely can’t be any worse in terms of supporting cast for Wentz, but there’s a good deal of unknown concerning how it all comes together.

The Cowboys made a key decision in the off-season in retaining offensive coordinator Kellen Moore. It would’ve been a huge blunder letting the young mastermind behind the 2nd ranked DVOA offense walk and the Cowboys ultimately made the right decision. They also locked in Amari Cooper and stole CeeDee Lamb in the 2020 NFL Draft.

In terms of “stability plus” - a term I made up just now - Prescott has the advantage while Wentz will need much better health around him and for new ideas to mesh well with new additions. One spot where the Eagles have the advantage is offensive line, as we’ll delve into later in this piece. That’s no small thing.

If their surrounding circumstances click, both quarterbacks have already shown the potential to play like top 10 quarterbacks or better. This is probably the third time I’ve changed answers on this through the years, but gun to my head, I’d argue that Prescott has the better shot at being a top tier quarterback in 2020.

RUNNING BACK - Saquon Barkley (Giants)*

Missing games with a high ankle sprain that hindered him even after returning to action, Barkley wasn’t as productive as Ezekiel Elliot as a runner or Miles Sanders as a receiver. No matter; Barkley is clearly the most dangerous back in the East.

The Giants continue to rebuild an offensive line that has ranked worst in the East in Football Outsiders’ adjusted line yards two years running, and perhaps this is the year they give Barkley a better push. The Giants also began to figure out how to better utilize Barkley as a receiver, not just a checkdown target, as the season progressed, which bodes well for his 2020 projection.

WIDE RECEIVER #1 - Amari Cooper (Cowboys)*

In the past I’ve tried distinguishing between X/Z receivers, but those designations matter less when you have a player like Cooper that you can move all around.

The Cowboys made Cooper a $100M man in the off-season when they extended him for 5 years, and with good reason. Cooper’s a silky smooth technician with a dirty release game and is coming off his third 1,000+ yard season in four years. The Cowboys know what life is like without him, and that skill and importance makes him the top receiver in the East.

WIDE RECEIVER #2 - Terry McLaurin (Washington)

I considered DeSean Jackson here, but the 33-year old only played 65 snaps last year. Instead, I’ll go with the young buck McLaurin. 58-919-7 is an impressive stat line for any rookie, let alone one that suffered from erratic quarterback play.

McLaurin’s 4.35 40-yard dash showed to be an immediate difference maker from the first game of his career, as Eagles fans know well. His 366 deep receiving yards and 4 deep touchdowns both ranked 2nd in the East, only behind the aforementioned Cooper.

SLOT RECEIVER - Golden Tate (Giants)*

There isn’t exactly sterling competition here, so Tate wins this by being his normal, reliable self. Tate’s production has taken a slight dip in recent years, but if he’s ready to rock for all 16 games the most productive slot target remaining in the East likely continues to contribute at a decent level.

One interesting thing to track is how much the Eagles utilize DeSean Jackson from the slot. He ran 47.5% of his routes there in 2019, albeit with a limited sample size. With the addition of Jalen Reagor, the Eagles could opt to send either one of them screaming down seams on a regular basis.

TIGHT END - Zach Ertz (Eagles)*

This is a one horse race and has been for a while. If anybody is going to challenge Ertz for the East throne, it’s not going to come from outside of the Eagles.

Since entering the league in 2013, among fellow tight ends Ertz is 1st in the NFL in receptions (525), 2nd in yards (5,743), and tied for 5th in touchdowns (35). He’s also played in 95% of his 112 potential regular season games.

LEFT TACKLE - Tyron Smith (Cowboys)*

Remember what it looked like when Smith went down and the Cowboys had to play Chaz Green in his spot? Adrian Clayborn certainly does, and I’d imagine Dak Prescott does too. The Cowboys offense tends to go as Smith goes, and when he’s banged up or not at 100% there are serious ripple effects.

Lingering back issues have plagued Smith recently, but until he’s carried out on his shield I have no reason to believe that there’s anybody in the East that comes close to his elite level of play.

LEFT GUARD - Isaac Seumalo (Eagles)

Left guard vs. right guard in the East is like picking Hot Pocket flavors vs. steak and lobster. I thought about going with Will Hernandez of the Giants again as he definitely has the highest ceiling of the bunch, but he was fairly uneven through 2019.

Outside of one early game where Grady Jarrett ate his lunch, Seumalo has proven to be a reliable replacement level starter on the inside. PFF sees it the same way, grading Seumalo as the top left guard in the division in 2019. It’s a win for Howie Roseman, who last off-season extended Seumalo through 2022 on an extremely team friendly deal.

CENTER - Jason Kelce (Eagles)*

With Travis Frederick’s retirement, Kelce’s main competition for the top spot is out of the picture and Kelce stands head and shoulders above the rest.

The 32-year old Kelce toughed through another season, logging 100% of the teams offensive snaps. As Bo Wulf thoroughly documented for The Athletic, Kelce’s toughness is the stuff of super heroes.

“Kelce played either the most or second-most regular-season offensive snaps of any player in the NFL, depending on whether you count penalties. He did it with a bum hip, a balky shoulder, an aching back, busted hands and barking feet. And because enduring pain is such a fundamental job requirement of playing football for a living, Kelce was listed on the Eagles’ injury report only once all season — when he missed a Wednesday practice for “personal reasons.” In this case, the birth of his daughter.” - Bo Wulf, The Athletic

The only thing that can slow Kelce down... is retirement? Which thankfully for the Eagles he has put off for at least another year.

RIGHT GUARD - Brandon Brooks (Eagles)

When Brooks tore his Achilles on January 13th of 2019, the feeling was that the Eagles could be without their stud right guard to start the 2019 season. Instead, Brooks recovered in lightning speed and shocked everybody by avoiding the PUP list at the start of training camp in July.

It only got better for Brooks, who registered his best season as a pro. The Cowboys’ Zack Martin was my pick last year, and might be my pick next year, but for now Brooks is the reigning champion at right guard after a truly incredible season.

RIGHT TACKLE - Lane Johnson*

When PFF crowned the Eagles as the best offensive line in 2019, Johnson was a big reason for that.

“At right tackle, Lane Johnson was once again among the best in the league in a strong season for right tackle play, but he missed some time, playing in just 12 games. Over those games, he surrendered just one sack, and had a run-blocking grade of 92.6, the best mark of any lineman at any position this season. The Eagles were a notably different unit up front when Johnson was playing.” - Sam Monson, PFF

Johnson makes four of five offensive line spots going to the Eagles as tops in the East. Winning the war in the trenches week in, week out, allows the Eagles to be competitive against any foe and Johnson is a big reason for it.