The time has come to figure out of the New York Giants are favorites over the Dallas Cowboys to win the NFC East in 2017.
For the second consecutive offseason, the New York Giants made a bevy of bold moves that has positively impacted their stock heading into the new season.
A year ago, they splashed the cash in free agency, signing Janoris Jenkins, Olivier Vernon and Damon Harrison to lucrative free agent deals. The result? A defense that gave up 17.8 points per game, the second lowest mark in the NFL.
This season, they addressed the offense that ranked 25th in the NFL by signing wide receiver Brandon Marshall, full back Rhett Ellison, and tackle D.J. Fluker in free agency, and drafting tight end/wide receiver hybrid Evan Engram in the first round.
All in all, this Giants team looks primed to compete for a second consecutive playoff berth. Quarterback stability, a tremendous defense and playmakers on offense are encouraging signs moving forward.
But are the Giants the best team in their own division?
Last season, going 11-5 was not good enough to clinch the NFC East, as the Dallas Cowboys rode the success of rookies Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliot to a 13-3 season, good enough for first both in the division, and in the entire NFC as well.
Dallas returns all of their premier playmakers on offense: Prescott, Elliot, receivers Dez Bryant and Cole Beasley, tight end Jason Witten and three All-Pro offensive lineman (Tyron Smith, Zack Martin, and Travis Frederick).
There are three factors that could sway the division either side. It feels safe to assume that Washington isn’t quite ready to compete with these two teams just set, seeing as quarterback Kirk Cousins is unsettled and they lost receivers DeSean Jackson and Pierre Garcon and replaced them with Terrelle Pryor. Philadelphia, despite a solid draft and an encouraging young quarterback in Carson Wentz, still appears to be a few years away from competing.
That leaves the Giants and the Cowboys. What are the factors that could separate these teams? And ultimately, who appears to be the favorite for the division title heading into the summer? Let’s take a look.
The Giants Offensive Line
It’s hard not to sound like a broken record when talking about the Giants offensive line, but here we go again: they sucked last year! They were, quite easily, the teams biggest Achilles heel in 2016. How does a team with Eli Manning, Odell Beckham Jr., and Sterling Shepard finish 25th in total offense?
Because of an offensive line that was below average both in run and pass protection. In Justin Pugh‘s absence, the line nearly fell apart due to the lack of veteran leadership. Only Pugh and center Weston Richburg received passing grades. Bobby Hart, Marshall Newhouse and John Jerry were all mediocre to below average.
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And of course, there was Ereck Flowers, who was an unmitigated disaster in pass protection. Flowers overall grade on Pro Football Focus was 48.4, good for 57th among all tackles in the NFL. Against the pass, his grade was 39.4, which is genuinely terrible. Flowers had a whopping eight holding penalties called against him, and also constantly surrendered pressure that forced Eli Manning into bad decisions.
During free agency and the draft, the Giants acquired Fluker and and Adam Bisnowaty, the latter being a sixth round pick. Clearly, the Giants front office did not prioritize the offensive line, and it remains a glaring weakness, particularly at tackle, heading into next season.
The NFL community saw first hand how important a dominant offensive line can be, as the Cowboys mauled their way to a 13-3 season on the strength of said line paving the way for Prescott to throw and Elliot to run.
Time will tell if Fluker and Flowers can hold it down on the outside, but for now, the Giants offensive line remains a major issue and a potential pendulum swinger in the division.
The Cowboys Secondary
The Cowboys lost almost their entire starting secondary this offseason.
With Brandon Carr, Barry Church & J.J. Wilcox gone _ & Mo Claiborne to follow _ Cowboys have lost 224 career starts from their secondary.
— David Moore (@DavidMooreDMN) March 16, 2017
The Cowboys defense was a surprising bright spot in 2016, especially because they were considered to be the teams achilles heel. But the Cowboys secondary wasn’t as great as people might have expected– they gave up the 7th highest number of passing yards in the NFL this past season.
And then they went and lost three of four starters.
Seriously, the Cowboys offense can be as elite as ever, but if they end up starting two rookies at cornerback, they are going to get torched by every team with a competent quarterback. Odell, Marshall, and co. are going to salivate at the thought of going up against second round pick Chidobe Azuwie and third round pick Jourdan Lewis at corner.
The Cowboys could surprise with their ragtag group of backups and draft picks, but it doesn’t seem very likely.
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Here’s a fun statistic.
2016 Dallas Cowboys against the New York Giants: 0-2
2016 Dallas Cowboys against everyone else: 13-1 (and that 1 came in Week 17 against Philadelphia when Dallas rested their starters with the number one seed locked up).
Seriously, in games that they tried in, the Cowboys were undefeated against the entire NFL minus the New York Giants in the regular season.
And sure, the Giants won by 1 point in Week 1 and three points in Week 14, but they still won nonetheless!
If head to head has any importance, which it clearly does in a divisional rivalry, the Giants currently have the Cowboys number. That should be the defining factor in the NFC East balance of power.
Overall, the Giants got stronger on offense and kept their core defense intact. The Cowboys kept their core offense intact, but lost a ton of pieces in the secondary.
That should close the gap between an 11-5 team and a 13-3 team to pretty damn even, and due to head to head dominance in 2016, the Giants could very well be favorites in the NFC East heading into 2017.