Forget just assessing 2019. We begin a position-by-position look at the future of the NFC East by assessing where teams stand long-term at quarterback.
In the time between OTAs and the start of training camp, it’s a good opportunity to assess where teams sit for the upcoming season. But teams aren’t just built for the upcoming season, especially ones like the New York Giants, who are looking to the future as much if not more than 2019.
With that in mind, we’re going to take a look at how the teams in the NFC East stack up at each position, not only for 2019, but over the next three seasons. For these rankings, we’ll consider the starters, overall depth, age, and salary cap implications to get a full view of how each of these position groups is set up for the next few years.
We’ll start with the most important position on the field — quarterback.
As quarterback contracts are currently structured teams are typically faced with two choices — have a quarterback on a rookie contract or pay about $30 million per year. The Eagles now find themselves in the latter scenario with a recent contract extension for Carson Wentz, which was a reported four-year extension for $128 million that will take Wentz through his age-32 season in 2024.
The main question to ask when a team is figuring out whether to pay or not pay the starting quarterback is can the team compete for a Super Bowl with that quarterback in charge. Philadelphia already had an answer to that question when the Eagles were 11-2 in Wentz’s 13 starts in 2017 before he missed the rest of the season, including the Super Bowl run. While Wentz wasn’t technically the quarterback who led the Eagles to the win, the team wouldn’t have been in the position it was without Wentz starting for the majority of the season when he was sixth among quarterbacks in Football Outsiders’ DVOA and second in ESPN’s QBR.
Philadelphia’s biggest question with Wentz will be his health. He has only played in 16 games during one of his three seasons. That his injuries in 2017 and 2018 appear to be related is yet to revealed as a positive or negative. It’s either one injury that can go away on its own or it’s one injury that has dangerously lingered. Reports from the Eagles’ offseason workouts have been positive, but even if Wentz’s injuries do linger, his contract is set up in a way that the team can move on any time after 2021.
Should Wentz get hurt in 2019, the Eagles will not be as set at backup quarterback as they had been with Nick Foles over the past few seasons. The current group of Nate Sudfeld, Cody Kessler, and Clayton Thorson suggests a significant drop off in play if Wentz misses any time. Philadelphia can’t really get dinged for their backup quarterback depth, though, because it’s not great in the rest of the division either.
An added layer to the quarterback situation is the Eagles have a smart and progressive general manager who has been able to structure contracts in a way that will allow the team to continue building its roster around a quarterback making over $30 million per year — especially since Wentz’s cap hit won’t reach the $30 million mark until 2021, which gives the Eagles a window to still build the team around a modest quarterback contract. Since we’re basing these rankings off the next three seasons, Wentz’s big cap hits barely even factor into that timeframe.
Dallas has yet to make the commitment to Dak Prescott even though they have one fewer year of team control than the Eagles had with Wentz — as a fourth-round pick Prescott only received a four-year rookie deal, while Wentz had a fifth-year option for 2020 as a first-round pick. Prescott will make just $2.1 million in 2019 then either the franchise tag or a new long-term contract will take him at least to $27 million per year.
The “can you compete for a Super Bowl with him” question seems more complicated with Prescott than it is for Wentz, but it really shouldn’t be. Prescott was great during a rookie campaign with the perfect situation around him but then had a down year in 2017. Prescott dropped from third by DVOA in 2016 to 17th in 2017, but by QBR, which includes quarterback rushing, he was still fifth during his “down” season. The concern should be this past season when he was 26th in DVOA and 19th in QBR. But there was a significant shift from the first half of the season to the second. During the first half of the season, the Cowboys were hit with injuries and much of the expected offense had fallen apart. That led to an Expected Points Added per attempt of minus-0.4 from Weeks 1-8. But there was a massive turnaround in the second half of the season with an EPA per attempt of 0.12.
That, of course, coincided with the acquisition of Amari Cooper and a legitimate receiving option, which the Cowboys did not have in the first part of the season. Still, during that stretch, the Dallas offense put up 40 points against the Jacksonville Jaguars in Week 6 when only Cole Beasley (11) and Allen Hurns (5) had more than two targets. Prescott had two passing touchdowns and one on the ground.
And even with that poor first half, he still completed more passes than expected and the Cowboys went 10-6 and won a playoff game. If the question is can the Cowboys compete with Prescott at quarterback, the answer is unquestionably yes. Can the Cowboys win while paying Prescott and Amari Cooper and Ezekiel Elliott (we’ll get to those later)? The answer should still be yes. Over his three seasons, Dallas has gone 32-16 and while Prescott isn’t solely responsible for that, he’s been a big part.
Prescott at his worst has been a league average quarterback and this season he might get the chance to be in a modern and innovative offense with Kellen Moore as offensive coordinator. He also won’t turn 26 years old until the end of July. The Cowboys are going to have to figure out their cap situation over the next few seasons with a number of players set for new deals, but all of those decisions should be made around making sure the quarterback is in place.
3. New York Giants
4. Washington Redskins
We’re going to put these two together because they’re in similar situations. Both teams took to the first round of the 2019 NFL Draft to select a quarterback of the future. This ranking won’t be a stance on Daniel Jones vs. Dwayne Haskins, but how these teams are set up to move into their next era of quarterback play.
Eli Manning will be the likely starter for the Giants in Week 1, but 2019 is the final year on his contract. Should the Giants choose to fully move on from Manning after the season they can have a clean break when the contract expires. It wouldn’t be a surprise for the Giants to do so, given Manning hasn’t been in the top half of the league by DVOA or QBR since 2014 — he was 24th by DVOA and 27th by QBR in 2018.
That would allow the Giants to take full advantage of Jones’s rookie deal starting in Year 2. Washington doesn’t have the same luxury. Haskins is more likely than Jones to go into the season as the starting quarterback, but Washington has a worse contract on the books that will get in the way of Haskins’s rookie deal for the next two seasons. When Washington traded for Alex Smith prior to the 2018 season, they immediately gave him a contract extension that would have been questionable had Smith remained healthy — even though Smith has been a more productive quarterback than Manning over the past decade. Unfortunately, Smith broke his leg in 2018 and he will miss all of 2019, which opened the path for Haskins to be drafted and potentially start Week 1. But Smith still has $41.8 million guaranteed on his deal over the next two seasons with cap hits of $20.4 million in 2019 and $21.4 million in 2020. Washington can’t clear cap space by moving on from the deal until after the 2020 season, which will be Year 3 of Haskins’s rookie contract. Short of a Brock Osweiler to the Browns type deal, Washington will be stuck with a massive cap hit over the next two seasons for a quarterback who won’t play a snap. Washington also has Case Keenum on a modest $3.5 million deal but combined only the Patriots, Lions, Vikings, and Colts have more 2019 cap space invested at quarterback, per Over The Cap. In 2020, that only drops to ninth.
The true rankings here will come down to how well the rookie quarterbacks play whenever they get the chance, but for now, the ease in which the teams can move on from the veterans in front of them play just as big a part to set the stage for those rookies to eventually take over.