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June 01, 2015

Ranking the NFC East by position: Defense edition

Eagles NFL
053115MalcolmJenkinsConnorBarwin Michael Conroy/AP

The Eagles may have the best defense in the division, on paper anyway.

Which team in the NFC East has the best front seven? The best corners? The least awful safeties? Sunday we compared the NFC East teams, by position, on offense. Today we'll take a look at the division, position by position, and evaluate each teams' rosters on defense. 

To note, because the Eagles and Redskins run a 3-4 scheme while the Giants and Cowboys run a 4-3, it is difficult to make apples-to-apples comparisons, but we broke up the front seven in a way that aims to get as a close to a fair comparison as possible.

Interior defensive line (3-4 DE/NT, 4-3 DT)

Rank Team Players 
Eagles Fletcher Cox, Bennie Logan, Cedric Thornton, Brandon Bair, Beau Allen
Redskins Jason Hatcher, Terrance Knighton, Stephen Paea, Ricky Jean-Francois 
Giants Jonathan Hankins, Cullen Jenkins, Markus Kuhn, Jay Bromley 
Cowboys Tyrone Crawford, Nick Hayden, Terrell McClain 

The Eagles' defensive line is excellent. Fletcher Cox is extraordinarily disruptive from his 3-4 spot, Bennie Logan is developing into a very good young nose, and Cedric Thornton is among the better run stuffers in the NFL. The Eagles were fifth in the NFL with just 3.7 yards per carry allowed last season, and this unit was a major part of the reason why. *Note - Vinny Curry is listed as a DE, but I did not include him here.

The Redskins almost completely re-built their garbage defensive line of a year ago. They kept their lone good lineman, Jason Hatcher, and brought in a trio of free agents (Terrance Knighton, Stephen Paea, and Ricky Jean-Francois) to help him out.

It appears that Jonathan Hankins could be a good player on the Giants' interior, and then it gets shaky. Cullen Jenkins is 34 and in decline, and has gotten reps at defensive end in OTAs. As for the Cowboys, Tyrone Crawford is turning into a nice player, but I have no idea how Nick Hayden is a starter in the NFL.

Edge rushers (3-4 OLB, 4-3 DE)

 RankTeam Players 
 1Eagles Connor Barwin, Brandon Graham, Vinny Curry, Marcus Smith
 2Giants Jason Pierre-Paul, Robert Ayers, Damontre Moore, Owamagbe Ogidhizuwa 
 3Redskins  Ryan Kerrigan, Preston Smith, Trent Murphy
 4Cowboys Demarcus Lawrence, Jeremy Mincey, Greg Hardy, Randy Gregory

Again, it's the Eagles. Connor Barwin very much deserved his Pro Bowl bid last season, as there isn't much he doesn't do well. Brandon Graham will get the first real chance of his career to be an impact player as a starter on the edge. Whenever he has gotten opportunities as a pass rusher, he has produced. It will be interesting to see what kind of numbers he can put up as a full time starter. And then there's Vinny Curry, who won't be standing up and playing any 3-4 OLB for the Eagles, but he absolutely has a role as an edge rusher. Of Curry's nine sacks last season, six came when he lined up outside the tackle. 80.9% of his snaps came when opponents were passing last season. He is an edge rusher who moves inside on occasion, so for the purpose of this exercise, I think he fits here best. Barwin, Graham, and Curry combined for 29 sacks and 10 forced fumbles last season. They make plays.

Jason Pierre-Paul was quiet for a couple years after his outstanding 2011 season, but he broke out again in garbage time last season, racking up nine sacks in his last five games. If he is truly back to form, he's probably the most talented pass rusher in the division, and I like the potential of the surrounding supporting cast in Ayers, Moore, and Odighizuwa.

The Redskins have some nice talent on the outside too, especially in Ryan Kerrigan. They'll hope that Preston Smith and/or Trent Murphy, both second round picks in 2015 and 2014 respectively, can step up.

Meanwhile there's a lot of buzz on the Cowboys' pass rushers. I don't get it. If anyone is expecting Randy Gregory to dominate from Day 1, keep in mind that there were 17 edge rushers drafted in the first round from 2012-2014. They averaged 3.4 sacks their rookie seasons. Meanwhile, awful human Greg Hardy is a talented player, but he's going to miss the first 10 games of the season unless the NFL lowers his suspension after appeal. The Cowboys had 28 sacks in 2014, the fifth lowest total in the NFL. Unless second year pro Demarcus Lawrence has a huge jump from year one to year two or Hardy's suspension is lowered drastically, I don't see where they're going to get a big bump in pressure on the QB.

Linebackers (3-4 ILB, 4-3 ILB/OLB)

Rank Team Players 
 1Eagles Kiko Alonso, DeMeco Ryans, Mychal Kendricks, Jordan Hicks, Brad Jones 
 2Cowboys Sean Lee, Rolando McClain, Anthony Hitchens, Jasper Brinkley, Kyle Wilber 
 3Giants Devon Kennard, Jon Beason, J.T. Thomas, Mark Herzlich, Jameel McClain 
 4Redskins Perry Riley, Keenan Robinson, Will Compton 

Once again, it's the Eagles. This time it isn't close. The Birds are very deep and talented at inside linebacker, for now. We'll see if they try to deal Mychal Kendricks, but my best guess is that he'll remain with the team in 2015.

The Cowboys' got unexpectedly good play from Rolando McClain last season, and they'll get Sean Lee back from injury for a little while until he shatters something. The Giants, as usual, have little to be excited about at linebacker, although Devon Kennard could be a good young player. The Redskins' linebackers are wholly uninspiring. Perry Riley looked like he might be a good player early in his career, but he'll be challenged by 2013 UDFA Will Compton for his starting job.


Rank Team Players 
 1Cowboys Brandon Carr, Orlando Scandrick, Byron Jones, Morris Claiborne 
 2Giants Prince Amukamara, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, Trumaine McBride, Jayron Hosley 
 3EaglesByron Maxwell, Eric Rowe, Brandon Boykin, Nolan Carroll 
 4Redskins  DeAngelo Hall, Chris Culliver, Bashaud Breeland, David Amerson

The Cowboys probably have the best set of corners in the division. Brandon Carr has not come close to living up to the $50 million deal he signed as a free agent, but he and Orlando Scandrick form a decent duo at CB. Scandrick can play, and I really liked UConn rookie Byron Jones leading up to the draft. He might be good from Day 1. And then there's draft bust Morris Claiborne, who has been an enormous disappointment, but will have one last chance to produce before his rookie contract expires. 

The Giants have a solid pair in Prince Amukamara and old friend DRC, but they're in big trouble if anyone gets hurt.

As for the Eagles, Byron Maxwell will start at one spot and likely be a nice upgrade over Cary Williams, and the Eagles will hope Eric Rowe can go out and win the starting job opposite him. If not, it could be Nolan Carroll on the outside.

The Redskins' corners were brutally bad in 2014. Opposing QBs threw for 35 touchdowns and just 7 picks against the Skins last year. Gross. Chris Culliver may have been the beneficiary of a great Niners front seven, but he'll still help the Skins to some degree, as will the looooong overdue firing of defensive coordinator Jim Haslett. But the Skins have a long way to go at corner.


Rank Team Players 
 1Nobody N/A 
 T-2Eagles Malcolm Jenkins, Walter Thurmond? Earl Wolff? Jaylen Watkins? Tim Tebow? 
 T-2Cowboys Barry Church, J.J. Wlicox 
 3Giants Landon Collins, Cooper Taylor? Nat Berhe?
 4 Redskins Dashon Goldson, Jeron Johnson? Duke Ihenacho?

Wanna know how bad safety play is in the NFL, and more specifically, the NFC East? I have no idea who is going to start at safety opposite Malcolm Jenkins, and there's an argument to be made that the Eagles have the best safety situation in the division. Jenkins is the best safety in the division, and whoever wins the other starting job likely won't be much worse than any of the the other teams' #2 safety, so that's my logic putting the Eagles tied at second place with the Cowboys atop the division. (I can't in good conscience rank any of these teams #1).

The Cowboys at least have two returning starters at safety. So they have that going for them, I guess. The Giants will be starting a rookie and likely either Cooper Taylor (5 career snaps) or Nat Berhe (32 career snaps).

As for the Redskins, I'm actually a little intrigued to see Jeron Johnson play, but we're talking about a guy here with 275 career snaps in four NFL seasons, albeit on a team with two stud safeties. They also traded for Dashon Goldson, who played like hot burning trash the last two seasons for the Bucs.


Rank Team 
 1 Eagles 

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