Who Will Be Top Dog in the NFC East?

Who Will Be Top Dog in the NFC East?

It's a simple truth, one there is really no need to debate: right now the NFC East is the toughest division in pro football. No division can claim to have four bigger market teams with more ravenous fan bases than the Eagles, Giants, Cowboys, and Redskins, and no division can claim to have four teams that play competitive football more routinely. Simply put, there aren't many gimmes in the NFC East.

Predicting who is going to come out on top isn't a whole lot easier. Last season, the Giants edged Philly and Dallas by one win, with their division championship boiling down to the final game of the season against the Cowboys on Sunday Night Football. Only the Redskins were also-rans, and they figure to be vastly improved this year.

The question is, who do you think will take it this year? We took a quick look at each team in the division, and we want to hear what you think.

Philadelphia Eagles

One thing you have to understand, the Eagles are traditionally very good within their own division. Last season they went 5-1 against NFC East opponents. In 2009 and '10, they were 4-2. It's a hallmark of Andy Reid teams, who are 38-22 against their rivals since the league went to four-team divisions in 2002.

They split with the Giants last season, but as we detail below, have been very strong against the team to the north. They demolished the Cowboys twice by a combined score of 54-14, granted Dallas was waving the white flag after the first quarter in meeting number two. They similarly pounded the Redskins 54-23, though they were already waving the white flag when the season began.

None of that necessarily means anything for next year. The Giants are the reigning world champions, the Cowboys are improved, and the Redskins could be a whole new team. Still, it's comforting to know there is something Reid does that gets his team prepared for these games. In 2011, the team that wore the crown last year finished 4-2 or better in six of eight divisions, at least 5-1 in five.

That looks good for the Eagles if they can continue to have success against the East, which is not a given. Two of their opponents got better over the offseason, and the other just won the Super Bowl.

Washington Redskins

The Redskins have had exactly four winning seasons in the last 19 years, and last reached the playoffs in 2007. However, there is reason to believe Washington could soon step out of the shadow that's been cast by the rest of the NFC East.

The Skins front office paid a steep price to move up four spots in April's draft to second overall, sending their first-round picks for the next two years and more to St. Louis to acquire Robert Griffin III. For a team that's won 15 games in the last three seasons combined, it will have been worth it if he becomes their franchise quarterback.

It's too early to anoint RG3 anything, but he instantly transforms Washington into a more credible opponent on any given Sunday. As we've seen in the past, whether it was Cam Newton in 2011, or Michael Vick when he entered the league with the Falcons, the combination of a pass-run threat under center can prove very difficult to defend even when it's a rookie. And Griffin is more advanced as a passer than either of those guys at this stage of their career, making him especially dangerous.

The Redskins are going to win more games this year, that much we're confident about. As far as climbing out of the basement and making a playoff bid is concerned, they are likely a few pieces away. The pieces around Griffin are lacking, and while the defense has a very good front seven, that secondary looks abysmal. They'll give teams trouble though, and it's a big reason why the East will once again be the toughest division in the NFL.

Dallas Cowboys

The Cowboys and Tony Romo remind us of the Eagles under Donovan McNabb in a manner of speaking. Obviously Dallas has been far less successful, but as outside observers, there's that appearance of Here they go again with a guy who hasn't won the big one. Heck, forget winning THE big one -- it seems Romo still hasn't won any big games.

To be fair, last season was one of Romo's best, and the fact the Cowboys finished 8-8 can hardly be blamed on him. That seems to be the problem in Dallas though. They finally get their quarterback to cut back on the horrible, hilariously ill-timed turnovers, mistakes, and all-around lousy performances, but they haven't seemed to complete the puzzle around him.

Which isn't to say Dallas won't have a good team this season, in fact they have one that could certainly win the East. They have tremendous talent at the skill positions, although none of them can seem to stay healthy, but the bigger problem is the interior of the offensive line still hasn't been addressed. The running game has suffered for years as a result, and Romo is constantly injured. He played 16 games last year, but battled rib injuries, plus missed 10 games in 2010 and three in '08.

That said, if Romo can survive a full season, one area that should see some improvement is the defense. The Cowboys completely revamped a secondary that ranked 23rd against the pass last season, which was seemed to be the primary source for the unit's issues. They've bolstered the ranks through free agency and the draft, so we'll see if it clears things up for Rob Ryan's group.

New York Giants

Like it or not, when they're the reigning Super Bowl champions, you have to admit the road to the top of the NFC East food chain goes through New York.

It was a traditional championship season for the Giants. Play just well enough to be a fringe Wild Card team only to watch the competition drop the ball, slip into a playoff spot, then get hot at the right time. That's how they did it in '07, that's how they did it last year. What it demonstrates is as long as they have Eli Manning and that destructive front four on defense, they will be in the mix.

The good news for the Eagles is they've had a great deal of success against the Giants recently. The Birds have taken seven of the last eight off of Big Blue -- eight of nine if you include postseason -- a run that goes back to 2008. New York finally broke up the winning streak with a W last season, then proceeded to lose the next tilt when Vince Young was under center.

So while the Giants are clearly the team to beat, the Eagles have had their number. That doesn't mean they will continue to own them in 2012, but New York is heading into the season with essentially the same squad as last season. It suggests the Birds can control their own destiny within the division as long as they take care of business elsewhere, just like last year.

One more Eagles victory, and the Giants don't even make the tournament -- now they're champions. Can't change history, but you can learn from it.

10 observations from Tuesday's Eagles OTAs

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10 observations from Tuesday's Eagles OTAs

The Eagles wrapped up their Tuesday practice just before 12:30 p.m. under a hot summer-like sun.

Tuesday was the first day of four in the team’s final week of OTAs, which are voluntary. The mandatory minicamp starts next Tuesday and runs through next Thursday.

That’s when we might see Fletcher Cox and Darren Sproles, both of whom have been staying away from the team during the voluntary period. And that’s where we’ll start with today’s 10 observations:

1. With Cox still out, Mike Martin was again working with the first team at defensive tackle next to Bennie Logan, as he was last week. Two weeks ago, Taylor Hart was next to Logan at tackle. Martin was a depth piece in Tennessee and that’s how he’ll fit with the Eagles once Cox comes back.

Martin was also involved in the first little scuffle we’ve seen during these spring practices. Nothing too exciting … just a little shoving with left guard Allen Barbre.

2. Sproles is still out, but Ryan Mathews returned. Mathews missed the last practice opened to the media with an illness but participated Tuesday. The interesting thing was that Mathews didn’t get all the first-team reps. In fact, Kenjon Barner actually opened the 7-on-7 and 11-on-11 portions of practice with the first team.

It’s early, but Barner has looked pretty good this spring. It’ll be interesting to see if he fits with the team. He’s ahead of rookie Wendell Smallwood now, but would the team really elect to keep him over a fifth-round pick? Or will the team be OK keeping four running backs again?

Another note: Rueben Randle (gallbladder surgery) is still out.

3. We saw a little trickery from Doug Pederson’s offense on Tuesday against no defense. First, Chase Daniel threw a lateral screen to Josh Huff, who threw down the right to Smallwood. Then, Carson Wentz threw a lateral pass to Nelson Agholor and then Wentz ran a route down the left sideline, but Agholor overthrew him.

Maybe the trick plays are just way to keep practice lighter, but it might also mean the offense is moving along nicely and installing more and more of the playbook. It’s a good sign.

4. Wentz was up and down on Tuesday, but his best completion came on a deep pass down the right sideline to wideout Xavier Rush (who is a candidate for best name on the team). Rush wrestled the ball away from corner C.J. Smith, who should know Wentz pretty well. The two played together at North Dakota State.

Meanwhile, Sam Bradford had a shaky day, throwing several balls that could have been picked off.

5. Again, Leodis McKelvin and Ron Brooks — the two Jim Schwartz guys in the secondary — were working with the first team. On Tuesday, Eric Rowe was the extra corner on the field in the nickel. When Rowe came in, Brooks shifted into the slot. It still looks like Nolan Carroll isn’t yet allowed to practice during team portions.

On the first play of 11 on 11s, Brooks broke up a pass from Bradford that was then picked off by Rodney McLeod and taken the other way. Not a good throw from Bradford, but Brooks was aggressive and jumped it.

6. Down by the goal line during the team period, Malcolm Jenkins made a nice play to get in front of a pass, but couldn’t pick it off. He’s in midseason form. Jenkins had a great year in 2015, but really struggled to intercept balls that he had in his hands.

7. Jordan Hicks didn’t participate in 7 on 7s or 11 on 11s Tuesday. Two weeks ago, he sat out with tightness in his legs, but returned last week. On Tuesday, with Hicks watching, Najee Goode filled in at first-team MIKE, flanked by Nigel Bradham and Mychal Kendricks.

8. Chase Daniel overthrew two balls badly within a few plays during the 11-on-11 drills, but then capped off a drive by dropping a ball into the hands of wideout Paul Turner in the back of the end zone. Decent day for Daniel.

9. The Eagles ran some scout team looks for the first time (that we’ve seen) on Tuesday. Daniel ran the scout team, which makes sense. Normally, it would be the third-string quarterback, but Wentz probably has plenty on his plate. Not sure who the offense was mimicking, but the two pinnies were Nos. 88 and 82. Perhaps the Cowboys?

10. At one point on Tuesday, the offense started to use a tempo offense, giving everyone in attendance flashbacks to Chip. Well, not exactly. The up-tempo didn’t last long and it did produce the ugliest Wentz pass since he’s been with the team.

We are seeing plenty of interesting looks from the Eagles. At times they’ve been using formations with three tight ends. And they even showed some designed quarterback runs on Tuesday. The progression and complexity of this offense is starting to be revealed by these practices and it’s something to keep an eye on.

Stupid Observation of the Day: Punter Donnie Jones has begun to wear a pretty sweet white and blue bucket hat at practice when he’s not wearing his helmet. Only a punter could get away with this. Here, you can see him in the background from last week.

Phillies-Nationals 5 things: Calling on Aaron Nola to stop 4-game skid

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Phillies-Nationals 5 things: Calling on Aaron Nola to stop 4-game skid

Phillies (26-25) vs. Nationals (31-21)
7:05 p.m. on CSN

The Phillies are in a rut, an expected rut given their recent schedule.

On Tuesday, they'll try to get back on track behind the young right-hander who's emerging as their stopper.

Let's take a look at the second of their 10-game homestand:

1. Not measuring up
The Phillies have lost six of their last seven games and are riding their first four-game losing streak since they started the year 0-4. Prior to last week, they'd done a decent job this season of avoiding lengthy skids, but this is definitely the toughest stretch they've faced in 2016.

Over these seven games, the Phils have been outscored 34-21 by the Tigers, Cubs and Nationals, three veteran teams filled with power. Two of the games have been decided by one run and the Phillies lost both after holding late leads. 

At 14-5, the Phils still have far and away the majors' best record in one-run games, but this is what regression looks like. Hector Neris wasn't going to go through a full season without a hiccup. And the best example of how unsustainably productive he's been was that even after allowing three runs in just two-thirds of an inning, Neris' ERA is still 2.20. It's difficult for a reliever to get hit around and still have that low an ERA, especially this early in the season.

If the Phillies lose again tonight, they'll be right at .500 for the first time since they were 10-10. They've spent the last 33 days of the season with a winning record.

2. Nola gets the nod
Jeremy Hellickson turned in his second straight excellent outing against the Nationals on Memorial Day and Aaron Nola looks to do the same.

Nola, like Hellickson, struggled the first time he faced Washington this season, allowing seven earned runs in five innings.

Nola, like Hellickson, rebounded the next time he faced the Nats — both allowed two hits over seven shutout innings in their second start against Washington.

Now Nola looks to build upon that success the way Hellickson did Monday night, when he lowered his own ERA to 3.68 by allowing a run on three hits over seven innings.

Nola is 4-3 with a 2.86 ERA in 10 starts this season. He's struck out 70, walked 12 and allowed five home runs in 66 innings. His opponents have hit .200.

Nola has missed more bats and struck out more batters at the major-league level than anyone expected. His control has been as advertised — he's walked just 31 batters in 143⅔ career innings. This season, he's cut his home run rate in half. He allowed 11 in 77⅔ innings as a rookie.

Nola continues to lead the National League with 242 called strikes, 17 more than Tanner Roark, who is second. That number speaks to the effectiveness of Nola's knee-buckling curveball, which has generated 65 swings-and-misses, second-most in the majors to Jose Fernandez's 77. (Jerad Eickhoff is third in the NL with 33.)

Current Nationals are 19 for 65 (.292) against Nola with two doubles, a triple, two homers and 18 strikeouts. Bryce Harper, who left Monday's game in the seventh inning after being hit by a pitch on the knee, is 6 for 10 with two of those home runs. Jayson Werth and Anthony Rendon have also taken Nola deep.

3. Harper out?
Harper left the game in the seventh with what was diagnosed a right knee contusion. It would obviously be a huge relief for the Phillies if he's out of the lineup Tuesday, especially considering how he's hit lately at Citizens Bank Park.

Harper brought into Monday's game a streak of six straight games with a home run at Citizens Bank Park, tying the longest home run streak in MLB history for any player at a visiting stadium. 

Harper, who hit .330 last season, won an MVP and led the NL in practically every meaningful offensive category, has been in a lengthy slump. Over his last 32 games, he's hit .183 with just five extra-base hits in 133 plate appearances. Teams have stopped pitching to him. Harper has 35 walks over that span, nine intentional.

But Harper is obviously a threat any time he comes to the plate, and he's hit pretty much any pitcher the Phillies have thrown at him the last two years. In 104 plate appearances against them since the start of 2015, Harper has hit .346 with three doubles, 11 homers, 23 RBIs, 21 walks and 23 strikeouts.

4. Another crack at Ross
Nationals right-hander Joe Ross (4-4, 2.52) makes his 10th start of the season tonight against the Phils. He shut them down on April 15 in his second start, pitching 7⅔ shutout innings in his best outing of the year.

Ross has allowed one run or fewer in five of nine starts and two earned runs or fewer in seven of nine. He's given up more than three earned runs just once all season, on May 10 against the Tigers.

The younger brother of Padres opening-day starter Tyson Ross, Joe is mostly a three-pitch pitcher who throws a lot of sinkers and sliders. When he faced the Phillies earlier this season he threw 55 sinkers, 38 sliders and 14 changeups. 

Like his brother, Joe Ross loves the slider with two strikes, throwing it 73 percent of the time this season with two strikes on a right-handed hitter. His opponents this year are 16 for 92 (.174) against the slider with four home runs and 37 strikeouts.

Lefties (.295 BA, .757 OPS) have hit him much better than righties (.209, .598). Might that mean another start for Ryan Howard?

5. This and that
• Carlos Ruiz is 0 for 21 over his last six starts and is down to .222 on the season.

• Daniel Murphy had three more hits and drove in three runs against the Phillies last night. He's a .313/.363/.487 career hitter against them in 457 plate appearances. Playing in the NL East the last eight seasons, Murphy has hit lower than .293 just once vs. the Phils.

• Freddy Galvis, who homered off Roark on Monday, has hit well at home this season with a .284 batting average and .779 OPS in 85 plate appearances. Galvis is 12 for 33 (.364) over his last eight games overall with four doubles, a triple and a homer.

• Jonathan Papelbon has faced the Phillies six times since they traded him to the Nationals last summer. In those six games, he's allowed nine runs (six earned) and put 13 men on base. The Phils have seven hits (five doubles) against him in 2⅔ innings this season.

Source: Former Eagles safety Walter Thurmond retires at 28

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Source: Former Eagles safety Walter Thurmond retires at 28

Defensive back Walter Thurmond, who had a productive year with the Eagles in 2015 in his first season as a safety, is retiring at 28, a source confirmed to CSNPhilly.com's Dave Zangaro.

The news of Thurmond's retirement was initially reported by ESPN's Adam Schefter.

Thurmond was finally able to stay healthy in 2015. He played 16 games for the first time in his career, finishing with 71 tackles, three interceptions, two sacks and two forced fumbles. Thurmond and Malcolm Jenkins formed one of the NFL's better safety duos, but the Eagles upgraded the position even more by signing Rodney McLeod to a five-year deal.

Thurmond battled injuries throughout his six-year NFL career, missing 44 of 80 games over his first five seasons. A broken fibula cost him most of the 2011 season, he missed significant time in 2012 with a hamstring injury, and a torn pectoral limited him to two games in 2014.