NFC East check-in: How Commanders stack up after draft

When Jack Del Rio tweets, the Washington Commanders defensive coordinator doesn’t usually chime in to the discussion about his team. But last week, after the draft had settled, Del Rio replied to someone who noted that CBS Sports had moved the Commanders up 12 spots in its NFL power rankings.

The Commanders went from 24th to 12th, the biggest jump in the NFL.

“That was smart,” Del Rio tweeted.

One network’s optimism that Washington has undergone a substantial upgrade this offseason might be a bit of an outlier, though.

The Commanders’ biggest move was trading for quarterback Carson Wentz — after which a few oddsmakers actually lengthened the team’s Super Bowl odds. And most talent evaluators have given the team lukewarm grades on its draft selections. 

As of now, there seems to be a perception that in the NFC East, Washington is still trailing the Dallas Cowboys and the Philadelphia Eagles as the Burgundy and Gold look to make significant strides in coach Ron Rivera’s third year. In that same CBS Sports power rankings, the Commanders still rank below the Cowboys (12th) and the Eagles (11th).

That Dallas and Philadelphia would be regarded as better teams is understandable. The Cowboys, after all, won the division this past season, and the Eagles made the playoffs. Washington, by comparison, finished third at 7-10. Neither Dallas nor Philadelphia appeared to get dramatically worse this offseason, though the Cowboys traded wideout Amari Cooper to Cleveland.

In Philadelphia’s case, the Eagles might have improved the most of anyone in the NFC East, if not the NFL. Philadelphia arguably made the splashiest move of the draft when it acquired star wide receiver A.J. Brown from the Tennessee Titans and promptly gave the 2019 second-rounder a four-year, $100 million deal.  

The trade for Brown — one of the league’s top young receivers — was one of the many ways Eagles general manager Howie Roseman aggressively attacked the offseason. Earlier in free agency, Philadelphia bolstered its pass rush by signing edge rusher Haason Reddick to a three-year, $45 million deal. Reddick, after a slow start to his career, is coming off of consecutive double-digit sack seasons.

Then in the draft, the Eagles were praised for selections such as first-round defensive tackle Jordan Davis and third-round linebacker Nakobe Dean — two standouts from Georgia. Philadelphia earned the fourth-highest “GPA” in this year’s draft, according to a roundup of grades from Twitter user Rene Bugner. Of 29 analysts in the compilation, 19 gave the Eagles no lower than an A-minus for their haul.

The Cowboys, meanwhile, have had a quieter offseason. Their most notable move was to trade Amari Cooper to the Browns, but Dallas has also spent time trying to repair its offensive line. The team used a first-rounder on tackle Tyler Smith and a fifth-rounder on Matt Waletzko. 

If the Cowboys can protect quarterback Dak Prescott, they figure to again have an explosive offense in 2022. Last season, Dallas ranked first in points and yards as it racked up a 12-5 record. There’s little reason to think the Cowboys’ offense shouldn’t remain a threat. Despite losing Cooper, Dallas has wideouts CeeDee Lamb and Michael Gallup, the latter of whom re-signed on a five-year, $62.5 million deal. 

There is, of course, a fourth team in the NFC East: the New York Giants. But the Giants are a team in transition. New general manager Joe Schoen has been busy trying to remedy former executive Dave Gettleman’s mistakes and as a result, New York isn’t expected to be much of a factor next season. On Monday, the cap-strapped Giants released Pro Bowl cornerback James Bradberry to save $10 million.

For New York, this could be quarterback Daniel Jones’ last year with the Giants. New York’s new regime failed to pick up the 2019 first-rounder’s fifth-year option, setting the stage for the sides to part ways in 2023 unless Jones improves. If he does, the Giants could always give the quarterback the franchise tag.

Yet, for all the projections, things can change fast in the NFL. The Commanders were expected to finish last in the division in 2020 and ended up winning it, albeit with a record under .500. This year, Washington is banking that Wentz’s arrival can lift the offense and that its defense also returns to form in order to finish atop the division. 

As much as Wentz appears vital to Washington’s plans, Washington will need bounce-back performances from edge rusher Chase Young and others on Del Rio’s unit. Young, in particular, recorded only 1½ sacks before suffering a torn ACL midway through his second season. 

After Del Rio’s tweet, a fan wrote that he was still worried about Washington’s pass defense and included a picture of the team’s rankings from last season. The Commanders allowed the fourth-most passing yards, for example. 

Rather than ignore it, Del Rio replied.

“Haha, your lack of confidence is obvious,” Del Rio wrote, including a surprised emoji. “Nice work on those numbers. Yes they will improve. But talk is cheap. PUTTIN THE WORK IN.”

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