By Matt Citak
The 2017 Hall of Fame Game between the Dallas Cowboys and the Arizona Cardinals takes place this Thursday, meaning from now until February, there will be football on every weekend. With the most glorious time of the year finally here, we are going to take a look at each division around the NFL and break down the best player at each position, on both offense and defense. First up is potentially the strongest division in the NFL, the NFC East.
QB: Dak Prescott, Dallas Cowboys
This decision was a close one between Prescott and Washington’s Kirk Cousins, but the Cowboy gets the nod after his stellar rookie season that saw him take Tony Romo’s job from right under him. Prescott completed 67.8 percent of his passes for 3,667 yards with an impressive 23-4 touchdown-to-interception ratio, adding 282 yards and six touchdowns on the ground. While teams now have NFL game tape on the QB (unlike last year), Prescott still has the vaunted Dallas o-line in front of him, meaning he should have plenty of time in the backfield this season. Look for last year’s Offensive Rookie of the Year to improve on his strong rookie campaign.
RB: Ezekiel Elliott, Dallas Cowboys
Many were shocked when Prescott finished with seven more votes than Elliott for Rookie of the Year. The rookie back could not be stopped last year, carrying the ball 322 times for a league-best 1,631 yards (5.1 yards per carry) and 15 touchdowns on his way to a third place finish for NFL MVP. Elliott’s aggressive run style is a major factor of his success, as he racked up 938 yards after contact last season, according to Pro Football Focus. Similar to Prescott, Elliott has the benefit of running behind one of the best offensive lines in the league with the Cowboys. If he can stay away from the issues off the field, Elliott is primed for another big season.
WR: Odell Beckham Jr., New York Giants
It’s easy to let his big personality overshadow his performance on the field, but Beckham has put together one of the greatest starts to a receiver’s career in NFL history. He has tied or broken countless NFL records, and has been one of the most consistent receivers over the last three seasons. Last year was the first season that saw Beckham appear in all 16 games, and it is no coincidence that it also led to the star receiver’s first campaign with 100+ receptions. Beckham has made headlines recently by saying he wants to be the NFL’s highest paid player. While that seems more like a pipe dream, if he can keep up this level of production, Beckham could soon find himself as the league’s highest-paid wide receiver.
WR: Dez Bryant, Dallas Cowboys
Bryant had a down year in 2016, finishing the season with 50 receptions for 796 yards and eight touchdowns in 13 games. The dominance of Dallas’ run game was likely a big reason for the dip in Bryant’s numbers, but the receiver still managed to average a career-high 15.9 yards per catch. With Prescott now having a full year as the Cowboys quarterback under his belt, as well as the growing relationship between the signal-caller and star receiver, Bryant is a strong candidate to have a bounce-back season.
WR: Alshon Jeffery, Philadelphia Eagles
Jeffery is one of the more interesting players in the division. The former second-round pick is a newcomer to the NFC East after playing his first five seasons with the Bears, and adds even more talent to the already deep wide receiver depth within the division. Jeffery caught 52 receptions for 821 yards last season, but finished with a career-low two touchdowns, so the change of scenery could not be coming at a better time. While the talent is there, the biggest knock on the 27-year old is his health; Jeffery has missed at four or more games in three of his five seasons. If he can stay on the field, Jeffery will provide Carson Wentz with the big, talented target that the rookie QB was missing last season.
TE: Jordan Reed, Washington Redskins
This was one of the easiest decisions on the list, as Reed has developed into one of the NFL’s top tight ends over the last two years. During that span, the tight end has caught 153 passes for 1,638 yards and 17 touchdowns, and that is with him missing five games. Reed is one of the most athletic tight ends in the NFL, which helps make him a very dangerous red zone threat. With the departures of Desean Jackson and Pierre Garcon, Reed will likely receive an increase in targets from quarterback Kirk Cousins, who will need Reed to become his go-to safety valve. All signs point to a huge season from Reed.
LT: Trent Williams, Washington Redskins
Williams missed four games last season due to a suspension, but when he was on the field, Williams was the best left tackle in the NFL. The 29-year-old lineman earned the highest grade among all offensive tackles by Pro Football Focus after allowing just 16 QB pressures across 12 starts. Williams was dominant in both pass protection and run blocking, and was even briefly moved to guard due to other injuries among Washington’s offensive linemen and still played well. The 6-foot-5 lineman had what could be considered the strongest season of his career in 2016, and finally seems to be living up to his potential as a top-five pick.
LG: Justin Pugh, New York Giants
After being moved from right tackle earlier in his career, Pugh has found a nice home as New York’s left guard. The veteran received the 16th-highest grade among all guards in 2016 by Pro Football Focus, who noted how significantly better the Giants o-line played when he was in the lineup. He did miss five games due to injury, but even with the absence, PFF graded Pugh as the fourth-best run blocking guard in the NFL last year. The Giants love to use Pugh’s athleticism to pull and trap, which should provide a nice boost to New York’s running game. Pugh will be playing for a new contract this season, so don’t be surprised if he ends up having one of his best seasons.
C: Travis Frederick, Dallas Cowboys
Frederick has been the most consistent player on the Cowboys’ offensive line for the last three seasons, which says a lot considering how strong that group is. The 26-year-old followed up two seasons as a second team All-Pro with his first season as a first-team All-Pro, and has developed into one of the smartest players in the league. Prescott himself attributed a large part of his success last season to the guidance and play of his center. Frederick has not allowed a sack in over two seasons, and his mobility and technique in the run blocking game is a sight to behold. The center has also found a way to remain healthy throughout his first four seasons, starting all 16 games in each campaign. Frederick will look to add to his resume this season as one of the NFL’s top centers.
RG: Zack Martin, Dallas Cowboys
Martin has been to the Pro Bowl in all three of his seasons in the NFL, and has been a first or second-team All-Pro in all three as well, solidifying himself as one of the league’s best guards. Martin is strong in pass protection, allowing only two sacks last season, but it is his run blocking that is truly impressive. Ezekiel Elliot led all running backs in yards before contact last year with 540, and the biggest reason for that is the push Martin was able to get off the line. With Doug Free leaving in free agency, Martin becomes an even more important part of Dallas’ offensive line, and will have to take the new starting right tackle (La’el Collins) under his wing.
RT: Lane Johnson, Philadelphia Eagles
Due to his 10-game suspension last season, many have forgotten just how good Lane Johnson is. Johnson emerged as one of the best right tackles in the league over the last few seasons, and it showed in the six games he appeared in during 2016. His 86.7 run-blocking grade from PFF was one of the top grades among tackles, and he also did not allow even one sack. With the suspension in his rear view mirror, Johnson is looking forward to re-establishing his reputation as one of the NFL’s best offensive linemen.