The NFC East has surprisingly been one of the best divisions in football after years of mediocrity. Every team is at or above .500 and all four starting quarterbacks have a passer rating better than 87.7. Quarterback play is often the biggest determinant of a team’s success, and it’s a big reason the division has had so much success in 2016.
With Tony Romo injured and Sam Bradford in Minnesota, the East saw a shuffle at quarterback this season. Those two players were replaced by a pair of rookies in Dak Prescott and Carson Wentz, who have exceeded expectations for the most part in Year 1. They join a couple of veterans in Kirk Cousins and Eli Manning, bringing a youth movement to the division.
So who’s the best quarterback among the four starters this season? It’s not an easy choice to make as all four have talent to go along with deficiencies, but one stands above the rest.
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Carson Wentz, Philadelphia Eagles
The Philadelphia Eagles were obviously fine with giving Wentz the keys to the car this season after shipping Sam Bradford to Minnesota for a first- and fourth-round pick. They made the right move in doing so, but they’re also working through Wentz’s growing pains. That’s not to say Wentz has been bad, but he’s looked like a rookie after a 3--0 start.
With the game on the line, Wentz struggled mightily against the Giants on Sunday. He went 4-for-12 on the Eagles’ final three drives, failing to put the ball in the end zone with a chance to tie it. Not all of that falls on him, of course, but he has got to be better late in games, which he simply hasn’t been. In the fourth quarter, he’s completed 29 of 48 passes with zero touchdowns and an interception (68.8 passer rating).
On the season, Wentz’s numbers have been relatively good but not great. Certainly not as solid as they were in his first three starts, when he had five touchdown passes and no interceptions. He’s thrown for 1,890 yards, nine touchdowns and five interceptions in eight starts, completing 64.4 percent of his passes. His 6.9 yards per attempt leaves plenty to be desired, and while that’s not a direct indicator of how often a quarterback takes shots downfield, Wentz does often throw short passes rather than deep ones.
Wentz still has plenty of developing to do as he’s currently 30th in total QBR, but there are clearly signs of promise and potential. He has all of the tools – a big arm, athleticism, terrific work ethic, outstanding football IQ – to be a top quarterback in the NFL, and he just needs time to build on those assets.
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Eli Manning, New York Giants
Manning has been a stalwart for the Giants over the course of the past 13 seasons. He has 306 career touchdown passes and two Super Bowl rings, having made four Pro Bowls since 2008. However, he’s no longer one of the premier quarterbacks in the NFL despite having the most rings in the division since coming into the league in 2004. He’s been decent this season, but that’s about as far as his performance goes.
Manning has completed 64.4 percent of his passes for 2,241 yards, 12 touchdowns and eight interceptions. Like Kirk Cousins, he’s been the driving force behind the team’s offensive output, which has led to his 306 pass attempts. Manning is third in the division with a passer rating of 88.4 as well as 7.32 yards per attempt. As much as he’s struggled and dealt with the antics of Odell Beckham Jr., he’s been clutch in big moments.
This season, he’s led four game-winning drives, posting a passer rating above 100 in three of those four games. Only one of the Giants’ victories has been without a game-winning drive, which shows how fortunate New York is to have won five games this season.
Of course, he’s also had his poor moments. On Sunday alone, Manning threw two fourth-quarter interceptions with the Giants leading the game. The second of the two nearly cost New York a win as Wentz and the Eagles had 1:41 from the Giants’ 17-yard line to score a touchdown and tie the game with a two-point conversion.
It’s reasons like those that put Manning slightly behind Cousins but ahead of Wentz. He’s notorious for throwing interceptions at crucial moments, but he’ll sprinkle in a game-winning drive every now and then, too.
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Kirk Cousins, Washington Redskins
The Redskins were reluctant to give Cousins a long-term extension in the offseason. Cousins was happy to accept the franchise tag, essentially betting on himself to perform well and earn a lucrative deal in 2017. After eight games, the Redskins could easily be on their way to giving Cousins a long-term deal, making him their quarterback for years to come. There are still four months before they have to make that determination, but Cousins is going to make his money regardless in the offseason.
Though he’s not one of the best quarterbacks in the league, Cousins has shown that he has the ability to throw the ball 40 times a game and carry an offense that struggles to run the ball. This season, he’s completed 67 percent of his passes for a division-high 2,454 yards, 12 touchdowns and seven interceptions. His 93.1 passer rating is respectable – 17th in the NFL – while he’s also averaging 7.65 yards per attempt (second in the East).
Sure, he has made terrible mistakes at crucial moments (two red zone interceptions), but Cousins has also led the Redskins on three game-winning drives this season. He’s had his fair share of struggles just as most quarterbacks have, but over the past few weeks he’s played extremely well. Since Week 4, he’s thrown nine touchdown passes and just four interceptions with a passer rating of 97.4. In that span, he’s completed 69 percent of his passes.
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Dak Prescott, Dallas Cowboys
If you said back in July that the Dallas Cowboys were going into 2016 with the best quarterback in the NFC East, you probably wouldn’t have been looked at as if you were a lunatic. That’s because the Cowboys planned to start Tony Romo, not Dak Prescott. If you made that same statement in September, you’d have been checked into a hospital for fear that you suffered a blow to the head.
Prescott was merely an afterthought prior to Romo’s injury – hopefully a decent backup as a rookie. No one expected the Cowboys to win seven of their first eight games under Prescott. Not even the overly confident Jerry Jones predicted that was going to happen. However, all the rookie has done is win football games and take the league by storm.
He’s become the best quarterback in the NFC East this season, and it’s a huge reason the Cowboys are 7-1. Just take a look at the numbers. He has 2,020 passing yards, 12 touchdown passes and just two interceptions. Though he’s third in passing yards in the division, he has the most touchdowns passing and rushing combined (16) and the fewest interceptions (two). Additionally, his 104.2 passer rating and 8.15 yards per attempt are the best in the East by a wide margin. With Sunday’s performance, Prescott became the first rookie quarterback in league history with a passer rating above 100 in six of his first eight games.
Prescott doesn’t look like a rookie on the field, either. He’s poised under pressure, has become a real leader for the Cowboys and is commanding the huddle like few first-year quarterbacks have before. His dual-threat ability adds a new wrinkle to Dallas’ offense and is something no other quarterback in the NFC East possesses.
It’s hard to doubt this kid any longer after eight games of mostly stellar play, and he’s emerged as the best quarterback in the division this season, as hard as that is to believe.