In the past year or so, the NFC East has gone from one of the worst divisions in the NFL to arguably the best. Every team has a chance to win the division crown, and both the Giants and Cowboys are legitimate Super Bowl contenders.
It’s no surprise that the division is littered with talent from top to bottom, which is what makes it such a strong group of four teams. In the first of an eight-part series, we ranked the 15 best players in the NFC East, which was difficult to do, given the stars that play on the four teams.
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Dez Bryant, WR, Cowboys
Jason Pierre-Paul, DE, Giants
Malcolm Jenkins, S, Eagles
Sean Lee, LB, Cowboys
Kirk Cousins, QB, Redskins
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Dak Prescott, QB, Cowboys
Prescott shocked the world last season to win Offensive Rookie of the Year behind his 23 touchdown passes and four interceptions. He was a legitimate MVP candidate and one can only assume he’s going to get better as time goes on. That should scare the rest of the division (and NFL, quite frankly) because he was near-perfect in 2016. It’ll be tough for him to build upon his stellar rookie campaign, but he’s a rising star in not only the NFC East but in the entire league. The Cowboys just have to hope he doesn’t have a sophomore slump the way Robert Griffin III did, which doesn’t seem likely.
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Olivier Vernon, DE, Giants
Vernon and Jason Pierre-Paul were very close on this list because they’re both outstanding defensive ends. However, Vernon gets the slight edge. Although he only had one more sack in four additional games last season, Vernon was constantly around the quarterback putting pressure on them in the pocket. That’s not to say Pierre-Paul wasn’t, but Vernon constantly faces the best tackles in the league, considering he plays right end. He gave quarterbacks and left tackles fits last season and will continue to do so in 2017.
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Brandon Graham, DE, Eagles
Just by looking at the numbers, you wouldn’t think Graham was an elite pass rusher. He hasn’t recorded more than 6.5 sacks in a single season and has only 8.5 more sacks in his career than J.J. Watt had in 2014 alone. However, while he doesn’t always get to the quarterback, he’s constantly applying pressure and making QBs uncomfortable in the pocket. According to Pro Football Focus, he finished with 82 total pressures and 40 defensive stops lasrt season, which ranked among the best in the NFL. He’s a player you can’t judge by his sack totals because he never finishes toward the top.
Landon Collins, S, Giants
Collins burst onto the scene in 2016 with a season worthy of winning Defensive Player of the Year. He did everything on the field, recording 125 tackles, four sacks, five interceptions (one pick-six) and defended 13 passes. His improvements in coverage made a world of difference for the second-year safety, and his arrow continues to point up. If he can keep getting better, he’ll be an Eric Berry-type player for the Giants for years to come. Few safeties make as many plays all over the field as he does.
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Jordan Reed, TE, Redskins
Reed isn’t your typical tight end. He’s not a great blocker, but you can line him up anywhere on the field – from the backfield to a boundary receiver – and trust that he’s going to make plays consistently. The biggest issue with Reed is his injury history, which has limited him to just 46 games in four seasons. His best season came in 2015, when he caught 87 passes for 952 yards and 11 touchdowns in only 14 games (nine starts). If he can stay healthy for an entire season, he’ll prove to be a top-five tight end in the game.
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Josh Norman, CB, Redskins
Norman said 2016 was his best season as a pro, and while numbers say otherwise, he seems to know his game better than anyone else. Regardless, he’s one of the best cornerbacks in the game today, and that’ll become even more apparent in 2017 when the Redskins use him to shadow No. 1 receivers more often, which they’ve said they’ll do. He’s debunked the notion that he can only play in a Cover 2 scheme like he did with the Panthers and can thrive in man coverage.
Janoris Jenkins, CB, Giants
Jenkins doesn’t get discussed among the best cornerbacks in the NFL, but he was a stud for the Giants last season. He shut down the likes of Dez Bryant, Terrelle Pryor and just about every receiver he lined up across from, limiting the number of big plays he allowed – his Achilles’ heel with the Rams. He’s the type of player who you can stick on a team’s No. 1 receiver and not have to worry about him getting 100 yards and a touchdown. That’s a big asset for a team like the Giants – and any team, really.
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Zack Martin, RG, Cowboys
Martin has quickly established himself as a premier guard at the NFL level. In three seasons, he’s made three Pro Bowls and was a first-team All-Pro twice (2014, 2016). He’s not only outstanding in the passing game at right guard, but he and Travis Frederick work to open up gaping holes inside for Ezekiel Elliott. You’ll rarely see Dak Prescott face pressure off his right side because Martin is so good in pass protection. He’s athletic enough to pull around on power running plays, which is a staple of the Cowboys’ offense.
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Damon Harrison, DT, Giants
You could poll 20 NFL players, and at least 19 would tell you Harrison is the best run stopper in the league. He established that title as a nose tackle with the Jets, but he’s made a seamless transition to 4-3 defensive tackle with the Giants. While he doesn’t offer much as a pure pass rusher the way Fletcher Cox and Aaron Donald can get after the quarterback, he does eat up blocks and open up opportunities for Olivier Vernon and Jason Pierre-Paul.
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Fletcher Cox, DT, Eagles
Cox is a player who gives interior offensive linemen nightmares the night before a game. He can get after the quarterback, shed blocks to stop running backs behind the line of scrimmage and just bully guards and centers for 60 minutes. His versatility as both a pass rusher and a run stopper give him a slight edge over Harrison, who’s far and away the NFL’s best run defender at defensive tackle.
Travis Frederick, C, Cowboys
Frederick is the best center in the game, and if you wanted to, you could convince me he’s the best offensive lineman around. The center position tends to get devalued a bit because it’s not a premier spot on the offensive line, but Frederick is so good that it’s almost as if you forget he’s playing. That’s what you want from your center because it means the quarterback isn’t being pressured up the middle and that holes are opening up in the running game. The latter is where Frederick thrives, proving to be one of the top run blockers in the NFL.
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Ezekiel Elliott, RB, Cowboys
Elliott might just be the best running back in the NFL, depending on your cup of tea with Le’Veon Bell and David Johnson being more versatile weapons. However, in the NFC East, it’s not even close. Elliott was a big reason for Dallas’ success last season, leading the league in rushing with 1,631 yards and 15 touchdowns. You could almost plug him into any starting lineup and he’d immediately be one of the two best players on that side of the ball. An underrated aspect of his game is pass protection, where he rarely makes mistakes and gets his quarterback hit.
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Tyron Smith, LT, Cowboys
Smith is an absolute monster, both physically and talent-wise. He’s the anchor of the Cowboys’ dominant offensive line and assures everyone that Dak Prescott will be well protected on the left side, which is huge for a young quarterback. Despite missing three games in 2016, Smith was still a first-team All-Pro – the second time he’s earned that designation. There are very few offensive linemen better than Smith right now in the NFL.
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Trent Williams, LT, Redskins
You could make the case that Williams is the best left tackle in the game despite missing games due to injury and suspension. He’s just barely the top blind side protector in the NFC East, edging out Dallas’ Tyron Smith. He’s outstanding in the running game and has been a stud as a pass blocker, too, which makes him a dominant player on the left side. You just plug him in and rid yourself of any concern at left tackle – or even at guard, in a pinch. He’s been great for a long, long time.
Odell Beckham Jr., WR, Giants
It’s not often a wide receiver is the best player on his team, let alone in the entire division. However, Beckham is a different type of player, and he isn’t your typical receiver. He might be the best wideout in the NFL next to Julio Jones and Antonio Brown, but his ceiling is even higher. Entering just his fourth season, Beckham has a chance to improve his already outstanding resume with an All-Pro year for the Giants. He’ll most likely catch 100 passes and have north of 1,500 yards with double-digit touchdowns, especially with Brandon Marshall there to draw coverage to the other side of the field.