Going strictly by Pro Football Focus (PFF) player grades, the Washington Football Team should be in excellent position to repeat as NFC East champions in 2021. Of course, going strictly by any type of player grade is a fool’s errand.
We all know the investor’s mantra “past performance is no guarantee of future results.” Furthermore, unpredictable injuries are such a crucial factor in the fortunes of any NFL team that predictions are destined to be haphazard.
Finally, PFF had Tampa Bay linebacker Devin White rated at No. 62 out of 83 eligible linebackers in 2020, 15 spots behind Washington’s Jon Bostic. No offense to Bostic, but would you trade him straight up for White? I think you would.
So the PFF grades are not foolproof. Still, as comprehensive rankings go, they are pretty good, tending to identify undervalued players, while poking holes in vets with inflated reps. So let’s take a snapshot of where the four NFC rosters stand according to those rankings as we head into the 2021 season.
If we define elite players as those rated in the top 20% at their position, then the Washington Football Team has the most elite players amongst projected starters in the division. Even better, they have the most evenly divided group, with three elite players on offense and four on defense.
Those players are Antonio Gibson (running back), Chase Roullier (center), Brandon Scherff (guard), Chase Young and Montez Sweat (edge defenders), Jonathan Allen (defensive lineman), and William Jackson III (cornerback).
Notice this list does not include Terry McLaurin or Daron Payne, who many would judge as elite. McLaurin falls just outside the top 20%, as does new receiver Curtis Samuel, while Payne falls just outside the top 30%.
Many other players, including Wes Schweitzer, Charles Leno Jr, Cole Holcomb and Kamren Curl, also figure in the top third of the league rankings. Interestingly, both of the Washington Football Team offensive tackles from 2020 – Cornelius Lucas and Morgan Moses – were also highly rated, but the team chose to move on from them. Lucas remains as a backup, providing excellent depth.
And in one of those weird PFF twists, Washington’s highest rated player from 2020, Jeremy Reaves, did not make the final roster this season, and awaits his chance to play on the practice squad.
The New York Giants, runners-up in 2020, match Washington with four elite level defenders, but only has one elite player on offense, and that player, receiver Sterling Shepard, does not appear to most to be better than Washington’s McLaurin. However, the Giant’s rankings do not account for either Saquon Barkley or Kenny Golladay, who have been elite players when healthy in the past.
Dallas has three elite players on offense and two on defense, while Philadelphia has just two on offense and one on defense.
Now, let’s go a bit deeper. The real strength of the Washington Football Team comes in its balance. There is no position group in which the starters’ average grade falls into the bottom half of the league. The safety position suffered last season due to Landon Collins’ subpar year, but even there, the average ranking for the projected starters is right around the league average. In other words, there is no real weakness on the roster.
The Giants, on the other hand, have a massive weakness along the offensive line. Their grades are horrendous, with no projected starter finishing in the top half of the league at their position.
Starting guard Shane Lemieux, who will effectively be taking over for the Giants best linemen over the past five years, Kevin Zeitler, was rated last out of all 80 guards who qualified for a grade in 2020. And Lemieux is currently injured. That strength at receiver and running back will be seriously hindered if the line fails to open holes for Barkley and protect Daniel Jones.
The Cowboys have a similar problem across their entire defense, which was dreadful in 2020. Demarcus Lawrence is an outstanding edge defender, but that’s just about the only sure thing they have. Donovan Wilson was the one bright spot in the defensive backfield last season, and Dallas is hoping for major contributions from rookies Micah Parsons and Osa Odighizuwa.
They’ll also be hoping for improved play from linebacker Keanu Neal and safety Damontae Kazee, both of whom recently arrived from Atlanta with new defensive coordinator Dan Quinn. In addition, the Cowboys have to hope that key offensive players like quarterback Dak Prescott, and tackles Tyron Smith and La’el Collins return from season-ending injuries. A lot is obviously riding on Prescott, but the two tackles, both of whom are into their 30s now, may be just as important.
The Eagles have a pretty good defensive line, but stalwarts Brandon Graham and Fletcher Cox are also both in their 30s, and their other defensive units are average. On offense, Jason Kelce, Brandon Brooks, and Lane Johnson – three of the best offensive linemen in the league over the past decade, are all past thirty.
Brooks is returning from a serious injury and Johnson hasn’t been entirely healthy in what seems like forever. Tight end Dallas Goedert is about the only sure thing they have. They are heavily invested in rookie DeVonta Smith, hoping he can elevate a subpar receiving unit.
So if the Football Team and the Giants have the most elite players, and if they were one and two last year, and if they don’t have the same age and injury concerns as Dallas and Philadelphia, does it make sense to make Washington the favorite to win again, with New York as a solid second choice?
Not so fast. This is where the Harry Potter/Quidditch/Snitch corollary comes into play. For those of you don’t already know, quidditch was the popular sport invented by J.K. Rowling in the Harry Potter series that consumed the wizarding world. It was kind of a team-handball-on-broomsticks sport, in which you could score by throwing a ball through a hoop in the sky. But while that part of the game was going on, two other players were trying to catch the elusive snitch. Catching the snitch ended the game and won so many points for the team that caught it as to render almost all the other types of goal-scoring meaningless. Basically, despite everything else that was going on, if you caught the snitch, you almost always won the game.
And that is essentially what quarterback play has become in the NFL in 2021. Unfortunately, Washington’s lowest-rated position is quarterback, where Ryan Fitzpatrick graded at exactly the 50 percent level in 2020. Not bad, but not good enough to inspire a lot of confidence.
And New York’s Daniel Jones finished one spot ahead of him. Meanwhile, the Cowboys Dak Prescott is clearly the highest-graded quarterback in the division. When healthy last season, playing behind a tattered line, he still graded out in the top ten amongst all quarterbacks league-wide, well ahead of Fitzpatrick and Jones.
Jalen Hurts and Gardner Minshew, who look to fight it out for the starting QB job in Philadelphia, are both graded lower than the starters for the other three teams, but at least Philly can hang it hopes on the fact the Hurts was a rookie last year and didn’t play until late in the season. Though he was shaky at times, he also showed real promise, and there is reason to believe he will take a big step forward this season.
If Prescott stays healthy and if Hurts does indeed improve, there is reason for optimism in both Dallas and Philadelphia. Then again, this may be the most talented team Ryan Fitzpatrick has ever quarterbacked, so even at 38, he might just be able to improve on his recent middle-of-the-road grades. If he can do that, the Washington Football Team has the roster to get back into the playoffs again in 2021.
You know – if you place any stock in PFF grades.