There are a variety of opinions about which quarterback in the NFC East is the best, which of course has a great bearing on the expected success of each team. Some believe the Dallas Cowboys have the cream of the crop in Dak Prescott as he builds on his phenomenal rookie year. Others think Carson Wentz of the Philadelphia Eagles has the highest ceiling and will start to approach it. Kirk Cousins gets some mentions in Washington, and fans of Eli Manning of the New York Giants always point to those two Super Bowl rings he owns.
But opinions are one thing. What about their performances last year? The folks at Football Outsiders, in conjunction with ESPN Insider, put together five rankings of the top (or bottom) ten quarterbacks in the league: Most accurate, least accurate, most aggressive (in getting to or beyond the first down marker), least aggressive, and overall most valuable compared to what else the team did offensively. Since that is behind the paywall, here are how the four NFC East passers did - and all four showed up on more than one of the lists. (All rankings are based on Football Outsiders’ proprietary statistical analysis, which has developed a very good reputation the past few years.)
4. Kirk Cousins
Cousins ranked in the top five in C%+ for the second season in a row, but he will have to make do without wide receivers Pierre Garcon and DeSean Jackson in 2017. Cousins' C%+ dropped from 6.6 percent when throwing to those two receivers to 3.9 percent on targets to other players, however, so he still would have ranked fourth without them.
6. Dak Prescott
Prescott had an all-around impressive rookie season. He was the top quarterback on out routes, completing 78.4 percent of them, and one of three quarterbacks to complete at least 50 percent of his go/fly routes where the average throw was 30.4 yards down the field.
Right away, Washington and Dallas take a lead. It of course leads to the question of just why Cousins has not been signed to a long-term deal, and is looking more and more like he will leave in free agency after this season. But, Washington gonna Washington (fortunately for their rivals).
For Prescott, the most interesting thing is that part about routes down the field. For some reason, there is still an impression held by many that he thrived on dink and dunk throws. Sorry, haters, but he can go deep just fine.
6. Eli Manning
Consistent accuracy has never been a strong point for Manning, but 2016 was his lowest C%+ in the past nine years. He struggled with the two most commonly targeted routes in the NFL: the curl and the quick out. We'll see if the additions of Brandon Marshall and rookie tight end Evan Engram help this season.
9. Carson Wentz
If we split Wentz's C%+ by position group, he was minus-5.1 percent on targets to wide receivers, minus-5.6 percent to running backs, and plus-5.9 percent to tight ends. So not every problem was about the wide receivers last season, and the additions of Alshon Jeffery (plus-2.0 percent C%+ since 2012) and Torrey Smith (minus-3.7 percent C%+ since 2011) will dictate a different offensive approach from Wentz and coach Doug Pederson in 2017.
Rut roh, Shaggy. Right away, there is a clear demarcation for the teams. Manning has always had a reputation for throwing picks at really bad times, and that just got worse last year. It is another sign that he may be declining.
The excuses for Wentz have been many, but this shows that his lack of accuracy is across the board, and not something that can be reliably blamed on his teammates. Those who support him as one of the stars of the future believe he will overcome his past errors. History does not offer a huge amount of hope for that, at least not enough to become the elite quarterback so many think he will be.
6. Eli Manning
Most of Manning's best seasons were when he ranked in the top six in ALEX, including 2009 (sixth), 2011 (sixth) and 2012 (fourth). Despite the aggressive approach, last season was really not one of Manning's finest efforts because his 35.5 percent third-down conversion rate was his lowest of the past 11 seasons.
Eli Manning's 51.8 Total QBR last season ranked 27th in the league. James Lang/USA TODAY Sports
9. Kirk Cousins
During his first four seasons, Cousins usually stayed close to neutral (0.0) in ALEX, but he took more chances last season with respectable results, finishing 13th in third-down conversion rate. Cousins threw short of the sticks on 48.1 percent of his third downs in 2015, but he decreased that to 39.9 percent last season. He'll now adjust to the loss of offensive coordinator Sean McVay, as well as wide receivers Pierre Garcon and DeSean Jackson.
Being aggressive is usually a good thing, but when you combine it with a tendency to be off the mark, it leads to interceptions - which makes perfect sense for Manning.
Cousins is obviously the opposite case. His accuracy combined with his willingness to push the ball far enough to move the sticks is just what you want to maintain drives.
7. Carson Wentz
Wentz was just above 0.0 in his rookie season, but we expect to see an increase in that number this season, with Alshon Jeffery taking over as the No. 1 receiver. Wentz actually fared best on third-and-medium (3-6 yards needed), on which he ranked 11th in conversion rate, but he was just 25th on third-and-short (2 or fewer yards) and 25th on third-and-long (7 or more yards).
So who was the real Checkdown Charlie of the NFC East? Yep. Wentz was not only inaccurate, he often threw “failed” completions when he did find his target. Not a good combination.
5. Kirk Cousins
Just as the Redskins barely missed out on a second consecutive playoff berth at 8-7-1, Kirk Cousins just missed out on being our fifth quarterback with an added value of more than 200 EPA. After a 4-2 start, Cousins put the team in position for wins at Detroit and in London against Cincinnati. However, the No. 28 defense in EPA (minus-96.9) allowed a 75-yard game-winning touchdown drive in the final 65 seconds to the Lions, and Washington kicker Dustin Hopkins missed a 34-yard field goal in overtime against the Bengals.
7. Dak Prescott
While running back Ezekiel Elliott received a lot of attention last season, the single biggest reason for Dallas' improvement to 13-3 and the NFC's No. 1 seed was the instant success of Dak Prescott. He produced the third-most EPA by a quarterback last year, which shows the offense's success was about more than just the running game -- although Elliott helped the Cowboys rank seventh in non-QB offensive EPA (plus-8.0). The No. 20 defense (minus-40.0 EPA) was nothing to write home about, and between the suspensions on that side of the ball and Elliott's six-game ban this year, we'll see just how valuable Prescott can be in his second season.
Again, Cousins shows up as one of the top quarterbacks. With a strong placement in all three of the positive rankings, he may well be the best in the division.
But Prescott is nipping at his heels in two of the categories. If he is really improved as much as reports from training camp have it, it is a very close race between the two.
Past performance is no guarantee of future results, as someone once said, but it is more reliable than gut feeling, which seems to be the case in how many view these players. Projecting forward from 2016, it is clear that Dallas and Washington are in very good shape, the Giants have a quarterback whose weaknesses largely offset his strengths, and the Eagles have high hopes in a player who just was not very good last year.
It’s a new season, but two of the teams in the division, including the Cowboys, have a lot more reasons to be confident in their QB than the others. Make your predictions accordingly.