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NFC East arms race: Looking at the quarterback situations

It’s kind of a mess everywhere but Dallas.

NFL: Dallas Cowboys at Philadelphia Eagles Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

What is the most important position on any NFL team? It’s not a trick question, and if your automatic answer was “the quarterback”, you are correct. It has always been true, and as the league has evolved to be more centered on the passing game with rules tilting the table strongly toward the offense, it has just become more so. If a team doesn’t have a franchise quarterback, it is nearly impossible for them to be competitive, no matter how good their running game or their defense. Get that settled, especially with a young and talented QB, and you are set to at least be relevant for years to come.

This is certainly true for the Dallas Cowboys and their division rivals in the NFC East. Here is a bit of analysis on where the four teams stand in terms of their starting QB in the early stages of the offseason. (In reverse alphabetical order, just so we can look at Dallas last.)


They are in the worst shape at the moment, with Alex Smith recovering from a gruesome leg injury suffered last November. That effectively derailed any chances they had of competing for the division title. And now, there are reports that the team is not planning on having him back at all for the coming season. While team president Bruce Allen subsequently denied that report, there is no timeline for Smith’s recovery, which was complicated by an infection after his first surgery, requiring a follow-up procedure to correct things. That just further pushed back his return to the field.

It is not even certain that he will recover enough to ever play again. Assuming he does, there is still a chance that his mobility will be limited. That has always been a tool for Smith. Even if his leg heals fully, he is 34, and as the years creep along, rebounding from injury just gets harder. He serves as a cautionary tale about giving long contracts with high guarantees to players who are over 30. While the quarterback market dictates yearly salaries in the mid-$20 million range for starters, his $55 million in guaranteed money (on a total $94 million, five-year deal) has put the team in a bind.

Meanwhile, Washington is pretty much stuck with his contract. At the minimum, it would cost them over $20 million in dead cap money to release him. Based on the way the season ended for the team, there is no ready answer already on the roster if they need to fill in for him for part or all of the season. They hold the 15th pick in a draft that is seen to have a weak QB class, which could mean that getting to a good option there will require the cost of trading up. And that cap hit makes going on the free agent market problematical.

Overall situation: Washington is pretty much screwed for a couple of years. Which means, the song remains the same for them.

Philadelphia Eagles

While Washington is facing the prospect of not having a starting-level QB for at least this season, the Eagles have a very different problem. They have a franchise quarterback and a Super Bowl MVP. The problem is they are not the same player.

The team invested a ton of draft capital in getting Carson Wentz in 2016. When healthy, he has been, at times, the kind of player you want leading your offense. Those two qualifiers are the problem.

Wentz has now missed significant time the past two seasons. He was out for the final three games of 2017 and the championship run after suffering an ACL injury. And he went out again in 2018, this time for the last five games and his team’s subsequent postseason appearance.

Two years ago, he looked every bit the part of a franchise QB, with the team having an 11-2 record before he was hurt. But last year was much less successful, with the team only posting a 5-6 tally during his time on the field. It raises the unavoidable question of whether he was rushed back. The answer is almost certainly yes.

And there was no reason to. Nick Foles, that Super Bowl MVP, was available. He had literally been the savior of the season the previous year, and in hindsight should have been the starter from the beginning to give Wentz the chance to get fully back to form. But, perhaps looking at what had happened with a certain QB named Tony Romo the previous year, the decision was made to go with the long-term plan rather than the then 29-year-old veteran whose contract was up in 2021, and who came with very little dead money penalty if they decided to cut him.

But not only did Wentz go down to injury after a disappointing start to the season, Foles came to the rescue again, leading the Eagles back to the playoffs as a wild card and a win in the opening round. Foles had renegotiated his deal last season, and this year was now an option year for the team, but with an escape clause for Foles if he repaid a $2 million signing bonus. He has announced he is planning on doing just that to go into free agency, perhaps to find a team that will commit to him for four or five years. That leaves Philly with a hard decision. They can let him go and roll with Wentz and hope the injury issues do not reoccur. Or they can use the franchise tag on Foles, with the reported intent to trade him. It does seem that they don’t really hope to have him around to salvage things for them again. The idea of committing to your long-term franchise QB is certainly understandable. But with injuries and the shaky start last year, Wentz looks a lot more risky than he once did.

As the linked article reports, there are some who believe one team that would be very interested in Foles is their division rival, the Giants. And they have their own very interesting situation.

Overall situation: It all depends on Wentz returning to the form of 2017, pre-injury. Last year casts at least some doubt on that.

New York Giants

The plan is that Eli Manning will be back to start his 47th consecutive season (roughly) for the Giants. Given that he was the quarterback that led them on the charge to the sixth overall pick in the draft this year, that is not exactly bad news for the rest of the NFC East.

There are Eli fans who will demur, but he has always been a mostly competent quarterback who has occasional very good streaks. A couple of those coincided with some timely defensive play to get the Giants a pair of Super Bowl rings. However, most seasons he is nothing special. Now he is 38, and has none of Tom Brady’s age-defying traits.

That is one reason the idea of the Giants having an interest in Foles makes sense. Foles, at 30, could come in and give the team some years of good QB play - likely much better than the lead-footed Manning has the past couple of years. This is the last year of Manning’s contract and he could be cut for a net cap savings of over $10 million. Or they could keep both on board, although that would be a delicate situation determining who was the starter.

Failing finding a successor to Manning in free agency (Teddy Bridgewater could be an option as well, and perhaps more likely to be willing to start out on the bench than Foles), the Giants are expected to look for one in the draft. But it is seen as a weak class, as mentioned earlier.

New York has not taken the opportunity to find a potential replacement for Manning in years past. They finally are admitting they are running out of time. The problem is that a solution to this issue may not be all that readily available.

Overall situation: Looks like another year of Eli gonna Eli. For them, that is hardly a good thing.

Dallas Cowboys

The franchise quarterback is Rayne Dakota Prescott. Period. He had a phenomenal rookie season, then after a rough series of games started by the beating he took against the Atlanta Falcons in 2017, he rebounded last fall to lead his team on the impressive 7-1 run to win the division and lead the team to their first playoff win with him.

Further, the team has just doubled down on him with the dismissal of Scott Linehan and his conservative, predictable ways. To replace him, they promoted former QB coach Kellen Moore, who has long had Dak as a supporter (he was reported to have lobbied hard for Moore to get the QB coaching job). And they brought in Jon Kitna to help Prescott work on his footwork and mechanics.

It is a clear situation in Dallas, with owner/GM Jerry Jones stating his support of his starter. Prescott is hardly the perfect starting QB, but he has undeniable strengths and his weaknesses appear to be things that can be corrected to a significant degree. He certainly has shown the work ethic needed. Now with some fresh thinking from the young OC, he may be set to take the next step.

And for another season, he is one of the greatest bargains at starting QB in NFL history, even considering the pay raise he is getting this year due to the CBA rules.

He is still making a pittance compared to what other starting QBs take in. He is going to get paid before 2020, though. The Jones family may elect to wait until they see what he does with the team this year before opening any negotiations - or they may decide to see what he will agree to before then in hopes of some savings over what he would cost if the team has a deep playoff run this season.

In any case, the Cowboys are set at QB for the foreseeable future. The indications are that his ceiling is still quite a bit above him. This is in contrast to their three division rivals, all of whom have some real questions to answer at the position. The Eagles at least have some hope that their original plan with Wentz will work out, but handling Foles is going to take some work. Meanwhile, Washington has a real problem for this season, and the Giants are banking on one more year out of a QB whose best days are behind him, and weren’t that great to begin with, despite those championships.

Overall situation: Advantage, plainly, Dallas.

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