The biggest change in what we may see out of the Cowboys is one I’ll belabor because I haven’t heard anyone else discuss it, and that is their likely increase in early down pass rate. Mike McCarthy is the new Cowboys Head coach. The last full season where he worked with a QB1 caliber QB (Aaron Rodgers) was 2016. From then until he was fired in 2018, the Packers led the NFL in pass rate on early downs in the game’s first three quarters.
In 2016, they passed the ball on 63% of attempts, #1 most and a full 10% above the NFL average (53%). In 2017 with Rodgers, they passed the ball on 60% of attempts, #2 in the NFL. In 2018, McCarthy had the Packers again pass the ball on 60% of these plays, tied for fifth-most in the NFL.
Across that entire three-season span (2016-2018), the Packers were the #1 most pass-heavy team on early downs in the game’s first three quarters. That’s completely opposite of where the Cowboys were under Jason Garrett.
By season with Dak Prescott as QB1 for every game:
2016: 47% pass, #4 most run-heavy
2017: 44% pass, #2 most run-heavy
2018: 51% pass, #11 most run-heavy
2019: 52% pass, #13 most run-heavy
Comparing the two teams over these two coaches tenures:
Jason Garrett’s Cowboys: #4 most run-heavy team in the NFL (49% pass)
Mike McCarthy’s Packers: #1 most pass-heavy team in the NFL (61% pass)
The 2019 Cowboys already had a very good offense. But it is bound to be even more productive with an increased pass rate. More red zone opportunities, more points. And likely more wins, as Dallas went 1-6 in games decided by one-score.
A great step for the Cowboys last year was Prescott’s depth of target. In 2018, Prescott ranked 37th in third-downs thrown short of the sticks, 9% below average. He improved to second in 2019, ranking 6% above average. And when comparing air yards to YAC, Prescott improved from 27th (51% of yardage being before the catch) to fifth in 2019 (63% of yardage being before the catch). This was strong growth by Prescott and a more aggressive scheme under Moore.
I’m forecasting the Cowboys play the ninth-easiest overall schedule. And over the first seven weeks, it’s the third-easiest in the NFL. Assuming Dak Prescott performs as I believe he will with new weaponry in the form of CeeDee Lamb and the addition by subtraction move of shedding Jason Witten and giving those targets to Blake Jarwin, I think the Cowboys will rack up plenty of wins.
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If you want to see a bad omen of things to come for the 2019 Eagles, look no further than their Week 2 game against the Falcons:
• TE Dallas Goedert hurt his calf in pregame warmups and missed the game. One player unable to play on the 53-man active roster, and key player at that (41 snaps in Week 1), and the game hadn’t even started.
• On his sixth snap of the game, WR1 Alshon Jeffery also hurt his calf, and he was lost for the rest of the game.
• On his 11th snap of the game, WR2 DeSean Jackson hurt his groin, and he was lost for the rest of the game.
It was just Week 2 of the season, and a team isn’t even able to run 11 personnel because they literally don’t have three wide receivers active for the game due to the in-game injuries. And that wouldn’t be the last time of the season the Eagles were unable to use 11 personnel in a game due to receiver health.
From Week 2-17, the Eagles were without their No. 2 WR (speed threat Jackson). From Week 12 through the end of the season (save for Week 13), the Eagles were without their No. 1, No. 2, and No. 3 receivers. Yet this team still swept their final four games and made the playoffs again. They found a way to win. But it wasn’t pretty nor was it easy.
And things haven’t improved much as we head into 2020. WR1 Alshon Jeffery is not yet ready to play to start the season and WR3, new draft pick Jalen Reagor, who was receiving rave reviews in camp, was injured in camp and is unable to play at the start of the season.
Additionally the Eagles have a lot of offensive line turnover. So it didn’t help that right guard Brandon Brooks tore his Achilles tendon this offseason and then left tackle Andre Dillard went down with another season-ending injury. That’s two offensive line starters out for the season. But it doesn’t get any easier: after playing the 29th-toughest schedule of pass rushes in 2019, the Eagles face the second-toughest schedule in 2020. It’s the largest jump in difficulty in the NFL.
I forecasted the 2019 Eagles would face the NFL’s third-easiest schedule last summer and was close, as they actually faced the seventh-easiest. But I project the Eagles will face the 19th easiest schedule in 2020, making them deal with the fifth-toughest year-over-year schedule increase. The Eagles secondary should be much improved over the 2019 version, but the offense is not in a good spot to start the season.
New York Giants
On early downs in the first half of games, the Giants went 55% pass, which was just above the NFL average pass rate. In Dallas, Jason Garrett oversaw a team that drafted Ezekiel Elliott in 2016 and went 49% run in these same situations (fifth-most run-heavy), 47% run in 2017 (third-most run-heavy), and 51% run in 2018 (11th-most run-heavy). This coincided with a young QB in Dak Prescott at the helm.
I would be stunned if Jason Garrett went 55% pass in early downs in the first half of games in 2020, as the Giants did last year. I strongly believe the Giants will go more run-heavy than 2019. That’s good news for Saquon Barkley fantasy stock if it happens, but the key is, the Giants need to pass when the defense loads the box and run when the defense goes light.
But the biggest focus must be on improving the efficiency of Daniel Jones. Jones ranked 22nd in completed air yards, 22nd in air yards vs YAC, but third in aggressiveness rank and 33rd in expected completion percentage. This was very problematic. Breaking it down, ranking below average in completed air yards means he’s not throwing deep down the field. The longer a throw, the less likely it is to get completed. So, he was throwing shorter passes which should be more likely completed, but were not. There shouldn’t be a need to be so aggressive (third of 39 QBs) with passes that have super low expected completion (33rd of 39 QBs) when you’re throwing well below average depth of target. This is something that Jason Garrett needs to fix.
It seems like no team in the league faces worse scheduling than the Giants, and the story is unchanged in 2020. Not only do the Giants face the second-toughest schedule in the NFL this year based on opponents, they are the only team in the NFL to play three short-rest road games as well.
After their Week 1 Monday night game, they must play on the road in Chicago on short rest. Then they have to play Thursday night in Philadelphia. Then, they play another Monday night game (this time against the Buccaneers) and are on the road the following week. In their first 10 games the Giants don’t play a single other team forecast to produce a losing record in 2020 aside from the Redskins. And most of their opponents are forecast to produce over nine wins.
Washington Football Team
First-round rookie quarterbacks are as preciously delicate a commodity as the NFL has in their possession. The way in which a team handles that rookie’s first NFL experience can build them up, tear them down, or destroy them. Washington had that responsibility when it came to Dwayne Haskins, who they drafted 15th overall in the 2019 NFL draft. But they did not uphold it.
The first two games in which Haskins played, he did not receive starters reps in practice, he received backup reps. He was thrown to the wolves when the starter, Case Keenum, was either benched (as he was against the Giants in week 4) or injured (as he was against Minnesota in week 8). These were terrible first year experiences. Ultimately, Haskins was named the starter in week 9 and finally received starter’s reps in practice.
This year looks to be totally different. Unlike 2019, Haskins is the week 1 starter and there was zero quarterback battle in the preseason. That meant Haskins was able to take all the starters reps all offseason, something he was unable to do in 2019.
Additionally, the new coaching staff brought along Scott Turner to call plays. Turner knows how to help quarterbacks, being a long-time quarterbacks coach in Carolina. He was heavily involved in game planning as the 2019 season evolved. His offense ranked fifth in play-action usage on early downs in the first three quarters, so that should immediately be an upgrade for Haskins. His offense also ranked sixth in pre-snap motion usage in the game’s first three quarters.
In good news for Haskins, Washington also shifts from playing the NFL’s 13th toughest schedule of pass defenses to the sixth-easiest in 2020. They shift from facing the NFL’s 10th-toughest schedule of defenses to facing the 21st toughest schedule. In 2019 they went 3-2 against defenses ranking outside the top-20 but 0-11 against top-20 defenses. In 2020 they project to play seven games against defenses ranking outside the top-20.
Ron Rivera has the makings of a solid defense. While it’s gone overlooked outside of DC, the personnel, particularly in the front seven, have the ability to keep Washington in games. They sill be starting three new members in the secondary, which is potentially problematic early in the season, particularly from a communication perspective.
All things considered, this offense may not sizzle in 2020, but they are on the right track. And I’m more optimistic than most that they will be able to see some success in 2020.
Dallas Cowboys to win the NFC +675
Dallas Cowboys to win the NFC East -115
Washington Football Team Over 5 wins -126
Washington Football Team to finish 3rd in the NFC East +187