Partially because it interests me and partially because I could easily see any of 3 teams (sorry, Washington) winning the NFC East, I’m ranking the NFC East teams, position-by-position, in an effort to help me figure out who I’ll be predicting as the division’s winner when the season opens up on September 5th. I’ll be assigning 1 point for the top spot, 2 for the second spot, 3 for the third spot, and 4 for the 4th spot. The lowest total at the conclusion of the exercise (which will include coaches, coordinators, and schedules) will be my pick for the NFC East champion. Today, it’s the tight end position.
1) Jason Witten, Dallas Cowboys
Despite the spleen injury that’s threatening his availability for the season-opener on September 5th, Witten has been one of the most consistent producers in the entire NFL over the past few seasons. He’s Tony Romo’s safety blanket and his favorite target, and he made 7 Pro Bowls in a row between 2004-2010. He’s up there with Rob Gronkowski, Jimmy Graham, Antonio Gates, and Vernon Davis as one of the top TEs in the league.
2) Brent Celek, Philadelphia Eagles
Celek has been an above-average TE since he broke out in 2009 after he got a chance to start when LJ Smith left in free agency. His 2009 season was excellent: he had 76 catches for 971 yards and 8 TDs and signed a monster contract extension. After a disappointing 2010 that saw him used in more of a blocking role to protect Michael Vick as the two struggled to get on the same page (42 catches, 511 yards, 4 TDs), Celek bounced back in 2011 to put up 811 yards and 5 TDs on 62 catches. He’s extremely durable, as he’s never missed a game in his NFL career and has started in 46 of his last 48 contests.
3) Fred Davis, Washington Redskins
Davis had a breakout season last year, tallying 796 yards and 3 TDs on 59 catches. However, he was suspended for the last 4 games of the season for failing a drug test. With long-time TE Chris Cooley being cut by the Redskins today, Davis is going to be expected to continue to improve on his game and have a moster year this season as rookie QB Robert Griffin III’s safety valve.
4) Bear Pascoe, New York Giants
Pascoe inherited the TE role in New York after Kevin Boss’s departure prior to the 2012 season and season-ending injuries to Jake Ballard and Travis Beckum in the Giants’ Super Bowl triumph over the Patriots. Pascoe is primarily a blocker, though he did chip in with a TD catch against the San Francisco 49ers in the NFC Title game (the only one of his career) and 4 catches for 33 yards in the Super Bowl win over the Patriots. Since the Giants’ offense primarily utilizes the TE as a blocker, Pascoe’s lack of receiving ability isn’t as big of an issue as it would be in other places. He’ll compete with newly-acquired TE Martellus Bennett (formerly of the Dallas Cowboys) for playing time this season.
Martellus Bennett has immense upside, but he’s struggled to deliver on it thus far in his NFL career. In 4 seasons as Jason Witten’s backup, Bennett accumulated just 85 catches for 846 yards and 4 TDs, with all 4 of those TDs coming in 2008, his rookie season. Bennett’s listed at 6’6, 265 (though he showed up to camp at 291 pounds), so the physical tools are definitely there. He’s got the phsyical tools to unseat Pascoe and have a big year in New York, but he’s struggled with mental lapses and drops in the past. He’s got the most upside out of any backup in the division, however, and he might not be a backup for long. John Phillips is the primary backup to Jason Witten in Dallas, but he’s primarily a blocking TE, as he had just 15 catches for 101 yards and 1 TD last season. Due to Witten’s spleen injury, the Cowboys could take John Hanna as a 3rd TE. He’s shown some receiving ability in preseason games thus far. The Redskins cut Chris Cooley today, leaving the unproven Niles Paul (2 career receptions) as the primary backup to Fred Davis. Yikes. Logan Paulsen (13 career catches) is also a backup TE option in Washington. In Philadelphia, Clay Harbor has had an excellent training camp and preseason after the Eagles tried to bring in veteran TE Visanthe Shiancoe before training camp. He’s not a great blocker, but Celek is, and Harbor provides upside and receiving ability at the 2nd TE spot. He had 13 catches for 163 yards and a TD last season, and in his 3rd year he looks to be taking a leap forward after an excellent preseason (6 catches, 2 TDs against New England). The backup situation doesn’t change the overall order of the division’s TEs, though it did close the gap somewhat between the Eagles and Cowboys and the Giants and Redskins in my opinion.
1) Dallas Cowboys
2) Philadelphia Eagles
3) Washington Redskins
4) New York Giants
Overall Standings by points:
1) Philadelphia Eagles-7 points
2) New York Giants-9 points
3) Dallas Cowboys-10 points
4) Washington Redskins-14 points