As if the NFL's NFC East needs more drama, a mere effort to predict an order of finish for 2014 resulted in a knot befitting the always curious nature of this division's teams.
In a survey of The Sports Xchange football staff, the Philadelphia Eagles, powered by second-year coach Chip Kelly's up tempo offense, were a unanimous pick to repeat as NFC East champions.
After that there is a tie for, well, second through fourth. So, depending on how one reads that result, there is either little separation perceived or dramatically diverse opinions regarding the Dallas Cowboys, New York Giants and Washington Redskins. For those who might want to sort that out for themselves, here is an in-depth, unit-by-unit look the NFC East as analyzed by reporters from The Sports Xchange who cover each team (using roster information as of Sept. 2):
1st -- PHILADELPHIA EAGLES
QUARTERBACKS: Starter -- Nick Foles. Backups -- Mark Sanchez, Matt Barkley.
Foles flourished in Chip Kelly's quarterback-friendly offense last season, leading the league in almost every pertinent passing category. He is an accurate passer who makes good decisions, as evidenced by the fact that he only threw two interceptions in 337 pass attempts last season. Sanchez, who was signed in March after the Jets released him, is the ideal backup. He has 68 career starts on his resume and his picked up Kelly's offense quickly. He completed all but six of 31 attempts in the preseason.
RUNNING BACKS: Starter -- LeSean McCoy. Backups -- Darren Sproles, Chris Polk.
McCoy is one of the league's two or three best running backs. He ran away with the league rushing title last year and has openly talked of rushing for 2,000 yards this season. He is a Barry Sandersesque runner with unmatched cutting ability. The Eagles used him a lot last season in an offense that ran the ball 47 percent of the time. He led the league in carries and touches. They would like to lighten his load a bit this season. The 31-year-old Sproles is one of the top pass-catching backs in the league, but the Eagles feel he also is an ideal fit for their zone running scheme. Polk, who had three touchdown runs in just 11 carries last season, missed the entire preseason with a hamstring injury, but is expected to be ready to go by Week 1.
TIGHT ENDS: Starters -- Brent Celek, Zach Ertz. Backups -- James Casey, Trey Burton.
The Eagles are one of the few teams in the league carrying four tight ends. But they figure to be a very tight end-centric offense this season. Celek is a hard-nosed player with an outstanding yards-after-the-catch average who has developed into one of the league's better run-blocking tight ends. Ertz has Jimmy Graham-like pass-catching skills. Tight ends coach Ted Williams called him the best route-runner he's ever seen. Kelly will move Ertz all over the formation this season trying to get him matched up against slower linebackers and smaller safeties and cornerbacks. Casey and Burton both are h-back types who can line up anywhere.
WIDE RECEIVERS: Starters -- Jeremy Maclin, Riley Cooper. Backups -- Jordan Matthews, Brad Smith, Josh Huff, Jeff Maehl.
On the surface, this doesn't look like all that impressive of a group. No one who ever has caught 80 passes or racked up 1,000 receiving yards. No one with the vertical speed of DeSean Jackson, who was released in March after an 82-catch, 1,300-yard season. Maclin missed all of last season with a torn ACL but is a solid wideout who had 258 catches and 26 touchdowns in his first four NFL seasons. Cooper is a big, strong 6-4, 230-pound target who is adept at dealing with bump-and-run and battling for contested balls. He was the Eagles' best red-zone receiver last year. Matthews, a 6-3, 215-pound rookie, is the team's slot receiver. Kelly is intrigued by the prospect of using a bigger receiver like Matthews in the slot against normally smaller slot corners. Smith can play inside or outside. Maehl, who played for Kelly at Oregon, is mainly an outside receiver. Both are 6-foot-plus.
OFFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters -- LT Jason Peters, LG Evan Mathis, C Jason Kelce, RG Todd Herremans, RT Lane Johnson. Backups -- Allen Barbre, Matt Tobin, David Molk, Andrew Gardner, Dennis Kelly.
This is one of the best -- and definitely the most athletic -- offensive line in the league. They flourished in the Eagles' zone-blocking scheme last season and helped McCoy win the league rushing title. Peters and Mathis both were first-team All-Pro selections last season, but Kelce is the heart and soul of this unit. He is adept at getting leverage on much bigger tackles and is a master at getting to the outside and leading sweeps and screens. Johnson, the team's 2013 first-round pick, will miss the first four games of the season due to a PED suspension. Barbre will replace him. Barbre is more physical than athletic, but can hold his own against quicker edge-rushers.
DEFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters -- LE Cedric Thornton, NT Bennie Logan, RE Fletcher Cox. Backups -- Vinny Curry, Brandon Bair, Beau Allen, Taylor Hart.
Thornton, Cox and Logan all are returning starters. Thornton and Cox were new to the Eagles' 3-4 scheme last season, and Logan was a rookie. But they did a good job in defensive coordinator Bill Davis' two-gap scheme. Logan isn't your prototypical nose tackle. Allen, his backup, is, but Logan is more athletic and relies as much on quickness as strength. Cox was drafted by the Eagles as a three-technique tackle and struggled early on to make the transition to a two-gap end last year. The scheme wastes a lot of what he does best, but he has adapted. He needs to become a bigger factor as a pass-rusher in the Eagles' four-man line in nickel. Curry has carved a niche for himself as an interior rusher in nickel. Bair and Hart are classic two-gap ends who played for Eagles defensive line coach Jerry Azzinaro at Oregon.
LINEBACKERS: Starters -- OLB Connor Barwin, ILB DeMeco Ryans, ILB Mychal Kendricks, OLB Trent Cole. Backups -- Najeh Goode, Brandon Graham, Marcus Smith, Bryan Braham, Casey Matthews.
Ryans is a solid technician who always is where he's supposed to be. He played more snaps than any linebacker in the league last season, which is a concern for a 30-year-old guy at his position. He's not particularly good in coverage. Kendricks has the biggest upside of any player on the defense. He has Pro Bowl-calibre talent. He's fast and smart, with a great nose for always being around the ball. He is solid in coverage and is an outstanding blitzer. Their biggest concern inside is a lack of depth. They need a more consistent pass rush from their outside linebackers this season after notching just 37 sacks last year. That's why they spent a first-round pick on Smith. But he was a deer in headlights in training camp and the preseason and probably isn't going to play much, at least early on. Cole came on strong in the second half last season, recording all eight of his sacks in the final eight games. But he's 32. Barwin is a solid player, but not a guy who's going to collapse a pocket. Graham might be their best pass-rusher, but he can't tackle in space or cover to save his life.
DEFENSIVE BACKS: Starters -- CB Cary Williams, CB Bradley Fletcher, S Malcolm Jenkins, S Nate Allen. Backups -- Earl Wolff, Chris Maragos, Brandon Boykin, Nolan Carroll, Jaylen Watkins.
The free-agent additions of Jenkins and Carroll have been huge. Jenkins has stabilized a position that was one of the team's biggest weaknesses last season. As a former corner, he can cover slot receivers. He's a smart player who makes the players around him better. Allen, who is a decent cover safety, but not particularly instinctive, has looked a lot better playing alongside Jenkins. Carroll has provided much needed depth to the cornerback position. Last year, they essentially had just three corners -- Fletcher, Williams and nickel back Boykin. They couldn't put a dime package on the field. Williams, Fletcher and Carroll are all long corners who are able to match up with the league's bigger receivers. Boykin had a team-high six interceptions inside last season.
SPECIAL TEAMS: K Cody Parkey, P Donnie Jones, LS Jon Dorenbos, PR Darren Sproles, KOR Brad Smith.
Parkey, who wasn't signed until a week before the final preseason game, will replace Alex Henery, whose short kickoffs and inconsistency on field-goal attempts longer than 45 yards had frustrated the Eagles. Parkey booted 53- and 54-yard field goals in the final preseason game against the Jets. Jones set a franchise record for punts inside the 20 last year, had just 34 percent of his attempts returned and finished ninth in net average (40.5). Sproles, who will be the team's backup running back to McCoy, is a dangerous return man with an 8.2 yard career return average. Smith is expected to handle kickoff returns.
2nd/4th tie -- DALLAS COWBOYS