RG3 Has Already Become the Best Player in the NFC East, but Not by a Wide Margin

Brad Gagnon NFL National ColumnistMay 17, 2013

LANDOVER, MD - JANUARY 06:  Robert Griffin III #10 of the Washington Redskins walks off of the field injured in the fourth quarter against the Seattle Seahawks during the NFC Wild Card Playoff Game at FedExField on January 6, 2013 in Landover, Maryland.  (Photo by Patrick McDermott/Getty Images)
Patrick McDermott/Getty Images

One year ago at around this time, we made a case for why DeMarcus Ware was the best player in the NFC East. That wasn't a highly controversial position to take, because Ware had more sacks and pressures than any pass-rusher in football between 2008 and 2011 and was coming off a 19.5-sack season.

This year, though, things have become a little more complicated. 

Ware's sack total plummeted to 11.5 while he struggled with injuries in his age-30 season. Jason Pierre-Paul's sack total also dropped from 16.5 to 6.5, Eli Manning had a down season, Tony Romo threw a tied-for-league-high 19 interceptions, Michael Vick, DeSean Jackson, Sean Lee and Hakeem Nicks got hurt and Trent Cole and Nnamdi Asomugha were disappointments, along with pretty much everyone else in Philadelphia

Victor Cruz, Jason Witten, Anthony Spencer and Evan Mathis deserve some love, as per usual, and you could make a valid argument for any one of them, but two players in particular emerged to such a degree that I'm prepared to give them an edge over everyone else.

Both are recent first-round picks under the age of 25. One is Washington Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III, and the other is Dallas Cowboys wide receiver Dez Bryant

Critics will inevitably argue that neither Griffin nor Bryant has accomplished enough to be considered "better" than some of the stars listed above, but consider how often things change in this league. We're projecting a tad here, of course, but you'd be foolish not to. 

Griffin was the offensive rookie of the year and was even considered to be an MVP candidate at certain points in 2012. He had the third-highest passer rating and the third-best completion percentage in football, while also finishing in the top 20 in the league in rushing (despite missing a game) with 815 yards.

Bryant became a star in his third season, finishing sixth in football with 1,382 yards and third with 12 touchdowns. But those numbers don't do his season justice, because the 24-year-old didn't really start dominating under November and December.

During the second half of the year, he led all NFL players with 10 touchdowns while finishing behind only Calvin and Andre Johnson with 879 yards. He caught a game-winning touchdown pass while playing with a badly broken finger in December and put up 224 yards two weeks after that. 

Obviously if we're simply measuring one's impact on the game, quarterbacks take precedence. As I stated in my Ware article last year, I don't believe non-quarterbacks are capable of influencing football results in the same way that quarterbacks are. So while Manning and Romo are surely more important to their respective teams than Bryant is to his, I'm arguing that Bryant has become a more dominant overall player.

Elite pass-rushers are always a part of conversations like these, but it's extremely difficult to include any of the four teams' top pass-rushing artists because they're all coming off of tough years.

We mentioned the statistical drop-offs Ware and JPP experienced in Dallas and New York, but Trent Cole also saw his sack total plummet from 11 to three in Philadelphia while Washington's Brian Orakpo missed all but two games due to a pectoral injury. 

Jason Peters has been a dominant left tackle, and Tyron Smith and Trent Williams have a lot of promise. But Peters missed the entire year and Smith and Williams didn't stand out enough to be considered kings of the division. Those two recent first-round picks took too many penalties to be considered stars. 

And then there are wild cards Anthony Spencer, Jason Witten and Evan Mathis, whom you could argue were the best all-around players at their respective positions in 2012. 

Spencer had a career-high 11 sacks and was terrific in run defense, earning the No. 1 ranking among 3-4 outside linebackers by Pro Football Focus, but he still had fewer sacks than Ware and you have to fear that was an aberration.

Witten broke the single-season record for catches by a tight end, but his yards-per-catch total dropped significantly and he scored only three touchdowns. Can you really put him in Bryant's category when you consider that Dez scored 10 times in the final eight games alone?

Mathis is an advanced stats superstar and is a versatile and consistent bright spot on the Philadelphia line. He might be the only player in the NFC East who is clearly the best player at his position, but I just don't see him impacting the game enough to be considered the best player in the division. 

So with no standout corners, superstar safeties or stud linebackers in the division in 2012, and with LeSean McCoy and DeMarco Murray coming off injury-plagued seasons with Alfred Morris still not in RG3's range (despite what Pete Prisco says), we're left rationalizing why Griffin is already better than Manning and Romo and why Bryant has moved ahead of Cruz. 

I don't like turning team stats into player stats, but Griffin's Redskins did win three of their four head-to-head matchups against the Giants and Cowboys, with Griffin outplaying those two veterans in their respective season series. He was the highest-rated quarterback among the three and had by far the highest touchdown percentage, the lowest interception percentage and the highest QBR.

He also produced more yards per passing attempt than any quarterback in football and more yards per rushing attempt than any offensive player in the NFL. On a per-play basis, Griffin was the most productive player in the game. 

Bryant became the 14th player in NFL history to register a double-digit touchdown total in the second half of a season. During the same eight-game stretch during which he had 879 yards and 10 scores, Cruz had just 342 yards and three touchdowns in New York. Nicks and DeSean Jackson were hurt and Pierre Garcon was in Cruz's range coming back from injury.

Even looking at their full-season totals, Bryant had six more catches, 290 more yards, two more touchdowns and a significantly higher yards-per-catch average than Cruz. 

I'm not ready to give Bryant the No. 1 spot in the division until he puts together a complete season without running into off-field issues or hurting his team on the field, but his extraordinary second-half run in 2012 was enough to move him behind Griffin. 

Now you may begin to call me an idiot in a multitude of ways.