Sports

NFC East preview: Redskins replace Cousins with Smith, hoping his postseason experience pays off

Mr. Smith goes to Washington …

But without all last year’s talent around him, can he replicate what he did in Kansas City?

That will be the challenge for quarterback Alex Smith, as he takes the helm of a Redskins franchise that hasn’t won a playoff game since the 2005 season — back when the San Francisco 49ers made Smith the No. 1 overall pick while a sliding Aaron Rodgers had a seemingly endless wait in the draft greenroom.

Smith departed a Chiefs team loaded with standouts on offense, among them NFL rushing leader Kareem Hunt, blistering-fast receiver Tyreek Hill and All-Pro tight end Travis Kelce.

Washington parted ways with Kirk Cousins and signed Smith, who has seven postseason starts with a respectable passer rating of 97.4 in those games. Cousins made one playoff start, a losing effort.

“I still feel like I am a young 34-year-old and I do have a lot of ball ahead of me,” Smith told reporters recently. “I am excited to keep pushing that ceiling. I still feel like I haven’t reached it.”

Three years older than Smith is the quarterback taken No. 1 in the draft the year before him, Eli Manning of the division-rival New York Giants. Manning was benched last season for the first time in his career, as the team slogged its way to a 3-13 finish.

But with a new regime in place, the Giants passed on the chance to draft a quarterback and instead rested their hopes on the shoulders of Manning, who now has a revitalized running game starring rookie Saquon Barkley.

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“I’m excited about this team and the opportunities we have ahead of us, excited about the guys who are on this offense and the receivers, the offensive line, the playmakers that we have, the running backs,” Manning said. “So I look forward to getting to work ... there are some good names on paper, that looks good, but we’ve got to make sure we’re doing what we need to be doing on the field.”

Whereas Manning and Smith are in the back halves of their careers, the division’s other two teams, Philadelphia and Dallas, are led by a pair of 25-year-old stars, Carson Wentz for the Eagles and Dak Prescott for the Cowboys.

Wentz was on track to be the NFL’s most valuable player before suffering a season-ending knee injury against the Rams last December. Nick Foles took over for Philadelphia and wound up leading the Eagles to their first Super Bowl victory.

While there’s no question this is Wentz’s team, having Foles on the roster affords the Eagles the chance to let Wentz recover on his own timetable. So it had a major chilling effect this summer when Foles suffered what at first looked to be a significant shoulder injury, when his throwing arm was violently stopped mid-motion during an exhibition game against New England. It turned out to be a minor injury, though, and according to reports, he’s not expected to miss any time in the regular season.

“We’ve got a good plan,” Wentz said of his recovery schedule. “It’s not just me making a decision. It’s not just Coach. It’s not just the docs. It’s a [combination] of everybody. … I like where I’m at right now.”

As for Prescott, also in his third season, he’s trying to recapture some of that rookie magic he had. In his second year, he had a lower passer rating, fewer touchdown passes and fewer yards. Not surprisingly, that showed up in the win-loss column, with the Cowboys going from 13 victories in 2016 to nine last season.

Alex Smith
Alex Smith takes the helm of a Redskins franchise that hasn’t won a playoff game since the 2005 season.
(Alex Brandon / Associated Press)

NFC EAST CAPSULES

1 | PHILADELPHIA

2017 | 13-3, 1st in East

Last year in playoffs | 2017

THREE PLAYERS WHO MUST COME THROUGH

QB Carson Wentz: Returning from a devastating knee injury, he needs to prove he can stay healthy and productive for a whole season. He has looked good in camp.

CB Ronald Darby: The Eagles traded for him last season but Darby sat out eight games after he was injured in the opener. He wasn’t phenomenal when he came back. Tom Brady threw for 505 yards in the Super Bowl, for instance, and a lot of those came against Darby. It’s a prove-it season for the cornerback.

Weakside linebacker: Starting job opened when the Eagles cut Michael Kendricks, and it’s a part-time gig because the defense goes to two linebackers in nickel. Corey Nelson, Kamu Grugier-Hill, Nate Gerry are all vying for the spot.

THREE PLAYERS TO WATCH

TE Dallas Goedert: The first pick in this year’s second round has had a solid training camp. With the team not re-signing Brent Celek and Trey Burton, Goedert has an open path to relevance as a complement to Zach Ertz.

WR Nelson Agholor: Originally seen as a bust, Agholor came on strong last season. Now, it’s his chance to become a leader and establish himself as a true top-flight receiver.

CB Sidney Jones: After sitting out all but one regular-season game as a rookie because of an Achilles injury, Jones will be the nickel corner and have a chance to justify his lofty draft position (No. 43 overall).

FANTASY SLEEPER

RB Corey Clement: An undrafted rookie, Clement shined in the Super Bowl victory. He’ll have a bigger role this year. He can run, catch, and has asked for a chance to become a returner.

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2 | DALLAS

2017 | 9-7, 2nd in East

Last year in playoffs | 2016

THREE PLAYERS WHO MUST COME THROUGH

QB Dak Prescott: Prescott is in his third season and is in position for a big contract extension if he performs well. He struggled in the passing game last season, failing to throw for at least 200 yards in six of the final eight games. Ezekiel Elliott missed all but the last two of those games.

RB Ezekiel Elliott: Zeke makes everything go in the Cowboys offense, and the team plans to use him more in the passing game, and not just on screens and swing passes. With Jason Witten and Dez Bryant gone, Elliott can help pick up the slack.

LB Sean Lee: When Lee is healthy, he’s among the best inside linebackers in the game. The Cowboys were 1-4 in the five games he sat out last season.

THREE PLAYERS TO WATCH

WR Michael Gallup: This third-round pick isn’t likely to put up huge numbers, but he figures to be a factor, especially in the red zone.

CB Byron Jones: After spending the last two seasons at safety, Jones is moving back to cornerback, the position he played as a rookie, He is big and physical and fits the mold that first-year defensive coordinator Kris Richard preferred when he was Seattle’s coordinator.

LG Connor Williams: A second-round pick, Williams has seamlessly adjusted to his role on the offensive line. He has three Pro Bowl linemates and a solid right tackle in La’el Collins.

FANTASY SLEEPER

WR Cole Beasley: He should lead the team in catches. He had 75 two seasons ago but fell off last year. Still, he is Prescott’s most-trusted hands.

3 | WASHINGTON

2017 | 7-9, 3rd in East

Last year in playoffs | 2015

THREE PLAYERS WHO MUST COME THROUGH

QB Alex Smith: The Redskins traded for and signed Smith after he achieved a slew of career-high numbers at Kansas City last season. The head-to-head comparisons with Kirk Cousins are inevitable.

LT Trent Williams: The anchor of Washington’s offensive line, Williams had offseason knee surgery and will be tested right away. His first assignment: neutralize Arizona’s Chandler Jones, who led the league with 17 sacks last season.

CB Josh Norman: Norman didn’t have an interception last season, a tough reality seeing as he makes about $17 million per year. Then again, less than 10% of passes by opposing quarterbacks were thrown in his direction.

THREE PLAYERS TO WATCH

WR Paul Richardson: The Redskins lacked a field-stretching receiver after DeSean Jackson left, so they signed Richardson, who had that role in Seattle.

LB Pete Robertson: The under-the-radar Robertson garnered a lot of praise this summer, including from coach Jay Gruden, for his explosive speed off the ball and playmaking ability.

RB Samaje Perine: With the season-ending knee injury to rookie Derrius Guice, Perine (and Rob Kelley) are back in the spotlight. In eight starts last season, Perine became the first Redskins running back with consecutive 100-yard performances since Alfred Morris in 2013.

FANTASY SLEEPER

WR Josh Doctson: A first-round pick in 2016, Doctson is coming off a season in which he had 35 catches for 502 yards and six touchdowns.

4| NEW YORK GIANTS

2017 | 3-13, 4th in East

Last year in playoffs | 2016

THREE PLAYERS WHO MUST COME THROUGH

QB Eli Manning: This season is a referendum on the quarterback, because the Giants changed just about everything else on offense. His best recent year was 2015, although the Giants had the NFL’s worst defense at the time.

RT Ereck Flowers: For three seasons at left tackle, Flowers was durable but was a penalty magnet and shaky in pass protection. In the spring, coaches moved him to right tackle. That might be a better fit, but it’s hard to hide there because most everyone has two pass rushers.

LB Alec Ogletree: As he did with the Rams, Ogletree will be making the defensive calls from middle linebacker. New York is looking for him to stabilize the middle of the defense.

THREE PLAYERS TO WATCH

RB Saquon Barkley: The No. 2 overall pick is expected to reestablish the Giants’ running game. Think there are high hopes for him? General manager Dave Gettleman said Barkley was “touched by the hand of God.”

WR Odell Beckham Jr.: The NFL’s best receiver when he’s healthy, Beckham is coming back from a fractured ankle. He agreed to a five-year extension that makes him the highest-paid wide receiver in football.

S Landon Collins: Coming off a subpar season, Collins will rove all over this defense. He’ll be a little like the versatile Tyrann “Honey Badger” Mathieu in James Bettcher’ssystem. Collins is a thumper and a ballhawk.

FANTASY SLEEPER

TE Evan Engram: With defenses focusing on Beckham and Barkley, this could be a big year for Engram ... if he can hang on to the ball.

sam.farmer@latimes.com

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