NFC East players with the most to prove in 2023
Dallas Cowboys running back Tony Pollard. Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports

Eight NFC East players with the most to prove in 2023

Whether it's a young player who has yet to live up to expectations or a veteran who hasn't matched the level of his contract, several players every year have much more to prove than others.

Here are the players with the most to prove on offense and defense for each team in the NFC East:

Dallas Cowboys

Offense: Tony Pollard, running back | Since joining Dallas in 2019, Pollard has gotten better every season. His carries, touchdowns and yardage have more than doubled since his rookie season. His 1,007 rushing yards in 2022 were a career-best and led the team, but even in a down year, Ezekiel Elliott had more rushing touchdowns (12 to nine) and 38 more carries (231 to 193).

Without Elliott, whom the Cowboys released, Pollard becomes the team’s lead back, but replacing Zeke won’t be easy. After suffering a broken leg and high ankle injury in late January, Pollard participated in the team’s OTAs in a very limited fashion. He must prove he’s healthy and ready for a larger workload. Head coach Mike McCarthy is promising to run more in 2023, and Pollard should see the bulk of those carries.

Defense: Leighton Vander Esch, linebacker | As an athlete, the sixth-year linebacker has nothing to prove. Vander Esch led the Cowboys with 140 tackles as a rookie in 2018 and was second on the team with 90 last season. When healthy, he’s one of the game's best defenders. But he struggles to stay healthy.

Vander Esch missed three games last season and 23 games over the past five seasons. But that didn’t stop Dallas from giving him a two-year, $8M contract in the offseason. Now the 27-year-old must prove he can stay healthy or the team could consider eating his $2M dead cap hit in 2024.

New York Giants

Offense: Daniel Jones, quarterback | Jones has been good, not great, since joining the Giants in 2019. His 3,205 yards passing last season were a career best, but his 15 touchdown passes tied Marcus Mariota for 21st place.

After leading the Giants to their first playoff victory since 2011, Jones signed a four-year, $160M contract, making him the eighth-highest-paid quarterback in 2023. Armed mostly with the same weapons he had in 2022, Jones will need to find another gear if he hopes to justify his new deal.

Defense: Azeez Ojulari, linebacker | Like Vander Esch in Dallas, no one doubts Ojulari’s talent. As a rookie in 2021, the former Georgia Bulldog had 29 solo tackles, a forced fumble and led the Giants with eight sacks. The team had high hopes for Ojulari in 2022, but injuries ruined what should have been a breakout season.

Ojulari missed eight of New York’s first 11 games with injury last season and played in just seven games overall. It’s worth noting that he still had 5.5 sacks and three forced fumbles in limited action. The ability is there, but 10 games are a lot to miss. If Ojulari doesn’t stay healthy in 2023, the Giants could look elsewhere in 2024.

Philadelphia Eagles

Offense: Quez Watkins, wide receiver | Watkins' best season came in 2021 when he caught 43 passes for 637 yards. But the team added DeVonta Smith that year and A.J. Brown a year later, making Watkins the No. 3 receiver.

After an awful 2022 that included a critical drop in Super Bowl LVII, Watkins has competition for the slot receiver spot: ex-Falcon Olamide Zaccheaus, who had 1,328 yards receiving in four years in Atlanta. In the final year of his rookie contract, Watkins needs a good season if he hopes to be back in 2024.

Defense: Nakobe Dean, linebacker | There must be a reason a Butkus Award-winning, national champion linebacker makes it to the third round of an NFL Draft. At 5-foot-11 and 231 pounds, Dean didn't have the size to play middle linebacker for most teams. The Eagles wanted him, however, but they did him favors by giving him just 34 snaps in 2022.

Things will change for Dean in 2023. With linebackers T.J. Edwards and Kyzir White leaving in free agency, Dean won’t just be a starter. He'll be the guy making the calls for one of the league’s best defenses. 

Washington Commanders

Offense: Sam Howell, quarterback | With new ownership looming, everyone associated with the Washington franchise is under pressure, but none more than Howell. Nobody expected Howell to be the team’s starter when the Commanders drafted him, but here we are.

The fifth-round draft pick started one game last season, a win against Dallas in which he threw for only 169 yards, one touchdown pass and an interception. If he’s not ready, head coach Ron Rivera won't hesitate to start Jacoby Brissett, a seven-year veteran with 76 games played in the league and 10,350 career passing yards. 

Defense: Chase Young, defensive end | In 2020, Young had 7.5 sacks, forced four fumbles and recovered three on his way to winning the Defensive Rookie of the Year Award. Since then he’s barely played.

An ACL tear cost Young almost half of the 2021 season and most of 2022. Washington appears to have lost patience with its former first-round pick by declining his fifth-year option. With one year left on his rookie deal, it’s now or never for the second overall pick in the 2020 NFL Draft.

More must-reads:

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