By Ryan Mayer
NFL training camps get underway this week, and there’s no shortage of juicy storylines for us to dive right into. Here are three of the biggest burning questions surrounding each NFC East team as we get ready to get ready for another season.
The NFC East promises to be one of the most competitive divisions in the NFL this year. Rivalries run deep in this particular division, and watching these teams duke it out all year long should be a blast.
Camp opens Saturday
Can Tony Romo stay healthy?
Groan all you like, but sometimes the most obvious answer — or question, in this case — is the right one. While it feels like a uniquely Dallas Cowboys problem, it’s not. Starting quarterbacks are simply the most important commodity in the NFL and the Cowboys’ signal caller is a top tier one who often ends up injured.
On top of that, the fallback options for the Cowboys at quarterback this year might be their weakest in quite a while. The pecking order behind Romo as it stands right now is Dak Prescott, the former Mississippi State quarterback, whom many in the organization have high hopes for but is still a rookie, and Kellen Moore, who started the final two games of the year last season in mop-up duty and showed some promise, but again, has three games worth of experience under his belt.
The Cowboys could still bring in a veteran presence if something happens to Romo, but for now, the outlook if he goes down is bleak, to say the least.
That’s why the Cowboys are going to do everything they can to keep their 36-year-old, surgically repaired Romo on his feet and take the pressure off him.
Will lack of defensive depth come back to haunt them?
Meanwhile, on the other side of the ball, the Cowboys ranked 17th in yards allowed per game (347.9), 16th in points allowed (23.4) 22nd against the run (120.9 yards per game). Yet, rather than either trading back or taking one of the top defensive players on the board, they drafted Ezekiel Elliott. Which, okay, fine. Best player available and all that. But, they then compounded that decision by taking Notre Dame LB Jaylon Smith, who they knew will likely miss this season rehabbing a knee injury, with their second-round pick. They drafted Maliek Collins and Charles Tapper, who should contribute, in the third and fourth rounds, but there’s plenty of production to replace.
On the defensive side the ‘Boys will be without LB Rolando McClain (10 games), DL DeMarcus Lawrence (four games) and DL Randy Gregory (at least four games, possibly 10) due to suspensions for various substance abuse infractions. Without McClain, the linebacking corps, already thin as it is, must rely even more heavily on the oft-injured Sean Lee. Antonio Hitchens, Mark Nzeocha and others don’t exactly inspire confidence as potential starters. Meanwhile, the defensive line, which struggled with its pass rush last year (31 sacks, 25th in NFL) will be without two starters for the first quarter of the season.
Can Elliott live up to huge expectations?
The Cowboys made Elliott the No. 4 overall pick in the draft despite the mounting evidence that the running back position is a largely fungible one in the NFL. The Cowboys ranked fifth in yards per carry (4.6) and ninth in rush yards per game (118.1) despite putting the combination of the ever-injured Darren McFadden and Joseph Randle out there.
Now, adding Elliott, a back who averaged averaged 6.7 yards per carry in his last two seasons as a Buckeye while rushing for over 3,600 yards in that span has led to expectations for the rookie running back to skyrocket. Bovada currently lists him as a -125 favorite to win the NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year, and Cowboys fans are salivating over what Elliott could do this season behind their offensive line.
New York Giants
Camp opens Friday
How will the team look under first-year head coach Ben McAdoo?
The Giants finished 7-9, 6-10 and 6-10 in the last three seasons, which led to a change at the head coaching spot as longtime coach Tom Coughlin resigned under pressure and was replaced by offensive coordinator Ben McAdoo. McAdoo saw success in his two years helming the offense as the team jumped into the top 10 in both points scored and yards per game last season after ranking 28th in both categories the season before he took over. The more up-tempo style has seemed to suit QB Eli Manning, who has put together two of the best seasons of his career, completing nearly 63 percent of his passes while averaging 7.2 yards per attempt and raising his touchdown numbers (35) while cutting down on his interceptions as well (14).
McAdoo’s ability as an offensive coordinator is well known. The defensive side of the ball was a concern for the G-men, however. How does he manage the coaching staff on that side of the ball? Does he let them run autonomously, or does he take an active role? How does he handle the transition to the head coaching role, which becomes less hands-on with specific players and more focused on team building? These are all questions that need to be answered by the first-year head man.
Have they done enough to improve the pass rush?
General manager Jerry Reese was the Oprah of the NFL free agency period just handing out cash left and right. Cornerback Janoris Jenkins, defensive end Olivier Vernon and defensive tackle Damon Harrison all got massive contracts, and the team re-signed defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul. This was an attempt to improve a pass rush that was dreadful last season (23 sacks, 28th in NFL).
Vernon got big money to be the key guy off the edge and is coming off a season in which he had just 7½ sacks. His career high, 11½, came two seasons ago. Now, granted, Vernon is just 25 years old, so there’s plenty of room for growth and realizing the potential that comes with his massive contract. Combining him with Pierre-Paul, who will have a full training camp this year, should help up that sack total.
Harrison was an interesting signing because he’s mainly been used as a nose tackle in a 3-4 scheme with the Jets during his career. That doesn’t seem to mesh with the current personnel on the surface, but he should at the very least help stop the run in the middle of the line.
What will the offensive line look like?
The Giants’ offensive line was a point of struggle last season. It didn’t give up a ton of sacks or QB hits, but that’s largely due to the quick-hitting nature of McAdoo’s offense. Where you really saw the struggle came in the running game where the Giants were just about average (18th) in the league in yards per carry.
Geoff Schwartz is now gone and that means the likely return of John Jerry at one of the guard spots. Last year’s first-round pick, Ereck Flowers, struggled at the left tackle spot last season, but he will continue to get the chance to prove himself on the blind side. Previous first rounder Justin Pugh has moved inside to guard and Weston Richburg was largely a nice surprise as a first-year starter at center. Can that group coalesce and allow the Giants to be more balanced offensively?
Camp opens Thursday
What in the heck is going on with the QB position?
The Eagles have had quite the interesting offseason at football’s most important position. First, they gave Sam Bradford a two-year deal to presumably be the starter. Then they brought in Chase Daniel on a three-year deal to presumably help Bradford learn new head coach Doug Pederson’s offense after coming over from Kansas City.
Then they traded up in the draft to the No. 2 overall spot and took North Dakota State QB Carson Wentz. That means the team has three quarterbacks counting for$30+ million dollars on this year’s salary cap.
Early on in OTAs and minicamps, it looked like Wentz was ahead of Bradford. Now, it seems Wentz may not even play at all this year. So the question is simple: What exactly is this team doing at that spot? Will Bradford start? Will they go to Daniel rather than Wentz when Bradford inevitably gets hurt? Is Wentz really receiving the NFL equivalent of a redshirt? So many questions, so few actual answers.
How does Pederson handle being a head coach?
Like the Giants, the Eagles, frustrated after a poor performance last season, decided to can their head coach and bring in an offensive coordinator to take the head job. In Philly’s case, it’s former QB and Andy Reid disciple Doug Pederson. Judging from the offense that Reid/Pederson ran in Kansas City, the Birds will be moving away from the spread style offense employed by Chip Kelly to a more traditional West Coast style. That’s not to say that spread concepts won’t work their way in eventually (though likely not until or if Wentz takes over at QB).
Frank Reich comes in as offensive coordinator, and former Lions head coach Jim Schwartz takes over the defensive coordinator duties. The questions that applied to McAdoo apply here to Pederson as well. A first-year head coach must always find a balance, but how that happens in conjunction with a team that is built to try to win now is unclear.
Will the defense be better under Schwartz?
The Eagles defense has been very prone to giving up big plays over the past couple of years. The 3-4 style that was brought to the team by Phil Snow didn’t seem to suit the personnel as well as they would have liked. Last season, the defense was particularly bad, giving up 401.6 yards (30th in the NFL) and 26.9 points per game (25th) and was especially ineffective against the pass, allowing 267 yards per contest (25th).
To address this, the Eagles re-signed their key defensive pieces (Fletcher Cox, Vinny Curry, Malcolm Jenkins), traded sieve Byron Maxwell and Kiko Alonso, and signed safety Rodney McCloud and corner Leodis McKelvin to try to solidify the secondary. The Jenkins/McCloud combo on the back end has the potential to be one of the better safety duos in the league. The corner spot is where it gets interesting. Last year’s second-round pick, Eric Rowe, struggled in coverage at times and may be more of a safety than a corner. JaCorey Sheppard was hurt last year but was expected to compete for the slot corner spot before the injury. Plus the team drafted defensive backs Blake Countess (Auburn) and Jalen Mills (LSU) in the hopes that maybe one or both could contribute in more defensive back-heavy sets.
The linebacker spot has some good pieces in Mychal Kendricks and Jordan Hicks, though both struggled with injuries last season. This corps lost veteran leader DeMeco Ryans. The health here is the main factor, as is who will grab the third starting spot? Nigel Bradham and Najee Goode would seem to be the leaders.
The defensive line should be fine with plenty of depth all over the place. Cox likely bumps inside in Schwartz’s scheme to pair with Bennie Logan as a solid interior core. Then on the outside, the team can rotate Connor Barwin, Vinny Curry, Brandon Graham and, hopefully for them, 2014 first-round pick Marcus Smith.
Camp opens Thursday
Can Kirk Cousins repeat his 2015 performance?
Cousins was the surprise of the QB position last year. He had been largely inconsistent throughout the early part of his NFL career and the early part of last season before getting red hot during a 7-3 stretch to close the year and help the Skins make the playoffs. Cousins completed 69.3 percent of his passes for 4,000-plus yards and 29 touchdowns against just 11 interceptions.
Normally, a breakout season like that in the last year of a rookie deal (as Cousins was in last season) would mean a hefty pay raise in the form of a long-term extension. However, Cousins is playing out this season under the franchise tag. You can understand Washington’s hesitancy to give him a big-money, long-term deal. For as great as Cousins was last season, it was his first year as a full-time starter. Maybe last year is indicative of what he can do with his hands fully on the reins. Or maybe it’s indicative of opponents not owning a ton of tape on Cousins in Jay Gruden’s new offense.
However, judging from the way Cousins played down the stretch, it seems like the second option is the more likely of the two. Still, Cousins’ performance will largely dictate whether Washington can become the first NFC East team in a while to win back-to-back division titles.
Will Josh Norman help the pass defense?
This seems like an easy question to answer. However, as good as Norman was last season, improving the Washington pass defense is going to be more than just a one-man job. Last year, Washington was 28th in the league, giving up 380.6 yards per game, and 17th in scoring defense, allowing 23.7 points per game. The pass defense was 25th in the league, giving up 258 yards per game and 7.8 yards per attempt (26th). Opposing quarterbacks posted a 96.1 rating against them (22nd).
As you can tell from the stats, this is a problem so much bigger than just one player. Norman will certainly help as he is a shutdown corner, which takes away half the field from his opponents. The Redskins did re-sign Will Blackmon and added Greg Toler to the corner group. Between those two, Bashaud Breeland and third-round pick Kendall Fuller, Washington should be able to find a solid options to play opposite of Norman and in the slot.
The other thing that will help the pass defense? Getting a pass rush. The Redskins tied for 17th in the league last year in sacks at 38. The 3-4 base scheme means they’ll be looking for more production out of edge rushers Ryan Kerrigan and Preston Smith, who combined for 17½ of those sacks last season. Washington was a dealt a blow this year when Junior Galette tore his Achilles tendon for the second year in a row.
Who will be the feature running back?
Washington let running back Alfred Morris walk in free agency this spring after his numbers continued their downward trend last season. Now, the team is left with a collection of backs with no real clear top option. Feature backs aren’t nearly as important as they used to be, but getting good production from the running game is vital. Last season, Washington running backs averaged less than 100 yards per game (97.9, 20th in the league) and under four yards per carry (3.65, 30th).
Matt Jones and Chris Thompson are back as options, but between the two of them, they combined for just 706 yards on 179 carries. That’s less than Morris had by himself. Aside from Jones and Thompson, the current group of backs on the roster don’t stand out in any big way. Mack Brown spent last year on the practice squad and Robert Kelley, Keith Marshall and Kelsey Young are all rookies.
Marshall was productive at times in college at Georgia, but got just 68 carries last season as a senior. Kelley was a corner last year at Middle Tennessee. Young had 101 carries for 511 yards and eight touchdowns, making him the most productive of the three last season, but not exactly expected to be a breakout candidate.
The running game will need to improve to take pressure off the passing game and Cousins, and allow Gruden to go a little deeper into his playbook with play-action concepts.
Ryan Mayer is an Associate Producer for CBS Local Sports. Ryan lives in NY but comes from Philly and life as a Philly sports fan has made him cynical. Anywhere sports are being discussed, that’s where you’ll find him.