You probably thought you had more time until you read your first article of the NFL offseason, didn’t you? But believe it or not, training camps around the NFL will be underway less than a month from today and there’s no shortage of juicy storylines for us to dive right into.
So – enough small talk, let’s get into three of the biggest burning questions surrounding each of the NFL’s 32 teams as we get ready to get ready for another NFL season.
Today, we’re talking a look at the NFC East, which promises to be one of the most competitive divisions in the NFL this year. Rivalries run deep in this particular division of the NFL and watching these teams duke it out all year long should be a blast.
Camp opens July 29th
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 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 year 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), and were 22nd in the league 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 took 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 2nd round pick. They took Maliek Collins and Charles Tapper who should contribute in the 3rd and 4th 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 (4 games) and DL Randy Gregory (4 games) due to suspensions for various substance abuse infractions. That means their linebacking corps, already thin as is, lose a big producer for them and 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 Ezekiel Elliott live up to huge expectations?
The Cowboys made Ohio State RB Ezekiel Elliott the No. 4 overall pick in the NFL Draft despite the mounting evidence that the running back position is a largely fungible one in the NFL. This team ranked 5th in yards per carry (4.6) and 9th 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 – that 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 July 30th
How will the team look under 1st 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 long-time coach Tom Coughlin was shown the door in favor of 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 uptempo 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. It was 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 team-building focused? These are all questions that need to be answered by the first year head man.
Have they done enough to improve the pass rush?
GM Jerry Reese was the Oprah of the NFL free agency period just handing out cash left and right. CB Janoris Jenkins, DE Olivier Vernon and DT Damon Harrison all got massive contracts and the team re-signed DE 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 7.5 sacks. His career high, 11.5, 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 a Pierre-Paul who will have a full training camp this year should help up that sack total.
Harrison was an interesting signing here 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 provide run stopping in the middle of the line.
What will the offensive line look like?
The Giants offensive line was a point of struggle last season. They 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 they 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 blindside. 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 August 1st
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 QBs counting for roughly $30+ million dollars on this year’s salary cap.
Now, since OTA’s and mini-camps we’ve had plenty of conversation about the Eagles QB job. Early on, it looked like Wentz was ahead of Bradford. Now, it seems he 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 Carson Wentz really receiving the NFL equivalent of a red-shirt? So many questions, so few actual answers.
How does Doug 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 under 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 head coach Jim Schwartz takes over the defensive coordinator duties. The questions that applied to McAdoo apply here to Pederson as well. It’s always a bit of a finding a balance process in Year 1 for a new head coach, but how that happens in conjunction with a team that is built to try and win now is unclear.
Will the defense be better under Jim 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-plus yards per game (30th), 26.9 points per game (25th), and were particularly bad against the pass giving up 267 yards per game (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 and 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 corner. JaCorey Sheppard was hurt last year, but was expected to compete for the slot corner spot before the injury. Plus, the team drafted DB’s 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 corp 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 for that spot.
The defensive line should be fine with plenty of depth all over the place. Fletcher Cox likely bumps inside in Schwartz’s scheme to pair with Benniy 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 July 29th
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 4000-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 last season) would mean a hefty pay raise in the form of a long-term extension. However, Cousins is only currently signed to the franchise tag and talks on an extension haven’t really gotten anywhere. You can understand Washington’s hesitancy. 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 not a ton of tape being out there on Cousins in Jay Gruden’s new offense and the rest of the league was surprised.
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 team in awhile in this division 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. They 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 option to play opposite of Norman and in the slot.
The other thing that will help the pass defense? Getting a pass rush. They 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 17.5 of those sacks last season. In addition they get Junior Galette, formerly of the Saints, back from injury this season to likely start opposite Kerrigan coming off the edge. An improved pass rush and the addition of Norman should help improve this group’s rankings.
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) 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 179 carries for 706 yards. 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 season 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 State. Young had 101 carries for 511 yards and 8 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 of the passing game and Kirk Cousins and allow Jay 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.