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NFC East: Assessing Each Team’s Big Issue Pre-Camp
IRVING, Texas – It’s a bit hard to believe, but football is here – the makings of football, at least.
The meaningful stuff doesn’t happen for another month and a half, but for football dorks like me (and probably you if you’re reading this post), the process of putting a team together starts this week with NFL teams reporting to training camp.
We’ve spent the past month or so loading DallasCowboys.com with content about the questions and expectations facing the Cowboys when they report to Oxnard, California, on Tuesday for camp. Just about every possible angle has been covered on the Dallas front, so I wanted to be sure to throw some attention elsewhere.
All the same storylines and issues abound for all 32 NFL squads, but most importantly to the Cowboys are the problems facing their NFC East division mates heading into the 2014 season. Rather than cover that exhaustively on a Cowboys website, I figured I’d take a list at the most intriguing issue I think each of the three division rivals has to settle in the next month or so.
New York Giants
As if the Giants weren’t already desperate to sort out their offensive line, news broke late Sunday night that three-time Pro Bowler guard and two-time Super Bowl champion Chris Snee was retiring. Multiple injuries forced the longtime veteran out of 13 games last fall, at the tail end of a career that saw him miss just six starts in nine seasons. Snee missed offseason work because of surgery and opted to call it a career.
New York wasn’t just without Snee during OTAs and minicamp. Left tackle Will Beatty broke his leg during last year’s season finale and wasn’t cleared for the spring workouts. The team hopes he’ll be cleared for practice early during training camp.
New faces abound on the Giants’ roster this year, as they brought in free agents like Rashad Jennings, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and Walter Thurmond. They also drafted Odell Beckham Jr. and brought back Mario Manningham to give Eli Manning a few more weapons.
Not a lick of that is going to matter if they can’t improve their offensive line from its poor, injury-riddled standing last year. New acquisitions like Geoff Schwartz and Charles Brown may play a role in that, and 2013 first-round draft pick Justin Pugh will have high expectations.
Regardless of how they do it, the Giants have to find the right five guys to keep Manning on his feet and the offense moving.
Maybe there are actually more pressing issues for Chip Kelly to figure out in Year 2 – such as fixing a defense that was almost as atrocious as Dallas’ last year. But selfishly, I’m beyond interested to see how Philly moves on from the DeSean Jackson Era.
Jackson wasn’t the model of consistency with the Eagles, with two largely forgettable seasons and plenty of forgettable games during that stretch. There’s still no denying his explosive, gamebreaking ability, and his 1,333-yard season in 2013 proved that with a Pro Bowl berth.
Anywho, he’s off to Washington, and the Eagles are in need of a new No. 1 receiver. Riley Cooper and Jeremy Maclin return as the top two options at receiver. Cooper blew up last year opposite Jackson, while Maclin rehabbed a torn ACL. Maclin averaged 65 receptions for 863 yards and six touchdowns during his four seasons before that injury. Simply put, Maclin has to prove he can bounce back and Cooper has to prove he can maintain – I’m not sure either guy is a surefire top receiver.
The Eagles also drafted Jordan Matthews and Josh Huff this spring. Matthews, the SEC’s all-time receptions and yards leader while at Vanderbilt, received rave reviews during OTAs, but receiver is often considered one of the NFL’s toughest transitions.
Second-year starter Nick Foles has plenty of options. The Eagles brought in Darren Sproles to partner with LeSean McCoy, and they have a quality tight end duo of Brent Celek and Zach Ertz. As of right now, though, I don’t know that any of their receivers are enough to scare defenses into adjusting the way Jackson did.
To be frank, the resolution of the Robert Griffin III saga is what’s going to determine Washington’s fortunes this year. If he bounces back to his rookie form, I think the Redskins have what it takes to reach the playoffs again. If he struggles, the Redskins look likely to earn a high draft pick.
To be frank again, I think I have RG3 fatigue. The whirlwind that surrounded him for much of last year was exhausting – from the rehabbing of his torn ACL to the rumor-mongering about his relationship with former coach Mike Shanahan.
New Washington coach Jay Gruden is a former quarterback and an offensive expert, and Washington brought in DeSean Jackson to partner with Pierre Garcon and Alfred Morris. I think the offense is going to be fine.
Instead, I want to keep an eye on former Cowboy defensive tackle Jason Hatcher. The veteran was one of the lone bright spots on the Cowboys’ league-worst defense last year, as he notched 11 sacks from the three-technique spot. After a decent amount ofspeculation that he’d leave in free agency, Hatcher did just that – departing for the Cowboys’ hated rivals in Washington.
The interesting thing, to me at least, is that Hatcher is leaving the defensive scheme where he had his best-ever season for a 3-4 defense. He played in a 3-4 for seven years after being drafted by the Cowboys in 2006, and it all came with only marginal success. His career-high for sacks prior to 2013 was just 4.5.
Fortunately for Hatcher, he’ll be accompanied by two formidable sack artists in Washington outside linebackers Brian Orakpo and Ryan Carrigan. From the defensive end spot, he can make a big difference just by freeing those two up for more sacks. But Washington didn’t give Hatcher a four-year, $27 million contract to be a diversion.
Ultimately, I think Griffin makes the difference between this team being good and bad. But Hatcher’s progress is something all Cowboys fans, and writers, will have an eye on during the season.