Camp Countdown  

 

NFC East training camp preview: Key players, battles to watch

Print

By the end of this month, training camps will open across the NFL. Where are the looming position battles to keep tabs on? Who are the critical players to watch? We'll provide each team's keys in this division-by-division series. Today, Jeremy Bergman digs into the NFC East:

Dallas Cowboys

Training camp report dates: rookies and veterans (July 26).

Location: Marriott Residence Inn in Oxnard, California.

Most important position battle: strong safety. Dallas' roster is rock solid in nearly every phase except perhaps the secondary -- and particularly at safety. The Cowboys have found their cornerbacks of the present/future in Chidobe Awuzie and Byron Jones, who is returning from hip surgery, but at safety, Dallas is still tinkering. Xavier Woods looks to have the free safety position locked down, but at strong safety, longtime Cowboy Jeff Heath and free-agent acquisition George Iloka are vying for starting snaps. Heath has been with Dallas for the entirety of his career and started 33 total games over the last two seasons, but Iloka could provide different plusses than Heath, like tackling. The Cowboys vet missed 19 tackles in 2018, per Pro Football Focus, the second-most among all safeties. And then there's the specter of a safety who isn't even on the roster: free-agent veteran Eric Berry.

Newcomer/player returning from injury to watch: Randall Cobb, wide receiver. Long the recipient of passes from Aaron Rodgers, Cobb finds himself in 2019 -- for the first time in his career -- catching balls from another starting QB. Cobb's relationship with Dak Prescott is a matter of national importance in the Republic of Texas, as the 28-year-old receiver takes the place of Cole Beasley in the slot. Things are off to a fine start; Prescott said he and Cobb have had "a fast connection" so far, citing the receiver's ability to get open. However, once a reliable and productive target in Green Bay, Cobb has struggled to replicate the success of his 2014 Pro Bowl season and, in 2018, succumbed to head and hamstring injuries. Which Cobb will the Cowboys see next to Amari Cooper, Michael Gallup and Allen Hurns, and will he be worth his one-year prove-it deal?

Looming camp question: What will Kellen Moore's offense look like? As a southpaw signal-caller for the Boise State Broncos at the turn of the decade, Kellen Moore was a trend-setter; the lefty completed over 70 percent of his passes during his last two years on the Smurf Turf and left Idaho with 142 passing TDs, the second-most in FBS history behind Case Keenum. As an undrafted professional quarterback, Moore was a non-factor, starting two games in six seasons. As a first-year QB coach in 2018, Moore was ... there. And now, at 30 years old, he is the offensive coordinator for the Dallas Cowboys -- in a do-or-die year for Jason Garrett, and likely his entire staff. How different will the 'Boys play in 2019, the first season without Scott Linehan in half a decade? Early reports suggest more pre-snap movement and "creativity," whatever that means. Is there a role for Tavon Austin? Will Jason Witten be a glorified blocker? Is this finally Rico Gathers' breakout season?! We'll get our first real glimpse at Moore's vision this August.

New York Giants

Training camp report dates: rookies (July 22) and veterans (July 24).

Location: Quest Diagnostics Training Facility in East Rutherford, New Jersey.

Most important position battle: center. Sure, Giants coach Pat Shurmur has hinted at a quarterback competition between Eli Manning and Mini Manning, but it's unclear if Daniel Jones has a real shot to unseat the aging Elisha (more on that below). More interesting perhaps is figuring out who will be snapping that QB the ball. Jon Halapio entered last season as Big Blue's starting center, but he broke his ankle in Week 2. He was replaced by Spencer Pulley, who started nine games last season and signed a three-year extension this offseason. Both are healthy as we head into camp, but early indications are the job is Halapio's to lose. Given New York's general woes along the offensive line in years past, though, the Giants can't afford to settle on the wrong scrap-heap pickup.

Newcomer/player returning from injury to watch: Deandre Baker, cornerback; Darius Slayton, wide receiver. Sry, I'm cheating. These two SEC prospects were not drafted in the same round (Baker was New York's third first-rounder, Slayton the second fifth-rounder), but they could find themselves in the same starting lineup come Week 1. During minicamp, Baker and Slayton both hopped over incumbents in the depth chart for snaps. Baker is getting time in front of redshirt rookie Sam Beal at corner across from Jackrabbit Jenkins, while Slayton is pushing journeyman Corey Coleman for New York's No. 3 receiver spot next to Golden Tate and Sterling Shepard. For an embattled general manager like Dave Gettleman, having two rookie starters in Week 1 (in addition to Dexter Lawrence and potentially Daniel Jones) would be early proof of a successful draft. (Or evidence of poor roster management, if you want to interpret it that way.)

Looming camp question: Will Daniel Jones push Eli Manning for starting reps? The boos echoing in the general direction of Jones, online and in stands, have subsided by now, as Giants supporters transition from anger to acceptance in their seven stages of (good) grief. Jones, not Dwayne Haskins, Josh Rosen or Drew Lock, is their quarterback of the future. Perhaps the near future. As mentioned above, Shurmur intimated at the end of mandatory minicamp that Jones could be closing in on the Giants' starting gig, saying the rookie is "on track with the goal to be ready to play on Day 1." Now, we media folk ate that up, because Shurmur's statement appeared to offer Jones a sliver, a morsel, a teardrop of hope to steal Manning's gig before the season starts, a post that has been held by the same player since 2004, when Manning was the top-10 rookie overtaking a veteran with Super Bowl pedigree. When Eli replaced Kurt Warner, though, he didn't get his first start until Week 11, well into a lost campaign. A lot has changed since then regarding rookie-QB norms; all four of last year's top-10 QBs were starting for their respective clubs by Week 4. Our first potential sign that New York is actually considering Jones for the Week 1 starting role would come when 11-on-11s roll around in training camp and those reps are divvied up. Will Manning and Jones go 50-50? If they do, does that mean Jones is gaining ground, or that Giants brass just want to test him? I don't have to speculate anymore on this matter, as the Gotham tabloids can take it from here.

Philadelphia Eagles

Training camp report dates: rookies and veterans (July 24).

Location: NovaCare Complex in Philadelphia.

Most important position battle: cornerback. Philly's roster is arguably the best and deepest in football. It's hard to find a blemish, let alone a competition. So I'm tempted to leave this entire section blank. Alas, I'm in too deep already. Let's go with the Eagles cornerbacks, a deep unit that was ravaged by injuries last season. Ronald Darby and Jalen Mills should still start, but where does that leave Sidney Jones (who has yet to complete a full season), Avonte Maddox, Rasul Douglas and Cre'von LeBlanc? Philly has a bevy of solid (if fragile) options to fill out the depth chart, and hopefully not the injury report, this season.

Newcomer/player returning from injury to watch: Jordan Howard, running back. This could be Howard or rookie running back Miles Sanders, whom the Eagles drafted in the second round out of Penn State. Both are new faces in Philly, replacing the departed Jay Ajayi as potential bell cows in the backfield. The Eagles struggled on the ground last year without the injured Ajayi and the departed LeGarrette Blount, instead relying on undrafted rookie Josh Adams to pace the club with 511 rushing yards. That won't be enough to see Philly retake the East in 2019. But is the addition of Howard a quick fix? The former Bears back is coming off his third -- and least impressive -- campaign and was deemed expendable in Chicago because of his one-dimensionality. Will Howard be an every-down back or a one-trick Eagle in Philly, which boasts a deep-enough RB corps that he need not tote the rock 250 times, as he did in the Windy City? Acquiring Howard was a low-risk move by the shrewd Howie Roseman, but the future of the position might rest on younger legs (re: Sanders).

Looming camp question: How will the receiver room shake out? The Eagles, as I've said before, boast an embarrassment of riches at nearly position. Usually, you can't have too much of a good thing, but Philadelphia might have just that in the receiver room. The Eagles return Alshon Jeffery, Nelson Agholor and Mack Hollins from last year's roster. They also scooped up DeSean Jackson and Braxton Miller in free agency, as well as J.J. Arcega-Whiteside in the draft. Add to that group two tight ends with 80-reception potential (Zach Ertz, who caught 116 balls last year, and Dallas Goedert), and Carson Wentz has his pick of the litter behind a typically-clean pocket. As things stand, Philly could choose to play more often with either 11 personnel (3 WRs) or 12 personnel (2 TEs, 2 WRs), with Agholor as a potential odd man out of the lineup and/or roster. Agholor was available for a trade ahead of the draft, and the acquisition of Arcega-Whiteside portended to some that Agholor's departure was imminent. That has yet to come to fruition, but the former first-round WR did miss minicamp with a lower-body injury, which doesn't do him any favors on the trade block. If a younger receiver or two stand out to Doug Pederson and his staff this summer, could Agholor finally be dealt?

Washington Redskins

Training camp report dates: rookies and veterans (July 24).

Location: Bon Secours Washington Redskins Training Center in Richmond, Virginia.

Most important position battle: Uhh ... quarterback. Washington thought it had its pigskin passer of the present and future when it drafted Robert Griffin III second overall in 2012 ... when it replaced RGIII with Kirk Cousins as the starter in 2015 ... and when it let Cousins walk and traded for Alex Smith in 2018. Then came Smith's season- (and potentially career-) ending leg injury and another crisis of confidence regarding the future of the position. Enter Dwayne Haskins, who fell to the Redskins with the No. 15 pick in late April. The Ohio State stud has a legitimate opportunity to start under center Week 1 in Philadelphia, but he's not the only new addition in D.C. Unpredictable journeyman Case Keenum was signed in free agency before Washington drafted Haskins, while Redskins veteran Colt McCoy should return from his leg injury by training camp. The real competition for the starting gig is between Haskins and Keenum, and their upcoming daily battle is already sparking debate in the D.C. area. Joe Theismann says Haskins should sit regardless of his training camp performance, citing Washington's brutal opening stretch. Jay Gruden thinks Haskins deserves a shot to prove himself as Washington's starter. Doug Williams and 'Skins brass insist the decision to name a starter in D.C. will be made by a group, not just by the coach. Since the turn of the century, Washington has seen more potential starting QBs come and go than senators, the club's success rate with QBs lower than most incumbents' approval ratings. How Haskins performs in training camp vs. Keenum, and how the 'Skins handle the start of his career in the nation's capital, will be monitored league-wide.

Newcomer/player returning from injury to watch: Landon Collins, safety. I was gonna say Reuben Foster, but then he became a player returning from injury to watch next season. How about a fellow Bammer in Collins, the former Giants safety who was betrayed by Big Blue and then took way more money to play for New York's division rival. The defensive back said he felt "heartbroken" after leaving the Giants, but Collins -- who inked a six-year, $84 million megadeal with $44.5 million in guarantees -- has quickly made an impression in D.C. Having grown up idolizing Sean Taylor, Collins is taking up the late safety's mantle as Washington's enforcer and defensive leader. On a defense stacked with a ton of potential and former Tide players (they're often one in the same), Collins, a three-time Pro Bowler in four NFL seasons, could be the lynchpin that ties up D.C.'s loose ends.

Looming camp question: Aside from the QB thing ... who is The Guy on offense? The Redskins possess one of the more interesting crops of playmakers in the league. (Take "interesting" to mean whatever you want.) Washington employs at least three running backs with starting-snaps potential, one of whom is coming off serious injury (Derrius Guice), one of whom is always injured (Chris Thompson) and one of whom is aging gracefully, albeit aging nonetheless (Adrian Peterson). There's also Samaje Perine and rookie Bryce Love, college stars still brimming with possibility but struggling with injuries. The Redskins' receiving corps is a mixed bag, as well, fronted by Josh Doctson, Paul Richardson, Trey Quinn and rookie Terry McLaurin. I'm not a fantasy guy, but from a fantasy perspective, there is no sure thing on this offense, perhaps except Jordan Reed (who has dealt with injury issues throughout his career). That either speaks to the multiplicity of Washington's attack or a lack of focused firepower. I'm eager to see who stands out in Richmond in August, not just under center but out of the backfield and on the flanks.

Follow Jeremy Bergman on Twitter @JABergman.

Print

Headlines

The previous element was an advertisement.

NFL Shop