NFC East Pre-Preseason What to Watch
What is the preseason? What is it’s value? For the fan, it is the sign of things to come. It’s the wonderful embrace of a new NFL season. Best of all, nobody knows how things will work out when the regular season kicks off. During the preseason, every team has hope and every team has a chance at the ultimate price; the Super Bowl. Yeah, it’s mainly because backups play most of the game and general team depth is really what decides these games, but it also, more specifically, is a time where players must prove themselves. While the starters sit, the bench players fight for playing time, recognition, or a roster spot. These roster battles go well into the 4th Quarter and even the most die-hard fans struggle to remain focused. To counter that, I am providing what I will watch this preseason, as our beloved sport makes it’s way to the regular season.
What to Watch: New Additions – The theme for the Cowboys every season over the past couple years has been “they have the talent, so why shouldn’t they be a favorite for the Super Bowl?” That “theme” has led “America’s Team” to absolutely zero Super Bowls, numerous questions about their QB, Tony Romo, and have left many to wonder if Dallas will ever be able to finally get everyone on the same page and make a legitimate run into the playoffs. With all that said, Dallas added some pieces to their defense this past offseason by signing former Chief CB, Brandon Carr, in free agency and trading up to the 6th overall pick to draft LSU CB Morris Claiborne this past April. Other additions to the offense (G Nate Livings, QB Kyle Orton, FB Lawrence Vickers) and defense (LB Dan Connor, DE Tyrone Crawford, S Brodney Poole) have Dallas thinking that they will be able to make some noise in one of the toughest divisions in football. Our first look will be in the preseason as those players acclimate to their new team.
Short Term Question: Dez Bryant? – It’s not really a question, but there are a lot of things that are up in the air with this guy. The troubled WR is probably the most physically gifted receiver in Dallas and one of the more talented receivers in the game (pure physical/talent standpoint). To this point, he has been a major disappointment as he loses focus during games, has had trouble with injuries (not really his fault) and has had a variety of run ins with the law. Most recently, Bryant had an altercation with his mother, of all people, and was eventually charged with misdemeanor assault. That presents the question of if he will face suspension from NFL Commissioner, Roger Goodell, or if he will miss time as the justice system outside of the NFL works it’s way through this situation. Owner, Jerry Jones, recently made it clear that Bryant is on his last leg with Dallas after all of the off-field issues. Jones has said that he will part ways with Bryant if he doesn’t clean up his act. So… will that work? Bryant, for all his talent, has so many questions surrounding him before he even takes the field. Short term, how this plays out will go a long way in influencing the Cowboys season.
Long Term Question: Can Romo do it for Dallas? – I’ll keep this brief. QB Tony Romo has been good enough to lead some to believe that Dallas is a Super Bowl contender and then, when the game is on the line, he makes a crucial mistake and the criticism rains down. Romo is a quality QB who can put up numbers and has the ability to be as good as he wants. While I do feel that an improved Dallas defense could make Romo more effective than he has been in years past, Romo needs to show something this season that gives Cowboy fans a reason to believe in him. If not, Dallas will enter another offseason trying to determine if they can get anyone better than Romo (which is, unfortunately for Dallas fans, unlikely).
Rookie to Watch: DE Tyrone Crawford – Obviously, CB Morris Claiborne is a guy to watch. He has great coverage skills and there is a lot invested in the guy. Claiborne is the CB of the future in Dallas. Crawford is interesting to watch because he is another of the traditional “raw” talents that, with proper coaching, could develop into a quality player. Crawford has “a nasty demeanor“, which will help him as he pushes for playing time this season.
Veteran to Watch: WR Dez Bryant – Bryant won’t play much this preseason outside of a couple series’ each game, but he is a guy to watch because he has tremendous talent and is already in hot water with the Cowboy organization. As I wrote above, he is reportedly the most impressive player at Cowboy training camp so when he does play, his new focus may shine through. Another vet to watch is inside LB Bruce Carter, a second year player out of North Carolina. He has great speed for the position and his biggest knock was a lack of pure physicality. With an offseason this time around, he should improve and that should be apparent this preseason.
New York Giants
What to Watch: A team under the radar – The Giants won the Super Bowl and now are entering the season under the radar. Playing in the same city as Tebowmania will do that to you. Oh and people are pretty fond of a variety of NFC teams, excluding the Giants (Green Bay, Philadelphia, Chicago, San Francisco…etc.). This means that QB Eli Manning and his team get to prepare for the season without the hoopla that normally accompanies that of a reigning Super Bowl champion. New York has added a couple new pieces to their offensive attack and their defense should be improved from last season if they get out of the preseason healthy. New York is looking to make it back to the Super Bowl and they have everything in place to make another run.
Short Term Question: Who replaces the few pieces that did leave? – I’m mainly talking RB Brandon Jacobs, WR Mario Manningham, CB Aaron Ross and OT Kareem Mackenzie. RB David Wilson from Virginia Tech was taken in the first round to replace Jacobs. Wilson is a more elusive runner who still plays with power. He is explosive, but it remains to be seen how he will manage the backup role and the starting role, if an injury occurs to starter, Ahmad Bradshaw. New York also drafted WR Rueben Randle from LSU who has size and athleticism, but needs time to adapt to the pro game to really replace Manningham as the 3rd WR. Ross is being replaced by last years first round pick, CB Prince Amukamara who has the ability to fill in and play well, but is still unproven. The offensive line is even more in the air with Giants veteran, David Diehl moving to RT and Will Beatty taking the LT position. Beatty is a relatively young guy who will need to prove he can protect Eli Manning. This preseason is very important for all of these young players and New York as they look to repeat.
Long Term Question: Can they repeat? – The Giants are a very good football team…as demonstrated by them being Super Bowl champions and all… and they just aren’t being talked about all that much. They didn’t really lose any major pieces. They still have a very intimidating defensive line and they have have Super Bowl MVP QB, Eli Manning, who could be poised for another breakout season statistically. There really isn’t any reason, on paper, why they can’t make it to the Super Bowl again. At this point, their biggest obstacle may be their own division where Philadelphia and Dallas should be more challenging than last season. Washington may not be on the level of New York, but they will be more dangerous as well given the addition of QB Robert Griffin III and the excitement that has caused. Then you look at the other heavyweights in the NFC and it will be hard for New York to make it out of that in order to represent the the NFC in the Super Bowl. Only time will tell though.
Rookie to Watch: RB David Wilson – Wilson should be fun to watch because he is a very talented back who will get his fair share of touches this preseason and may be very important come the regular season. As I mentioned before, he has been brought in to replace Brandon Jacobs and while Wilson will fill in the backup role admirably… he may be called on later this season if starter Ahmad Bradshaw, who has had his fair share of injuries, misses time. With that in mind, the strong, physical Wilson, who is very explosive, could be an interesting rookie to follow as the season progresses. Preseason will be the first taste for Giants fans.
Veteran to Watch: LB Keith Rivers – All eyes will obviously be on OT Will Beatty as well, but Rivers is intriguing. Rivers is a former first round pick by the Cincinnati Bengals. In his time there, he spent nearly as much time playing as he did in the training room or on injured reserve. Rivers was a quality player, when healthy, who wouldn’t dazzle with any spectacular players, but he was reliable… again… when healthy. New York gave up a 5th round draft pick to get him and the preseason will be the first look we get of him in a Giants uniform.
What to Watch: Continuing to mesh the “Dream Team” – The whole nickname thing kinda blew up in their face last season, but they still do have tremendous amount of talent and that’s why many think that Philly could make a deep push in the playoffs. Those are the same people who thought Philadelphia was an automatic Super Bowl qualifier last season, but hey, who’s keeping track of who’s right and who’s wrong? Say what you want, but Philadelphia turned it on to close out the season last year. They went from major underachiever to a team that you didn’t want to mess with and they even managed to stick around in the playoff picture despite their disappointing start. With all of this talent, it needs to work effectively together. What I will be watching is if the Eagles collection of talent starts playing at a high level now or still doesn’t figure it out until it’s too late.
Short Term Question: Are ILB DeMeco Ryans and other offseason additions going to help the Eagles defense? – This is a short term and long term question. Last season, defensive coordinator, Juan Castillo, took a lot of criticism for his management of the Eagles talent on defense. While the defense ended the year 8th in total yards, they finished in the middle of the pack defending the run. They hope Ryans and draft picks, DT Fletcher Cox and LB Mychal Kendricks will help solidify their run defense. If Philly can stop the run, they have the talent to be very tough defensively.
Long Term Question: Can Philadelphia avoid the injury bug? – The biggest thing that could bite the Eagles this preseason and on into the regular season is the injury bug and they are already dealing with a major one at LT. All-Pro LT Jason Peters tore his ACL this offseason and Philadelphia quickly signed LT Demetress Bell as a replacement. There is a lot riding on if Bell can effectively step in, in place of Peters considering QB Michael Vick has proven to be rather fragile through his career. Vick can be electrifying and has the ability to lead Philadelphia deep into the playoffs, but if him, or any other key offensive weapons, go down with injury, the Eagles could be dealing with another disappointing season.
Rookie to Watch: DE Vinny Curry – I have already mentioned DT Fletcher Cox who should be an impact rookie this preseason, on into the regular season, but I really like Curry. Curry is a very solid pass rusher who has a high motor and gets after the quarterback. He will probably be part of a rotation come the regular season, but for now he will be entertaining to watch given his pure pass rushing ability.
Veteran to Watch: LB DeMeco Ryans – As I mentioned before, a lot is riding on Ryans being the inside LB that can shore up Philly’s run defense struggles. Ryans gets his first shot here during the preseason.
What to Watch: The excitement around QB Robert Griffin III – Washington traded up to the 2nd overall pick this past April for a shot at drafting “RG3”. The Baylor product is electric. He has tremendous athletic ability, a strong arm and the football intelligence to be a star in the league. Naturally, a player with the hype of Griffin has fans excited and the Redskins organization is coining this as the start of greatness. This “new makeover” has generated a lot of excitement as Washington has brought in new faces on offense as they work their way back to respectability. How soon will RG3 change the fortunes of the Redskins? It starts during the preseason.
Short Term Question: How long will it take for RG3 to catch up to the speed of the NFL? – Griffin is the starting QB. That’s not going to change. The question is relating to how Washington and head coach, Mike Shanahan, will get Griffin up to speed. Griffin has a lot of ability and truly does have the potential to be something special. The big hurdles that Griffin must get past in the early part of the season is the speed of the NFL game and the adjustment to the more complicated NFL defenses. Griffin comes from a spread offense that he ran at Baylor, which is an offense that traditionally makes it pretty difficult for QBs to adjust the NFL game. Griffin is one who can certainly break that trend, but it remains to be seen how much he struggles early on with expectations as high as they are.
Long Term Question: What is a reasonable expectation for Washington’s season? – Washington will be better than last season. At least they should. As with any team, the success of the team will rely heavily on the quarterback’s success so a lot depends on RG3’s development. When you look at the rest of Washington’s roster, you can see why there is some excitement. There are plenty of questions, but they have talent. The wide receivers are relatively unproven (WR Pierre Garcon has ability, but hasn’t been a true number 1 before), the defense has the talent to play like a solid defensive unit, Mike Shanahan always seems to be able to get rushing yards out of his running backs and, as mentioned before, Griffin has a lot of promise. The biggest thing that should tamper expectations is the rest of the division. The Giants, Eagles and Cowboys are all superior in overall talent and all three of them have realistic shots at deep playoff runs. Washington could be a surprise, but the odds seem to be against them. We will have to wait and see if Washington can make a push at the division title.
Rookie to Watch: QB Robert Griffin III – If I haven’t already made it clear, Griffin is a very important piece to Washington and his development is key. He will be entertaining to watch this preseason on into the regular season. Also keep an eye on QB Kirk Cousins from Michigan State. He isn’t going to be challenging Griffin for the starting spot, but none the less, Cousins was one of the more NFL ready QBs in April’s draft and he should be interesting to watch.
Veteran to Watch: WR Leonard Hankerson – The 2nd year player has the potential to be a key player in Griffin’s development. Hankerson has a good 6’2″ frame and has good speed. He is a young player who could use this preseason to really prepare for a key role this regular season.