Training Camp: Alamodome/Marriott Residence Inn, San Antonio/Oxnard, Calif., July 24
The Looming Question: “Who’s protecting Tony Romo’s blind side?”
The lasting image from the Cowboys’ NFC divisional round defeat in Minnesota on Jan. 11 is Romo on his back, with Ray Edwards and Jared Allen running ragged all over the Cowboys offensive line. Romo was sacked six times in that embarrassing 34-3 loss. Flozell Adams, who started all but 10 games at left tackle for Dallas since 1999, was let go soon after. Insert three-year veteran Doug Free and offseason acquisition Alex Barron. Is either player an upgrade from Adams? We’ll have to wait and see.
Key Camp Battle: Free safety: Alan Ball vs. Barry Church vs. Danny McCray
Ken Hamlin did little in his year and a half in Dallas, and the Cowboys safeties combined for just one interception last season, a league low. Ball is a converted cornerback who filled in nicely for Hamlin when he was injured in 2009. Church and McCray are intriguing undrafted free agents who may give him a run for his money in training camp. Early Edge: Alan Ball
New Veteran in Town: Alex Barron, OT
Barron, a former first-round disappointment in St. Louis, has received high praise from offensive line coach Hudson Houck throughout his first few weeks with the Cowboys. Barron will battle Doug Free for the starting left tackle job but is capable of playing right tackle, too. Barron had 63 penalties in 76 games with the Rams. If he can cut down on the holding and false-start calls, he could make a major impact in Dallas this season.
Young Gun to Watch: Sean Lee, ILB
Dez Bryant may have been the splashier draft pick, but second-round selection Lee is an exciting backup to both Keith Brooking and Bradie James at middle linebacker. Alongside Brooking, DeMarcus Ware and Anthony Spencer — three of the top linebackers in the division — Lee will be expected to hold his own right away. Jason Williams, a second-year man with big potential, could give Lee a run for the starting gig in camp.
NEW YORK GIANTS
Current Vegas Super Bowl Odds: 16-1
Training Camp: University of Albany, Albany, N.Y., Aug. 1
The Looming Question: “Will the defense bounce back?”
Giants fans certainly hope so. Heading into Week 16, the Giants were in the driver’s seat for an NFC wild-card berth. They promptly went out and gave up a combined 85 points to Carolina and Minnesota. The Bill Sheridan era — which started in February and ended 11 months later — was short and not very sweet. In comes Perry Fewell as the new defensive coordinator and with him an in-your-face vocal presence on the sidelines. The Giants allowed 26.7 points per game, which ranked 30th in the NFL last season, and gave up at least 40 points five times, including three of their last four games. In addition to Fewell, there’s a healthy Chris Canty, free-agent acquisition Antrel Rolle and rookies Jason Pierre-Paul, Linval Joseph and Phillip Dillard. At the very least, the Giants D will be far better than it was in ’09. Or at least you’d hope so.
Key Camp Battle: Middle linebacker: Jonathan Goff vs. Gerris Wilkinson vs. Phillip Dillard
Goff’s the early favorite, but Wilkinson and Dillard could give him a run for the gig. Whoever gets the job, there will be a lot on his shoulders. Fewell’s defenses traditionally rely on steady play from the MLB position.
New Veteran in Town: Antrel Rolle, S
There’s plenty of optimism in New York over the star-studded safety tandem of Kenny Phillips and offseason acquisition Rolle. Phillips recruited his Miami buddy Rolle via text message during the opening days of the free-agent signing period. Alas, Phillips’ recovery from microfracture surgery has kept the two from playing together thus far. Aug.1 is the target date for Phillips’ much-awaited return. If Phillips is healthy, he and Rolle form the top safety duo in the conference.
Young Gun to Watch: Hakeem Nicks, WR
As a rookie in 2009, Hakeem Nicks caught 47 balls and scored six touchdowns. Five of his catches went for 40-plus yards, and he averaged 16.8 yards per catch. Eli Manning threw for 4,021 yards in ’09. With another offseason working with Steve Smith, Mario Manningham and Nicks, you can expect even more in 2010. Nicks could be the breakout star.
Current Vegas Super Bowl Odds: 28-1
Training Camp: Lehigh University, Bethlehem, Pa., July 26
The Looming Question: “Can Kevin Kolb deliver in Year One?”
For better or worse, Eagles fans knew what they were getting in Donovan McNabb. McNabb supporters will point to the five NFC championship games; McNabb detractors will point to the one Super Bowl berth. In Kolb, there’s a great question mark. In limited action, the fourth-year man out of Houston has looked relatively good. He has also had some interception issues. In two career starts, Kolb has completed 55 of 85 passes, but has thrown seven interceptions. That’s one pick per every 12 passes. That just won’t cut it. The Eagles front office showed a lot of faith and a lot of confidence in Kolb by getting rid of McNabb. Over the years, the Eagles have been pretty spot-on in these franchise-shifting decisions. We’ll see how this one works out.
Key Camp Battle: Cornerback: Joselio Hanson vs. Ellis Hobbs vs. Macho Harris vs. Dmitri Patterson
Asante Samuel, the No. 50 player on my Top 100 players list for the second year in a row, will man the left cornerback spot. The right? It’s an open competition among these four. Hobbs is recovering from season-ending neck surgery to repair a herniated disc in his neck, Harris saw some time as a starting safety last year, and Hanson and Patterson got significant time with the first team during OTAs. Hanson has started a few games in his four years as an Eagle and could be the guy to watch this preseason. Early Edge: Joselio Hanson
New Veteran in Town: Mike Bell, RB
More than any other position in the sport, youth is king when it comes to running backs. Just ask Brian Westbrook. After Westbrook was released by the Eagles in the offseason, the starting gig now belongs to second-year man LeSean McCoy. Backing up McCoy is Bell, a 27-year-old 220-pounder fresh off a Super Bowl victory. Bell should serve as a veteran presence and get plenty more action than just goal-line work in 2010. On an incredibly young squad, Bell is the rare veteran who has been there and done that.
Young Gun to Watch: Nate Allen, S
Andy Reid has already anointed the 37th pick in the 2010 draft as his starting free safety for the coming season. Allen, arguably the best coverage safety in the entire 2010 draft class, should make an immediate impact for the Eagles. "He did a nice job (at OTAs)," Reid said last month. "He's a smart kid. He's got a nice football mind. He's a fast learner."
Current Vegas Super Bowl Odds: 29-1
Training Camp: Redskins Park, Ashburn, Va., July 29
The Looming Question: “It seems as though every member of the media and the Redskins locker room has spent the offseason killing Albert Haynesworth. But is he fully to blame for this mess?”
I hate to play devil’s advocate for anyone making $20-plus million a year who opts to not show up for work, but Haynesworth has reason to be upset. Should he have shown up for mandatory workouts? Probably. Should he fulfill his contractual obligations? Absolutely. Are his actions only making his reputation around the league worse? Of course. But when the big fella signed with Washington in March 2009 — instead of Tampa Bay or New York — he was promised a role as a penetrating inside lineman in a 4-3 defense. As the nose tackle in Jim Haslett’s 3-4 defense, he’ll be playing an entirely different position from the one he was promised he’d play. He’ll face double, even triple teams from opposing blockers every down. His role in a 3-4, a position in which he has no experience, is to merely occupy blockers and let teammates make plays. In truth, at 6-feet-6, he’s simply too tall to play nose tackle. The chances of a career-ending knee injury are very high for a nose tackle of that size. Haynesworth is absolutely right in not wanting to play in a 3-4 defense. But what’d the Stones say? You can’t always get what you want. Download that tune, Albert. The right thing would have been forgoing the payment of a $21 million bonus on April 1 and getting his release from the team instead. And that’s where Albert is in the wrong. Haynesworth had no problem cashing that check in April. Now, he needs to face the music and earn that money.
Key Camp Battle: Strong safety: Chris Horton vs. Reed Doughty
Doughty is returning from a season-ending back injury suffered last October, and Horton, a seventh-round draft pick in 2008, started 10 games and had three interceptions in relief last season. Though Doughty is still viewed as the “veteran” guy, the starting gig is still an open competition between the two. Early Edge: Reed Doughty
New Veteran in Town: Jammal Brown, OT
The ‘Skins traded for the former Pro Bowler last month, and he’ll most likely man the right tackle spot as rookie Trent Williams protects Donovan McNabb’s blind side. Brown started 58 games for the Saints in five seasons before injuries sidelined him last season. Like Williams, Brown, still only 29, went to Oklahoma. There’s no shortage of Boomer Sooner representation on that ‘Skins offensive line.
Young Gun to Watch: Fred Davis, TE
Don’t worry, Chris Cooley fans. He’s still going to get his. But Fred Davis, the third-year tight end out of USC, is worth keeping an eye on. Everything is kumbaya in Redskins world, as the two players are getting along and helping each other this offseason. Davis thrived in Cooley’s absence last season. With both on the field in 2010, McNabb has two tremendously talented receiving tight ends to work with.