LAST YEAR: Sensational rookie combo of QB Dak Prescott and RB Ezekiel Elliott powered Cowboys to top seed in NFC before divisional playoff loss to Green Bay. Prescott, NFL Offensive Rookie of Year, had one of best debut seasons for QB in NFL history after replacing injured Tony Romo, who never got back starting job and retired to broadcast booth after season. Elliott was NFL rushing leader with 1,631 yards. Dez Bryant, 2014 All-Pro WR, had production similar to that season in second half of last year. Bryant participated in offseason for first time since 2014 and is expecting big results. TE Jason Witten returns for 15th season after becoming franchise leader in starts (213) and consecutive starts (163). Defense was mediocre again, and Cowboys let several veterans go in free agency in signal talent upgrade was needed. Now Dallas is gambling that young players will be productive quickly, particularly in secondary. Oft-injured LB Sean Lee was healthy for all 16 games for first time in career, which led to first All-Pro nod. Cowboys hope Jaylon Smith can join him as standout after 2016 second-round pick took last season to recover from devastating college knee injury. Pass rush was problem once again, and Cowboys focused on that need with first-round pick Taco Charlton.
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IMPORTANT ADDITIONS: Charlton and fellow DE Charles Tapper, rookie CBs Chidobe Awuzie and Jourdan Lewis, CB Nolan Carroll; rookie WR/KR Ryan Switzer.
IMPORTANT LOSSES: CBs Brandon Carr and Morris Claiborne, Ss Barry Church and J.J. Wilcox, DT Terrell McClain, DE Jack Crawford, T Doug Free.
CAMP NEEDS: Sounds like recording, but pass rush still tops list. Dallas has addressed DE at or near top of draft three times in four years and needs to start seeing results to make long postseason run. Cowboys have to sort out spots in secondary and offensive line. Returning CBs Orlando Scandrick and Anthony Brown will be in mix with newcomers, and La’el Collins appears set for move from LG to RT with Free’s retirement. Former top 10 pick Jonathan Cooper, late-season add last year, could be new LG. Smith’s progress will have plenty of say on what happens at MLB.
EXPECTATIONS: Prescott will hear phrase ”sophomore slump” in weeks leading to season. If former Mississippi State star avoids it, Cowboys have strong chance to remain contender after failing to follow up NFC East-winning season in 2014 and falling to last place a year later. Dallas hasn’t had consecutive winning seasons since last of five straight in 2009. Defense has to be more dynamic for Cowboys to reach NFC championship game for first time since last Super Bowl title following 1995 season. Cowboys may have to brace for suspension of Elliott, under investigation by NFL for domestic issue in Ohio last year.
NEW YORK GIANTS (11-6)
OPEN CAMP: July 28, Quest Diagnostics Training Center, East Rutherford, New Jersey.
LAST YEAR: Turnaround season in Ben McAdoo’s first year as coach. Surprisingly, it was defense that carried team. S Landon Collins had MVP-type year in his second season. Additions of DE Olivier Vernon and DT Damon Harrison and return of DE Jason Pierre-Paul to form after 2015 fireworks accident transformed Steve Spagnuolo’s unit. Offense, which led team in 2015 with McAdoo as coordinator, was major disappointment. Two-time Super Bowl MVP Eli Manning was under too much pressure and there was no running game to help. Giants won close games: New York had eight wins by seven points or less. Its biggest winning margin was 14. Only time it was blown out was in wild-card game by Packers, game overshadowed by Odell Beckham Jr. and other receivers taking ill-advised boating trip in Florida on off day during week before contest game. General manager Jerry Reese told Beckham to start maturing in season-ending interviews.
IMPORTANT ADDITIONS: WR Brandon Marshall, rookie TE Evan Engram, OL D.J. Fluker, rookie DT Dalvin Tomlinson, PK Aldrick Rosas.
IMPORTANT LOSSES: DT Johnathan Hankins, PK Robbie Gould, RT Marshall Newhouse, WR Victor Cruz, RB Rashad Jennings.
CAMP NEEDS: While defense went from one of NFL’s worst to very good unit, offense went downhill. Line was bad, running game was nonexistent, and Manning rarely had third option at receiver outside of Beckham and Sterling Shepard. With exception of Newhouse, line returns. Entering third season, LT Ereck Flowers has to start playing like first-round pick. Either Bobby Hart or Fluker will replace Newhouse. Hope is fleet Engram proves difficult matchup at tight end, and Marshall gives Manning third option. Second-year pro Paul Perkins expected to replace Jennings. Spagnuolo needs to find safety (Darian Thompson, Andrew Adams) to play opposite Collins, and DT (Tomlinson, Jay Bromley) to play beside All-Pro Harrison. Rosas has big leg but he has never kicked in regular-season game. Will Giants go fishing for veteran on waiver wire after final cutdown?
EXPECTATIONS: If defense plays as well as last year and offense returns to 2015 form, Giants can challenge Cowboys in NFC East. New York should make playoffs for second straight year after missing five in row.
WASHINGTON REDSKINS (8-7-1)
OPEN CAMP: July 27, Bon Secours Washington Redskins Training Center, Richmond, Virginia.
LAST YEAR: Horrendous red zone and third-down defense all season and Week 17 dud against Giants contributed to missing playoffs year after winning NFC East. Third-down defense ranked last in NFL and red zone defense ranked 26th. QB Kirk Cousins broke own franchise record with 4,917 yards passing and 25 TDs but threw two interceptions in season finale vs. New York. Robert Kelley went from undrafted to starting RB, but lack of consistent running game proved costly. Kelley finished as leading rusher with 704 yards and six TDs. Cousins’ top target, TE Jordan Reed, missed four games with injuries, and LT Trent Williams served four-game drug suspension. WRs Pierre Garcon and DeSean Jackson each surpassed 1,000 yards receiving in contract years. CB Josh Norman rebounded from uneven start to have productive year with three INTs, but was league’s most penalized player. LB Ryan Kerrigan led team with 11 sacks and LB Mason Foster had 104 tackles. Combination of bad defensive play calling and execution led to firing of coordinator Joe Barry and personnel changes.
IMPORTANT ADDITIONS: WR Terrelle Pryor, WR Brian Quick, S D.J. Swearinger, LB Zach Brown, rookie DE Jonathan Allen, DL Terrell McClain, DL Stacy McGee, defensive line coach Jim Tomsula
IMPORTANT LOSSES: WRs Jackson and Garcon, DE Ricky Jean-Francois, DE Chris Baker, S Duke Ihenacho, offensive coordinator Sean McVay
CAMP NEEDS: After enjoying welcome ”boring” 2016 camp, Cousins’ second season on franchise tag hangs over 2017. Cousins has new receivers to figure out and coach Jay Gruden must determine pecking order. Promoted defensive coordinator Greg Manusky must piece together unit with mass changes, most notably solving safety position with Swearinger and second-year player Su’a Cravens. Finding spots for first-rounder Allen and second-round LB Ryan Anderson among position battles. Demoted RB Matt Jones continues to hope for trade or release.
EXPECTATIONS: Redskins on playoff bubble again. Uncertain division gives them chance to return to playoffs for second time in three years, but that’s dependent on Cousins’ play, Gruden’s play calling and much-improved defense.
PHILADELPHIA EAGLES (7-9)
OPEN CAMP: July 24, NovaCare Practice Facility, Philadelphia.
LAST YEAR: Rookie quarterback Carson Wentz proved he’s real deal, giving team franchise player to build around. Wentz was brilliant during 3-0 start and finished strong. In between, No. 2 overall pick endured plenty of growing pains along with rest of team under rookie coach Doug Pederson. Wentz threw for 3,782 yards, set rookie record with 379 completions, had 16 touchdown passes, 14 interceptions and 79.3 passer rating. He also became first QB to start 16 games for Eagles since Donovan McNabb in 2008. Wentz didn’t have much help. He was surrounded by mediocre group of receivers and running backs and didn’t have top blocker Lane Johnson for 10 games because of suspension. Defense improved under new coordinator Jim Schwartz after three awful seasons at bottom of most statistical categories. Still, cornerbacks struggled and pass rush was poor. Other bright spots were rookies CB Jalen Mills and RT Halapoulivaati Vaitai, S Malcolm Jenkins and special teams.
IMPORTANT ADDITIONS: WRs Alshon Jeffery and Torrey Smith, RB LeGarrette Blount, QB Nick Foles, DT Tim Jernigan, rookies DE Derek Barnett, CB Rasul Douglas, WRs Mack Hollins and Shelton Gibson, RB Donnel Pumphrey.
IMPORTANT LOSSES: DT Bennie Logan, DE Connor Barwin, CBs Leodis McKelvin and Nolan Carroll.
CAMP NEEDS: Wentz and new playmakers – Jeffery, Smith, Hollins and Gibson – have to build chemistry while working holdover WRs Jordan Matthews and Nelson Agholor and TE Zach Ertz into mix. Coaches need to figure out which back they’ll count on for bulk of workload or if they’ll take committee approach. Eyes will be on Barnett because Eagles need someone to consistently pressure QBs. Sorting out secondary is top priority on defense.
EXPECTATIONS: Eagles are supposed to be rebuilding but made win-now offseason additions on offense. There hasn’t been repeat champion in NFC East since Eagles won four division titles in row from 2001-04. If offense lives up to potential and defense improves, Eagles could be in mix. Winning record is more realistic than playoff berth. Step backward could cost Pederson his job.
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