The Cowboys seem to always come into the season with high hopes, only to disappoint. Will Jason Garrett relinquishing the Offensive Coordinator role to Bill Callahan make a difference? Time will tell. Also, the Cowboys do not have much depth at running back or wide receiver so injuries could make a substantial impact.
Quarterback: Tony Romo returns to run the Dallas offense. His lack of postseason success will haunt him (and the team) until he leads the Cowboys deep into the playoffs. The Dallas quarterback puts up solid numbers, but it often seems after the outcome is settled. Veteran Kyle Orton will back up Romo once again. The starter is coming off a back surgery so Orton could play a sizable role this season. He is a proven passer and could be a fantasy starter if given the chance with the Cowboys receivers.
Running Back: Demarco Murray has battled injuries throughout his short career. Murray's lack of durability has cost him games, and could do so again in 2013. In 2012, the young back lacked the explosiveness shown as a rookie. Last season, Murray broke 100 rushing yards just once and averaged fewer than four yards per carry for the season. Although he was nicked up, fantasy owners must determine whether they can depend on the third-year runner. The jury is still out. Felix Jones was not re-signed, and has since joined the Philadelphia Eagles in a lesser role. In his stead, Dallas drafted Joseph Randle in the fifth round out of Oklahoma State. Randle racked up the numbers in Stillwater, but his professional outlook is shadowed by the overall lack of explosiveness and inability to make tacklers miss. He also is recovering from a thumb surgery. Also fighting for playing time are Lance Dunbar and Phillip Tanner. Of the two, Dunbar is the superior back. Tanner is bigger, but has struggled to gain meaningful yardage, even dating back to Middle Tennessee State. Dunbar could play significant snaps if Murray misses time again. A player to monitor deep on the depth chart is Kendial Lawrence, a small but very quick runner. Lawrence is an undrafted rookie from Missouri.
Wide Receiver: This is the year many are awaiting the breakout campaign of Dez Bryant. From all accounts, Bryant seems to have matured on – and off – the field. The hopes are high that Bryant will put up numbers similar to the top receivers in football. He has a shot, but needs Romo to play well. Miles Austin will try to overcome the hamstring woes which have hampered the past two seasons. This is a big season for the almost 29-year-old receiver. The guarantees in his 2010 contract will all have been given, and is owed $5.5 million in 2014. With another lacking year, the speedy Austin could be sent out the door. The Cowboys have two talented, young receivers fighting for time behind these two starters. Dwayne Harris came on and played well last season as a rookie. The WR3 job is his to lose. Harris is fleet of foot but is still learning how to be a NFL receiver. Rookie Terrence Williams was selected in the third round in April. Players are not drafted that high without high expectations for an immediate impact. Williams is a local product from Baylor so one has to assume Dallas knows what they have in the rookie. Battling for a roster spot will be Cole Beasley, Danny Coale, Carlton Mitchell, Anthony Armstrong, and Tim Benford. Beasley and Coale are the most likely to make the team, but neither were overly productive in 2012, so the door is open for a player like Mitchell or Armstrong to make a career resurgence.
Tight End: Jason Witten has put up big numbers the past few seasons. He has a great rapport with Romo, and it shows on the field. Unless injured, the big tight end should be a favorite to finish in the top five players at the position again in 2013. Gavin Escobar was drafted to possibly be the heir apparent at the position. He is very athletic and could see the field as a rookie, something that is difficult for players at the position. Escobar will battle James Hanna for playing time. Both are better as receivers than blockers, so the Cowboys could use a two-tight end set for more flexibility on the field. Dante Rosario was signed to add depth to the position. Rosario is an apt blocker and could make the team.
New York Giants
The Giants are an experienced team who could rebound for another deep Super Bowl run. Much will depend on the play of the defense, especially the pass rush and secondary. One thing we know is to not count Tom Coughlin and Eli Manning out. They could surprise as the underdog for the division.
Quarterback: Eli Manning is back under center to direct the New York offense. His leadership qualities go overlooked at times. However, the younger Manning brother has the play makers to put up points if the defense can return to the glory days. David Carr should hold the clipboard once again. He is the type of player you are satisfied with in the offseason but hope never sees the field. Ryan Nassib was drafted in April's NFL Draft. It is expected that the former Syracuse star will overtake Carr next season. Nassib has a big arm, but struggles with pocket movement and consistency on the passes good NFL starters are expected to make with regularity.
Running Back: New York has re-made the running back position the past three years. First, it was Brandon Jacobs who was sent packing. Then, this offseason, starting tailback Ahmad Bradshaw was shown the door. He has since joined the Indianapolis Colts. But, now, the last pick of the first round of 2012 NFL Draft, David Wilson, is the starting ball carrier. He is very fast and explosive. Fantasy owners drooled over Wilson last season and dreamed of a day with Bradshaw no longer in the picture. Well, now is the youngster's time in the spotlight. Expectations are very high. Andre Brown will be the short yardage and goal line back. New York now has a very good pair of young running backs. Behind them on the depth chart are Da'Rel Scott, Michael Cox, and Ryan Torain. None of the three should be a threat to the top two. If either of the top two were to miss time with an injury, the replacement would likely be a street free agent like Michael Turner or Cedric Benson.
Wide Receiver: The Giants front office is sick of seeing the contract issues of the top two receivers in the newspapers. Both are entering the final year of their respective contracts. Victor Cruz just signed his restricted free agent contract and Hakeem Nicks will play out the last season of his rookie deal. There is a chance that one – or conceivably both – receivers could walk in 2014. Yes, one could be slapped with the franchise tag next offseason. Look for the New York brass to sign at least one of the two before the end of the season, knowing that the other could be tagged for another season. Keep an eye on Rueben Randle waiting in the wings. He did not play much as a rookie in 2012, but is poised for a breakout campaign, especially if one of the starters misses time. Randle is a smooth athlete who glides into and out of his cuts. Domenik Hixon is now playing in Carolina. This leaves just Ramses Barden (who was allowed to look elsewhere for work, but found zero interest), Louis Murphy, Jerrel Jernigan, Jeremy Horne, and Marcus Davis. Barden is the type of player who struggles to make plays with the ball in his hands. There were high hopes for Murphy early in his Oakland Raider career. He has done little since. The lack of depth is a main reason the expectations for Randle are mounting.
Tight End: Martellus Bennett was allowed to leave after one season in the Big Apple. He flashed potential, but lacked the consistency needed for the dollars he was seeking. Bennett signed with the Chicago Bears and New York brought in ex-Raider Brandon Myers as his replacement. Fantasy owners should expect a large decrease in fantasy numbers from Myers. He had a few monster fantasy games when quarterback Carson Palmer force-fed him the ball. Bear Pascoe has flashed some potential in the past and will see the field in 2013. Adrien Robinson played both tight end and full back positions as a Chicago Bear and is a strong blocker.
Former Oregon coach Chip Kelly will try his hand running a NFL team. His fast-paced Ducks ran an unique offense and were successful in the collegiate ranks. It may take a year or two for him to shape the Philadelphia offense into his vision.
Quarterback: The Kelly offense will put a lot of pressure on the quarterback position. We expect the Eagles to run a high number of plays in comparison to the Andy Reid version of the West Coast Offense. While many assume the new offense will encourage the quarterback to run often, it is not smart to assume Kelly will not adjust the offense for the NFL. Michael Vick is the frontrunner for the starting gig. His ability as a runner and passer should give him an edge over second-year pro Nick Foles. But, Foles has a chance to start. He is more accurate than Vick and gets rid of the ball quicker, putting less pressure on the weak offensive line. The team also drafted Matt Barkley in the NFL Draft. The former USC star will sit and learn for a year, then compete for the starter's job in 2014. The success of this offense will depend on the quarterbacks.
Running Back: The anticipation of the new offense filters down to the running game as well. LeSean McCoy is a superstar. Most forget that he is still just 24 years old and is signed through 2017. Even so, Philadelphia is very deep behind their star runner. Bryce Brown ran very well as an undrafted rookie last year. He will see plenty of playing time as long as he cuts down on the fumbles. Chris Polk and Felix Jones add depth. The running game should be the strength of the Eagles offense.
Wide Receiver: Jeremy Maclin and DeSean Jackson will line up as the starters once again this season. This is a big season for both receivers. Maclin is entering the final year of his rookie contract. He has flashed potential but has yet to deliver on his potential. Jackson signed a monster contract ($47 million over five years) in 2012. The issues for him are two fold. First of all, all but $750,000 in guarantees will have been paid after this season. Secondly, Jackson's contract jumps to $10.25 million in 2014. Agent Drew Rosenhaus did a great job negotiating the deal for Jackson. He has since been dumped as the receiver's representation. A player to watch is Arrelious Benn, a high pick traded to Philadelphia by Tampa Bay. If healthy, Benn can make a strong play for playing time as the third receiver. Jason Avant, Damaris Johnson, Riley Cooper, Greg Salas, and Ifeanyi Momah will play for a spot on the active roster. Of the group, Johnson is undersized but makes plays. If he can develop, Momah is a player to watch. He is physically gifted and there is little ahead of him on the depth chart.
Tight End: Philadelphia has plenty of depth at the tight end position. With Brent Celek and Clay Harbor already at the position, James Casey was signed from the Houston Texans and Zach Ertz was drafted out of Stanford. Casey and Celek are exceptional blockers and will be on the field often, especially with the way the offensive line played last season. Ertz is more of a receiver than blocker, but makes a strong complement. With the lack of play-makers at the wide receiver position, we expect the Eagles to utilize two – and possibly three – tight ends often.
The expectations are sky high in Washington this season. The team is filled with a core of young players anchoring the skill positions. Many would see this season as a failure if the Redskins miss the playoffs.
Quarterback: Robert Griffin III is coming off the knee injury – and subsequent surgery – that ended his 2012 season. He looks to be a lock for the season opener so fantasy owners should expect the star quarterback to be eased back onto the field. Griffin was an elite fantasy option before the injury and should return to that status once fully healthy. Fellow sophomore Kirk Cousins will play if Griffin misses action. He, too, showed well last year, albeit in limited action. Rex Grossman is insurance and Washington players, coaches, and fans hope he never sees the field.
Running Back: Alfred Morris exploded onto the scene as a rookie last year. He is the lone tailback assured of making the team and could approach the 300-carry mark again. Behind Morris are Roy Helu, Evan Royster, Chris Thompson, and Jawan Jamison. Helu and Royster have oft-disappointed and Thompson and Jamison are rookies looking to make a splash. Thompson is a shifty scatback returning from a major injury.
Wide Receiver: Pierre Garcon has stated that he does not expect to be fully healed from the toe injury this coming season. That is far from comforting for fantasy owners. However, Garcon can be very productive in the Washington offense. He can get deep and make big plays in the open field. Many will remember his monster catch-and-run against the Saints in the first game of the 2012 season. Garcon hurt his foot on the play and was never the same for the year. That was Garcon's first game in a Redskins uniform after getting a big contract. There is little else on the roster at the position. Josh Morgan and Santana Moss are starters Washington is eager to upgrade. Leonard Hankerson has yet to live up to his potential. Also vying for a roster spot are Aldrick Robinson, Devery Henderson, Donte' Stallworth, and Brandon banks. It was amazing that Griffin was able to put up such gaudy rookie numbers with this receiving corps.
Tight End: Fred Davis is back on a one-year "prove it" deal as he comes back from a knee injury. He is a weapon in the passing game when healthy. Logan Paulsen is a solid blocking tight end. The player to watch in training camp is rookie Jordan Reed from Florida. Reed's athleticism drew several comparisons to former Gator tight end Aaron Hernandez. Niles Paul will be playing for a roster spot.
This division is as tight as any in the league. Any of the four teams could conceivably win the division title, with the Eagles the least likely. The deciding factor will be the play at the quarterback position.
More from Jeff Tefertiller:
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