Preseason Watch List: NFC East

A detailed look at the key questions facing each team in the preseason

DALLAS COWBOYS

The Cowboys entered 2014 the picture of mediocrity, with three straight 8-8 seasons. They exited last season as legitimate Super Bowl contenders thanks to the league's best offensive line, the continued excellence of Tony Romo, and the emergence of DeMarco Murray as the league's most productive running back. Free agency robbed Dallas of Murray (more on that later), but the Cowboys are still the odds on favorite to win the NFC East and make another playoff run. The defense was mediocre last year (15th in points allowed, 19th in yards) but that can be considered a major step forward under DC Rod Marinelli. If the team can improve modestly on defense while finding a new engine for the ground game, the sky is the limit. 

Preseason Game Schedule

  • Aug 13 -- @San Diego 10:00 pm
  • Aug 23 -- @San Francisco 8:00 pm
  • Aug 29 -- Minnesota 7:00 pm
  • Sep 3 -- Houston 8:00 pm

What We're Watching

  • Is Joseph Randle REALLY the new bellcow? -- When DeMarco Murray left for the Eagles, most expected Dallas to prioritize the running back position in free agency and the draft. Outside of adding oft-injured has-been Darren McFadden, Dallas stood pat. Entering training camp all signs point to Joseph Randle being THE guy. If Randle has a strong preseason, his ADP is going to skyrocket into 2nd round territory. If he struggles, fantasy owners will take fliers on anyone associated with the roster as cheap lottery tickets. 
  • Terrance Williams' development -- Williams backpedaled in his second season (37 receptions for 621 yards and 8 TDs) but has shown an inordinate ability to score touchdowns. Fantasy owners have essentially given up on Williams -- a mistake considering he's the clear #2 on a team with a highly efficient quarterback. 
  • Sean Lee's return -- Sean Lee was viewed as Dallas' only premier defensive asset last year but missed the season with a torn ACL. In his absence the defense improved by leaps and bounds (to league average). Now Lee is back and ready to make an impact. He is imploring the coaches to let him play a lot in the preseason. A healthy Lee could be the final piece to the Cowboys' puzzle.
  • Establishing a pass rush -- Putting the morality of the signing aside, Greg Hardy is an impact football player. Whether we agree with the decision or not, he'll be on the field after serving a 4-game suspension. He and rookie Randy Gregory are expected to re-invigorate the moribund pass rush. 

NEW YORK GIANTS

The Giants return to the Timex Performance Center searching for an identity after a disappointing 6-10 season. Head coach Tom Coughlin hopes that the 3-1 finish and emergence of Odell Beckham Jr Jr. portend a turnaround. The offense enters 2015 on reasonably solid footing as OC Ben McAdoo delivered vast improvement (from 28th in points scored to 13th) in his first year. But questions remain on the offensive line and the running game. On defense, Steve Spagnuolo returns to his former role as defensive coordinator -- a position he held in 2007-2008. He'll bring much needed intensity to a unit that hasn't finished in the Top 10 since 2008 (his final season in New York). 

Preseason Game Schedule

  • Aug 14 -- @Cincinnati 7:30 pm
  • Aug 22 -- Jacksonville 7:30 pm
  • Aug 29 -- N.Y. Jets 7:00 pm
  • Sep 3 -- @New England 7:30 pm

What We're Watching

  • Defining the running back roles -- Rashad Jennings is an all-around talent but struggles with injuries. Andre Williams converted short yardage opportunities but struggled in all other facets. Shane Vereen joins the team via free agency full of promise but having never lived up to expectations in New England. Are the Giants going to use a committee, or will one of the backs rise to the forefront in the next few weeks?
  • Is Victor Cruz healthy? -- 10 months after tearing his patellar tendon, Victor Cruz surprised by everyone by being cleared for training camp workouts. He's practiced every day since camp started, and if healthy gives the Giants the best receiving corps in Eli Manning's career. 
  • Can Odell Beckham Jr Jr. live up to the hype? -- Beckham battled hamstring issues throughout his rookie training camp and was a non-factor into the regular season. As we all know, that narrative changed in a hurry once Beckham got healthy. He dominated the league in a way we haven't seen since Randy Moss' early days. Can Beckham sustain that level of excellence now that all eyes are on him? 
  • Jason Pierre-Paul's health -- Pierre-Paul suffered major damage to his hand due to a fireworks mishap, and lost a finger while breaking his thumb. Doctors estimate a 6-week recovery but that's pure speculation as Pierre-Paul hasn't spoken publicly or let the Giants doctors examine him.
  • Rebuilding the offensive line -- The Giants are without left tackle Will Beatty until November (torn pectoral) and are hoping rookie Ereck Flowers can handle the role; unfortunately he's missed considerable time in the early part of camp. The team is also hoping Geoff Schwartz can stabilize right guard, moving inside so that free agent Marshall Newhouse can handle right tackle. The Giants offense has the potential to be explosive, but that will only come to fruition if the line can keep Eli Manning upright.

PHILADELPHIA EAGLES

There is no more fascinating coach in the NFL than Chip Kelly. After consecutive 10-6 seasons, Kelly fought for and was granted full personnel control in the offseason. He quickly went about dismantling any remnants of Andy Reid's team and rebuilt the roster in his own image. Optimism is high, but so too is the skepticism. Kelly is banking on his system to deliver another Top 5 offense with Sam Bradford -- the ultimate reclamation project. On defense, coordinator Billy Davis has quite a few new pieces to integrate into a unit that was elite at creating turnovers and sacks, but was below average otherwise (22nd in points allowed, 28th in yards allowed).

Preseason Game Schedule

  • Aug 16 -- Indianapolis 1:00 pm
  • Aug 22 -- Baltimore 7:00 pm
  • Aug 29 -- @Green Bay 8:00 pm
  • Sep 3 -- @N.Y. Jets 7:00 pm

What We're Watching

  • Can Sam Bradford become the franchise? -- Jaws dropped when Kelly traded Nick Foles (young and inexpensive) for Sam Bradford (not-so-young and expensive) given Bradford's well-known injury history and subpar play in St. Louis. On paper, Bradford is a good fit because he excelled at a fast paced, see-it-and-be-it offense at the University of Oklahoma. But Bradford is the poster boy for injury prone, and even when he's been on the field his statistics leave much to be desired. If Bradford has a strong preseason, expect his ADP to skyrocket.
  • Figuring out the running back rotation -- DeMarco Murray is going to be hard pressed to approximate last year's monstrous workload (450 touches), but most presume that he'll see the majority of carries given the money he's been paid. Yet, this is CHIP KELLY and we can't presume anything. All eyes will be on the preseason for any hint that Kelly is planning on playing Ryan Mathews and Darren Sproles enough to hurt Murray's fantasy RB1 status.
  • Will the new top receiver please stand up? -- DeSean Jackson was the Eagles best receiver in 2013, and was cut. Jeremy Maclin took over that mantle last year, but signed with the Chiefs. So whose turn is it to lead the way? Most are betting on Jordan Matthews, but can the slot receiver be the top option in this offense? If not, is Nelson Agholor ready as a rookie? Does Josh Huff have an outside shot at the role? 
  • Finding new guards -- Todd Herremans and Evan Mathis were fixtures at right and left guard, respectively. Allen Barbre has been handed Mathis' spot, but Andrew Gardner, Matt Tobin and John Moffitt are waging a spirited camp battle for Herremans' spot.
  • Rebuilding the secondary -- Byron Maxwell was the Eagles' big free agent get, and he'll be one of three new starters in the secondary. Rookies Eric Rowe and JaCorey Shepherd are battling Nolan Carroll for the other corner spot. At safety, 3rd year pro Earl Wolff is trying to outduel converted corner Walter Thurmond.

WASHINGTON REDSKINS

The good news is Jay Gruden won 33% more games in his first season than his predecessor. The bad news is Washington only won 4 games (vs. 3 in the prior year) and in some ways feels more out of balance now than they were when he took over. Atop the preseason goals is figuring out if Robert Griffin III III can be the franchise quarterback. Yet, there are questions up and down the roster. On defense, Joe Barry will try to fix one of the league's worst units by moving to a one-gap scheme and more blitzing.

Preseason Game Schedule

  • Aug 13 -- @Cleveland 8:00 pm
  • Aug 20 -- Detroit 7:30 pm
  • Aug 29 -- @Baltimore 7:30 pm
  • Sep 3 -- Jacksonville 7:30 pm

What We're Watching

  • Can Robert Griffin III regain his mojo? -- Robert Griffin III had issues with the Shanahans (which helped foster their exit) but picked up where he left off last year, battling his head coach. It seemed unlikely Griffin and Gruden could co-exist yet the team made no changes in the offseason -- so Gruden and Griffin are tied at the hip, at least for one more season. The outlook for the offense hinges so heavily on whether Griffin can regain his rookie form. Without a resurgent preseason, expectations for the entire offense will be minimized.
  • Will the new blocking scheme hasten Alfred Morris' decline? -- Alfred Morris' metrics have declined in each of his NFL seasons, and some worry that Gruden's shift to a true power blocking scheme will work against Morris. If Morris struggles in the preseason, his value as a fantasy RB2 becomes tenuous and opens the door for a committee situation with Matt Jones.
  • Can Pierre Garcon bounce back? -- Garcon led the NFL with 113 receptions in 2013, but fell off a cliff (68 receptions) last year. Was his downfall injury related? Was it tied to DeSean Jackson's arrival? Did it have to do with the quarterback turmoil? Perhaps Jay Gruden's system? Whatever the reasons, Garcon is a forgotten commodity and the preseason will go a long way in determining whether he's a bounce back candidate.
  • Is Jordan Reed healthy? -- Jordan Reed is unquestionably the best tight end on the roster, but he's also completely unreliable (12 games missed, many more hobbled over two seasons). Reed is back in camp, and his presence would be an unexpected boost to an offense in need of playmakers.

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