More: AFC East
As the offseason nears its end, here are the top storylines for each NFC East team heading into training camp.
Dallas Cowboys: The progression of Austin
Miles Austin(notes) was strictly a deep-ball receiver in 2008 and finished the season averaging more than 21 yards a catch for the Cowboys – but that was on only 13 receptions. We can talk all we want about how he'll step into the No. 3 role for the Cowboys, but until we see him develop into a third-down receiver who can also contribute in the intermediate passing game, he's still question mark – and not a sure thing yet in my mind.
The Cowboys need Austin to be more than just a speed guy.
(Mark J. Rebilas/US Presswire)
The Cowboys are counting on Jason Witten(notes), Roy Williams and Patrick Crayton(notes) to make up for the loss of production from the departed Terrell Owens(notes), but this is a huge training camp for Austin because his role will dramatically increase. If he's nothing more than a deep threat, then the Cowboys will struggle on third downs. However, if he can develop his overall game, they'll forget quickly about T.O.
We know Austin can run down the field, but we don't know what else he provides. Training camp will be the first time he's asked to provide more than a big play to this offense.
New York Giants: The battle at wide receiver
We all know that the Giants win football games running the football and playing a brand of defense that brings pressure and leads to turnovers and a short field for the offense. However, but the competition at wide receiver should be something to keep an eye on.
The easiest way to prevent the media – and the fans – from talking about the departure of Plaxico Burress(notes) is to find a replacement, and in New York, I believe that replacement is going to come from this collective group because there's no clear cut No.1 wide receiver. The Giants are impressed with the offseason of rookie Hakeem Nicks(notes), but nothing can be set in stone when it comes to rookies. That leaves Domenik Hixson, Steve Smith, Sinorice Moss(notes), Mario Manningham(notes) and another rookie, Ramses Barden(notes), fighting for playing time every day in practice.
If anything, the competition should make this a position to watch in camp as this team tries to give quarterback Eli Manning(notes) some options on the outside, but they need a top three they can depend on in the passing game.
Philadelphia Eagles: The development of McCoy
Brian Westbrook(notes) will be limited in training camp, and if this team wants to make another playoff run – which it's equipped to do – the development of rookie LeSean McCoy(notes) as an NFL running back is crucial.
I like the idea that McCoy will see plenty of reps in practice and play against NFL competition in preseason games this summer as a result of an injury to Westbrook. The running back position might be the easiest transition from the college game, but if I'm the Eagles, I spend a lot of time teaching McCoy pass protections and the passing game – two areas where he needs a fast learning curve to play meaningful minutes in the fall. McCoy has the dual-threat ability to step in for Westbrook and make plays, and this team might just learn that it not only has one of the major steals of the NFL draft, but also an eventual replacement for Westbrook who can split time with the featured back.
To win in the NFC East, you have to win in December, and to win in Philly, you need a fresh and ready Westbrook. McCoy needs to be ready mentally and physically for the NFL game by September, and the reps he gets in August will play a major role in achieving this.
Washington Redskins: The battle for strong safety
We tend to forget that the Redskins were a top five defense in 2008 (fourth overall) despite their late-season collapse. Defensive coordinator Greg Blache should have another talented unit in '09 – once the team decides who will start at strong safety.
The 'Skins have some talent at corner in Carlos Rogers(notes), DeAngelo Hall(notes) and Fred Smoot(notes), plus one of the most underrated free safeties in the game in LaRon Landry(notes), but the strong safety spot is up for grabs. Chris Horton(notes), who had three picks in '08, will compete with Reed Doughty(notes) for the job, and in Blache's scheme, it's a position that carries a lot of weight and a lot of responsibility. They both play with different styles, but I think the result will come down to which player is more versatile – man-to-man coverage, the ability to blitz with production and the talent to tackle in the open field – allowing Landry to play the middle of the field in passing situations.
It doesn't seem like a big story, but the strong safety spot is crucial to the overall success of this secondary and defense in general. With the question marks on offense, this unit will once again have to make plays and carry this team.
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