NFC East: 2012 Camp Watch

Cowboys Camp Watch

July, 24, 2012
7/24/12
12:15
PM ET
NFC Camp Watch: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South Dates

Three thoughts as training camps open around the NFL:

One thing of which I'm certain: It's Jason Garrett's team. People ask all the time about Garrett's job security as the Cowboys' head coach. The questions are rooted in a largely unsupported perception of Cowboys owner Jerry Jones as a man who likes to fire coaches. But Jones clearly wants Garrett to succeed as an NFL coach, and because of that he's allowing him the kind of decision-making power coaches believe they need to succeed. A look at the personnel changes the Cowboys made on the roster and on the coaching staff this offseason shows less Jones influence and greater Garrett influence. Aside from the first-round trade to get DB Morris Claiborne, the Cowboys' moves have been focused and functional as opposed to splashy and scattershot. And even the Claiborne move addressed the team's biggest need.

Garrett is being allowed to build a roster the way he believes it should be built, with what he famously calls "the right kind of guys." And the decisions on who starts on the offensive line and in the secondary and at inside linebacker and defensive end are going to be Garrett's to make. He'll do so with the full support of Jones, who loves him and wants him to be great. But for the second training camp in a row, the Cowboys will make it clear that Garrett's the guy running the show.

One thing that might happen: Bill Nagy could win a starting spot on the offensive line. The Cowboys signed free-agent guards Nate Livings and Mackenzy Bernadeau, and project them as starters. But Bernadeau has already had surgery this offseason, and neither guy has a world-beating résumé. Nagy was a promising prospect this time last year, impressing coaches with his technique and intelligence but needing to improve his strength. If he has done that -- if he can play bigger and stronger than he did before his injury last year -- then he could be a threat to Livings or Bernadeau at guard, or even to Phil Costa at center.

The Cowboys' problems in 2011 were almost exclusively on the defensive side of the ball, but the offensive line was shaky, as well. The interior spots especially remain a concern, as switching tackles Tyron Smith and Doug Free (putting Smith on the left side and Free back on the right) is expected to solve whatever problems they had on the outside last season. Garrett has said there will be competition at those interior line spots, and those who perform the best in camp will be the starters. Keep an eye on Nagy and see whether he can show enough to win one of the three spots.

One thing we won't see: Mike Jenkins' smile. One of the starting cornerbacks last season, Jenkins has dropped to third on the depth chart behind Claiborne and free-agent signee Brandon Carr. Jenkins is upset about the demotion and the team's refusal to give him a new contract, and in protest he refused to report to the voluntary portion of the offseason program even though the Cowboys asked him to come so they could supervise his recovery from shoulder surgery. Jenkins is expected in training camp this week, but it remains to be seen whether he's healthy enough to practice or motivated enough to get on the field with his teammates.

The Cowboys' ideal plan is to have quality depth at cornerback this season, with Jenkins and Orlando Scandrick behind Carr and Claiborne. But that plan could take a hit if they can't count on the disgruntled Jenkins, who has demanded a trade and might not be happy serving as roster depth in his contract year. Jenkins was a good player for Dallas when he was healthy last season, but that wasn't often enough. If he wants a new deal -- from the Cowboys or from some other team next offseason -- his best bet is to get on the field and show as much as he can in whatever opportunities he gets.

Giants Camp Watch

July, 24, 2012
7/24/12
11:45
AM ET
NFC Camp Watch: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South Dates

Three thoughts as training camps open around the NFL

One thing of which I'm certain: Swagger. The Giants aren't cocky or overconfident, but quite a number of them have now won two Super Bowls, including the most recent one. That buys you the right to carry yourself with confidence, and there's no shortage of confidence in the Giants' locker room as they get set to defend their title. Defending champions get to answer their training-camp questions with a little bit more credibility than other teams do, because we've seen them overcome injuries and other obstacles and we know they have the ability to do it. We don't have to wonder how the Giants will react to adversity, and they're justifiably proud of that.

QB Eli Manning and others have said more than once this offseason that the Giants need to remember they were only 9-7 and barely made the playoffs last year, and need to make sure to improve on that. And that's true. Coach Tom Coughlin is sure to set the proper tone, and he's just the biggest part of a Giants leadership structure that will make sure the team's focus is where it needs to be. But when you're a coach standing in the middle of the room telling your team everything will be all right if you stick to the plan, it really helps to have the proof of that fresh in everyone's mind. That's the environment in which Coughlin gets to coach and the Giants get to prepare this summer.

One thing that might happen: A rookie running back could emerge. The Giants drafted David Wilson at the end of the first round, and while he faces competition, he has a real chance to win the backup running back spot vacated by Brandon Jacobs. No one from the incumbent group of D.J. Ware, Andre Brown and Da'Rel Scott has distinguished himself enough to earn the spot, and Wilson is getting rave reviews this offseason for his speed. It remains to be seen whether he can pick up the offense quickly enough and/or prove himself an asset in pass-blocking or receiving. And if he doesn't, he might start the season further down on the depth chart. But if he performs well in camp, he has a chance to be Ahmad Bradshaw's backup .

One thing that's important to remember is that Wilson represents a much bigger change of pace than you might think. A popular misconception among casual observers has long been that Bradshaw was the speedy, open-space complement to Jacobs' size and power. But the fact is that Bradshaw is also a power runner -- just a smaller one than Jacobs, because all running backs are smaller than Jacobs. Wilson is a different kind of running back than the Giants have had in recent years, and if he proves able, he could open up the playbook and allow them to do things they haven't been able to do because Bradshaw and Jacobs had similar styles. It's a big "if" with a rookie, and he hasn't shown it yet, but the opportunity is there for Wilson to become a factor in the offense.

One thing we won't see: Osi Umenyiora contract drama. The Giants' perpetually disgruntled defensive end has been gruntled. Umenyiora is signed and happy and planning to report to camp on time and start practicing right away. This is huge for the Giants, because if he's healthy and productive along with starting defensive ends Justin Tuck and Jason Pierre-Paul, that allows the team to employ its favorite advantage over other teams -- the ability to rotate three of the best pass-rushers in the game and keep them all fresh.

The Giants' defense is built around the pass rush, and that pass rush is at its best when Umenyiora is a part of it. He may no longer technically be a "starter," as Pierre-Paul's breakout 2011 season while Umenyiora moped and healed from injury thrust the youngster into that role. But when he was on the field late last year and in the postseason, Umenyiora showed that he can still do things that other defensive ends simply can't do. He's quick and athletic and a major asset to the Giants, who are happy they don't have to watch him ride an exercise bike while everyone else practices and listen to him complain about his contract anymore.

Redskins Camp Watch

July, 24, 2012
7/24/12
11:30
AM ET
NFC Camp Watch: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South Dates

Three thoughts as training camps open around the NFL:

One thing of which I'm certain: Competition. The Redskins have their quarterback in Robert Griffin III, but they still need to build an offense around him. And they're addressing potential weaknesses by bringing in a lot of people to compete for certain spots and hoping that competition breeds quality starters. At wide receiver, veteran Santana Moss will compete with Leonard Hankerson and Josh Morgan for snaps opposite Pierre Garcon. At running back, Tim Hightower's 2011 knee injury opens up competition between him, Roy Helu and Evan Royster. There's competition at tight end, where Fred Davis is the No. 1, but converted wide receiver Niles Paul threatens the playing time (and maybe the roster spot) of mainstay Chris Cooley.

The defense seems much more set, especially the front seven. But there's some competition at safety, where Brandon Meriweather and Madieu Williams aren't the safest projected starters in the league. Coach Mike Shanahan's goal for this offseason was to make his roster deeper, and he believes he has done that. But he's still working to build something long-term in Washington, and while the Redskins do appear to be deeper than they've been at any point during Shanahan's tenure, they still need to identify starters at some key spots.

One thing that might happen: There's a real chance for Moss to re-establish himself as a good starting wide receiver. After the team signed two wide receivers in the first hour of free agency, the Redskins' coaches reached out to Moss to make it clear (in case it wasn't already) that his spot on the roster wasn't safe. They didn't think he looked right last year and told him he needed to lose weight, get in shape and get back his pre-2011 focus. Moss did that, showing up to OTAs having lost 15 pounds, and seems determined to hang on to a starting spot.

It helps Moss that he can play the slot, but unless Hankerson or Morgan gets healthy and dazzles 'em in training camp, Moss right now projects as the starter opposite Garcon. While Moss is 33 years old, he had 93 catches and 1,115 yards just two years ago and could be a huge help to Griffin and the younger receivers on the roster. But it's clear he's not hanging around just to mentor guys who are trying to take his job. Moss believes he can still play and will be determined to prove he still deserves to be a starter.

One thing we won't see: A quarterback controversy. Last year at this time, all eyes were on QBs Rex Grossman and John Beck as the Redskins entered camp without an anointed starter at the most important position on the field. This year, Beck is gone and Grossman has returned as Griffin's backup. Rookie Kirk Cousins is also in camp, but there's a clear pecking order and no doubt as to which quarterback is in control of the team. The Redskins traded three first-round picks and a second-round pick for Griffin and just signed him for $21 million. They will do everything they can to make sure he succeeds, and that includes making it clear from the very start that he faces no pressure in terms of job security.

Now, Griffin is a rookie who will face growing pains, as they all do. And he must do the job in order to keep the job. But there's little doubt around Redskins Park that he'll be able to start right away, and barring injury there doesn't seem to be any way he could lose the starting quarterback job before the beginning of the regular season. A rookie quarterback can't ever offer certainty, but the Redskins have established some stability at quarterback as they get ready to open camp this week.

Eagles Camp Watch

July, 24, 2012
7/24/12
11:00
AM ET
NFC Camp Watch: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South Dates

Three thoughts as training camps open around the NFL:

One thing of which I'm certain: The Eagles will dazzle in camp. You're going to hear and see a lot of stuff about how great quarterback Michael Vick looks, how focused DeSean Jackson is now with the contract stuff behind him, how healthy and explosive Jeremy Maclin looks. You're going to hear and see a lot about how much depth there is on the defensive line and how the defense is so good it's making it tough on all of those offensive stars to shine. Camp practices will feature breathtaking catches and interceptions, lightning-quick LeSean McCoy runs and reports of Vick doing near-impossible things at the quarterback position. The Eagles don't just look good on paper -- they look good in practice.

The question about the Eagles this year isn't about the caliber of talent on the roster -- it's about whether they can make good on that talent this year. And we won't know that until the regular season gets under way and we find out whether they can stop the run better, turn the ball over less and play tougher in the fourth quarter than they did in 2011. One thing of which I am certain, however, is that training camp will do nothing to tamp down expectations for this year's Eagles. They will spend the coming weeks looking exciting and getting their fans even more excited for the season than they are now.

One thing that might happen: Two rookies could win themselves a job as defensive starters. The camp-opening news that defensive tackle Mike Patterson is still recovering from his offseason brain surgery and isn't yet cleared to practice opens up an opportunity for first-round pick Fletcher Cox at that position. The Eagles do have some veteran depth at that spot, and Antonio Dixon and Derek Landri won't be easy competition. But the Eagles moved up in the draft to select Cox because they believe he fits their scheme well and can help generate pressure on the quarterback right away, and he should get enough reps with the first team to get a shot at starting Week 1.

Second-round pick Mychal Kendricks has more than just a chance to be the starting strongside linebacker. He's already working as the starter at that position and would need to play and practice poorly this preseason to lose the spot. The Eagles like Kendricks for his speed, which is a must for a linebacker playing behind the "Wide 9" defensive line alignment the Eagles use because he needs to cover as much ground as possible. He also could be an asset in blitz packages on the rare occasions when the Eagles use those. He's a rookie, so you never know, but the Eagles are proceeding as though he's going to be one of their starting linebackers. An Eagles team with Super Bowl aspirations could well come out of camp with two rookies starting on defense.

One thing we won't see: Asante Samuel. The veteran cornerback was known for livening up camp practices with his relentless and loud trash talk. The Eagles traded Samuel to the Falcons just before the draft in April, and practices will be a little bit quieter for his absence. The real impact, though, will be on the coverage schemes the team implements this summer. The conventional wisdom around the Eagles now says that they played a lot of zone last year to try to minimize the impact of Samuel's deficiencies in man coverage, and that with him gone they can use starting cornerbacks Nnamdi Asomugha and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie in man coverage, which is their strength.

That puts a lot of pressure on those two starting cornerbacks, of course, to deliver on the promise of the 2011 offseason in which they both arrived. But it's what they want, and the Eagles expect them to thrive in their return to their old, more comfortable roles. So if you show up to Eagles training camp and you're watching the defensive backs, don't expect to see a lot of zone.

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